Everybody has a theory. Mine is that conspiracy theories can be irresistible principally because they let the believers in on a secret, giving them a feeling of exclusivity, a feeling that they have been indoctrinated into a wild, wonderful truth. This is why — despite most online misinformation stemming from malicious and targeted propaganda — there are so many ‘victimless’ theories floating out there, with absurd forwards that don’t tangibly benefit any organisation or political party. They exist merely because, at a time when most arguments can be cut short by looking things up, we need something apocryphal to throw our faith behind.
Fake news works because of our need to believe — which has never quite been the same as our need to know. Representing a mysterious shadow government, they work at Cognito Inc, where the public address system repeats just one phrase: “We are a company. We are a company.” Believe that and you’ll believe anything.
Our heroine, Reagan Ridley (Lizzy Caplan) is a scientist as talented as she is ambitious, yet despite saving the free world and creating a robot version of the president (and solving Artificial Intelligence in the bargain), she finds herself competing for the top job with an inexperienced man whose biggest contribution to work is bringing bagels to office. “I graduated Yale top of my frat,” boasts Brett Hand (voiced by Clark Duke) as Reagan sprains her eyes from rolling too hard. The other man in Reagan’s life is her father, Rand, a loose-cannon who once ran Cognito and now drinks himself silly while plotting revenge. Rand is voiced by Christian Slater, which really is reason enough to jump in.
The plots are silly and not unlike ones we’ve seen before — Futurama, American Dad and Venture Bros come to mind — but by literally (and constantly) manifesting the untruths spouted by racists and QAnon groups as the reality within the show, Inside Job makes it immediately apparent exactly how preposterous these ideas are. Flat-earthers, for instance, make an easy target, even though I wish the show also shamed anti-vaxxers — then again, it’s hard for any writer’s room to keep up with the flood of conspiracy theories being peddled out there.
Like in the best animated shows, the throwaway gags are terrific. In his office, the CEO of Cognito has a signed picture of himself with George W Bush next to one of him posing with Cthulhu. Public relations officer Gigi Thompson (Tisha Campbell) speaks about how she used to do “PR for the Kims,” by which she means she represented both supreme leader Kim Jong Un and supreme influencer Kim Kardashian. One of them, she confides, was responsible for way too many deaths. When Brett, bubbling with first-day enthusiasm, asks Ridley if Cognito is evil, she deflects as if by instinct: “Is Facebook evil? Is Starbucks evil?” (Must we ask?)
Inside Job — not to be mistaken for the insightful 2010 documentary of the same name about the US financial crisis, narrated by Matt Damon and also, confusingly enough, streaming on Netflix — deals with conspiracies big and small. The idea that Avril Lavigne died and was replaced by a lookalike (look it up) makes for a one-line reference while the existence of a sex cult on the moon — run by Buzz Aldrin, of all people, taking many a giant (and filthy) step for mankind — grows into an entire plotline.
There is always enough to snicker at, even though the series — while rightfully mocking outlandish theories — doesn’t quite get its hands dirty politically, choosing not to point fingers or blame sides. Instead all is blamed on nameless cabals. This makes the satire less pointed, but there is still enough to laugh at and to wonder about. Cognito invites you, for instance, to wonder exactly why you might have noticed product-placement in your dreams.
The thing is — given the leaders we have — it feels almost reassuring to think of a shadowy elite pulling the strings and putting bad actors through their motions. (It is also no coincidence that Reagan shares her name with one of America’s actor-turned-presidents.) I like the idea of at least someone knowing where we’re headed.
Finally, let me end with a theory to end the spread of fake-news: I suggest we get WhatsApp and the gang to charge a nominal amount — say 50 paisa — for each forward, re-post, retweet. The propagandists will still pay but people, I think, will keep their wallets and mouths shut. They will nod their heads and go about their day. How much can misinformation thrive when you have to pay to wag your tongue?
Streaming tip of the week:
The fifth and final season of Issa Rae’s brilliant and bewilderingly relatable comedy Insecure has begun on Disney+ Hotstar this week. If you aren’t already a fan, convert.
Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film and TV critic, screenwriter and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.