From Area 51 aliens and Bigfoot sightings to deep state cabals and QAnon fanatics, conspiracy groups proliferate content on social media, often eclipsing fact-based news.
There are numerous explanations. Some experts believe conspiracy theories flourish in environments of political or social unrest. They point to former President Donald Trump’s conspiratorial claims of voter fraud fueling the Jan. 6 insurrection.
Psychologist Jovan Byford says conspiracy theorists seek an ordered, controllable world and “flourish when social machinery breaks down and available ways of making sense of the world prove inadequate for what is going on.”
University of Chicago political science professor Eric Oliver, who studies conspiracy theories, posits a deeper divide than ideological tags like right-wing, leftist, socialist, progressive or conservative: intuitionists vs. rationalists.
In the podcast “The Science of Conspiracy Theories and Political Polarization,” Oliver notes the rational part of our mind grasps clear fact-based logic whereas the intuitive part functions in “the dark, murky, unconscious well of the soul.” That creates anxiety about the uncertainty of the world, triggering the impulse to find answers as quickly as possible in the search for certainty.
COVID-19 has intensified that search. Adam Enders, a political scientist at the University of Louisville whose research links conspiracy theories with politics, explores how entrepreneurial politicians tap into populist sentiments, communicating this message: “I know you feel this way. Let me remind you that you feel this way. And then let me connect that to important things that are happening, like this upcoming vote, or this policy.”
Zack Stanton wrote for Politico Magazine that conspiracy theories thrive in “the misinformation pandemic” and now constitute part of mainstream political discourse as “leaders weaponize them for their partisan benefit, and neutral, trusted sources of information lose sway.”
While experts differ on what causes a conspiracy theory, social psychologist Karen Douglas has defined it as a proposed plot conceived secretly by a powerful group of people with sinister goals and something to gain by deceiving the best interests of the public.
Replace “conspiracy theory” with “fake news” and journalism morphs into “enemy of the people.”
Trump was impeached for inciting an insurrection. There was ample social media chatter that the Capitol would be stormed because of lies about the election. In fact, on Jan. 5, on Poynter, I wrote that journalists should hold accountable the 126 Republican representatives who believed conspiracy theories about Trump’s landslide win in the presidential election.
As USA Today reported, Trump’s speech to the mob Jan. 6 was laced with lies, misinformation and conspiracy theories. “The media is the biggest problem we have as far as I’m concerned — single biggest problem,” he said, “The fake news. We won this election, and we won it by a landslide.”
The lie resonated with his followers. During the riot, Trump supporters wrote “Murder the media” on a Capitol door, assaulted reporters and destroyed newsgathering equipment. One conspiracist shouted, “We’re the media now.”
The first edition discussed how digital and social media would change our notion of community, undermining face-to-face interaction, and with it, local news. The second edition predicted the erosion of democratic values as users adopted the ethos of the machine: self-centeredness, impulsivity, distraction, incivility and, most important, affirmation over information and belief over fact.
Those character traits aligned seamlessly with Trump’s psychological profile.
As such, conspiracy theories have less to do with breakdowns in social machinery, weaponized politics or reason vs. intuition. Polarization materialized as millions of Americans googled answers from affinity groups, increasing screen time while mainstream media downsized newsrooms.