Very Fine Day #18: Anna Merlan

Brad Esposito

Anna Merlan writes about politics, America, subcultures, and – particularly over the last few years – how conspiracies have become increasingly intertwined with our lives. In 2019, Anna published “Republic of Lies,” a book about the people behind America’s forever growing conspiracy movement. She is a senior staff writer at Vice. You can read her work here.

We spoke for around 40 minutes about why America is such a perfect home for conspiracy, what it was like driving from LA to NYC during the pandemic, what makes a story worth writing about, and why many of the people behind the ever-expanding world of conspiracy have a certain kernel of logic in their thinking.

VFD: So, what have you been up to today?

Anna Merlan: Today...

I'm trying to wrap up a short piece about Operation Underground Railroad, which is this anti-trafficking charity that me and my editor Tim Marchman have been looking into. It's one of those stories where there's like a million little separate chutes and ladders to go down, so I'm trying to do a shorter story and then get set up for a longer story. And I'm also writing a script for something I'm working on for a video series about some things that are sort of QAnon-adjacent that I won't talk about too much, because I don't know if I'm supposed to. But yeah, trying to learn how the script works.

VFD: Is this at VICE?

Anna Merlan: Yes, it's all at VICE. Probably be rude to freelance.

VFD: Have you been working from home for 12 months?

Anna Merlan: Yeah, actually I'm home for longer than that. I moved to Los Angeles in...I want to say July of 2019. And then I started working at VICE in October and there are VICE offices here but they're probably two hours from my house and full of TV people who, the one time I showed up to pick something up, were like: Who are you???

So I have long worked from home and I prefer it. You’re in the office, [in Australia] right? Things are normal there. Normal-ish.

VFD: They’re like normal in the way... I always draw the comparison that if you didn't read the news ever, you'd have a normal life. And that's kind of what it feels like in Australia at the moment. Yeah, we get coverage of COVID and stuff. But the vaccine rollout is just terribly slow. People, even at the peak of it here, it was probably like, a couple dozen cases a day. So it was never like the US-level. My dad lives in the UK, and he's always like: Oh, we're going into lockdown again. Yesterday he ate at a restaurant for the first time in 18 months. And I was like: we've been doing that for eight months. But also, none of us are getting vaccinated because we're deliberately just taking our time with it, it seems. And not opening borders or anything like that. So it's a bit weird. But I can't complain.

Anna Merlan: I saw the frustration about the flights and stuff.

VFD: Yeah, it's weird though, because it's a particular Australian frustration. It’s very online and laid back. It’s like: Oh, that's annoying. But we'll carry on with everything.

Anna Merlan: I lived in Canberra for three months and I was amazed at how much alcohol there was everywhere at every social event. I was 12 at the time and I went to what was supposed to be a very staid Irish music event at a library, and a tonne of alcohol was being provided, and probably 10 minutes in glasses started smashing and hooting and hollering started. I was like: Oh, that’s very Australian.

VFD: Yeah. Probably a lot of government employees as well in Canberra.

So then, working from home, if you’ve been doing that for so long and then with what you write about, which is very deep, underground, not heavily well-known, conspiracy / kind of weird internet stuff. How do you dive deep into that from home without being able to physically go out there?

Anna Merlan: Yeah, so the last thing I did in person was in February before the pandemic and it was the Conscious Life Expo, which is here in LA, and it's a new age conference but it's also full of weird conspiracy elements that are sometimes not really acknowledged by the organisers. And it's very strange to think about it now because, clearly, COVID was in the US already and I was in this room with 12,000 people who don't have conventional notions about how disease works. And it's astonishing that no one got sick. Actually, it's crazy.

But y’know, most of the time when I'm home I have a Telegram where I follow dozens of channels that are just my direct portal into hell. I use alternate platforms like Clubhouse. And all of these people have multiple platforms that they use, and most of them are just incredibly bizarre fringe sites that never really take off. So I'm always checking those, and then I get a lot of messages from people who are either in those worlds or track them.

Like, I found out that somebody I wrote about in my book got sent back to prison because the editor of a website called UFO Watchdog was like: Did you hear about this?

So it's basically a combination of checking their social media and hearing from folks and reaching out to folks.

VFD: Right. And how did you get into that as a reporting beat? Was it just something you were always interested in? Or was it gradual where you learn to find it fascinating?

Anna Merlan: I would say that I was always interested in weird stuff, or the esoteric or unexplained, as a private interest.

When I was a kid, my brother had this book about strange and unusual phenomena. It was like a comic book and there was an image of somebody spontaneously combusting sitting in their armchair. And I was fascinated by that and I used to look at it all the time.

And then my parents had a book – there's a magician named Ricky Jay and he wrote a book called “Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women” that's about circus performers and illusionists and people who do weird things. So I think the short answer is that I was always sort of interested in weird things, but I didn't have a strong interest in conspiracy theories, per se, and then a couple of things happened.

One was that I lived in Dallas for a couple of years and started writing about a group called the Architects & Engineers for 9/11 Truth, who were like a 9/11 conspiracy theorist movement. I didn't write about them a tonne but I thought that they were interesting, because they’re people who are very wrong about a lot of things, but were really committed to the cause. And then the other thing that happened while I was in Dallas was that there was a guy there who used to sell newspapers and books promoting an alternative view of the JFK assassination from the site where JFK was assassinated. And this guy had been arrested like 100 times. He's not ever actually done anything illegal, but he got arrested over and over and over and so that, of course, made him even more of a believer in a JFK conspiracy theory. So I started thinking about all that and how people decide what to believe and how it guides our actions.

Then I went on a cruise for conspiracy theorists in January of 2016… I want to say just as a stunt. Like, a reader wrote into Jezebel, where I worked at the time, and said: You know, there's this cruise happening, and you should send Anna Merlan on it. And I lobbied to go for months, and got sent, and it was really my sort of deep dive into all of these subcultures that I'd never heard of before. And just the ways that conspiracy theories can completely guide and shape and sometimes warp people's lives, often without people really realising it.

By that point, too, I'd already been writing about the anti-vaccine movement a little bit, and on that cruise was Andrew Wakefield, who's like the father of the modern anti-vaccine movement, who promoted the spurious link between the MMR vaccine and autism.

And it was just so interesting to me that he was on this very weird cruise where people are talking about, like, angels and aliens and energy and the Queen of England being a reptilian, and yet was still completely convinced that he had uncovered this vast conspiracy and just nobody was listening to him.

So I would say it was sort of a gradual process of getting more and more interested in how conspiracy theories guide people's lives. The other thing that was happening was that when I worked at Jezebel I wrote a lot about sexual violence, and you actually can't do that long-term and have that be your only beat or it will just absolutely murder your spirit. I did something like 12 features in a row about rape and sexual assault and was just absolutely shattered and just needed to have other things that I was doing.

VFD: So you were at Jezebel and then did you go to VICE from Jezebel?

Anna Merlan: Yeah. I did. I was a reporter in Dallas for two years in an Alt-Weekly and then I worked at The Village Voice, and then I worked at Jezebel for four years, maybe five, and then I went to VICE about a year and a half ago.

VFD: So a lot of your reporting has been online then?

Anna Merlan: Yeah, pretty much all of it. In Dallas and at The Village Voice I wrote a blog post every day, and then I wrote 10 features a year that also went in our print paper. But yeah, I've always had some element of my work be online the entire time I've been doing this for a living.

VFD: I think about conspiracies and stuff, and you talked before about the JFK guy or 911 Truthers, and it feels like there's different levels of conspiracies going on.

In the past it was kind of insular, and obviously these people believed it a lot but it was quite closed, right? And now with the internet and everything else the potential for it to shatter into a million pieces and affect a million people is so much higher and probable.

Anna Merlan: So there has always been conspiracy theories that are incredibly common, especially in the US. They periodically really affect American politics. You have something like the John Birch Society in the 1960s, which was a group who were convinced that communists were infiltrating every aspect of American life and that they needed to be fought against. And groups like that have had a measurable impact on society.

I think that what we're feeling now, though, is that conspiracy theories can go from the fringe to the mainstream incredibly quickly. It's not a slow process anymore. It can be in a couple of days. And that was, of course, what people found so unsettling about Trump's Twitter feed: he could put out just the dumbest or most bizarre thing and promote it ceaselessly in a way that people were like: Oh, yeah, maybe Ted Cruz's dad did assassinate JFK?

VFD: That's something I'm reminded of, like, once a month. You feel bad for enjoying it. You're like, this isn't real….

Anna Merlan: I mean, it couldn't of happened to a nicer guy. But yeah, I think it's important to remember that conspiracy theories have always affected us and that there's always been a somewhat thin membrane between the so-called fringe and the so-called mainstream, but it gets thinner all of the time.

But again -and this is something that I say all the time that I'm sort of obligated to say - starting in the US in the 1970s we became aware of a number of things that the government was doing that were fucked up and that were legitimate conspiracies. There was the Church Committee in the 1970s, which revealed that the FBI had been engaged in the systematic harassment of civil rights leaders and were trying to prevent the civil rights movement from taking off and trying to prevent black leaders, specifically, from forming partnerships with other civil rights groups.

So, the level of suspicion and the ability for people to believe just about anything is based in the very real truth that world governments are capable of a lot of horrific things. I would never say that it is totally unreasonable for people to be suspicious, even if that suspicion is often the driver of incredibly bad things.

VFD: Do you think it's more common, or louder, in the US or it just gets more attention?

Anna Merlan: I think that politicians in the US are more willing to latch on to insane conspiracy theories, and this was true even before people like Marjorie Taylor Greene were taking up the spotlight.

When I lived in Texas, Greg Abbott, the current governor, was the Attorney General, and both he and the governor at the time, Rick Perry, were obsessed with Agenda 21 and Jade Helm and basically these ideas that the United Nations was going to affect some kind of military takeover or send in troops to Texas under the guise of an exercise.

So I think that for a number of reasons, especially in Congress, and especially in state politics, politicians are very willing to promote these theories. There's also the fact that we have Alex Jones and Alex Jones is both a fascinating figure in his own right, but he's also the person who figured out how to really, really monetize this stuff. There were plenty of famous conspiracy theorists before him, but he was really the one who learned how to make this a path to fame and financial success.

So you take both the free speech ethos of the US, which is a good thing, and you take people's interest in being a celebrity and sort of being their own boss, and then you take the fact that our leaders are willing to go with us to some pretty weird places, and you have a particularly fertile environment. Plus, you know, we're all very online.

VFD: Right. On the politicians thing, do you think they're coming with us? Or do you think it's more they’re pointing and using conspiracy as a kind of political tool, and a rallying cry, and a supporter generation thing?

Anna Merlan: I mean, I think that it's obvious that conspiracy theories are good for politicians, because they're good for rallying your base and gathering all of their energy against a common enemy. That has been the case for a long time.

There's this book that I always recommend called Fortress Russia that's about the use of conspiracy theories in post-Soviet Russia, and specifically the way that Putin was able to very profitably direct conspiracy theories as a way to rise to power. At the same time, it is very obvious that politicians take their lead in some ways from grassroots groups. The Tea Party was a really good example. The Tea Party was a group of aggrieved, somewhat unhinged, very fringe folks who managed to really direct the priorities of the Republican party because Republicans saw their passion and were like: We want that. So we're willing to buy into these beliefs. So it's a little bit of both.

VFD: Yeah. I’m just thinking about what your 9-5 day must be like. Do you ever just want to relax? How do you chill out? Is it as simple as turning off all the forums and the Telegrams and everything else?

Anna Merlan: I would say that the key to relaxation is not looking at your phone, right? No matter what your job is in media it just involves not looking at your phone.

I watch things like the “X-Files” that are somewhat linked to my beat. But yeah, I mean I bake, I do embroidery, just like everybody else during COVID. Embroidery has become a thing. We're all in the house a lot. I've also been trying to learn German so that I can escape and move to Berlin someday, hopefully, and have a social safety net.

My partner and I, we travel in our van for long periods of time. Our van has a bed in it and a kitchen underneath. It's a minivan but it's been retrofitted, so we can live in it for periods of time. So this fall, we were travelling for two months, which no one has been able to do during COVID but we're able to do because we can sleep in our van outside.

Sometimes I will have an experience where I'll be writing from the front seat of the van, and then we'll be going into a Walmart to clean up, and then sleeping in a national forest. So y’know, sometimes what I'm doing in my day-to-day can be extremely severed from what I'm doing online, which is an interesting experience.

VFD: Yeah, for sure. Where'd you go?

Anna Merlan: We went from Los Angeles to New York and back.

VFD: A small trip then.

Anna Merlan: It was good. We went to a bunch of national parks, we went to the Badlands, we went to Glacier, we went to Yellowstone. We went to see a bunch of family. I mean, it was still the height of COVID, so you're doing a lot of hanging out with people outside. We slept in a friend's barn in upstate New York for a week. It was great.

VFD: I need to see more of Australia like that. I have a lot of family and friends in the US and so many of them have done similar things in the last 12 months. In Australia, everyone's just like: Well, I guess I can't leave my city. And it's like: no, us more than anyone can leave our city and travel a little bit.

Anna Merlan: You should do that! The last time I was in Australia I was taking the train from Melbourne to Canberra for a wedding and I went through Wangaretta, which is the town where Nick Cave is from. So you should go to Wangaretta. There's nothing there, but...

VFD: Is there a museum there?

Anna Merland: There is a museum. We stepped off the train just long enough to look around and then got back on the train. But yeah, no, Australia: Great place.

VFD: You’ve spent quite a bit of time in Australia?

Anna Merlan: Yeah, I have a family there. So, occasionally. The first time I spent time there as a kid it was right when Pauline Hanson was becoming a thing. And I was fascinated by how, like, overtly racist she was. I was like: is that allowed?

VFD: And you know what’s crazy, she's been around for 30 years. And she's still going.

Anna Merlan: Occasionally I'm like: surely she's not still a going concern. But she totally is. She’s just out here, saying terrible things. It’s incredible.

VFD: Yeah, Pauline Hanson is my trump card when I'm talking to people in the US. Especially journalists where I’m like: I know you haven't seen this. I know that this is going to get you.

There’s stuff that has been pulled down, but there was a video from her first time in politics in the ‘90s, I think, when for whatever reason she thought she was gonna get assassinated. And she made this video and it's her looking straight into the camera and she's like: if you're seeing this, it's because I have been assassinated. And she does a full monologue about how people are out to get her.

Anna Merlan: Yeah, I have a very distinct memory of sitting in front of the TV in our house in Canberra and hearing her say immigration from non-white countries must be tightly controlled. And it just stuck with me forever because I was like: What the fuck?

[Editor’s note: We were unable to find the exact moment Anna is referencing, however Hanson’s maiden speech to parliament includes plenty of quotes on the Australian politician’s feelings about immigration and multiculturalism]

VFD: Yeah, she's kind of a pioneer of that kind of politics, I guess.

Anna Merlan: Right? Like, it's really nothing new.

VFD: I mean – and I used to write about this – her internet presence and her media strategy is probably the best of any politician in the country.

And, obviously, that's helped largely because she can post shit on Facebook and it will get her a large following. But also, her team are just a lot more internet savvy. Even though it's easy to look at her and be like: she's just some grandma who doesn't really understand things. She knows what she's doing.

Anna Merlan: I mean, it’s the same with Marjorie Taylor Greene. She's shooting off assault rifles and screaming about Parkland survivors for a reason. I've never written about her, I don't think, and I got added to her press release list. I get three fucking emails from Marjorie Taylor Greene a week. So it's like: these folks are good at what they do if part of your currency is attention and you know how to get it.

VFD: Yeah, definitely. How do you decide to cover things? When would a story about Marjorie Taylor Greene be an “Anna” story.

Anna Merlan: I mean, I do a couple of things.

One thing is that we try not to write about somebody just because they have a crazy belief. Y’know, there's certainly room for that. But I personally am not super enlivened by that.

But I try to write about people because they're having a measurable impact on the world in some way. Because they're guiding attention. Because they're guiding public policy. So Marjorie Taylor Greene is often a “story” just on the basis of that.

The other thing, though, is because I wrote for alt-weeklies for a long time, people who come up on alt-weeklies don't want to do the story that everybody else is doing, even sometimes if it's an important story.

So if I know that 25 people are going to be writing about the latest crazy thing that she said, I'm like: There's nothing for me to do there. And because I write features, I tend to want to do stuff where I can spend more time and be more in-depth. So it's always like: is there more to say here? Can I get some kind of access to either this person or somebody who has insight into them? And is this not incredibly over-covered?

I was in New York for a long time before I was in LA, and everything in New York gets written about by a million people. And so you learn, again, to try to be counter-intuitive in what you're writing about. I don't think we should be covering someone just because they are saying crazy things.

VFD: Yeah… But what if they do CrossFit!? That's my one Marjorie Taylor Greene thing, burned into my mind: Her doing a CrossFit workout in a hotel room and at the end going, like: no mask! Like, what the fuck is this?

Anna Merlan: She’s bad at it though, right? Like, when she was in the gym, her lifting technique was really weird. And it looked like she was gonna hurt herself. That's a question for me: why CrossFit is so associated with some of this stuff? And I don't really understand the origins.

VFD: That would be interesting stuff. CrossFit, from my understanding of it, has a military origin. And then I think that’s tied in with a kind of understood but never really uncovered and explained right-wing conservative base.

Anna Merlan: Yeah, absolutely.

VFD: And then you tie that with the founder, who's not there anymore. But he said some pretty wild shit. But look, her form probably could be improved. But I try not... when people try to do exercise I'm like: well, that's good. I guess.

What do you think people get wrong about your beat and what you do? Is there anything that you’re just like: I wish people would stop making this assumption. And have I done any of those things in this conversation!?

Anna Merlan:  No. I mean, I think the one thing that drives me crazy is when people claim that I'm an anti-conspiracy theory journalist and that my thing is debunking conspiracy theories.

I think that we can have a more culturally competent reading of conspiracy theories where we understand why they exist, we understand the reasons why people need them, and want them, and where they come from historically  without necessarily giving them credence. And that's a little bit more of a difficult set of things to do than to just say: Oh, this is bullshit. This isn't true. But like, I'm not Snopes, y’know what I mean? They do really important work. But that's not what I do.

A lot of what I think about is the ways that people find meaning and purpose and connection and the ways that some of these theories give people community. This is very true with QAnon. It's very true in the antivax world. People find something in them that was missing from their day-to-day lives, and it gives them a sense of connection with other people like them. And I think that that's important to understand. And in the case, specifically, of conspiracy theories that are believed by black Americans, they are based in historical outrages and trauma that are often very close to things that have actually happened. Like, a lot of conspiracy theories held by black Americans are just...credible. And so the idea that you should just be blanket dismissive of them is not it. I just don't think it helps and I don't think making fun of people, even for having really wild or damaging beliefs, necessarily does anything.

VFD: Has that ever happened? Where you're talking to someone and then you start thinking like: holy shit, this is legitimate. And then you do the research and it is legitimate and you become a… I don't want to say believer because that has weird evangelical tones to it. But y’know...

Anna Merlan: Well, I mean, I believe in aliens. But I always did. And I'm from New Mexico. So you know, that's where all that happens.

VFD: What’s that like? My only experience of New Mexico is “Breaking Bad”. And I imagine it's a bit different, right?

Anna Merlan: Y’know, honestly, setting that show in Albuquerque was accurate. It's not inaccurate. But meth was not a thing in Albuquerque for a long time. That's more recent and heroin was more of a problem.

I'm from Santa Fe, though, which is much ritzier these days. It's a much wealthier place than it was when I was growing up. Northern New Mexico when I was growing up was really weird. And there was a lot of different, interesting communities. It's also incredibly diverse, in terms of there are pretty much an equal number of Latinx, native, and white people. There's a sort of different interaction there. So it was shocking to me to go into other parts of the US and realise how much more segregated it is.

And it's a really interesting and beautiful place. I would also periodically run into people with really, really fringe beliefs that I had to figure out how to talk to. There was also a lady at the flea market when I was a kid who had this shirt that said: “FDA, are they really looking after our health?: And I was fascinated by that. And I wanted to know what was up with that.

VFD: Was there a moment when you realised this was a thing you could do? And also has there been a change in the response you get from editors and from pitching to people? It feels like, definitely the last year or two - or actually probably Trump's whole presidency - there's been more audience and more hunger and more people willing to talk about these things, or report on these things, right?

Anna Merlan: Yeah, definitely.

I think that what happened was I went on that cruise for conspiracy theorists for Jezebel. And I came back and was like: this was so interesting, all these people are really excited by Trump… what are they going to do when he loses? Where are they going to go?

And then I always say that when he didn't lose, I realised that there was a lot of stuff I didn't understand about the country. And that to understand conspiracy movements was a way to understand what I had missed. And I think more and more people are understanding that looking at the so-called fringe is a way to understand ourselves and understand the undercurrents that have been going on for a long time.

At the same time, my editor now, Tim Marchman, is somebody who's been into weird conspiracy stuff forever. He’s the only person outside of an incarceration setting that has read a number of books that are… there's a book called “Behold a Pale Horse” that is a really popular conspiracy text. It's like ground zero for a bunch of different conspiracy beliefs. And no one has read it, but Tim has, for whatever reason. It's incredibly popular in prison, and also, with my Editor.

VFD: Right,

Anna Merlan: So it helps to work for someone who has the same set of interests but will also not make me do stories that are like: look at this crazy guy doing this crazy thing. Because I don't like those.

VFD: And that must be difficult soemtimes. You've got to spend time just deciphering whether it is a story or whether it is: look at this crazy guy look at doing this crazy thing. And then doing that repeatedly...

Anna Merlan: I mean, one thing I do, too: there have been a bunch of online conferences this year, especially around health conspiracy stuff like anti-vaxxers – and I’ll watch those, even if I am not necessarily planning to write about it because I want to understand what the currents of discussion are.

And again, I have the ability to do this because I don't have a quota. I don't have to be turning out five blog posts a day. But I have time to just sit and watch and see what is going on and interpret it before I have to go out and do it. Whereas if you're a younger writer for an online outlet that makes you write five things a day, then you're much more incentivised to be like: “Moms On Instagram Are Getting Into QAnon”. Or something that is just like a really basic observation. But it's something you know that an editor would probably assign you. Which, I mean... moms are getting on Instagram

VFD: Mums do be on Instagram, Yeah.

It's scary, looking at the US from the outside and having family there. And I'm not sure what the comedown is. I look at the anti-vaxxer stuff and the QAnon stuff and it doesn't seem like the truth is going to set people free in a way that you'd hoped in the past.

Anna Merlan: No, look, whoever Q is these days has not posted since December. And there is a QAnon conference happening later this month. These folks are still posting, they're still sharing theories, people like Lin Wood are becoming big QAnon celebrities. And then the antivax stuff, I've been writing about these folks since 2014.

COVID has been a boon to their market share and growing their audience, but it was also something that they were sort of prepared for. And they're certainly not going away. Once the pandemic is over,  the debate in the US over whether or not we should vaccinate children is going to be their moment in the sun.  I can see them really gearing up for that. They're obviously very against that.

VFD: What do you think, then, is doable about it? Or do we just end up in a position where the majority of people have become red-pilled, internet-brained…

Anna Merlan: I mean, the thing that I always talk about is that if we want to build trust in institutions we have to have institutions worth trusting.

We would have fewer medical conspiracy theories in the US if we didn't have just an absolutely worthless medical system that is impenetrable to most people and that is incredibly expensive. I mean, medical debt in this country is literally life ruining. It can literally take everything from you. So it's unsurprising, for instance, that people are often looking for alternate cures for frightening and serious diseases like cancer.

And again, alternate cancer treatments have been a thing in the US since the 1970s. The so-called health freedom movement in the 1970s, which is this sort of conspiratorial libertarian-oriented movement, was born because these folks wanted the right to take and market a fake cancer drug called Laetrile, or vitamin B17. But again, Laetrile was and is bullshit. It pops up every three years. But people are distrustful of establishment systems for a reason. They're looking for alternatives for reasons. And that doesn't go away until we build a better country or a better society. Certainly, in the US, that's not happening.

You can watch the debate here over things like single payer health care and just be like: Oh, yeah, we're not fixing this. It’s the debate over things like if we should pay people $15 an hour minimum wage… you just realise that this country isn't getting better, people are not going to become less disaffected or disenfranchised. So there's no particular reason for them to stop being suspicious.

VFD: Well, that is a sad conversation.

Anna Merlan: Sorry, OK, wait, I do have one thing that I think is slightly more hopeful, which is that a lot of folks who get into stuff like QAnon or pizzagate, specifically, get into it because it gives them a heroic sense of purpose and they feel like they're saving children. And that’s actually an altruistic impulse. So you can, hopefully, maybe take some of those folks and direct that energy towards something real. Something that actually helps.

I've been working on this the story about this anti-trafficking group who have promoted some conspiracy theories that sound a little QAnon-ish, which they would deny. But people who work in the anti-trafficking space could be saying: OK great, you want to help save children? Go volunteer at a shelter. Like: Go teach labour trafficking survivors a skill so that they can get jobs.

I think in some ways, some of these conspiracy theories are the result of people really wanting to make a difference and address what they see is the fundamental evils of the world. And so maybe that means that the fundamental impulse is altruistic and we can direct people towards better uses of their energy.

VFD: Yeah, I like that. That's good. Well, thanks so much. I won't keep you any longer.

Anna Merlan: Yeah, I appreciate it.

VFD: I'm gonna spend all day thinking about the impact of conspiracies on politics and on my own life and on my family in the US as well.

Anna Merlan: Good, good…