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‘This Place Rules’ gives a viewpoint to the many facets of America’s disinformation problem

Director and gonzo journalist Andrew Callaghan shows the many ways conspiracy theories fester

Courtesy of HBO

Andrew Callaghan’s documentary This Place Rules almost feels as if it’s coming from a place of parody in its beginning. Influencers Joker Gang and Gum Gang have disagreements that lead to a three-round boxing match. “This seems like a good way to start the movie,” Callaghan says. How would this faux celebrity feud fix in a context of a bigger story that chronicles extensive disinformation and division? Well. more of a comedy flipside of the increasingly dangerous tension that is building up throughout the country. The documentary is a narrowed timeline of sporadic interviews and instances that led up to the January 6th insurrection. Callaghan is seamlessly a gonzo-journalist fly on the wall to the growing dissent before and after the 2020 Presidential election. While the first few minutes are an example of the goofiness social media can bring into the world, there is also a danger where people can fall into dark pockets and become radicalized.

Callaghan’s journey takes him all over the country starting in November 2020. In normal times, perhaps most people would reject the notion of conspiracy theories of lizard people infiltrating governments and the remains of children being put in McDonald’s food. When Callaghan interviews various people who identify as right-wing at protests and rallies, they often retort slight pushback, saying they had a “gut feeling,” noting where they saw things on Facebook, or just using them as a cover for their own personal vendettas.

We, as a nation, are seen to be way beyond a consistent litmus test of rationality. This Place Rules is not so much of a singular timeline of the steps leading up to the Jan 6th Capitol Riot – rather than a series of observations through the eyes and mic of Callaghan. The calls for violence start to ratchet up as the weeks go on. Callaghan’s travels take him in front of disgraced Infowars host Alex Jones and Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio – both of who claimed they had no intentions to incite any violence (Jones’ claims are rebuffed by his speeches during that time). One of the main points this small documentary is trying to convey is that where there is discord and chaos, there is profit to be made. Callaghan shows how media outlets, figureheads, and networks utilize this for earnings while the people on the front lines breaking into buildings and spouting things verbatim are humans' shields to all of this. It’s a PT Barnum-like exchange.

Callaghan sometimes wades back into the silly in a scene where he and Jones briefly lift weights and attempt to drink alcohol simultaneously. But the urgency of the subject matter drags This Place Rules into a fit of controlled seriousness. One of the best tools Callaghan uses throughout the documentary is juxtaposition. Within the suburbs of Georgia, there's a family whose children are under the spell of qanon myths – almost acting like an encyclopedia for them. They play with nerf guns, but also don’t have many friends because their parents choose them to be home-schooled. We know that the lies of a solient green concoction making up McDonald’s food are false – it’s the confidence in which these children repeat these statements that is unsettling.

Just a few miles over, Callaghan visits a segregated neighborhood where a Black kid tells him he had lost his cousin to gun violence. There’s a stark contrast in who gets to believe in stolen elections and even spend resources attempting to storm the capitol. One of the final pieces of the puzzle resides in a man who is prolific in pushing conspiracy theories that Callaghan visits. At first, you may dismiss him like many other subjects – in this particular case, there’s hypocrisy anchored to his misplaced ire.

Are we merely prey walking around waiting to be trapped by the predators of unscrupulous thoughts, or are they just amplified many of the insidious thought patterns we tend to harbor? While January 6th happened, the disinformation machine is still present – some may argue that it’s as potent as ever. This Place Rules is not so much a look at how we got here, but rather than shines a spotlight on what is currently replicating.