‘An American Tradition’: Lessons from a year covering conspiracy theories

A reporter reflects on conflicts over truth, trust and belonging in America

The night sky from Lookout Mountain in Colorado.
The night sky from Lookout Mountain in Colorado. (David Williams for The Washington Post)

— Reporting from Dealey Plaza in Dallas

The old textbook depository at 411 Elm St. isn’t especially eye-catching, but for nearly 60 years its awful past has loomed over downtown Dallas and, perhaps, all of American public life. “On November 22, 1963,” notes a modest historical marker fixed to its red-brick facade, “the building gained national notoriety when Lee Harvey Oswald allegedly shot and killed president John F. Kennedy from a sixth floor window as the presidential motorcade passed the site.”

Every few minutes, visitors pause to read the engraving — by the Texas Historical Commission, a government agency — and then point to an emphatic etch around “allegedly” that someone has scratched into the plate, in case the point was too subtle.

“They did that because they know it’s not true,” a man tells a companion one November afternoon, and then it happens again, and again, but no one is interested in sharing these private thoughts with a reporter, at least not on the record. Nobody wants to risk being called “a conspiracy theorist,” a “truther,” and they especially do not want to have their names lumped together with those other people, the ones with the Trump-Kennedy signs down the street.

Yet nearly six decades after JFK’s assassination, a significant majority of Americans believe that what really happened here was covered up or at least very seriously distorted by … someone.

Among the conspirators listed in limitless unsubstantiated theories are the mafia, international communists, segregationists, the Central Intelligence Agency, various other factions within the federal government or some combination thereof. No answers have come from decades of questions posed by a not-so-niche JFK conspiracy theory industry. But along the way, the questions themselves congealed into kinds of answers for about 60 percent of the public, who doubt “the official narrative.”

I have spent this year thinking and writing about the draw to conspiracy theories, the perverse comfort they provide and the damage they can cause. Today in the United States, we are living in an era of segregated belief, of divergent realities, at a time when social media has brought us nearer to one another than ever before. It is not just that there is disagreement. Certified and recertified elections are in dispute. Viruses and their lifesaving vaccines are in dispute. So often, facts themselves are in dispute. My focus has been on telling intimate stories about people navigating these conflicts within their families and communities.

Now I see a grander lesson about truth in Dealey Plaza, one I have been circling for years. That The Truth is not something merely to be found and disclosed, but rather that, in the broader sense, it is something that is negotiated, something that is mediated over time through credibility and trust. That, in the absence of those things, evidence can be so very easily overtaken by fantasy, and stay that way.

Then there’s the QAnon movement, an extremist ideology that has ripped apart families and whose followers were a prominent part of the U.S. Capitol riot on Jan. 6.

QAnon followers believe that former president Donald Trump spent his time as president battling a cabal of Satan-worshiping “deep state” Democrats who traffic children for sex, a paranoia that has often led to valuable resources being diverted away from real missing children cases. Since the 2020 election, they have also come to believe that Trump’s loss was the result of massive fraud, a disproved conspiracy theory that has in turn created a real threat to our democracy and elections. Going further than the 7 in 10 Republican voters who believe the same election conspiracy, Q followers also assure with prophetic zeal that Trump will be reinstated imminently. Mass arrests of the country’s corrupt elite and a “Great Awakening” will follow, they say.

That’s actually why I came here.

A few months ago, just a few feet away from the place where Oswald shot JFK, several dozen demonstrators began to gather to proselytize another conspiracy theory that sprang from QAnon message boards. This one — bordering on messianic and based in part on numerology — involved the slain president’s son, who himself died in a plane crash in 1999. Here on the grassy knoll, they believed, John F. Kennedy Jr. would soon reemerge more than two decades after having faked his own death, or would perhaps be reincarnated outright. The resurrected son of the assassinated father, they assured, would become Trump’s vice president.

With such public hallucinations in the headlines, it has become common to hear that we are living in an age of conspiracy theories, a symptom of our “post-truth” society. That’s what I believed, too, when I first started this project at the end of 2020.

And yet researchers who track such suspicions with polling say there is no evidence that more people in America believe in conspiracy theories today than in previous eras. That is in part because they have always been quite common among the American public and throughout U.S. history. Virtually everyone believes in a conspiracy theory or two, experts say, and most of the time it causes no problems at all.

So what is going on in our country?

What is new about this, and what is old?

Is it sustainable?

If we can conceive of truth as a process, then consider how the Internet has changed the ways we barter over it. It is not only more visible than before because of social media, but, in fact, the search for truth is also messier than it used to be now that everyone has a video production studio in their pockets. Today, it is harder to avoid other people’s delusions, and yet also easier to seclude ourselves away online with people who share our own. It is possible to do it all relatively anonymously.

Across screens and servers, it has also become easier for opportunists to mobilize conspiratorial thinking for political strength and influence.

More questions unfold from there.

What eases the slide from harmless skepticism, to mainstream doubt, to militant conspiracism?

Where is the line?

Who is most susceptible to crossing it?

I have come to understand that conspiracy theories are about certainty, about belonging and about power. They do not function like spells; they do not lull people into a trance. They are only as widespread as they are resonant. And I have also learned that the facts of people’s lives can make them more susceptible to embracing conspiratorial fallacies.

To understand the lure of conspiracy theories and alternate realities, you have to interrogate what people get out of believing such things.

You have to understand the human emotions — fear, estrangement, resentment — that underlie them.

And you need to appreciate the whole story: We are not living in the age of conspiracy theories in America. We are living in America, a country with a deep tradition of them.

* * *

A river of conspiracy theories flows through the wild lands of American history, always ferrying possibility and peril, its water marks rising and falling through time and bend.

Look closely and you will see such thinking in the witch hunts of the colonial era. In the anti-monarchical mobilization of the Revolutionary War. Consider the conspiracy theories used to justify white-supremacist terrorism leading to the Civil War, and long after it. Consider the misdirected and racist national security paranoia after Pearl Harbor that was used to justify Japanese American internment. Look at trends in migration, the economy, the size of the federal government, then contemplate the rise of violent anti-Semitic, or anti-Catholic, or anti-communist fantasies that surged in response.

Trace that line straight to the conspiracy theory about the birthplace of Barack Obama, our first Black president, and through the conspiratorial moral panic over sharia law that seemingly vanished once there was another White man in office after him.

Conspiracy theories are “an American tradition,” in the words of historian Robert A. Goldberg, who wrote the gold standard in historical scholarship on the topic, “Enemies Within.” Finished just before the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, Goldberg’s careful genealogy of American conspiracism remains deeply relevant two decades since its publication, even presciently so.

The point is not that mass delusions, disinformation and conspiracy mongering are unique to America.

But here in the United States, conspiracy theories have always been exacerbated by our unique racial, ethnic and religious pluralism, according to Goldberg and other historians. As populist myths, conspiracy theories allow their believers to feel part of a “true” American community, as special defenders of it. They thrive, the historical record shows, amid the mistrust that exists between people and communities.

Americans have often embraced conspiratorial stories and lies with particular vigor during moments of pronounced uncertainty wrought by social and technological change. And conspiracy theory opportunists throughout U.S. history have found myriad ways to exploit these particular American fissures.

Of course, real government conspiracies, coverups and blunders have provided ample disillusionment and distrust, particularly since the second half of the 20th century, which brought the expansion of the U.S. government and the country’s ascension to global superpower.

The official federal investigation into JFK’s murder in 1964, known as the Warren Commission report, left itself open to endless criticism with too-tidy and heavy-handed conclusions that many felt went beyond what available evidence could support. Even high-level officials, including President Lyndon B. Johnson and members of the Kennedy family, expressed private doubts about aspects of the commission’s work. That skepticism became canonized when, 14 years later, a damning congressional probe concluded that there was a high probability that two gunmen shot at the president, instead of Oswald alone, which the Justice Department again rejected years later.

To the minds of conspiracy theorists, this did not amount to government incompetence; it was all proof of a malevolent cabal orchestrating a coverup, a suspicious propensity historian Richard Hofstadter referred to in the 1960s as the “paranoid style in American politics.” Where one person may see ineptitude, someone else might see a plot.

There are echoes of this tendency in communities where there is high coronavirus vaccine hesitancy, in the 9/11 Truth movement, even in communities of UFO believers that are increasingly overrun by right-wing extremists.

All of which brings us to today.

Over the past 20 years, sweeping technological change has dramatically accelerated the speed with which conspiracy theories can spread and has made it easier for people with fringe beliefs to find one another. I have seen in my reporting time and again that conspiracy theory communities online can often become more important to believers than their offline relations, a new kind of self-segregation that can eviscerate even family bonds. In our chaotic and divided moment, the stories we believe say something about the factions we belong to, like the music we listen to or the clothes we wear.

The Internet has not only made it easier for conspiratorial communities to organize, but it has also made conspiracy mongering substantially less arduous. No longer do those trafficking in conspiracy theories have to write books or stitch together grand presentations for maximum effect.

“In the old days, conspiracy theorists had to persuade you that the truth is out there. Now conspiracy theories have become tweets,” Goldberg told me one recent afternoon by telephone. “Conspiracy theories are no longer about persuading. They are just slogans.”

That shift, mixed with doubt and status politics and social alienation, can leave people extremely vulnerable to manipulation. It is why my mother, a Mexican immigrant and naturalized American citizen, refuses even now to get vaccinated, despite what I tell her about the conspiracy theory videos she sends me. Why so many of my childhood friends’ parents in Alaska, kind and smart people, believe the 2020 election was stolen.

And yet, even now in the Internet era, old themes in conspiracy theories constantly recycle, sometimes in surprising and fanciful ways. Numerology was used to tie the British monarchy to Satan during the revolutionary era, Goldberg noted, and now it is being used by JFK Jr. truthers on the fringes of QAnon in concert with Christian end-of-days theology. Fear of a Trojan-horse invasion was at the heart of McCarthyism in the mid-20th century and underlies the critical race theory moral panic today. Anti-papal warnings about a Catholic chief executive circulated when JFK ran for president in 1960, and I encountered them again among evangelical voters during President Biden’s campaign in 2020.

To gawk at the most nonsensical elements of conspiracy theories — at the fringe-of-the-fringe spectacle of something like QAnon — without understanding the underlying cultural currents that lead people there is to miss the point. Perhaps it is more productive to consider the mainstream delusions people embrace in order to understand how common it is for belief to be distorted by emotion, by status anxiety, by what we already believe.

Now, as in the past, conspiracy theories are about power — who has it, who wants it, who is losing it. In that way, they offer a reflection on American life. They reveal the deep anxieties people feel about the unknown. Distortions and rumors flood into the cracks that exist between individuals, and over time their overwhelming force can drown people and communities entirely.

* * *

The conversation about disinformation in America is often centered on the supply side — understandably and necessarily — with an emphasis on what technology companies and government regulators should do to stop the spread of falsehoods on the Internet.

But I wanted to better understand the demand side of the equation: susceptibility to false beliefs, person by person.

There are clues in the budding interdisciplinary study of disinformation and rumor, which is still fairly new and is often segmented across academic silos.

One factor that propels disinformation is confirmation bias, the well-known psychological phenomenon that explains why people easily accept information that aligns with their existing worldviews. We are all subject to that.

But it is also clear from research that certain types of people are simply much more susceptible to disinformation and conspiratorial thinking than others, and not just those struggling with mental illnesses or lacking in mental fortitude.

Some researchers have found that there is a connection between “magical thinking,” devout religious faith and conspiracy worldviews. Others say deeply ingrained anti-social personality traits are at the heart of extremist conspiracy theories. Individual predispositions to rational- vs. intuition-based thinking are a factor as well, as is lower educational attainment and formal academic training. Advanced age, too, appears to make people likelier to spread fake news on the Internet.

Consider, though, that simply being told a lie or false information multiple times can make people more likely to believe it, something called the illusory truth effect, which has been studied and affirmed by social scientists, scholars of propaganda and even neuroscientists who see susceptibility to disinformation as partially rooted in the very structures of the brain.

Now consider that effect in a media landscape that rewards partisan echo chambers.

Now consider it in the social media age.

“Our brains are not built for the truth,” David Linden, a professor of neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, told me earlier this year. “Our brains weren’t even built to read. Our brains weren’t. Evolution is a very slow process. It takes many, many, many, many, many generations. And the change in technology and particularly in information is so rapid that there’s no way for evolution to keep up.”

“We’re really mismatched,” he added.

How, then, do people make sense of the flood of information they receive each day in the Internet era? In much the same way they always have: They rely fundamentally on trust, according to Cailin O’Connor, a philosopher of biology and behavioral sciences at the University of California at Irvine.

O’Connor, who uses mathematical models to study the spread of false beliefs, explained to me that people are likelier to believe new information from someone who is similar to them in terms of gender, race and political affiliation. This heuristic guides all sorts of decisions, such as the kinds of computer monitors people buy, what movies they watch and even who they vote for in elections.

“We learn almost all of our beliefs just directly from other people. Most of the processes by which we come to believe things are processes of trust. That’s the heart of how false beliefs spread,” O’Connor said. “In particular, people become misinformed because they tend to trust those they identify with, meaning they are more likely to listen to those who share their social and political identities.”

We choose who to believe, we choose who to trust, often before we realize we are doing it. It is no wonder our disinformation battles can feel so personal, especially within families.

From here, we can use myriad useful data points to help tell this story on a grand, social scale. Trust in government, according to various surveys of Americans, has dropped precipitously in the past half-century. Active distrust in newspapers and television news channels has exploded.

If our methodologies of truth are broken, I see again and again, then it stems from the fact that so, too, are our methodologies of trust.

* * *

Donald Trump arrived as a political force in America amid this confluence of history and technology and social unrest.

It was while I was covering the 2016 presidential election that I began to sense the powerful current of conspiratorial thinking that coursed through our nation’s politics.

A few weeks before Election Day that year, Trump began to make conspiratorial grievance an explicit feature of his stump speeches on stages across the country, where he would enumerate the list of plotters he said had already rigged the election against him, which included the media, pollsters, voting security experts, the political establishment from both parties in Washington and a global financial elite. All, he said, were working in concert to deny the will of the people.

Such good-vs.-evil rhetoric was deeply resonant and thus compelling, no matter that it echoed New World Order fears and even the anti-Semitic “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” On the campaign trail, he accused Hillary Clinton, his Democratic rival, of meeting “in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty to enrich these global financial powers, her special interest friends and her donors.”

Trump’s political rise had been facilitated by his amplification of the disproved, racist birther conspiracy theory about Obama. During the 2016 primary campaign, Trump had claimed the Iowa caucuses were stolen from him after he came in second there. He also claimed later that the father of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) — one of his final rivals for the GOP nomination — was seen with Oswald around the time of JFK’s assassination.

Five years later, in Dealey Plaza, I see Trump-Kennedy campaign paraphernalia among QAnon believers and recognize it as a ripple in long-tainted waters.

I decide, in this case, against pursuing interviews with any in the group. They seem mentally unwell. I am not sure there is much to be learned from leering, and I am not sure they can consent to being interviewed. For all the attention it receives, QAnon alone does not tell the story of conspiracy theories in America. It is one tributary of delusion among many.

The former president’s willingness to amplify conspiracy theories from the White House made him a singular figure in American history, according to virtually every historian, social scientist and disinformation researcher I have spoken to on the topic. His rejection of the election results is without precedent.

But the conditions that made people amenable to those conspiracy theories, they each said, long preceded Trump.

The story of America involves him but is not about him.

Americans are angry. Americans are distrustful. Americans are looking for something to believe in. The Internet has transformed and twisted that search.

If there was once an illusion of consensus, that is gone now.

The hidden transcript of the American discourse is now explicit for anyone who can summon the courage to read it online, and doing so can help us understand people’s behaviors beyond it.

I think about how once you believe in one conspiracy theory, as research shows, you are likelier to start believing in others.

I consider once again the finer line between doubt and delirium.

As I leave Dallas, I am overwhelmed by the feeling that Truth, in the grand sense, cannot be treated merely like an accretion of facts. Truth is a story we tell, a history we accept, an agreement we make, a conversation and a negotiation. Truth is nothing without belief, and for one person to believe another, there needs to be trust between them.