The internet has always been a natural habitat for the paranoid and angry, but it's never been as easy to mobilize your fellow conspiracy theorists than it is today. So why does the super-sophisticated conspiracy-troll machine draw diagrams like a 1st grader?
There's a new style of folk art booming on the internet: The crudely rendered, text-and-arrow-happy conspiracy diagram. Let's call it Chart Brut: Simple, unrefined, urgent, ominous, striving to be informative, and utterly incomprehensible. It's a digital middle-ground between the string-and-thumbtack cork-board flowcharts favored by premium-cable obsessives like Rust Cohle and Carrie Mathison, and the meaningless tangles of agency responsibilities beloved by security-apparatus bureaucrats, and it's emerged as the defining folk aesthetic of the 2014 internet. It shows up on message boards and community sites everywhere, attempting to clearly prove and outline connections and conspiracies.
Chart Brut first came to national attention in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing. Here are some images created in 2013 by users of a subreddit called /r/FindBostonBombers, a community of obsessive amateur criminologists intent on identifying the culprits behind the bombing of the Boston Marathon by combing through hundreds of high-resolution photographs of the crowd:
Though /r/FindBostonBombers failed to find the bombers, it succeeded at thrusting the crude graphic stylings of the conspiracy internet onto the national stage. Here are more examples. The top one is an attempt to prove that two forum posters are the same person; the bottom one evidence that Taylor Swift is posting on 4chan (LOL):
If an art historian were to write a rough list of the tropes that characterize Chart Brut, she might come up with something like:
- Lots of lines, often red, rarely straight, of unknown meaning
- Lack of explanation or real organization
- Crudely copy and pasted graphics
- The general appearance of having been created by a child, or adult under great duress
Any time a major "event" takes place on 4chan or Reddit, the Siena and Florence to this style's early Renaissance, the charts start popping up. Here's one about "The Fappening" (September's leak of a huge cache of celebrity nudes):
When iCloud raiders put stolen nudes of various celebrities online, 4chan and Reddit started hunting for the leaker with almost as much fervor as was being applied to the resultant jerking off. This was the fruit of their efforts. Can you decipher the above evidence infographic? Would it be a) more or b) less helpful to have the above image swapped out for a picture of a tree, or a plain circle? Is it possible to extract any useful information from this object of MS Paint madness, deliberately created to relay information? Once again, the cyber dicks dredged up a lot of red herrings, but never found their man.
Last month, we saw a different fixation of the same mania: Gamergaters, cranking out convoluted graphics at a rate I've never seen before. It's hard to tell what they're supposed to be proving, other than some vague plot against video games, and masculinity, by corporate interests:
There are a frightening number of Gamergate images like these, spanning Reddit, 4chan, 8chan, Twitter, Tumblr, various other social media pustules for the aggrieved.
They recall the infographic work of another paranoid, male-dominated community that spends lots of time talking and furrowing brows with few results: The Pentagon, which produces a somewhat smoother set of variations on this anti-aesthetic:
Take that, mix it with pop culture cues like this:
And maybe this:
Take down the professionalism and production design a notch or two, ferment for a couple years in the fetid waters of Men's Rights internet, and you get this:
This is the visualized logic of a "movement" that's gained appearances and serious consideration on NPR, MSNBC, and, of course, Gawker.
During a recent IM conversation, Gawker alum and renowned internet creep Adrian Chen told me this style probably has its roots in 9/11 conspiracy theorizing, and that seems so right:
How can you argue against that image, so clearly created by someone who has already decided that the World Trade Center was destroyed by government-deployed thermite, and not a very large airplane? This isn't evidence, but a sort of rosary-bead-stroking of the internet alienated, a way of expressing group anxieties. You can't argue against paranoia, because paranoia isn't issues-based. If you took away "ethics in journalism" or "harassing women," Gamergate would find a new focus, and those charts would look pretty much the exact same—just fill the boxes with something else, and make the red arrows point in the other direction.
What's so wonderful about these 4chan charts, drawn up by one anonymous author, is how perfectly they mirror the entire group that created them. A DoD Powerpoint slide reflects the byzantine clusterfuck of the entire defense apparatus. The evidence exhibits of Gamergate also precisely embody the paranoid non-ideology behind the loose group: arrows pointing to nothing, unreadable words, reasoning that's impossible to defeat because it's not reasoning at all. You can't refute a 4chan chart because it's not arguing anything to begin with. People who order the world in this way don't want to have a real discussion about anything.
And, in the same way, the crude style of Chart Brut at large is a perfectly realized embodiment of the confused and confusing conspiracy-curious internet The academic Kathleen Stewart once wrote about the web's love of conspiracy: "The internet was made for conspiracy theory: it is a conspiracy theory: one thing leads to another, always another link leading you deeper into no thing and no place." Conspiracy charts—literal webs of interconnected institutions, people, and ideas—are the visual manifestation of the de-centered, endlessly deferred internet.