The moon landing was faked, 9/11 was an inside job, Lee Harvey Oswald didn’t act alone, Adolf Hitler is alive in Argentina or maybe even on the dark side of the moon, the earth is flat, Area 51 houses aliens and Mark Zuckerberg is a lizard. Classic conspiracy theories like these ones are harmless in their refutability and apparent ridiculousness. The reasons they’re wrong are almost self-explanatory. They are preposterous on their face, and in being so are quite entertaining, both for those who believe them adamantly and for those who are more skeptical.
More alarming, however, has been the recent increasing proliferation of conspiracy theories that have directly contributed to destabilizing American democracy. QAnon and the denial of the 2020 election results in particular have directly contributed to a cascade of violence and an increase in misinformation and political polarization.
And with this rise in conspiracy theories, more and more elected officials are joining in conspiratorial conversations. The Jan. 6, 2021, storming of the U.S. Capitol by radical supporters of former President Donald Trump was allegedly encouraged by Trump himself, whose actions are currently under scrutiny in the Select Committee to Investigate the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Almost two years later, Trump’s radicalism has permeated throughout the Republican Party. Sixty percent of Americans voted for an election denier in this fall’s midterms. Of 552 Republican candidates running for governor, secretary of state or attorney general, 199 fully denied the results. Rather than challenging the false views of their voters and acknowledging the validity of our elections, they actively discouraged voters by questioning the reliability of their own voting decisions, undermining our democracy.
The recent attack on Paul Pelosi serves as another example of this phenomenon. The attacker, David DePape, believed in a number of questionable ideas: QAnon theories, denying the validity of the 2020 election and antisemitism. There is no doubt that this man’s extremist beliefs — common in the conspiratorial backrooms of the internet as well as more mainstream conservative sources — encouraged his violent actions.
Entering the Pelosi’s home at 2 a.m., he told Mr. Pelosi that he would wait for former Speaker Nancy Pelosi to arrive and then question her about the “truth” regarding the Democratic Party. He believed she was the “leader of the pack” of lies told by the party, and would break her kneecaps to set an example for Democrats in Congress if she didn’t tell him the “truth”.
This attack is yet another example of how fanatical belief in conspiracy theories can bring individuals to commit horrific acts. It is urgent that people in positions of power — people trusted by individuals such as DePape — push back against harmful conspiracy theories, even if discouraging such violent acts means losing favor with their electorate.
To understand the minds of believers, we must understand a bit about the psychology of conspiracy theories. Rackham student Gabrielle Kubi, a Graduate Student Instructor at the University of Michigan specializing in developmental psychology, explained how one’s development influences how gullible they may be to trusting misinformation, and how that affects their trust in established narratives.
“During periods of adolescence, people are experiencing renewed brain plasticity,” Kubi said. “We know that they are trying to navigate these developmental tasks to consolidate their identity and figure out who they are in the world. Because of that, this may be a time period where people are more open to ideas.”
She elaborated upon this by describing the experiences of many students in college, where the large-scale exchange of ideas leads many to rethink their beliefs and become more liberal or conservative due to increased independence and autonomy.
“On the flip side, personality becomes more concrete and cemented when people are older,” Kubi said. “The older you get, the less malleable your personality traits become. Knowing what we know about social psychology and persuading people, it is much easier to do that when the opinion you are sharing is similar to what the person already believes.”
This also explains phenomena such as groupthink, which are very common on social media platforms, where groups of people make one another more extreme by sharing closely related but ever more extreme ideas. Once you believe one conspiracy theory, you’re more inclined to believe another, and more likely to believe different versions of the same theory as well.
Something which may motivate people to violence is a concept known as hostile attribution bias, a condition common among individuals who faced negligence or childhood trauma growing up. According to Kubi, hostile attribution bias is “having a tendency to interpret something which is neutral as negative or an affront to you, and then responding with hostility.” This can affect people’s interpretation of news events, which in turn affects how people develop a political identity, what political ideology you subscribe to and which mainstream sources you trust.
As trust in media sources wanes, conspiracy theories flourish. Readers find sources that refute their established beliefs less credible. On social media, where attention-seeking algorithms are designed to retain users as much as possible, fake news can go viral in a matter of minutes. In fact, tweets containing misinformation are 70% more likely to be retweeted than truthful ones.
This was especially evident during the COVID-19 pandemic, which for many became a stepping stone into ideological extremism. The effort of finding someone to blame in lockdowns, in which practically everyone became detached from their pre-COVID lives, left many to assert that mask mandates and lockdowns were oppressive, theorize that the vaccine was harmful in many ways and that the virus was purposefully leaked in a lab in Wuhan — a theory touted by numerous Senate Republicans — and spread many other harmful theories.
According to Kubi, for many, believing in such theories allowed people to disassociate from the precarity of their situation – known as existential threat psychology. “Certain people held certain viewpoints about the vaccine not because they didn’t believe in the science or the public health implications, but because it was much easier to disassociate in a way and say, ‘This problem is not as serious as … people are saying it is,’ because if they were to acknowledge the severity of it, they’d be acknowledging the precarity of them being alive in the face of this pandemic,” Kubi said. Simply put, reality is sometimes too unpleasant to believe, so people look for comfort by placing blame on things that aren’t necessarily at fault for their situation.
Polarization and radical ideas aren’t always negative. In the racial reckoning of 2020, events that highlighted the brutality of police and abhorrent features of our established order motivated many to express radical anti-establishment beliefs, but ones that advocated for the betterment of society. Overall, however, the continued proliferation of conspiracy theories that upset our democracy and reality as a whole needs to stop if we are to hold any hope for the future of democracy in this country. Public trust in reputable news sources must be restored to offer people a stream of information that provides a factual retelling of current events.
A more educated public will lead to a population that is less inclined to believe disinformation and misinformation and thus less prone to increasingly extreme beliefs. Through education and trust in our institutions, we must build a country with citizens who think critically about current affairs and are able to respond accordingly to events that may upset the established order, rather than encouraging extremism. We must hold one another accountable to ensure that the United States continues to uphold the values of liberty, freedom and democracy on which it was built.
Maximillian Schenke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org