Mr. Robot opens with protagonist Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek) breaking the fourth wall and telling the audience of a "conspiracy bigger than all of us," a group of elite, faceless villains who "are secretly running the world." It's not a revelation to say conspiracy is at the core of the show, but what is surprising is the depth of its psychological and historical roots, and how show creator Sam Esmail turns this into an advantage, contributing to its success and sparking imagination within its fandom. The show itself is a conspiracy within a conspiracy.
Before we continue, it's important to define what a conspiracy is. Rob Brotherton is an academic psychologist and author of Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories. He highlights an important misconception with the term. Conspiracies can be "lower-level" — such as insider trading or covering up a murder for insurance purposes — but the term is mostly used in reference to elaborate, grand concepts that are "unusually evil." Such theories go against the "official story" and find inconsistencies with significant events. Think 9/11.
#MrRobot relies heavily on these unusually evil tropes, splicing in clips from real-life events to add to their authenticity. For many fans, the show's validity is one of its most alluring attributes. The overarching conspiracy of a secret group refers to one of the most renowned theories of modern times — the illuminati. The idea that an elite group secretly but forcefully controls our democratic decision making and influences big, worldwide events. More aptly the idea that our "democracy has been hacked."
Brotherton explains that most conspiracy theories link to this unknown but omnipotent power that "conspires against entire groups of people, entire nations, to destroy our way of life or enslave us, kill us, or completely undermine our liberty and free will." In Mr. Robot, the instigators of such enslavement are E Corp, or Evil Corp as Elliot refers to them. Taking inspiration from Apple, Google and many high-level modern corporations, E Corp is an all-powerful conglomerate. Known for producing electronic products, they also own 70 percent of the global credit industry, making them the perfect target for the hack.
Paranoid Delusion Vs. Healthy Skepticism
Though a study from 2015 revealed the term "conspiracy theory" doesn't make something less believable, there are negative connotations. "People think about this stereotypical tinfoil hat, somebody who really has a hard time getting on in society. They have delusional ideas," explains Brotherton. The key difference between this type of delusional paranoia and healthy skepticism is the target of the alleged conspiracy. The former is centered in the belief that the individual is targeted. The latter is linked to issues that target society on a wide scale.
Although almost everyone is paranoid to some extent, such paranoia deals with mundane, day-to-day suspicions. Thoughts like "Do my co-workers talk about me behind my back," or "Do I have leftover lunch in between my teeth" arise occasionally to most people. Indeed, from an evolutionary perspective, we're slanted toward a paranoid, negative bias. The ancestors who were paranoid about the tiger in the woods are the ones who avoided being eaten alive. But when those thoughts turn to "the government is reading my mind," they enter the realm of mental health illnesses such as psychosis and paranoid schizophrenia.
Incidentally, those prone to delusional paranoia are also more likely to believe in conspiracy theories, again lessening their credibility. To keep viewers on their toes, Mr. Robot combines the believable with the not-so-believable. Elliot suffers from social anxiety, depression, dissociative identity disorder and hallucinations. He is the personification of the "tinfoil hat" stereotype, and he's the one telling the story. Elliot's delusional nature is made more complex by his involvement in a real conspiracy as leader of fsociety.
The unreliable narrator is a useful tool in getting audiences involved in the material. Brotherton initially began the study of psychology and entertainment after researching the music industry, intrigued by the way in which high-profile artists such as Jay-Z, Kanye West and Rhianna deliberately use mysterious symbols as part of their work. By picking up on these subtle references, this led to theories that they could be part of the illuminati. The artists denied any involvement, but genuine or not, it's an effective technique. Brotherton says:
"It's a wonderful business strategy. It works not just in hip hop but in TV and movies and any kind’ve fiction. It’s about bringing the audience in, making them active participants in the narrative rather than just feeding them everything.
"Put in an unreliable narrator, put in weird clues that maybe point one way or maybe point another way — that way people can get personally invested."
Linking Conspiracy Theories And Fan Theories
As well as planting clues in the show itself, from hints to time travel to curious red wheelbarrows, Mr Robot's promotion takes advantage of mystery and intrigue. The fires of speculation are fueled by a marketing campaign that is on the pulse, complete with false website for Ecoin (E Corp's currency) and suspect websites that contain clues hidden deep within their code. It's no surprise Sam Esmail embraces the fan's need to search, explore, investigate. Esmail has gone as far to say: "I love my all my Redditors. I am one of you."
These mystical clues bind the theme of the show and its fervent fanbase, particular the online Reddit community Esmail refers to. Our brains have evolved to spot patterns hiding within information. When it comes to entertainment, we don't want all the answers. Rather than spoon-feed, Mr. Robot does the opposite; it starves its audience of information. After the huge twist reveal of Mr. Robot's Fight Club inspired identity in Season 1, fans were on high alert for clues. Sure enough, the collective mind of Reddit spotted the big twist of Season 2 before it was revealed.
That leads us to another or Mr. Robot's sweet spots. The psychological process of creating conspiracy theories and fan theories are incredibly similar. "It's about searching for the hidden meaning, searching for clues, anomalies, things that don't seem to make sense," says Brotherton. "It's pretty much the same whether you're doing that about a real-world event, like the 9/11 attacks or the assassination of JFK, or doing it about something from fiction."
A worldwide conspiracy, an unreliable narrator and show full of clues makes for a perfect tonic for fandom. It's easy to believe these fears resonate because they're timely. Although Mr. Robot focuses on the fear of technology and how vulnerable our electronic devices can make us, this inherent fear is nothing new. In the 1920s and 1930s, after the invention of radio, Brotherton notes that there were widespread concerns that the technology would "degrade or corrupt American society, because it allowed people to spread ideas in a way they previously couldn't."
The internet, on the other hand, has changed the structure of conspiracy theories. Anyone can spread an idea rapidly. Due to the speed at which theories spread, Brotherton considers them "less well articulated" than they used to be, compared to a time when an essay, pamphlet or book was the only way to publicize an idea. "Now you just have to post on Reddit or whatever," he adds. "You can post a sentence, a Tweet, 140 characters, basically all you have to say is 'I think there's something happening here.' This strategy is called just asking questions. You don't have to come up with a coherent narrative or a coherent conspiracy."
The impact on fandom is almost the opposite. Thanks to large online communities, detective work is done before the end credits. Clues are collected from a large pool of people, with many fans creating meticulous, incredibly well-thought-out ideas. They usually have a solid basis, no matter how outlandish. Mr. Robot's conspiratorial nature allows for some eccentric theories; from time travel, cloning, to the theory Elliot isn't just Mr. Robot, he is a robot. They could be wrong, but they're sure as hell creative.
Conspiracies Resonate And Won't Go Away
The human mind loves to think in stories. We think in past, present, future. We mentally conceive our own "life story." It's this instinctive storytelling skill that makes conspiracies theories so seductive, a seduction that stretches back hundreds of years. The idea that there is a powerful force that needs to be overcome is the oldest story known to man. Joseph Gamble, the scholar of mythology and stories, makes the case that overcoming the monster is one of the classic narratives.
"In the earliest stories that we have recorded history of, like the Epic of Gilgamesh, this idea that there's a long, plucky, underdog that faces off against this monster and eventually overcomes," Brotherton explains. Often that monster is metaphorical, especially in relation to Mr. Robot. "What can make for a better monster than this vast, faceless, all-powerful, all-knowing conspiracy? A conspiracy that a plucky underdog or a group of plucky underdogs has to face off and try and overcome? It makes for a great story."
It's not a surprise that fsociety are inspired by the real-life, mask-wearing hacking group, Anonymous. Brotherton identifies the group as a "counter-conspiracy" who rely on our assumption that there are sinister, faceless groups out to get us. The ethos of holding the powerful to account makes them, at times, a social good. "The really worrying thing is when the people in the position of power are accusing less powerful people of conspiring," says Brotherton. Two words: Donald Trump.
The Great Fire Of Rome
The concept of conspiracy is so ingrained in society there's a case that some elements seek into creative projects unintentionally. Conspiracies stretch back thousands of years. The Great Fire of Rome, which took place across six days in AD 64, was an urban fire that caused huge amounts of damage. There are wide ranging conspiracy theories that Emperor Nero deliberately caused the blaze, and happily watched the fire unfold. Curiously, there's a link between Emperor Nero and one of Mr. Robot's biggest in-show conspiracies.
The Dark Army are a Chinese hacking group who support fsociety. They're led by Whiterose (B. D. Wong), a transgender woman whose alter ego, Zhang, is China's Minister of State Security. The involvement of China in a hacking scandal to destroy the US economy is not coincidental; it's a representation of the fear of the age. Brotherton references a 1994 study by Ted Goertzel which explored conspiracy theories at the time, revealing the top theory at was the threat that Japan may destroy America's economy.
The parallels with China's involvement in Mr. Robot are obvious. Most interesting is that, behind closed doors, Zhang is allies with Phillip Price, the CEO of E-Corp. The pair struck a $2 trillion deal to bail out the US, despite The Dark Army's involvement in the hack. In the post-credits scene after the finale of the first season, Zhang meets Price at an exclusive venue. He talks openly with Price by an open fire. Watching a woman play the harp, he references Emperor Nero. He tells Price Nero had the same instrument, adding: "Legend has it, he played it merrily as he watched Rome burn."
Coincidence? There's no such thing.
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