In this time of pandemic and in the lead up to the recent elections the conspiratorial beliefs held by many American citizens has interested me. It is not a new phenomenon, conspiracy theories have been around for a long time, but they seem to be more prevalent now. A conspiracy theory can generally be defined as an effort to explain an event or events as resulting from the machinations of powerful people who have managed to conceal their role in those events. Most conspiracy theories have some distinctive features, the most important of which is their self-proving quality; which is to say that the very arguments that give rise to them makes it difficult for non-believers to rebut or question them. Debunkers, by the very nature of the conspiracy theories attribution of great power to the conspirators, are always seen as agents of these shadowy powers and as such any evidence provided by them is seen as disingenuous.
The most worrisome part of the spread of conspiracy theories is that they fertilize a growing distrust of factual information, such that it makes it difficult for some people to believe basic truths or science. Take the spread of holocaust denial, a conspiracy theory that holds that the deaths of millions of Jews, Gypsies, Homosexuals, Jehovah Witnesses, and other groups never took place but were fabricated for nefarious reasons. Photographic evidence, eyewitness accounts, the accounts of survivors of the camps and the soldiers that liberated them, all ignored and discredited by the purveyors of this conspiracy theory. In fact, such evidence is seen as a product of the conspiracy itself. Holocaust denial is only one example of a current conspiracy theory, I’m sure each of you can supply more examples of your own.
The rise of social media has magnified one of the main factors in the spread of conspiracy theories, namely group polarization. Which is the way in which members of a likeminded group, when engaging with only those who also believe as they do, tend to move toward more and more extreme positions. This process is fueled by confirmation bias, which is the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one's existing beliefs or theories and is exacerbated by the algorithms used by Facebook and other social media sites to predict which content a user wishes to see.
The spread of conspiracy theories can be dangerous and destructive to society and its institutions. This destructive nature can also be seen when you look at the small-scale conspiracy theories that get generated in our worksites. They are also harmful in that they too generate distrust in our processes and our officials. I often find that those who know the least have the greatest ability and propensity to fill gaps in knowledge with a whole host of conspiracies. President-Elect Biden has spoken of unity and the country progressing together as the United States, not red states or blue states, but the irrational need to cling to conspiracy theories by fringe (at least what was once considered fringe) elements makes this coming together that much more difficult. As for me, I will continue to try to have rational and fact-based conversations with those who disagree with me, though this seems less and less possible or productive every day. In the end, I feel that the only weapons against conspiracy theories and disinformation are the facts.