It is easy to write off the legion of conspiracy theorists clogging your social media feed as dingbats and dupes, and on some level, you would be justified in doing so. But if you stop scrolling long enough to contemplate the very real damage they are doing to cherished institutions and traditions like the US's until recently unblemished record of peaceful and orderly transfers of power or the resurgence of entirely preventable diseases that were once nearly eradicated by programmatic vaccination, you will understand that they are wielding considerable, all but unchecked, power, and are, in fact, a growing and perhaps terminal tumor on what passes for discourse in the age of social media.
Personally, I am resigned to the notion that this country is well into its downward slide. It's hard to pinpoint when exactly the country jumped the shark. Good cases can be made for any time between the end of World War II in 1945 and 1994 when Mars discontinued the PB Max candy bar. And as I say, I've come to terms with the idea. Empires end. It's just the circle of life on a grander scale.
But I will not accept that the natural process is being needlessly and heedlessly hurried along by sheer unblinking gullibility, foreign powers' misinformation industries, over-caffeinated and under-showered bubblegum nihilists, and kneejerk contrarians who claim two hours of poking around YouTube's colon constitutes research...
It would be funny if it weren't so frightening and sad
All bilious and cartoonish characterizations aside, the sad fact is that many of those who have fallen down the rabbit hole and who are responsible for spreading dangerous misinformation started with admirable motives--to ask legitimate questions and to seek knowledge. But for any number of very understandable reasons (which we will get into in the coming weeks) have found themselves espousing beliefs that are dangerous, often bigoted, and verifiably false. And there are very real consequences. Some of those who have gone off the deep end into conspiracy theories have seen the breakup of their marriages and the estrangement of family and friends. They have lost jobs and in the case of several hardcore QAnons who participated in the January 6 Capitol riots, jail time.
Surveying the battlefield
The most troubling and to me saddest aspect of the conspiracy theory mindset is that it is next to impossible to dislodge. Every attempt to argue using logic and facts is not only seen as wrongheaded but further proof that the conspiracy is real. Coaxing hardcore conspiracy theorists out of their rabbit holes is rarely successful in the long term, I'm afraid. So what will follow in this space over the coming weeks is more about resistance and prevention than it is an attempt to convince people that things like Q drops and chemtrails are fake. We all need to be very mindful that we do not pass along misinformation in any form. We need to hone our critical thinking skills and our media literacy so we do not fall victim. Each article will have books or other resources to help you learn more about conspiracy theories, misinformation, and the people who wittingly and unwittingly spread them. We'll start with some overviews of the phenomenon, its characteristics, and its causes:
The series will include.
- What's behind the skyrocketing number of conspiracy theories and theorists (Spoiler Alert: It is NOT a conspiracy, at least not in the way they are usually framed).
- Characteristics of Conspiracy Theorists
- Ways to spot misinformation
- What you can do to combat misinformation in your life and social media feed.
From QAnon to Flat Earthers, the boom in conspiracy theories is closely tied to what has been loosely labeled the Culture Wars.