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Simplifying a Complex World: Understanding the Enduring Appeal of Conspiracy Theories

2013 was the first time I was sucked into the rabbit hole.

The Boston Marathon, held every April, was an event I attended every year. But due to sheer laziness, I decided to sit it out in 2013. So imagine my surprise when I turned on the TV to see the chaotic scene in the aftermath of the bombing, occurring only blocks from where I would normally post up and drunkenly cheer on the finishing runners. From the moment the bomb went off, internet sleuths got to work trying to crack the case, setting off a massive, open-sourced social media-led mission to find out who set the bombs off and why.

At the time, these efforts were heralded as a new era of citizen journalism, where regular people could report news without the gatekeepers of the mainstream media. But soon, it devolved into a glut of conspiracies and evidence-free claims. I’ll admit, it was addicting. That was when I first learned about the “crisis actor” theory in a now-deleted post on Mike “The Health Ranger” Adams’ NaturalNews.com, a website trafficking in anti-vax and conspiracy theories. The article stated that actors, such as Louis CK and Robert Deniro, were supposedly hired to carry out a false flag attack at the Boston Marathon. According to Adams, everyone, including the victims, were fake. There was no explanation as to why they would use such well-known celebrities to carry out an attack on live TV, but logic is beside the point.

Within a few days of the bombing, authorities identified Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, two brothers from Dagestan who had apparently been radicalized in the previous years. They plotted the bombing as some kind of divine justice, even though Dagestan wasn’t a region with a particularly heavy US presence. Ironically, Tamerlan was found to be steeped in conspiracies himself. In the case of Dzhokhar, it was confusing to see this young, handsome kid who seemed like your everyday stoner college student carrying out something so horrific. It was hard to fathom why two kids from a place most of us had never heard of would resort to mass murder.

So with the help of the internet, we came up with a thousand different stories trying to explain what really happened, each theory more preposterous than the last. Little did I realize at the time that this blurring of fact and fiction, this rush to judgement, would become the way we process major events, ushering in the conflicts we would eventually fight over masks, COVID-19, and the January 6 storming of the capitol.

Making Sense of the Senseless

The Boston bombing experience revealed a major reason why conspiracies are often born out of catastrophic events that can’t be easily explained. Much like believing that a mysterious cabal organized the bombing rather than a dopey college student, conspiracies serve to simplify a complicated situation. In a perverse way, conspiracies give us comfort during our darkest times by making sense of the senseless. “Conspiracy theorists are traders in illusion,” writes Beth Daley in The Conversation. “They offer a certain amount of comfort, which is what makes them appealing in the first place.” Along with taxes, mosquitos, and long lines, humans hate uncertainty. Whether a story ends with a cliffhanger or a doctor tells you that mole might be “something to worry about,” we don’t appreciate being left in the dark.

Unfortunately, in a world full of breakneck technological, political, and social change, uncertainty is everywhere. Many of the problems we’ve inherited are interconnected, with unclear causes and equally unclear solutions. While our problems are blindingly complex to the point of futility, conspiracies on both sides work to simplify our world into one featuring heroes and villains. When our reality is framed in this manner, it’s a lot easier to find a solution. “Conspiracy theories make a tempting promise,” says Roland Imhoff, a social psychologist at Germany’s Johannes Gutenberg University. “Just stop the villain and you get your life back.”

Witness the growth of Qanon, a leaderless online movement that believes that a network of high-level politicians and entertainers are operating a massive child trafficking ring in order to feed on their adrenochrome. The group has taken a real, complex problem (child trafficking) and filtered it through a general distrust of politicians, Hollywood, and the mainstream press to create the perfect villain. Now the only thing we need to do is stop Them and we get our lives back.

Becoming Neo

1999 saw the release of The Matrix, a box office smash that blew the minds of high school kids like me. The Matrix told the story of Thomas Anderson, an ordinary working stiff who suddenly finds himself being hunted down by Agent Smith, a well-dressed literal clone who may as well be The Man personified. Thomas is saved by a leather-clad, ragtag crew led by Morpheus, who feeds Thomas the “red pill” in order to reveal the true reality that humans are being harvested for fuel while the rest of us, the sheeple if you will, are stuck in a simulated world known as the Matrix. When it was released, The Matrix was just a cool action movie with a high-concept premise. But as conspiratorial thinking grabbed hold of us throughout the 2010s, The Matrix became Citizen Kane for the conspiracy set, with the term “red pill” becoming common parlance within the conspiracist vernacular.

A study published by Karen Douglas found a few major reasons why people tend to believe in conspiracy theories. Among them include a desire for understanding and certainty and a desire for control and security. Within this context, it’s easy to see how The Matrix became the archetypal story of the conspiracy theorist. By taking the red pill, Thomas Anderson transformed into Neo, an all-knowing, all-seeing God-man who could interpret the fundamental patterns running the world. Like Neo, people follow conspiracies because it lends itself to the idea that there’s a predictable pattern of events that control our world. If we can just understand those patterns, then maybe we can finally feel in control.

Joel Abrams writes that “conspiracy theories regularly occur because of our ability to discern patterns and our mental tendency to want to impose structure on the world.” We’re uncomfortable with things just happening. We need a reason as to why and how it happened. To test out this theory, Professor Mark Lorch posted a tweet containing a random string of numbers and asked users if they could “see a pattern here.” Consistent with the theory of the human need to make sense of randomness, users flooded the post with the “patterns” they had discovered.

Lorch’s Twitter experiment provides a glimpse into the motivations behind movements like Qanon that urge followers to “trust the plan” and obsessively scrutinize social media posts for clues about what might come next. In Qanon lore, this will all lead to the Great Awakening, an event that always seems to be just around the corner. While Qanon followers believe they’re engaged in a good versus evil battle for the nation’s soul, they’re really battling their own minds to try and make sense of a world that is constantly changing and increasingly looking unfamiliar.

Control, Security, and the Impact of Trauma

Jacob Angeli was known as a smart, likable, goofy kid in high school, the type to come to school dressed as a vampire while serving on the math and debate clubs. He was a born performer, remembered fondly by the classmates he amused over the years. In 2005, Jacob changed his last name to Chansley, in honor of the stepfather who raised him. That year also saw Jacob join the Navy in what he hoped would be a long and rewarding experience. But two years later, Jacob’s world was crushed when his stepfather killed himself. 

Soon after, Jacob was kicked out of the Navy for refusing a standard Anthrax vaccine. He returned home and grew an interest in psychedelics and new age philosophy. Jacob continued down this route, eventually finding Qanon, a political movement that incorporated the theatricality and esoteric beliefs that he loved. From the moment he found Qanon, Jacob was hooked. Eventually this led Jacob to the January 6th storming of the capitol, where he was endlessly covered by news outlets who used his adopted moniker: The Q Shaman. Despite his unique outfits, Jacob Chansley is not alone. In fact, the Q Shaman exhibited many of the same characteristics of those regularly dragged down the rabbit hole of extremism. 

People tend to buy into conspiracies following traumatic events because it’s a time when they feel less in control of their lives. Feeling powerless leads the sufferer to find power. In a study published in the journal Science, Jennifer Whitson and Adam Galinsky write that, “When individuals are unable to gain a sense of control objectively, they will try to gain it perceptively.” In Jacob Chansley’s case, that perceptive control came in the form of the Qanon movement, where he saw himself as a combination of spiritual leader and town crier. Unfortunately, Jacob’s false perceptions led him to believe that he had the power to literally overturn the government. We all know how that ended. As of this writing, Chansley awaits trial and faces up to 25 years in prison for civil disorder and the obstruction of an official proceeding.

Empowering the Powerless

Most of us have felt powerless or out of control at one point or another, yet we learn to deal with these feelings without resorting to conspiracy belief. So why do some people succumb to the rabbit hole and can we prevent this from happening to our friends, family, and even ourselves?

Cynthia Wang, a conspiracy researcher and Director of Kellogg’s Dispute Resolution and Research Center, found two behavioral factors that appeared to affect whether someone would believe or disbelieve in conspiracy theories. Those more prone to believe were found to be prevention-focused individuals, characterized by the need to “protect their security.” The study predicted that these individuals “might be more prone to believe conspiracy theories because conspiracies can feel like a threat to their security.” Conversely, those less likely to believe in conspiracies were promotion-focused, meaning they tend to take action in pursuit of specific goals. Wang dubbed this group the “go-getters” when compared to prevention-focused individuals. 

If we hope to pull those we love out of the abyss of conspiracy thought, it’s not enough to argue with them (and in fact this might backfire). Instead, we should consider their motivations and where they fall into the promotion versus prevention matrix (no pun intended). We’re all angry about something, but if we can’t find an outlet, we seek release through unhealthy habits, such as spending hours on social media following conspiracies. But if we take the time to discover the source of a person’s anger and redirect it, we can potentially provide them with a healthy way to tackle the problems that bother them most. For example, if your uncle posts all day about kidnapped mole children, perhaps you can urge him to donate or volunteer with Crisis Aid International or any of the other wonderful organizations fighting the real issue of human trafficking.

Tell a Better Story

Finally, as media professionals, we need to examine our role in communicating accurate information and refusing to get caught up in the noise and easy engagement of social media at the expense of truth. People are also drawn to conspiracies because they’re simply more compelling stories. It’s a lot more exciting to imagine that the illuminati is causing our country’s destruction rather than dark money or obscure tax loopholes. We need to find ways to tell better stories that both engage and illuminate, not to gain more clicks, but to battle against the torrent of disinformation that dominates our political discourse. Those lost in the rabbit hole can be found. But first we need to treat them as humans with needs and find out why they found the rabbit hole so appealing in the first place.