'It Was Like a Cult': Leaving the World of Online Conspiracy Theories
Stephanie Wittschier believed in the Illuminati and chemtrails, and even tried to convert people online. But then she started to have doubts.
Illustration by Sarah Schmitt
This post was originally published on Broadly Germany
Stephanie Wittschier believed in a lot of different things throughout her life: that aliens were locked away in Area 51; that the Third Reich was alive and well, along with the Illuminati, and—last but not least—that ruling elites were using chemtrails to poison humanity.
The 35-year-old German was deep into the conspiracy theory scene for years before she dropped out, turning her attention to educating outsiders about the sinister truth behind Third Reich truthers and "chemmies" a.k.a people who believe the government is dumping toxic agents in plane vapor trails. Now she and her husband, Kai, run a Facebook page and Twitter account called Die lockere Schraube ("The Loose Screw"). And they've since incurred the wrath of their former conspiracy colleagues.
Wittschier's journey into the world of conspiracy theories began when she watched a documentary about the alleged inconsistencies in the 9/11 attacks. "Immediately afterwards she went online and googled 'conspiracy' and '9/11,'" Kai told Broadly. Wittschier got hooked. "She started to talk about elites, the Illuminati... At a certain point it stopped being fun, as it became impossible to talk to her. She stopped listening and seemed closed off to any reasonable discussion."
On the internet, Wittschier found people who shared her convictions. "That's how it was," she writes via email. "Back then, I had a friend who was into the same ideological conspiracy [stuff] and we got along pretty well. We believed in the same stuff, browsed the same forums, we used to talk about all sorts of things and most of the time we shared the same opinion." Wittschier felt accepted among these like-minded people, who would ridicule outsiders' attempts to re-educate them: "Those people [with different opinions] are representatives of the system or get paid; so-called sheep, people who don't think."
At the height of her obsession—especially when it came to chemtrails—Wittschier was part of various groups on Facebook, participated in a forum called Allmystery, and was active on YouTube. But in August 2012, her best friend in the conspiracy world started to question and oppose certain theories, and began the slow process of dissociating herself from the world she shared with Wittschier.
"She just did a complete turnaround from one day to the next. All her opinions had suddenly changed," said Wittschier. They started to discuss the merits of conspiracy theories for weeks, even months, and it wasn't till then that Wittschier eventually became more critical. "She was my best friend, you know, I couldn't just push this fact aside." Wittschier started to ask questions; she stopped sweeping contradictions to her beliefs aside. Ultimately, she dropped out of the scene: "In summer 2013, I finally renounced all this bullshit."
Wittschier spent months questioning the conspiracy theories and she began doing her research for the first time: "At a certain point I started thinking: Gosh, my best friend was totally right. I was shocked. That's the moment you realize that you have invested all that time and money just to make a complete fool of yourself. It was awful. I felt ashamed, like a total prat. I just wanted to crawl into a hole. I thought about my family, my sister and my husband und all the things I told them."
Wittschier wanted to share her newly gained knowledge in her old forums. "I felt the need to disabuse them right away, but I soon learnt that they had no interest in being enlighted. Beyond the larger and diverse Allmystery forum, smaller groups of chemtrail believers and those on Facebook pages prefer to stick with their kind," she said. "When I told them, Guys, something's really wrong here, they became really aggressive, like out of nowhere. Contradictions are not a welcome guest. As some of them were old friends of ours they knew who I was, who Kai was, and where we lived. All of the sudden our full name and adress appeared openly accessible on the internet. They called me a bitch, a whore, and a cunt. They said, I should butt out and that I had become an agent for the other side, the ruling elite."
I was put under observation and everything I did online got recorded, collected, and noted. I can see a lot of similarities to cults like Scientology.
To an outsider, what's especially revealing is the way Wittschier talks about how the conspiracy scene tries to recruit new allies. "In the past, when you met an ignorant non-believer, you sent them YouTube videos of excessively protracted contrails and told them things like: 'Look at the sky! It's obvious!' You don't even go into detail about the matter or the technical inconsistencies, you just give them any explanation that sounds reasonable, cohesive, and informed—in a word, scientific. And then you give them the time to think about it."
Wittschier's old friends were not exactly happy when she started to write a blog, calling out the big names in the scene. She also penned a book and began giving interviews to the press. Wittschier says that they felt exposed by someone who knew their names and online channels well. She even received online death threats; she says she couldn't take these lightly just because they were limited to the internet.
"We know that there is a certain potential of a threat," said Bernd Harder, when asked whether conspiracy theorists were dangerous. Harder is an author, journalist and spokesperson for GWUP (Society for the Scientific Investigation of Parasciences), a public organization that aims to scientifically investigate and, if necessary, debunk phenomena like chemtrails. There are allegedly around 3,000 conspiracy nuts in Germany, though Harder explains that "their members describe themselves as a worldwide movement."
According to Harder, people within the scene only interact with like-minded peers and eschew any qualifying contact with reality, and subsequently become increasingly radical and aggressive. "This radicalization also depends on the degree of an individual's involvement, i.e. the potential threat of the imaginary force and its opponents," he added. "Chemtrails appear to be a more aggressive threat as they might represent an immediate danger to life and limb—[chemtrail believers] see themselves facing a conspiracy of gigantic dimensions, whereas supporters of the Flat Earth theory rather believe that they are onto a scientific scandal."
According to Wittschier, the issue goes beyond chemtrailers who threaten the press and any former believers. "With hindsight, it was like a cult," she said. "At first it was very exciting to know secrets that others don't, and to be able to educate others. They were a close community with rules, hierarchies and so on. It wasn't until I swung around I realized the pressure they were exerting at the same time—people with different views were, in my opinion, aggresively and systematically attacked and were blocked or deleted within minutes. I was put under observation and everything I did online got recorded, collected, and noted. I can see a lot of similarities to cults like Scientology. For me they are one and the same thing."
Sociologist and cognitive scientist Andreas Anton works at the Institute for Frontier Areas of Psychology and Mental Health in Freiburg, Germany and has co-authored a book called Sociology of Conspiracy Thinking. He refuses to speak of a "cult" of conspiracy theorists. "We shouldn't just pathologize these people and brand them as lunatics," he said. "The same thing happened to the theories about 9/11 and therefore the debate is often only oriented towards stigmatization."
Though the conspiracy scene has certain hierarchies and joint objectives, Anton says that people's contact with each other is mostly virtual—there is a lack of physical compulsion that is typical for actual cults.
"One aspect that is very interesting is the fact that both sides feel the urge to dismiss and deny arguments of the opposing side. It is also noticable that the fewer followers a theory has—and the chemtrail believers are a rather small group—the less likely it is to provoke an openly factual debate," Anton explained. "Again if a theory is positioned as niche, its members tend to appear more resistant and uncompromising. They cannot simply be dismissed as their fear is real. In fact, they don't do all this for fun, they are genuinely afraid—and they are deadly serious."
Stepahnie Wittschier claims to have firsthand knowledge of how deadly serious some of them are about their often-ridiculed fears. "At a certain point you come upon things that make you think Are you serious? Some conspiracy ideologists say that they want to die because they can't take it any more—announced suicides. On his wall, one of them even appealed to the Illuminati to finally kill him. That beats everything. That's not even an opinion anymore. because they're putting themselves and others in danger. There are just some seriously crazy people in that scene who are not just peacefully expressing their beliefs."
While she first tried to convert non-believers into the chemtrail way of life, she now tries to proselytize her former friends. "It's basically the same as ever—I'm talking to a wall. First there were my parents who didn't want to believe or hear about my theories, now there are the chemmies and other people. Sure, back then I also assumed I knew the facts, but now I know: these are the facts that are true for everyone."