Becca Balint | Conspiracy theories: Fighting Fire with Water

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Conspiracy theories have been around for as long as there have been people to concoct them, but there's been a notable shift in what they look like and how they operate. Recently I've felt wholly ill-equipped to battle the disinformation currently disseminated throughout our body politic.

Some recent conspiracy theories have been painfully absurd: Hillary Clinton running a sex child ring in Washington, D.C. at a pizza shop (Pizzagate). Horribly offensive: The mass shooting of children in Newtown, Connecticut was staged by actors. Absolutely politically motivated: Climate change denier, Senator James Inhofe, R-Okla., said, "With all of the hysteria, all of the fear, all of the phony science, could it be that man-made global warming is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people?" Inhofe spreads a conspiracy theory by claiming it's all a conspiracy theory. This is tough stuff to combat.

Professors Jan-Willem van Prooijen of VU Amsterdam, The Netherlands and Karen M Douglas of the University of Kent, UK have developed a construct to help us understand why and how conspiracy theories come to be accepted. Their research suggests that the aversive and acute emotions that people experience when in crisis—fear, uncertainty, and the feeling of being out of control—prompt a strong impulse to attempt to make some sense of the situation. This appears to increase the likelihood of perceiving conspiracies as real.

We can debate what the current crises are in our nation that contribute to the spread of conspiracy theories. Economic fears? Perceived loss of power by those who've held it for so long? Shifting mores around sexual orientation, gender identity and gender roles? Acute wealth disparity? The beginning of a long-overdue national reckoning with racial injustice? Certainly these all play a part.

But regardless of the particular factors in play, there are similarities in the psychological function these theories have for those who believe them. As van Poojien and Douglas highlight, they give people easy answers and offer up a person or group of people for blame. This provides a sense of control — albeit a false one — for people experiencing the world as uncontrollable.

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So conspiracy theories aren't new, and they address feelings that most of us have. What is different is that conspiracy theories today can be mere statements spewed by fabulists like our president.

Nancy L. Rosenblum of Harvard University and Russell Muirhead of Dartmouth College authored "A Lot of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy" (Princeton, 2019). They assert that the newest conspiracy theories are different and dangerous because they are "conspiracy without the theory." Rosenblum and Muirhead, in a recent interview in the Economist, explained, "Its proponents dispense with evidence and explanation. Their charges take the form of bare assertion."

Although they concede that it's tempting to fight this fire with more fire — spewing our own counterfactual humbuggery. It doesn't address the real danger to our democracy that conspiracy theories pose, and it "obliterates a common world of facts and public reasoning." Instead, we must douse the flames with a constant, unrelenting demand for facts and supporting evidence.

This is something we all can and must do. We should demand this of our politicians, local leaders, activists, and journalists—but also of our friends and family. When we see folks veering into the realm of conspiracy — whether on the Right or Left — we must gather our courage and confront it head on. Name why the theory might be appealing to that person and identify the emotions it soothes or inflames. Then be unyielding in your determination. It is not hyperbole to say that our Republic depends on us to do this work.

Becca Balint writes from Brattleboro on history, politics and culture. She currently serves as Senate Majority Leader in the Vermont Legislature. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.


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