The invasion and desecration on January 6th of the seat of American democracy by a crowd incited by President Donald Trump

The battle to understand, and defeat, conspiracy theories


By Dylan Barry, GCPPP staff, July 16th 2021

The widespread breakdown in trust in facts, expertise, government and democracy itself before the pandemic has manifested itself during this crisis in conspiracy theories about the virus and, most damagingly now, about vaccines. This ANALYSIS looks at how belief in conspiracy theories is hard-wired into human psychology and how this can be responded to.

The will to believe

In the years before the American Revolution, Great Britain was counting its pennies following a decade of war with France. To offset the costs of defending the New England colonies from western incursion—and to pay off its debts—the British parliament resolved to impose colonial taxes on sugar, stamps and, most infamously, tea.

But as far as the colonists were concerned, there was a more sinister plan at work—the taxes marked the beginnings of an oppressive plot. The signatories of the Declaration of Independence did not mince words, “a long train of abuses and usurpations” had unmasked King George III’s designs on “the establishment of an absolute Tyranny” over the original thirteen states. In short, the United States of America was founded on a conspiracy theory.

That figures like John Adams and Benjamin Franklin were so prone to conspiratorial thinking illustrates an uncomfortable truth. There is a peculiar vulnerability in human psychology for which conspiracy theories appear tailor-made. This weakness is well-established, but the mechanisms that underpin it have long puzzled scientists. In the last decade, however, new research has allowed psychologists and neuroscientists to develop an increasingly sophisticated account of why people disappear down the conspiratorial rabbit-hole, and what can be done to stop them.

To understand the attraction of conspiracy theories, it is worth starting with an explanation of why people come to believe peculiar things at all. In a recent paper in the Annual Review of Psychology, neuroscientists Nadia Brashier from Harvard University and Elizabeth Marsh from Duke University summarise the emerging consensus in psychology on how people establish a framework for what is true and what is false, and why they are so often wrong.

In everyday life, most information is mundane and trustworthy. For this reason, being credulous is in most circumstances a virtue. This baseline assumption appears to be hardwired into human psychology. A decade ago, a series of studies showed that people spot dishonesty in others at a rate only barely better than chance, mostly because of a strong bias towards interpreting new information from others as true.

This baseline credulity is worsened by three so-called “illusory truth effects,” phenomena that further colour people’s perception of the truth. Of these, the most powerful is repetition. The more frequently someone is exposed to a statement or idea the more seemingly trustworthy it becomes (one reason advertising and propaganda are so effective). From there, ideas that elicit a positive emotional response or that fit neatly into someone’s existing worldview also instinctively appear more likely to be true.

This explains humanity’s penchant for believing mistruths, but it does not explain why people weave these mistruths into larger conspiracies. This requires an appeal to a different quirk of human psychology. In a paper published in the European Journal of Psychology in 2018, Jan-Willem van Prooijen from the University of Amsterdam, and Karen Douglas and Clara de Inocencio from the University of Kent exposed subjects to nine paintings by the abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock, known for his chaotic and random style of painting.

The study found that people with a greater predisposition for identifying non-existent shapes and patterns in the paintings were also more likely to believe in conspiracy theories, a result confirmed in an additional study exposing the same people to strings of random coin tosses. “The findings suggest that conspiracy theories are the unintentional result of the deep human desire to look for patterns and structure in a complex and chaotic world—like constellations in the stars, or the man on the moon,” says Karen Douglas.

Finally, a series of additional studies performed by Douglas suggests that context is a key ingredient too. In circumstances in which people lack certainty, knowledge and a sense of control, the attractiveness of conspiracy theories becomes heightened. It appears that conspiracy theories offer people a sense of consolation when other psychological needs remain unmet.

I will see you, [anon]

It was a conspiracy theory that birthed American democracy. On January 6th, it was conspiracists who tried to disrupt it. In response to provocations by then-President Donald Trump, thousands of rioters stormed the United States Capitol to stop a vast—but imagined—election-fraud conspiracy. Many of them were adherents of QAnon, a right-wing conspiracy theory which alleges that a satanic, cannibalistic cabal of elites—including Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and George Soros—runs a global child sex-trafficking ring, while coordinating an undemocratic deep-state of government bureaucrats.

This emboldened conspiracism is not isolated to America. In the European Union, vaccine-based conspiracy theories are presenting a major challenge to the bloc’s COVID-19 vaccination efforts. These conspiracies revolve around the idea that the pandemic was planned by global elites—especially Bill Gates—as part of a global plot to implant microchips into people using COVID-19 vaccines. In some versions of the story, the microchips are then activated by mobile 5G telecoms, blurring the boundaries between vaccine-conspiracies and a host of 5G conspiracy theories popular in Europe (and the UK) too.

In the Netherlands, these conspiracies have helped fuel anti-lockdown riots in Amsterdam and the Hague, as well as an arson attack on a COVID-19 testing centre in the Dutch town of Bovenkarspel. The most dangerous outcome, however, has been a general reduction in peoples’ willingness to get vaccinated. In a recent survey sponsored by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), less than half of respondents across seven European nations said they believed that COVID-19 vaccines were safe, suggesting along with other evidence that conspiracy theories are fuelling vaccine hesitancy on the continent.

Finally, there are non-political conspiracy theories too. In recent years, a nascent flat-Earth movement has gained increasing traction. The premise being that rather than being spherical the Earth is really flat, an illusion which NASA maintains by doctoring photos of the Earth from space. The conspiracy theory counts amongst its adherents the rapper Bobby Ray Simmons Jr.—known by the stage-name B.o.B—and NBA player Kyrie Irving. The idea that the Earth is flat is now especially popular in Brazil.

The allure of conspiracy theories may be hardwired into human psychology, but this conspiratorial moment is an exceptional one. The rise of social media platforms designed to hijack human psychology, the declining prospects of the middle and working classes in the advanced economies and the vitriolic—and increasingly dehumanising—polarisation of politics worldwide are all trends that foster an environment primed for the emergence of new and dangerous forms of conspiracy theory.

This is the case made by political scientists Nancy Rosenblum of Harvard University and Russell Muirhead of Dartmouth in their recent book, “A Lot of People are Saying”. Traditionally conspiracy theories are detail-oriented, with eggheads tracing the trajectory of bullets or arguing over the melting point of steel. In contrast, Rosenblum and Muirhead argue that the last half-decade witnessed the emergence of a new conspiracism, one relying less on persuasion than on the sheer weight of repetition and assertion. “This is conspiracy without the theory,” says Rosenblum. “There’s no genuine attempt at evidence or argument—just boldfaced accusation.” In a world of social media siloes and ugly political polarisation, this is a dangerously effective strategy.

The notion that contemporary conspiracies are finding novel ways to hack human psychology is also shared by the game designer Adrian Hon, a pioneer in the design of Alternate Reality Games (ARGs). These interactive clue-cracking scavenger hunts are now a common promotional tool, frequently used to gin up excitement in advance of the release of a film or video game. The game starts when a studio drops a cryptic clue leading to a string of hundreds of other clues hidden in websites, YouTube videos and other online platforms, and finishes with a big pay off. The result is often a massive crowd-sourcing effort to solve the puzzle, generating a temporary online community of common-minded internet sleuths.

These games take advantage of the human urge to look for patterns and solve puzzles, but cleverly pair that urge with the rush of being a part of a community engaged in a collective effort. This is helped by the fact that the groups that emerge around ARGs are generally friendly and supportive, with a flurry of validation anytime anyone solves a new clue. Like many games, ARGs can be addictive. The same people often jump from one ARG to the next as they emerge, regardless of the particular product being shilled.

For Hon, the parallels to QAnon are striking. The conspiracy revolves around cryptic messages posted on online message boards—originally on a network called 4chan, but now primarily on its successor 8kun—by a user known simply as Q. Every so-called “Q drop” is treated as a clue that will unlock a little bit more of the QAnon fantasy, one in which Donald Trump is the last crusader against a shadowy global cabal. The same treatment became directed at the former-president’s tweets, government statements and photographs of prominent politicians.

In essence, QAnon displays all the features of an ARG—but pours gasoline onto the flames with a generous helping of tribalism and the promise of a come-uppance to its adherents’ political enemies. The result is the most damaging American self-delusion since the anti-communist hysteria of the McCarthy era.

What is to be done?

Unfortunately, dragging a true believer out from beneath the rabbit hole is a nearly impossible task. The whole premise of a conspiracy theory is that anyone who cannot see the conspiracy is either hopelessly naïve or, worse still, a part of the plot. The failure of core predictions and prophesies is also unlikely to dissuade adherents. Each failure simply becomes another puzzle to be solved.

As a consequence, prevention is better than cure. “In the midst of COVID-19, the metaphor of inoculation is an appropriate one,” says Rosenblum. “There may not be an antidote for conspiracy theories, but their viral spread can be contained.” To that end, the main site of struggle is social media.

In a recent study published in the journal Psychological Science, Gordon Pennycook from the University of Regina and collaborators from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) showed that people are pretty good at spotting fake news and conspiracy theories if they put in a modicum of effort.

The problem is that people post content on social media thoughtlessly, allowing the bad stuff to slip through and influence others. Amongst 856 volunteers, they found that simply being prompted to think about the veracity of content before sharing it made people almost three-times more scrupulous about what they posted on social media—a dramatic improvement.

The tech world took note. In June 2020, Twitter started beta-testing its own in-built prompt. Whenever a user tries to retweet an article without first clicking on it, a Twitter prompt pops up urging them to read it first. The company says the new feature resulted in people being 40% more likely to open an article before retweeting it, and intends to roll the feature out worldwide soon.

These types of solutions promise substantial improvements with relatively small amendments to the social media landscape. However, without pressure from governments and civil society, social media companies are unlikely to solve the problem on their own. Almost six months and a Capitol riot later, Twitter has still not implemented the change.

The riots on January 6th were a reminder that conspiracy theories are not simply the purview of kooks in basements connecting the dots. For human psychology, they are a dangerous and ever-present temptation, one that through the affirming appeal of collective effort has the power to undermine democracies, overthrow governments and set history on new courses. The threat they pose is a real one, and needs to be treated as such.

Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

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