Down the rabbit hole

How conspiracy theories are changing the world for the worse

By Ben Olson
Reader Staff

There has never been a more difficult time and place for truth than present-day America.

When insurrectionists stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, they were united under a banner of support for former-President Donald Trump, but delving deeper into the matter shows a darker foundation: the widespread acceptance and consequences of belief in unfounded conspiracy theories. It is an issue that becomes more and more important as we travel further into a post-truth America.

What are conspiracy theories?

A conspiracy theory is a belief that some covert, often influential organization or group is responsible for a particular circumstance or event. It’s difficult to prove a conspiracy theory false in the eyes of those who believe in it, largely because they rely on circular reasoning and deny facts that disprove their beliefs.

Conspiracy theories are not a new phenomenon; belief in these fringe theories has been prevalent throughout human history, usually as a byproduct of societal crisis situations that cause impactful and rapid societal change that calls established power structures and societal norms into question.

“Evidence suggests that the aversive feelings that people experience when in crisis — fear, uncertainty and the feeling of being out of control — stimulate a motivation to make sense of the situation, increasing the likelihood of perceiving conspiracies in social situations,” wrote Jan-Willem van Prooijen and Karen M. Douglas in a paper published on the SAGE Journals website titled “Conspiracy Theories as Part of History: The Role of Societal Crisis Situations.”

van Prooijen and Douglas contend that people continuously experience substantial uncertainty and fear as a result of societal crisis situations, such as terrorist attacks, plane crashes, natural disasters or war.

Courtesy image.

“Since people have a fundamental need to understand why events occurred, particularly in the case of negative or unexpected events,” van Prooijen and Douglas wrote, “crisis situations often elicit sense-making narratives among citizens that become part of their representations of history.”

In other words, when the going gets tough, some choose to turn away from reality and invent their own narratives to explain the unexplainable. 

Looking back over some more notable conspiracy theories in modern American history, it’s easy to see this link between societal crises and invented narratives. After the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, several allegations arose that the CIA was behind the assassination. Also during the 1960s, the John Birch Society — a radical far-right organization — gave rise to a conspiracy theory that the United Nations would “soon arrive” in black helicopters to bring the U.S. under UN control. More recently, in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a theory emerged that President George W. Bush was involved in plotting and carrying out the terrorist attacks on American citizens — a conspiracy theory that still exists today. Finally, those who believe in the QAnon conspiracy theory think there is a secret cabal of Satan-worshipping, cannibalistic pedophiles running a global child sex-trafficking ring and plotting against Trump, who they believe will ultimately reveal the contours of the conspiracy and hold those responsible accountable in a “great awakening,” as they term it. 

Pairing each of these examples with what was going on in history is a visual clue for how these theories might have been born. The JFK assassination kicked off the turbulent decade of the 1960s, which saw the Cuban Missile Crisis, numerous assassinations, an unpopular war and a counterculture revolution in America. The John Birch black-helicopter conspiracy was a nod to the Cold War and feelings that Communist forces were amassing to take down America. The 9/11 conspiracies were born out of the trauma of the first attack on U.S. soil since Pearl Harbor. QAnon was born on an online message board called 4chan as right-wing extremists responded to the rise of the Trump administration, promoting divisive attitudes — among them that former-President Barack Obama was actually a Kenyan citizen and had falsified his birth certification, and that “crooked” Hillary Clinton was behind a variety of nefarious deeds — that polarized the nation.

Each theory grew as a byproduct of these particularly troubling times, and no matter how much evidence or science were marshalled to combat these theories, they were all still given oxygen by the next generation of conspiracy theorists. Sometimes that oxygen can erupt into a conflagration that shows just how dangerous fringe beliefs can be.

Picking and choosing the science

Joseph Uscinski is a professor at University of Miami, Fla., who has made studying conspiracy theories his life’s work. He’s published several peer-reviewed papers on the topic, including serving as editor of the multi-author study Conspiracy Theories and the People who Believe Them.

Uscinski told the Reader that a main reason so many conspiracy theories gain ground is that most people don’t think like scientists.

“They don’t sit around and scrutinize their conclusions rationally,” Uscinski said. “They’ll ignore evidence that doesn’t fit. … People pick and choose the science they want.”

Uscinski contends that belief in conspiracy theories are not tied solely to the far right, but cross the political spectrum.

“I’ve dealt with people who talk about the conspiracy theory regarding Obama’s birth certificate and they says it’s just stupid, but that there’s good evidence that Bush blew up the Twin Towers,” he said. “What this gets down to is, everyone likes to believe that their beliefs are true, so there must be good evidence for their beliefs. When you tell them there’s another reason for why they believe, they get upset … they can’t seem to detach these arguments about evidence — or the lack of evidence.”

A big tank of oxygen

When Trump entered the presidential race in 2015, he descended the escalator at Trump Tower and immediately began his years-long campaign to divide America and use fear to his advantage. Years before, Trump peddled the racist conspiracy theory about Obama’s birth certificate, claiming that the 44th president was in fact born in Kenya. After Obama finally relented and provided a copy of his long form birth certificate to prove he was born in Hawaii, Trump demurred, saying, “a lot of people feel it wasn’t a proper certificate.”

It’s not the only conspiracy theory that Trump has promoted. He also indicated support that there was a “Deep State” in his White House thwarting his actions, that Jeffrey Epstein didn’t kill himself, that TV host Joe Scarborough murdered an intern while he was a congressman, that Ted Cruz’s father was involved with the JFK assassination, that Obama “spied” on his campaign, that Osama bin Laden wasn’t actually killed by U.S. soldiers, that millions of people voted illegally in 2016 and, finally, that there was widespread voter fraud in 2020 that led to Democrats “stealing” the election.

With Trump in the White House — sometimes seemingly serving as conspiracist-in-chief — it was like a big tank of oxygen was added to the flames of dozens of conspiracy theories. It was anyone’s guess when the results of this effort exploded.

That’s exactly what happened on Jan. 6, when rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol — years of baseless conspiracy theories being made mainstream by Trump finally reached a culmination that resulted in the Capitol being breached for the first time since the War of 1812. It wasn’t the British nor foreign terrorists who led the charge, either — it was Trump’s own most-fervent supporters who truly believed that the election was “stolen” (despite any credible evidence) and the only way to right the wrong was to heed Trump’s words and descend on the Capitol, with the intent to halt the official counting of Electoral College votes that would certify Joe Biden’s win as the 46th president. The result, which left five people dead and dozens more wounded, is one of the darkest days in our modern history.

Uscinski said Trump’s rise to political power was due in large part to his ability to separate himself from the herd during the Republican primaries in 2016.

“When Trump got in the race in 2015, 25 other Republicans were running, all more experienced and more Republican,” Uscinski said. “He couldn’t compete on normal grounds to vie for party nominations, so he went after an underserved part of the Republican Party — the conspiracy theorists.”

Uscinski said it was Trump’s penchant for speaking in conspiratorial terms that helped galvanize this support, but the functioning of corporate media helped quite a bit, too.

“Because he speaks this way, in language that is clearly conspiratorial and endorses a lot of conspiracies, the mainstream media then had to cover it,” Uscinski said. 

In covering Trump’s baseless theories, the 24-hour news cycle gave him a megaphone to reach the far corners of the political spectrum where the fringe often invents its own realities to follow.

But… why?

One common question asked about those who believe in fringe theories is, “Why?”

“There are lots of different psychological factors driving belief in particular theories,” Uscinski said. “One of the things is the need for uniqueness. Someone wants to feel like they’re unique, so they’ll believe in a conspiracy theory.”

It’s this feeling of “uniqueness” that conspiracists cling to, believing that they are somehow in possession of knowledge that nobody else has. The same phenomenon plays out when talking with your friends about a popular band — there will always be one member of the group who claims they listened to the band before they were popular, when they were just playing dive bars or house shows. 

Everyone wants to be in on the ground floor, especially when it comes to knowledge. But it’s that desire for uniqueness that creates resistance to accepting facts that dispute theories outright. Sometimes it’s the very nature of a simple answer that gains someone’s attention.

“Conspiracy theories provide people with simplified answers, specifically to questions of how a certain crisis situation emerged, and which societal actors can and cannot be trusted,” van Prooijen and Douglas wrote in “Conspiracy Theories as Part of History.” 

“These answers are highly relevant for how people cope with crisis situations,” they wrote. “Crisis situations are likely to have the psychological effect on people that they become uncertain or feel that they cannot control their environment anymore.”

Put in simpler terms, conspiracy theories help some people make sense of the world by specifying the causes of important events, which further helps them predict and anticipate the future.

While some conspiracy theories are proven true — for example, Watergate and CIA “mind control” experiments on U.S. citizens — the vast majority are quickly debunked, yet continue to gather followers who reject science or facts, instead supplanting reality with their own version of events.

Conspiracy theorists are everywhere, with a large population here in North Idaho after decades of anti-government sentiments have resulted in several elected officials promoting fringe theories under the guise of their office.

Bonner County Sheriff Daryl Wheeler wrote a letter to Gov. Brad Little last summer protesting the governor’s stay-at-home order due to COVID-19, citing a letter from a Florida businessman that included conspiracy-loaded terms such as “globalism” and the “New World Order,” the latter a fringe belief that hypothesizes a secret power elite is conspiring to rule the world through an authoritarian world government, which will replace sovereign nation-states.

In the letter cited by Wheeler, the original author wrote, “President Obama was a puppet for the Globalists, and he helped equalize the power in the world by helping to build up other world economies (such as China).”

Moving forward

The most alarming conspiracy theory at present is the growing QAnon movement, which started online and now has followers throughout the world.

While some followers of Q claim they don’t believe everything involved in the conspiracy, the majority of adherents have indicated they will stop at nothing to shed light on the “truth.”

Newly elected U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., has recently made national headlines with her QAnon beliefs, facing several calls to resign after promoting support for a range of conspiracy theories. Videos resurfaced recently showing Greene harassing David Hogg, a Parkland, Fla., shooting survivor and gun rights advocate. She has also indicated that the 2020 election was “stolen,” that the Sandy Hook and Parkland school shootings were “false flags” and even indicated support for executing prominent Democratic politicians before she was elected to Congress.

Greene is facing harsh criticism from Democratic members of Congress, but so far has been given a pass by most of her Republican colleagues. She has rejected calls for her resignation and doubled-down on many of her more controversial statements.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., broke from his colleagues’ silence on Feb. 1, issuing a sharp rebuke of Greene’s comments, referring to her “loony lies and conspiracy theories” as a “cancer” on the Republican Party.

“Somebody who’s suggested that perhaps no airplane hit the Pentagon on 9/11, that horrifying school shootings were pre-staged and that the Clintons crashed JFK Jr.’s airplane is not living in reality,” said McConnell, who prior to the Capitol siege of Jan. 6 had been a steadfast supporter of Trump, regardless of his many baseless claims, and mounted a years-long campaign of obstruction against the Obama administration. “This has nothing to do with the challenges facing American families or the robust debates on substance that can strengthen our party.”

Greene quickly fired back on Twitter, claiming the “real cancer for the Republican Party is weak Republicans who only know how to lose gracefully. This is why we are losing our country.”

Instead of Republicans in Congress pushing back against Greene’s violent and fact-free rhetoric, she was instead given prominent assignments on the House Education and Labor and Budget committees — that is, a member of Congress who believes the Sandy Hook and Parkland school shootings were “false flag” events is now on an education committee.

How to avoid believing 

the unbelievable

Conspiracy theories are not unique to our time and culture. They have traveled alongside fear and crisis for generations, but with the instantaneous worldwide connection that the internet provides, these once fringe theories are now broadcast around the world.

Uscinski told the Reader that he set up a Google alert about eight years ago with a handful of terms, such as “conspiracy theory,” “aliens,” “bigfoot,” “JFK” and many others.

“I used to get about five or six news items and blog posts a day,” Uscinski said. “Now it’s over 100 every day. It’s a big topic. … This is the era of post-truth.”

Chances are, you or someone you know probably believes in at least one conspiracy theory. Some may balk at the idea of a secret cabal of pedophiles, but firmly believe that vaccinations cause autism. Others might laugh at those who believe the Earth is flat, but swear that millions of dead people voted in the 2020 election.

How do we, as a people, join forces to help stop the spread of conspiracy theories? How do we reason with those who do believe in unfounded fringe ideas?

The first step is not to spread false information in the first place. In order to reduce the spread of dis- and misinformation, media literacy needs to be taught in schools. Simply put, media literacy is the ability to identify different types of media and understand the messages that they’re sending. More to the point, it’s the ability to separate a real news story from the chaff that clogs our news feeds from overtly biased outlets and individuals.

Kids take in an enormous amount of information via the media on a daily basis. Between TV, newspapers, social media, memes, video games and advertising, most of today’s youth might think themselves savvy consumers of media when they are actually the ones with the biggest targets on their backs. 

Habits learned while young have a tendency to stick with us through the years, which is why it’s crucial to nip this problem in the bud before we’re too set in our ways.

According to a research published in the journal Science, American Facebook users over 65 shared nearly seven times as many articles from fake news domains as those aged between 18 and 29.

Media literacy taught in secondary schools will help the next generation be able to think critically and check sources before spreading information that has been debunked by reputable sources. Furthermore, when confronted with a conspiratorial theory, media literate students will have the tools to ask critical questions in order to suss out whether the “fact” they have read is really true, or is only serving to confuse or befuddle the argument.

Those who understand the flow of information might be more able to look at a particular story shared on BBC, AP News and ABC saying one thing and compare it to the blog post on flatearthglobalistpatriot.shadyurl saying another and determine which source seems more credible. Hint: It’s not always the source you personally agree with.

Skepticism is not necessarily a bad thing. Skepticism allows scientists to consider all possibilities and systematically question all information before arriving at a hypothesis. 

“Some amount of skepticism is healthy in a democracy,” Uscinski said. 

Where it breaks down is when skepticism turns into denial, which is the act of clinging to an idea or belief despite the presence of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Increasing our media literacy — both in schools and at home — can help separate skepticism from denial, allowing our next generation of thinkers to navigate the ever-turbulent waters of information gathering with more tools in their kit. Embracing educated skepticism can possibly help our future leaders to avoid the low-hanging fruit of conspiracy theories and think more critically when it matters.

“We live in a complicated world and common sense really isn’t that good,” Uscinski said. “That’s why we have experts. Things are incredibly complicated, but we’re able to get by because we rely on other experts. What conspiracy theorists do is eschew the experts and come up with their own conclusions.”

As part of his studies, Uscinski has identified a pattern between conspiracy theorists and education and wealth.

“In terms of education, in general, conspiracy thinking is associated with less education and less wealth,” he said.

That’s not to say that everyone who believes in chemtrails is stupid and everyone who knows the Earth is round is intelligent, but overall those who practice better media literacy are more able to determine whether a statement is true or filled with enough lies to send Pinocchio to the moon (which we did land on, as a matter of fact).

“There are an infinite number of conspiracy theories out there,” Uscinski said. “If we were to poll on all of them, most people will believe in at least one or two. Some believe them all. It’s not dichotomous between ‘us and them.’ We are all on a spectrum. We pick and choose the ones we want to believe in. … There have been a lot of answers to why people believe in conspiracy theories. It’s never going to be a simple answer.”

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