The Truth Seekers Are Coming

Conspiracy theorists keep finding new ways to rebrand themselves.

The word "truth," several times on a pink background. Part of a woman's face in black and white.
Getty / The Atlantic

Sometime in the middle of the pandemic year, and sometime in the middle of a prolonged and compulsive scroll through Instagram, the “truth seekers” came into my life. The term was showing up over and over in the bios and captions of the women I followed, so often that I was starting to feel as if I were seeing things. The lockdowns seemed to have inspired a new kind of internet identity: There were truth-seeking fashion bloggers, truth-seeking travel influencers, and truth-seeking expectant moms who prayed that their daughters would be truth seekers too. Some would even seek the truth across platforms, beckoning their followers to new podcasts about the truth, new Telegram group chats in which the truth was up for discussion, or new lines of truth-related merchandise.

“If Jesus were walking the Earth today, do you think you’d see him for his miracles?” a QAnon-obsessed fashion blogger and “relentless truth seeker” asked several weeks ago. “Or would you label him a conspiracy theorist?” I knew why she was asking, and it was not because she was leading Bible study.

It didn’t take me long to realize that the “truths” these women had in mind were highly suspect and disturbing ones. They wanted all the facts about the Democrats’ scheme to harvest the blood of children, and all the evidence proving that the COVID-19 vaccines have microchips in them. The stress of that pursuit frequently culminated in angry speeches, delivered to a front-facing camera, about how Instagram was trying to silence their unpopular opinions and original perspectives. Like-minded Instagrammers may refer to themselves as “critical thinkers” or “true journalists,” among other coded phrases, but the term I saw most often—the succinct and pretty hook that has pulled so many women down the rabbit hole—was truth seeker.

In some ways, it’s obvious why they’d choose this label: Everyone loves the truth, and anyone can seek it—even a Girl Scout. “It connotes all of these good things,” says Alice Marwick, a social-media researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Truth seekers are “really dedicated to learning and knowledge”; they’re “very open-minded.” But the term is also so broad—implying general curiosity, even Christian faith—that it’s impossible to define. Maybe that’s the point. I messaged Deb Willis, the proprietor of a shop selling truth seeker hoodies, as well as T-shirts with messages such as You’re being lied to and I believe in my Immune System, to ask about the name. “I just hope that everybody tries to be their own truth seeker whatever that looks like for them,” she wrote back.

Truth seeker sounds breezy and appealing, especially when it’s used in place of other, more derisive terms that are often applied to the same behavior. Those terms are always changing, rotated out after they become too loaded. Even conspiracy theory was a neutral turn of phrase for many years—a piece of forensic jargon. It first gained prominence in the 19th century, following the 1881 shooting of President James Garfield, in the sense that the possibility of a conspiracy was just one theory an investigator might hold among many about the assassination. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, this was how the phrase was used, in courtrooms and the media.

Only after World War II did we gain a term for the feared and scorned creator of conspiracy theories, the conspiracy theorist—a person who pushes unfounded narratives of secret schemes and cover-ups, often to further her own aims. In the aftermath of Nazism and then McCarthyism, Americans grew worried about the harmful power of these theories, says Katharina Thalmann, an assistant American-studies professor at the University of Tübingen in Germany and the author of the 2019 book The Stigmatization of Conspiracy Theory Since the 1950s. Once academics and journalists—the philosopher Karl Popper and the historian Richard Hofstadter, most famously—started writing on the topic, conspiracy theory took on a very negative connotation, Thalmann told me. “That’s when people start[ed] to point fingers at conspiracy theorists.”

It would soon be common knowledge among Americans that conspiracy theorists are dangerous and must be kept out of mainstream discourse. (In their 1970 book, The Politics of Unreason, Seymour Martin Lipset and Earl Raab noted, “The conspiracy theory fleshes out nativist bigotry; and nativist bigotry fleshes out the conspiracy theory.”) As the reputation of conspiracy theorists foundered, they responded by rebranding the nature of their work. Instead of writing about “conspiracies,” per se, they deployed more open-ended phrases about how they were “just asking questions,” or examining “discrepancies” in a given narrative.

The amateur researchers who took on the official narrative of the John F. Kennedy assassination, for example, were sparing in their use of the word conspiracy, and wary of calling anything a “plot.” Sylvia Meagher, who aimed to eviscerate the Warren Commission’s findings on the shooting in a 1967 book called Accessories After the Fact, described herself not as a conspiracy theorist but as a “critic.” At the same time, she made it clear that her project was to capture the truth: “If closed minds continue to open, to receive and evaluate objectively the facts which are on the record, we may yet proceed to pursue the truth to its ultimate reaches.”

Her fellow conspiracy theorists’ fixation on “truth,” and their righteous quest to find it, would become only more explicit in the years that followed. The people who wrote and promoted conspiracy theories about the September 11 attacks described themselves as participants in the “truth movement.” In blog posts on the popular conspiracy-theory website, people used the word truther as a matter-of-fact descriptor for several years. “That’s how they saw themselves,” Thalmann said. “They really only want to know the truth and help other people see the light.” But truther, like conspiracy theorist, would become more stigmatized as it grew more widely known, and as its definition expanded to cover other disreputable groups, such as the flat-Earth truthers. Another round of rebranding predictably ensued: In later writings, 9/11 bloggers referred to themselves as “activists,” a term I’ve also come across when interviewing people who believe that the rollout of 5G technology will doom the human race to extinction.

Today’s Instagram truth seekers take a different tack. They’ve kept the word truth in their self-descriptions, but it’s framed in hazy terms, as the far-off object of a quasi-spiritual quest. A “truth movement,” like the one created by the 9/11 truthers, implies a belief in a single, manifest truth that must be realized and distributed. The truth seekers of today aren’t always as committed to a given theory or idea. Oftentimes, they don’t bother to assert specific truths at all, instead just insisting that their followers question everything they’re told; others stash their truths in temporary Instagram Stories, then move on quickly to something else. (One week they might post a “truth” about child trafficking, and the next week one about voter fraud or vaccines.) Even the truth seekers who do maintain one more or less consistent belief in a grand theory about, say, the “deep state” or globalist elites, tend to speak about it vaguely, covering it in a friendly gloss. Their focus is less on the troubling stories they unfurl than on what the ability to comprehend those stories says about them, and their audience by extension. Their brand is based on the act of seeking itself—it has the glow of “girl power” rhetoric and carries the implicit promise of being part of a lovable underdog in-group.

As I was scrolling through posts made by truth seekers, it occurred to me that social media was the perfect place for conspiracy theorists to dispense with the drudgery and complications of “theory.” These spaces aren’t well suited to elaboration, so truth seekers needn’t dwell on tiny details with long-winded commentary, as their forebears might have done. Instead, they spread gossip and memes. They repost screenshots and tag one another in the comments of videos that someone else made. They share just enough to invoke some fear or shared sentiment, while their only true commitment seems to be to evading Instagram’s rules.

Women who have built their livelihood on that platform are best positioned to understand the power of a flexible term like truth seeker. It helps them build relationships, and then turn those feelings of connection into trust and money. Like much of what’s on Instagram, it’s both a quick pitch—buy what I’m selling—and an invitation—be like me; join my team. It’s a nice offer, and it’s easy to accept.