Political Education

Talking with Conspiracy Theorists

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Historian Richard Hofstadter wrote “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” in 1964. Hofstadter used the word ‘paranoid’ in a non-clinical sense because no other word adequately evoked the angry exaggeration, suspicion, and conspiratorial fantasy of the true believer. The paranoid style is not a new phenomenon in American politics. Hofstadter cites the 1895 fear of international gold ring secret cabals, 1855 anti-Catholicism, and the 1950’s McCarthyism as historic examples of the paranoid style. When Hofstadter wrote “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” in 1964 the Joe McCarthy era had given way to Robert H. Welch, Jr.’s, John Birch Society. Today the Qanon movement dominates the conspiracy world with electronic mass media amplifying and spreading it’s conspiracy theories. YouTube and podcasting can introduce fringe theories to a mainstream audience. Misinformation also spreads online propelled by malicious fake accounts or bots.

There are similarities that all conspiracy theories share. Hofstadter identified three basic elements of conspiracy thought:

  1. The fear that the economy is being subverted to make way for socialism or communism.
  2. The government has been infiltrated throughout by Communists. ‘Betrayal from on high’ is a key obsession of conspiracy theorists.
  3. The institutions of education, religion, and mass media are engaged in an effort to paralyze the resistance of loyal Americans.

Conspiracy theories never involve a positive cause. The alleged conspirators are never assumed to have benign motivations or good intentions.

What kind of person engages in dystopian conspiracy fantasies? Internet trolls, for sure, enjoy the chaos that results from spreading malicious misinformation, but it seems there are many true believers who really have a kind of blind religious faith in QAnon’s foundational texts.

Conspiracy theorists feel vulnerable to change in society. The conspiracy theory serves as a defense or coping mechanism to help them handle uncertainty in the world. They are wary of mainstream or institutional interpretations of change- great evil events require a great villain and any other ‘official’ explanation is deception and part of the conspiracy. Paranoid conspiracy theorists believe that American values are being destroyed by cosmopolitans and intellectuals. Elites want to replace capitalism with a socialist or communist economy. These elites plot to destroy America’s national security and independence so as to replace it with corrupt globalism. The conspiracy believer feels dispossessed. The America they knew is being taken from them. It is their job to stop the subversion.

Conspiracy theories usually begin with a broad defensible judgment, a kernel of truth. The wrongs at the center of some conspiracy, such as child trafficking, are real and horrifying. Conspiracy theories then unravel from that first defensible judgment into imaginary dystopian nonsense.The paranoid true believer sees conspiracies in apocalyptic terms. They believe that the very existence of western civilization is at stake. Since the battle is between absolute good and absolute evil, compromise is not an option. It must be a fight to the end.

The conspiracy believers think that only they perceive a conspiracy- an unsuspecting public just doesn’t understand. The believers do not expect to convince anyone else about the truth and righteousness of their cause. Any ‘evidence’ that they acquire serves only to reinforce their own convictions. They are extremely skeptical of any information that does not reinforce their theory.

We know that real conspiracies exist. We know about real conspiracies from documentation, investigations, or insider whistleblowers. Real conspiracies are uncovered by healthy skepticism and critical thinking skills. However, conspiratorial thinking is not a productive way to uncover actual conspiracies. Critical thinking skills that value reasonable skepticism and documented evidence are needed to confront real threats. Conspiracy theories pose a threat to society by undermining trust in documented scientific evidence and destroying trust in democratic government and institutions. The undisciplined thinking behind conspiracy theories amount to nothing less than a rejection of historic Enlightenment values. Ignoring such theories for fear that attention might help it grow risks allowing the theory to spread on its own.

The theories must be debunked. How should discuss and debunk conspiracy theories with a true believer? There are two different audiences for conspiracy theories. These audiences should be targeted separately. In the ‘Conspiracy Theory Handbook’ authors Stephan Lewandowsky and John Cook outline several strategies and tactics to identify and address conspiracy theory “true believers”.

First, there are some who can be ‘inoculated’ or ‘prebunked’ -preemptively made aware that there are efforts to mislead them and that they need to have a reasonable skepticism in evaluating information. Those who are not believers yet may suspect that the conspiracy theory is on to something, but they are asking questions and open to evidence. This allows for resistance to conspiratorial messages. For those who will be persuaded by evidence, one can ask: Did a reputable person or organization that provide the information? Is the information believable on its face? Is the information conveyed in a serious or professional style? Is the information politically motivated?

Second, there are others for whom any evidence disproving a theory may be interpreted as further evidence of a conspiracy. These “true believers” require a different strategy than those who value evidence. “True believers” should be addressed in a respectful manner. No one wants to listen to a scolding. Ridiculing a conspiracy theory is counterproductive and will cause the “true believer” to automatically reject the debunker’s efforts. They should be addressed privately, not before a crowd.

Determine whether the person is open to discussion or if no amount of reasoning will change their mind. Begin with that kernel of truth at the heart of the conspiracy theory. This gives the debunker and the true believer something they can agree on and build trust. One way to debunk a conspiracy theory is by communicating accurate factual, documented information that shows the theory to be false. Another way is to take their concerns seriously, but point out logical fallacies in the true believer’s reasoning.

The debunker must affirm the value of critical thinking then use those skills in an analysis of the conspiracy theory. The ‘truth sandwich’ is a concept by linguist professor George Lakoff. First, make a statement of demonstrable fact, then point out the untruth within the conspiracy, and finish by restating the truth. The ‘truth sandwich’ reinforces documented facts and calls out the theory’s falsehoods.

The Socratic method uses the debunker’s questions and the believer’s answers to lead the believer to inconsistencies in the conspiracy argument. The Socratic method can be effective because the believers uncover the inconsistencies themselves. The Socratic Method keeps the believer from feeling attacked.

Real conspiracies exist. However, conspiratorial thinking is not a productive way to uncover actual conspiracies. Critical thinking skills that value reasonable skepticism and documented evidence are needed to confront real threats. When people feel empowered to think critically and analytically, they are more resilient to conspiracy theories. The debunker needs to calculate whether it’s worthwhile to engage with the “true believer.” Some “true believers” will not change their minds, no matter what evidence is presented. Hofstadter opined that the paranoid style will constantly affect a modest minority of the population. “We are all sufferers from history”, says Hofstadter, “but the paranoid is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well.”

Thanks and a tip of the hat to mikemacmarketing for the image, “QAnon – Q Conspiracy – Deep State Trump”. See more of mikemacmarketing’s art at https://www.flickr.com/photos/152824664@N07/with/43614671655/.

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