Written by Nicole Belle
Conspiracy theories can be incredibly seductive.
Who hasn’t wondered about what’s really stored at Area 51? Or whether the “magic bullet” theory of JFK’s assassination makes sense? Or played a Beatles album backwards to hear “Paul is dead”?
But while some conspiracies are the stuff of harmless fun, some—in the hands of bad actors, can have a devastating impact. Consider the case of Comet Ping Pong, a Washington DC pizza restaurant that found itself Ground Zero of a bizarre conspiracy theory propagated through social media and conservative boards of a child sex ring headed by Hillary Clinton and her campaign chairman, John Podesta. Nothing about the story made sense on its face, but that didn’t stop a man reading about it on a conservative website from driving to DC from his home in North Carolina and bringing a loaded rifle in to a restaurant filled with families to “investigate”—and potentially save—children being sexually exploited. That the son of Donald Trump’s national security advisor retweeted the story only gave it more legitimacy among the masses.
Or take the tragic case of Seth Rich, the DNC employee who was murdered in a DC park in the wee hours of the morning, presumably in a robbery gone awry. Without a single shred of evidence, a larger back-story was fabricated almost within hours of his death. What was already a tragedy morphed into his death being at the hands of some shadowy government agency at the behest of Hillary Clinton by an infamous conspiracist website. It then was amplified by WikiLeaks, offering a reward for information of a conspiracy that never existed. The conspiracy got legs on both the right and far left, much to the horror of Rich’s family, finding it necessary to take on a spokesperson to handle the sheer amount of fallout of people believing that his tragic death was the result of clandestine conspiracy. The Rich conspiracies reared their head again after the inauguration when it became the subject of a lawsuit claiming that the Trump campaign and Fox News colluded to keep Rich’s murder in the news.
And that was the subject of Factual Democracy Project’s latest conference call: Conspiracy theories and right wing media. Factual Democracy Project was founded to pioneer a multi-disciplinary response to the extreme right coalition and the weaponization of the Internet.
But why are we so eager to grab onto fantastical conspiracies? According to Dr. Viren Swami, Professor of Social Psychology at Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge, conspiracy theories help us make sense of the senseless. “They simplify the world. Particularly when you have something that’s really difficult to understand. It simplifies the phenomenon, saying ‘here’s what caused it and here is what you can do about it’. So in that sense, conspiracy theories tend to emerge among people who feel alienated, people who feel powerless and people who feel voiceless. It gives them a sense of agency.”
But it’s no longer a voice for the voiceless that reverberates through social media and political circles. “We see now use of conspiracy theories intentionally to move a particular right wing agenda.” There’s no question that the weaponizing of conspiracy theories, such as Pizzagate and Rich’s murder, influenced the election outcome.
How does one fight against fact-free conspiracies going viral? Social scientists have long maintained that those who have invested in these beliefs—irrespective of the actual facts—will dig in their heels rather than revise their thoughts. This phenomenon is known as the “Backfire Effect.” Brooke Binkowski, Managing Editor of the fact-checking website Snopes.com, isn’t sure that those people are reachable. “There are those who will naturally dig their heels in when presented with facts; there’s little hope for them. They want to arrange the world around them in ways that make sense to them. And if you say ‘No, this is the case,’ they’re just going to say, ‘I’m not going to talk to you anymore.’”
But that doesn’t mean all who get caught up into conspiracy theories are as fixed. “I still think there is hope for people like that to become better acquainted with factual analysis. I think the missing piece there is context. And that’s what we’re trying to incorporate at Snopes now.” Binkowski said. “Instead of saying, ‘Oh no, this is wrong,’ and just leaving it at that, or ‘No, this is inaccurate,’ we have decided to start putting more connection to the real world and to current events in our pieces and kind of creating this framework for people to understand what is going on in the world around them. What this conspiracy theory might reflect and who is pushing it and why they’re pushing it. What are the patterns? People believe disinformation and propaganda because it’s being pushed by figures they consider authorities.”
Brad Bauman, founder of Pastorum Group, has more than a little experience with both forms of conspiracists. Hired by the Rich family as their official spokesman as the media bore down on them, his expertise in crisis communications gave Bauman the tools to deal with a conspiracy threatening to spin out of control. “We were uncompromising in the way in which we presented the facts of the case and ultimately holding to the facts of the case as the gold standard.”
Even still, Binkowski was disconcerted by the viral nature of the conspiracies concocted around Rich’s murder. “I found it creepy watching this all play out in real time on social media and watching who was pushing it first and early. I was watching that hashtag because we were writing about it,” Binkowski said. “First, Newt Gingrich started talking about it and then all of the sudden, Julian Assange started talking about it, and then suddenly, these bots started picking it up… It’s incredible to me to see this story being quietly pushed before it becomes headlines on Twitter.” Bauman concurred, “There is no doubt that this is being done in an extremely coherent and ultimately very coordinated fashion. These are not stories just happening in a bubble. They’re being pushed and there’s an echo chamber involved that must be addressed as part of our work in order to return truth to the center of our discourse.”
And once a story –no matter how fantastical—starts to trend on Twitter, reporters start to pay attention. “It’s pretty savvy,” Binkowski said. “Twitter is pretty useful to reporters. You can easily—and very, very cheaply–get story ideas out to reporters in a way that is unprecedented. It used to be that we would have to either find our own stories, or you’d get contacted by a PR representative, or something like that. Now it’s just Twitter. So if something is trending, it’s going to get written about. So if you can find some way to hack that system, you’re going to get your conspiracy theories written about. I think we’re seeing that play out now. Suddenly, there’s a hashtag trending, and you can push reporters to write about it.”
And therein lies the danger. When conspiracies theories are reported on by news organizations, it lends them an air of legitimacy to all news consumers. Will Sommer, a journalist who tracks such stories for his newsletter Rightrichter.com, warns, “Conspiracy theories are undermining the ability for your average American to really discern what is truth, what is false, what to believe and what not to believe. Because there is an undermining institutions and undermining truth, it has a profound effect on our ability to make a case of what is right and what is wrong. We are ultimately devolving to a place where the lack of truth is resulting in a moral ambiguity in which winning is right and that is determining just about everything in our society. That is a profoundly scary place to be… It makes it that much harder to know what the right thing is.” And that is exactly the purpose of these kind of disinformation campaigns are meant to do.
So how do we fight back and make truth matter again? If fact-checking actually has the opposite effect of entrenching false beliefs, what are we to do to prevent conspiracy theories from going viral? Dr. Swami suggested promoting analytical thinking skills, which “fights conspiracy ideation by giving people a greater sense of agency.” Approaching people from a place of common understanding can help ease into the areas of dispute. “Most conspiracies play a function. Once you understand the function, it’s easier to engage with what they’re thinking and challenge the views.”
Bauman also posited that smart engagement may influence others as a result: “We have to remember when we cite the argument that the more that people are presented with fact, the more they dig in, that is only part of the story. For every person who is digging their feet in, there are a group of people who aren’t as loud, who aren’t as boisterous, who aren’t yelling at the top of their lungs, who are looking and searching for something in order to figure out what it is they should be believing. And unfortunately, if we are not matching the intensity level of the other side, they are emotionally going to be drawn to the side that is arguing more virulently.”
That also has partisan political impact. “Every single time that a progressive has lost an election and we’ve looked at each other and asked ‘Why exactly is this? Why don’t people think we believe in anything?’ We actually do believe in a lot; our side believes in amazing things to fix this country. But we are ultimately not yelling about it as loud as the other side. And so you have a group in the middle who don’t know what to think, who don’t know what to believe and who are getting caught.”
Once on the other side, the cognitive biases that protect the belief in the conspiracy theory will also find ways to ignore facts. “When you forewarn someone you’re going to challenge them, or challenge their views, they engage in what we call ‘psychological reaction,’ they rehearse arguments against your point of view. They’re much more likely to entrench themselves.” Dr. Swami said. “Conspiracy theories are being allowed to set the agenda of discourse. They set the framework for what we’re allowed to talk about. When you present evidence of an empirical account, they change the nature of discourse to frame you as part of the conspiracy.”
Brad Bauman found out first hand as he found himself being ensnared into the conspiracies surrounding the Rich investigation, including being doxxed. But Baumann took the unusual step of taking the calls from numbers he didn’t know, committed to talking to these people who believed in the conspiracies. “I would say I probably had 20 different conversations with people, just picking up the phone. And 18 of them –not 20—but 18 of them, at the end of the call said, ‘You know, I never expected that someone like you would ever pick up the phone and I certainly didn’t expect that you would interact with me on this level’,” Bauman said. “It showed me that there is a large group of people who are reachable here and we cannot run away from this fight. And we cannot just write everyone off as being crazy, that we do need to weigh in here and we do need to fight in order to ultimately bring people back to a place where they are thinking much more clearly about things and we can do it.”
The political weaponization of conspiracy theories really is less about the actual story itself and more about expressing or aligning oneself with specific values. So how should progressives respond to conspiracists or those susceptible to conspiracies? “There was a drastic sense since the economy tanked in 2008/2009 of America being sad, scared and very angry about a system that they felt no longer worked in their interest and they had absolutely no idea who to point to in terms of who was causing this great amount of pain. Unfortunately, progressives, by and large, lost in terms of defining who it was Americans needed to be angry at, primarily because we were not forceful enough in terms of making the case that we understood that they were angry and they had the right to be angry and that we were angry too,” Bauman said. “We don’t use language that connects with people in a way that makes them fully believe and fully trust we’re telling them the truth. One of the ways we clearly broke through on the Seth Rich story; there was a conscious decision at one point to stop trying to talk like a p.r. professional and to start calling things as they were. “
“We need to start using language on our side that’s evocative of the emotion that we’re trying to present. And we need to get away from this concept that we need to talk above the fray. Because talking above the fray has only gotten us to this point.”