Behold the Reverse Idiot Funnel
Read to the end for a thought-provoking chart about Furbys
The Biolab Theory Just Won’t Go Away
Many years ago, it was common to come across a weird guy’s website. Sometimes it would be about how the earth was flat or how trees aren’t real or how lizard people built the pyramids. When you came across a site made by a weird guy (and they were typically guys), you might have laughed uncomfortably and maybe even emailed it to a friend or two, and then you probably moved on with your life. There were a few message boards in the early 2000s that were particularly good at documenting the internet’s various weird guys, like Something Awful or 4chan, but, for the most part, the weird guys lived off in their digital fantasy land of choice and the rest of us were none the wiser.
Around 2012, new, more mainstream parts of the web were being built atop the ashes of Myspace, and they had fancy recommendation algorithms that made sure your grandma wouldn’t accidentally see Goatse. But these platforms had a problem. It turns out that the anonymous chaos of the weirder parts of the internet are actually good for creating content. A totally sanitized web is actually very boring. And so these platforms tried to fix this by signing partnership agreements with news publishers and by fostering a creator class of users who could make and curate content for others. But the problem continued.
Squeaky clean creators doing brand-safe content and vetted New York Times articles are not conducive to a good time online. And, around 2013, certain publishers and certain creators started to understand that there was a serious market for taking the weird stuff from the weird guys and bringing it inside the walls of a platform. This was Steve Bannon’s main trick during his time helming Breitbart, but it was equally true for the zillion other websites that would make lists of viral images from Reddit and repackage them for Facebook users. And, over the last decade, this process — finding some idiot who said something ridiculous and aggregating whatever they said into a form that fits a trending algorithm — is now, hilariously, how all of American culture works.
And, most importantly for us, here in 2022, amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, many governments have now also figured out how to use this to create and promote propaganda. In fact, Russian and Chinese state media now have an entire playback that is built around exploiting what I’m going to call The Reverse Idiot Funnel (RIF). Here’s a diagram I drew!
So as you can see in the diagram above, misinformation, disinformation, and more formalized conspiracy theories, regardless of what they’re about, all basically start with one idiot. That user posts something dumb, either on purpose or because they don’t care enough to factcheck themselves, and then other idiots and your general rogue’s gallery of internet goons latch on to it. These people then amplify it in their own ways — Telegram channels, Facebook groups, YouTube videos, etc., and then usually at this stage things get confusing. This is when it becomes impossible to tell who believes what they’re posting and who is just mindlessly sharing stuff because it’s fun. By the next stage of the RIF, the dumb thing has become so spread out and ubiquitous that it’s now made its way into the screens of millions of normies, who are usually on Facebook, but also Instagram and WhatsApp. I also drew a small line in there for children on TikTok because this is increasingly true for them, as well. From here, you get right-wing publishers, with Fox News being at the top, and thousands of smaller blogs beneath them. And, then, usually, finally, you get Russian and Chinese state media. Though, there’s a lot of back and forth between Fox News and Russian media because the internet is a non-linear system. This chart also works if you read it in reverse tbh.
And this Reverse Idiot Funnel (RIF) is just as true for something like the Freedom Convoy as it is the Ukrainian biolabs theory, which is now everywhere this week. It popped up within the first 24 hours of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. I actually mentioned it in my first post about the conflict. It comes in different versions and is constantly evolving, but it usually goes like this: Russia is not invading Ukraine simply to conquer it, nor is the country just indiscriminately killing civilians. Instead, according to the theory, Russia is attacking key research facilities that the Ukrainian government was using to create dangerous new COVID variants.
The first real viral thread about Ukrainian biolabs was posted by a now-suspended Twitter account called @WarClandestine on February 24. This would be the nipple of the Reverse Idiot Funnel, as depicted above. Twitter yanked the account down, but not before its tweets were shared by bigger accounts, like YouTuber Daniel “KeemStar” Keem and this week a pro-Russian Twitter account called @ASBmilitary was banned for promoting a similar idea, though @ASBmilitary’s version included the US harvesting “slavic DNA” to engineer bioweapons.
From there, it was picked up by small right-wing publishers and creators, then bigger ones, then, it was picked up by Fox News’ Tucker Carlson and his intellectual dark web cyber army of newsletter millionaires. It’s also showing up in memes shared to the pro-China tankie subreddit r/GenZedong becase the Reverse Idiot Funnel doesn’t really have a clear political alignment.
It’s also become a fixture in both Russian and Chinese state media, with Chinese broadcaster CGTN reporting this week, “Russia reveals evidence of U.S.-funded bio-program in Ukraine.” Once again, there is no evidence to support this, but as Foreign Policy reports, the lab theory has been a useful tool for Chinese “wolf warrior” diplomats who were looking for an easy way to make this conflict about America.
The biolabs theory is also having an interesting effect on existing conspiracy theories like QAnon. According to Australian OSINT analyst Elise Thomas, Q followers, who are very anti-China, are beginning to articulate a version of QAnon that supports the Chinese Community Party. “If Putin is a good guy secretly working with Trump, as many of them now think, then how do they square that with the fact that Putin is also trying to cozy up to Xi Jinping,” Thomas wrote. “There's no concrete form for what a pro-China strand of QAnon canon might look like. Influencers are still at the trial balloon stage, just throwing stuff out there and waiting to see if it floats.”
Which is how all of this works, except, this time, the consequences could not be higher. Russia seems poised to keep pushing the biolab theory as far as they can take it. According to The Guardian, Russia plans to take their completely baseless claims of Ukrainian and American biolabs to the United Nations. And Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy even mentioned it in a speech last night.
“As if we're developing biological weapons,” he said. “As if we're preparing a chemical attack. This really worries me, because more than once we have found if you want to find out Russia's plans, you should look at what Russia is accusing others of."
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Turning History Into Content
I woke up on Wednesday morning to five separate texts about the discovery of the Endurance wreck. Throughout the day I received three more, plus at least a handful of people being like, “I thought of you immediately, but didn’t text you because I assume people already did.” I treasured every moment of it.
As it happens, due to my well-established character trait of liking it when boats are cold, I had been following along with the #Endurance22 search from the moment they entered the Antarctic pack ice in late February. Along with the ship’s crew led by an esteemed polar geographer, an experienced icebreaker captain, and an expert marine archaeologist, the search expedition was also host to a video crew led by voluble HistoryHit host Dan Snow. The HistoryHit channel, if you’re not familiar, churns out engaging documentary videos on topics from WWII weaponry to medieval weaponry to Jacobite weaponry… Other stuff too, of course. There are a lot of great specialist history brands on social media — my favorite is Crow’s Eye Productions — but it’s the heavy-hitters like Dan Snow who are taking full advantage of a broad audience.
Under the aegis of Disney-owned National Geographic, the production team chronicled the finding of Shackleton’s ship, which sunk in 1915. Not only capturing footage for the full-length documentary that will air this fall, but they also edited and posted regular looks into the search, straight from the ice to social media. There was one day the other week when Snow was tweeting about the ship getting “stuck” in the “ice,” a clear ploy for engagement-via-Shackleton-LARP that was mostly wiped from their feeds with a quickness when polar enthusiasts began clowning on him, including a member of the ship’s actual crew who had to clarify that no, icebreakers don’t tend to get stuck in the ice on a long-term basis. Twitter and YouTube were being regularly updated, but the real show was going down on TikTok — the platform actually inked an exclusive deal with the expedition for livestreams and exclusive content, so the TikTok community was first up to find out about the discovery of the wreck and see the pictures. If the war in Ukraine is [cue eyeroll] the first TikTok war, then I guess that makes this the first TikTok shipwreck discovery…?
It’s easy to be cynical about ~history as content~, especially when Dan Snow is out here giving off some seriously charismatically sleazy energy. But the fact is, it was pretty much all about content back then too. By the turn of the 20th century, polar exploration was no longer government funded, and guys like Shackleton had to go around basically running Kickstarters in order to get their shows on the road. The expensive Endurance expedition, whose goal was to land on the shores of Antarctica and then cross the entire continent on foot, was funded in part by Shackleton auctioning off the rights to photographer Frank Hurley’s pictures and film footage to the highest bidder. When the expedition flopped almost immediately, and the ship sunk, Hurley chronicled the improbable rescue mission, and the resulting film South was an instant classic.
There really is nothing new under the sun — I’m sure if consummate showman Shackleton could’ve been on TikTok, he absolutely would have been. (Scott and Amundsen, however, are a different story…)
Some Stray Platform Updates Around The Invasion Of Ukraine
YouTube announced today that it would be “blocking access to YouTube channels associated with Russian state-funded media globally.” They’ve also demonetized all Russian users. So far the only app to move this aggressively against Russian users was TikTok, which has suspended all new uploads from the country.
Meanwhile, Facebook has adopted a different strategy. It has removed a post from Russia’s embassy in the UK, but, also, Reuters got ahold of internal emails which said that that company will “allow Facebook and Instagram users in some countries to call for violence against Russians and Russian soldiers in the context of the Ukraine invasion.”
You know, after a decade global Facebook-led violence, it’s actually kinda nice to see them finally acknowledging that calls for violence on the platform are a feature, not a bug.
A Good Tweet
What The Heck Is Happening In Pringles’ Twitter Mentions
Earlier this week, the official Pringles Twitter account posted a pretty basic tweet. There should be nothing super notable about it, except, if you click in on it, you’ll see thousands of replies and most of them are just users posting the same meme over and over again. And that meme is a picture of Donkey Kong and the words “cock blast”.
I wanted to figure out what the heck was going on here, so I spent some time going through all of @pringles’ mentions. Finally, I was able to get the very start of the replies to the tweet and noticed that the same user posted this meme three different times as a reply to the Pringles tweet right at the beginning. I then clicked around a bunch of other early repliers to the tweet, but I couldn’t figure out what, if anything, they had all in common. Finally, I decided I’d just do some journalism and DM’d the first user to send Pringles the meme.
The user, who goes by @TheKrustyKoopa DM’d me back and explained what’s going on here! Turns out, it was a completely pointless joke. “A friend of mine tweeted saying he wanted people to spam Pringles' Twitter comments with another image [it was a meme of a bug] but I made my own tweet telling people to spam the Donkey Kong image instead,” @TheKrustyKoopa told me. “And it eventually spread to people outside of my friend group to the point where it just became its own thing.”
I asked @TheKrustyKoopa if there was any sort of Discord or anything linking all the users together, but, nope, nothing other than a shared desire to mess with the Pringles Twitter account. “I don't really remember there being any reason behind it, it was just a dumb joke that became big out of nowhere,” they said.
Have We Thought About Gaslighting Putin?
If you aren’t watching The Pocket Report, please, please, please start watching The Pocket Report.
Sesame Street Tarot On TikTok
This account went viral this week after Twitter user @melongay described it as an “old New Yorker who does tarot readings with a deck of Sesame Street flashcards made for kindergarteners.”
I went over and checked out the account and it’s great. It’s run by a creator who goes by Z. Mann Zilla and he calls his particular brand of fortune telling “Sesamerot”. Also, one of his most recent videos is a really interesting look at how he considers the ethics of reading people’s fortunes online — even if it’s a joking kind of thing. Click here to check it out.
A Totally Fascinating Look At How YouTube Sponsors Work
YouTuber Thomas “TomSka” Ridgewell has been on the internet for a long ass time, so it feels a little strange recommending one of his videos. It’s like asking if someone has heard of Taco Bell (I mean that as a compliment to both TomSka and Taco Bell). But the video above is a fantastic look at how branded content deals are made on YouTube. If you’ve ever wondered exactly what the machinery is that connects creators to brand deals and how weird that world can get, definitely check this out.
My internet culture collective, Digital Void, is throwing a live event in Washington, DC, on March 23! We’ve got some great guests like Jordan Uhl, podcaster Bridget Todd, reporter Ellie Hall, and The Intercept’s D.C. Bureau Chief Ryan Grim.
Some Stray Links
P.S. here’s a thought-provoking chart about Furbys.
***Any typos in this email are on purpose actually***