By Donovan Schaefer
Conspiracy theories have been around for centuries, from witch trials and antisemitic campaigns to beliefs that Freemasons were trying to topple European monarchies. In the mid-20th century, historian Richard Hofstadter described a “paranoid style” that he observed in right-wing U.S. politics and culture: a blend of “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy.”
But the “golden age” of conspiracy theories, it seems, is now. On June 24, 2022, the unknown leader of the QAnon conspiracy theory posted online for the first time in over a year. QAnon’s enthusiasts tend to be ardent supporters of Donald Trump, who made conspiracy theories a signature feature of his political brand, from Pizzagate and QAnon to “Stop the Steal” and the racist “birther” movement. Key themes in conspiracy theories – like a sinister network of “pedophiles” and “groomers,” shadowy “bankers” and “globalists” – have moved into the mainstream of right-wing talking points.
Much of the commentary on conspiracy theories presumes that followers simply have bad information, or not enough, and that they can be helped along with a better diet of facts.
But anyone who talks to conspiracy theorists knows that they’re never short on details, or at least “alternative facts.” They have plenty of information, but they insist that it be interpreted in a particular way – the way that feels most exciting.
My research focuses on how emotion drives human experience, including strong beliefs. In my latest book, I argue that confronting conspiracy theories requires understanding the feelings that make them so appealing – and the way those feelings shape what seems reasonable to devotees. If we want to understand why people believe what they believe, we need to look not just at the content of their thoughts, but how that information feels to them. Just as the “X-Files” predicted, conspiracy theories’ acolytes “want to believe.”
Thinking and feeling
Over 100 years ago, the American psychologist William James noted: “The transition from a state of perplexity to one of resolve is full of lively pleasure and relief.” In other words, confusion doesn’t feel good, but certainty certainly does.
He was deeply interested in an issue that is urgent today: how information feels, and why thinking about the world in a particular way might be exciting or exhilarating – so much so that it becomes difficult to see the world in any other way.
James called this the “sentiment of rationality”: the feelings that go along with thinking. People often talk about thinking and feeling as though they’re separate, but James realized that they’re inextricably related.
For instance, he believed that the best science was driven forward by the excitement of discovery – which he said was “caviar” for scientists – but also anxiety about getting things wrong.
The allure of the 2%
So how does conspiracy theory feel? First of all, it lets you feel like you’re smarter than everyone. Political scientist Michael Barkun points out that conspiracy theory devotees love what he calls “stigmatized knowledge,” sources that are obscure or even looked down upon.
In fact, the more obscure the source is, the more true believers want to trust it. This is the stock in trade of popular podcast “The Joe Rogan Experience” – “scientists” who present themselves as the lone voice in the wilderness and are somehow seen as more credible because they’ve been repudiated by their colleagues. Ninety-eight percent of scientists may agree on something, but the conspiracy mindset imagines the other 2% are really on to something. This allows conspiracists to see themselves as “critical thinkers” who have separated themselves from the pack, rather than outliers who have fallen for a snake oil pitch.
One of the most exciting parts of a conspiracy theory is that it makes everything make sense. We all know the pleasure of solving a puzzle: the “click” of satisfaction when you complete a Wordle, crossword or sudoku. But of course, the whole point of games is that they simplify things. Detective shows are the same: All the clues are right there on the screen.
But what if the whole world were like that? In essence, that’s the illusion of conspiracy theory. All the answers are there, and everything fits with everything else. The big players are sinister and devious – but not as smart as you.
QAnon works like a massive live-action video game in which a showrunner teases viewers with tantalizing clues. Followers make every detail into something profoundly significant.
When Donald Trump announced his COVID-19 diagnosis, for instance, he tweeted, “We will get through this TOGETHER.” QAnon followers saw this as a signal that their long-sought endgame – Hillary Clinton arrested and convicted of unspeakable crimes – was finally in play. They thought the capitalized word “TOGETHER” was code for “TO GET HER,” and that Trump was saying that his diagnosis was a feint in order to beat the “deep state.” For devotees, it was a perfectly crafted puzzle with a neatly thrilling solution.
It’s important to remember that conspiracy theory very often goes hand in hand with racism – anti-Black racism, anti-immigrant racism, antisemitism and Islamophobia. People who craft conspiracies – or are willing to exploit them – know how emotionally powerful these racist beliefs are.
It’s also key to avoid saying that conspiracy theories are “simply” irrational or emotional. What James realized is that all thinking is related to feeling – whether we’re learning about the world in useful ways or whether we’re being led astray by our own biases. As cultural theorist Lauren Berlant wrote in 2016, “All the messages are emotional,” no matter which political party they come from.
Conspiracy theories encourage their followers to see themselves as the only ones with their eyes open, and everyone else as “sheeple.” But paradoxically, this fantasy leads to self-delusion – and helping followers recognize that can be a first step. Unraveling their beliefs requires the patient work of persuading devotees that the world is just a more boring, more random, less interesting place than one might have hoped.
Part of why conspiracy theories have such a strong hold is that they have flashes of truth: There really are elites who hold themselves above the law; there really is exploitation, violence and inequality. But the best way to unmask abuses of power isn’t to take shortcuts – a critical point in “Conspiracy Theory Handbook,” a guide to combating them that was written by experts on climate change denial.
To make progress, we have to patiently prove what’s happening – to research, learn and find the most plausible interpretation of the evidence, not the one that’s most fun.
Donovan Schaefer is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.
The Conversation arose out of deep-seated concerns for the fading quality of our public discourse and recognition of the vital role that academic experts could play in the public arena. Information has always been essential to democracy. It’s a societal good, like clean water. But many now find it difficult to put their trust in the media and experts who have spent years researching a topic. Instead, they listen to those who have the loudest voices. Those uninformed views are amplified by social media networks that reward those who spark outrage instead of insight or thoughtful discussion. The Conversation seeks to be part of the solution to this problem, to raise up the voices of true experts and to make their knowledge available to everyone. The Conversation publishes nightly at 9 p.m. on FlaglerLive.
Too many of these things aren’t conspiracy theories really. How does one explain away the Epstein-Maxwell thing ? Those are facts, that there was an island where all the pedophiles & whoever else assembled . So the agency that investigated that determined that the only 2 people that should face criminal investigation & trial were Epstein & Maxwell ? Even locally, FCSO takes down a drug house. How much was observed, allowed to continue before the big bust ? Same thing for a Ponzi Scheme ? A certain level of activity has to be allowed to go on until it’s profitable enough from a standpoint of getting enough criminals to batch process. Big fish vs little fish thing.
What’s going to become of the Jan 6th thing ? Are they going after Trump again. 9/11 Commission, same story, collection of intelligence and the whole thing is a “no silver billets” result that absolves anyone from accountability & responsibility. So the report has sealed chapters as well. Because at a certain level there is no accountability or responsibility. It seems to be the same folks that are cleared somehow. Anyone else does it, they go down hard, prison time & anything else. The insurrection ? Pelosi was responsible for Capitol security, why didn’t she request National Guard level security ?
End of the day, all the crappy things that go on in this world are usually man-made. The world is a network of nepotism & cronyism. Corporations of related parties. If White privilege is real & not a conspiracy theory, Can we pick & choose what is a conspiracy theory or not because the leader du jour is who we voted for ? When you see an entire video that exposes the backroom deals that goes on in our government, that isn’t a conspiracy theory, they’re facts. Let’s not dismiss that in 2020, there was a list of essentials, meaning those not on that list are non-essentials. Take gasoline prices, some experts predict a strong 2nd half of 2022 to avoid recession, why did the 1st half of 2022 tank ? That’s the manipulation & price gouging of a year & a half. The same people are always behind the curtain. Think about the Government employment reports, with a full employment economy we have a million dollar food drive to feed people that are working, yet can’t feed themselves & pay rent/mortgages in this inflation.
Yet again, another man-made crisis wouldn’t you say ? What’s the worst thing that’s happened on a day to day in Flagler county. One example, Green Lion survives the pandemic that really crushed quite a few local businesses. Palm Coast government went after them. Think about that one for a minute ? The pandemic didn’t get the Green Lion, the county took them down. Not like the Hidden Treasure Restaurant, a handful of elected officials sought to move the goal posts ? Pretty much the sun rises & sets everyday on this planet, in 2 years not so much as a tropical storm or hurricane since 2017. In a volatile world, Mother Nature isn’t the enemy, chances are it will be another human being, your neighbors pretty much. It’s almost comical the Palm Coast government holding yet another RFP process and encouraging the Green Lion to “win it”, they already “had it”, forced & extorted into a new contract. End of the day, we saw what happened with Waste Pro, Palm Coast Government sought competitive bidding for that waste collection contract. Waste Pro was the winning lowest bid, still are the lowest bid, yet somehow, everyone in the city will be paying $ 2.50 more a month for waste collection. Why have a lowest bid RFP when the lowest bid doesn’t win. So here we are, wondering why inflation hapens, why the food drive is necessary at all in an economy that is at full employment, where the working class are government recipients for their role in this economy. The one’s least affected by this are always the same winners ? Why is that ? It’s not a conspiracy theory, the facts are these are the folks that set the rules, pick the winners & losers. The waste contract, this isn’t ebay, where highest bidder is the winner,it’s lowest bidder for Government RFP’s. Waste Pro’s bidding offer was in line with every other bid, just happened to be the lowest bid. That should tell the voters that regardless of the process, that the rules will change & the process in place will fail to produce the results it was intended to produce. It’ll be interesting to see the spin should FCC prove to be no better at waste collection than Waste Pro ? The poll is flawed was the excuse ? We shall see, but over the course of a year, we’re all going to be out another $ 36 for waste collection we already had. Yhat seems to be the theme in the last 1.5 years, sell what you had for cash to get out of financial hardship, go without or buy what you already had for more debt. That’s the smoke & mirrors of Biden-Harris. more goal post moving.
Hey, I suggest people just STOP getting their “news” information from Facebook! Or if you are so delosional that you believe Faux Infotainment is a real news outlet, I don’t know that there is any way to help you understand the folly of your ways. However, the lie that Speaker Pelosi was somehow in charge of the Capitol Police or the security of the U.S. Capitol has been dispelled so many times! Check it out for yourself:
On Jan. 6th, just as it remains today, responsibility for Capitol security and the U.S. Capitol Police was no more the responsibility of Nancy Pelosi, the democrat Speaker of the House, than Mitch McConnell, the republican Senate Majority Leader. The two links above specify the specific positions – both the House and Senate Sgt. at Arms as well as the board that oversees the police and Capitol security, and neither Pelosi or McConnell are in that group. The serial liar Jim Jordan also has repeated this completely false statement for his own political benefit after Pelosi refused to allow him to serve on the Jan. 6th commission due to his involvement in the conspiracy to keep Trump in power and subvert the U.S. Constitution. Those are the facts, regardless of what you may believe.
Ray W. says
After reading Jimbo99’s latest many-faceted example of his absorbed partisan-driven ignorance, does any FlaglerLive reader now doubt the wisdom of our founding fathers in their decision to create a third branch of government, the judiciary, a branch to which was given the power to determine the facts of disputed issues for purposes of the application of governmental power.
Under the liberal democratic Constitutional republic our founding fathers bequeathed to all of us, each of us possesses the individual right to believe whatever facts we wish to believe, and I hope that most FlaglerLive readers accept the idea that expressions of such beliefs in our posted comments are perhaps best called opinions, but there is a reason why our founding fathers reserved the fact-finding process to judges and jurors. They knew that individuals were easily misled. They knew that we all are susceptible to wandering through our lives fooling ourselves. They knew we all are capable of surrendering our ability to exercise reason to numerous differing forms of partisan thought. Our founding fathers adopted a reasoning process that required the production of evidence through sworn testimony and other forms of evidence in an open courtroom, so that the truthfulness of disputed facts could be determined by people who had sworn an oath to follow the law. Then, the finding of those facts could be subjected via appeal to another set of people, also sworn to follow the law. Through this process of vetting facts and evidence, our founding fathers hoped that disputed issues of fact could be resolved with a sense of finality. Without such a process, they knew that disputes might never be resolved with any sense of finality.
Yes, legislatures also have the power to find facts, by holding hearings during which people can testify under oath and other forms of evidence can be introduced. Legislatures can issue determinations of facts, but those proclamations can be challenged in court.
And, administrative agency decisions and executive orders also have to supported by findings of fact, but those too can be challenged in court.
In the end, we need to remember that our founding fathers created our liberal democratic Constitutional republic in hopes that it would foster the rise of men (and women) of virtue, but our founding fathers greatly feared mob rule and they knew that individuals who lacked virtue would attempt to take over the government, so they insisted on inserting checks and balances into every governmental power delegable to any individual who was willing to swear to uphold the Constitution. And the power to review the exercise of governmental power was given to the judiciary. Our founding fathers never intended for any one person to ever gain unlimited power for an indeterminate period of time.
Does anyone doubt that Jimbo99, if given the chance, would swear under oath to uphold the Constitution and obey the rule of law, with him knowing all the while that he would neither uphold the Constitution nor obey the rule of law? Does anyone doubt that Jimbo99 has surrendered his ability to exercise reason to partisan thought? Does anyone doubt what Jimbo99 would do with any governmental power delegated to him? Our founding fathers greatly feared people like Jimbo99. They knew that people like Jimbo99 would always exist and that partisans like Jimbo99 would always abuse any governmental power they could attain, all in the name of partisanship.
The dude says
4 long paragraphs about how crazy and shitty Republicans are, then you end it blaming all the Republican shittiness and craziness on Biden and Harris.
Own it. It’s yours. Not Biden’s, not Harris’s… yours.
“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”
“Hey, that’s my saying.”
-Donald J. Trump