Conspiracy theories have always been a part of the American story. But while believers used to dwell at the fringes of polite society, proponents of some outlandish and deeply harmful theories have increasingly entered the mainstream.
Now, QAnon supporters, Sandy Hook truthers, birthers, Pizzagaters, anti-vaxxers and science denialists move openly in influential circles. They occupy powerful positions, legislative chambers and government agencies. Emboldened, fellow believers emerge from stigma’s long shadow to push their conspiracies further into the light.
We have entered a golden age for conspiracy theories – a crease in a candidate’s shirt can even spark one – and there’s a reason it’s all happening right now.
How did we get here? Looking back, the path was clear all along.
It starts with a crisis
Pick one. Let’s start with coronavirus. Understanding something as complex as a pandemic doesn’t play to humanity’s strong suits. We’re notoriously bad with risk and scale. Without deep knowledge of statistics or immunology, it’s hard to grasp the full impact of it all. Then there’s the paranoia, the economic fallout, and the crushing mental weight of isolation.
Add in some widespread unrest, and with it, shifting racial paradigms that chip away at closely held identities and narratives. Is that not enough? Don’t forget the full rancor of a divisive presidential election, one framed as a battle for the very soul of our nation.
In this environment, nothing seems clear. But at the same time, everything feels painfully, critically important.
“When there are huge events that challenge someone’s core identity, especially the American identity, there is a spreading of this type of thinking,” says Molly McKew, an expert on Russian influence and information warfare and a senior adviser for the Stand up Republic Foundation.
“Everybody feels that things aren’t going right for them and that the system is failing them. There is a quiet unraveling of everything that we trust.”
When the world is off its axis, concepts of truth and trust start to get dislodged. In the US, our commonly held notions of truth have been eroded by years of alternative facts and constant calls of “fake news.” Media outlets are branded as liars, and even long-respected scientific institutions like the CDC are shrouded with doubt at a time when their expertise is needed most.
“That kind of distrust is built up over time through the erosion of shared beliefs, of validity and objectivity, and of certain things in society that we all kind of agreed to,” says John Grohol, a psychologist and founder of the Society for Participatory Medicine.
Under the stress of crisis, these fractures of doubt can become chasms of mistrust.
For instance, McKew has worked in former Soviet states and observed how the Russian government has propagated disinformation campaigns at times of crisis to further certain agendas.
“A conspiracy theory tells you how things are supposed to make sense and where you fit in. This is normally a function provided by religion, or your sense of community, your society or your government,” she says.
“But we’re in this weird disruption era where all of those things feel very fragile and there is some open space to ask what the answers are.”
An easier explanation arises
Facing these world-altering problems, people search for the order in the chaos. Unfortunately, it’s not always that easy.
“We live in a super complex society that’s only getting more complex. And that means difficulty navigating those complexities,” says Grohol.
“With a conspiracy theory, a person can turn off that complexity. Wouldn’t it be simple instead, they think, to believe that there is, say, one group of people that has an enormous amount of power? In their mind, that brings more order to the world and simplifies it.”
Though some conspiracy theories seem outlandishly convoluted, the worldview they point back to is actually quite simple. It’s one of order.
Grohol mentions 9/11 and the various theories – all thoroughly debunked – that center around when and how the World Trade Center buildings fell.
“The complex, real explanation had to do with structural engineering and how the buildings were made and reacted to catastrophic destruction, but on a basic level it’s hard to understand because it’s such a tragic incident,” he said. “If we explain it with this other kind of logic, that makes it seem a little less tragic.”
In a world where everything is ruled by an unseen hand and everything happens for a reason, terrorists don’t fly pl