Last June, a man drove to the Hoover Dam and, for 90 minutes, used an armored vehicle that authorities believe he made himself to block traffic on the Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge. He had a rifle, a handgun, a flash-bang device, rounds of ammunition, and a sign urging President Donald Trump to “release the OIG report.”
The man, Matthew Wright, was a believer in the QAnon conspiracy theory, convinced that rather than investigating Trump’s ties with Russia, special counsel Robert Mueller and Trump are actually working together to expose evildoers and pedophiles (including every previous president) and will ultimately send every Democrat to Guantanamo Bay. He believed so fervently that a secret version of a report from the inspector general existed that would uncover a web of Democratic evil that he was willing to take on armed police officers to get it.
After his arrest, Wright wrote letters to the White House from his jail cell, using QAnon phraseology and inquiring about “The Storm,” the day when QAnon followers believe that all of Trump’s enemies will be simultaneously arrested and martial law will be declared. Now Wright is facing life in prison on terrorism charges.
I’ve written a lot about conspiracy theories this year, from newer conspiracy theories like QAnon that appeal to some of Trump’s biggest supporters on the right (and appears to have now spread to Canada) to 9/11 trutherism, which has generally had a more left-leaning following. I’ve written about how conspiracy theories like these spread, and why they’re so hard to defuse. And in doing so, I’ve thought a lot about not just how to write about conspiracy theories, but why it’s important to do it.
Because some writers have argued that conspiracy theories are largely inside jokes run amok, and that by writing about them, the Washington Examiner’s Eddie Scarry posited, “the media gin up fear and concern over things that barely exist.” Others have wondered if, by writing about them, journalists are unintentionally giving them oxygen and helping them to spread.
But conspiracy theories do matter. Conspiracy theories can diminish faith in institutions and government, lead to distrust of science and medicine, and — even worse — inspire acts of violence. And conspiracy theories can be and are being used by those with political influence to shore up their power and mitigate opposition. Perhaps the reason conspiracy theories seem more powerful than ever is that a conspiracy theorist is now in the White House — a president who is a birther, an occasional vaccine truther, a climate change hoax believer who argued in 2016 that Ted Cruz’s father somehow assisted the assassin of John F. Kennedy.
In the Trump era, when long-held facts seem to matter less, conspiracy theories — theories that create not just, in Kellyanne Conway’s terminology, “alternative facts,” but an entirely new reality — are more threatening, and more critical to understand, than ever before.
Our year in conspiracy theories
If 2018 was anything, it was, for both Matthew Wright and America, an extremely conspiratorial year. But more so, it became a year when conspiratorial explanations that created an alternative history, even an alternative reality — where Trump and Mueller are working together, where a prominent attorney using the real estate website Zillow can “uncover” the truth about who actually sexually assaulted Christine Blasey Ford, where mail bombs sent by a conspiracy theorist are “false flags,” or where a caravan of refugees can somehow pose a real risk to the strongest military on earth — gained wider credence, thanks to a host of media outlets all too willing to help spread them, and to an audience that wants to believe them (and elites with the power to circulate them).
Some of those theories, like the purported dangers or origins of the migrant caravan, were used by some for directly political purposes (Trump, for one, believed that the caravan would be terrific for GOP prospects in the 2018 midterms). But others, like Zillow-gate, or “false flags” as an explanation for mail bombs sent to prominent liberals, seemed to be a way of drawing connections, or just making sense, out of ideas or concepts that didn’t make sense. The power of conspiracy theories isn’t that they can be empirically proven. The power of conspiracy theories is that they offer an explanation for why something happened, one that seems more palatable or, oddly enough, more realistic than the real explanation.
In January, conspiracy theorists on the right — and many others — united to demand that a memo written by Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) be released to the public, a memo they believed would expose wrongdoing by the Mueller investigation and ultimately bring it to an end. (That didn’t happen.) In June, celebrities and even the son of the president tweeted that George Soros, a child survivor of the Holocaust, was a Nazi. (He isn’t.) In August, conspiracy theorist Alex Jones was unceremoniously thrown off Apple, Facebook, Spotify, and YouTube, and in September, he was banned from Twitter too.
In October, a man sent pipe bombs to prominent Democrats and political figures featured in conspiracy theories, including Soros. Those bombs were then themselves deemed to be “false flags” by the conspiratorially minded — the very concept of “false flags” being, of course, a conspiracy theory. That same month, a man steeped in perhaps the oldest conspiracy theory there is murdered 11 people at a synagogue in Pittsburgh after ranting on social media platforms about “EVIL Jews.”
In November, court documents revealed that conspiracy theorist Jerome Corsi was well aware that hackers had in fact been behind the hacking and leak of Hillary Clinton campaign chair John Podesta’s emails, even while he publicly embraced a conspiracy theory that a murdered Democratic National Committee staffer named Seth Rich had been behind the hack (and had been killed for it).
Even as I write, the Pulitzer Award-winning writer and poet Alice Walker is embroiled in controversy for her own adherence to conspiracy theories and conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones, and her support for the writings of conspiracy theorist David Icke, who believes that Jewish groups funded the Holocaust (oh, and that a shape-shifting reptile predator race is “turning humanity into a slave race”).
And that doesn’t include the conspiracy theories that act as undercurrents to our everyday lives, regardless of our political affiliation or religious beliefs — like the anti-vaccination movement, led by conspiracy theorists who wrongly believe that vaccines cause health problems. In their wake have come measles outbreaks in tight-knit religious groups and well-to-do, left-leaning neighborhoods alike, not to mention waves of chickenpox occurrences in private schools, all a result of anti-vaccine conspiracy theories with bipartisan support and, sometimes, deadly consequences.
Nor does it include conspiracy theories that hold prominence in other countries, like Turkey, where President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his allies argued that European countries were lowering the value of Turkish currency on purpose as part of a diabolical plan to “demolish” the country (they weren’t).
Conspiracy theories are for everyone — but gained new prominence on the right this year
Conspiracy theories are, for all intents and purposes, everywhere, and no ideology, political persuasion, or religious belief is free from them. Left-leaning liberals are not immune to them, and NBA players are just as prone to conspiracy theories as right-wing comedians.
And conspiracy theories aren’t just for fringe elements or internet message boards like 8chan (the birthplace of QAnon), or even for the furthest edges of any political group — which makes them so important to understand. A majority of Americans believe in some form of conspiracy theory around the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. More than 70 people ended up in prison because of a conspiracy theory alleging mass Satanic ritual sexual abuse taking place in day care facilities in the 1980s — a conspiracy theory that held sway within police departments across the country and even in New Zealand and Canada.
But in 2018, we saw conspiracy theories on the right given new oxygen, via a media apparatus that seems to promulgate conspiracy theories as a means of serving an audience that, as my colleague Dave Roberts wrote in 2015, is more likely to be politically engaged and intense in their engagement and yet has low trust in institutions and political structures.
It wasn’t just talk radio spreading “false flag” memes about the mail pipe bombs — it was a host of a prominent Fox News television program. Conspiracy theorists like Corsi and Trump ally Roger Stone pushed the Seth Rich conspiracy theory on Infowars and in other outlets with audiences of millions — and so far, Fox News and the Washington Times have been forced to issue issued full retractions of their spurious allegations.
And while traditionally, conspiracy theories have appeared in times of turmoil or tragedy (think 9/11, or the Kennedy assassination, or the school shooting in Parkland, Florida), right-wing conspiracy theories arose in 2018 while conservatives and Republicans held every branch of the federal government. It went beyond simple belief into, for many people, a means of self-identification, of belonging to something bigger than yourself. There are QAnon T-shirts and bumper stickers for purchase; some people put #WWG1WGA — Where We Go One We Go All, the QAnon “catchphrase” of sorts — in their Twitter bios, or on Instagram, or even display it at Trump rallies.
The power of conspiracy theories
The power of conspiracy theories is in their ability to supplant evidence, offering a readable road map to a world that seems like it’s out of control. As I wrote earlier this year, conspiracy theories work on everyone because the will to believe in something is omnipresent for everyone:
Here’s the really important point: Conspiracy theories aren’t created by evidence, but by belief, or by the desire to believe, that there must be something more to the events that shape our lives, culture, and politics than accident or happenstance.
Where there is confusion, or even pain and tragedy, QAnon, or shootings termed “false flags,” or 9/11 trutherism brings some semblance of order and security. The 9/11 attacks were so horrific that they can’t possibly have happened without President George W. Bush being behind it somehow, orchestrating things behind the scenes. A mass shooting at an elementary school that killed so many small children is so terrible that it can’t possibly have really happened. And the Trump administration must only seem to be enmeshed in constant chaos.
And that’s not to mention that the means by which conspiracy theories are spread online in 2018 — including by platforms like YouTube, whose recommendations algorithm has been linked to the amplification of conspiracy theories — appeals to people of all political and social persuasions.
For example, the poet Alice Walker appears to have been radicalized in part the same way that many far-right conspiracy theorists are too — by watching videos on YouTube, at least according to a poem she posted on her website in 2017 that treats wildly anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about Jewish texts as citable canon.
The danger of conspiracy theories
But the danger of conspiracy theories isn’t just when they espouse anti-Semitic rhetoric with a lengthy history of violent repercussions, or encourage individuals to take up arms against an imaginary enemy holding imaginary children hostage in a DC pizza restaurant.
They pose a risk to how we perceive major institutions, and even how we think about democracy itself, and the actions we’re willing (or not so willing) to take to make democracy better. As Jan-Willem van Prooijen, an associate professor in the department of social and organizational psychology at VU University Amsterdam, wrote in 2015:
Far-fetched as these conspiracy theories might be, it would be a mistake to portray conspiracy theorists as simply mentally ill: indeed some conspiracy theories — including theories that the CIA was behind the John F. Kennedy assassination, or that 9-11 was an inside job — are endorsed by a surprisingly large number of citizens. Moreover, conspiracy beliefs can have harmful consequences: people who believe that climate change is a hoax will be less motivated to reduce their carbon footprints; while people who believe that the pharmaceutical industry tries to harm instead of help the public through vaccines are less likely to get their child vaccinated.
I spoke to professor Stephan Lewandowsky from the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom. We’d chatted before when I wrote about QAnon, and I reached back out to him to ask what impact conspiracy theories can have on politics and culture on a broad scale.
“We know that conspiracy theories have adverse effects on public discourse and public perception. For example, when people are exposed to a conspiratorial claim about government statistics (unemployment rate), this lowers their trust in government institutions — including institutions that are unconnected to the allegations (e.g., the FDA, Census Bureau, and so on),” he told me via email. “Importantly, this effect arises from mere exposure, without people endorsing or otherwise indicating their belief in a conspiracy.”
He added, “We need to understand where conspiracy theories come from because their emergence imperils a public good, namely trust in our institutions.”
In short, the risk of conspiracy theories like QAnon, Pizzagate, or 9/11 trutherism isn’t just that tens of millions of people will come to believe in them and a handful of those might use violence in their name.
It’s that the only way democracies work is if people trust the institutions that make up their framework — and that can’t happen if large swaths of people believe that the government is running a massive pedophile ring, or blew up the World Trade Center, or is secretly behind climate change, or is giving children autism — particularly since research shows that conspiracy theories are “self-sealing,” meaning that evidence against them can become evidence of their validity in the minds of believers.
You don’t have to look far to see how conspiracy theories can cause real problems for democracy. Just look at Nigeria, the most populous country on the African continent, where UNICEF was briefly banned from the country because of conspiracy theories that the group was spying for the terror group Boko Haram, and where separatists and members of political parties opposed to President Muhammadu Buhari have spread a conspiracy theory that Buhari died in 2017 and has been replaced by a look-alike — a conspiracy theory Buhari himself was recently forced to address.
In an interview with ABC News, Chatham House associate fellow Matthew T. Page said that conspiracy theories in Nigeria, like in many other countries, were ways for everyday Nigerians to “process and understand unexplained political events and erratic behaviors that seem irrational and insensitive.” But those conspiracy theories are causing security challenges for the Nigerian government.
And Nigeria isn’t alone. In Brazil, the spread of conspiracy theories regarding voting machines led many voters to distrust the electoral system. In the United Kingdom, almost 50 percent of those who voted for Brexit believed the government had deliberately concealed the truth about how many immigrants live there. The ramifications of conspiracy theories are all too real.
Understanding conspiracy theories is about understanding why people think the way they do about the issues that concern them most — and what they want to believe about them. And as our politics gets more frenzied and confusing, conspiracy theories will continue to emerge to try to make sense of it all.