In October 2020, I had to leave Colombia for a week to reset my legal status. I spent that week in a hostel in Panamá. The old Spanish-colonial building, nestled on a hill closer to the stark residences of year-round locals than to the brightly painted walls of the tourist quarter, was musty and run down, having been shuttered for most of the pandemic year. I knew that my money was helping its displaced-Colombian owners reopen in a hard season. But aside from folks with essential travel like mine, who else would be there in a pandemic?
Three other guests arrived during my stay. Two were “free spirits” from affluent backgrounds, the sort that provided clear safety nets if ever their Bohemian ways met with trouble abroad. The third was a Scottish flat-earther and COVID-denier still struggling to shake a longstanding fixation with QAnon conspiracies, and to give himself over entirely to his new mission of exorcism and baptism as a born-again Christian.
I’ve written elsewhere about this fellow’s wild assortment of views, but today I mean to reflect on two questions about “healthy” discourse that such encounters always leave me pondering.
The questions are as follows:
- What need is served by the cultivation and maintenance of extreme views?
- What ways of building knowledge do people in extreme info silos share with my own?
So, what need is served by conspiracy?
In the case of my flat-earth born-again Christian, His extreme views clearly served two needs. (I say “clearly” because he mentioned them himself.) He told me he’d been estranged from touch, connection, and all the other normal pathways of parental love as a child. The “laying on of hands” provided him with a way to be comfortable around other people. Touch deprivation is a common condition especially for men and the elderly in Western cultures. I wasn’t surprised to hear that it lay behind his later-life embrace of exorcism and other faith-healing through Christ.
He also told me he never felt surer of his beliefs than when someone expressed shock as he proclaimed them. Even the wildest conspiracy theory had to hold some truth, his reasoning went, because how else could it elicit such powerful reactions?
This column will return to the conflation of truth with the power of the spoken word on many occasions. Here, however, a far simpler aspect of that equation was at work. This man anticipated rejection, so he sought it out, and he had it confirmed for him in others’ reactions. And how coherent a life choice that is! It’s much less stressful to cut to the chase of rejection when that’s all you really expect. Why expend energy trying to belong to mainstream society, when you “know” you’ll never fully fit in?
And to what end?
We reached this level of rapport, mind you, because I had not shown him the shock he’d anticipated. I had disrupted his usual provocation-based reward cycle. I had not “gone along” with his views, but I had acknowledged and dissented from them with unexpected calmness. Granted, this was not always the easiest response to pull off—certainly not when he denied COVID-19’s existence, and not when he slipped into sexist, racist, and homophobic remarks related to his views on the origins of humankind. But I’m not mentioning my calm as a boast. I’m simply noting what its use illustrated about his underlying motivations.
This man had found his sense of belonging by routinely pre-empting possible acts of rejection from general society. He had found security by entrenching himself in views that allowed him to heal from estrangement on his own terms. And he enjoyed, too, the power that comes with believing oneself more enlightened: a lofty keeper of secret, sacred truths.
All of which leads quite nicely to that second—and far more unsettling—question. What do my communities share with his, in the way of (flawed) approaches to building knowledge?
What do my circles share with info silos fostering conspiracy theories?
Unfortunately, the answer is “a lot”. We often treat “right-wing” (libertarian and traditional conservative) conspiracy theories as the outcome of strange new ways of thinking. However, the info silos cultivating these views do not differ significantly from most of our own.
Three trends, in particular, cause us problems.
The first is familiar to derisive posts around “religion vs. atheism”, which many share to provoke and/or to rally like-minded people against a common “enemy”. Some argue that mockery is critical resistance work. Some also argue that mockery offers comfort to those who can do little else to fix a situation. US and Canadian liberals, for instance, used The Daily Show as a coping mechanism for life under then-President George W. Bush’s unjust wars. Did it fix anything? Not really. But laughter comforted some of us, even as the show informed us of the world’s many ills.
This approach to argument, though, prioritizes the experience of belonging over the value of speaking truth. Either you “get” this joke and you’re with us, or you don’t, because you’re a “sheep” in the system. And that behavior-set doesn’t markedly differ from strategies used to encourage people to see belief in a given conspiracy as a means of identifying “your” people.
The second trend happens on social media platforms that reward racking up “likes”. There, anyone can make a declarative statement about how a given experience belongs solely to [X] demographic and how [Y] demographic cannot possibly have similar. This is poor activism, though, because it’s perfectly possible to talk about an experience of [X] without tripping into error about what [Y] has and has not experienced, too. Worse yet, structuring a claim to marginalization this way is not value-neutral. Rather, it opens the door to people arguing for [Y] having similar experiences after all. This completely derails from the poster’s main point, to share an experience as seen from [X] point of view.
There’s no conspiracy behind why we play these sorts of authoritative-activism games, though: It’s about building popularity through authoritative speech. Folks who post like this are appealing to be seen as experts not just on [X] but also on [Y]. Through an assertion of higher wisdom about the whole corrupt system, many seek to rise within it. No conspiracy: just a common search for stability with whatever tools might get the job done.
And also, a form of populism.
Rewarding people for bad-faith representations of other subject positions is non-ideal. If we don’t want extremists to get away with it, we need to stop habituating the tactic’s use closer to home.
The third trend is the automatic “problematizing” of any mainstream news item or work of entertainment. It’s one of the easiest ways to get published in our freelance economy: find a new “take” on a popular media that reveals its troubling underbelly.
As with the second trend, the key here is the forcefulness of one’s assertion, and the charisma or subject-position of the person asserting it, as affirmations of its truth. Op-eds and articles on major conspiracy-boosting websites use exactly the same tone of concern. What malevolent messaging lurks under the surface of seemingly innocuous news and new media?
All these trends, in other words, trade on the prestige of the outsider position over the status quo.
And all are prey to “truthiness”. The only difference is in the level of consequences in certain circles, depending on the content being advanced in this widespread manner. But oh my yes, is that difference ever a doozy. We cannot tackle the conspiracy silos, though, without a clear-eyed look at what in our own makes it easier for the general population to fall prey to them.
Hopping out of hot water
Evolutionary biology teaches us that maladaptive traits slip through without issue if they are rare-enough expressions of a given genetic sequence that more often yields adaptive advantages. Our memes are like this, too. Radical conspiracy theories with racist, xenophobic, sexist, and violence-prone overtones will crop up in any meme culture where the same rhetoric more commonly sustains the relatively harmless evolution of group identities.
The question then becomes: are we willing to abandon those generally adaptive rhetorical styles, if doing so would reduce the normalization of dangerously fringe perspectives?
This week’s Tooling Around section (which goes live on Wednesday) will explore alternatives, but today I simply want to sit with the question of our willingness to make that big of a change. It’s the easiest thing in the world to deride others for wild conspiracy theories and other extreme beliefs. But if we recognized that how we share and build knowledge is partly complicit in sustaining an online culture in which such toxic beliefs more readily emerge… would we give those ways up?