The lasting impact of conspiracy theories

On Saturday, it will have been 20 years.

This is the sight that a lot of people woke up to on Sept. 11, 2001. The hush in the newsroom that morning as we watched the towers was unforgettable. Image found on The Conversation.

Twenty years since the Tuesday morning that I stood in the newsroom, watching with 10 or so other Democrat-Gazette colleagues as the newsroom televisions showed us a plane crashing into one of the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers, and then another plane hitting the other.

At first it looked like a freak accident. The second plane showed that it was deliberate.

We would later learn of two other planes, one that crashed into the west side of the Pentagon, and another brought down in a field in Pennsylvania by passengers who decided to take on the hijackers.

A piece of the fuselage from Flight 93 found in the Shanksville, Pa., field where it crashed. Image found on Wikimedia Commons.

Thousands of lives were lost that day, and millions of lives are still affected by it, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that followed.

New agencies were born (Homeland Security), and security was stepped up pretty much everywhere, but especially at airports after the flight ban was lifted two days after 9/11. We had employees stranded by the flight ban, and reporters hitting the road to New York, and a lot of worry about what came next.

As a nation, we came together to support those who lost people, to renew a sense of immediacy in the fight against terrorism. But we also let conspiracy theories—beliefs that powerful people are manipulating events and people—sow seeds of doubt. (Let’s not discuss the attacks on anyone who looked like they might be Muslim or Middle Eastern.)

People cover themselves with a flag at a candlelight vigil on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 12, 2001. Image by Mark Wilson, Getty Images, found on BuzzFeed.

Still today we have people who believe the 9/11 attack was a false-flag operation—an act designed to look like it was undertaken by someone other than the responsible party—or that there were no planes used despite the documentary and eyewitness evidence.

Conspiracy theories have been around forever, but it seems, to me, anyway, that it wasn’t until 9/11 that they gained so much impact, probably because the Internet was more available by then; by 2000, 52 percent of the U.S. was on the Internet, according to Pew Research, and by 2019, it was up to 90 percent.

The Internet changed the way conspiracy theories disseminated, so the more access people had, the faster they spread. With 9/11, it was mostly the left talking about conspiracies. When Barack Obama began his run for the presidency, it was the right. Joseph Uscinski, a political scientist at the University of Miami, told Maggie Koerth of FiveThirtyEight that he was frustrated by the tendency of partisans to build up conspiracy theories when their party isn’t in power and then forget them once they have the power again.

Life just wouldn’t be complete without the Tinfoil Hat Brigade. Illustration by John Deering.

But I would postulate that that changed once Donald Trump was elected, not least because he fed conspiracy theories whenever something didn’t go his way (Hillary responsible for pretty much everything bad in the world, Obama got rid of all the PPE and other medical equipment in storage, Joe Scarborough killed his intern, Joe Biden blackmailed Ukraine, etc.). Once he lost the election, they went into overdrive, culminating in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

Is it any wonder so many of us were exhausted by his presidency? And that’s BEFORE we get into the countless easily disproven lies he or his mouthpieces told (biggest inaugural crowd ever, Bowling Green massacre, airports during the Revolutionary War, etc. … good lord, it was prolific).

Marta Marchlewska, a social and political psychologist who studies conspiracy theories at the Polish Academy of Sciences, spoke to Jillian Kramer for an article published online in National Geographic two days after the attack. She said that people use “cognitive shortcuts” (rules of thumb to help make decisions) to determine what they should believe, and when there’s anxiety and disorder in their lives, they become more reliant on them. But that wasn’t the only factor.

A study published last October by the University of Cambridge’s Sander van der Linden and several colleagues explored why people believe misinformation about the pandemic, and found that while a majority accurately identified misinformation, some respondents accepted falsehoods easily, and even labeled accurate information as false.

If you fall for the most ridiculous fake news, you’ll fall for anything, even a “billionaire businessman” as president. Editorial cartoon by Rob Rogers, then of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Kramer wrote:

“The same participants who believed misinformation were also less likely to report that they complied with covid-19 health guidance, such as wearing masks, and were more likely to express vaccine hesitancy. The finding supports a body of research that shows people’s willingness to believe fake news can have real behavioral effects, says Jan-Willem van Prooijen, a social psychologist at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.

“Experts also say that people are more likely to believe misinformation that they are exposed to over and over again—such as allegations of election fraud or claims that covid-19 is no more dangerous than the flu. “The brain mistakes familiarity for truth,’ van der Linden says.

“Another psychological factor that can lead to belief in conspiracies is what experts call ‘collective narcissism,’ or a group’s inflated belief in its own significance. Marchlewska’s research suggests that collective narcissists are apt to look for imaginary enemies and adopt conspiracy explanations that blame them.

“This urge is particularly strong when narcissistic people fail, or members of their group fail. ‘For some people, conspiracy beliefs are the best way to deal with the psychological threat posed by their failure,’ Marchlewska says, adding that this phenomenon was likely at work as rioters stormed the Capitol.”

Why people latch on to conspiracy theories, according to science, by Jillian Kramer, National Geographic, Jan. 8, 2021.
This never should have happened: U.S. Capitol police officers point their guns at a door that was vandalized in the House Chamber during a joint session of Congress on Jan. 06, 2021, in Washington, D.C., to ratify President-elect Joe Biden’s 306-232 Electoral College win over President Donald Trump. Image by Drew Angerer, Getty Images.

Ya think? All that “stop the steal” and other rhetoric, plus the president’s endorsement of the events planned for Jan. 6 were destined to end badly.

Political scientist Emily Thorson of Syracuse University told Kramer it’s hard to dissuade someone once they believe in something because of “belief echoes”—an “obsessive, emotional response to information that can linger even after we know it’s false.”

Which means that those of us committed to facts have a tough row to hoe. That’s why so many of us have headaches right now, and not just from slamming our heads against the wall. If you’ve dealt with an anti-vaxxer recently, you know what I mean.

I’d love it if people stopped making me do this. GIF found on giphy.

The events of 9/11 were instigated by very real enemies, but people managed to make others the enemies because they imagined there had to be deeper reasons behind the attacks. (I’m thankful that President Biden has ordered more of the investigation files declassified, as maybe it will shed more light on the Saudi connection; 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens, as was Osama bin Laden, mastermind of the attacks; no Iraqi or Afghan citizens were involved.)

Some people firmly believe there were no shootings at Sandy Hook, Parkland, Aurora, etc., but instead “false flags” involving “crisis actors” (why yes, those are air quotes!) who seem to show up at every mass shooting, all as the impetus to take away everyone’s guns. Some will never believe that pizzagate isn’t real, that Obama was born in the U.S., or that Trump lost the 2020 election.

Some of those people have even ended up in Congress, most notably Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has espoused QAnon/pizzagate and stolen-election theories, among others (including those Jewish space lasers causing California wildfires), as well as having harassed survivors of school shootings and her own colleagues in Congress. It’s almost as if her district voted her in to be a troll, because she’s certainly not filing anything but nuisance bills, and she was stripped of committee assignments.

US Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, Republican of Georgia, might just be the most useless member of Congress. Image by Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images.

She’s making herself useful to no one but those who want to install Trump as a god. Even far-right Republican colleagues are getting tired of some of her tactics. That’s saying something.

In her story on conspiracy theories just after the Jan. 6 attack, Kramer wrote: “[T]he idea that the election was rigged is, by definition, a conspiracy theory—an explanation for events that relies on the assertion that powerful people are dishonestly manipulating society. In reality, dozens of lawsuits espousing accusations of voter fraud have been thrown out by state and federal courts. Attorney General William Barr said last month that the U.S. Justice Department has found no evidence of widespread voter fraud. Even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell—a Republican ally of Trump through much of his presidency—recently called some of Trump’s voter fraud claims ‘sweeping conspiracy theories.’

Oh, c’mon. These are clearly peaceful tourists. Image by Leah Millis, Reuters.

“Trump has ‘weaponized motivated reasoning,’ says Peter Ditto, a social psychologist at the University of California, Irvine. He ‘incited a mob, and weaponized natural human tendencies.’”

Reality, it seems, is eluding a lot of people who would much rather believe the comforting lie. In some cases, it’s harmless, but in others, such as the pandemic and Jan. 6 … not so much.

“There is no doubt that conspiracy theories and misinformation have been used by powerful figures over the ages,” Marchlewska told Kramer. “They serve as an extremely dangerous political weapon, helping manipulate the public to gain the power. First you search for imaginary enemies, then you prepare yourself for a fight. The final stage is usually tragic: You hurt innocent people.”

That should give us pause. Sadly, as the last several years have taught us, it probably won’t.

Which is why I will continue to sport bruises on my aching head.

Why? Just why?? GIF found on gifer.