Talking Points

Out with Alex Jones-style conspiracy theorizing. In with Libs of TikTok.

Many have critiqued the decision by Washington Post reporter Taylor Lorenz to reveal the identity of the woman behind Libs of TikTok, a popular right-wing (and previously anonymous) Twitter account which amplifies and condemns videos progressives have posted of themselves on social media. Recently, many of those videos are created by preschool and elementary school teachers touting DIY curricula and classroom policies on sexual orientation and gender identity. But here's a critique most have missed: The person behind Libs of TikTok doesn't matter much, not because the account isn't influential (it is, including with lawmakers), but because conspiracism is communal now.

It wasn't always. We used to think of conspiracy theorizing as the province of the X-Files lone weirdo doing a string map on the wall — collecting classified government documents, talking to secretive sources in parking garages, piecing together an airtight (or, as far as everyone else is concerned, outlandish and silly) case against the alleged conspirators.

This old mode of conspiracy theorizing made news just this week: Infowars, the flagship media property of Alex Jones, filed for bankruptcy. Infowars has been a major force and Jones a prominent figure among fringe, conspiracist types for years. He's well-known enough, including in the mainstream, to be a symbol of a whole subculture in American politics.

But that concentrated influence and X-Files style isn't where conspiracism is heading now. While Jones-style theorizing "engages in a sort of detective work," write political scientists Nancy L. Rosenblum and Russell Muirhead in A Lot of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy, the "new conspiracism is something different. There is no punctilious demand for proofs, no exhaustive amassing of evidence, no dots revealed to form a pattern, no close examination of the operators plotting in the shadows. The new conspiracism dispenses with the burden of explanation. Instead, we have innuendo and verbal gesture ... conspiracy without the theory."

In place of theory, however, is community. Conspiracism now is a group project — we see this clearly with QAnon — and the success of Libs of TikTok reflects that shift. The account doesn't claim there's a coordinated conspiracy by progressive teachers and officials; it simply presents the videos (some of which are legitimately appalling, some of which may be fake, overblown, or taken out of context) and retweets vague charges that "they" are "after your kids."

Few can build a personality-centric conspiracy theory empire like Jones did, and I suspect we won't see that model so much going forward. But just about anyone can run Libs of TikTok, and it's the community response to the content that matters now. Though it noted "Libs of TikTok is a collective, molded to the hive mind of the right-wing internet," Lorenz's exposé largely missed the point.