For the past four years, the United States was governed by a conspiracy theorist in chief. Whether by retweeting QAnon accounts from the Oval Office or painting himself as the victim of shadowy “deep state” plots at rallies, President Donald Trump injected the toxin of baseless conspiratorial thinking straight into America’s political bloodstream. On Jan. 6, America saw how far that venom had spread, as a ragtag group of militias, racist extremists and flag-waving disciples of Trumpism stormed the Capitol.
The insurrectionists were unified by their support for Trump. But many of them shared another crucial trait: They were conspiracy theorists. And while hundreds of people stormed the Capitol, there are millions of Americans who share their views. There is no doubt: The United States has a serious problem with pathological political delusions.
So, do we have any hope of deprogramming the millions of Americans who are devoted to dangerous lunacy? Don’t hold your breath.
Psychologists and political scientists have been interested in conspiracy theories for decades, but their research has taken on new urgency. And what is clear from their findings is this: Once people have gone far enough down the rabbit hole of conspiratorial thinking, it can be nearly impossible to get them back out.
There are a few reasons conspiracy theories are so “sticky” once they’re in someone’s head. First, conspiracy theorists are far more likely to have a Manichaean worldview, meaning they interpret everything as a battle between good and evil. That makes it harder for dispassionate evidence-based arguments to break through. (For QAnon believers, Trump is the central superhero in an epic saga to vanquish a shadowy cabal.)
Second, those who seek to debunk conspiracy theories are precisely the people that true believers distrust. If someone believes the media is controlled by sinister but unseen puppet masters, fact checks from CNN will never convince them they’re wrong.
For the past four years, those who have worked hardest to dispel QAnon believers of their fantasies are the very people that “Anons” trust least: anti-Trump academics like me, news outlets such as The Post and politicians who they believe to be co-opted by the “deep state.” Political scientists Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler have documented the risks of a backfire effect, in which correcting misperceptions actually ends up entrenching them. In the world of conspiratorial thinking, the harder the pushback, the greater the proof that a coverup is afoot.
Third, these organized mass delusions are designed to resist debunking. When Armageddon fails to materialize on a precise date predicted by a cult leader, believers often chalk it up to miscalculation and simply pick a new date. The same is often true for conspiracy theories. When Trump failed to fulfill the QAnon prophecy of arresting Joe Biden and staying in power, some believers began suggesting that Biden was secretly in on the plan. No matter what happens, there’s always another explanation.
Chris French, a professor who heads the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths, University of London, recently told me that conspiracy theorists often even believe mutually contradictory claims. For example, those who believe that Princess Diana faked her own death often simultaneously believe that she was killed by the government. “They can’t both be true,” French said.
But while political science and psychology have effectively demonstrated the cognitive biases that cause such deranged beliefs to stick, there’s a crucial dimension that isn’t getting enough attention. Conspiracy theories, for too many people, are fun. That’s particularly true because groups such as QAnon have developed into robust online communities in which believers forge digital friendships. Our mental image of tinfoil-hat-wearing loners isolated in dark basements is outdated. Modern conspiracy movements such as QAnon, are thriving in church groups and yoga classes. They’re social. And that means that deprogramming is that much harder.
In 1995, Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam wrote an essay called “Bowling Alone,” in which he argued that Americans were becoming atomized. Bowling leagues were disappearing even as more people were bowling. And that reflected a deeper fracturing of American society.
Today, with the rise of social media, one can be alone but feel part of a group — and some of those groups are glued together by unhinged beliefs. Bowling alone has been replaced by tweeting together — a cardboard cutout for real social interaction, but one that has a seductive allure to millions of people. Many of the fanatics who stormed the Capitol were neither poor nor social misfits, but rather had found a digital community to augment or replace their offline one.
We can no longer pretend that conspiracy theorists are beneath our attention. They’ve shown they have tremendous capacity to inflict damage on society. Bringing the deluded people who populate Trump’s political base back to reality will be difficult. But to find the right antidote, we need to at least accurately diagnose who has taken the poison. And that means acknowledging that those who sympathize with the Capitol insurrectionists are not far-off lunatics. Some, most likely, are your neighbors.
And, given the staying power of conspiratorial thinking, they aren’t likely to change their minds anytime soon.