Los Angeles Times

To make sense of things, we go for conspiracy theories

- NICHOLAS GOLDBERG @nick_goldberg

Watching the Jan. 6 committee hearings, one could be forgiven for believing we’re living in the heyday of conspiracy theories, between the Holocaust denialism of the Oath Keepers, the loony pedophilia fears of the QAnoners and the “Stop the Steal” ravings of Sidney Powell, Rudolph W. Giuliani and former President Trump himself.

But don’t be too sure. Conspiracy theories have a long history. They date back to Emperor Nero and the great fire of Rome, for instance, and to the ritual murder accusation­s against Jews in medieval Europe. They’re as American as the witchcraft trials in Salem, Mass.

Assassinat­ions spawn them too, from Abraham Lincoln’s (which was a conspiracy but presumably not orchestrat­ed, as some suggested, by either the pope or Secretary of War Edwin Stanton) to John F. Kennedy’s (which was carried out by Lee Harvey Oswald, not by Vice President Lyndon Johnson or the CIA).

These days, it’s true, people seem especially resistant to expertise, science, the media and elected officials, and have turned to conspirato­rial thinking to make sense of the world.

And the rise of the internet and social media have magnified unfounded “alternativ­e versions” of events and spread them through the population.

Five minutes of Googling convinced me of that.

Did you know, for instance, that the attempted murder in 2012 of Malala Yousafzai, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Pakistani activist, was not orchestrat­ed by the Taliban but by her father and the CIA and carried out by a man who looked suspicious­ly like Robert De Niro disguised as an Uzbek homeopath?

Some people apparently believed that after misreading a satirical article in a Pakistani newspaper.

Did you know the Denver Internatio­nal Airport sits above an undergroun­d city that is the headquarte­rs of the New World Order, a shadowy group planning to take over the world?

Loopy? Of course it is.

But how much more farfetched are those theories than the assertion from QAnon adherents that Satan-worshiping elites who run a child sex ring are trying to control American politics and media? That’s as nutty as they come. Yet these tenets are believed by as many as 1 in 4 Republican­s, polls show.

Conspiracy theories often focus on news events, such as school shootings or the 9/11 attacks. Over the years, people have believed that the moon landing was faked, that alien visitation­s were hushed up and that Elvis Presley and Osama bin Laden were not actually dead — but Paul McCartney was.

Unfounded rumors have focused on Catholics, Jews, Mormons, the Illuminati and Freemasons, among others.

It’s very common that conspiracy theories involve unprovable allegation­s about a small group of powerful people working secretly to undermine the common good.

“Just like some of us have liberal or conservati­ve worldviews, others think conspirato­rially,” says Joseph Uscinski, a political science professor at the University of Miami who is a leading scholar of conspiracy theories. “They look out the window and they say, ‘Oh, that must have been caused by a conspiracy carried out by people I don’t like.’ ”

Some people believe conspiracy theories because they’re searching for a coherent explanatio­n for seemingly incomprehe­nsible events, seeking patterns where they may or may not exist.

Some are deeply skeptical of authority, which they believe has misled them or ill-served them. Why, they ask, should we trust that vaccines will help us or that climate change is real?

Often conspiracy theories get traction because of “confirmati­on bias,” in which people believe things that confirm what they already thought or theorized. So Republican­s may believe assertions that Democrats stole the 2020 election, while Democrats are more likely to believe that Russian President Vladimir Putin has a secret file of compromisi­ng informatio­n on Trump.

Often believers are unmoved by evidence that disproves their theories.

Part of the appeal of QAnon, I think, is that people find it fun. I’ve spent hours reading the posts of QAnon adherents, and for them, it’s like a video game or TV thriller. They’re suddenly characters and participan­ts in a drama, part of a community heroically unraveling a mystery and saving the world.

How they’ve so totally conflated fact with fiction I can’t explain.

Uscinski says studies show that people who are especially prone to conspiracy theories tend to be younger, less educated, less wealthy, more accepting of political violence and more likely to have higher levels of antisocial personalit­y traits.

Are they more likely to be politicall­y to the left or to the right? Apparently there are conflictin­g studies on this. Uscinski believes that at any given time, one side or the other might be more likely to engage with conspiracy theories, but over time it evens out.

Obviously, it is irresponsi­ble for leaders like Donald Trump to encourage groundless theories — as when he hinted that President Obama was born in Kenya or that Ted Cruz’s father was connected to the Kennedy assassinat­ion. (Does Trump actually believe this nonsense or is he cynically exploiting it? We may never know. But the damage is done either way.)

One final point: Conspiracy theories should be debunked, unless of course they turn out to be true. It has happened.

Project MK-ULTRA sounded like a paranoid fantasy but was a real top-secret CIA brain washing and-mind-control program in which experiment­s using LSD were performed on unwitting Americans.

Watergate was a conspiracy. Here’s my own experience. In 1997, as a Middle East correspond­ent, I got a tip that two Israeli Mossad agents traveling on fake Canadian passports had been captured trying to stab a poisoned needle into the ear of a Hamas leader on a street in Amman, Jordan. I merely laughed, because I heard such outlandish stories all the time, and they never checked out. I didn’t jump on a plane to Amman.

But it was absolutely true, and I missed what would’ve have been my biggest scoop ever.

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