The enduring appeal of conspiracies and what (if anything) can be done about it

By Justin Cremer

September 21, 2020

It happens to all of us. We’re scrolling through our news feeds and we come across something so outrageous that we are inexplicably compelled to click on it. That click leads to a few more and before we know it, we’ve gone down a rabbit hole of dark, conspiratorial thinking.

But why can some of us re-emerge from the rabbit hole shaking our heads at the crazy things we’ve read, while others go deeper and deeper, eventually reaching a Wonderland that bears little resemblance to reality? And what causes us to follow the digital White Rabbit to begin with? Why are conspiracy theories so prevalent and so appealing?

These questions feel more prescient than ever. As COVID-19 has spread across our physical world, an “infodemic” has invaded our virtual one. Whether it’s fake miracle cures or outlandish claims about microchips and mind control, the pandemic has unleashed a torrent of new conspiracy theories. But while the particulars may be new, conspiracy theories in general, and their appeal to a certain part of the populace, are not.

“There isn’t much new here except for the content,” Joanne Miller, a professor at the University of Delaware who specializes in political psychology, political propaganda and conspiracy theories, said during an Alliance for Science webinar. “One of the main causes of conspiracy theory endorsement is uncertainty and we’ve got sort of a perfect storm right now in a pandemic, where people have lost their jobs, their kids are at home, they don’t know how they’re going to juggle [it all]. That type of uncertainty leads all of us to want to seek out explanations. The downside of that very natural process of seeking out explanations is that sometimes we can go down the path of a conspiracy theory. We can connect dots that shouldn’t be connected.”

“Polluted information”

That dot-connecting process often starts when someone we know or follow shares a conspiracy theory online, whether willingly or not. That distinction essentially separates misinformation, the inadvertent spreading of falsehoods, from disinformation, the deliberate spreading of things the sharer knows to not be true. But parsing the difference between those two is tricky, fellow panelist Whitney Phillips said.

“Just because it started as one thing, doesn’t mean it can’t turn into another depending on who shared it and why,” Phillips, an assistant professor at the University of Syracuse who specializes in media literacy, said. “I use the concept of polluted information. Rather than focusing on mis- or disinformation, it instead focuses on downstream consequences and the broader impacts of this kind of information.”

More important than the actual piece of polluted information, Philips said, is “how and why it is incentivized to spread through social platforms.”

“[We need to look at] how the attention economy factors into that, how existing beliefs collide with algorithmic ecosystems and other sorts of filter bubbles. Sometimes we need to talk about the broader landscape in which this unfolds and not get caught up in having smaller conversations [about specific conspiracy theories],” she said.

Philips added that focusing on specific conspiracy theories in an attempt to debunk them can actually backfire by “amplifying them in all kinds of uncontrolled ways.” Trying to debunk a particular conspiracy theory can also be akin to a game of what Miller characterized as “a futile game of whack-a-mole.”

“You can point out logical fallacies or provide factual arguments that may chip away at a particular conspiracy theory, but if the psychological needs that gave rise to the belief in the first place still exist, there will always be another conspiracy theory waiting around the corner,” she said.

When belonging outweighs logic

That some of these conspiracy theories seem to directly contradict each other — for example, climate change deniers who in one breath insist that temperature readings can’t be trusted but in the next argue that records show global temperatures have actually been cooling — doesn’t seem to faze the believers.

“One of the things that characterize conspiracy theories is that they’re usually incoherent,” Stephen Lewandowsky, a psychology professor at the University of Bristol and co-author of The Conspiracy Theory Handbook, said during the Alliance webinar. “Once you scratch the surface a bit, you find there are mutually contradictory elements there. These contradictory elements are just put together under the umbrella of a conspiracy theory and the people who subscribe to the theory are perfectly happy with that.”

Conspiracy theories can also appeal to the socially isolated who, in latching onto a cause with like-minded individuals online, can gain a sense of belonging or community. Philips said the conspiracy theories “function as a cultural grammar” amongst believers, while fellow panelist Bright Simons, a Ghanaian social innovator and the president of mPedigree, said strongly held belief systems help people define who they are.

“There was a time when where you came from or who you were as a person was the primary hallmark of identity but now we live in an age in which what you believe in is what defines your identity,” Simons said.

Conspiracies are winning – what can we do?

But if conspiracy theories provide a sense of identity and belonging and are impervious to facts, can they be combatted? If friends or family members have latched on to a conspiracy theory movement, should we even try to pull them out of the rabbit hole?

None of the panelists could point to a silver bullet, and the enduring appeal of conspiracy theories means they are unlikely to be defeated. If anything, today’s digital media environment is more likely to make conspiratorial thinking go mainstream, as evidenced by the rapid way in which the QAnon movement — which posits that a secret cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles have infiltrated the US government and media and can only be defeated through a secret war led by President Trump — has quickly been embraced by elements of the Republican party. At least six Republicans who support QAnon to varying degrees are vying for Congress, with one, Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, a virtual lock to get a seat in Washington. Trump himself, meanwhile, has on numerous occasions amplified QAnon messaging via Twitter.

Lewandowsky and his Conspiracy Theory Handbook co-author John Cook argue that the most effective weapon against conspiratorial thinking is “inoculation,” or pre-bunking rather than debunking.

“There are two elements of inoculating people against misinformation,” Cook said in the Alliance for Science webinar. “There’s warning people about the threat that they may be misled and there’s the counter-argument to explain the fallacies or the techniques used in the misinformation. Our research shows that it’s actually the warning that does the heavy lifting.”

Expert opinion and rational thinking don’t work

The panelists cautioned that overemphasizing expert opinion often backfires. The consensus itself can just be viewed as another conspiracy theory, while historically, what at one time has been considered established expert opinion has often later been proven to be complete hogwash.

“If you go back in history and you look at some of the most vicious and pernicious conspiracy theories, a lot of them were promoted by ‘experts’ and in many cases backed by the state,” Simons said. “If you look at Germany under the Third Reich, a lot of the eugenics programs were actively sponsored by German universities. So the notion that merely allowing expertise to prevail will somehow address this program is ridiculous.”

Philips argued that it’s equally hopeless to rely on facts and rationality to win the day. After all, even those of us who see ourselves as impervious to conspiracies are also often irrational. It’s important, therefore, to not take a holier-than-thou attitude that may further push away those you’re trying to reach. The stakes are simply too high.

“It’s really, really important that we maintain a shared reality. What is true matters and we cannot have functioning democratic participation if there is no such thing as truth anymore,” she said. “But you need to be able to balance that with not alienating people with whom you could be having a meaningful conversation. People are dying because they don’t believe COVID-19 is real or that wearing a mask helps. That speaks to how important it is to respond to this kind of thinking strategically as opposed to antagonistically because that just simply isn’t going to work.”