Publication date: 2023-10-04

The Conspiracy Capitaliser: A deep dive into AI, social media, and profit

In today's hyper-connected world, the digital realm entangles with our daily lives at every intersection. For unscrupulous power players in the online media landscape, this represents ample opportunities for profit.

Text: Jens Persson

Rob Collins' 'Conspiracy Capitaliser' gives transparency to how the tandem forces of online conspiracies and capitalism are amplified in a world of social media and AI.

Image:Umeå Institute of Design

To uncover the underlying mechanics of predatory online capitalism fuelled by conspiracies, Rob Collins, PhD at Umeå Institute of Design, built the ‘Conspiracy Capitaliser’, a unique tool for investigating and understanding the shady actors operating at the crossroads of AI, social media, and profit.

Imagine a device that allows you to venture into the labyrinth of untruths that AI systems can produce, offering a firsthand experience of the ethical dilemmas that confront our increasingly technologically entangled world. This is the essence of the ‘Conspiracy Capitaliser’, a concept born during an investigation into the surge of disinformation and hyperbole on Irish social media.

“Many of these activists tended to repeat conservative talking points and hashtags which generally came from media outlets and influencers in North America. This became very apparent during the early stages of the lockdown, as they explored a variety of themes – 5G, GMOs, bioweapons, Bill Gates – in desperate efforts to be the one with the “answer” and a new army of followers”, says Rob Collins.

Follow the money

Working together with journalists in Dublin and Berlin, Rob learned a valuable lesson early on – "follow the money". The axiom, even when seemingly irrelevant, proved crucial as he began mapping the social networks of conspiracy influencers and their followers. Soon, a hierarchical structure emerged.

At the summit were the big name international "producers" of conspiracy content, followed by smaller national "localisers" and repeaters, ultimately leading to the larger group of "consumers" who reshared the conspiracy tropes in exchange for social media validation. Money flowed through these networks at various levels. At the apex were the established content producers with high production values and diverse revenue streams. Further down the ladder were the localisers who relied on GoFundMe donations for their services.

Over time, the leading content producers were able to cultivate a loyal and somewhat gullible audience, which prompted them to expand into selling a wide array of products and services through their various media channels. The merchandise ranged from vitamin supplements and homoeopathic remedies to bitcoin advice, survival gear, and multi-level marketing opportunities. In some cases, it became difficult to discern whether the conspiracy or the capitalism came first.

A marketplace of conspiracies and outrage

“Through my investigations, it became clear that the marketplace of conspiracies and outrage – like any marketplace – was often a means to an end for profit. The cognitive dissonance experienced from seeing individuals generating and repeating contradictory narratives began to resolve itself under the light of capitalism – never question or kill the Golden Goose; treat it well, feed it and make sure it is comfortable and undisturbed by rationalities”, says Rob Collins.

This very revelation gave birth to the concept of the ‘Conspiracy Capitaliser’, which Rob built himself from start to finish. He imagines it sitting on a CEO’s desk, allowing him or her to tap into the zeitgeist by being able to generate new controversies to feed the outraged and advertise their wares, without descending into the depths of controversy themselves.

'Conspiracy Capitaliser' 101

The Conspiracy Capitaliser has become a reality thanks to the advent of accessible AI and Large Language Models (LLMs), unlocking a new dimension of transparency into the dubious ethics exercised by profit-seekers and provocateurs alike.

Now, you might be wondering, what exactly does the Conspiracy Capitaliser do? Here are some of its key features:

  1. Dial into Your Consumers: Target your audience based on their age, political beliefs, susceptibility, and emotional state.
  2. Select Hot Political Topics: Choose from a range of polarizing political issues to ensure your message sparks contention and conversation.
  3. Curated Conspiracy Classics: Access a curated list of established conspiracy theories, from fake moon landings to QAnon, to captivate your audience.
  4. Seamless Product Integration: Automatically weave your product into the message and distribute it online, all without the need to engage directly with the public. 

In an age where technology continually blurs the lines between reality and fiction, the ‘Conspiracy Capitaliser’ shines a light on the inner workings of the evolving landscape of AI, social media, and profit. It's a reflection of our society's ability to adapt and innovate, even when the outcome might leave us questioning the very nature of truth itself. So, as we navigate this new world, it might serve us well to remember that behind every politically motivated digital campaign or conspiracy, there might just be a profit (or political) motive lurking in the shadows.

Robert is currently using the conspiracy Capitaliser as a platform for critical and reflective engagement around the uses and potential ramifications of new technologies, while also subverting and challenging existing narratives and suggesting more ethical paths for design.