Soul Interviews – Anyone who has ever tried to camp in the wetlands of a mosquito paradise knows, that the scale makes the difference

Maastunnel Rotterdam 20.6.2022 – 11.7.2022 :

What do the moon landing, 5G and Area 51 have in common with a virus?

At first sight, they might look like totally different topics, but they all revolve around a centuries-old question: What is the truth? Whom do we believe? On which facts do we base our decisions, let alone our feelings and hopes? All four are excellent fodder for conspiracies. The corona-virus, however, caused an unprecedented renaissance of conspiracy and this time the old phenomenon appears in a new light. Seemingly innocently small and fragmented, but no less influential. And so, I prefer to call this new phenomenon conspiracy anecdotes, instead of conspiracy theories or conspiracy ideologies. So, what is the difference between conspiracy anecdotes and the, let’s say, more traditional conspiracy theories? Basically, it’s all about number and range. Anecdotes are none of those detailed theories that have been deliberately and purposefully formulated over time to bring power to the storyteller. The anecdotes I’m talking about here are in themselves rather innocent and random. Some of them are ultra-short stories with a clear and simplified plot. Some are blurry one-liners. Others appear as more complex narratives, like the stories told around a campfire once. Or at the regulars’ table. They want to entertain, to shudder, to express concerns or anger, to bring laughter or to simply polish the ego of the teller. Above all however, they bring joy and healing effect of the storytelling. The human brain is constantly trying to turn facts, events and observations into stories to give a meaning to our existence. Stories guide our thinking. They control our perception. They help us to understand the world. Some stories are fairy tales, fantastic narratives, others strictly autobiographical memories. Some sketch out detailed reports, others relate tough propaganda and some even try to point out an objective truth. Whether fact or fiction, narratives are the powerful reality-makers in our heads. »Those who own the stories, rule the world«, my favourite quote of Plato.

The challenge to dominate the most powerful narratives has probably existed as long as the human ability to express oneself in language. But at the beginning of the twenty-first century, this phenomenon turns up in a new look.

Conspiracy anecdotes arise mainly from the aimless pastime of millions. They are created to express impulsive feelings. They have no hidden messages, neither do they have the intention to rule the world. Still their impact is huge. Countless people spread conspiracy anecdotes twenty-four hours a day. Spontaneous, often thoughtless, unreflective, and yet these fragmented stories have major impact on all areas of society. On politics, on our feelings, our choices and on our assessment of certain situations and facts. Above all, however, they are influencing and disturbing our personal search for the meaning of this all.

The world has changed a lot since Plato thought about the power of stories. New technologies have changed communication and storytelling. The invention of book printing, radio and finally the birth of the Internet and smartphone. A new and unlimited group of storytellers has arisen along with new and borderless audience. And here we are, in the middle of an unknown chaos of stories. Today we have all become influencers of our reality. The messages and observations, that we publish via social media and messengers, spread with a digital snowball effect. An avalanche of stories made up of bits and bytes. You could compare these conspiracy anecdotes to a swarm of mosquitoes that falls on the sleeping camper with a subtle whirring sound. One single mosquito wouldn’t be worth mentioning, but anyone who has ever tried to camp in the wetlands of a mosquito paradise knows, that the scale makes the difference.

But wait … weren’t Soul Interviews actually about a virus, that appeared so unexpectedly and threatened our health from one day to the next? A virus, that was taking over the whole world and life of every single human being? Did we have these thoughts, when we started recording the first interviews in 2020? Did we think of conspiracy anecdotes or internet trolls? Of fake news and reality bubbles? Definitely not.

When in January 2020 the first Western news reported about a virus in China, everything seemed far away. We were astonished to see pictures of Chinese people, who wrapped their dogs and themselves in blue plastic bags, covered their faces with gas-masks or scarfs, before venturing out for a short walk in the open air.

A few weeks later, when the virus first appeared in Italy, we were still observing it as if we were watching a daily soap on TV. Even experts pointed out: Everything is okay here; this virus won’t come to the Netherlands that easily. Until a few days later, contrary to all forecasts, the virus was detected in Brabant. From then on, we were part of rapid and unimaginable developments that took over the planet. The first lockdowns followed. Cities, regions and ultimately entire countries and continents were cordoned. Airplanes stopped flying. The sky turned unprecedently blue and the birds were singing louder than ever. Night curfews , closed schools and boarded up shops followed. Home offices, distance learning, Zoom and Google Meet. Face masks, disinfectants, 1.5-meter distance rule. Hand washing until the skin turned into sandpaper. Code black and the fear of triage in hospitals. Rules and words that were previously unknown and unimaginable. We wanted to capture this moment of disbelief. How did people feel in the middle of all this? Which fears haunted theirs, and our heads? How was everyday life changing, maybe even our society and hopes for the future?

In autumn 2020 we started recoding first interviews.At the beginning, the conversations were rather quiet. Confused fears expressed aloud for the first time. Our interviewees were searching for words to describe this unknown loneliness and confusion. The worry about relatives and the world in general was expressed in a soft and tender way. Gradually, awareness turned into certainty that everything we were going through, would not be over in a few weeks. And with this realization, a new spirit awoke. Suddenly we were in the midst of a social upheaval that started abruptly, like once the fall of the Iron Curtain. A turning point in history and in the lives of all of us. The world froze in the grip of a pandemic. An unprecedented global crisis was born. The whole world was united in the feeling of being lost. The term ‘Chinese flu’, which was firstly introduced by the then American President Trump, disappeared again. The virus, and the illness caused by it, needed an official and less polarizing description: SARS-CoV-2, COVID-19, Corona.

Finally, the child had a name and so the most important ingredient of storytelling was born. The protagonist. Every story grows around the protagonist and their typical character traits, past and goals. The listeners wanted to get to know the protagonist in all details. They wanted to know whos story they are going to hear. What is SARS-CoV-2?

A rapid search for narratives awoke.

Where did the virus originally come from? A meat-market in Wuhan or a high-tech lab? Who is behind all of this? Which rules are justified and useful to stop the overflowing hospitals? Who is profiting from all this in the end?

We all were looking for answers. We tried to explain the inexplicable. To regain control. To take a stand. To find a scape goat. Who brought this chaos into our apparently so well organized and ever-growing world? As a consequence, the Internet started glowing.

The combination of this global crisis with modern communication technology resulted in an unprecedented new phenomenon: the hissing noise of a swarm of Babylonian conspiracy anecdotes.

‚Isn’t this anonymous person’s post much more trustworthy than the official testimony of experts, who probably sold their souls to those in power a long time ago? Isn’t the virus clearly a weapon of imperialism? Can’t you see that Bill Gates must be the secret creator? China trying to expand its power with perfidious methods? The military or the secret service is behind this all, no matter from which country! Soon the brain mafia will take over the thoughts of all vaccinated people through the freshly implanted chips. Or does the nature just strike back? A virus as an invisible Samaritan, who frees the world from overpopulation and human environmental destruction?’

Everything is more extreme on the Internet. Online, nobody doubts too long. Everyone is certain of what they know. Everyone is an expert, regardless of the field discussed. Suitable one-liners or tough accusations. Simplifying is a must have. Dualism is always working well in stories: Good and bad. Hero and enemy.

In our interviews with ›real‹ people, we firstly encountered this sort of language only rarely. But quickly the stories of the Internet mingled into personal conversations. Conquered the small talks in supermarkets, spread while drinking coffee on park benches. Society polarized and hardened. Riots in the streets, lootings, disputes in families and among friends about whether or not to get vaccinated. Suddenly our project appeared in a whole new light. How can our society deal with this information chaos? How will politics react? What do the tech-giants, that own the social media platforms, do with excessive spread of conspiracy anecdotes? Will anyone, and if so, who will benefit from all this? Because when it comes to power, nothing is left to chance.

No wonder the conspiracy anecdotes are accompanied by another fast-spreading phenomenon: trolls.

In addition to what we could call the ›normal reality influencers‹, we are dealing with more and more so-called troll factories. Offices promoting certain opinions and theories online on behalf of certain parties, individuals, or geopolitical interests. These trolls infiltrate forums and social media debates, and steer them in the desired direction. They work with professional methods, with broad outreach, feed on as many  views and likes as they can attract. Seemingly innocent and amateurish. Or difficult to distinguish from official media or scientific studies at first glance. They feed the tellers of conspiracy anecdotes. They are creating content, that people can distribute, and indirectly they are assisted by the working methods of major search engines and social media.

As soon as someone views a few articles or videos of this troll content, the search engine algorithms indirectly help the trolls suggesting other, similar content. Suddenly it looks like many people are already talking about this one phenomenon, which the innocent reader has just discovered accidentally. Why have friends and family never heard of it before?

A recommendation for a troll-video, that someone clicks out of curiosity or completely carelessly, can turn into an uncontrollable growth of false information and conspiracy anecdotes. Friends and relatives get suck into the same ‚reality bubble’. The little snowball turns into an avalanche.

During this ongoing pandemic, major social media portals like Twitter and Facebook have reacted quickly to the flood of conspiracy and misinformation. They adjusted algorithms to prevent fake news. They linked suspicious articles to content, that showed objective facts and studies as alternative information. The YouTube search engines, for example, have been deleting conspiracy theories more and more consistently in the course of the pandemic – as far as automated systems and algorithms can recognize fake news. However, real control is impossible, and we are facing data overload and chaos. Albeit, algorithms aren’t everywhere yet. Fortunately!

We shouldn’t forget that the Internet was once celebrated as a democratic medium. Anyone could read and share information and this was and is of great value: Freedom of speech. Freedom of information and freedom of knowledge. As the pandemic progressed, the importance of messenger services such as Telegram grew quickly. Chat groups and personal conversations could only be controlled in exceptional cases. The conspiracy anecdotes still found their audience. And that’s also reassuring, who wants to live in a dictatorship? Not me. Not even in a dictatorship of an official truth – if something like this exists at all. But this is another conversation. Back to the conspiracy anecdotes, why are they so successful? What psychological and social benefits do they offer? After all, there has to be something that explains their immense popularity.

What makes conspiracy so attractive? What needs do these stories meet? If we look at the history, we see that there have always been conspiracies, especially in times of crisis. A crisis increases the feeling of losing control and this leads to stress. That is exactly what we could see in this pandemic. At times, public life came to a complete standstill. Each of us had a lot less social contact. Our normal, everyday lives vanished into thin air. For much additional stress arose from existential fears, such as losing income or  jobs. And of course, we were constantly worried to lose friends or relatives or our own health to COVID. A strong feeling of loss of control often leads to depression, aggression or panic. As a counter-reaction, people are looking for new structures. They are trying to sort out the mess. They try to understand the incomprehensible. Even though life is full of contradiction, complexity and incomprehensibility. In order to endure this, we need the ability to comprehend ambiguities. Often, there is no immediate answer, perhaps we will never find an answer at all. The inexplicable is part of our life. In times of crisis, this seems even more unbearable than otherwise. Conspiracy stories wrap the world in a logical and simplified narrative. They give meaning to incomprehensible, threatening events. They point out the guilty one and the victim. Wrong and right. The feeling of understanding and control returns. Often, conspiracy anecdotes also serve the individual desire for uniqueness. Telling a conspiracy anecdote shows that the narrator has found out, what the majority has not yet discovered. The conspiracy teller is no longer a grey sheep in the ignorant crowd, but a one-of-a-kind. A hero of the story.Conspiracy beliefs run through society as a whole. Old, young, rich, poor, educated and uneducated. But those who already felt excluded from the society, tend to easier believe in conspiracy theories, as the social psychologist Pia Lamberty emphasizes in the podcast “The Truth in Times of Corona – Conspiracy Theories and Myths About the Virus”

In times of COVOD-19, conspiracy anecdotes define the origin, the identity and the goal of the virus. And not just this: They offer membership of a clearly defined group to everyone, who feels overwhelmed and lost. A standardized attitude. An identity as a victim or a hero, who exposes and fights against the dark powers. Every day is like a new page in an exciting science fiction novel, where we all have become main characters. Even though this crisis threatens our (mental) health, conspiracy anecdotes provide us with an intense feeling of being alive at the same time.

Paradoxically, however, in the end conspiracy stories make people more anxious and isolate them from others even more. People, who want to bring in different ideas are branded as fools or manipulators. Alternative thoughts are marginalized. The world becomes more and more divided into good and bad. There is little in the middle. Real exchange of ideas becomes almost impossible. Extremism is growing on both sides. Discussions on an abstract level are mostly stalled, instead the focus is on details that are difficult to refute. All those, who do not see the same thing or support the same theory, turn into enemies. Today, the Internet unites most of the world. Good translation programmes remove language barriers. Conspiracy anecdotes spread uncontrollably at the speed of light. Links to dubious websites are distributed through chat groups and comments. Statistics are interpreted in a certain way to prove a certain goal. Screenshots of newspaper articles with fake content are circulated countless amount of times. Quotes from scientists and politicians are taken out of context, and copied and pasted to prove whatever supports one’s own belief. Deceptively, real ‘deep fakes’ put words into the mouths of those who had never spoke them. We are only at the beginning. Not only in terms of technology. The number of the crises that threaten humanity is accumulating rapidly, too. Global warming, overpopulation, lack of direction in politics

Conspiracy anecdotes are the reality makers of today. The swarm of confusion, that paves the way for the mighty of the future. Because, no matter how absurd, conspiracy anecdotes have a big impact on the society as a whole. They create fear and suspicion even in those, who have never believed in the in the first place. A residual doubt remains. What is the real truth?

Today is 7 November 2021.

We have recorded the last interviews and collected the last stories from the Internet. In the meantime, the fourth infection-wave just started to rise and the weekly press-conferences, with ever new rules, returned into our living rooms. COVID-19 and its stories haven’t said goodbye yet.

Soul Interviews tell about a period of great uncertainty. Not only because of the virus, but also of an increasingly complex and confusing world. Through parallel realities, through the loss of the once so clearly defined ›truth‹, and the no longer externally given meaning of our existence.

To be continued.

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