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The power of a conspiracy theory — and a 3-step plan to deprogram American idiocracy


America is becoming an idiocracy — assuming it isn’t fully one already.

On a widely viewed cable TV network there is a new show called “Power Slap: Road to the Title,” and the title is a perfect description of the show. In this “sport” two adults slap one another as hard as they can until one of them is knocked out, cannot continue, or the “judges” stop the “competition.” The “slap-fighters” are not allowed to put up their hands to defend themselves or flinch. The participants in this human zoo have been knocked head over heels (literally) and appear to have suffered severe concussions as well as bloody and swollen faces that could result in permanent disfigurement. The crowd in the studio cheers as the competitors slap each other into oblivion.

It is all one more example of how American society is “amusing itself to death” as a culture that is infantile and broken — both socially and politically. Today’s America is extremely anti-intellectual, anti-science, anti-rational, unreflective, impulsive, narcissistic and juvenile. Such a dynamic breeds fascism, authoritarianism, fake populism, white supremacy, misogyny, violence, and a larger culture of cruelty and debasement that does not value or elevate human dignity and human respect. 

What can be done to lessen the power and appeal of conspiracy theories in American politics and society?

The Age of Trump and American neofascism are an extension of these cultural pathologies and failings. In a previous essay here at Salon I summarized this rot:

More than half of all Americans cannot read at a sixth-grade level. High quality primary and secondary public education, as well as the college and university system — which should create citizens who are capable of critical thinking and acting as responsible members of a democratic community — have been systematically targeted for destruction by the Republican Party and “conservative” movement….

To some significant degree, the internet, social media and its algorithms, our ubiquitous smart phones and digital technology, and a larger media culture designed to drive what is euphemistically described as “engagement,” damages people’s ability to think deeply and critically about complex matters.

While overuse of social media and digital technology can be harmful across all demographic cohorts, research suggests it has a particularly negative impact on the brain and emotional development of younger people. Psychologists and other researchers have demonstrated that many Americans are increasingly unable to concentrate or engage in deep focused thinking for more than a few minutes.

America no longer has a shared sense of reality, truth and facts. This, too, is one of the preconditions necessary for the rise of neofascism and the other illiberal and antidemocratic forces that were further empowered and mainstreamed by the Age of Trump and that continue to grow in power and influence.

When members of a society, be it the elites or everyday people, cannot agree upon basic facts and reality that makes communication and collective problem solving very difficult if not impossible.

One of the most dangerous manifestations of this problem in American society and across the West and elsewhere is how conspiracies and conspiracism now dominate today’s Republican Party and larger right-wing and “conservative” movement. And the differences between the two concepts are critically important.

A “conspiracy” refers to two or more actors working, usually in private, to advance their own interests over those of the public or some other group. Conspiracies do in fact exist. Trump’s and the Republican fascists’ coup attempt on Jan. 6 is one of the most prominent recent examples.The way that rich and monied classes exert outsized control over American society where they literally rig the system to their advantage and against the interests of the American people and their well-being is another such example.

“Conspiracism,” on the other hand, is a theory of knowledge and the world where one’s understanding of events is understood through the framework of the conspiracy theory. In that way, “conspiracism” is a meta-conspiracy theory.


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Contrary to what many would like to believe, education and “intelligence” do not inoculate a person against conspiracism and conspiracy theories. Instead, education and “intelligence” serve to shape the types of conspiracies that a given person is attracted to, how they justify them, and the cognitive shortcuts and decision-making rules that are applied to give a conspiracy theory structure and coherence. In total, conspiracism is a type of lifestyle and identity that is largely impenetrable to facts and reason, where any factual intervention or refutation of the conspiracy theory is taken to be further proof that the conspiracy is in fact real.

In his new essay in The Atlantic, “Asymmetrical Conspiracism Is Hurting Democracy,” political scientist Brian Klaas explains how the Republican Party is sick with conspiracism and is using it to undermine democracy:

Other countries, including the U.K., have polarization. America has irrational polarization, in which one political party has fallen under the spell of conspiratorial thinking. Polarization plus this conspiracist tendency risks turning run-of-the-mill democratic dysfunction into a democratic death spiral. The battle for American democracy will be a battle over reality.

Within the modern GOP, conspiracy theories—about stolen elections, satanic cults, or “deep state” cover-ups—have replaced policy ideas as a rallying cry for Trump’s MAGA base. Trump’s disciples have developed an encyclopedic knowledge of a dizzying cast of characters, along with a series of code words for alleged cover-ups. They rattle off their accepted wisdom about conspiracies that most people have never heard of, such as “Italygate,” the absurd notion that the U.S. embassy in Rome, in conjunction with the Vatican, used satellites to rig the 2020 presidential election….

What’s really troubling about this political moment in America, though, is not merely the spread of conspiratorial thinking in the general population. It’s also that the delusions have infected the mainstream political leadership. The crackpots have come to Congress.

“In the past decade,” Klaas continues, “conspiratorial thinking has shifted from a worrying factor in Republican politics to a defining feature.” 

A conspiracy nation cannot be a real democracy.

Deranged grifters profit from what the writer Kurt Andersen has called the “fantasy-industrial complex,” in which media provocateurs, including Infowars and Fox News, have cashed in on political messaging defined by a conspiratorial mindset. They prey on susceptible individuals, particularly those who are lonely and bored, browsing alone, and finding online communities to replace real-world ones. People with paranoid personalities are particularly vulnerable, as are those with a Manichaean worldview—a perception that the entire world is a battle between good and evil. 

What can be done to lessen the power and appeal of conspiracy theories in American politics and society? Here is a short list to start: 

Malign actors such as Donald Trump, the Republican fascists, and the propagandists across the right-wing media hate echo chamber who circulate conspiracy theories and disinformation need to be publicly confronted and denied a platform by the mainstream news media. 

America’s epidemic of loneliness, social alienation, and broken community ties and bonds needs to be addressed as a type of public health crisis. America also needs to expand low cost and free access to mental health care services.

 

America’s extreme levels of social inequality and a growing rift where the country’s elites feel little connection to or responsibility to the public and the commons needs to be remedied.

America’s public education system needs to be improved and expanded. Critical media literacy needs to be taught across all educational and age levels. 

In a new essay at the Conversation “How to talk to someone about conspiracy theories in five simple steps”, social psychologists Daniel Jolley, Karen Douglas, and Mathew Marques offer these suggestions:

1. Be open-minded

An open-minded approach starts with asking questions and listening. It builds understanding with the person. Listen carefully, and avoid defending your own beliefs….

2. Be receptive

Work on what psychologists call conversational receptiveness to foster empathy which can bridge the gap between the beliefs you each hold….

3. Critical thinking

Affirm the value of critical thinking.

If the person you’re talking to already perceives themselves as a critical thinker, redirect this skill towards a deeper examination of the conspiracy theory itself.

For example:

We probably both agree that asking questions is important. But it is key we evaluate all pieces of evidence. We need to weigh up the information and make sure we check the evidence that we agree with as well as the things we don’t like or make us feel uncomfortable.

4. Conspiracy theories aren’t the norm

Highlight how conspiracy theories are not as commonplace as people might think.

Readdressing social norms can help address people’s need to protect a group they identify with….

5. Think about what can be controlled

Encourage them to be forward-focused and inspire them to put their energy into areas of their life where they experience more control….

Ultimately, the problem is not that individuals choose to believe in conspiracy theories. Instead, the real problem are the cultural and political forces that have elevated conspiracism and conspiracy theories into normal and acceptable ways of thinking about complex societal problems.

As Hannah Arendt warned decades ago, “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.”

A conspiracy nation cannot be a real democracy. The Republican fascists and their agents know this to be true, which is why they have so embraced conspiracism and conspiracy theories as one of their main weapons in a battle to win the hearts and minds of the American people.

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