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Conspiracy theories, explained

Americans are embracing dangerous conspiratorial beliefs, from QAnon to coronavirus denial.

Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Eleanor’s dad loved science — or so she thought. Eleanor grew up listening to stories of the Apollo missions and audio clips from space expeditions. Every weekend, the two of them hopped on a train to downtown Philadelphia to visit the Franklin Institute, where they would explore the planetarium, flight simulators, and technology exhibits.

“It was our special thing,” Eleanor, now an elementary school teacher who requested that Vox not use her real name to protect her privacy, told me.

That was several years ago. In 2020, Eleanor began to glimpse a much different version of her father.

“I’m going to a protest,” he told her in April. At first, she assumed he was attending a Black Lives Matter march or a similar event. But no — her father was protesting to reopen the state of Pennsylvania, then under lockdown due to Covid-19, because he thought the governor was exaggerating the threat of the virus.

Other dissonant moments followed. Eleanor’s father didn’t just disagree with Democratic Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf — suddenly, Wolf was “a dictator.” Her father started following fringe communities and groups online, arguing that masks were “a muzzle and a control device,” a way for the government to somehow manipulate the populace.

Then he began enthusiastically repeating the false claims of Stella Immanuel, a Houston pediatrician who went viral earlier this year for claiming hydroxychloroquine could “cure” Covid-19. (Immanuel has also declared, among other things, that ovarian cysts are caused by sex with demons, that scientists are experimenting with alien DNA, and that reptilian humanoids are running the government.) Once, when Immanuel appeared on a TV news segment, Eleanor’s father and stepmother began cheering, as though they were at a political rally instead of at home watching a far-right conspiracy theorist.

“I genuinely thought, ‘Is this early-onset dementia?’” Eleanor told me. “It seemed so out of character.”

Eleanor’s story of a family member’s surprising, sudden embrace of conspiracy theories echoes countless others that have emerged in recent years, hand in hand with America’s ever more divergent ideological spectrum. The era of Donald Trump’s presidency alone has seen numerous unfounded conspiracy theories enter the mainstream, from increasing numbers of anti-vaxxers fueling measles outbreaks to Pizzagate — the conspiracy theory that emerged shortly before the 2016 election and alleged that politicians were running a child-trafficking ring — to numerous Covid-19 hoaxes.

There’s no hard evidence that conspiracy theories are circulating more widely today than ever before. But over the past five years, it has certainly seemed like average Americans have bought into them more and more. Surveys within the past year have shown that a quarter of US citizens believe the mainstream media is lying to them about Covid-19, and that it is “definitely” or “probably true” that the outbreak was intentionally planned.

Meanwhile, the headline-grabbing QAnon, a conspiracy theory that evolved from Pizzagate and posits that Trump has been working in secret to capture high-powered figures who are engaged in child abduction and trafficking, is still a niche belief. But a quarter of those who know what it is think there’s at least some truth to it, and that number is growing rapidly as the QAnon theory begins to converge with Covid-19 theories.

QAnon demonstrators protest on August 22 in Los Angeles.
Kyle Grillot/AFP via Getty Images

As 2020 enters the home stretch, new conspiracy theories seem to keep coming up. The latest? Trump’s baseless claims of voter fraud during the presidential election, which many of his followers are echoing, despite zero evidence, in any state, to support the assertion.

“We’re nine months into the pandemic,” said Ben Radford, a folklorist, psychologist, and fellow with the Center for Inquiry whose research interests include contemporary conspiracies and hoaxes. “Some people are out of a job. There’s lots of uncertainty. And some people will channel that uncertainty into conspiracy theories.”

But how did we get to a place where previously science-minded and logic-loving dads can find conspiracy theories with ease, and where once-fringe paranoia is now embedded in our country’s politics? Why did baseless theories about health, science, and sinister world leadership get to be so popular, and why now?

Let’s walk through the factors leading to the current explosion of conspiracy theories — and what we can do to combat them.

Sociopolitical turbulence tends to generate conspiracies

The history of conspiracy theories is somewhat short, relative to human evolution. According to Radford, the first conspiracy theories as we might recognize them now likely didn’t spring up until the mid-15th century, with the invention of the Gutenberg press in the 1440s. Movable type allowed for the wider spread of information — and anxious reinterpretation of that information.

“Suddenly you not only have knowledge that is reproducible, but you also have other people who are writing about things that may have a different perspective,” Radford said. This was the moment, he argues, in which the first conflicts of information arose over what was true and what wasn’t.

Conspiracy theories have most often flourished during times of great sociopolitical upheaval and uncertainty. “You see this kind of boom in conspiracies whenever there’s political or social unrest throughout history,” Sander van der Linden, a social psychologist who researches conspiracies at the Social Decision-Making Lab at Cambridge, told me. “Whenever there is significant uncertainty in the world.”

Take the Salem witch trials in the 1690s, another transformative moment in conspiratorial thinking. These events were prompted by sweeping social and political changes in Puritan New England: frontier wars with American Indians, expanding roles for women, and challenges to religious authority.

The prevailing fear of Salem witch hunters wasn’t that the woman next door might be a witch, but rather that a vast network of witches existed and were gathering in secret, plotting to do evil. This basic idea of a covert network of evildoers threads through most 20th-century moral panics, from the anti-Semitic conspiracy theories circulated by the Nazis to McCarthyism to the Satanic Panic of the 1980s and ’90s.

Conspiracy theories provide people with a feeling of control when presented with troubling and disturbing information, calming our fears of the inevitable or unknown. “A lot of these conspiracies detract from some scary themes in the world,” van der Linden told me. “Climate change, coronavirus. It’s just another way to deny reality and having to think about your own fragility in the world. It’s an escape for people who are not so tolerant of uncertainty.”

The trial of George Jacobs for witchcraft at the Essex Institute in Salem, Massachusetts, circa 1692.
MPI/Getty Images

For people who want a sense of order, conspiracy theories may provide a belief framework — even if it’s a negative one. “It tells people the world isn’t just random,” Radford said. “The world’s going to hell, but there is some master plan. People take comfort in that, in a sort of perverse way.”

Troubling times further breed conspiracy theories on the principle of supply and demand: The circumstances from which they are born lead to their proliferation.

But if conspiracy theories have historically gotten a boost from geopolitical turbulence, modern-day conspiracies have several other unprecedented factors working in their favor — starting with memes and misinformation.

The modern misinformation crisis allows conspiracy theories to flourish

Conspiracy theories are often seen as akin to folklore or urban legends — as mostly harmless, “what if” entertainment. But in the United States, conspiracy theories have much more power than these tales do. The conspiracy theory can be a political weapon, thanks to what historian Richard J. Hofstadter called “the paranoid style”: a tendency toward hyper-vigilant, alarmist, and absolutist beliefs that stem from a combination of “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy.”

This tendency, which Hofstadter thought belonged only to a small minority of people, now undergirds much of American politics. Once-obscure conspiratorial ideas are now habitually deployed by national leaders like Trump and members of his outgoing administration, specifically to create further political tension.

“Typically, folklore spreads without much intentional direction,” Radford said. “What’s fascinating over the past few months and years is the weaponization of folklore and the weaponization of these sorts of legends in which you have, for example, Russian disinformation agencies.”

Social media facilitates the spread of information, giving rise to viral formats like memes. Conspiracy theories are memetic — they mutate easily and take on new forms — which makes them a perfect fit for social media platforms.

Supporters of President Donald Trump hold up their phones with messages referencing the QAnon conspiracy theory at a campaign rally in Las Vegas on February 21.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

That’s why blatantly absurd yet longstanding conspiracy tropes — such as the centuries-old fear that people in power are kidnapping children to drink their blood — can keep going and going and going: These tropes trigger moral outrage, prompting audiences to spread the story, which then keeps morphing into new forms like stories in a game of Telephone. For example, the “drinking the blood of children” trope — used for centuries to justify oppression of Jewish people — has been applied QAnon’s claim that high-powered Democrats are kidnapping kids to harvest their blood. Such ideas, no matter how far-fetched, can keep spreading indefinitely as they transform and reach vast new audiences.

More people are profiting off the spread of conspiracy theories than ever

It’s not just social media that contributes to fearmongering and the spread of misinformation: Many controversial figures spread conspiracy theories not because they believe in them and want to warn the public, but because they may have other agendas.

Alex Jones, the host of the alarmist far-right show Infowars, is perhaps the most successful, visible example of someone building an empire out of peddling conspiracy theories — the more absurd, the better. But he’s not alone. Conspiracy theories flourish on TikTok, Facebook, and YouTube (which has long fought a battle against those who spread them) not just because individual theories go viral, but because their creators can become hugely influential.

One prominent example is Teal Swan, a new-age vlogger notorious for urging her 750,000 followers toward suicidal ideation. Swan released a video in May that strongly implied that various world governments had facilitated the Covid-19 pandemic to profit from individuals, and that anyone entering quarantine was “a herd animal” being “controlled by others.” If you run a Google search on Swan, the results suggest that she is “an American teacher,” thus lending her an unearned authority — a status she shares with many other conspiracy theory gurus.

Another example is Dave Hayes, a Christian writer and YouTuber who’s become a minor leading figure in the QAnon-believers community after he claimed that God explained QAnon to him in a series of prophetic dreams. Hayes and Swan have long built their brands around bizarre ideas; Hayes, for example, promotes a book on his website that he describes as a guide to prophecy and raising the dead. These figures have little to lose by claiming to be authorities on conspiracy theories, and plenty to gain — from monetized YouTube views to lucrative consulting gigs to sales of books and writings.

This brings us to someone who’s directly profited from the recent spread of conspiracy theories in an atypical way: President Trump. Radford has argued that Trump’s dedication to spreading unfounded or unscientific ideas is a huge reason conspiracy theories have gained such traction over the past decade. “Like him or hate him, Trump has used and benefited from and promoted conspiracy theories in a way that no previous president has,” Radford told me. “It’s just unprecedented.” Researchers have found that when Trump publicly endorses a belief, his followers become more likely to believe it, regardless of whether it’s factually supported.

A sign in the shape of a Q is held up President Donald Trump attends a Make America Great Again Rally in Tampa, Florida, on July 31, 2018.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Trump has a long history of promoting conspiracy theories, dating from well before his time in politics; in 2007, he claimed that vaccines cause autism. His political career arguably started when he began to spread the false “birther” conspiracy theory that President Barack Obama wasn’t born in the US. Conspiracy theories have consistently been key to galvanizing his pious voter base. His supporters’ fears over “illegal votes” currently serve as the foundation for Trump’s attempts to dispute his election loss to President-elect Joe Biden.

Eleanor told me she blames Trump specifically for her father’s rapidly evolving distrust of mainstream media, which, like many Trump supporters, he now abbreviates simply as “MSM.” Instead of getting his information from regular media sources, Eleanor said, her father uses Trump’s Twitter feed — which has been dominated lately by the president’s unfounded claims that the election was a scam — as his primary news source.

“It’s not even a conversation that you can have” with him, she told me, “and this is where I think Trump is so dangerous. What he’s done to just instill that distrust of the media — you can’t even say, ‘Well, here’s an article I read that differs from what you said.’ They’re like, ‘Oh, like I’m going to believe CNN. Oh, like I’m going to believe the New York Times.’ So it’s all a lie.”

Eleanor feels that Trump has emboldened this type of thinking. “Before, there was maybe a little bit of shame or embarrassment” in believing that social institutions like the media were conspiring against the people, she said. But now, many people seem to proudly indulge in this belief; her father, at Trump’s explicit urging, has claimed that the mainstream media is all part of the big conspiracy.

Eleanor’s reluctance to talk to her father about all of this over fear of the outcome is another factor in the inexorable spread of conspiracy theories: Confronting them with criticism and logic seems to only make them stronger and more difficult to quell.

Conspiracy theories are resistance-proof — and increasingly disruptive

People who adopt the conspiratorial mindset derive three main benefits from doing so. First, there’s an epistemic benefit: Whatever conspiracy theory they believe in provides a framework for understanding the world and bringing order to random events. Second, there’s an existential benefit, in that the conspiracy theory can distract them from facing their fears about sociopolitical upheaval and uncertainty. And third, there’s a social benefit, in that the conspiracy theory provides them with a community of similarly disaffected thinkers who can validate one another’s anxieties and shared worldview.

The epistemic benefit is especially important, given the rise in polarization across the ideological spectrum. Vox’s David Roberts has called this trend “tribal epistemology,” in which “information is evaluated based not on conformity to common standards of evidence” but on whether your community or “tribe” advocates for it.

In this environment, Roberts argues, the primary institutions of society — government, academia, science, and media, which used to be seen as impartial authorities — can be rejected if they contradict your tribe’s worldview. A partisan refusal to compromise was once a sign of extremism, but it’s now almost expected, at least in certain tribes. “Truth,” then, is whatever the tribal rhetoric says it is.

This cultish approach to information can directly impact how “facts” are transmitted and received. When people at either end of the political spectrum consider the news media to be biased or corrupt, they’re prone to support even more biased, less objective sources of information. And because those sources tend to embrace conspiracy theories that align with tribal rhetoric, the theories then become difficult to debunk.

Conspiracy theorists have what Radford describes as “self-reinforcing belief systems,” which is also part of why the theories spread so quickly — particularly the political ones. Often, an emotional byproduct of a conspiracy theory is to make the audience feel as though they’ve arrived at a profound new realization about the world on their own. “They think they’re thinking more critically, when in fact they’re thinking less critically,” van der Linden said.

“The conspiracy theory provides an access point to people,” Radford told me. “They think they’re given the key, right? So they’ll say, ‘Well, if you’re woke, and you’re taking the red pill, or blue pill, or whatever the hell pill it is, then you know; you understand what’s going on.’” People who have bought in often believe they can see patterns, codes, and symbols that the rest of us can’t — a false phenomenon called apophenia, which further validates their beliefs.

A father and son wait for President Donald Trump to speak at a “Keep America Great” rally on August 1, 2019, in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images

For those who are already unorthodox thinkers, the conspiracy theory offers a form of validation. Online, van der Linden observed, “there’s a whole community out there posting the same thing, validating your beliefs, and you get to chat with people with the same worldview as yours. ... You feel marginalized in society, but now you have a group that you belong to and [are] affiliated with. And it’s a really strong way for people to feel empowered socially, to connect through these conspiracies.”

Once someone has accepted one far-fetched conspiracy theory, it often becomes easier to accept others. Even in cases where two conspiracy theories contradict each other, many conspiracy advocates will believe both of them — because they’ve found an even deeper rationale to explain the inconsistencies.

“And before you know it,” said van der Linden, “they’re wrapped up in this worldview where everything is a conspiracy.”

Many people who believe in conspiracy theories often don’t just accept the theory as truth — they allow it to influence their entire life. “We sometimes refer to [conspiratorial groupthink] as a quasi-religious worldview,” van der Linden told me. “It’s not religion, because it’s not institutionalized, but it has all the features of extreme religious groups.”

One quasi-religious trait is how conspiracy theories seem to rapidly change the lives and relationships of their advocates. Across the US, families and friendships are increasingly becoming divided over QAnon or similar conspiracy theories. (And lest you think it’s a generational thing, it’s not; kids are falling for it, too.) On Reddit, where QAnon-peddling groups have recently been banned, the subreddits r/QAnonCasualties and r/ReQovery offer spaces for family members to process what’s happened to their loved ones.

In a since-deleted post, one woman wrote about having to escape from her family cabin after her mother and aunts brought her there for a weekend retreat, in what she said turned out to be an attempt to isolate her and reprogram her into accepting QAnon beliefs. Although QAnon is not a religion, the theory’s community acts on its followers in similar ways, leading some to try to convert unbelievers — or, if failing, to shun them.

“I think my marriage of 13 years is over because of QAnon,” detailed another member who said their partner had succumbed to belief in QAnon.

“Today, we began a discussion about [Supreme Court Justice] Amy Coney Barrett and while it started as civil it blew out of proportion so quickly,” another wrote. “My mom called me ‘pure evil,’ said I was a demon ... and that all Democrats were killing babies to drink their blood.”

Reddit user graneflatsis, a moderator of QAnonCasualties who’s in their 50s, told me that a few common themes had emerged from the forum that resembled stories of cult-like behavior: stories of QAnon believers displaying mania, as well as signs of sleep deprivation due to so much time spent researching and recruiting for the cause.

“Whoever Q is just kept at it and added more lurid details,” graneflatsis told me. (“QAnon” can refer to the original anonymous 4chan poster, known as “QAnon” or “Q,” whose theories form the basis of QAnon beliefs, or it can refer to the beliefs themselves, i.e., the QAnon conspiracy theory.) “QAnon has the right chemistry, as far as a conspiracy goes,” graneflatsis said. “Pizzagate gave QAnon a lot of [momentum] that lasts till today. The narrative that these anons are saving the world is so attractive to folk disenchanted with the way things are.”

The sign of Comet Ping Pong pizzeria on Connecticut Avenue in Northwest Washington, DC.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
A campaign rally guest holds a Q sign as President Trump speaks a rally in Lewis Center, Ohio, on August 4, 2018.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

As much as conspiracy theories can bring people together, they can also alienate people from larger society. “Conspiracies completely disrupt the extent to which people care about other people,” van der Linden told me. Researchers have found, he added, that “one of the negative effects of conspiracy theories is that people are less willing to help others. People are less willing to engage politically, people are less willing to do something about global warming.”

At the extreme edges of the conspiratorial belief system, this kind of us-versus-them worldview can engender violence. Graneflatsis told me that while “there’s a subsection of folk who just like [QAnon] because it gives them some ammo to use against Democrats,” the moderators of QAnonCasualties have had to ban numerous QAnon supporters attempting to recruit members of the community, many using violent rhetoric.

Political scientists and researchers who study extremism have warned that QAnon, in particular, mirrors the wider rise in extremism around the globe and encourages its supporters to act on extremist impulses. Within the past year, QAnon supporters have allegedly engaged in numerous bizarre acts of disruption and crimes, including attempted kidnapping, plotting to assassinate government officials, and committing voter fraud. In 2019, the FBI labeled QAnon a brand of domestic terrorism.

But if some conspiracy theories are now being considered forms of violent extremism, that indicates how different today’s conspiracy theories are from the traditional UFO or JFK variety. They seem to be disrupting the lives of more people than ever — which is why there’s so much clamor about what, if anything, we can do about dismantling them.

Conspiracy theories aren’t easy to stop — but empathy for believers is a crucial first step

The knee-jerk tendency most rational-minded people have when confronted with a conspiracy theory that seems absurd to them is to deploy a combination of yelling, dismissiveness, and logic or scientific evidence to talk the conspiracy theorist out of their belief. When all else fails, the rational person may resort to shunning the believer outright.

The problem with these approaches is that they generally make the believer feel defensive, which causes them to double down on their belief systems. That’s not an ideal outcome — especially considering that, as Radford and van der Linden both stressed to me, many people, when left to their own devices, eventually talk themselves out of a conspiracy theory. They often “wake up” to the discovery that their favorite conspiracy theory is actually more fringe, racist, anti-Semitic, or otherwise dangerous than they realized.

This is where empathy comes in. Radford stressed that conspiracy theories aren’t limited to one side of the political spectrum, and neither is the magical thinking that spawns them. “If you take a deep dive into any given person’s belief system, you’ll probably find at least a few deeply held beliefs that aren’t based in fact,” he pointed out. Believing in a conspiracy theory doesn’t make someone unintelligent, ignorant, or evil. It just means they’ve encountered bad information — and these days, bad information is everywhere.

Nearly everyone I spoke to while reporting this story had a loved one who’d adopted conspiratorial thinking to some degree. That’s actually how graneflatsis wound up moderating QAnonCasualties. “My father was brainwashed by Fox News into this really angry guy that would just shout at the TV all day,” they said. Graneflatsis says they eventually talked their dad out of it by applying a cocktail of logic, empathy, and good humor to cut the tension and keep things even-toned and nonthreatening.

One strategy that often works to convince people to rethink their positions on fake news and propaganda, meanwhile, is to discuss the common mechanisms behind the spread of misinformation. A key to recognizing the lie behind a conspiracy, van der Linden says, is to note that the tactics of spreading a conspiracy theory stay the same even if the specifics of the theory change. The use of a false authority figure, the appeal to an individual’s anger and prejudices, and the urgency of the claim — these are all conspiratorial mainstays.

To help spread awareness of such tactics, van der Linden’s research team recently designed and released an online game, Go Viral!, that teaches the player to recognize the factors that help spread fake news. The game was based on research that found that people who are educated to recognize how misinformation spreads are less likely to be duped by it, or to spread it themselves in turn.

That information might be useful for Eleanor, who told me she wanted to speak to me for this story in part as a form of therapy, and in part because she didn’t know what to do. “I have one sister and one brother and I’m sure [my dad is] ashamed of the fact that we’re dirty liberals, all three of us,” she said. “We haven’t talked about it at all. This conversation has not been had.”

Unfortunately, ignoring conspiracy theories in the hope they’ll go away, or out of fear that acknowledging them will somehow validate them, may be the wrong choice. Left unchallenged, a conspiracy theory can create a shift in people’s views. For example, through his research, van der Linden found that even 30 seconds of exposure to a global warming hoax can make people less willing to sign a petition to take action against climate change. “And that’s exposure to a conspiracy among people who don’t believe in conspiracy,” he told me. “It’s [not] only the people who are deeply entangled in this for whom this is damaging.”

But for those who are exhausted by constant ideological warfare, ignoring fringe beliefs and the people who spout them may just be the easiest option. Van der Linden pointed out that a lot of people, in general, are burned out. Ideally, he said, people would have “a network and trust and support that enables different ideas about the world. But I think the problem is people’s patience has run out. Political hostility is rampant; polarization is too high at the moment to create the conditions that are necessary for that.”

Still, he said, an approach of “actively open-minded thinking” is the best path forward that he’s found. “I think at the end of the day, you know, being open-minded will help everyone.”

However, something that van der Linden told me about one of his close family members was both unsettling and revealing. The relative, once a die-hard 9/11 truther, has become less radicalized over time — not particularly because of any tactics van der Linden deployed, but because he started a family and simply had less time to do conspiracy theory research.

And this — life simply taking its course — is what Radford tells me may eventually bring an end to the current wave of conspiratorial thinking dominated by QAnon, coronavirus denial, and their ilk. He argued that there’s a “fad aspect” to the current trend — that conspiracy theories and moral panics have existed for centuries, and while the human tendency to embrace them won’t ever disappear completely, it will diminish in the face of political and economic stability. “A lot of this is rooted in social anxiety about politics, about the pandemic,” he said. “Sooner or later, life will gradually return to normalcy.”

Still, it’s undeniable that we face ongoing battles against misinformation, on subjects from Covid-19 to climate change, from vaccines to votes. The legitimization of conspiracies over the past decade, especially during the Trump administration, has fundamentally altered the way many of us receive and accept information, so that now many people, without any evidence, view scientific method and fact-based journalism as suspicious, and see once-trusted leaders as nefarious plotters. The damage to the public trust has been severe and won’t be easily healed.

And while the idea of a return to normalcy is something many of us long for, it seems foolish to accept, uncritically, that normalcy will come back to save us. If anything, conspiracy theories seem to have shifted American society toward an ever-widening gap between belief and reality — one in which a consensus on what “normal” is seems further away than ever.

A woman holds a sign that reads “Q Sent Me” outside the governor’s mansion on November 7 in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Stephen Maturen/Getty Images
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