Conspiracy theories fill the void for people who have lost faith in government and institutions
Daniel Charles Wilson thinks the September 11, 2001 attacks were an inside job. The war in Ukraine is “totally scripted” and COVID-19 is “completely fake”. The Boston Marathon bombing? Mass shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, and Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas? “Crisis actors,” he says.
Wilson, a 41-year-old man from London, Ont., also has his doubts about free elections, vaccines and the January 6 insurrection. He accepts little of what has happened over the past 20 years and happily predicts that one day the internet will make everyone as suspicious as he is.
“It’s the information age, and the hidden government, the people who control everything, they know they can’t win,” Wilson told The Associated Press. “They are all lying to us. But we’ll break through that. It will be a good change for everyone.
Wilson, who is currently working on a book about his opinions, is not an isolated case of perpetual disbelief. He speaks for a growing number of people in Western countries who have lost faith in democratic governance and a free press, and who have turned to conspiracy theories to fill the void.
Rejecting what they hear from scientists, journalists, or government officials, these people instead embrace stories of dark conspiracies and secret explanations. And their beliefs, say experts who study disinformation and extremism, reflect a widespread loss of trust in institutions like government and the media.
A poll last year by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that only 16% of Americans say democracy works well or extremely well. Another 38% said it only worked relatively well.
Other surveys reveal how many people in the United States now doubt the media, politicians, science, and even each other.
Mistrust has grown so deep that even groups that seem ideologically aligned are questioning the motives and intentions of others.
On the eve of Independence Day in Boston this year, a group of about 100 masked men carrying fascist flags marched through the city. Members proudly uploaded videos and photos of the march to online forums popular with supporters of former President Donald Trump and QAnon adherents, who believe a group of satanic, cannibalistic child molesters secretly rule the world.
Instead of praise, white supremacists were met with disbelief. Some posters said the marchers were clearly FBI agents or members of antifa — shorthand for antifascists — seeking to defame Trump supporters. It didn’t matter that the men brag about their involvement and plead to be believed. “Another false flag,” a self-proclaimed conservative wrote on Telegram.
Similarly, when an extremist website that sells unregulated ghost weapons – firearms without serial numbers – asked its subscribers about their July 4 plans, several people responded by accusing the group of working for the FBI. . When someone claiming to be Q, the figure behind QAnon, reappeared online recently, many conservatives who support the movement speculated that the new Q was actually a government factory.
Last week, when a Georgian landmark that some conservative Christians called satanic was bombed, scores of posters on far-right message boards cheered. But many others said they didn’t believe the news.
” I do not trust. I still think ff,” one woman wrote on Twitter, referring to “false flag,” a term commonly used by conspiracy theorists to describe an event they believe was staged.
Global public relations firm Edelman has conducted public confidence surveys for more than two decades, from the time the 1999 World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle was marred by anti-globalization riots. Tonia Reis, director of surveys for Edelman’s Trust Barometer, said trust is a precious commodity that is vital to the functioning of the economy and government.
“Trust is absolutely essential for everything to work well in society,” Reis said. “It’s one of those things that, like air, people don’t think about until they realize they don’t have it, or they’ve lost it or damaged. And then it may be too late.
For experts who study misinformation and human cognition, the unraveling of trust is tied to the rise of the internet and how it can be harnessed on controversial issues of social and economic change.
Distrust and suspicion offered clear advantages to small groups of early humans trying to survive in a dangerous world, and these emotions continue to help people assess personal risk today. But distrust isn’t always well suited to the modern world, which forces people to trust strangers who inspect their food, watch their streets and write their news. Democratic institutions, with their regulations and checks and balances, are a way to add accountability to that trust.
When that trust crumbles, polarization and anxiety increase, creating opportunities for people to push their own “alternative facts.”
“People can’t check the facts in the world,” said Dr. Richard Friedman, a New York psychiatrist and professor at Weill Cornell Medical College, who has written about the psychology of trust and belief. “They’re inundated with competing news feeds, good and bad. They’re worried about the future, and there are plenty of bad actors who can weaponize that fear and anxiety.
These bad actors include scammers selling bad investments or fake cures for COVID-19, Russian disinformation agents trying to undermine Western democracies, or even local politicians like Trump, whose lies about the 2020 election sparked the January 6 attack.
Research and surveys show that belief in conspiracy theories is common and widespread. Believers are more likely to get their information from social media than from professional news outlets. The rise and fall of certain conspiracy theories are often tied to real-world events and social, economic, or technological changes.
Like Wilson, people who believe in one conspiracy theory are likely to also believe in others, even if they are mutually contradictory. A 2012 paper, for example, examined beliefs surrounding the death of Princess Diana of Wales in a 1997 car crash. Researchers found that subjects who strongly believed Diana had been murdered said they were also convinced that she could have faked her own death.
Wilson said his belief in conspiracies began on September 11, 2001, when he could not accept that the towers could be brought down by airliners. He said he found information on the internet that confirmed his beliefs, then began to suspect that there were conspiracies behind other world events.
“You have to put it all together yourself,” Wilson said. “The hidden reality, what’s really going on, they don’t want you to know.”