Conspiracy theories have always lurked in the background of U.S. political culture. Anyone with an imagination can come up with one. But our increasingly toxic political climate and the accompanying avalanche of conspiracy theories have exacerbated existing conflicts, leading to further polarization of our society like never before. At the same time, conspiracy theories are not the only reason there is so much polarization in the U.S.; the development of “cancel culture” only makes people more defensive of their beliefs.
Our government’s inability to solve problems and maturely participate in discussions about what is best for the people has led many citizens to disavow it as a credible authority. Instead of turning to the government, people are seeking the truth for themselves. One way to do this is through conspiracy theories; they satisfy our innate desires to justify the unknown and inexplicable, and the pool of theorists is only growing. Conspiracy theories help us escape from the harshness of reality. “Where people are feeling powerless, anxious and threatened, conspiracy theories can offer some relief,” Daniel Jolley, a social psychologist at Northumbria University, said.
Conspiracy theories have become increasingly popular. The coronavirus pandemic is the greatest crisis we have faced in a generation, and the lack of a vaccine or cure is sowing stress, fear and isolation. We are confused and anxious, and no one is offering a credible answer.
A September 2020 survey found that more than one-third of Americans believe the Chinese government engineered the virus as a weapon, while another third believe the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is attempting to undermine President Donald Trump by exaggerating the dangers of COVID-19. Coronavirus conspiracy theories have led people to resist preventive actions to actively contain the virus due to inconsistencies between public health messaging and political leaders who are spreading contradictory or incredulous beliefs. Additionally, Trump’s unfounded claims facilitate conspiracism and mislead those who do not fact-check what he says.
“The rise and influence of President Trump have greatly increased the GOP’s susceptibility to conspiratorial thinking,” University of Chicago Political Science Professor Eric Oliver stated. Trump’s advice to inject commercial disinfectants as protection against the virus, for example, may have contributed to the nearly 4,000 additional cases of disinfectant and bleach poisonings in March and April.
But conspiracy theories touch on topics far more alarming than the virus.
The digital age has enabled an unprecedented spread of information and mistruths. Operating under near-total anonymity, anything can be said online. Zealots can easily spread illogical misinformation about their unsubstantiated beliefs.
Originally starting online as a loose set of fringe allegations, QAnon has seen both its adherents and media footprint proliferate widely in recent years. The far-right group’s most important belief is that Satan-worshipping pedophiles, who run a child sex trafficking ring, are bent on destroying Trump, who now leads a covert resistance against them. Its followers remain largely anonymous in the real world, and only 47% of U.S. adults have even heard of the theory. 40% of Republicans and right-leaning independents familiar with QAnon, however, say it is somewhat or vastly beneficial for the country. Trump’s praise and retweets of certain theories and his encouragement of QAnon followers to run for office fans the flames of dangerous partisanship. “I don’t know much about the movement, other than I understand they like me very much, which I appreciate,” Trump said once in a briefing.
But the polarization does not stop there. Beyond the blue and red, Democrat and Republican, liberal and conservative separations, our society is divided into intuitionists and rationalists. The latter use logic to reason their way through life, while the former explain the world with symbolism and emotion. Their contrasting worldviews clash on the political stage. The conservative ideology has gradually morphed into more intuitionist thought, Oliver says, while rationalists tend to lean liberal. Without recognizing the fundamental difference between the way these two groups see the world, it’s impossible to start a dialogue.
The more recent trend of cancel culture complicates the intuitionist and rationalist conflict. Young people feel particularly burdened with changing the world and fixing previous generations’ problems. Our solution is cancel culture, or group shaming of an individual or an organization. But this is ineffective and toxic. “There is this sense that ‘the way of me making change is to be as judgmental as possible,’” former President Barack Obama said. By “canceling” everything we disagree with, we leave no room for discussion or compassion.
Due to the fear of being canceled and our unwillingness to listen, many conspiracy zealots share their opinions with others through the internet but are often unwilling to speak openly with those critical of their theories. Anonymity on the internet and freedom of speech entrench these beliefs over time, meaning that changing such individuals’ views with logical evidence becomes much more difficult.
Fighting conspiracism and polarization is vital for our world, but cancellation is not the solution. Our lack of compassion and inability to listen horrifies me, and the more we amplify and condemn people’s differences, the more we lose our trust in each other as a community.
Countless conspiracy theories exist on the internet. But canceling these beliefs will only aggravate the problem and continue to sow discord. We must leave room for acknowledgement and appeal to conspiracy theorists’ emotional reasoning to bridge the gap. It is less about persuasion and agreement than it is about considering and understanding.
Sophia Ling (24C) is from Carmel, Indiana.