“He’s Talking About The People In Power”: Ye West And Other Pop Culture Conspiracy Theories

Pop culture conspiracy theories can be especially seductive to youth – we’re giving you some background on why that is, what to look out for, and how to talk about it with the young people in your life.

Hazel Woodrow
Canadian Anti-Hate Network



The news cycle is moving on from Kanye West’s most recent round of antisemitic comments. In the wake of being dropped from multiple brand deals, the idea that the billionaire – who has officially changed his name to Ye – has, at enormous personal risk, spoken truth to power, is fruitful content for conspiracy theorists on TikTok. 

This is difficult territory to navigate for caring adults to better understand conspiracy theory beliefs found amongst youth. We have suggestions on how to engage in thoughtful discussions about it. 

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Who is Ye and what did he say?

 

Ye is an American rapper, lyricist, music producer, and fashion designer. Throughout his career, he has spoken out about social and political issues, from a variety of positions, including numerous highly controversial statements. 

“When you hear about slavery for 400 years ... for 400 years? That sounds like a choice,” he said in a 2018 TMZ appearance. “You were there for 400 years and it's all of y'all. It's like we're mentally imprisoned." 

He tearfully apologized a few months later, and attributed the statements to his then-newly diagnosed bipolar disorder, and a lack of people having “[his] back.”

In October 2022, Ye made a series of antisemitic comments, including claiming that fellow rapper and music producer Sean "Diddy" Combs was "controlled by Jewish people" and tweeting that he would go “death con 3 on Jewish people.”
 

Source: Twitter
  

Earlier in the month, at New York Fashion Week, he wore and dressed some of his models in shirts that read "White Lives Matter," which is widely accepted to be a white supremacist dog whistle and hate slogan.

As Vanity Fair pointed out, Ye’s recent discussion of “Jewish business secrets,” and his perpetuating the notion of Jews controlling the media are “both central tenets of the antisemitic tract The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” 

CNN reported last week that “Several people who were once close to the artist formerly known as Kanye West told CNN that he has long been fascinated by Adolf Hitler – and once wanted to name an album after the Nazi leader.”

  

What Are Conspiracy Theories?

  

It is vitally important when we are discussing conspiracy theories to use precise language. Conspiracies – that is, plots by powerful individuals and groups, usually to self-serving ends – actually do happen, all the time. The collusion between fossil fuel corporations to sow doubt about the scientific fact of human-driven climate change is an example of this.

In contrast, the term “conspiracy theory” refers to the belief that a situation or event is caused by a conspiracy, even when other explanations are more probable, or have been proven to be true. Conspiracy theories are found in all directions on the political spectrum. Sometimes, people who believe themselves to be on “opposite” ends of the political spectrum, may believe in very similar conspiracy theories. “Anti-establishment” conspiracy theories — which are often overtly antisemitic — are one place we see this.

People who believe in conspiracy theories are generally resistant to the resolutions or explanations provided by experts (for example, doctors and historians). At the same time, people who believe in conspiracy theories do look to experts and authority figures sometimes – so long as those authority figures reinforce or validate the theory. These authority figures do not need to be authorities in a field relevant to the theory. 

Ye's "authority" as a pop culture icon is being leveraged to validate the antisemitic conspiracy theories he is promoting.

The reason it is so important to use precise language in these discussions is that the conflation of “conspiracy” with “conspiracy theory” lends credibility to conspiracy theory belief, by framing it as interchangeable with evidence-based conspiracies, and that widespread acceptance of that belief is inevitable. 

  

Gen-Z and conspiracy theories

   

Generation Z, often called Zoomers, refers to the cohort born between approximately 1997 and 2012. As of Fall 2022, all high school and middle school students belong to this generation.

While the zeitgeist typically imagines older generations – Baby Boomers especially – to be particularly vulnerable to disinformation and conspiracy theories, this assumption is complicated by the fact that nearly all existing metrics for assessing conspiracy theory beliefs, are designed for use in adult populations, which means we cannot use them to understand these beliefs in youth.

Developmental and environmental factors also potentially influence the likelihood of youth to believe in conspiracy theories. The combination of normal increased emotionality in adolescence, and the external environmental stressors of the COVID-19 pandemic, may lead youth to turn to conspiracy theories as a coping mechanism to attempt to make sense of an increasingly complex and distressing situation.

As the Southern Poverty Law Centre and the Polarization And Extremism Research And Innovation Lab (PERIL) reported in their resource “Building Resilience & Confronting Risk in the Covid-19 Era: A Parents & Caregivers Guide to Online Radicalization,” the pandemic has left “young people in particular—struggling to make sense of it all…while conspiracy theories offer a sense of control when we feel otherwise powerless.”

Another risk factor for conspiracy theory belief appears to lie in Gen-Z’s heavy use of TikTok and its reliance on the app as a search engine and source of factual information. In 2020, internal company documents reviewed by the New York Times revealed that the company “classified more than a third of its 49 million daily users in the United States as being 14 years old or younger.” Pew Research recently found among American teenagers (age 13 to 17), two-thirds use the app, with 57% of using it on a daily to “constantly” basis.

Design researchers with the Politecnico di Milano have observed that across various platforms, different conspiracy theories have different aesthetics. The exception, they found, was TikTok, where the “visual language of the platform itself overcomes the ones of the conspiracy theories” and “the result is that on TikTok conspiracy theories’ contents appear very similar to any other kind of content.” They suggest that this lack of visual language differentiation can have an insidious effect on conspiracy theory adoption by youth. 

News media has reported on a number of conspiracy theories that are thriving on TikTok, earning a largely Gen-Z audience. 

In 2020, Buzzfeed ran a story based on interviews with teachers across the US, about their experiences with students believing in conspiracy theories like QAnon and the death of Jeffrey Epstein and how students have been bringing those beliefs into the classroom.

A few months earlier, The Daily Beast reported that the far-right “Pizzagate,” the then-four-year-old conspiracy theory that there was a child rape dungeon run by Democrats in the basement of a Washington D.C. restaurant, had seen a sharp resurgence. 

“Pizzagate has become massive on TikTok reaching plenty of young people right as the reality around them – thanks to the pandemic, police violence and related unrest, and a new Netflix documentary highlighting Jeffrey Epstein’s crimes – seems more and more unhinged,” the article said. 

Last fall, Rolling Stone profiled a then-high school senior “who posts rainbow flags during Pride Month, supports Black Lives Matter, and condemns Trump” and who ran one of the largest conspiracy theory TikTok accounts, with over 3.7 million followers. As per his account bio, the creator is currently “taking a break,” but dozens of videos from the last couple years remain posted. His two most watched videos, each with over 25 million views, are about celebrity conspiracy theories. 

Conspiracy theory researcher Abbie Richards observed that the creator “turns dangerous and often hateful conspiracy theories like flat earth, hollow earth, Illuminati, satanic sacrifice, etc. into catchy, palatable content for a younger, more progressive audience,” and noted that through video monetization and sponsorships, he was being “rewarded for promoting conspiracy theories and incentivized to continue.”

  

Pop Culture Conspiracy Theories

  

Conspiracy theories about popular culture are often seen as more recreational and inconsequential than those about more “serious” subjects, and are sometimes linke​​d to fandom

However, the convergence of conspiracy theory culture and fandom is contributing to the social media landscape surrounding Ye’s recent antisemitic comments.

The idea that Jewish people control the media and/or Hollywood specifically is a very old antisemitic canard. Many pop culture conspiracy theories revolve around a belief in “the Illuminati” – imagined to be a secret society of celebrities and other “elites,” whose alleged specific activities vary widely. While many people who believe in Illuminati conspiracy theories may not be antisemitic, these beliefs are historically inextricable from antisemitism. 

Some pop culture conspiracy theorists edge closer to antisemitism – naming specific families, such as the Rothschilds.

A common trend within pop culture conspiracy theories about the entertainment industry is that celebrities who “speak out” about alleged conspiracies, are killed off. This belief has dovetailed with QAnon-style beliefs about wide-scale sex trafficking by “the elites.”
 

Source: CSUN University
    

In 2020, Reuters debunked a conspiracy theory that Avicii (Tim Bergling), Linkin Park lead singer Chester Bennington, Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, were “silenced” as a result of working on a documentary about “high profile people” engaged in a child sex trafficking ring. 

QAnon beliefs about “powerful elites” running child sex trafficking operations have been linked to numerous killings over the last several years, including the murders of several children

  

How To Talk To Kids About Ye, And Other Pop Culture Conspiracy Theories

  

Youth may be drawn to pop culture conspiracy theories because they provide comforting explanations for upsetting events around celebrities that youth admire and look up to, such as:
 

  • The bad behaviour and/or bigotry of celebrities like Ye and Kyrie Irving – “Ye exposed everything, that’s why they’re trying to cancel him.” 
  • The sudden deaths of celebrities like Avicii and Linkin Park lead singer Chester Bennington – “It is more likely they were silenced.”

In these situations, as with all conspiracy theory belief, the motivations for the belief are initially, if not primarily, emotional. This means that effectively addressing these kinds of beliefs with youth requires us to be curious about, and attuned to the underlying emotional experiences that drive them – instead of asking what their rationalizations are for the belief, ask how the belief makes them feel.
  

  • “I know you really look up to Ye – how have all the things he’s said recently been sitting with you?” 
  • “I’m hearing that you’re having a hard time making sense of [person they look up to]’s death. I just want you to know that that’s normal. Do you want to tell me more about how that feels?”
  • “When you say ‘Ye exposed everything, that’s why they’re trying to cancel him,’ how does that make you feel?” 

If it feels truthful and appropriate, you can also empathize with some of those feelings. Conspiracy theory belief is ultimately emotional, and the emotions that drive it – anxiety, existential crises, hypervigilance, grief, even hope – are not unique to conspiracy theory believers. 

By empathizing with the underlying emotion, you can share an alternative for coping with it that doesn’t involve conspiracy theory beliefs.
 

  • “That sounds really familiar to me. When [person you look up to] said [offensive comments], I had a lot of complicated feelings about it. Would you like to hear how I handled that?”
  • “It is really hard to make sense of sudden deaths, especially when it’s someone we don’t know personally, but really look up to. When [person you look up to] died, I had a really hard time wrapping my head around it.”

No matter how outrageous the conspiracy theory is, it is very important that you do not mock or troll the believer. Not only is it inappropriate for caring adults to humiliate young people in this way, it is also likely to trigger defensive reactions, as the “fight or flight” reflex is triggered not just by threats to our physical safety, but also to perceived attacks on our self-esteem, which then “prevents us from engaging in logical or analytical thought.” 

It is also important that you do not debate the believer about their conspiracy theory belief – this can trigger the same kind of defensiveness, and re-entrench them in their belief.

Leaving behind conspiracy theory belief takes a lot of humility, and requires that the person feels safe enough in their relationships to do so without fearing shaming or humiliation. There are two strategies caring adults can take to enhance the likelihood of this happening. 

First, engage in unrelated activities with them – make sure that you have conversations and engage in activities with the person that don’t revolve around their conspiracy theory belief, but that do demonstrate your own curiosity and humility. This approach lays the groundwork for a trusting and respectful relationship, in which they can hopefully feel safer acknowledging doubt or change of mind, in the future. 
 

  • “I actually don’t know how _______________ works. Let’s find out together.”
  • “Can you explain the game you’re playing? I’d love to play with you sometime.”

Second, if it feels appropriate, share something that you have changed your mind about. This kind of modelling can be helpful in showing a young person that it is not only safe, but normal and healthy to be open to new ideas, and to change their mind about their beliefs over time.
 

  • “Can I tell you about a time I changed my mind about something I was really sure about?”
  • “Changing our minds about things that we are really sure about can be very hard. But it’s also a really normal part of moving through life. I want you to know that I’ve been there before, and I’ll never make fun of you or make you ashamed for changing your mind.”

Finally, you can use our guide “Conversations For Parents And Caregivers To Keep Kids Safe From Hate Movements” for addressing conspiracy theories as well. Specifically from the current events section:
 

  • Ask about what they already know about the event, and where they learned that. Have they heard anything about the event that doesn’t match what they know? Where did they hear that? 
  • Ask what questions they have about the event. Is there anything they have heard or seen that they don’t understand? 
  • Ask how they feel about this event. 
  • Ask what kinds of things have come up when they have talked to their friends or peers about this event? Do their friends or peers have questions or big feelings you can help with?

We know that for caring adults, navigating the waters of conspiracy theory beliefs among youth can be hard. We’re here to help. 

If there’s a young person in your life who this article reminds you of, please reach out to us at [email protected], and we can help you unpack what you’re seeing, and explore next steps.

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