Conspiracy thinking has shaped the world for centuries, destroying great institutions, eradicating knowledge, endangering democracies, and ending lives. These theories threaten not just individual facts, but the idea that empirical truth exists at all. And now, with a president of the United States who advances conspiracy thinking about a pandemic that has led to 82,000 reported deaths in America, it becomes an existential threat.
In an effort to better understand how we got here, and how we might find a way out, The Atlantic today launches “Shadowland,” an exploration of how conspiracy theories have shaped America, and why they are more powerful, and dangerous, now than ever.
Shadowland takes you down the rabbit hole through an interactive project portal, built with the mobile reader in mind; the product and visuals are central to the storytelling. It represents some of the most ambitious work of the year, even as The Atlantic continues to apply the full weight of its newsroom to cover the biggest stories of our age: the global pandemic, the Trump presidency, and the spread of illiberalism across the planet.
The project debuts with “The Prophecies of Q,” executive editor Adrienne LaFrance’s cover story on QAnon for The Atlantic’s June issue. With its legions of followers, fabrications about the coronavirus, and dark predictions about the “deep state,” QAnon’s power—and the rejection of reality it represents—only grows. LaFrance warns that QAnon “is a movement united in mass rejection of reason, objectivity, and other Enlightenment values. And we are likely closer to the beginning of its story than the end … To look at QAnon is to see not just a conspiracy theory but the birth of a new religion.”
Through interviews with suburban moms who’ve become devout believers, hucksters who make a living peddling its theories, and Hillary Clinton, who was accused by Q of running a child sex ring out of a Washington, D.C., pizzeria, LaFrance seeks to understand what motivates the movement’s adherents, and how their invented reality shapes our own.
In an introductory essay, editor in chief Jeffrey Goldberg writes: “Trump does not defend our democracy from the ruinous consequences of conspiracy thinking. Instead, he embraces them. A conspiracy theory—birtherism—was his pathway to power, and, in office, he warns of the power of the ‘deep state’ with the ferocity of a QAnon disciple. He has even begun to question the official coronavirus death toll, which he sees as evidence of a dark plot against him. How is he different from Alex Jones, from the conspiracy manufacturers of Russia and the Middle East? He lives in the White House. That is one main difference.
“This improbable question—how did a person with a weakness for conspiratorial thinking achieve the presidency?—might be among the most consequential of the coming election, which is not merely a political contest, but a referendum on enlightenment values and on reality itself. Nonsense is nonsense, except when it kills. And conspiracy thinking, especially when advanced by the president of the United States, is an existential threat.”
Led by special-projects editor Ellen Cushing, “Shadowland” launches with a collection of reporting, essays, and fiction on conspiracy. Also published today: staff writer Adam Serwer reports on how birtherism gave rise to President Trump; staff writer Megan Garber explains how the mechanisms of reality television taught people to trust no one; staff writer Kaitlyn Tiffany explores dangerous conspiracy theories about 5G and wireless technology; author Robin Sloan contributes dystopian fiction that imagines a future where conspiracy theorists win; and in a personal essay, Cushing reexamines her adolescence as a teenage conspiracy theorist.
New pieces on conspiracy will continue to publish in “Shadowland” throughout the year.