There has been a conspiracy theory about virtually every major event or discovery in recent human history, from the death of Elvis to the Lockerbie disaster to the addition of fluoride in tap water. If it has happened, conspiracy theorists purport to have access to the truth about it. But even if you're familiar with modern conspiracy theories, you might still be surprised to hear that there is a community of people who believe, fervently and with great seriousness, that Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart are secretly married with a baby.
I can see your raised eyebrow from here. According to all the normal celebrity evidence (paparazzi photographs, interviews, and publicist statements), movie stars Pattinson and Stewart broke up a while ago, and are now happily involved in new relationships — Pattinson and musician FKA twigs, and Stewart and Alicia Cargile. But there remains a very vocal minority who insist that this is, for a variety of reasons, a smoke screen — and that in reality Pattinson and Stewart's famously crashed-and-burned-in-a-Mini-Cooper former relationship never actually ended.
What might seem to be the twisted thinking of a few crazed Twilight super-fans, however, actually asks some very interesting questions. What does this particular conspiracy theory reveal about the power of celebrity, the Hollywood publicity machine, and truth and delusion in the age of the Internet?
The Allure Of Conspiracy Theories And The Internet
We live in a conspiracy-heavy time. In his 2000 history of modern conspiracies, Conspiracy Culture, Peter Knight points out that we've got a lot more cynical as a society since the 1960s, with many people coming to believe that it is necessary "to be a little paranoid to remain sane" – and that conspiracy theories have mushroomed with every new move forward in communication technology. The smartphone and the internet have made it profoundly easy to build theories and gather evidence where none seems to actually exist — so much so that the World Economic Forum pointed out the use of social media to spread "misinformation" as a global trend in 2014.
So what's the appeal behind believing in a conspiracy theory? Professor Stephan Lewandowsky, an expert on conspiracy theories and their psychology at the University of Bristol, told me that it's often about control in a chaotic universe.
"One reason that conspiratorial thinking is attractive to some people," he said via email, "is because it — ironically — provides them with a sense of control. Major events (such as 9/11) are very frightening, and it is even more frightening to view them as 'random' events that hit us by surprise. The world makes more sense if it appears controllable and planned."
"I still truly believe in my heart that that Rob and Kristen are still together," a commenter under the name Arleen P. said. "I am going to love them no matter what."
The allure of being privy to a secret is also hard to resist. The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown's smash hit conspiracy thriller about the Bible, the Catholic Church and the descendants of Jesus, has been dismissed as complete nonsense by historical experts — but at least part of its selling power was its promise of behind-the-scenes access to a particularly opaque and powerful institution. Buying into a conspiracy theory provides believers with both a sense of belonging and a sense of superiority.
Why Hollywood Gossip Is Perfect For Conspiracies
Hollywood celebrity gossip is often a fertile breeding ground for conspiracy theories because historically, Hollywood has often been less than forthcoming with the truth. Hollywood history is rife with celebrity relationships and personal situations that were concealed from the public at the time, from Eartha Kitt's reported threesome with Paul Newman and James Dean to heartthrob Rock Hudson's homosexuality. This has produced the (probably accurate) idea that, whatever the official statement by a celebrity says, it's probably barely telling us the half of it.
The Robsten conspiracy itself (which supposedly originated in the comments of gossip site Gossip Cop) however, is complicated. Some theorists seem to think Stewart has had one child, others think that she's pregnant with another, and still others believe that Pattinson's relationship with FKA twigs is just for promotion. Several blogs scour paparazzi photos of either celebrity for bystanders that resemble their "partner." As for why the marriage is kept secret, a Robsten believer called Cindy explained that this is "to keep the crazies away from his [Robert's] wife and let the focus be on the fake up".
The Peculiar Problem of Robsten
You can't talk about Pattinson and Stewart without talking about Twilight. The success of the book and films, and their violently passionate fandom, is well-documented. This was clearly a franchise that spawned intense, creative feelings and attachments.
That — plus the high-wattage former relationship between its two romantic leads — made it prime conspiracy fodder. "I still truly believe in my heart that that Rob and Kristen are still together," a commenter under the name Arleen P. wrote on a Robsten fan website's comment page. "I am going to love them no matter what." Emotional investment is the key to being a conspiracy theorist, experts believe, and one study found that profound emotional uncertainty made people more likely to believe conspiracies.
A Robsten critic under the name evilengine09 added, "The world is not black and white, unless it makes you happy to believe it."
Interestingly, it has been proven psychologically that belief in one conspiracy theory tends to lead to belief in others; once a fundamental distrust of "authorities is in place in our lives, it's much easier for our brains to override future evidence, even if the several conspiracy theories contradict one another.
I didn't get to ask if any of the Robsten conspiracy theorists believed that NASA faked the moon landings, though. They never gave me the chance.
What Robsten Conspiracy Theorists Really Believe
I found a few sites that explicitly aligned themselves with the Robsten conspiracy, and left polite posts in the comments sections, asking if anybody would be willing to talk to me about how they felt about their fandom and beliefs. (I'm not identifying them here because I don't want to embarrass any of the commenters.)
What happened next was a bit overwhelming. I was deluged with comments — nearly 100 in three hours on one site. Many were by the same group of four or five commenters, repeatedly returning to the site to correct each other, fight viciously amongst themselves and proclaim their point of view. The replies had an angry, sarcastic quality and were quickfire, often only a few words long. There is apparently "evidence" for the existence of the marriage and baby, according to these commenters — including legal certificates and a confirmation from one of Stewart's employees — but nobody was willing to produce them for analysis, and several blog owners deleted my questions. There is also, as FKA twigs herself acknowledged in a 2014 tweet, a serious and very disturbing streak of violent racism running through the idea that Pattinson's relationship with a woman of color is somehow fabricated.
Sorting through the replies, I learned that the modern gossip conspiracy theorist isn't the classic caricature of an old man with a tinfoil hat in a bunker. Many of the commenters seemed to be grown, educated women — one referenced caring for a crying newborn baby, another that she was 31 and about to graduate from business school, a third that she was writing a novel based on sites like the one in question. All were pedantic, bored (they answered within milliseconds of one another), and clearly deeply emotionally involved...but they also seemed rational.
"If they were so sure of themselves they wouldn't be coming here trying to defend it. Secretly I think they know we are right."
Professor Lewandowsky backs this interpretation up. "Some conspiracy theories are nuts, but that doesn’t mean the people who believe them are necessarily nutters," he told me. "There are many highly-functioning individuals who believe that global warming is a hoax created by greedy scientists to usher in the World Government."
The most interesting part? At least 50 percent of those who responded to my comments were non-believers, who patrol Robsten websites to taunt believers. They were, if anything, just as fervent as the Robsten truthers themselves. "If they were so sure of themselves they wouldn't be coming here trying to defend it. Secretly I think they know we are right," one believer, Janie, commented. Dessica McCoy, one of the most vocal non-believers, said she patrols "because I hate to see people lied to and manipulated." Janie fired back: "Don't kid yourself. You are emotionally invested."
Though psychologists have studied conspiracy theorists at length, there has not yet been much in-depth examination of the people who devote themselves to fighting against conspiracies. Is it fueled by a normal impulse to challenge to irrational thinking — or is it part of the same inherent psychological need for order and control that drives conspiracy-lovers? As a Robsten critic under the name evilengine09 said, "The world is not black and white, unless it makes you happy to believe it."
Sanni K. commented passionately, "We know what we believe!" But I'm not entirely sure that they do. What's clear, however, is that nobody wanted to talk to me about why they believed it, when it began, or how it made them feel. The belief itself, and the violent performance of defending their belief, was all that mattered.
Offline, perhaps these women don't discuss this aspect of their lives: none agreed to be interviewed by deadline, and blog owners were actively angered by my intrusion. This might be because of fear — not of exposure, but of losing the "exclusive" nature of their knowledge. Outside confirmation of a marriage/baby would, ironically, mean that their insider status was diminished. The idea of being included in an elite "in-the-know" minority is an ego boost — particularly if we feel vulnerable or excluded in other areas of our lives.
Online, however, the Robsteners know who they are, existing in a vitriolic and cynical but strangely relaxed social space, where they feel in complete control. And everything was Robsten, and nothing hurt.