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What Joe Berlinger Learned Trying To Get Inside The Mind Of Conspiracy Theorists For 'Shadowland'

"Shadowland," a new docuseries on Peacock, explores the forces that drive people to extreme beliefs, often upending their own lives in the process.

By Jill Sederstrom
Joe Berlinger Talks Conspiracy Theory Docuseries ‘Shadowland’ Coming To Peacock

For months, Oscar-nominated filmmaker Joe Berlinger sent documentary teams across America to get unprecedented access to people promoting some of the country’s biggest conspiracy theories for his new docuseries “Shadowland.”

Inspired by reporting from The Atlantic, Berlinger wanted to take a closer look at how these ideas have taken root across the country, leading to an intense divisiveness and anger among the public.

The result is a six-part docuseries, premiering Wednesday as part of the first-ever Peacock DocFest, which takes viewers into the lives of conspiracy-minded Americans, including a Pennsylvania pizza shop owner, rocked by the forced closures due to COVID-19, as she prepares for an upcoming trial after storming the Capitol; a pastor who’s social media following grows exponentially after holding mask-free worship sessions; and a woman whose best friend was trampled to death at The Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. The documentary examines not only its subjects' internal beliefs, but the external factors, including the pandemic, the intense turmoil of America's politics, that sparked them to seek alternative explanations to the world around them, sometimes upending their lives in the process.

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“I have been amazed at the degree to which people have been, you know, captivated by conspiracy theories and the Atlantic reporting just further confirms … how mainstream this has become and for me, you know, the very foundation of American democracy is people coming together, having dialogue, agreeing on basic set of facts and doing what’s good for the greater good, but people aren’t agreeing on what the truth is and people aren’t talking to each other,” Berlinger told Oxygen.com digital correspondent Stephanie Gomulka on why he wanted to take the “deep dive” into the subject.

The divisive culture has prevented both groups from being able to understand each other, he said.

“We’ve divided into two camps, we demonize one another, we treat people on each side of the political divide as caricatures. I mean, it’s never been as bad as this,” he said.

To provide a more multi-dimensional view, the documentary takes a close look at the human side of its subjects and seeks to explain why people believe what they believe.

A still from the documentary Shadowland

“I felt like I wanted to go out into the world, immerse ourselves with people and really understand where they’re coming from so that we can promote some dialogue, because we are sorely lacking in real dialogue about what we are facing as a country,” he said.

Berlinger, who serves as an executive producer, said he discovered during the filming process that although many want to see the people who burst through the Capitol doors on January 6, 2021 as “just criminals and thugs” the reality is that many fervently believe they are the “good guys” standing up for American democracy.

“That to me, is scarier than just a bunch of thugs, you know, breaking in and rioting,” he said. “The fact that people truly believe that the election was stolen and that they were there that day to follow [former President Donald] Trump’s directive to save the country, that is more troubling to me because it’s reflective of these deep beliefs that people have.”

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Berlinger believes the reason why so many have grasped onto these conspiracy theories is that historically the country has not done a great job of providing a social safety net for the disenfranchised or those struggling in life, whether its with loneliness, financial hardship or health care.

For many, those challenges only grew with the COVID-19 pandemic.

“When something terrible happens, the human mind needs to make sense of it, needs to understand that it's not just a random event, so that that makes people more susceptible,” he said.

He added that some conspiracy theories are based on “a grain of truth.” For example, Berlinger pointed to the prevalent idea among conspiracy theorists that the world is run by 13 powerful families, who are moving toward one world government.

“Versions of that theory is one of the oldest conspiracy theories,” he said. “Obviously that’s not true…but money and influence has corrupted American politics, that’s true…so when you understand that somebody feels left out, you know that their life is not going well, and they feel like there’s a controlling influence, yeah, the conspiracy part of it is not true, but what is true is that corporations have influenced Congress on various decisions.”

According to Berlinger, that understanding has allowed him to “see things from their perspective” and as a multi-dimensional human being.

A still from the documentary Shadowland

One of the biggest challenges in creating the docuseries for showrunners was balancing the desire to treat the subjects in the series with respect and allow them to have some space to share their ideas, without promoting falsehoods.

“We don’t want people, for example, watching the show and thinking drinking chlorine dioxide is a good thing to do, so that was the challenge, you know, allowing people to have their humanity, to have their say, but also needing to make sure that some viewers won’t walk away believing in the conspiracy theories that they are talking about,” he said.

Along with Berlinger, other executive producers in the show include Craig D’Entrone, RadicalMedia’s Jon Kamen, Jen Isaacson, Jon Doran, The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, Adrienne LaFrance and Linzee Troubh.

The series is directed by Stephen Bailey, Alex Braverman and Eve Van Dyke.

To learn more, tune in to “Shadowland” streaming on Peacock now.

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