The Jump From Benign Conspiracy Theories to Fake News to Hate Vitriol

On most occasions we would find something minorly amusing when the media presents us with a wacky conspiracy theory.  The Earth Is Flat comes to mind, as possibly does The Moon Landing Was Faked.2  However, some conspiracy theories loom much larger and encroach, sometimes dangerously, on our daily lives:  Vaccines Cause Autism 3, for instance. Our default reaction is typically that these are cultural outliers that have somehow survived, at least until the Internet, after which they just seem to persist.

Unfortunately, it turns out this is wishful thinking as the recent excellent article by Maggie Koerth-Baker on FiveThirtyEight (Conspiracy Theories Can’t Be Stopped) reveals. There’s more to conspiracy theories than we thought, and so, after highlighting some points in this article, we will dig a bit deeper and see that there is apparent method, a pattern, in the madness.

“Conspiracy theories now appear to have become a major part of how we, as a society, process the news.  It might be harder to think of an emotionally tinged event that didn’t (emphasis mine) provoke a conspiracy theory than it is to rattle off a list of the ones that did.”

In case you glossed over it, the almost casual phrase “emotionally tinged” carries significantly more impact, as we will see below.  Continuing,

“For years, the potentially dangerous consequences of conspiracy led many researchers to approach belief in conspiracies as a pathology (disease or injury) in need of a cure.  But that train of thought tended to awkwardly clash with some of the facts.  The more we learn about conspiracy beliefs, the more normal they look …

The experts I spoke with all said that the Internet has changed the way conspiracies spread, but conspiracies, both dangerous and petty, have always been with us.”

That conclusion follows after research showed that published letters in newspapers alleging and discussing conspiracy theories had been pretty constant over the last 120 years, and that it was reasonable to assume that these reflect what interests readers more than what interests editors.  The research is significant in coming to realize and understand conspiracy belief as a societal (cultural) norm.

“As it turns out, most of us believe in some strange goings-on behind the curtains. More than half of Americans think there was more than one person involved in the assassination of John F. Kennedy, for example.  A 2014 study found that more than half of Americans believe in at least one medical conspiracy – a list that includes things like giving children vaccines they know to be dangerous or the idea that the Food and Drug Administration intentionally suppresses natural cancer cures because of pressure from the pharmaceutical industry.  The more specific conspiracies you ask about in polls, the higher the percentage of Americans that believe in at least one. … it’s likely everyone has a pet conspiracy to call their own.”

There are also “broader categories of what are known as ‘erroneous beliefs’ ” – things such as paranormal experiences, gambling fallacies, etc.  The research shows that as we learn more about conspiracy beliefs, the more they have in common with these other kinds of wrong ideas.

“Feeling a lack of control over various aspects of life, a tendency toward paranoid thinking, failure to understand and use statistics and probabilistic reasoning – all those things correlate with belief in ghosts and slot-machine prowess as much as with belief in the Illuminati.  … If you believe in the paranormal, you’re more likely to believe in conspiracy theories, and vice versa.

At the same time, conspiracy theories have a sociopolitical aspect that makes them stand out.  Researchers think of belief in conspiracy as an interaction between individual tendencies and social circumstances (emphasis mine).  So, for instance, if you’re part of a group that is marginalized or lacks power in important ways you’re more likely to believe in conspiracy theories.  That means being a member of a racial minority is a predictor of conspiracy belief – and so is unemployment, low economic status, or even just being a member of a cultural group that’s looked down upon by people in positions of power.”

To be thorough, however, one must also consider who is accusing whom of engaging in conspiracy,

“… (the) study of newspaper letters to the editor tracked the social status of the letter writers.  Consistently it was found that conspiracies were “punching up.”  Not only did average people write more than 70 percent of the conspiracy letters – as opposed to elite members of society – the conspiracies alleged were usually aimed at people in positions of power.  There’s also no evidence that conspiracy belief is a phenomenon of the far right or the far left. Americans broadly believe in a “them” pulling the strings and manipulating the country.

To be sure and also to complicate individual thinking, there is evidence from history,

“… this is where conspiracy beliefs start to get tangled up with truth, because history does contain real examples of conspiracy.  Pizzagate was a dangerous lie, but that incident also exists in the same universe as the Tuskegee experiments, redliningand the Iran-Contra Affair.”

The belief in conspiracies can also have political consequences,

“ ‘During the Bush Administration, the left was going f-ing bonkers … about 9/11 and Halliburton and Cheney and Blackwater and all this stuff.  As soon as Obama won they didn’t give a sh*t about any of that stuff anymore.  They did not care.  It was politically and socially inert.’  In turn, conspiracy theories about Obama flourished on the right.  Uscinski (the researcher quoted above) said he is frustrated by this tendency for partisans to build up massive conspiracy infrastructures when they are out of power, only to develop a sudden amnesia followed by deep concern about the conspiracy mongering behavior of the other side once power is restored.” (I think I really like Uscinski.)

Can conspiracy beliefs potentially offer benefits, such as,

“ ’… tools for dissent used by the weak to balance against power?’  Some scientists do disagree.”

Although the world is complex (understatement), conspiracy theories are

“… viewed as largely negative – erroneous beliefs like gambling fallacies, but with the power to disrupt whole societies rather than just one person’s bank account.”

Another researcher, following a thought to eliminate conspiracy theories, is

“… working on a line of research to see whether a false conspiracy belief can be corrected by giving the people who believe in it something that they’ve lacked – power and control over their lives. …”

That is, empowering people by giving them a sense of control, operating with transparency.  Indications are that conspiracy theories seem to become less appealing.

“Trouble is, in the real world, who has the ability to offer that kind of empowerment?

That’s right, THEM!

If a group of people strongly distrusts a government or group of leaders, anything they do will raise suspicion.  Whether they want to get rid of conspiracies or not, scientists (and global leaders) are kind of stuck.  Conspiracy beliefs are the norm, and difficult to shake because the people with the most interest in shaking them are, usually, the very people conspiracy is meant to fight.  It’s not an easy task.”

Although the article presents the broader scope of conspiracy theories to a wider audience, there appear to be two remaining questions: What drives the need for conspiracy beliefs on an individual scale, and What motivates their propagation? Now we can dig a bit deeper.

First, on an individual scale, we all should but typically do not realize or accept that in any given situation there is always Missing Information (Fundamental Principle 6).  In other words,

We don’t know that we don’t know what we don’t know.

When we are confronted with this in a situation, we are also confronted with a lack of control over some aspect of our life. Our normal Bubble, our Comfort Zone is disrupted.

Second, we all should recognize that we are uniquely emotional beings who are built for social interaction.  A marvelous and important book on our emotions (and how to recognize them in ourselves and read them in other people) is Emotions Revealed by Paul Ekman.  A necessary fundamental understanding of ourselves is,

Emotions are what motivate our lives.  We organize our lives to maximize the experience of positive emotions and minimize the experience of negative emotions.4

This helps explain why the article remarks that it is hard to think of an “emotionally tinged” event that didn’t provoke a conspiracy theory – because we are all emotionally involved with our surroundings and circumstances.  The positive emotions we seek are typically joy, happiness, wonder and contentment.  The negative ones we seek to avoid are include sadness, agony, fear, contempt, anger, and disgust.  Our responses can be quite visceral and begin before we can cognitively process what is happening.

Third, triggered by our emotional reaction to an event or circumstances, we are confronted with this Gap in information. Gap Theory recognizes that since we do not have the patience or possibly the skills and resources to readily identify and find the pertinent missing information, we try and quickly close the “gap” between our partial knowledge of what we saw or heard and create a “reality” or “truth” in order to accomplish the following,

    • Attempt to Identify “the Truth” – fill the “gap” with any believable information that “explains,” usually resulting in overemphasis on “knowledge” be it real or improvised (the “conspiracy”) in order to bring calm back into our Comfort Zone;
    • Attempt to Fix the Blame – looking to identify a cause or source, especially if the issue is outside of our control and is perceived as a threat to our Comfort Bubble (stronger than a ‘zone’ and now built to resist or keep out undesirable stuff) and resides with those who have perceived “Power” (spread the “conspiracy”). After all, it can’t be anything we did or didn’t do that contributed to the situation (avoiding The Repugnant Question);
    • Continue to pursue the above, moving away from the personally experienced negative emotions (fear, lack of control, anger at an outcome, contempt and/or disgust at those we blame) and intentionally moving to experience positive emotions (happiness and/or joy through regaining control, even when this is accomplished by directing anger, contempt, and disgust at others) (use the “conspiracy” as leverage to regain some control and feel more positive);
    • Do this as quickly as possible – one doesn’t have the time to Filter, Organize, Process to Understand and then Apply the hard-to-find Missing Information, especially if this involves accepting contrary facts and/or dealing with statistics and probabilistic reasoning (avoid disrespecting or challenging the “knowledge” establishing the “conspiracy”);
    • Use the Internet to quickly find confirming real or improvised “knowledge,” build upon it by adding one’s own “knowledge,” and then repeat it online (propagate the “conspiracy”).

The benefits of these actions not only include reestablishing control over and experiencing positive emotions in one’s Comfort Bubble, but also bestowing perceived self-esteem by setting oneself apart from the ignorant masses who are outside of our Comfort Bubble (and, we think, pretty much belong there).

These pretty much describe all of us at more than one time or another, and since we each are guilty of our own privately held conspiracy belief(s), it pretty much describes how we got there.

The interesting next step, not the individual “creation” of the conspiracy belief itself, is the process by which the propagation becomes possible, i.e., how do conspiracists congregate/flock together and share and spread?

First, since we are socially relational beings, we need to recognize how socially (culturally) acceptable beliefs propagate, building upon our “Nature.”  Our primary unchosen (birth) social group is among family, clan, or tribe.  Within these groups of varying size, common beliefs are acquired by “Nurture,” which can either be via a happy nurturing and teaching environment, Regression to the Cultural Mean, or result from an imposed Coercion to the Cultural Mean.  The Culture or sub-culture that is developed is designed to help members understand who “is one of us” and, by inference, who is “not one of us.”  We are always connected with this culture, even if we have been excluded (Exclusion from the Cultural Mean).

Second, we need to understand what sociologists recently recognized and which has roots going back to pre-Roman times.  We tend to choose to encircle ourselves within a small group of “close connections,” close because of common roots, common responsibilities, and/or common beliefs. The number is almost always no larger than 150, and is recognized as the Dunbar Number or Group.  It’s whom we are most comfortable with, within certain constraints depending upon the commonality.  This group probably comprises or contains our Comfort Bubble.  It’s rarely family.  Remember,

You can pick your friends, but you can’t pick your family.

Both of these are strongly supported by the observation in the article that belief in conspiracy is an interaction between individual tendencies (emotions, information, and regaining individual control, above) and social circumstances (birth and/or Dunbar Groups, the environments for reinforcing social relationships, above).  The interaction is stronger in groups that are marginalized by society or lack (or feel they lack) power.  As a consequence, the research strongly suggests that conspirators are punching up, that is, fixing the blame for their circumstances on those above them in social control and power.

This punching up is just one aspect of conspiracy belief and theories.  It appears, generally from the newspaper letters, that adherents to the belief are targeting their anger and blame on those above them who have done something directly to the group of adherents.  One can look at this behavior as the victims (adherents) perceiving themselves in a Zero–Sum environment (only so much to go around) and are punching up at those who are perceived to have intentionally taken something that the adherents had a right to but were denied access.  In other words, they are perceived as Takers outside the adherent’s Comfort Bubble or world.

Adherents at this point can feel that they are helpless victims and justify complaining by engaging in reiterating gossip or certain forms of “fake news” both verbally and online.  The Florida Man memes come to mind.

But a second and more negative consequence of conspiracy belief and theories arises when adherents make the jump to feeling they must not only blame the perceived beneficiaries of the conspiracy, but also confront or attack them.  Here the adherents can be pictured as not in a Comfort Bubble but in a Comfort Stronghold that they not only have constructed for defense, but a place from which to take the fight to “them.”

Instead of just repeating or lobbing the “fake news” they come across, they engage in creating “fake news” with an intent to negatively influence others and events.

This can also escalate to the realm of hate crimes, racial intolerance, and a host of other issues.  There is no argument that strong emotions play a role here.  This arena is addressed by another fascinating scientific article (in Nature) specifically about the propagation of hate online.  An interview with the lead author, N. F. Johnson, appears in The Guardian and discusses research results that indicate that online hate does not spread from individuals, but from the “aggregation of individuals into communities” (think Dunbar Groups).  The communities actually help constrain behaviors by collective reinforcement (think Coercion to the Cultural Mean), so that they tend to do them again and again.  From the interview,

“People say [online hate] is like cancer, it’s like a virus, it’s like this, it’s like that – no.  It’s exactly like gelation, which is another way of saying the formation of bubbles” (ah ha! Think Comfort Strongholds.  A good example is How a conspiracy video on YouTube went viral on its own).

The math that models the spread of hate online is virtually the same as the math that describes the formation of bubbles in boiling water.  If you want to stop water from boiling, you don’t stop the individual molecules; you stop the bubbles from forming.  So, among the very interesting policy proposals based upon the conclusions from the research are,

    • To stop hate spreading online, go after the smaller (Comfort) bubbles (they are not yet as close-knit and haven’t yet developed bonds to discuss how they got banned and how to avoid it and get back online (i.e., haven’t yet formed into a Comfort Stronghold));
    • Instead of banning individuals (the current approach), because of the “interconnectedness of the whole system (groups on the Internet), the math shows you only have to remove about 10% of the accounts to make a huge difference in terms of the cohesiveness of the network. If you remove randomly 10% of the (Comfort Stronghold) members globally, this thing will begin to fall apart.”

Cutting lines of communication can also disrupt the cohesiveness.  Pinterest’s approach has apparently been successful in blocking the spread of anti-vax conspiracy activity (here), whereas policymakers’ approaches have not yet recognized the root driving force behind this particular conspiracy theory (Morals and Measles).

Bottom line, we are all emotional beings, invariably seeking to maximize the experience of positive emotions (either directly, or indirectly by expressing negative ones on others).  We also suffer from not knowing that we don’t know what we don’t know.  As a consequence we create Comfort Zones and Comfort Bubbles, very often choosing to ignore information outside of them.  And if these don’t provide sufficient positive experiences and if the influx of missing information becomes too threatening, we create Comfort Strongholds, acting defensively and impulsively, to the detriment to others.

While the math indicates we can currently begin to control conspiracy theories online, at least the more virulent and dangerous hate ones, by focusing on a limited number of propagating communities or Bubbles, the greater issue is how do we close the Attitude Gap that sends our individual behavior into the realm of generating and acting on conspiracy theories and hate. We have to be honest with ourselves in identifying how our birth and/or Dunbar Groups nurture our Comfort Bubbles and Strongholds and develop the Attitude Gap in the first place.

Some practical ideas start with:

    • Explicitly teach that the world is not Zero Sum;
    • A Comfort Zone is nice and relaxing, but a Comfort Bubble precludes learning and growing and actually exercising control; and
    • Teach Moral Foundations Theory so that an individual begins to understand what their concept of “control” is foundationally based upon.


1 There Is No Gravity.  Things Fall
  Looking for Life on a Flat Earth
  Are Flat-Earthers Being Serious?
  What it’s like to attend a flat-earth convention?
  How the Internet Made Us Believe in a Flat Earth

2 Moon-Landing Hoax Still Lives On, 50 Years After Apollo 11
  Conspiracy theorist punched by Buzz Aldrin still insists moon landing was fake
  Fox’s 2001 Special – Conspiracy Theory: Did We Land on the Moon?

3 It’s old news that vaccines don’t cause autism. But a major new study aims to refute skeptics again
Morals and Measles
The Real Horror of the Anti-Vaxxers
‘It will take off like a wildfire’

4 Emotions Revealed, p. xxi


About Jim Edmonds

I am a husband, father, mentor, who once was a chemist turned physicist turned marketer turned executive turned missionary turned professor. And survived it all.
This entry was posted in 00: Bubbles, 04: Games People Play, 06: Incomplete Information, 11: Growth, 12: Character, 13: Values & Self, 14: Behavior, 16: Culture, Gap Theory and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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