“I have three best friends here in the Seattle area, and one of them just fell down that rabbit hole,” said Seattle resident Cindy Roberts. “She really thinks that there are hundreds of thousands of kids being trafficked, and that Donald Trump is going to save them. My take is this: She just beat breast cancer last year, and that’s a hard thing to happen, and things are getting better. But it’s like she just wants to be this warrior.”
Like countless other Americans whose loved ones have become hypnotized by QAnon—the conspiracy movement that believes a cabal of Satan-worshiping deep state actors are out to get Trump—Cindy Roberts now fears her friend is past the point of no return. “She just acts like we aren’t woke enough to get it, you know?”
The Twitter account @SupportQAnon—which bills itself as a “support group for family members of people in the qanon cult & those who have left it”—has been a comforting place for individuals who have watched love ones fall prey to the messaging fromQAnon. Others have found solace in the subreddit “r/QAnonCasualties,” where people share personal stories about their experience: “Qparent Now Thinks Democrats are Nazis,” says one post, and “Writing a letter to my Dad about losing him to the qult; should I be pulling punches?” reads another.
These groups certainly provide some sense of support, but they still leave people wondering: How can their ordinary and seemingly rational friends, neighbors, or loved ones actually believe that Hillary Clinton sacrifices chickens to pagan deities in her backyard? Or that Tom Hanks tortures children so that he can harvest“adrenochrome” from their blood? QAnon has been around for just a few years, but it has gained traction online precisely because it plays on psychological phenomena that have been around for millennia.
Conspiracy theories have been around forever. QAnon just happens to have taken off in the dark corners of the internet because it appealed to the right people at the right time.
According to Joe Uscinski, a political scientist specializing in conspiracy theories at the University of Miami, there are many factors that can drive a belief in conspiracy theories. The problem lies in the fact that we still don’t know what gives somebody the overall conspiratorial mindset. “We’ve only really been making a concerted effort on this for 12 years, so we just don’t have enough data to be able to say it’s a gene, it’s from socialization, it’s perhaps an evolutionary trait, it’s the product of some event that happens to somebody, or it’s purely a psychological issue.”
Stephan Lewandowsky, a professor and cognitive scientist at the University of Bristol, is convinced that both dispositional and situational factors play a role in making some people more prone to conspiratorial thinking than others. “As far as the situational factors are concerned, a pandemic throughout history has always given rise to conspiracy theories,” Lewandowsky said. “There are stories of anti-Semitism arising in the context of the plague in the Middle Ages, and outbreaks of riots in Russia during the cholera epidemic in the late 19th century, when people were chasing down doctors and nurses because they thought they were responsible for the pandemic.”
Lewandowsky’s hypothesis certainly stands up in light of our current pandemic. Just look at the response to the “Plandemic” video, which was viewed millions of times even as Facebook, Google, and Twitter rushed to take it down. Further, a startling 25 percent of Americans believe there’s some truth to the claim that the coronavirus pandemic was planned—a belief that perhaps unsurprisingly correlates with education level—and nearly three in 10 believe the virus was made in a lab.
Dramatic events in history are notorious for giving rise to popular conspiracy theories. Take the conspiracy theories surrounding 9/11, the JFK assassination, the moon landing, or the Las Vegas shooting, just to name a few. As researchers Jan-Willem van Prooijen and Karen M. Douglas emphasize in their paper, “Conspiracy theories as part of history: The role of societal crisis situations,” there is evidence to suggest that when people are placed in crisis situations—a pandemic, a war, an economic recession—they feel as if they’ve lost control of their surroundings.
Conspiracy theories therefore become a vehicle through which people who feel they have lost a sense of control in their lives can channel their fear and uncertainty of the future into something productive. Productive, that is, in the sense that they can lay blame on a set of individuals—whether that’s Bill Gates, the “Deep State,” Hillary Clinton, or George Soros—as conspiratorial masterminds behind otherwise inexplicable events.
“They feel that if you just imagine that there are these bad people in control of the world, then you can also imagine that they might act differently, and then the world would be a better place,” Lewandowsky said. “And that ability to think something could be different is providing comfort if they’re afraid.” Lewandowsky also listed dispositional factors that make people prone to conspiratorial thinking: feeling left behind, feeling left out, feeling that society is not giving individuals their due, as well as general disgruntlement and resentment. Cognitive style also plays a role in fueling conspiracy theories, Lewandowsky said. Some people, for example, think that intuition or magical thinking are better ways to understand the world as opposed to concrete evidence.
The situational aspect of conspiracy theories is also key, as is the group element. “There is some evidence that when your party controls the White House, you might be a little bit less conspiratorial in your outlook,” Uscinski said. But on average, over time, Republicans and Democrats are largely equal in their propensity to believe conspiracy theories.
“There are an infinite number of conspiracy theories, and everybody may have a particular motivation for believing a particular one at a particular time,” Joe Uscinski said. “Every conspiracy theory is going to have different factors attached to it. So if it’s a conspiracy theory that accuses Democrats, then it’s going to be Republicans who believe it and vice versa. And the same is going to go with all sorts of other conspiracy theories that have some sort of group element to them.”
The rise of QAnon can be traced to the ascendance of Trump. “When Donald Trump got into the race, he wasn’t really Republican, he wasn’t a conservative, he wasn’t a politician,” Uscinski explained to me in June. “So he went after a different kind of voter. He went after people who are more conspiracy-minded,” he said, “and felt more antagonism toward the political establishment.”
“So the same people supporting Trump were not the same people supporting Jeb Bush. These are different people. Trump sort of cultivated this group of people into his core of supporters. So for that reason it makes sense that Trump-supporting Q believers would be feeling bold, and feel like this is their moment, that this is their time.” Because of Trump, Uscinski explained, ideas like “draining the swamp” and “taking down the establishment” are now front and center. “If Jeb Bush was president there wouldn’t be space in the national dialogue for this stuff. But with Trump, there is.” QAnon has taken off for the same exact reason.
Regarding support for QAnon, Uscinski saidthat the media has gotten way ahead of itself with the claims it’s been making about the movement’s growth. “If you look at the headlines over the past two weeks, it’s just crazed claims about QAnon support and none of those articles have any survey evidence to back them up.” According to a Pew Research Center poll published in March, only 3 percent of survey respondents know “a lot” about QAnon whereas 76 percent know “nothing at all.” Many articles are discussions of the number of Facebook group pages or tweets, he said, which aren’t particularly good measures of public opinion.
Pulling people out of the conspiracy theory rabbit hole is no easy task. “There is evidence that if you warn people ahead of time that they might be exposed to a conspiracy theory,” Lewandowsky explained, “they become less susceptible to the conspiracy theory if they then encounter one.” That seems to be true at the aggregate level, he said. In this sense, warning people of the dangers and logical shortcomings of a conspiracy theory acts as an inoculation to a virus by creating resistance to misinformation.
Fortunately, most people who hold conspiratorial beliefs are actually quite responsive to corrections when they are asked to engage in a bit of analytic thinking, Lewandowsky said. On the other hand, he explained that there’s a subset of conspiratorial thinkers—roughly 30-40 percent, he estimates—for whom a particular theory can become inextricably tied to their identity.
This is where the debunking process comes in. “The only sort of experience we have of dealing with processes of that type is deradicalization of terrorists or members of cults,” Lewandowsky told me. He said this process can be facilitated by showing empathy when talking to someone about their conspiratorial beliefs rather than simply ridiculing them, or by facilitating conversations between the intended target and a former conspiracy believer who understands their worldview.
But herein lies the problem: Many conspiracy theorists don’t want to be saved or simply refuse to admit that they’re conspiracy theorists in the first place. In a study called “‘What about building 7?’ A social psychological study of online discussion of 9/11 conspiracy theories,” Karen M. Douglas and Michael J. Wood explored this phenomenon. By analyzing people’s comments on news articles related to conspiracy theories, they found that conspiracy theorists typically reject the conspiracy theory label as a way to avoid the social stigma such an accusation carries. Instead of affirmatively saying no one died at the Sandy Hook shooting, for example, conspiracy theorists will claim they are just asking questions about the event, even though asking those types of questions almost certainly correlates with a belief.
Conspiracy theorists will also often warp any attempt to change their mind as evidence that their beliefs have merit. “One of the attributes of a conspiracy theory is its self-sealing nature, meaning any evidence to the contrary is reinterpreted as evidence for the theory,” Lewandowsky said. “Sometimes people think that if someone’s taking my belief seriously enough to try to falsify it, then that must mean there’s something to it,” explained Mick West, founder of conspiracy theory debunking site, Metabunk.org, in an interview with The Dispatch. “Because otherwise why would they try to stop it?”
Even though people flock to conspiracy theories as a way to placate uncertainty, it’s unclear whether these unconventional explanations provide any sort of psychological payoff to those who propagate them. “We know that having an enemy can be psychologically comforting, people can feel better if they can blame something on an identifiable person rather than just a random event,” Lewandowsky said. But taken as a whole, he said conspiracy theorists tend not to be happy people. Believing that Bill Gates is planning to put microchips in every coronavirus vaccine may address someone’s uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 vaccine trials, but it’s hard to believe that this theory will help them sleep better at night.
“And it’s even worse for the loved ones who feel that they’ve lost a person to this belief system,” Lewandowsky said. “So I would be very hesitant to see anything beneficial in conspiracy theories to anyone except that there’s this evidence that sometimes having an enemy can be shown to give you a brief period of comfort. But on balance they’re negative, undoubtedly.”
Yet conspiracy theories do seem to provide solace to individuals who yearn for a sense of belonging. Take QAnon, for example. As a movement that aims to take down a cabal of Satan worshipping elites who are sex trafficking children, it makes adherents feel as if they’re contributing to something that really helps humanity. As ludicrous and baseless as it’s claims may be, QAnon is a mission-oriented movement that gives people hope for the future. “It’s not just a conspiracy theory, Uscinski said, “There’s a cultish element to it” that creates “a sense of group identity.” QAnon followers’ favorite catchphrase says it all: “Where We Go One, We Go All.”
“If you follow a lot of the chat or a lot of what they talk about,” Uscinski explained, many QAnon adherents will say things along the lines of, “My family abandoned me, but at least I have all of you.”
As anyone who has watched the flat-earther documentary Behind the Curve knows all too well, the social aspect of some conspiracy theory movements is just icing on the cake. “If you talk to some conspiracy theorists, they will say that finding this particular conspiracy theory, be it QAnon or 9/11, was the best thing that ever happened to them,” said Mick West, author of Escaping the Rabbit Hole: How to Debunk Conspiracy Theories Using Facts, Logic, and Respect.
“There was a guy in my book called Steve—one of the interviewees—and he said his social life just exploded after he got into 9/11,” West explained. “He would go to these conspiracy groups and he would stand up and talk to them about how 9/11 was an inside job, and how the towers were brought down by explosives, and he described it like beautiful chicks hanging on his every word.”
“[Steve] said there were actually people in the group who he thought probably didn’t actually believe in [the 9/11 conspiracy theory] anymore, they’ve just been there so long that it became a habit for them because these were with their friends,” West explained. “He ended up trying to debunk things to them, and it didn’t work out very well.” At the end of the day, some people just refuse to leave the rabbit hole.”
From the Salem witch trials and the Illuminati to Pizzagate and the Clinton death list, it’s clear that conspiracy theories have become deeply embedded into the human psyche. And if history tells us anything at all, it’s that they’re here to stay.
Photograph by Sandy Huffaker/AFP/Getty Images.