Mar 06 2018

The False Flag Delusion

Recently Robert Ussery, 54, who founded conspiracy website Side Thorn, and his partner Jodi Mann, 56, were arrested for harassing parents who lost a child in the mass shooting that took place at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs on Nov. 5, 2017.

Last year Florida Atlantic University professor James Tracy was fired from his job, and lost his law suit to get his job back, for harassing the parents of children killed in the Sandy Hook massacre. Tracy believes the event was a hoax, and the parents just “crisis actors.”

The courageous high-school students from Parkland, Florida who decided to turn their tragedy into activism have been rewarded by also being accused of being fakes.

This is now a regular feature of mass shootings – after the tragedy survivors will be harassed by conspiracy theorists who believe they are part of some government hoax, a false flag operation. Such accusations are nothing new, but they have seemed to reach a new level and are now a regular part of the cultural landscape.

As you might imagine, there is a spectrum here. At the mild end there are regular people who fell down a social media rabbit hole and didn’t have the critical thinking experience to navigate it. They watched a YouTube video, which helpfully provided links to other similar videos, and before long they started to question the “mainstream narrative.” They fall victim to the notion that there are so many problematic details to the official story, something smelly must be going on. Even if they don’t buy the full crazy conspiracy theory, they are left with the impression that the government must be hiding something.

At the other end of the spectrum are people who are diagnosable. They have schizophrenia or some other delusional disorder, and would likely benefit from being under professional care. Unfortunately, our infrastructure for dealing with serious mental illness in the US is terrible. We don’t have a mechanism for ensuring that everyone is getting the level of care that they need. Those with certain kinds of serious mental illness, the sort that makes it difficult for them to function on their own, tend to bounce between prison and short term hospitalization, and then back to the street. Substance abuse and homelessness are rampant in this population.

Mental illness is definitely one part of the problem with mass shootings themselves. Many shooters (but not all) have mental illness but fell through the giant cracks in the system. But the problem goes way beyond mass shootings. We need to rethink our approach to serious mental illness (not medically, but institutionally) and increase the funding and resources dedicated to providing adequate shelter, support, and treatment.

In between the casual YouTube viewer and the person with serious mental illness there is the full spectrum of conspiracy theorists. Individuals also have every permutation of cultural influences, personal influences, and baseline personality. There does seem to be a sweet spot of people who are high functioning, but whose belief in conspiracy theories is pathological and delusional. When they fall down the conspiracy rabbit hole you get a level of fanaticism that leads to things like harassing parents who just lost a child in a horrific mass shooting.

Surveys on belief in conspiracy theories reveal this type of person. While many people believe at least one conspiracy (42% of people without a high school education believe in at least one conspiracy theory, compared to 23% of people with a post-graduate degree), there is a minority of people who believe every conspiracy, even when they are mutually exclusive. For them, rejecting the mainstream explanation is the important thing, not the details of the conspiracy itself.

Researchers have correlated certain psychological features with belief in many conspiracies, which gives some insight into the conspiracy phenomenon. People are more likely to believe in a conspiracy after they have suffered a loss. This suggests that conspiracy thinking is in part a defense mechanism, a way to perceive possible threats, or to relieve cognitive dissonance. We lost our job not because of some failure on our part or just bad luck, but because we are victims of a conspiracy.

Another study finds that conspiracy theorists want to feel special – that they are part of a privileged elite group that have the ability to see through the veil and know the truth.

From a critical thinking perspective it is important to recognize that when we talk about conspiracy theorists we are referring to a thought process, not necessarily the notion of conspiracies themselves. Often when I write about conspiracy theories (invariably, actually) there will be one or more comments to the effect that – well, real conspiracies exist. Of course they do – that’s not the point.

Anytime two or more people get together and conspire to do something nefarious, we have a conspiracy. There have also been large conspiracies perpetrated by governments and corporations.

The point is not that there are no conspiracies, but that conspiracy thinking is a pathological and often delusional process that leads to a false belief in bizarre and often grand conspiracies that are not supported by logic or evidence. The “grand conspiracy” is one that is so large it could not feasibly exist. It requires a level of coordination, sophistication, and control that is simply not possible. Such grand conspiracies would collapse under their own weight in a short amount of time.

But most importantly, what needs to be recognized about conspiracy thinking is that it is logically pathological, because it is a way of assuming a conclusion, and then using belief in the conspiracy itself to rationalize all evidence or lack of evidence. Conspiracy thinking is confirmation bias on steroids. Any little detail is interpreted as “100% proof” that the conspiracy is real. Conspiracy theorists engage in anomaly hunting – searching for anything that seems even superficially odd to them, and then offering that as evidence for a conspiracy.

Any problems with their logic or evidence are then covered over with even more conspiracy thinking. The conspiracy, for this reason, tends to get deeper and wider over time, as more and more people have to be involved in order to maintain the conspiracy. Before long the conspiracy theorist believes in a world-wide shadow government that controls everything.

No evidence, and no argument will break a conspiracy theorist out of their belief. The conspiracy worm has burrowed deep into their brain and is now in full control.

Even studying and analyzing conspiracy thinking as a phenomenon is part of the conspiracy. I am just trying to delegitimize the conspiracy theorists. In fact, some conspiracy theorists are part of the conspiracy – they put forward ridiculous and easily refuted conspiracies in order to make all conspiracy theorists look bad. These are the kinds of things that conspiracy theorists believe in order to fend off all attempts at reasoning with them.

Conspiracy theorists see themselves as the only true skeptics, because they doubt everything. But it is a pathological form of skepticism, because they leave themselves no way to distinguish reality from fiction. If you don’t believe anything, then you are not discriminating. Believing everything or nothing is equally fallacious. The point of skepticism is to follow a valid process to distinguish what is probably true from what is probably not true. Conspiracy thinking does not do this – it just assumes that everything is a conspiracy, and then uses an invalid process to support that assumption.

We are making progress in understanding conspiracy thinking, but this does not necessarily suggest a solution. Social media has also given conspiracy theories jet fuel, but the tendency has always been there. As with many things I discuss here, the only real solution is to teach critical thinking, and you have to get to people before they fall down the conspiracy theory rabbit hole.

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