Sep 08 2020

QAnon and Other Conspiracies

I previously wrote that the flat Earth movement is the mother of all conspiracies – it essentially is the ultimate conspiracy in that, if you believe that the world is actually flat then you also have to believe that there has been a massive conspiracy involving millions of people all of the world over centuries. If “they” can lie to us about the shape of the world, then they can lie to us about anything. Once you have been convinced that the spherical nature of the Earth is a grand conspiracy, then you can believe anything. Facts, expertise, authority all cease to exist. And that, I think, is the point. That is the appeal of flat Eartherism – it gives you permission to believe anything you want, to reject any claim, any fact, out of hand. You have the freedom to construct reality the way you wish, and can dispense with the tedious part of having to deal with actual reality.

Recently another conspiracy has been getting more attention, and may have eclipsed the flat Earth theory as the most extreme conspiracy. This one is more of a politically-based rather than science-based conspiracy, but that is not as critical as you might think. Phenomenologically they are the same, and the subject matter is actually secondary. But in any case, the Q conspiracy holds that Hillary Clinton and other prominent Democrats are part of a world-wide cabal of Satan-worshiping cannibalistic pedophiles who are trying to secretly take over the world. Further, Trump is actually secretly a genius who is working behind the scenes, with Mueller and in some incarnations with JFK Jr. who is secretly still alive, to uncover this cabal and bring them to justice (an event they call the “Storm”), and when he does he will usher in a golden age.

As with the flat Earth, the first reaction someone might have to hearing these conspiracies is that they are incredibly dumb. They are epically stupid, in a childish way. That may be true, but if you stop there then you miss what is actually going on. Also, it is very tempting to conclude that because the conspiracy theories themselves are mindbogglingly ridiculous, that people who believe them must be themselves “epically stupid”. But I don’t think that’s true, and that conclusion misses the actual phenomenon at work.

First, we have research to help inform this question. For example, a 2018 study of the cognitive styles of people who believe in conspiracies found:

“These people tend to be more suspicious, untrusting, eccentric, needing to feel special, with a tendency to regard the world as an inherently dangerous place,” Hart said. “They are also more likely to detect meaningful patterns where they might not exist. People who are reluctant to believe in conspiracy theories tend to have the opposite qualities.”

Other research finds that those who believe in conspiracies have a more intuitive style of thinking, while an analytical style is protective of conspiracy thinking. These features do not necessarily relate to other aspects of “intelligence”. If anything, being generally more intelligent may lead to greater susceptibility to conspiracy theories because you are better able to rationalize. This seems counter-intuitive – how can being smarter make you more likely to believe something so stupid? This does not seem (ironically) intuitively satisfying, but I think that’s because “intelligence” is not one thing but many things. Clearly, people who believe that the world is flat or really any aspect of QAnon are lacking some intellectual resource – it may just not what we think of as basic intelligence.

In part we need a more thorough neuroscientific approach to conspiracy thinking. Not to be overly reductionist (this is also a cultural and psychological phenomenon) but it would help to understand what is happening in the brain of people who believe things that are so obviously ridiculous. There already exists research that may inform this as well. A 2010 study, for example, found that when people are confronted with a charismatic leader who aligns with their ideology, the critical thinking part of their brains actually turns off. The insight here is that people are not intellectually one thing – we are a combination of abilities and tendencies, which may be more or less active in different situations. Someone who might be technically brilliant, and normally savvy, might turn into a true-believer under the right set of circumstance.

What, then, are the circumstance that might lead the more vulnerable to accept absurd theories? This is the big question that many are asking in the face of flat Eartherism and now Q. A recent article in the NYT gives a pretty good summary. Charlie Warzel, a writer who has covered this topic extensively, argues that the current conspiracy surge is partly due to psychology and partly due to social media. The psychological part I have already covered extensively in this and other posts on this blog. Some of the features that lead to conspiracy thinking are fear, the desire for a sense of control, and the desire to feel special. Conspiracy theories are a narrative, an overarching story that helps us make sense of a complex and often scary world. It also helps that it gives the illusion of knowledge, of peeking behind the curtain to see what is really going on, and paints the conspiracy theorist into the role of savior.

Social media does not create this, but it does pour gasoline onto the conspiracy fire. Warzel argues that social media not only spreads conspiracy theories, but it helps early proponents monetize their absurd beliefs. We still live in a capitalistic society, and the effect of monetization should not be underestimated. But further, social media makes it easy for proponents to knit themselves into a community. Once that happens, then the conspiracy itself becomes a source of belonging, of identity, of purpose. (Where we go one, we go all.) These things are psychological and emotional crack. It doesn’t matter how smart people are in other ways, that part of their brains gets subverted, either turned down or enlisted to rationalize the absurd beliefs.

All of this suggests a few things that can reduce the magnitude of the conspiracy phenomenon. The best method, as always, is education. The more people learn to add an analytical filter into their beliefs, the better. This includes the usual triad – scientific literacy, critical thinking skills, and media savvy. People, in short, need to be inoculated against absurd conspiracies before they are psychologically hooked.

Social media also needs to be more proactive in policing “fake news” on their platforms. Now they react only when it’s already too late. Past a certain point conspiracy communities are self-sustaining and no longer need specific social media platforms.

Warzel argues that the media also needs to learn how to deal with these conspiracies. Now they tend to white wash them, scrub them of the more really bizarre claims that are not suitable for the evening news, and strip them down to their more palatable components. But this just helps promote them. It’s like any cult – they don’t tell you the real crazy shit until you are already in deep.

Moving in the right direction will take understanding, and leadership. This is, unfortunately, not something I expect to happen.

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