Guest Column by Joan Braune
I recently listened to a podcast in which two conspiracy theorists were debating whether the coronavirus was fake or a Communist plot. A third possibility—that the pandemic was both real and not deliberately caused—did not occur to either of them in the course of their conversation.
I listen to this kind of material because I research hate groups and far-right extremist movements, not because I agree with it. Over the past few years, my scholarly research, as well as community outreach work, has increasingly focused on the resurgence of violent fascist and white nationalist groups, their ideology and strategy, and how communities and social movements can resist their spread. Not everyone who believes in a conspiracy theory is a racist ideologue, but the hate groups I study are often deeply animated by conspiracy theories. Now, with many people spending more time online, feeling afraid, and struggling to find accurate information about the coronavirus, conspiracy theories are proliferating. The possible consequences of this, for individuals and society, worry me a great deal.
Conspiracy theories attempt to fill many deep human needs, needs that may perhaps also be met by religion: needs for belonging; an understanding of the world and one’s place in it; a sense of personal effectiveness (the ability to leave one’s mark on the world); a feeling of dignity and self-worth; a source of meaning; and even entertainment and excitement.
“Conspiracy theories,” as I am using this term, are quite different from the investigation of actual conspiracies, which surely sometimes exist. Governments, corporations, politicians, media outlets, and others with power or influence in society often have an interest in concealing truths. Viewing the world with a critical eye, and asking whether one is being presented with the whole story, is healthy for individuals and necessary for societies.
Rather than being based on critical thinking and openness to new information, conspiracy theories reveal their true nature by feeding all counter-evidence back into the theory itself. Conspiracy theories are inherently unfalsifiable. Did a scientist tell you good reasons to believe the earth is round, not flat, as you believe it to be? She must be “in on it;” all the scientists are part of the “round earther” conspiracy. Or, did the government deny the existence of extraterrestrial life? Well, what else would you expect them to say? They have to hide it! In this manner, conspiracy theories reveal that they are not based on thoughtful induction from “facts” (which they merely marshal as weapons for their cause), but on a blind faith which all facts are then forced to support.
It is not a coincidence that conspiracy theories are abundant during this global virus pandemic.
A global health crisis makes you feel afraid and helpless, but believing yourself to be privy to secret knowledge about the world’s power structure makes you feel like you are gaining the tools to fight back, to master your fear and expose your enemy. Staying inside and self-isolating to avoid exposure to the virus makes you feel lonely and possibly depressed, but conspiracy theories provide online communities and transform sadness into anger, directed at those perceived to be causing the depressing situation.
Those experiencing trauma, or reliving past traumas, may be desperate for a simple explanation that enables them to find rest and peace in the face of overwhelming fear, and conspiracy theories provide simplistic answers and an account of the “good guys” and the “bad guys” that tells you who to trust and who to fear.
If you are so overwhelmed by boredom in your new indoors existence that you are feeling extremely agitated, the intellectual high of unspooling a potentially infinite thread of imagined or tenuous connections between organizations, celebrities, and others, provides the thrill of uncovering secrets, of solving a puzzle, of doing something that seems urgent, and requires intelligence (conspiracy theorists are usually smart), to collect, catalog and organize a mass array of facts and half-truths.
And if you feel inadequate or worthless when confronting the difficult facts of our shared vulnerability, our inevitable mortality, and our powerlessness to definitively protect ourselves or our loved ones from illness, the conspiracy theory transforms you from a pawn of the system into a hero, one of the awakened ones, a truth-teller and freedom-fighter…and eventually, the Christ-like persecuted redeemer, rejected for speaking unpopular truths. Unlike those comfortable, pacified “sheeple” in their pajamas, those “normies” huddled together eating their quarantine snacks and watching Tiger King on Netflix, the conspiracy theorist feels special, chosen for a unique destiny.
Sadly, of course, it is the conspiracy theorist who is hoodwinked. There are many who are eager to recruit the alienated, the searching, and the afraid, and to control them by offering them a false sense of their own grand, world-historical significance. Many of those recruiting others to conspiracy theories are grifters, eager to make a quick buck by selling false remedies, half-baked truths, and propaganda. Others see an advantage for their own political agenda (such as reopening the economy at all costs to health), in allowing those they perceive as ignorant to believe conspiracy theories they know to be false—I think, for example, that a good bit of this may be going on in the involvement of fancy, well-funded libertarian think tanks organizing conspiracy-minded protests against the coronavirus shutdowns.
And still other promoters of conspiracy theories are cult-like manipulators recruiting for their ideology, such as neo-Nazis seizing upon an opportunity to slowly inculcate people into their violent, hate-filled worldview. Scratch the surface of nearly any conspiracy theory—the government is actually composed of shapeshifting reptiles; 9/11 was an inside job; George Soros is causing mass immigration; the earth is actually flat; the “elites” are drinking the blood of children—and you will generally find a fair bit of antisemitism in the mix. Historically based on a myth of secret global control by the Jews, antisemitism utilizes conspiracy theories to spread hate and violence against Jews. Islamophobia often follows similar patterns to antisemitic conspiracy theories, painting ordinary religiously practicing Muslims as part of a secret plot for global domination, while current anti-Asian racism tying Chinese people to the coronavirus also repeats similar patterns.
Of course, many of those drawn to conspiracy theories of various kinds would reject such hate-mongering. If you are drawn to some conspiracy theories because you simply identify as a critical thinker who seeks to know who benefits from the propagation of particular points of view and what those in power seek to hide from the public, I have some advice. First, check to see who is promoting the view you are inclined to believe, what other things those same people also believe, what else those people are doing, and with whom they associate. You may be quick to find a set of values and an agenda quite contrary to your own, and you may learn in the process that the theory is not based on strong evidence but merely serves to promote another set of causes and issues. In addition, you would want to ask yourself what would reasonably serve as counter-evidence for your view–is it falsifiable?–as well as whether your own life experiences or psychological motivations may be driving your inquiry past the point where truth is obtainable. It is often worth risking social rejection in pursuit of unpopular truths, but be careful to ensure that merely being contrarian, holding views rejected by the mainstream, or facing rejection for your perspective, is not something that you are taking as itself being evidence of the truth of your position. Whether a view is popular or unpopular has nothing to do with whether it is true.
I would suggest that critical examination of sources, openness to being disproven, and metacognition (thinking about your thinking) is often what separates a conspiracy theorist from an effective investigator of an actual conspiracy. Conspiracy theories cannot withstand such critical inquiry because they are not really about facts; in reality, they are stories—powerful stories: sweeping, epic, often apocalyptic narratives of struggle between the forces of light and the forces of darkness, often claiming to tell a tale that is decades, centuries, or even millennia in the making. They are myths wearing the mask of science. These myths quickly become idols, to which individuals become willing to sacrifice relationships, time, and even their own well-being, and in some cases, for which they are even willing to commit violence against innocent people.
Human beings need stories to survive, to make sense of ourselves and our world. Which stories we choose to elevate will impact who we will be when this crisis has passed. What we tell each other about what is happening, and more importantly what we tell ourselves, will shape the future of our society. We all have a responsibility, in my opinion, to seek good information, to question sources, to be open to new information, and to be careful never to hinge our sense of personal identity to a single, fringe and unlikely story.
Bob Dylan wrote a song about conspiracy theorists, called “Talking John Birch Paranoid Blues.” The song describes a man who sees conspiracies everywhere, and concludes, “Well, I finally started thinking straight when I run out of things to investigate. Couldn’t imagine doing anything else, so now I’m sitting at home investigating myself. Hope I don’t find out anything…good God!” Now that we’re all sitting at home, this might be a good time to investigate ourselves.
Joan Braune, Ph.D., teaches philosophy at Gonzaga University and serves on the Council of Experts for the Gonzaga Institute for Hate Studies. She does research, public speaking, and community work against hate groups and is currently writing a book on the resurgence of fascist movements in the United States and how to overcome them. She cherishes her interfaith upbringing by a Catholic and a Jew and has been involved in various interfaith dialogue projects, including serving as a founding member of Bridges Not Walls, a Spokane-based predominantly Catholic organization that seeks to build dialogue and friendship with the local Muslim community. She has published two books on Frankfurt School Critical Theorist, psychoanalyst, and activist Erich Fromm. Her writing represents her own views, not any employer or organization.