Thrive, Zeitgeist and the Illusion of Conspiracy Activism.
Although the main objective of Thrive is informational—to disseminate conspiracy theories and promote right-wing libertarian political ideology—it cannot be ignored that Thrive’s makers and a lot of its supporters say they want to take action. On this very blog Foster Gamble, creator of Thrive, has dismissed the utility of discussing the factual errors and distortions in his film, in favor of “creating solutions.” Unfortunately, the “solutions” that Thrive fans say they want are aimed overwhelmingly at exposing and combating the various conspiracy theories that the film asserts exist. This is the central tragedy of conspiracy thinking—that it diverts people’s energies and attentions away from solving real problems in the real world, and instead motivates them to solve fake problems endemic to the fantasy world in which conspiracy theorists dwell.
This article will discuss the phenomena of what I call “conspiracy activism.” Thrive is not the first conspiracy movie to spark an activist response. Mr. Gamble’s film exists in the context of a conspiracist underground that has, in recent years, been rapidly transformed by the Internet, and is continuing to evolve quickly. I wrote about this in an article over at my other blog, which I also publicized on this one. You can consider this article to be sort of a companion piece to that one.
What Is The “Thrive Movement” And What Is It Actually Doing?
Before we get to the topic of conspiracy activism in general, let’s look at what “solutions” the Thrive people are promoting. There is no “Thrive Movement” to speak of in any real sense. Foster Gamble is not, so far as I can tell, attempting to exert any sort of real control over the activities or direction of the film’s fans, and I’ve seen no evidence that the fans of the movie are trying to organize themselves.
Clicking the “Solutions” tab on the Thrive website unleashes a dizzying avalanche of propaganda. The vast majority of it is right-wing libertarian propaganda, such as the “Liberty” page which assaults the reader with political diatribes studded with quotes from libertarian deities like Stefan Molyneux, Ron Paul and Ayn Rand. Although Thrive’s political agenda is a serious issue, we and others have dealt with it before. The key message is “vote for libertarians,” and thus we’ll leave the film’s political advocacy at that.
More interesting are the “Critical Mass Actions” tabs. Here the Thrive people have listed twelve specific campaigns they’re promoting, with icons where you (as an Internet user) can “sign up” or else embed the icon itself on another site. If you click the icons so sign up, it produces a box where you fill in your email info and hit submit. Almost all of the links included in the “Critical Mass Actions” sections are to websites or online petitions. Of these twelve campaigns, two are anti-Federal Reserve; three are related to protesting GMO food; two relate to “free energy” devices; two are protests of “chemtrails,” a conspiracy theory promoted by the film; one is anti-nuclear power; one is “protect Internet freedom”; and one protests resource extraction on Native American lands.
The Federal Reserve is what Thrive identifies as the linchpin of a worldwide conspiracy theory to enslave the globe through the use of deceptive currency practices. We debunked the film’s money conspiracy theories here. “Free energy” does not exist, as we have also demonstrated. “Chemtrails” have not been debunked on this site, but they’ve been amply debunked elsewhere; it’s abundantly clear that “chemtrails” are a total fantasy. You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to oppose GMO foods, but Thrive couches its criticism of such foods in expressly conspiratorial terms; they think it’s some weird kind of plot aimed at killing people with poisons in the food.
These issues account for nine of the twelve “Critical Mass Actions.” Of the twelve, only three—anti-nuclear power, protecting Internet freedom, and protesting resource extraction on Native American lands—are not somehow addressing the conspiracy theories the film promotes.
Ironically, it is one of these three non-conspiratorial solutions—the Internet freedom icon—that had the most people (5,547 on the day I checked) signed up.
When it comes to what these “Critical Mass Actions” actually are, the website is extremely vague. Here’s what it says when you click on a question about “how do you know when an action reaches critical mass?”
“As actions gain momentum and the most popular ones become apparent we will set a target number for “critical mass.” We will keep in touch via email to make sure you know when we’re approaching critical mass. What determines an effective “critical mass” will vary according to the nature of the action to be taken. The critical mass number will be announced as far in advance as possible and will be determined by what would create significant impact and assure optimal security for participants.”
That’s it. You’ll get an email once they decide how many people they need. In the meantime, it’s a lot of Internet petitions and “getting the word out.” That’s what the Thrive Movement is doing—that, and organizing local screenings of the film itself. The act of promoting Thrive is itself treated as a form of activism to which fans should aspire.
Is This Real Activism?
No. The “solutions” offered on Thrive’s website are ineffective in changing anything in the real world for two reasons: first, the vast majority of them are aimed at ameliorating conspiracy theories that don’t exist; and second, even for the non-conspiratorial goals, there is no actual real-world activity being proposed. Thrive’s brand of activism is a complete chimera.
Take chemtrails, for example. We know for a fact that chemtrails do not exist. The elaborate narrative that conspiracy theorists construct—that a “Global Domination Elite” is spraying chemicals into the sky to sicken and kill people deliberately—is simply fantasy. Yet, Mr. Gamble wants to “Expose Chemtrails With a Mass Protest at NOAA Offices.” Even assuming that legions of Thrive fans get organized and storm NOAA’s headquarters, what effect is this going to have? NOAA can’t do anything because there’s nothing to do anything about. Chemtrails do not exist. This is a “solution” that, even if it’s pulled off, will accomplish exactly zero, except wasting the time of the people involved.
As to the second criticism, it’s difficult to see how these “Critical Mass Actions” will have any effect regardless of the goals they’re aimed at. Take for example the critical mass action about stopping the environmental poisoning of Native American communities—which is a goal I think most people would agree with, and is one of the few that isn’t specifically directed at a conspiracy theory. Here’s what Foster Gamble wants you to click to sign up for:
“In the US, indigenous lands are being exploited and targeted by big business for resource extraction, nuclear dumping, and more. There are proposals for coal, oil, gold and copper mines, coal bed methane, natural gas “fracking,” and nuclear storage that threaten these communities and the environment. This is a chance to stand up for Native American rights and show that we are committed not just to apologizing for past wrongs, but ending the violations that continue to this day.”
Okay…but how? What does this actually mean?
What are the Thrive fans going to do? There’s no protest march planned. There’s no letter-writing campaign. There’s no attempt to introduce legislation or lobby lawmakers. There’s no fundraiser. There’s no outreach to any of the Native American communities impacted by resource extraction. There’s not even a link to an online petition, as there is for the “End the Fed” suggestion. There is exactly…nothing.
You click on, sign up and get an email. That’s it.
In the meantime—or, should I say, in the real world—if you care about resource extraction harming Native American communities, there are real people doing real things to try to stop this. In less than five minutes of searching online I came across this site for the Wolf River Protection Fund which is seeking to buy key lands to protect the watersheds and wetlands related to Native American communities in Wisconsin. One of the tribes associated with this fund recently celebrated a huge victory by buying out—yes, actually buying out—a mining company that was planning to mine near their lands. That’s activism. Not just clicking on a website—but actually sending your dollars to an organization that is taking action to make a real-world impact. And yes, the Wolf River Protection Fund does take donations.
Thrive isn’t doing anything even close to this.
So If They’re Not Making a Difference In the Real World, What Are They Doing?
They’re promoting conspiracy theories and related ideology—in Thrive’s case, right-wing libertarian ideology. The promotion of the ideology is the ultimate point of the activism.
This is understandable, if you analyze the thought processes of Thrive’s makers and fans from the standpoint of their conspiracy beliefs. They believe that all or most of the world’s problems stem from actions taken in secret by groups of shadowy conspirators. How best to combat these actions? Expose the secrets and shine a light on the conspirators. Then, it is presumed, the nefarious activity will end, and things will get better.
Seen from this standpoint, the act of exposure is the most important action. Therefore, most of a conspiracy theorist’s preferred “solutions” for solving problems start and end from a “get the word out” type paradigm. Indeed, most of the nine conspiracy-oriented Critical Mass Action suggestions on the Thrive website are aimed at information exposure or gaining visibility for something. This is classic conspiracy activism.
Why Do Conspiracy Theorists Engage in Conspiracy Activism?
It used to be that conspiracy theorists weren’t activists. There were certainly groups of them, and there have been conspiracy-related newsletters—especially related to the JFK assassination—circulating for decades. But traditionally they didn’t try to reach out to the mainstream or get others to join them.
That changed with 9/11. The purveyors of conspiracy theories related to the 9/11 attacks—especially Richard Gage and David Ray Griffin—changed the stakes in the mid-2000s by waging concerted, energized campaigns to try to increase the exposure of their conspiracy theories and encourage people to believe in them. Ultimately their success was only temporary; as I pointed out in an earlier blog here, contrary to something Foster Gamble says in Thrive, fewer people believe that “9/11 was an inside job” today than have so believed at any time since 9/11 itself. However, the conspiracy activism of 9/11 Truthers upped the ante and set a new paradigm, vastly aided by the rise of the Internet: if you believe in conspiracy theories, now you’re expected to go out there in public and try to get others to believe in them as well.
As the conspiracy world has changed, and (as I argued in February) conspiracy theorists have gone from defining “victory” as increasing the numbers who believe their theories to selling prepackaged ideologies, the activism component remains. Now what conspiracy theorists are selling are the ideologies, not the theories, but they’re still self-motivated to try to proselytize in exactly the same was Richard Gage and David Ray Griffin did with their nonsense 9/11 theories. I argued in the February blog that it was Zeitgeist: The Movie and its conspiracy-activist offshoot, the Zeitgeist Movement, that cemented this development into the basic blueprint of future conspiracy endeavors.
As there are many instructive lessons for evaluating Thrive inherent in the Zeitgeist story, let’s turn to that next.
Why Conspiracy Activism is Pointless: The Example of the Zeitgeist Movement.
One of the first statements I ever made about Thrive was that it appeared to be “Zeitgeist 2.0.” Clearly the movie imitates a lot of features of Peter Joseph’s notoriously fact-free 2007 Internet conspiracy film Zeitgeist, and even the suggestion of a “Thrive Movement,” aping the Zeitgeist Movement, indicates a kindred spirit.
The Zeitgeist Movement, founded in 2008 by Peter Joseph, attempted to capitalize on the interest generated among conspiracy theorists from the first Zeitgeist film to sell a neo-Utopian ideology called the Venus Project, which resembles late-stage Marxism except with computers and technology in the role of the dictatorship of the proletariat. The problem with the Zeitgeist Movement and the Venus Project, however, was that support for the non-conspiratorial (but deeply flawed) “Resource Based Economy” paradigm was built entirely on the backs of conspiracist beliefs and the popularity of Zeitgeist: The Movie. Most fans joined the Zeitgeist Movement because they were attracted by the conspiracy explanations; to the extent the movement’s leaders could motivate them to care about the Venus Project and a Resource Based Economy for its own sake, it was mainly presented as a “cure” for all those horrible conspiracies. As a result, “get the word out” type activist projects meant to promote the Venus Project and Resource Based Economy became increasingly conflated with promoting the Zeitgeist movies and its conspiracy worldview.
The Zeitgeist Movement imploded in April 2011 when the Venus Project side of the organization divorced itself from the group as a result of a dispute over donations. Since then the Zeitgeist Movement has dwindled to an insignificant core of high-commitment fans who do little more than post occasional comments on blogs or YouTube videos. (Zeitgeist Movement supporters constantly show up on the Thrive website comments, still valiantly trying to sell their Resource Based Economy shtick. Few Thrive fans are buying). The Zeitgeist Movement’s attempts at conspiracy activism could never effectively outpace the reach of the films themselves. Unlike the Thrive Movement, the Zeitgeist Movement did have a central, engaged, hands-on leader who directed the group; in fact that was one of its downfalls, because Peter Joseph’s inept leadership of the group transformed it into something very much like a cult surrounding him personally and his films.
The failure of the Zeitgeist Movement can teach Thrive fans an important lesson: that conspiracy activism is inherently self-limiting. Five years after its release, Zeitgeist: The Movie is now old news. Most conspiracy theorists have seen it. The sequels which completed the Resource Based Economy narrative could barely achieve a tiny fraction of the impact that the first film had, because the second and third Zeitgeist films dealt much less with conspiracy theories. Essentially, when Zeitgeist stopped talking about conspiracy theories, the Internet stopped listening. With the market of potential converts already saturated, the Zeitgeist Movement sputtered into oblivion. Once you “get the word out” about your pet conspiracy theories or the ideology you’re promoting by using conspiracy theories, where do you go from there? Zeitgeist couldn’t answer this question. It’s unlikely Thrive will be able to either.
Does Clicking Links, Watching Videos and Signing Online Petitions Really Help?
There’s another more fundamental reason why Thrive’s conspiracy activism will have no real-world impact other than to “get the word out” about what they think the world is like. Most of the consumers of this material, especially those who are heavy Internet users, aren’t really willing to do more than click links, watch videos and sign online petitions. Very, very few of them will actually be motivated to go out of their homes and do something in the real (non-cyber) world. This is just a fact of life. If you put a website up about any cause, however well-intentioned, the more you actually have to do to take action on it, the fewer people you’ll have who will make the effort. People click “like” buttons and share links because it’s easy and they can do it in the flash of an eye. Only the truly devoted will be motivated to get in their cars and go to a preplanned event; fewer still will do that if it will cost them money. This is a self-limiting factor of Internet activism.
The problem is even worse when the main audience you’re preaching to consists of conspiracy theorists. Conspiracy theorists are notoriously lazy. Few of them, for example, can even be motivated enough by their beliefs even to pick up a book and read it. To them, videos on the Internet are just as good as books, and they require much less effort to comprehend. Most conspiracy theorists have virtually no awareness of the depth of knowledge the world contains beyond the Internet or how to access that knowledge. Many of them live their lives in an online bubble; if it’s not happening on the web, it’s not worth knowing about. If this is the crowd you’re trying to draw activists from, the chances of finding supporters who are high-commitment enough to meet in person, put together a viable plan of action on something and see it through to the end are much reduced.
That’s not to say that this doesn’t happen. In the heyday of 9/11 Truth theories, for example, hundreds of Truthers would gather at Ground Zero in New York City and harass people by shouting conspiracy garbage at them through bullhorns. But what did they do beyond that? Note that even this real-world activity is just another species of “getting the word out,” albeit in an extremely destructive, annoying and disagreeable way that turned off and angered far more people than it attracted. Even the 9/11 Truth organizations, like the ridiculous “Architects & Engineers for 9/11 Truth”—clearly an organization created by the most high-commitment supporters of the conspiracy theory—continue to focus their efforts on “getting the word out” as opposed to actually doing anything. In the very, very few instances where they do try something other than “getting the word out”—like filing a lawsuit, as one group of 9/11 Truthers attempted—they always meet with spectacular failure.
Activism in the real world is hard. It takes money, time, effort and competent people to guide the activity toward any real goal. Conspiracy theorists are mostly kids. They don’t have a lot of money. What time they have they usually spent on the Internet. Exerting real-world effort happens in a few rare cases, but not very often. Competent people who can actually think something through and put something together are about as rare in this subculture as blue diamonds.
As a result, conspiracy theorists rationalize. They lower the bar and define what they are willing to do as “activism.” Thus, the sort of low-intensity effort that they can get many people to do—clicking “like” buttons, sharing links, watching videos and signing online petitions—becomes, in their minds, a substitute for real-world activism. In an endeavor where “getting the word out” has already been defined as the major goal, getting 10,000 people to click a “like” button becomes the equivalent of a smashing victory for right and justice.
Conclusion: Do You Really Want to Help?
This article has demonstrated why conspiracy activism is pointless and counterproductive. I can hear the shouts from angry Thrive fans now: “Why don’t you stop blogging and do something that actually helps?” (This assumes that I do nothing but write blogs all day—obviously an incorrect assumption).
What can you do to make the world a better place instead of watching Internet conspiracy videos or wasting time on the Thrive website (or this one)?
Here’s something you can do: give blood. This is one of the easiest things you can do, and one which has a huge real-world impact—you can literally save someone’s life. Here’s a website where you can type in your zip code and find out where to go in your area to give blood.
Here’s something you can do: become a tutor for adult literacy. You can find organizations that do this all over the country. Here’s just one example, from Florida.
Here’s something you can do: get a group of people together and assemble care packages of medical supplies for AIDS sufferers in Africa. This has been a hugely successful program. It also has real-world impacts. Here’s how to get involved.
Here’s something you can do: donate money to the American Indian College Fund. This fund helps people from America’s least-college-educated demographic get access to higher education. This helps real people in the real world. Here’s how to donate:
There you go. Stop watching Internet conspiracy movies and go do some good in the world. You have no excuse now.