We need to learn how to talk to (and about) accidental conspiracists

“We’re going to have to learn to create a vocabulary to talk about how their friends fell down the wrong YouTube hole and came out speaking another language.”

I want to talk about Ruby Freeman.

Really, I want to talk to Ruby Freeman, but I can’t. She has been, bravely and correctly, off the grid since some psychopaths doxxed her shortly after the election.

I bet you don’t know who Ruby Freeman is, and that would make you a normal person. Here’s some background.

In reality, Ruby runs one of those kiosks in the middle of the mall that sells ladies’ accessories, purses — that sort of thing. She also helped count ballots in Georgia last month. Her business is called Lady Ruby’s Unique Treasures, and I don’t recommend you look at the Instagram comments for that store anymore.

That’s because, on 4chan and far-right blogs, she is some sort of Sith Lord/Al Capone combo, who personally stole the election by doing…something with briefcases? That part’s unclear, but what the QAnon people are certain of is Ruby Freeman — a 60-something election worker who also sells handbags at the mall — is part of the global conspiracy to steal the election.

This comes as a surprise to me, since I’ve heard Ruby’s voicemail a lot in the last few weeks. She pretty joyfully tells everyone that she’s “living holy and having fun without backsliding” and reminds you: “Remember, in all thy ways, acknowledge God and he shall direct your path.”

This is tragic, obviously, but it is probably not shocking to you that people reading screenshots of 4chan on Twitter in an effort to drum up support for overturning the election might have access to some bad information. So why do I want to talk about Ruby Freeman?

Because at some point in these next few months, you’re going to return to the honest-to-goodness, real-life social world. You’re going to be standing next to another parent at soccer practice, watching your kid fail to kick a ball for the first time in 14 months, and that dad is going to lean over to you and, in the most clarion, measured tone, he is going to say the most insane thing you have ever heard. It won’t even be that you’ll disagree with him. You will simply have no idea who or what he’s talking about.

This guy will look normal. You probably knew him and talked about the NBA salary cap with him before COVID. But now he’ll be speaking about scary political actors and evil companies and probably some private citizens like Ruby Freeman as if you’re both living in the same YouTube morass only he had accidentally slipped into. He’ll be talking with the same voice that might otherwise talk about James Harden trade rumors, which will be the spookiest part.

Or you’ll be at brunch, at the old restaurant you went to before the pandemic, the one that barely survived. You’ll be talking about how your mom got the vaccine, because she has that underlying thing, and one or two or even three of the six people at the table, mathematically, will ask you: “But aren’t you worried about the microchip?”

Slowly and not too pryingly, you’ll suggest that maybe they shouldn’t trust things they heard on Facebook. They’ll tell you, no, it’s real, it’s from her favorite yoga influencer on Instagram, that she’s not usually all that political, but that this was too important not to share.

Your instinct will be to get angry at them, which will feel right. You’ll want to tell them about the anti-Semitic underpinnings of all of this. (Who, after all, is this “they” that’s trying to microchip you? You’re not going to like the answer.)

Or maybe you’ll want to be angry but practical. (If this country can’t reach herd immunity and I can’t hug my grandmother ever again because VinyasaFlow360 has tremendous engagement, who do I blame: my friend, Instagram in general, or VinyasaFlow360’s tremendous engagement?)

But quickly you’ll realize something: You’ve been left in the lurch. Bad actors have been building fantastical, tremendous tales with truly villainous bad guys. Entire cinematic universes. A hydra of Ruby Freemans, whose actual identities they’ve shucked and discarded for fame and profit. And you have no defense.

The news should be providing that defense.

A lot of America slipped into conspiracy thinking during this pandemic, and they got there from yoga Instagrams and NFL forums and private church choir Facebook groups that were systematically invaded by QAnon and anti-vax recruiters. It’s going to be a rude awakening in the next few months as we find out which of our friends got sucked into truly astonishing tales of New World Orders and Great Resets that helped them cope — and just so happen to be spectacularly wrong.

We’re going to have to learn to create a vocabulary to talk about how their friends fell down the wrong YouTube hole and came out speaking another language.

I cover this stuff for a living and even I don’t have the answers, but I know who to ask. We need more psychologists and ex-extremists to talk about why people feel hopeless enough to believe in global conspiracy theories. We need technologists to show how social networks prey on that hopelessness and fear of the unknown, and make you addicted to vengeance against perceived enemies. And we need historians to explain how those global conspiracy theories have led to some of the darkest, bloodiest genocides in world history.

We also, generally, just need to start taking this seriously before it’s too late.

I hope the news can do that in the next few years. I hope so for the sake of Ruby Freeman it does, so she can sell stuff on Instagram and use her phone again. I hope so for the sake of soccer practice and brunch, because huevos rancheros should not be marred by a drag-out fight about Bill Gates.

A lot of people disappeared off into a bad space in 2020. It was their only way to cope. Don’t blame them. Let’s take their journey seriously, and give people the words to welcome them home.

Ben Collins covers the internet, platforms, and politics for NBC News.

I want to talk about Ruby Freeman.

Really, I want to talk to Ruby Freeman, but I can’t. She has been, bravely and correctly, off the grid since some psychopaths doxxed her shortly after the election.

I bet you don’t know who Ruby Freeman is, and that would make you a normal person. Here’s some background.

In reality, Ruby runs one of those kiosks in the middle of the mall that sells ladies’ accessories, purses — that sort of thing. She also helped count ballots in Georgia last month. Her business is called Lady Ruby’s Unique Treasures, and I don’t recommend you look at the Instagram comments for that store anymore.

That’s because, on 4chan and far-right blogs, she is some sort of Sith Lord/Al Capone combo, who personally stole the election by doing…something with briefcases? That part’s unclear, but what the QAnon people are certain of is Ruby Freeman — a 60-something election worker who also sells handbags at the mall — is part of the global conspiracy to steal the election.

This comes as a surprise to me, since I’ve heard Ruby’s voicemail a lot in the last few weeks. She pretty joyfully tells everyone that she’s “living holy and having fun without backsliding” and reminds you: “Remember, in all thy ways, acknowledge God and he shall direct your path.”

This is tragic, obviously, but it is probably not shocking to you that people reading screenshots of 4chan on Twitter in an effort to drum up support for overturning the election might have access to some bad information. So why do I want to talk about Ruby Freeman?

Because at some point in these next few months, you’re going to return to the honest-to-goodness, real-life social world. You’re going to be standing next to another parent at soccer practice, watching your kid fail to kick a ball for the first time in 14 months, and that dad is going to lean over to you and, in the most clarion, measured tone, he is going to say the most insane thing you have ever heard. It won’t even be that you’ll disagree with him. You will simply have no idea who or what he’s talking about.

This guy will look normal. You probably knew him and talked about the NBA salary cap with him before COVID. But now he’ll be speaking about scary political actors and evil companies and probably some private citizens like Ruby Freeman as if you’re both living in the same YouTube morass only he had accidentally slipped into. He’ll be talking with the same voice that might otherwise talk about James Harden trade rumors, which will be the spookiest part.

Or you’ll be at brunch, at the old restaurant you went to before the pandemic, the one that barely survived. You’ll be talking about how your mom got the vaccine, because she has that underlying thing, and one or two or even three of the six people at the table, mathematically, will ask you: “But aren’t you worried about the microchip?”

Slowly and not too pryingly, you’ll suggest that maybe they shouldn’t trust things they heard on Facebook. They’ll tell you, no, it’s real, it’s from her favorite yoga influencer on Instagram, that she’s not usually all that political, but that this was too important not to share.

Your instinct will be to get angry at them, which will feel right. You’ll want to tell them about the anti-Semitic underpinnings of all of this. (Who, after all, is this “they” that’s trying to microchip you? You’re not going to like the answer.)

Or maybe you’ll want to be angry but practical. (If this country can’t reach herd immunity and I can’t hug my grandmother ever again because VinyasaFlow360 has tremendous engagement, who do I blame: my friend, Instagram in general, or VinyasaFlow360’s tremendous engagement?)

But quickly you’ll realize something: You’ve been left in the lurch. Bad actors have been building fantastical, tremendous tales with truly villainous bad guys. Entire cinematic universes. A hydra of Ruby Freemans, whose actual identities they’ve shucked and discarded for fame and profit. And you have no defense.

The news should be providing that defense.

A lot of America slipped into conspiracy thinking during this pandemic, and they got there from yoga Instagrams and NFL forums and private church choir Facebook groups that were systematically invaded by QAnon and anti-vax recruiters. It’s going to be a rude awakening in the next few months as we find out which of our friends got sucked into truly astonishing tales of New World Orders and Great Resets that helped them cope — and just so happen to be spectacularly wrong.

We’re going to have to learn to create a vocabulary to talk about how their friends fell down the wrong YouTube hole and came out speaking another language.

I cover this stuff for a living and even I don’t have the answers, but I know who to ask. We need more psychologists and ex-extremists to talk about why people feel hopeless enough to believe in global conspiracy theories. We need technologists to show how social networks prey on that hopelessness and fear of the unknown, and make you addicted to vengeance against perceived enemies. And we need historians to explain how those global conspiracy theories have led to some of the darkest, bloodiest genocides in world history.

We also, generally, just need to start taking this seriously before it’s too late.

I hope the news can do that in the next few years. I hope so for the sake of Ruby Freeman it does, so she can sell stuff on Instagram and use her phone again. I hope so for the sake of soccer practice and brunch, because huevos rancheros should not be marred by a drag-out fight about Bill Gates.

A lot of people disappeared off into a bad space in 2020. It was their only way to cope. Don’t blame them. Let’s take their journey seriously, and give people the words to welcome them home.

Ben Collins covers the internet, platforms, and politics for NBC News.

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