I think it’s time to start wrapping this series up… and I hope that this post will set us up for the denouement. Anyone who has been paying attention to any kind of media channel for the last few years can probably name one or two known conspiracy theories without stopping to think too hard about it. Some of these theories are pretty harmless (or, more accurately, only harmless to the people who believe them, to wit the flat earther who shot himself into the air to prove the flatness of the earth and died in the attempt, more here). The theories that fall into this category seem much more clearly false and are easily dismissed at dinner parties without resorting to fisticuffs. There is also the always-hilarious birdsarentreal.com which would die on the hill of birds-aren’t-realness even though it’s clearly satire. However, there has been an alarming upsurge in conspiracy theories that do appear to be driving sub-optimal behavior, whether at dinner parties or out in the world at large, including at the US Capitol Building.
As a reminder, when we started this series, we did start with some basic premises. The ones that will be critical for the purposes of this post are: (1) Joe Biden won both the popular and electoral vote in the 2020 presidential election (2) The January 6 insurrection was an insurrection and not tourists gadding about the capitol asserting their 1st amendment rights whilst waving confederate flags. (3) There is no evidence to support the fact that QAnon is anything other than a conspiracy theory.
With that caveat, let’s explore the wild world of what makes a conspiracy theory a conspiracy theory. Off we go!
What are the markers of a conspiracy theory? There are some consistent signs that a set of ideas is related to conspiracy thinking.
- Conspiracy theories tend to include conflicting beliefs. For example, those who question the validity of the 2020 presidential election believe both that the presidential election involved fraud that skewed its outcome and also that the results of the down-ballot contests were not impacted by fraud.
- Overriding suspicion is also a symptom of conspiratorial thinking. Theories tend to incorporate narratives that call into question the motives or veracity of those who question and point out illogic in conspiracy theories, thereby rendering discussion about disagreement impossible. For example, if one believes that journalists or the people who pay the journalists are themselves satanic, cannibalistic, sex traffickers (as QAnon posits), then one can discount their claims of not being those things…because that’s exactly what someone who is guilty of those things would say. Never mind the fact that it is also something that someone innocent of those same things would also say.
- The idea that there are people in powerful positions with nefarious intent is also baked into conspiracy thinking… so when you look at the lab origin theory of COVID-19 that we discussed in our last post you see that as scientists begin to consider lab origin as a realistic possibility, the nefarious intent is removed and the story is way less interesting, even as it becomes more reasonable and plausible (and, also, no longer a conspiracy theory).
- The sense that something MUST be wrong is also a marker of conspiracy theories. So, for example, when, on January 20, President Biden was inaugurated in spite of QAnon beliefs that something would happen at the last minute that would ensure a second term for President Trump, the QAnon theory morphed and evolved to include this fact rather than dissolving altogether under the weight of a prediction that didn’t come to fruition.
- In addition, conspiracy theorists tend to portray themselves as being persecuted, are not receptive to incorporating evidence that disproves or calls into question their beliefs, and often reinterpret random events as supporting evidence of their beliefs, which is a close cousin to our old friend confirmation bias, which we’ve discussed in prior posts. We all probably know people who fall into these traps. It’s easy to do!
How do we avoid falling prey to these theories, given that our brains like chewing on these complex narratives? Well, that’s tricky. Here are some suggestions:
- Check whether the news source is recognizable
- Ask yourself whether the information seems believable
- Ask yourself whether the information is presented in a professional style
- Ask yourself if the post is politically motivated
Oh, naïve handbook I consulted for this post published in March 2020 (link below), a lot can happen in just fifteen months. If you’ve been paying attention, this is a particularly complex recommendation in a world where the term “fake news” is used to fend off evidence that one’s own beliefs are false. Quite frankly, it is frustration with this logical conundrum that initiated this blog series to begin with. One strategy is to “pre-bunk” (a play on debunk) the specific theory before folks become adherents… but that doesn’t get us out of the murky water in which we currently find ourselves. Debunking can be ineffective if one’s sources are called into question by the structure of the conspiracy theory under discussion (i.e. the incorrect belief that Snopes is biased, see here for more info) .
So, at the very least, how do we discuss these topics with dinner-party companions without the aforementioned fisticuffs ensuing? I think most of us have simply steered away from such topics, which is an effective strategy for fisticuffs avoidance, but maybe not for stopping the spread of disinformation. How does one speak authentically and with caring to a conspiracy theory adherent? Here are some tips:
- Share sources from those who have become disillusioned with the theory. Those who once believed and now do not can share a compelling story. Here is a pre-January 6 testimonial of a person who stopped believing in Qanon: https://www.cnn.com/2020/10/16/tech/qanon-believer-how-he-got-out/index.html
- Affirm the need for critical thinking and the skills you know the adherent has in thinking critically.
- Show empathy and build understanding.
- Avoid ridicule.
So, fisticuffs have been avoided, we hope. But it’s always important to keep in mind that actual governmental conspiracies have existed throughout history. These conspiracies are leaned on heavily to argue that conspiracy theories have some degree of plausibility even without evidence to support them. Remember though, evidence is the key here. And it is all of our jobs to keep an eye out for evidence that disproves our beliefs… because of that “seems legit” thing our brains want to do. So source citations, peer reviewed articles, all of these things are our friends in fighting the battle against mis- and disinformation… and, as ever, the library is here to help to get you the information you need to be a productive member of society. We will do this in an unbiased way, but we will also provide credible sources and tell you if we can‘t find credible ones… and probably, if this is the case, be careful to point out how difficult it is to prove a negative proposition (i.e., that the proof doesn‘t exist full stop). We will, however, remain adamant in our adherence to the statement that birdsarentreal.com doesn’t prove that birds are not, in fact, real. In fact, we are pretty sure that even if, as the Birds Aren’t Real people claim, birds are actually spy robots, they are, in fact, still real in the sense that they exist. But that’s a whole ‘nother blog post.
That’s all for now!
For those of you who want to read more, I pulled a lot of this post from The Conspiracy Theory Handbook which is available free online at this link: https://www.climatechangecommunication.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/ConspiracyTheoryHandbook.pdf
More to come, but hopefully not too much more. I look forward to returning to quirky book-related content in the near future!