Rudy Reichstadt: “Gims was intoxicated by videos on the Internet, like millions of others”

Rudy Reichstadt Gims was intoxicated by videos on the Internet

Rarely has a book borne its name so well. On April 12, Rudy Reichstadt, director of the Conspiracy Watch site and slayer of conspiracy theories, publishes At the heart of the conspiracy*, a cry of alarm in the face of the violence of the smear campaigns that target him. At the same time, controversy broke out over the recipients of the Marianne fund, launched in 2021 on the initiative of Marlène Schiappa (then Minister Delegate for Citizenship), after the assassination of Samuel Paty, to “promote republican values” and “combat separatist speeches. On social networks, Conspiracy Watch, and in particular its director, finds itself in turmoil, accused of having improperly benefited from public money. Still stunned but combative, the interested party returns to the controversy, which illustrates in his eyes the dangers of conspiracy.

L’Express: On social networks, Conspiracy Watch is accused of having benefited without valid reason from the Marianne fund. As director of the site, you are the target of violent attacks…

Rudy Reichstadt: We are collateral damage in the Marianne fund affair. When we started to be questioned by the press on the subject, I immediately sensed that it was going to be exploited by the conspiratorial sphere to defame us. This is exactly what happened, as soon as the list of the winning structures of this call for projects was made public.

I remind you that “Marianne Fund” is the name given to a call for projects intended to fight against radicalization and, in particular, conspiratorial discourse online. This is precisely what we do. Of the 17 structures concerned by the Marianne fund, one is currently the subject of an administrative investigation. A second is the subject of a complaint. The 15 other structures (including Conspiracy Watch, as well as Memory and Comics, the General Fraternity, or the Education League) pose no problem. The administration gave us discharge. However, of these 15 structures, Conspiracy Watch is the only one to which a press title [NDLR : Libération] chose to expand its investigations, only because we were the target of a slander campaign fueled on social media by all those bothered by our work. The reality is that the financial support we have received in this context represents a minority share of our annual budget, the bulk being made up of private funds from the Foundation for the Memory of the Shoah. To silence the rumor, we have chosen to be totally transparent. CheckNews [NDLR : la rubrique de vérification des faits de Libération], to whom we opened our files and our offices, was able to see the reality of our work and underlined the unequaled transparency that we have demonstrated. But also published an article whose title [“Rudy Reichstadt, fondateur du site anticomplotiste Conspiracy Watch, a-t-il bénéficié indûment du fonds Marianne ?”], which posed an infamous question, sounded like permission for people in bad faith to continue defaming me. This is, again, what happened.

The irony is that CheckNews is itself a fact-checking tool. The situation is becoming grotesque… Should this be seen as a sign that the fight against fake news is an endless cycle?

Rather than absurd, I would say that the situation is properly Kafkaesque: the jaws of mob justice are closing on you on the basis of an entirely incriminating file and using truncated or downright false information. On Twitter or YouTube, the words “embezzlement” are attached to your name; you are summoned several times a day to “return the money”; you are called a “thief” and a “crook”; it is claimed, in defiance of the facts, that the Marianne fund would have been a “kitty” resulting from a collection of funds in favor of Samuel Paty, and this even though the name of the teacher does not appear once in call for projects…

Under these circumstances, one would expect the press not to pander to the idea that there is smoke without fire and howl with the wolves. However, if we are so harassed by conspiracy theorists, it is precisely because our action of critical analysis of conspiracy discourse harms them and because, to carry it out, we are obliged to expose ourselves.

But what is the relationship between “conspiracy” and “separatism”, two concepts linked in the call for projects, and so broad that they can become blurred?

Conspiracy is the common denominator of all extremist movements, including sectarian ones. It is the antechamber of radicalization. Conspiracy theories are also omnipresent in radicalization pathways. Thus, certain themes such as the “Judeo-Masonic conspiracy” or the fantasy of the “new world order” circulate as much on the ultra-right as in radical Islamism. Moreover, the mechanics of misinformation is at the heart of the Samuel Paty affair. Among its protagonists, we also find a personality directly resulting from the conspiratorial and anti-Semitic movement which had evolved for a time alongside Dieudonné and Alain Soral, for example.

You state in your book that dialogue with the conspirators is “impossible”. If so, why and for whom did you write it?

A little for me, to put down on paper, and thus free myself from it, quite toxic things. Then for all those who work on disinformation or produce critical analyzes on these subjects: journalists, of course, but also doctors, elected officials, scientists, intellectuals… The idea was to start from my singular experience to draw more general lessons on conspiracy and harassment in the digital age. And offer a sort of vade-mecum to those who might find themselves in the same situation as me. I also wanted to give the public a glimpse of the violence we are facing, because we have people in front of us who, literally, are asking for our heads. To those of them who are still capable of empathy, I finally wanted to say that their actions could end up pushing someone to suicide one day. It has already been seen. This is the reason why I evoke the figure of Roger Salengro [NDLR : ministre de l’Intérieur du Front populaire, poussé au suicide, en 1936, par des accusations de trahison au cours de la Première Guerre mondiale].

You challenge the idea that some grain of truth lies behind every conspiracy theory…

It is indisputable that conspiracy theories are rooted in reality. But to say that they always contain a “kernel of truth” seems to me to be erroneous. And I am well placed to know this since some of the conspiratorial accusations against me do not have the privilege of containing a single atom of truth. In general, I find that we are too complacent with the reasons given by conspiracy theorists, in the sense that we confuse the real reasons for conspiracy with the intellectual and moral justifications it gives itself. I believe that the conspiratorial discourse is often only the dressing up of a resentment, a resentment, even a hatred which is present from the start, which “preexists what it claims to originate from”, as wrote Claude Lanzmann.

Is the exchange with a plotter still easier in reality than behind a screen?

A person who would be seduced by a conspiracy theory but remains open to contradiction and is ready to change his mind does not seem to me to be qualified as a “conspirator”. It is quite natural to be shaken by conspiratorial discourse, just as it is natural to be in a kind of uncertainty with regard to what one does not control. It is precisely to the vast majority of the “undecided” that our work is addressed, not especially to fanatics who consider us to be ourselves part of the plot they denounce.

Conspiracy is, you write, a “lazy compensation strategy developed by people whose self-esteem is weakened”. But the rich and famous can also give in to it. For example, the rapper Gims, who assures us that the pyramids were power stations…

There is no single sketch of the plotter. Some enter into conspiracy out of narcissism, out of a need to distinguish themselves from the group; others, out of distress, to flee a reality that they cannot accept. And then it is established that one is more likely to adhere to conspiracy theories when one has the feeling of having failed his life, of being excluded from the game. Conspiracy is an intellectual crutch as well as psychological. This is the reason why it has less to do with intellectual disability than with intellectual laziness or psychological fragility.

As for Gims, he was obviously intoxicated by videos viewed on the Internet, like millions of other people. Except that he himself is a reference for millions of young people and that should involve a form of additional responsibility. Especially since he seems to be well aware of the sensationalist dimension of the theses he relays. Afrocentrism, which motivates his conspiracy around Egyptology, is a way of exchanging the racist myth of the superiority of the white man against another. The idea that ancient Egypt was a black African civilization and that this is deliberately hidden from us by historians combines two powerful political myths identified in his time by Raoul Girardet: that of the golden age and that of the conspiracy.

Do you claim political neutrality?

We produce reliable, honest, scrupulously sourced analyzes independent of any partisan allegiance. But we do not claim neutrality. Conspiracy has become an object of study for us because it was initially a subject of concern. We therefore clearly claim a commitment against conspiracy, which is an eminently political subject in the sense that it has political consequences. We believe that the trivialization of conspiracy and its spread are eroding the foundation on which our democracy rests.

In your eyes, is one form of conspiracy in particular more formidable than the others?

No. What worries me is seeing this vision of the world overflowing, to the point of persuading more and more people. And I don’t see what, in the short or medium term, will be able to make it ebb. The most plausible hypothesis today is that, by generational replacement, it will influence us more in the future than today. With all that this implies for our collective ability to make informed choices. The data we have suggests that the countries in the world where people believe the most in conspiracy theories are either failing democracies or authoritarian regimes… Conspiracy is an anthropological invariant, it is futile to try to eradicate it . That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t at least try to stem it.

* At the heart of the conspiracy, by Rudy Reichstadt. Grasset, 120 pages, €15.