Conspiracy theories, explained

Conspiracy theories, explained

2020-11-18 13:00:00
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Eleanor's father loved science – or so she thought. Eleanor grew up listening to stories about the Apollo missions and audio clips from space expeditions. Every weekend, they boarded the train together to downtown Philadelphia to visit the Franklin Institute, where they would explore the planetarium, flight simulators, and technology exhibits.

“It was our special thing,” Eleanor, now an elementary school teacher who asked Vox not to use her real name to protect her privacy, told me.

That was a few years ago. In 2020, Eleanor began to glimpse a very different version of her father.

“I'm going to a protest,” he told her in April. She initially assumed he was attending a Black Lives Matter march or similar event. But no – her father did protest against reopening the state of Pennsylvania, then shut down due to Covid-19, thinking the governor was exaggerating the threat of the virus.

Other dissonant moments followed. Eleanor's father didn't just disagree with Pennsylvania's Democratic government, Tom Wolf – suddenly Wolf was "a dictator". Her father began following fringe communities and groups online, arguing that masks "a muzzle and a monitoring device" were, a way for the government to somehow manipulate the population.

Then he enthusiastically began to repeat the false claims of Stella Immanuel, a Houston pediatrician who went viral earlier this year for claiming that hydroxychloroquine could "cure" Covid-19. (Immanuel also stated, among other things, that ovarian cysts are caused by sex with demons, that scientists are experimenting with alien DNA, and that reptilian humanoids run the government.) Once Immanuel appeared on a TV news segment, Eleanor's father and stepmother began cheering, as if they were at a political rally instead of watching at home. a far-right conspiracy theorist.

"I really thought," Is this early-onset dementia? ", Eleanor told me." It seemed so strange. "

Eleanor's story of a family member's startling, sudden embrace of conspiracy theories reflects countless others that have emerged in recent years, hand in hand with America's increasingly divergent ideological spectrum. The Age of Donald The Trump presidency alone has made numerous baseless conspiracy theories mainstream, with an increasing number anti-vaxxers that feed measles outbreaks from Pizzagate – the conspiracy theory that emerged shortly before the 2016 election, claiming that politicians ran a child trafficking ring – to countless Covid-19 hoaxes.

There is no hard evidence that conspiracy theories are circulating more widely today than ever before. But certainly in the past five years seemed like the average Americans have been buying more and more of it. Surveys of the past year have shown this a quarter of American citizens believe the mainstream media is lying to them about Covid-19, and it is "Certainly" or "probably true" that the outbreak was deliberately planned.

Meanwhile, making headlines is QAnon, a conspiracy theory spawned from Pizzagate that states Trump has been secretly working to capture powerful figures engaged in child abduction and trafficking. still a niche belief. But a quarter of those who know what it is think there is at least some truth in it, and that number is growing rapidly as the The QAnon theory is beginning to converge with the Covid-19 theories.

QAnon protesters are protesting in Los Angeles on Aug. 22.
Kyle Grillot / AFP via Getty Images

As 2020 moves into the house, new conspiracy theories seem to keep coming. The last? Trump's baseless allegations of voter fraud in the presidential election, which are repeated despite many of his followers zero proof, in every state, to support the claim.

“We are nine months into the pandemic,” said Ben Radford, a folklorist, psychologist and comrade with the Research Center whose research interests include contemporary conspiracies and hoaxes. & # 39; Some people don't have a job. There is a lot of uncertainty. And some people will channel that uncertainty into conspiracy theories. "

But how did we get to a place where previously science-minded and logic-loving fathers can easily find conspiracy theories, and where? once marginal paranoia is now embedded in the politics of our country? Why did baseless theories of health, science and sinister world leadership become so popular, and why now?

Let's take a look at the factors that led to the current conspiracy theory explosion – and what we can do to combat them.

Sociopolitical turbulence often leads to conspiracies

The history of conspiracy theories is somewhat short in relation to human evolution. According to Radford, the first conspiracy theories, as we may recognize them today, probably didn't come until the mid-15th century, with the invention of the Gutenberg press in the 1440s. Movable type allowed for greater dissemination of information – and a fearful reinterpretation of that information.

"Suddenly you not only have knowledge that is reproducible, but you also have other people writing about things that could have a different perspective," Radford said. This was the moment, he argues, when the first information conflicts arose about what was true and what was not.

Conspiracy theories have most often blossomed during times of great socio-political turmoil and uncertainty. "You see this kind of conspiracy boom when there has been political or social unrest throughout history," Sander van der Linden, a social psychologist who researches conspiracies in the Social Decision-Making Lab in Cambridge, told me. "Whenever there is great uncertainty in the world."

Consider the Salem witch trials of the 1690s, another transformative moment in conspiratorial thinking. These events were prompted by sweeping social and political changes in Puritan New England: frontier wars with Native Americans, increasing roles for women, and challenges to religious authority.

The predominant fear of the Salem witch hunters was not that the neighbor could be a witch, but rather that there was a vast network of witches that secretly gathered to do evil. This basic idea of ​​a covert network of culprits runs through most of the 20th century moral panic, from the anti-Semitic conspiracy theories spread by the Nazis to McCarthyism to the satanic panic of the eighties and nineties.

Conspiracy theories give people a sense of control when given troubling and disturbing information, calming our fears of the inevitable or unknown. "Many of these conspiracies detract from some of the scary themes in the world," Van der Linden told me. “Climate change, coronavirus. It's just another way of denying reality and thinking about your own vulnerability in the world. It's an escape for people who aren't that tolerant of insecurity. "

The trial of George Jacobs for witchcraft at the Essex Institute in Salem, Massachusetts, circa 1692.
MPI / Getty Images

For people who want a sense of order, conspiracy theories can provide a framework of belief – even if it is a negative one. "It tells people that the world is not just random," Radford said. "The world is going to hell, but there is a master plan. People take comfort from that, in a kind of perverse way."

Troubled times spawn conspiracy theories based on the principle of supply and demand: the conditions from which they were born lead to their proliferation.

But if conspiracy theories have historically been boosted by geopolitical turbulence, modern conspiracies have several other unprecedented factors working in their favor, starting with memes and misinformation.

The modern disinformation crisis allows conspiracy theories to flourish

Conspiracy theories are often seen as akin to folklore or urban legends – as mostly harmless "what if" entertainment. But in the United States, conspiracy theories hold a lot more power than these stories. The conspiracy theory can be a political weapon, thanks to some historian Richard J. Hofstadter called "the paranoid style": A tendency towards hyper-vigilant, alarming, and absolutist beliefs that stem from a combination of" heated exaggeration, suspicion, and conspiratorial fantasy. " "

This tendency, which Hofstadter thought belonged to only a small minority of people, now forms the basis of much of American politics. Once obscure conspiratorial ideas are now commonly used by national leaders such as Trump and members of his outgoing government, in particular to create further political tensions.

“Typically, folklore spreads without much deliberate guidance,” Radford said. "What has been fascinating in recent months and years is the armament of folklore and the armament of these kinds of legends in which you have, for example, Russian disinformation agencies."

Social media facilitate the dissemination of information, creating viral formats such as memes. Conspiracy theories are memetic – they mutate easily and take new forms – making them a perfect fit for social media platforms.

Supporters of President Donald Trump hold their phones up with messages referencing QAnon's conspiracy theory during a campaign rally in Las Vegas on Feb. 21.
Mario Tama / Getty Images

That's why blatantly absurd but long-lasting conspiracy rays – like the age-old fear that people in power kidnap children to drink their blood – can go on and on: these tropes are causing moral outrage and driving the public to spread the story, it then keeps changing into new forms, like stories in a game of Phone. For example, the trope "drinking the blood of children" – used for centuries to justify oppression of Jewish people – has been applied to QAnon's claim that powerful Democrats kidnap children harvest their blood. Such ideas, far-fetched as they may be, can continue to spread indefinitely as they transform and reach vast new audiences.

More people are benefiting from the spread of conspiracy theories than ever

It's not just social media that contributes to fear-mongering and the spread of misinformation: many controversial figures are spreading conspiracy theories not because they believe in them and want to warn the public, but because they may have different agendas.

Alex Jones, the host of the alarming far-right show Infowars, is perhaps the most successful, visible example of someone building an empire out of conspiracy theory lies – the more absurd the better. But he is not alone. Conspiracy theories flourish TikTok, Facebook, and YouTube (which has long been fought a battle against those who scattered them) not just because individual theories go viral, but because their creators can become hugely influential.

A prominent example is Teal Swan, a new-age vlogger notorious for inciting its 750,000 followers to suicidal thoughts. Swan released a video in May strongly suggesting that several world governments had facilitated the Covid-19 pandemic to take advantage of individuals, and that everyone who went into quarantine was "a herd animal" that was "controlled by others." If you do a Google search on Swan, the results suggest she's an American teacher. giving her undeserved authority – a status she shares with many other conspiracy theoretical gurus.

Another example is Dave Hayes, a Christian writer and YouTuber who has become a minor leading figure in the QAnon believers community after him claimed that God had explained QAnon to him in a series of prophetic dreams. Hayes and Swan have long built their brands around bizarre ideas; For example, Hayes is promoting a book on his website that he describes as a guide to prophecy and raising the dead. These numbers have little to lose by claiming to be authorities on conspiracy theories, and there's a lot to be gained – from YouTube revenue to lucrative consultancy gigs and book and writing sales.

This brings us to one who is directly benefiting from the recent spread of conspiracy theories in an atypical way: President Trump. Radford has argued that Trump's dedication to spreading baseless or unscientific ideas is a huge reason why conspiracy theories have become so popular in the past decade. “Like he or he hates him, Trump has used and profited and promoted conspiracy theories in a way that no previous president has done,” Radford told me. "It's just unprecedented." Investigators have found that when Trump publicly endorses a belief, his followers are more likely to believe itregardless of whether or not it is actually supported.

A sign in the shape of a Q is held up. President Donald Trump attends a Make America Great Again rally in Tampa, Florida on July 31, 2018.
Joe Raedle / Getty Images

Trump has a long history of promoting conspiracy theories dating well before his time in politics; in 2007, he claimed vaccines cause autism. His political career probably started when he started to spread the false "birther" conspiracy theory that President Barack Obama was not born in the US. Conspiracy theories have always been key to bolstering his devout voter base. His supporters' fear of & # 39; illegal votes & # 39; currently serves as the basis for Trump's attempts to dispute his election loss against President-elect Joe Biden.

Eleanor told me she blames Trump specifically for her father's rapidly evolving distrust in the mainstream media, which, like many Trump supporters, he now simply abbreviates as & # 39; MSM & # 39 ;. Rather than getting his information from mainstream media sources, Eleanor said, her father is using Trump's Twitter feed – which has recently been dominated by the president's baseless claims that the election is a scam – as its main news source.

"It's not even a conversation you can have with him," she told me, "and this is where I think Trump is so dangerous. What he's done to instill that mistrust in the media – you can't even say, “ Well, here's an article I read that's different from what you said. '' They say, “ Oh, like I'm going to believe CNN. Oh, like I was the New York Times gonna believe. & # 39; So it's all a lie. & # 39;

Eleanor believes Trump has encouraged this kind of thinking. “There used to be maybe a bit of shame or embarrassment” in the belief that social institutions like the media conspired against the people, she said. But now many people seem to give pride to this belief; her father, at Trump's explicit insistence, has claimed that the mainstream media is all part of the great conspiracy.

Eleanor's reluctance to discuss all this with her father for fear of the outcome is another factor in the inexorable spread of conspiracy theories: confronting them with criticism and logic only seems to make them stronger and more difficult.

Conspiracy theories are resistant and increasingly disruptive

People who adopt the conspiratorial mindset get three main benefits from this. First, there is an epistemic benefit: any conspiracy theory they believe in provides a framework for understanding the world and ordering random events. Second, there is an existential benefit in that conspiracy theory can distract them from facing their fears about socio-political unrest and uncertainty. And third, there is a social advantage, in that conspiracy theory provides them with a community of equally disaffected thinkers who can validate each other's fears and shared worldview.

The epistemic benefit is especially important given the increasing polarization across the ideological spectrum. Vox's David Roberts has this trend of 'tribal epistemology' in which & # 39; information is evaluated based on not conformance to common standards of evidence & # 39; but on whether your community or & # 39; tribe & # 39; advocates for it.

In this environment, Roberts argues, the primary institutions of society – government, academia, science, and media, which used to be considered impartial authorities – can be rejected if they contradict your tribe's worldview. Partisan refusal to compromise was once a sign of extremism, but is now almost expected, at least in certain tribes. So "truth" is what the tribal rhetoric says it is.

This cult-like approach to information can directly affect the way "facts" are sent and received. When people on both ends of the political spectrum view the news media as biased or corrupt, they tend to support even more biased, less objective sources of information. And because those sources tend to embrace conspiracy theories that tie in with tribal rhetoric, the theories become difficult to debunk.

Conspiracy theorists have what Radford describes as & # 39; self-reinforcing belief systems & # 39 ;, which is also part of the reason the theories spread so quickly – especially the political ones. An emotional byproduct of a conspiracy theory is often that the audience feels as if they have come to a profound new sense of the world on their own. "They think they think more critically, when in fact they think less critically," says Van der Linden.

"The conspiracy theory provides a point of entry for people," Radford told me. “They think they got the key, right? So they'll say, 'Well, if you're awake and you're taking the red pill, or the blue pill, or whatever pill it is, you know; you understands what's going on. & # 39; & # 39; People who have bought themselves often believe they can see patterns, codes and symbols that the rest of us can't – a false phenomenon called apophenia, which further confirms their beliefs.

A father and son wait for President Donald Trump to speak at a & # 39; Keep America Great & # 39; rally on Aug. 1, 2019 in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Jabin Botsford / The Washington Post via Getty Images

For those already unorthodox thinkers, the conspiracy theory offers some form of validation. Online, Van der Linden noted, “there's a whole community that posts the same thing, validates your beliefs, and you can chat with people who share the same worldview as yours. … You feel marginalized in society, but now you have a group that you belong to and (are) affiliated with. And it's a really strong way for people to feel socially empowered, to connect through these conspiracies. "

Once someone has accepted a far-fetched conspiracy theory, it often becomes easier to accept others. Even in cases where two conspiracy theories contradict each other, many conspiracy proponents will believe them both – because they have found an even deeper ground to explain the inconsistencies.

"And before you know it," said Van der Linden, "they are caught up in this worldview where everything is a conspiracy."

Many people who believe in conspiracy theories often don't just accept the theory as truth – they let it affect their entire lives. “We sometimes call (conspiratorial groupthink) a quasi-religious worldview,” Van der Linden told me. "It's not a religion because it's not institutionalized, but it has all the hallmarks of extremely religious groups."

A quasi-religious feature is how conspiracy theories seem to be rapidly changing the lives and relationships of their advocates. Families and friendships are becoming more common all over the US become divided about QAnon or similar conspiracy theories. (And lest you think it's a generation thing, it's not; children also fall into it.) On Reddit, where QAnon have walker groups recently banned, the subreddits r / QAnonCasualties and r / ReQovery provide family members with room to process what happened to their loved ones.

In a since removed post, one woman wrote about having to escape her family cabin after her mother and aunts took her there for a weekend retreat, in what she said turned out to be an attempt to isolate her and reprogram her to accept QAnon beliefs. accept. Although QAnon is not a religion, the community of the theory acts on its followers in similar ways, leading some to try to convert – or, failing that, avoid them – unbelievers.

"I think my 13 year marriage is over thanks to QAnon," detailed another member who said their partner had succumbed to the belief in QAnon.

"Today we started a discussion about (Supreme Court Justice) Amy Coney Barrett and although it started out as civil, it quickly blew out of proportion," another wrote. "My mother called me 'pure evil', said I was a demon … and that all the Democrats killed babies to drink their blood."

Reddit user graneflatsis, a QAnonCasualties moderator in his 50s, told me that a few common topics emerged from the forum that resembled stories of cult-like behavior: stories of QAnon believers who have mania as well as signs of sleep deprivation due to so much time spent researching and recruiting for the cause.

"Whoever is Q is just kept with it and added more sinister detail," graneflatsis told me. ("QAnon" can refer to the original 4chan anonymous poster, known as "QAnon" or "Q", the theories of which are the basis of the QAnon beliefs, or it can refer to the beliefs themselves, ie the QAnon conspiracy theory .) "QAnon has the right chemistry, as far as a conspiracy goes," said Graneflatsis. "Pizzagate has given QAnon a lot (momentum) that continues to this day. The story that these anons are saving the world is so appealing to people who are dissatisfied with the way things are. "

The sign of the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria on Connecticut Avenue in Northwest Washington, DC.
Alex Wong / Getty Images

A campaign rally guest holds a Q sign while President Trump holds a rally in Lewis Center, Ohio, on August 4, 2018.
Scott Olson / Getty Images

As much as conspiracy theories can bring people together, they can also alienate people from the larger society. "Conspiracies completely disrupt the extent to which people care about other people," says Van der Linden. Researchers have found, he added, that “one of the negative effects of conspiracy theories is that people are less willing to help others. People are less willing to be politically active, people are less willing to do something about global warming. "

At the very fringes of the conspiratorial belief system, this kind of us-them-them worldview can lead to violence. Graneflatsis told me that while "there is a subsection of people who like (QAnon) because it gives them some ammunition to use against Democrats," the QAnonCasualties moderators have had to ban countless QAnon supporters who were trying to recruit members of the community. , violent rhetoric.

Political scientists and researchers studying extremism have warned that QAnon in particular reflects the greater increase in extremism around the world and encourages its supporters to respond to extremist impulses. In the past year, QAnon supporters have reportedly got involved countless bizarre disturbances and crimes, including attempted kidnapping, plans to kill government officials, and Commit voter fraud. In 2019 the FBI labeled QAnon a brand of domestic terrorism.

But if some conspiracy theories are now viewed as forms of violent extremism, it shows how different the current conspiracy theories are from the traditional UFO or JFK variety. They seem to be disrupting the lives of more people than ever – which is why there is so much commotion about what we can do to dismantle them.

Conspiracy theories are not easy to stop, but empathy for believers is a critical first step

Most rational people tend to be shocked when confronted with a conspiracy theory that seems absurd to them is to use a combination of yelling, dismissive behavior and logic or scientific evidence to get the conspiracy theorist out of their belief. to talk. When all else fails, the rational person can resort to shunning the believer completely.

The problem with these approaches is that they generally make the believer feel defensive, doubling their belief systems. That's not an ideal outcome – especially considering that, as Radford and van der Linden both pointed out to me, many people, when left to their own devices, end up talking themselves out of a conspiracy theory. They often & # 39; wake up & # 39; with the discovery that is their favorite conspiracy theory actually more frills, racist, anti-Semitic, or otherwise dangerous than they realized.

This is where empathy comes into play. Radford stressed that conspiracy theories are not limited to one end of the political spectrum, and neither is the magical thinking that produces them. "If you take a deep dive into a particular person's belief system, you will likely come across at least some deeply held beliefs that are not based on factual basis," he noted. Believing in a conspiracy theory does not make someone stupid, ignorant, or bad. It just means they've come across bad information – and bad information is everywhere these days.

Almost everyone I spoke to when I told this story had a loved one who had adopted conspiratorial thinking to some degree. That's basically how graneflatsis ended up moderating QAnonCasualties. “My dad was brainwashed by Fox News into a really angry guy who would yell at the TV all day,” they said. Graneflatsis says they eventually talked their father out by applying a cocktail of logic, empathy, and good humor to ease the tension and keep things even and non-threatening.

One strategy that often works to persuade people to rethink their stance on fake news and propaganda is to discuss the common mechanisms behind the spread of disinformation. A key to recognizing the lie behind a conspiracy, says Van der Linden, is to note that the tactics of spreading a conspiracy theory remain the same even as the specifics of the theory change. The use of a false figure of authority, appealing to someone's anger and prejudice, and the urgency of the claim – these are all conspiratorial pillars.

To raise awareness of such tactics, Van der Linden's research team recently designed and released an online game, Go viral!, which teaches the player to recognize the factors that contribute to the spread of fake news. The game was based on research showing that people who are trained to recognize how misinformation spreads are less likely to be duped by it, or in turn spread it themselves.

That information could be helpful to Eleanor, who told me she wanted to talk to me for this story, partly as a form of therapy, and partly because she didn't know what to do. “I have a sister and a brother and I'm sure (my dad) is ashamed of the fact that we are all three dirty liberals,” she said. "We haven't talked about it at all. This conversation has not taken place."

Unfortunately, ignoring conspiracy theories in the hope that they go away, or out of fear that they acknowledge that they are being sanctioned in some way, may be the wrong choice. Left unchallenged, a conspiracy theory can cause a shift in people's views. For example, through his research, Van der Linden discovered that even 30 seconds of exposure to a global warming hoax can make people less willing to sign a petition to take action on climate change. “And that's conspiracy exposure among people who don't believe in conspiracy,” he told me. "Het zijn (niet) alleen de mensen die hierin diep verstrikt zijn, voor wie dit schadelijk is."

Maar voor degenen die uitgeput zijn door constante ideologische oorlogsvoering, is het negeren van marginale overtuigingen en de mensen die ze uitspugen misschien wel de gemakkelijkste optie. Van der Linden wees erop dat in het algemeen veel mensen opgebrand zijn. Idealiter, zei hij, zouden mensen “een netwerk en vertrouwen en steun hebben die verschillende ideeën over de wereld mogelijk maken. Maar ik denk dat het probleem is dat het geduld van mensen op is. Politieke vijandigheid heerst; polarisatie is momenteel te hoog om de voorwaarden te scheppen die daarvoor nodig zijn. ”

Toch, zei hij, is een benadering van 'actief ruimdenkend denken' de beste weg die hij heeft gevonden. "Ik denk dat aan het eind van de dag, weet je, een open geest iedereen zal helpen."

Maar iets wat Van der Linden me vertelde over een van zijn naaste familieleden, was zowel verontrustend als onthullend. Het familielid, ooit een die-hard 9/11 truther, is in de loop van de tijd minder geradicaliseerd – niet in het bijzonder vanwege de tactieken die van der Linden heeft ingezet, maar omdat hij een gezin stichtte en simpelweg minder tijd had om onderzoek naar complottheorieën te doen.

En dit – het leven volgt gewoon zijn gang – is wat Radford me vertelt dat uiteindelijk een einde kan maken aan de huidige golf van samenzweerderig denken die wordt gedomineerd door QAnon, ontkenning van het coronavirus en hun soortgenoten. Hij voerde aan dat er een "rage-aspect" is aan de huidige trend – dat complottheorieën en morele paniek al eeuwen bestaan, en hoewel de menselijke neiging om ze te omarmen nooit volledig zal verdwijnen, zal deze afnemen in het licht van politieke en economische stabiliteit. "Veel hiervan is geworteld in sociale bezorgdheid over politiek, over de pandemie", zei hij. "Vroeg of laat zal het leven geleidelijk weer normaal worden."

Toch valt niet te ontkennen dat we voortdurend worden geconfronteerd met strijd tegen verkeerde informatie, over onderwerpen van Covid-19 tot klimaatverandering, van vaccins tot stemmen. De legitimering van samenzweringen in het afgelopen decennium, vooral tijdens de Trump-regering, heeft de manier waarop velen van ons informatie ontvangen en accepteren fundamenteel veranderd, zodat nu veel mensen, zonder enig bewijs, wetenschappelijke methoden en op feiten gebaseerde journalistiek als verdacht beschouwen, en zie leiders die ooit vertrouwd waren als snode samenzweerders. De schade aan het vertrouwen van het publiek is ernstig geweest en zal niet gemakkelijk worden genezen.

En hoewel velen van ons verlangen naar het idee van een terugkeer naar normaliteit, lijkt het dwaas om kritiekloos te aanvaarden dat normaliteit terug zal komen om ons te redden. Samenzweringstheorieën lijken de Amerikaanse samenleving te hebben verschoven naar een steeds groter wordende kloof tussen geloof en realiteit – een waarin een consensus over wat 'normaal' is verder weg lijkt dan ooit.

A woman holds a sign that reads “Q Sent Me” outside the governor’s mansion on November 7 in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Stephen Maturen/Getty Images


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