Today, November 11, 2012, is the one-year anniversary of the initial release of the conspiracy theory movie Thrive. The film’s first birthday is, I think, an appropriate time to evaluate the film’s impact on the conspiracy underground and its continuing viability, as well as an assessment of our own efforts on this blog to correct and rebut the film. You might say that this article is a “postmortem” of Thrive, and that characterization wouldn’t be inaccurate. If the movie was intended to create a “new paradigm” or “wake people up,” it seems clear that Thrive has failed to do this on any significant scale. The main argument of this article is that, one year on, Thrive is “thriving” no more.
Thrive’s Declining Popularity: The Empirical Proof.
There is no doubt that Thrive is declining in popularity, and the numbers prove it. According to the website traffic analyzer Alexa.com (you can find stats here) the movie’s main website, thrivemovement.com, has been receiving markedly less traffic over the past several months than it did during either of the months it peaked—in November 2011, when Thrive was released, and April 2012, when Foster Gamble and Clear Compass Media made it available for free as opposed to a $5 fee. Alexa.com shows jagged spikes in the website’s popularity week by week (which is measured in terms of traffic ranking within the Internet as a whole), but each spike is successively smaller, the last one being barely a quarter of the website’s all-time interest spike.
On the day I checked, thrivemovement.com had gone down by 27.38% in “reach” over the past three months alone. That means that the site today is reaching 27.38% fewer people now than it was just three months ago. These stats change day by day, so if you check you will probably see a slightly different number.
The statistics on this blog match this trend almost exactly. Interest in Thrive Debunked has proven, over the past year, to be an extremely keen indicator of interest in the movie itself (I’ll explain why that is later in the article). The daily high for page views in the past year was April 13, 2012. Since then, this blog receives barely a quarter—on a good day—of the number of daily page views than it did on that day. The pattern of traffic on this blog mirrors almost exactly the ebb and flow of traffic for thrivemovement.com, with spikes of ever-decreasing intensity followed by prolonged valleys.
Furthermore, there has been much less comment traffic on this blog in the past few months than there was, say, before July 1. I used to receive as many as ten or more comments a day from various people either pro- or anti-Thrive (mostly pro). Now, days go by without any new comments being posted at all.
Speaking solely in terms of web traffic, Thrive Debunked is like a pilotfish on a whale. Wherever the whale goes, it goes along for the ride. The trajectory is down, down, down across the board. The numbers prove it beyond any doubt.
Why is Thrive Declining?
The answers as to why the movie is declining are less clear, but here I offer a few hypotheses.
1. The movie didn’t contribute anything substantially new—at least nothing that its fans could latch onto as new.
For all of its bluster and bravado about a “new paradigm,” Thrive contributed very little to the conspiracy theory underground that was fundamentally new. All that was new was the packaging, which is a shiny object that can only hope to distract the masses for a limited time. Ancient aliens? Been around since 1968. Crop circles? Old news. Money conspiracies? Lyndon LaRouche was doing that in the 80s. “Global Domination Agenda”? Every Alex Jones radio show since 1998 has been about that. Far right-wing Libertarian political propaganda? Ron Paul was peddling that folderol in 2007; now, after two spectacularly embarrassing failures at running for president, he has (mercifully) been put out to pasture, and his sycophantic fan base is finally fading away.
Substantively, the only truly novel idea contributed by Thrive was the obsession with the “torus” shape. (Of course the idea existed long before, but had never been injected into the conspiracy underground before). This proved to be a non-starter among conspiracy theorists, who revel in gloom, apocalypse and disaster. If it can’t oppress you, take away your freedoms, abduct you, give you an anal probe or blow up the World Trade Center, conspiracy theorists probably won’t be interested in it. So scratch the “torus” idea.
Conceptually and structurally, Thrive did make a significant contribution—that being the continued meld of conspiracy theory ideology and New Age sensibility, a toxic mixture that some academic researchers are beginning to term “conspirituality.” Essentially, Thrive is a document evincing the embryonic creation of a new quasi-religious belief system. But this alone won’t sustain its popularity among conspiracy theorists. If Thrive does go down in history it will be because of its contribution to conspirituality, but this is not an accomplishment that conspiracy theorists can sink their teeth into, because most of them vehemently deny that their belief system even is religious in nature. So, appealing though conspirituality is on a subconscious level, that alone is not going to sustain interest in Thrive.
2. The “Thrive Movement” is largely illusory and is not driving continued interest in the movie.
Another reason why the movie has failed to sustain and increase its reach is that there’s no real organization behind it that’s continuing to push it. We’ve blogged before about how ineffectual, illusory and ephemeral are the “solutions” proposed by the movie—they are mainly talking points aimed at ending the conspiracy theories that the movie insists are out there, but because of course these conspiracy theories do not really exist, the movie’s “solutions” are cures in desperate search of a disease. Beyond that, though, the “Thrive Movement” that you see touted (somewhat disingenuously) on the website does not exist in any real sense. Yes, there are small ad-hoc groups of the movie’s fans that have met on an informal basis in various parts of the country. But a mass movement to motivate action based on the movie’s principles? If such a thing exists, it’s keeping an awfully low profile–which can hardly be what fans of the movie want.
Here is one place where Thrive failed to live up to the predecessor it hoped to imitate, the Zeitgeist Movement, which was similarly a fan club of approbation for the infamous (and roundly debunked) 2007 conspiracy theory movie Zeitgeist: The Movie. As we all know, the Zeitgeist experience was the blueprint for Thrive. Although the Zeitgeist Movement imploded in 2011 and has now shriveled to a tiny burned-out nub of high-commitment supporters who have been largely forgotten by the outside world, between 2008 and 2011 at least there was an organization—centrally directed, and under the leadership of the film’s director and his close associates—out there pushing Zeitgeist: The Movie and its tiresome preachy sequels. Thrive has no such organization behind it. The effort that Foster Gamble has exerted to rally fans of the film around a set of action points has been minimal, and no one else has (so far as I know) stepped up to exert any sort of leadership role in this capacity. Without the benefit of a “street team” out there flogging it, Thrive must sink or swim on its own merit. You can see from the numbers that Thrive is not doing well in swimming against the current.
3. Some conspiracy theorists distrust Thrive, thus limiting its reach even within its own target demographic.
Debunkers and other followers of rational, reality-based belief systems aren’t the only detractors of Thrive. Many conspiracy theorists are deeply distrustful of it, for two main reasons: (1) Foster Gamble’s familial connection to the Proctor & Gamble company, and (2) the film’s promotional poster, depicting a woman taking off a blindfold, which especially paranoid conspiracy nutters think is “Illuminati propaganda.” Thrive has been pilloried in the conspiracy underground for these two characteristics. As a result, the many hard-core, incorrigible, detached-from-reality conspiracy nuts—whom you would expect to be Thrive’s core constituency—reject the film out of hand for these very reasons.
This is a battle that Foster Gamble and Thrive can’t possibly win. It does absolutely no good for Foster Gamble to protest that he has nothing to do with his Proctor & Gamble relatives, because no one will believe him anyway. Conspiracy theorists are notoriously intransigent and will accept anything on faith, however bizarre or improbable, so long as it feeds into their paranoid delusions. Even the suggestion that Foster Gamble is an “Illuminati stooge” is, in the conspiracy underground, tantamount to an immutable sentence of guilty.
The controversy over the poster is even more ludicrous. Any image, anywhere, in any context of a person showing one eye is automatically construed by hard-core conspiracy lunatics as “proof” of “Illuminati symbolism.” No amount of remonstration on the part of Foster Gamble or the Thrive crew could possibly alter this. Therefore, Thrive and its makers are—in the zero-evidence-needed universe of hard-core conspiracy lunatics—guilty right out of the starting gate, and Thrive is viewed as dangerous “disinformation.” This is doubly ironic because many people who accept Thrive as gospel truth accuse rationally-based critics—such as myself and fellow contributor SlayerX3—of being “paid disinformation agents” for even daring to criticize the movie.
Thus, Thrive has a self-limiting factor even within its own target audience. The most paranoid and delusional of conspiracy theorists preach against the film because they think it’s part of a conspiracy, whilst debunkers pile on because it promotes conspiracy theories. In this sense Thrive embodies the worst of both worlds. There is no escape from this vicious circle. If Thrive can’t even unite conspiracy theorists across the wide spectrum of their beliefs, it has absolutely no hope of doing so in the mainstream world where conspiracy thinking is generally not accepted.
4. Thrive cannot make any inroads among mainstream (non-conspiracy, non-New Age) audiences.
This is the most important reason Thrive is declining: it simply can’t attract any mainstream attention, which means its potential fan base is limited to its core constituencies of conspiracy theorists and New Age adherents—at least the ones who don’t distrust it because of Gamble’s familial connection or the image on the poster. The reasons for Thrive’s inability to break through to the mainstream is the subject of the next section.
Preventing Mainstream Acceptance: The Repudiators (and the Debunkers).
Without any doubt the single most important event in the history of Thrive was the signing of a letter, by ten of the people interviewed in the film, repudiating it and stating that they were misled as to the film’s contents. If you’ve read this blog, you know all about the “repudiators” (and if you don’t, start here). This event was “game over” for Thrive. Almost single-handedly, the repudiation—orchestrated most vocally by John Robbins—ended any chance the movie ever had of gaining credibility in mainstream circles.
Now, wherever Thrive is shown or even mentioned, the story of the repudiation follows it. Although the repudiation is not generally a deal-breaker for conspiracy theorists and New Agers who like the movie, it certainly is a deal-breaker for anyone else out there who might otherwise have been attracted to the movie’s message or themes but who wasn’t already a conspiracy theorist or New Age adherent. The explanation Thrive’s makers give for the repudiation—that Robbins and company were part of a “disinformation” campaign against the film—is totally incredible and unlikely to satisfy anyone. It’s tough to interest mainstream media in hard-core conspiracy material anyway, but the repudiation is the kiss of death for Thrive. It simply can’t be explained away, ignored or rationalized. Robbins and company acted out of principle. That’s extremely persuasive.
The Thrive Debunked blog has arguably played a role in preventing Thrive from expanding its fanbase into the mainstream, but probably only a small one. I’ve said many times before that the repudiation, and especially the beautiful essay by John Robbins on why he did it, were far more effective in preventing gullible people from falling for Thrive’s nonsense than anything I or my contributors have done. What I believe we and other debunkers who have spoken against the movie have done is to make it very easy for rational people seeking information on the film to see just how wrong the film and its assertions are. The target audience for this blog has always been people who are curious about the movie, who might have some interest in the subjects it covers, but who are cautious enough to investigate the film before believing what it says. Although that universe of people is quite small compared either to the conspiracy fans who love the film or the vast mainstream who realize from the get-go that it’s not worth their time, this blog has been extremely successful at reaching that target audience. On that front, this blog has been a huge success.
The Cycle of Thrive Discovery—And Rejection.
This blog has become an integral part of the public conversation about Thrive. I know because WordPress tracks the “incoming” traffic to this blog and logs the pages that link to it. The vast majority of “incoming” links follow exactly the same pattern. Here’s how it works:
1. A conspiracy theorist or New Ager discovers the film, watches it online, loves it, and makes a post about it on a web forum or in a chatroom. Almost always this initial post praises the film and recommends it to others, like, “There’s this great movie that shows us how our world really works! Everyone should see it!”
2. A few other conspiracy theorists reply, expressing agreement with the film and thanking the original poster who brought it to their attention. Often, some type of discussion about the film’s specific theories (usually “free energy” or the “Global Domination Agenda”) results.
3. Another poster makes a negative comment on Thrive and says something like, “That movie is crap” or “Don’t be fooled by this nonsense.” This is the poster who will almost always post a link to Thrive Debunked.
4. The original poster returns, defending the movie (usually in a shrill, angry and indignant tone), denouncing this blog and calling me a “paid disinformation agent.” Then the original poster will add a bunch of links to other conspiracy theorist material that supposedly “validates” Thrive.
5. The pro-Thrive and anti-Thrive forum posters argue amongst themselves for a few more posts.
6. The original topic goes fallow and is forgotten as the posters move on to something else.
This pattern repeats day after day, all over the Internet, in country after country. (If you want a recent example of this effect, go here). What is clear from this cycle of discovery and rejection is that Thrive has no staying power. It’s a shiny toy that attracts the temporary attention of conspiracy theorists, and then after it’s been debunked and the requisite “paid disinformation agent” accusations have been vomited up against the doubters of the film, the conspiracy nuts lose interest and move on to the next shiny toy. This demonstrates that, even among conspiracy theorists, Thrive operates at a highly superficial level. It generates very little sustained contemplation, thoughtful discussion or even self-reflection. It’s bubble-gum candy, intellectual junk food. To be sure this is as much the fault of the defective mentality of the conspiracy theorist underground—which vociferously discourages any attempt at intellectual analysis—as it is the failure of Thrive, but it’s telling that there’s so little “there” there behind most public discussions of the film.
But Isn’t The Film Valuable Because It Gets People Talking About Important Issues in Our World?
This argument presupposes that Thrive is ethically neutral–that if it is not true, its untruth is harmless, but if (by wild coincidence) the filmmakers happen to aim a wayward arrow at some real-world issue that needs addressing, Thrive is a net positive because it’s directed at least some energy toward addressing that issue. That’s not the case, because the great deal of damage that its untrue and disingenuous depictions of societal issues cause far outweighs any marginal benefit the film might have by “accidentally” aiming at a valid target.
Let me give you an example. The dependence of industrialized societies on fossil fuels is a crucial issue in our world that must be solved, before anthropogenic climate change renders our environment uninhabitable or hostile. Thrive implicitly does accept the premise that dependence on fossil fuel is bad. However, Thrive’s proposed solution is to rely on “free energy” machines, built from plans given to us by aliens, which will miraculously liberate us from all our energy problems. This is a false solution. Even a fan of the film who is motivated to take action to advance a solution to fossil fuel dependence will have his or her energy diverted in a completely useless direction: advocacy for “free energy” machines that do not exist.
In order to turn this hypothetical Thrive fan into an activist working toward real solutions to energy problems–for example, political lobbying for greater public investment in R&D to develop solar, wind, or geothermal energy–will require reeducating the person to realize that “free energy” is a falsehood and that Thrive has misled them. If they’re already interested in working toward energy independence, it’s likely that whatever stimulus sets them on a more productive path could have interested them in the real solution at the get-go, which means the fact that Thrive turned them on to the issue of fossil fuel reliance is totally irrelevant. In fact, Thrive in this example has been counterproductive, because it wasted the would-be activist’s (and society’s) time by encouraging him to tilt uselessly at the windmills of imaginary “free energy” machines. This is not a net positive.
Even this hypothetical example is extremely speculative because it’s not likely that Thrive will interest people “by accident” in genuine issues and genuine solutions anyway. The issues Thrive cares most passionately about are the conspiracy theories. Consequently, what little “activism” it can hope to ignite will almost invariably be directed at ending these horrible conspiracies. That is not a net good for society. It’s a net negative, because conspiracy thinking is part of the problem and is not a solution to anything.
The Final Truth—The One Thrive Fans Will Never, Ever Admit.
There’s a line in Michael Jackson’s song “Beat It” that goes, “No one wants to be defeated.” Conspiracy theorists are more ferociously resistant to admitting failure and defeat than just about anyone else. In fact, they’re so resistant to the notion that their theories are failing to “wake people up” that they will engage in the most egregious contortions of reality to avoid accepting that the mainstream world either treats them as irrelevant wingnuts or incurable lunatics. Consequently, I predict that Thrive fans who choose to comment on this article will never, ever admit that Thrive is losing, rather than gaining, viewers, and that instead of “waking people up” it’s falling quite quickly into well-deserved obscurity.
Conspiracy theorists love to assert that more and more people are joining their side. They love to say things like, “The worm is turning!” or “We’re gaining critical mass!” Bizarrely, they persist in these delusions even long after the party is over, after it becomes painfully obvious that the mainstream world has passed them by.
Take, for instance, 9/11 Truthers. Right now, the conspiracy theory that maintains “9/11 was an inside job” is less popular now than it has been at any time since the attacks of September 11 happened. I proved this in this article, refuting the absolutely false assertion made by Foster Gamble in Thrive that “a growing number of people” believe in this delusion. In fact, based on poll data, the numbers of people who believe in “9/11 was an inside job” theories is shrinking, not growing. But Truthers will never admit this. To them, the conspiracy theory has to be gaining converts every day. The lack of evidence that Trutherism is becoming more popular is treated as irrelevant, or (more typically) that news of its supposedly growing popularity is suppressed. Truthers will never—never—admit that mainstream society rejected this conspiracy delusion long ago and moved on.
In fact, I’ve had 9/11 Truthers try to tell me that the reason nobody talks about 9/11 conspiracy theories much anymore is because they (the Truthers) have already won—they think the vast majority of the public considers 9/11 a closed issue, having concluded that it was a conspiracy, so there’s no need to debate it anymore! They’re right on one score—there is no need to debate it—but for precisely the opposite reason: mainstream public opinion long ago tossed 9/11 conspiracy theories on the dustbin of history, and trying to gain new adherents to the theory is like trying to sell tickets to the Titanic after the ship has already gone down.
There’s one more powerful piece of evidence indicating that the mainstream world has forgotten about Thrive, and that’s here: the very interesting discussion that took place behind the scenes at Wikipedia over whether Thrive was “notable” enough to warrant an entry in the database. Despite the frenzied efforts of Thrive partisans, the Wikipedia gatekeepers decided that Thrive wasn’t even worth their time. There is no Wikipedia page on Thrive. Nor will there be. It’s not suppression; it’s not propaganda; it’s not the “Global Domination Agenda” paying Wikipedia to snub them. It’s much simpler than that: no one cares.
One Wikipedia editor summed up the argument against Thrive with these very telling statements, which ultimately won the debate:
“This page [the one on Thrive that was eventually deleted] reeks of promotion and has the barest credentials. I must agree with nominator that page created by a known sock puppet of an indef-blocked socker [translation: a known conspiracy theorist troll] should be subject to close scrutiny. [An anti-Thrive Wikipedia user] makes the valid points above this film has no wide interest and zero sources other than blogs…”
This is the truth. No one cares anymore. No one should care. Thrive is dead. John Robbins and the other nine repudiators ended the Thrive phenomenon, if indeed there ever was one. Game over.
This is my final article for Thrive Debunked. After seven years in the arena, I have retired from actively debunking conspiracy theories, and Thrive marks the final chapter in that journey. My contributors and I have, in the past year, successfully refuted every major assertion made in the film. There’s nothing of substance left standing of Thrive. Our work is completed. Thrive has been completely debunked. Even if it wasn’t, John Robbins and the repudiators have rendered further effort in deconstructing the film largely pointless, because it’s clear that the film is not going to have any real resonance in the future beyond the realm of conspiracy theorists and New Agers who already know about it.
But, like a dead oil tanker that continues to leak toxins into the environment decades after the main oil spill has been contained, Thrive will continue to infect a small, steady trickle of viewers with its conspiracy poison, whether its new victims are young people who are just entering the dark and nihilistic world of paranoia, or other potential fans who simply haven’t heard about the movie before. For that reason, this blog will remain up for at least a while. It’s already helped a lot of people, and can continue to do some good, even if it is no longer actively updated.
The conspiracy theorists out there will invariably interpret this as some sort of victory, or perhaps further “proof” that I am a “paid disinformation agent”—maybe my CIA/Project Vigilance masters have stopped paying me, or transferred me to another assignment!—but there’s nothing I can do about that. Conspiracy nutters will make that accusation anyway, regardless of how stupid it is. I am not a “paid disinformation agent,” of course, but the fact that paranoiacs continue to believe that I am gives me no grief at all. I have nothing to prove to conspiracy theorists. This blog wasn’t meant for them anyway; it was meant to reach people who are still capable of rational thought.
What I feel most toward fans of Thrive is not anger or even pity, but sadness. What could have been great hope, promise and energy of a generation of young people who want to change the world has been squandered, bastardized and ultimately wasted by sad obsessions with bizarre conspiracy theories that can do nothing—absolutely nothing—to move our society forward or address the problems within it. This is the tragedy of conspiracy thinking. It is a tragedy upon which I can no longer dwell, and with Thrive now debunked, I no longer have to.
I want to thank the contributors to this blog (SlayerX3 chief among them, though he’s by no means the only one), as well as those behind the scenes who helped me research, fact-check, and keep ahead of developments I wouldn’t have heard about otherwise. I want to thank the readers (you know who you are) who respond tirelessly in the comments, slamming down the endless assaults of idiocy and irrationality spouted by Thrive’s more militant fans. If by some miracle of fate Thrive’s fortunes do turn around—or if Foster Gamble decides to make a Thrive 2, perish the thought—I will be looking to you to carry on my work, and to defend rationality, sanity and reason against the endless waves of woo, bullshit, paranoia and propaganda in which our world is sadly awash. Thanks for a job well done.
Foster Gamble or his fans may not think so, but I, for one, am thriving quite well.
Thanks for reading.
A podcast called “Life, The Universe and Everything Else,” a program put on by the Winnipeg Skeptics association, has turned its sights on Thrive. I spent the morning listening to the podcast, and I recommend it very highly. You can play it from your computer here. The host of the show is Gem Newman (founder of Winnipeg Skeptics, computer science expert), and the guests include Gary Barbon, Mark Forkheim, Robert Shindler, Richelle McCullough and Greg Christiansen. You can see information on who these people are, and what their backgrounds are, here.
The Winnipeg Skeptics are a group of skeptics and critical thinkers who apply fact, logic and critical thinking to wild claims made on the Internet. Just as this blog has done since the beginning, the Skeptics have exhaustively examined Thrive and their review is, needless to say, highly negative. While they find some things to praise in the film, they are extremely critical of the film’s shoddy research, its trafficking in bizarre and divisive conspiracy theories, its promotion of far right-wing Libertarian propaganda, and its reductive and harmful worldview that obscures real problems of income inequality, political corruption and environmental degradation.
Thrive Debunked is mentioned prominently in the episode and I’m proud to say this site was used as a significant source to fact-check and analyze the film. You’ll see links to various articles here on the blog page discussing the episode.
At one point, Mr. Newman reads verbatim from the statement made by John Robbins repudiating Thrive and criticizing its conspiracy worldview—a statement published on this blog with Mr. Robbins’s permission.
If you’re a regular reader of this blog, very little on the podcast will be news to you. But it is noteworthy that whenever anyone approaches Thrive with a desire to check its facts and think through its conclusions, they invariably conclude that it is faulty, false and dangerous. We can therefore add the Winnipeg Skeptics’ review to the lengthening list of similar reviews catalogued on this site, such as JREF’s, Transition Culture’s and the Praxis Institute’s.
Do give the podcast a listen. It’s very well-done.
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.