Shane Dawson, an impish, sandy-haired star of YouTube, has always had an instinct for the platform’s shifting moods. When he started posting videos 10 years ago, he dealt in sketch comedy and song parody. But in 2015, he pivoted to paranoia.
Now, in a typical video, Dawson pipes in eerie music, wiggles his fingertips in the malevolent style of Mr. Burns and breathily announces: “It’s time for some conspiracy theories.”
Dawson’s “theories” are assembled from pop culture detritus, stitched together through video clips, off-the-cuff podcast interviews and spooky internet chatter. His videos are pegged to trending topics — whipping up nefarious plots around fidget spinners and Avril Lavigne — but they also plug into old-fashioned lines of conspiratorial thinking: the Illuminati rules humanity, the Earth is flat, and the Apollo 11 mission was faked. His “MOON LANDING CONSPIRACY THEORY” video has been viewed more than 7 million times.
Dawson is a capricious conspiracist. In the middle of his paranoid rant about the moon, he places his hands sincerely over his chest and says: “Once again, it’s a theory. I don’t want to get sued or put in jail.” Then he narrows his eyes, as if to size up the whole field of space science, and scoffs, “But I mean, the evidence is not looking good.”
This is a newly fashionable posture. “I go back and forth with conspiracies. I have a love-hate relationship with conspiracies,” Joe Rogan said in April on his podcast, which has hosted discussion on theories around chemtrails, flying saucers and Magic Johnson’s HIV status. In March, YouTube shock jock Logan Paul dropped a 50-minute pseudo-documentary that stages him pratfalling into Flat Earth paranoia, inhaling anti-NASA propaganda and finally pronouncing it the dumbest thing he has ever heard.
The internet’s biggest stars are using irony and nonchalance to refurbish old conspiracies for new audiences, recycling them into new forms that help them persist in the cultural imagination. Along the way, these vloggers are unlocking a new, casual mode of experiencing paranoia. They are mutating our relationship to belief itself: It’s less about having convictions than it is about having fun.
Moon conspiracy theorizing used to be a serious business. Bill Kaysing, a former employee of a company that built rockets for NASA, boosted the movement in 1976 when he self-published “We Never Went to the Moon: America’s Thirty Billion Dollar Swindle” — a 200-page pursuit that quoted Lincoln and Shakespeare and featured arcane meditations on rocket propulsion and grainy photocopies of “evidence.” The theory was rekindled in 2001, at the dawn of the crowdsourced web, when a guy named Bart Sibrel produced a 47-minute “documentary” called “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Moon.” It mashed up moon footage with ominous shots from the Soviet Union and Vietnam, was narrated by a severe British woman, and was sold on a website called MoonMovie.com.
The quasi-investigations of Kaysing and Sibrel share similarities to the ones we see today. Dawson, like his predecessors, is a collage artist. All three men are personal essayists, too, unspooling their theories as tales of each man’s journey toward skepticism.
But the mood has shifted.
Kaysing and Sibrel were sincere kooks. Self-publishing a book through great personal expense requires a steadiness of conviction. So does making an almost-feature-length movie that you sell, for money, on DVD. When Sibrel finally accepted his belief in the moon hoax, he told The New York Times in 2003, he wept.
But today, it is no longer necessary to commit to the cause to help spread it around. You can just type it into Reddit, or blurt it out on a podcast, or drag a crying-laughing emoji onto a picture of the lunar lander and post it on Instagram.
In recent years, the specter of a fake moon landing has been raised by figures as disparate as Infowars founder Alex Jones (who treated it as a deathly serious issue), podcast host Rogan (who conjured it as a trippy thought experiment) and NBA star Steph Curry (who tossed it out as a joke, prompting a NASA invitation to visit its moon rock collection). Dawson, YouTube’s conspiracy king, channels all of those moods at once, modulating his perspective line by line and shot by shot. He represents a new archetype: the ambivalent conspiracy theorist.
In Richard Hofstadter’s 1964 diagnosis of “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” he described paranoid thinkers as “angry minds” addled by “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness and conspiratorial fantasy.”
But today’s more fashionable conspiratorial figures are not mad at all. You won’t find them crying over the moon. Rogan has cultivated a persona as an easygoing bro, willing to entertain out-there ideas before swatting them aside. And though Dawson is preaching from among the internet’s largest platforms — his channel surpassed 20 million subscribers this year — he acts as if he is bumbling through the dark corners of the web and reacting with wonder at whatever freaky idea pops up, as if he is watching a scary movie with millions of his closest friends.
At the end of his moon investigation, he decides: “I kinda believe it.”
Emotional ambivalence may be contemporary internet culture’s dominant mode. It is the hallmark of the internet troll, who blurs the line between sincerity and jest to wreak havoc online. It is the posture of the alt-right, which recycles old ideas about white nationalism into the language of internet memes, cloaking its seriously held beliefs with an ironic sheen. But it is a feature of the sunny YouTube personality, too.
Like his fellow vloggers who monologue about makeup or relationships or family life, Dawson pingpongs easily between self-confidence and self-deprecation. He stakes claims and then awkwardly undermines them in quick cuts and asides.
A looping snippet Dawson cut from one of his videos sums this up. “That’s just the facts,” he confidently tells the camera amid his “investigation” into the integrity of Chuck E. Cheese pizza. Then he blinks, throws up his hands in a protestation of innocence, and abashedly corrects himself: “No wait, no it’s not. It’s just an opinion.” The camera zooms in as his mouth curdles into a cringe.
The point isn’t whether the conspiracy is true or false, opinion or fact, or even remotely plausible. The point is that it’s stimulating.
If the classic conspiracy theorist was said to be motivated by distrust of authority and a feeling of social powerlessness, the ambivalent one can be animated by an even simpler impulse: boredom. Finding patterns in the endless ephemera of internet culture is fun and even soothing, like a real-life matching tile game. Like any other late-night Google search, it is a kind of vacation for the mind. And resurrecting old theories accesses nostalgia. Dawson’s videos often begin with a disclaimer that the content is for “entertainment purposes” only.
YouTube recently vowed to crack down on conspiracy content, to fight theories with facts. Sibrel’s movie — which is now, of course, available on YouTube — is fitted with an automated rebuttal: YouTube has inserted a stub of an Encyclopaedia Britannica article about the moon landing onto the page. (NASA tried this too, in 1977. “DID U.S. ASTRONAUTS REALLY LAND ON THE MOON?” a public relations fact sheet asked. The answer: “Yes. Astronauts did land on the Moon.”)
For now, Dawson’s video remains untouched. Now that conspiracy theories have been converted into pure entertainment, with no pretense of conviction, they have been infused with plausible deniability, for hucksters and for platforms, too. It is not just Reddit trolls and YouTube stars who act ambivalently. The mood is built into the structure of the internet itself. Platforms like YouTube and Facebook must posture to care about the quality of the content they host, but not too much. Dawson is among YouTube’s biggest stars.
There is no evidence that crowdsourced platforms like YouTube, Facebook or Reddit have stoked belief in conspiracy theory. Some segment of the population has always been drawn to outlandish tales of government plots. But the internet has achieved something even more cynical. It has made belief irrelevant. As soap operas have been supplanted by reality television and now YouTube vlogging, the line between fantasy and reality has become somewhat passé. Conspiracy theorizing is no longer stigmatized; it’s just for fun.
As Dawson put it last year, in a video questioning whether the Earth is, in fact, round: “Maybe 20 years ago, everybody thought, ‘Oh, that’s stupid. That’s crazy.’ But now, I feel like kinda everybody’s down for the moon landing being fake.”