How to Identify the Three Prongs of Conspiratorial Thinking
The Pac-Man Effect…
As someone who has been writing about politics for over twenty years, I can tell you that the number of people engaged in conspiratorial thinking has skyrocketed over that time. I could easily punch up a whole article explaining why that’s the case, but let’s start out with a quick explanation of why it’s occurring.
1) There used to be a handful of media gatekeepers that controlled what people saw. Happily, that is no longer the case, but one of the negative side-effects of that is there are now a lot of people pushing conspiracy theories.
2) Conspiracy theories tend to have a small, but extremely energetic following that may not amount to a lot of people in the real world, but that can translate to a large amount of online traffic. This can lead to media outlets pushing conspiracy stories solely for clicks.
3) Again, because of the small, but active following, social media algorithms can help spread conspiracy theories because the people that buy into them click and click and click. In fact, many people believe YouTube is responsible for the spread of the flat earth conspiracy theory because their algorithm pushed that content out to a lot of people because the ones that started down that rabbit hole kept going for a long time.
4) The Internet encourages tribalism and divides people into smaller and smaller subgroups of like-minded people while demolishing conspiracy theories requires input from people who disagree and can poke holes in the idea. If you never talk to anyone but other true believers about your ideas, your beliefs are never going to be challenged.
5) As the world has become more complicated, the information we’ve gotten about it has become increasingly simplified, dumbed-down, and incomplete. Unfortunately, the sum of many Americans’ knowledge about a great number of topics comes from memes, bumper stickers, article headlines, and assertions from people on Twitter. A conspiracy that may seem laughable to someone with a deep knowledge of a topic may seem perfectly plausible to a person who doesn’t really understand what’s going on.
6) As everything has become increasingly politicized and the mainstream media has in most cases even abandoned the pretense of being unbiased, people no longer know who to trust. Sure, Alex Jones is ridiculous, heavily biased, and gets things wrong all the time, but so does CNN. You can fairly argue that CNN might be the lesser of two evils on that front, but it’s still evil and you certainly can’t take anything CNN tells you to the bank. That’s what happens in a low-trust environment. Some people don’t trust anyone, but a lot of people assume that one source is as good as another.
7) As our society has moved away from rational debate, people have increasingly focused on discrediting the motives of those they disagree with instead of convincing people that they’re wrong. Because of that, many people have replaced proving their positions with labeling people. He’s a racist, a transphobe, a homophobe, a commie, a fascist, evil, hates people like us, misinforms people, or is a conspiracy theorist. This ends up blurring a lot of lines, particularly when it comes to conspiracy theories. For example, the idea that the COVID virus came from the Wuhan Institute of Virology may be right or it may be wrong, but it’s pretty clearly not a conspiracy theory to suggest that it’s possible. Yet, that’s how many supposedly “mainstream” media outlets in America portrayed it early on.
So, now we know why conspiracies have been spreading. Let’s get beyond that and explain HOW you identify conspiratorial thinking. In my experience, there are three crucial “tells” that you will see over and over again in people engaged in conspiratorial thinking. When you see those signs, it should give you a lot of pause – and by the way, if you pay close attention you will see this style of thinking increasingly making its way into our mainstream political conversations, on both the Left and the Right today. It occurs in topics as varied as COVID, “rigging” elections, global warming, white supremacy, Russia interfering in our elections, and on and on and on. It’s EVERYWHERE and it’s not just the fringe kooks engaging in it anymore. With that in mind, watch for these three signs of conspiratorial thinking and it may save you from buying into some kooky ideas.
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1) Is their core reason for assuming that people or a group are behind some nefarious plot because they’re bad people and thus, are capable of anything? Is it a, “I wouldn’t put anything past the government/the Democrats/the Republicans/white people/Jews/the Illuminati/the Rothschilds/Israel/Big Pharma/the military-industrial complex/Anthony Fauci/Bill Gates/Elon Musk/George Soros/the Koch family/Trump/the Clintons/Karl Rove, etc.” type of argument or is there a much clearer reason to point the finger in that direction?
For example, there is an enormous difference between all of these statements:
A) Some things were stolen from the house, and I wouldn’t put anything past those damn Jenkins brothers.
B) Some things were stolen from the house, and the Jenkins brothers went to jail for burglary a year ago.
C) Some things were stolen from the house; the Jenkins brothers are career criminals who went to jail for burglary last year and they don’t have an alibi.
D) Some things were stolen from the house; the Jenkins brothers are career criminals who went to jail for burglary last year and I saw them in the area before someone broke in.
E) Some things were stolen from the house; the Jenkins brothers are career criminals who went to jail for burglary last year and my neighbor saw them do it.
Conspiratorial thinking usually tends to stop somewhere around A, although it does occasionally get to B. It’s also worth noting that even if someone might have plausibly done something wrong, it’s not proof that they did it. The Jenkins brothers might have been in the area at a local bar all night getting drunk, not robbing your house.
2) They usually don’t fully understand or think through the implications of what they’re saying. You may not remember this, but one of the conspiracy theories about 9/11 was that the Pentagon was hit with a missile or a car bomb, not a plane and that the Twin Towers were destroyed with a controlled explosion. There were lots of conspiracy theorists that bought into this idea – except it makes no sense at all. For one thing, people SAW a plane hit the Pentagon. Were they all liars? Also, what happened to the people on the plane? We could ask the same kind of questions about the idea that the Twin Towers were destroyed by controlled demolition. Everyone has seen planes hit the buildings. Were they tricked somehow? How? Why? Furthermore, how would no one notice all the explosives being moved into the buildings and then set up at crucial points? It’s also worth noting that one of the most critical questions to ask of anyone engaged in conspiratorial thinking often turns out to be how many people would have to be in on this and how competent would they have to be to pull it off? In this case, we’re talking Bush, Cheney, higher-ups in the government, the explosives experts, the investigators, the multiple committees investigating 9/11, people at the Pentagon – we’re talking thousands of people working in concert to pull off a terrorist attack on American soil, hide it from the public and parlay it into a global war without anyone ever figuring out what they did besides some hapless conspiracy theorists no one would ever believe. In the immortal words of our senile president, “Come on, man.”
It doesn’t matter what we’re talking about, if it’s an intricate plan that requires hundreds or perhaps even thousands of people involved in it to stay quiet long-term, it’s pretty unlikely to be successful.
3) They like to throw everything against the wall and see what sticks. People who engage in conspiratorial thinking tend to start with the presumption that their implausible assertion is true, toss out a wide variety of “evidence” for it that isn’t necessarily part of any coherent narrative, then demand that everyone disprove every single thing they said. If you blow a hole in one of their pieces of evidence, they just move on to the next one because their argument never had a logical structure, it was always just “prove random facts A-Z wrong or I must be right.”
Of course, this is a nonsensical, illogical way to think because there are always competing theories. If you want to “prove” the earth is flat, then you need to build a coherent case that you are right that’s better than the people making the case that the earth is round. Your theory does not exist in a vacuum, it exists in competition with other theories. For example, if we’re talking about whether we live on a flat earth, one of the super obvious questions would be, “If the planet is flat, where’s the edge?” People who believe the earth is round can easily explain this. There is no edge. The flat earth theory has a wide variety of bad answers, although this one seems as good as any:
At the conference, Flat-Earther Darren Nesbit suggested another explanation, The Age reported. "We know that continuous east-west travel is a reality," Nesbit said. ...Instead of running into a wall or walking off the edge, Nesbit theorized that when you reach the end of the Earth, space-time is distorted. "One logical possibility for those who are truly free thinkers is that space-time wraps around and we get a Pac-Man effect," he said.
This is what happens to people with conspiratorial thinking over and over again the moment they stop getting treated with kid gloves and actually have to make a case to people who don’t start out with the presumption that they’re right. The Pac-Man Effect kicks in and it’s pretty clear they don’t know what they’re talking about. Until we get away from this kind of thinking and back to actually debating the issues, conspiratorial, paranoid thinking will increasingly be a part of the world all of us are forced to live in. Now, you should be able to spot it.