Conspiracy thinking and the US election

Shortly before the election in November a story did the rounds that claimed Hillary Clinton and her former campaign manager, John Podesta, ran a child sex ring at a pizzeria in Washington DC. This was an extremely complex conspiracy theory that was based on the fact that Podesta had emailed the owner of the pizzeria regarding fundraising. And it gained a shocking amount of attention on the internet.

Think about that. Millions of people were willing to share this, and numerous other fake news stories and conspiracy theories online. In fact, one of the things that defined this election was the prevalence of such conspiracy theories. Presumably only a minority of people (one hopes) fell for stories as extreme as that above, but their presence in the discourse suggests that something larger has happened. The theories may be a symptom of something else, a change in the way that people think, and it seems that Donald Trump and the Brexiteers have tapped that change to great effect.

What’s going on? Conspiracy theories are undeniably popular. The YouTube channel of Alex Jones, who believes in chemtrails and that 9/11 was an inside job, has had more than a trillion video views (that’s TRILLION, with a T). These are not small numbers of people, and before you scoff and write these people off as crazies, take a minute to think about your own beliefs. Many of you on the left of the political spectrum may suspect that media sources and political parties are pawns of rich capitalists and corporations, whereas those on the right may believe that academics and liberal elites control these very same institutions.

Of course, that is not to say that some of these conspiracies aren’t actually real. From Watergate, to suppression of evidence that smoking causes cancer, to the Tuskegee Syphilis experiment, history is littered with examples of real life conspiracies. Indeed generally conspiracy theories have something believable at their core, which is part of their power. Some media outlets are indeed controlled by right-wing business people, and others by left leaning business people. However, when people dismiss everything produced by a large swathe of the media, whose politics they don’t agree with, is when things get worrying.

While beliefs like this about control of the media are nowhere near as extreme as the example I mentioned at the start of the article, they do indicate a specific style of thought (conspiracy thinking) that has become more and more prevalent over the last decade, ultimately contributing to Trump’s victory in November. To be clear, it is not that people all suddenly believe in conspiracies, but they do begin to see some of the same patterns that, in an extreme context, lead to that.

This change in thinking has had immense effects in the last year. I will focus here on the most obvious example of this style of thought: the “that’s what they want you to think” response. A typical hallmark of conspiracy style thinking is that evidence is dismissed as part of the conspiracy. When Trump or his supporters were confronted with evidence or examples of wrongdoing, the first and biggest reaction was to blame “the liberal media”. The actual content of the criticism is ignored or not believed, and the focus is placed on the outlet providing the criticism rather than the criticism itself. It is worth pointing out that this is not something that is unique to Trump and his supporters, and seems to be happening across the spectrum. During the democratic primaries, Bernie Sanders supporters constantly criticised “the mainstream media”, preferring news from blogs and other resources.

It is an extraordinarily effective response, casting doubt on all criticism. Regardless of what outlet it was, Trump’s reaction was the same. Throughout the primaries, Trump threatened to boycott the right wing outlet Fox News, saying their coverage was biased (until they swung around behind him, that is). After Megan Kelly, a Fox News anchor and debate moderator, clashed with him, he repeatedly claimed she was biased and had treated him unfairly. At no point did he respond to the content of the criticism, he instead he focused on casting doubt on her character.

This narrative of a media conspiracy continued during the election, and was repeatedly deployed during the campaign. It successfully reinforced people’s mistrust in these outlets, and when combined with the echo chamber effect of social media, and the proliferation of false news, almost entirely delegitimised the press for a large portion of the electorate.

This distrust extended to specialists of other sorts, driven by a systematic undermining of expertise in topics like climate change. In the brexit campaign we saw the outright dismissal of “experts”, which played to the same narrative. It is clear that this style of thinking and argument has now become mainstream, and presents a huge problem.

In a way it is natural that this happened. We seem to be hard-wired to be attracted to conspiracy theories. It might be that in our past it was a good rule of thumb to see planning and malice rather than circumstance and coincidence. It may also be a coping mechanism of sorts.

Psychologists have studied this type of thinking in the past. It tends to become more prevalent when people feel like they have less control over their lives, which has happened to a large portion of the American electorate as a result of economic and security uncertainties. Wage stagnation, the rise of ISIS, the undermining of knowledge and experts, and to a certain extent the revolution in the moral framework of the country (including LGBTQ rights and the role of men in society), have led to a population that feels that it has lost a certain amount of power over their own lives. This has driven people towards a more conspiratorial style of thinking. However, it is something that should be guarded against, and the recent election is a prime example of the dangers of thinking in this way.

So what can be done? That is a difficult question to answer, and all we can do is guess. Trust is key; if people don’t trust the establishment and power structures, that mistrust will undermine anything that is associated with it, including legitimate enterprise and expertise. However, how you regain the trust of a population that simply doesn’t believe anything you say is anyone’s guess. The next few years will bring much introspection in this regard. Debunking the idea of a single, coordinated “mainstream media” is a good place to start, so somehow emphasising the independence of outlets may be worth doing.

The constant barrage of bad news we consume certainly doesn’t help either. People feel besieged and forget that the world is actually getting better. Extreme poverty, child labour, infant mortality and violent crime are all lower than they have ever been, while education, global literacy rates and female participation in public life are all on the increase. Balance between good and bad news may help ease the sense of anxiety we have. Personally I like to think that some old-fashioned good news may help counter the idea that the world is going to shit, but then, I’m an optimist.

Another tack is often taken when arguing with conspiracy theorists, and is described succinctly in the video below by Trevor Noah. The idea is that while correcting Trump with fact is obviously still important, if his supporters won’t listen to the facts it is futile. Instead you get him to elaborate, and try to get him to expose the absurdity of his claim himself. Easier said than done, but it is worth a try.

Obviously conspiracy style thinking is just one of a multitude of reasons that the political landscape around the world has been changing. Becoming aware of it can only be a step in the right direction.

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