I was a Small Time Disinformation Troll

On the fringe of internet conspiracy culture there is the provincial village of Rennes-le-Château with its mysteriously wealthy parish priest. This mystery spawned the alternative history classic, Holy Blood, Holy Grail, and the religio-conspiro-pop blockbuster, The Da Vinci Code. In a nutshell, the Knights Templar and an enigmatic group known as the Priory of Sion have been protecting some kind of secret, probably the bloodline of Mary Magdalene and Jesus Christ. Over the course of a year or so, I titillated and annoyed the online community devoted to this mystery with conspiracy theories, rumors, bad poetry, and nonsense. I even self-published a book on the subject.[1] I would like to share with you what I learned about being a disinformation troll.

I had developed an interest in the story of Rennes-le-Château in the 1980’s after reading Holy Blood, Holy Grail and had even visited the village a couple of times. At that time, before the hippies and the busloads of Magdalene-seeking ladies showed up, the place had a desolated, forgotten feel to it. The alternative history buff could almost convince himself that he was about stumble across some forgotten piece of esoteric lore. The local French thought we were crazy but they shrugged and let the growing stream of ‘Rennies’ poke around the church and the countryside. Eventually most of us realized that there wasn’t much to this mystery other than a perennial re-hash of suggestive stories, fluid symbolic meanings, and tenuous connections. There is a mystery. But this mystery probably doesn’t extend much beyond the activities of an eccentric priest and vainglorious, would-be secret society men. It certainly doesn’t involve telluric currents, inter-dimensional portals, or the mystical presence of Mary Magdalene.

Nevertheless, in the early 2000’s, a gentleman by the name of Ben Hammott claimed to have found a Templar tomb in the vicinity of Rennes-le-Château. A 2009 documentary film entitled Bloodline suggested that the tomb was that of Mary Magdalene. It was exactly the discovery that everyone wanted! Ben Hammott’s tomb find was, of course, a hoax to which he confessed in 2012 and the film remains a sad example of how a gullible production team can be misled by hoaxers, self-important nobodies, and alternative facts.

Enter “Gus Stiver”, small time disinformation troll. I began posting online as “Gus Stiver” in a FB discussion group named, ‘The Truth Behind the Ben Hammott Confession-Hoax’. My message was simple and stupid: Ben Hammott’s confession was itself a hoax — a false confession. Hammott was either pressured into making this confession by groups unknown (probably the Vatican but possibly the Priory of Sion) or he was courageously portraying himself as a fraudster in order to protect the location of the tomb. Contrary to the facts, to common sense, and to Ben Hammott’s own admission, I insisted that Ben Hammott was a hero. Although the whole thing started as a joke — as a parody of conspiracy illogic and double-talk — the episode illustrates how parody can become lie; how absurd bullshit can become insidious disinformation.[2]

It is nothing new to say that disinformation plays upon cognitive biases and psychological needs. People tend to believe stories that confirm whatever it is that they want, or need, to believe. This is not a matter of stupidity or weakness. Evolution has programmed the human cognitive system to jump to conclusions on a minimum of evidence. After all, we couldn’t sit around critically analyzing every rustle is the brush. Though a good way to stay alive, this cognitive machinery is easily hijacked by psychological or emotional interests. The Rennes-le-Château research community, with its many half-baked theories, already demonstrated this fact. But now there was further interest in finding some way to mitigate the wholesale foolishness of the Ben Hammott/Bloodline fiasco, not only for those who were directly involved in the Rennes-le-Château hype-industry, but more generally for the community of Magdalene-inspired self-help gurus and enthusiasts who really didn’t want to look any more silly and gullible than they already did.

In every story, no matter how recent or well documented, there are always lacunae, ambiguities, unexpected elements, or questions of personal motivation that can be blown way out of proportion and characterized as contradictions. Examine any conspiracy theory and this is what you’ve got, an overemphasis on minor discrepancies or confusing aspects of the accepted story. The story of Ben Hammott’s hoax and confession was no different. Using the disinformation ploys of nit-picking, questioning authority, and insinuation, I attacked the apparent weak points in Hammott’s confession story and suggested that anyone who didn’t agree that Ben Hammott was actually a hero — a wonderfully sexy hero at that — was either in on the conspiracy or were being taken for fools.

Sometimes I would make up a rumor that I’d ‘heard from a local’ or had been ‘sent from the Priory of Sion’. I tried to make this information obviously fake by including bizarre details such as the alchemical properties of the local honey, love poetry devoted to Ben Hammott, details of Hammott’s Hieros Gamos (sacred sexual union) with the long dead parish priest, or that I had overheard this information in the Rennes-le-Château carpark where I had pulled over to masturbate. These details were meant to signal that the stories were fake but, to some people, they added an air of authenticity. The thinking seemed to be, ‘No one would include such stupid things if they were making it up’.

This is the sort of logic upon which online conspiracy theories depend. Because human motivation can be caricatured in many ways, posts that question the thinking behind an action offer themselves up to a wide range of possible interpretations. Some examples: Would Ben Hammott create a hoax from which he could not hope to make money? Of course not. Therefore, it was not a hoax. Would the producers of Bloodline invest that much money into a film about the discovery of Mary Magdalene’s tomb without thoroughly investigating the claims? Of course not. Therefore, Ben Hammott really did find the tomb of Mary Magdalene. Would the Vatican allow the truth about Mary Magdalene to get out and upset their patriarchy? Of course not. Therefore, the Vatican is covering up the discovery of her tomb. Impute a simplistic though plausible motivation to those involved and then allow the conspiracy theorist to jump to a false conclusion.

As long as I maintained a superficially serious approach to the subject, there were going to be those who concluded that I must be on to something. The fact that I published a book on the subject further suggested that I was not a crackpot (Never mind that the book was just a slapped together collection of my online postings and bad poetry).

But let me be clear: Most, if not all, readers of my “Gus Stiver” postings did not believe any of the silly nonsense that I was disseminating. This is an important psychological point in the disinformation industry. The effect of my barrage of counter-arguments and claims was not that anyone believed the theories that I was coming up with. The important effect was that it created doubt in the community about what should have been simple and obvious. There began to be a general consensus, not that I was right, but that the accepted story of a prankster hoaxing a gullible community could not be trusted. And once the accepted facts were undermined, ‘alternative facts’ seemed just as legitimate. This, clearly, is an important part of the success of alt-right populism in the US and is a crucial element in all conspiracy theories.

There were those who knew that the whole thing was a joke and who fed into the confusion. One guy declared that he was communicating with a time-traveling dolphin named Serge about the matter. One guy declared that he was the reincarnation of Pythagoras and that he had encoded relevant messages in the Bible. One woman provided detailed astrological charts proving that Ben Hammott found the tomb of Mary Magdalene. Several people declared that something in my bogus story resonated with their soul. As per Poe’s Law, I was not able to tell the difference between the true believer and the satirical parody of a true believer so I still don’t know whether any of these people believed what they were saying.

Some in the Rennes-le-Château conspiracy community did, with growing exasperation, try to defend the facts. But because conspiracy theorists have already discounted the authority of ‘accepted facts’, it is awkward for them to appeal to that same authority. It is awkward for the self-styled ‘heretic’ to defend an orthodoxy. And so, a community of conspiracy theorists got tangled in their own world of pseudo-facts, tenuous connections, and vague insinuations.

It was not all fun and games however. Although my conspiracy theory started out as a joke, it eventually evolved into an exercise in disinformation that upset many people in the community, including some who initially went along with the silliness.

The philosopher Harry Frankfurt makes the distinction between bullshit and lie. Someone is spewing bullshit when they make no attempt to distinguish fact from fiction. There is not necessarily an agenda to the bullshit, just a confusion of unverified claims, declarations, insinuations, and half-truths. Perhaps the bullshit creates a sense of self-importance. President Trump comes to mind in this regard. Eventually, though, bullshit can be identified as such simply by checking the facts. The lie, on the other hand, is a more rigorous and insidious attempt to misrepresent or distort reality. Anti-vaxxers, climate-change deniers, libertarian think-tanks, and other denizens of the alt-right come to mind here. Because it is couched within a valid argumentative form and surrounded by verifiable facts, the lie of disinformation is much more difficult to identify and dispel. This is the secret to a successful conspiracy theory: surround your unlikely scenario with as much fact and valid argumentation as possible. These facts don’t add up to much but they have their purpose — the conspiracy theorist seems to care about the facts. The falsehood gains a veneer of credibility.

My own bullshit became a lie when I started to defend my stupid claims. We all learn the importance of being able to argue both sides of an issue. To do this we disengage ourselves from the truth and concentrate instead on the validity and rhetorical force of an argument. Like a lawyer arguing on behalf of an obviously guilty client, I enjoyed the challenge of constructing counter-arguments and finding the weak points of an opponent’s story. As my arguments proved hopeless, I resorted to rhetorical tactics such as insinuation and casting aspersions in order to undermine the validity of the facts that I was up against. This too is a common feature of conspiracy theory.

I noted above that one tactic I employed was to insinuate that those who espoused the facts were actually part of the cover up or, worse yet, were ‘sheeple’. If there is anything that really annoys conspiracy theorists, it is to be accused of being one of the proverbial ‘sheeple’ — people willingly and stupidly misled. Similarly, my interlocutors didn’t see the joke in being called ‘agents of the Vatican’, ‘anti-Magdalenes’, or ‘anti-Benites’ (as in Ben Hammott). I would say these things believing that, because what I was saying was so ridiculous, no one would be much bothered by it. On this point, I was wrong. Despite my efforts to make these accusations nonsensical or silly, they didn’t always feel like harmless fun to those on the receiving end. It is interesting to note in this regard that many guests of Stephen Colbert, despite knowing that it was all a joke, would leave his show feeling that they had been personally attacked. After all, having someone respond to whatever reasonable point you are making by declaring you to be a ‘Communist’ doesn’t always feel like a joke. It’s a ridiculous comeback but it feels dismissive and belittling all the same.

What started out as a joke and had become a sort of intellectual game, would now degenerate into a personal battle of wits. Along the way, many of those who had initially enjoyed and contributed to the bullshit and parody were unwilling to participate in its more rigorously argued distortion. This is a distinction that most netizens understand instinctively. They are willing to enjoy, and let slide, parody, joke, satire, and bullshit as long as it remains disorganized and lacks rigor. To the extent that I systematized and defended my bullshit, I lost the support of many of my online peers. I was labeled a troll.

This experience has convinced me that many of the conspiracy theorists and disinformation trolls out there may have lost perspective and become psychologically tangled in their arguments. That is what happened to me. What brought me into the world of disinformation was not that I wanted to convince anyone of the ‘Truth’. I became a disinformation troll because I enjoyed the challenge of arguing a contrarian position and didn’t like to lose those arguments. I am certain that we would find a similar psychology at work in many of the conspiracy theorists who continue to defend obviously false theories; these individuals continue to play these games because they enjoy the intellectual challenge, they enjoy being contrary, and they enjoy whatever positive feedback they receive. And perhaps they can’t, at this late point in the game, admit to themselves that they are losing the argument.

And then there is the funding that trolls receive these days from Russian oligarchs and Libertarian think tanks. That probably helps too. If there was any funding in my small corner of conspiracy, maybe I would still be a disinformation troll.

[1] The Truth Behind the Ben Hammott Confession-Hoax by Gus Stiver.

[2] At the same time, I set up a discussion group with a similar agenda named ‘The Truth Behind the Lance Armstrong Confession-Hoax’. Because there is not a ready-made group of Lance Armstrong conspiracy theorists on the lookout for alternative facts, this group did not get as far.