When we talk about conspiracy theories we tend to focus on what people believe instead of why, and, more importantly, why they believe those things and not other things. In this episode, we sit down with two psychologists working to change that, and in addition, change the term itself from conspiracy theory to conspiracy narrative, which more accurately describes what makes any one conspiracy appealing enough to form a community around it and in rare cases result in collective action.
Joseph Uscinski is an associate professor of political science at the University of Miami. He studies public opinion and mass media, with a focus on conspiracy theories and related misinformation. His recent article for The Guardian argues that QAnon is not growing, nor is is a right-wing conspiracy theory. He is the coauthor of American Conspiracy Theories and editor of Conspiracy Theories and the People Who Believe Them.
Anni Sternisko is a doctoral candidate at New York University studying conspiracy theory beliefs, social identity and moral judgment. Her recent paper titled: The dark side of social movements: Social identity, non-conformity, and the lure of conspiracy theories, opens with, “Research has linked conspiracy theory beliefs to anti-democratic attitudes, prejudice and non-normative political behavior. We propose a framework to understand the motivational processes behind conspiracy theories and associated social identities and collective action.”
Joseph Uscinski So, a lot of the discussion as of late has focused on the conspiracy theories themselves, and that isn’t that interesting.
David McRaney That is Dr. Joseph Uscinski, one of the world’s leading experts on conspiracy theories. He’s a professor of political science at the University of Miami, where he studies conspiratorial thinking and its impact on society. Uscinski has been a guest on this show several times. And that’s because we’ve done a lot of shows about conspiracy theories from Flat Earthers to Anti-Maskers to Anti-Vaxxers to Stop the Steal to moon landing deniers. But to say that we’ve talked about these conspiracy theories is a bit misleading, because what I have always attempted to do on this show is focus on conspiratorial thinking, which is the same across all conspiracy theories. It’s the psychology that leads a person to pay attention to these things and give them some sort of credit. And it’s one of the major ways you are not so smart. And by you, of course, I mean everyone, including me. And that’s a big part of why it is important focus on why certain aspects of a conspiracy theory are appealing and to look at what is common and universal across the conspiracy theories that are most popular from one era to the next.
Joseph Uscinski Oftentimes we’re talking about, ‘Oh, it’s got this piece of evidence, or this person said it,’ or whatnot, and it takes the focus of the believers and puts it on to the theory.
David McRaney He’s talking here about something that’s been bothering him as of late, which is our tendency in reporting on conspiracy theories and talking about conspiracy theories and categorizing conspiracy theories by focusing on what people believe instead of why they believe those things and more importantly, why they believe those things and not other things.
Anni Sternisko We want to have some sort of certainty and be in control. Having a predictable world like this is all what we share.
David McRaney And that’s Anni Sternisko, a psychologist who studies conspiratorial thinking at NYU. I wanted to invite Uscinski back on the show and introduce Sternisko to everyone, because together they both just published some new research, not in collaboration, separately, but the new research into conspiratorial thinking that they’re putting out is saying some of the same stuff. And it’s adding some very important aspects to our understanding of this entire psychological phenomenon. Sternisko agrees with Uscinski that the specific beliefs of a conspiracy theory, the catalog of hypotheses that people will gather around is the least-interesting and least-informative thing about those conspiracy theories and conspiratorial thinking in general. And that’s why she studies why people believe certain things and more importantly, why they believe those things and not others. Here’s Uscinzki again talking about Ani’s most recent paper outlining all of this.
Joseph Uscinski I think what’s important is to keep the focus on the believers. And as that paper argues, I mean, people are making a series of choices, usually subconsciously, if they like conspiracy theories or not and how much, and that could drive them towards conspiracy theories. And then the other issue is, what about a particular conspiracy theory could be appealing to them? So, I mean, we’ve noticed this seemingly forever, right? Republicans believe conspiracy theories that accuse Democrats, and Democrats believe ones that accuse Republicans, because a lot of this is tied up in our social identity. Like, if you are attracted to conspiracy theories, it doesn’t mean you’re gonna believe every single one. Your other worldviews, your social identities, your group attachments. Those things are going to drive you to particular conspiracy theories and away from others.
David McRaney We will return to what Sternisko’s research has discovered in a moment, which is all about how and why people believe in one theory instead of another, and how once they find their way into a conspiracy theory, how it impacts their beliefs and attitudes going forward. But as Uscinski said, anything that leads to your identity or your group rashness is going to be fundamental toward your attitudes. And those attitudes are going to be fundamental toward your anxieties and your anxiety is going to be fundamental toward that which you focus your conspiratorial thinking upon.
David McRaney And her work incorporates a lot of what Uscinski says, a lot of what he’s talked about previously on this program, which to summarize, is that some people are more prone to conspiratorial thinking than others. And if you are more prone to conspiratorial thinking, well, there’s a conspiracy theory waiting for you somewhere. And if you come in contact with it, that’s the one that will appeal to you the most. Uscinski has a test to reveal just how powerful your conspiratorial thinking might actually be. It features three statements, and this is very popular in psychology, you present a statement and you ask people how strongly do they agree with that statement instead of asking a question which can be answered, maybe yes or no. This is a series of statements where you answer either one to seven, one being strongly disagree, seven being strongly agree. And those three statements are ONE: much of our lives is being run by plots hatched in secret places. TWO: Even though we live in a democracy, only a few people run things anyway. And THREE, the people who really run the country are not known to the voters.
David McRaney Most people score in the middle because most people don’t strongly agree in all of these, but most of us are prone to conspiratorial thinking given the right conditions. But some people score highly on all three. And those people are a small part of any one population, any one town or institution, neighborhood, household, but they are a part of everyone’s community. And I like to think of this sort of like Dungeons and Dragons, because before the Internet, if you lived in a small town and you were really into Dungeons and Dragons, you still might not ever find enough people who are also into Dungeons and Dragons to be able to play the game. But after the Internet, finding people who share your interests became much of what we do on the Internet. And that’s true for people who score very high on the conspiratorial thinking test on the Internet. Those people can group up, find one another, join groups where everyone strongly agrees with these three statements, even if they don’t know they do. And what people inside a group like that believe could be just about anything within one of those groups.
David McRaney People’s attitudes can also be plotted on a grid, on one axis, you can plot partizanship and on the other axis, you can plot people’s attitudes related to feeling like underdogs or part of the currently winning team. That’s because over time, conspiracy theories come and go depending on who is in political power. When the left is in power, the conspiracies that are most popular, the ones that have the most influence on people’s behavior, they tend to be about communism, socialism and liberal plots to cheat, take power and keep it. When the right is in power, the conspiracies that bubble to the surface tend to focus on corporations, the wealthy, and Republican plots to cheat, take power and keep it. And even within Conspiracies about a flat earth or moon landing or UFO cover ups, the attitudes that create those conspiracies will fall into this matrix. So if you’d like to hear more about all that, you can check out episodes 16, 87, 151, 178, 189, 197, and 198. Yes, we talk about this a lot. That’s why this episode is so important, because in this episode, we will look at Anni Sternisko’s work, which explores how a person gets funneled into a particular conspiracy theory and then what happens afterward.
David McRaney And you can kind of picture what’s happening here like an hourglass. At the fat end of the hourglass, you have all the attitudes, beliefs and values that a person possesses that make up their psychological profile, which comes from all sorts of things within nature and nurture. And then that gets bottlenecked into one of these conspiracy theories. And once you’re within it, it broadens back out again with new beliefs, attitudes and values that come out of being within that conspiracy, or thinking about it a lot, or reading about it all the time, or interacting with other people doing the same. It’s really interesting because she likens it to the same sort of reasoning we use when we pick out a movie, for instance, if you’re inclined to watch a movie with spaceships in it, you might want Alien or you might watch Star Wars. And if so, you might end up joining a fandom for Alien or Star Wars. And once you’re in that fandom, all sorts of new stuff goes into your brain. You might end up wearing a costume at Comic-Con from one of those two movies. But if you want to watch a horror movie, it might have spaceships in it. And so you might watch Alien or you might watch The Exorcist and people who are big fans of one of those two might not enjoy the other at all. And so the more broad a conspiracy theory, the more aspects it may contain, which appeal to many different entry points. But the end result of all that is if you meet up at Comic-Con as a fan of Alien, the attitudes and interest that led to that fandom could be different from other people inside that group, but once inside the group, you will start to share things that you may not have shared before. And the same is true for something like thinking the moon landing was a hoax. Your reasons for taking a look at that conspiracy theory and then falling into it might be much different from others. But once inside, well, we’ll get to all that in a minute.
David McRaney But first to set the stage for her study. I want to look at something within Uscinski’s latest work, which explores all of what we’re talking about by focusing on QAnon. QAnon is a conspiracy theory that, among many other things, proposes that there is a secret government underneath the government, which people within QAnon call the deep state. And the deep state, they believe is a group of Satan-worshiping pedophiles who control the government, major businesses, and the mainstream media. QAnon started on 8Chan and then 4chan. These are Internet message boards, and it started there because an anonymous user there, calling themselves Q, began making cryptic posts, claiming they were someone working inside the government with information about how some people were planning on destroying the deep state from the inside. Over time, once Donald Trump was president, he got rolled into this conspiracy theory as an outsider who became president to disassemble the deep state and eventually arrest Hillary Clinton, who they believe runs one of these pagan child trafficking rings. So I notice, you know, I’m already doing this thing. I’m talking about the specific beliefs of this theory, and that keeps us talking about that aspect instead of the believers themselves, because these strange beliefs on the outside are so weird and fascinating and bizarre. And that makes it easy to get lost in the things that people believe, the ideas they trade back and forth. So much so that when HBO made a documentary about QAnon titled “Into the Storm,” a huge portion of its six hours was devoted to just going through the hundreds of interlocking beliefs and suppositions that QAnon believers had gameified into this multidimensional online puzzle that was fun to play and easy to get lost within
Into The Storm Audio AUDIO FROM INTO THE STORM
Joseph Uscinski And like, ‘Oh my God, why do people believe this crazy thing that doesn’t have any evidence?’ Well, they’re probably going through the same process that people who are coming to the opposite conclusion are using. I like to use the example of climate change denial. Like, is it the case that climate change, conspiracy theories, you know, I’ve gone through all the conspiracy theories and found evidence for them? No, but it matches what they already believe in. It matches what elites that they trust tell them. So that’s why they say climate change is a hoax. But look at the people who think it’s real. It’s not like all the folks out there who believe that climate change is real and happening sat down and read the peer-reviewed scientific journals and went through the data and evidence themselves and came to the conclusion. No, they were just listening to people that they trust, elites in the media and politics. They’re drawing their conclusions from them, and they’re drawing conclusions in a way that are comfortable to what they already believe. So everyone sort of doing the same thing. It just so happens that in one instance, the elites and the media are right, on the other hand, they’re getting it wrong.
David McRaney Conspiracy theories are everywhere these days, we’ve entered a new phase of fascination with them and media attention toward them, and, as it has in decades past, this has returned them to the front pages of major newspapers and the mainstream of cable news and even mainstream entertainment destinations like HBO and movie theaters. And if you’ve been listening to this podcast for a while, you know we have done several episodes about this, about the psychology that drives conspiratorial thinking. And in those shows, we learned that conspiratorial thinking is something that all brains do. And that’s because searching for patterns in noise, order inside of chaos, meaning with an ambiguity, is part of how brains make sense of the entire world.
Steven Novella We all tend to be a little paranoid, to think, how could these things fit together? Is this all just a coincidence? We don’t we inherently don’t like coincidences, apparent patterns. They speak to us. Emotionally, we respond by saying, ‘Oh, that’s something real there.’ We don’t like dismissing apparent patterns as just coincidence or illusion. And so we look for the hidden hand, the meaning
David McRaney That is neurologist and very famous conspiracy theory debunker Steven Novella from a previous episode. And as he explained, these pattern-recognition algorithms are an inescapable aspect of human cognition and so are seeing things that aren’t there, and more importantly, seeing what we expect to see when motivated to find what we’re looking for. We tend to dismiss coincidences and instead look for ways to link them to a common cause. And all of these are things we are each prone to doing, including you, including me. But as we’ve learned in past episodes, although this is definitely a time in history, especially American history, in which it seems like this is happening more often than ever. Conspiracy theories have not taken hold of the country in a way we’ve never seen before, this is something that has happened ever since there’s been in America, ever since there’s been any group of people trying to figure out what exactly is going on out there.
Jesse Walker It’s not a recent phenomenon. It’s not something that only happens at times of crisis. It’s not something that disappears when you’re not looking at it.
David McRaney That’s Jesse Walker, the author of the book “The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory,” in which he details how there’s always been a number of popular conspiracy theories. And in general, conspiracy theories compete with one another in our discourse in a sort-of Darwinian battle for dominance over time. Some rise the top of consciousness. Some recede into the background. Some grow stronger, some grow weaker. Some die off forever. What’s common, though, is that all conspiracy theories reflect the anxieties of the people who believe in them. And those anxieties change depending on the era in which they are believed. It’s those attitudes and those motivations that drive people to employ their pattern recognition to begin building a case for why they feel so anxious. And we do that by cherry-picking the evidence available to us for clues. And as those clues that over time become our hunches, that something is afoot and those hunches over time become beliefs, and over time those become the conspiracy theory itself.
David McRaney We’ve also covered how there are two major features of conspiracy theories that make them incredibly resilient to debunking. One is something called the conspiratorial logic loop. When presented with evidence that challenges a conspiracy theory, that evidence can be dismissed as some sort of attempt by the people in power to throw you off the trail. And thus counter evidence can be interpreted as actually being evidence for the conspiracy. Additionally, any missing evidence, any conclusion that the conspiracy depends on to work but which lacks the evidence to support, can be defended by saying the missing evidence is part of the cover up, which again can be interpreted as more evidence for the conspiracy. And the other thing that makes conspiracy theories resilient is that they don’t have to be internally consistent. There can be dozens of contradictions within them, and that’s because there’s no peer review system in a conspiracy theory. There’s no social reward or cost for lining up or refusing to line up behind a hypothesis that has the most supporting evidence. And there’s a shared assumption that there must be evidence that exists behind a curtain somewhere. So there’s always more work to be done to uncover that evidence.
David McRaney This state of mind in which one becomes locked in a perpetual problem solving, mystery solving loop is maintained by the system of psychological tools we use to make sense of uncertain information environments that researchers call collectives sensemaking. That’s the psychological matrix of pattern recognition and the mechanisms underlying it that come online during an emergency or after a shooting, or a fire, or tornado, a hurricane, a flood, a pandemic, or any other situation when we need to make sense of something together to make it out of that thing, sometimes make it out of that thing alive. We covered some of that in Episode 177 about the early response to covid. When you are faced with an urgent situation where you aren’t certain how to behave or what to believe, you turn to trusted peers to trade information back and forth and generate a collective worldview so you can together create goals, plans of action, decisions and so on. We also covered this in Episode one 98 with researcher Gordon Pennycook, who said that in such situations, falsehoods easily spread from brain to brain, believed and traded and used to help disambiguate the uncertainty that uncertain information ecosystems create as we try to figure out what is real and what to do outside of our individual brains, immediate experience, and attention. Situations like these create what crisis management researcher Kate Starbird calls information voids. When we have a sense that there is missing information that could be useful, we are compelled to fill those voids. As we do, we constantly update the agreed upon facts of the situation. We accept that the truth is fluid as we attempt to update ourselves and everyone around us until we reach some sort of information, stability, a more accurate, shared reality as the situation unfolds. Taken together, when a group shares high uncertainty and high anxiety, they will work together to resolve their shared uncertainty and anxiety to make sense of the situation. Since there are plenty of rumors and misinformation in that environment, we use trust to sort it all out.
David McRaney Which brings us to the major point of this episode. There’s more information available to the average person than ever before in human history, but as social primates that evolved language to trade information back and forth in between minds, minds generated by brains compelled by collective sensemaking, we depend on trust to engage in epistemic vigilance. But we’re living through a time in which millions of people are bound together by communities whose founding motivations for inclusion are a collective distrust modulated by cognitive dissonance, which is the “I might be wrong” feeling. The brain just wants that dissonance resolved. It can do it in two ways: update your attitude or belief, or interpret new evidence as supporting your existing attitudes or beliefs. In short, you can update your worldview as new information comes in, or you can update your interpretation of the information as it comes in to maintain your worldview. Once accepting that certain evidence is true is something that will generate cognitive dissonance, then any news organization that reports something that challenges your attitude or belief no longer seems objective. People locked in a distrust community will go looking for sources that better confirm their attitudes and beliefs. And if those sources betray them in some way, they will go further and further into the fringe until they’ve abandoned the sources that other people trust for information. Oftentimes that leads them to only trust message boards inside of a memespace or some sort of social media enclave. Anyone who trusts the sources that they do not; well, they seem like they’re part of the conspiracy.
David McRaney Uscinski’s work reveals the number of conspiracy theories in circulation and the number of people who believe in them are both about the same as they’ve always been. What is also true is, although our politics of late has become polluted by conspiracy theories, this is not the first time that has happened as well, nor will it be the last. But what IS new is the Internet, and though these things come in cycles, this cycle has returned conspiracy theories to the main stage of public discourse during a time when public discourse is undergoing a revolution like the printing press before it, then radio, then television, the advent of the Internet, then social media, then smartphones, then a generation of people who are growing up with all of that stuff already in place — it has changed something about how we interact with conspiracy theories and those who believe in them. And that new thing is the speed at which a community can form around a shared interest.
David McRaney QAnon is a conspiracy theory community, and it’s that word community that makes it an example of something that, even in the Internet era, is rare among conspiracy theories and those who believe in them. Though it may seem otherwise these days, most of the time, conspiracy theories never gain enough mass to form something with a gravitational pull strong enough to get people trapped in their orbits, even with something like the moon landing or the JFK assassination. Conspiracy theories about those things just remain ideas, beliefs, information that gets passed back and forth between brains in some way. But sometimes, something like a fandom can form around a particular conspiracy theory. And like a fandom for, say, The Avengers or Harry Potter or the Legend of Zelda, people will start to gather online on message boards and social media to hang out and talk about this thing that they’re all into, compelled by, interested in. And if they do that enough, they might even meet up in-person within fan clubs and conferences and so on. And these sorts of shared-interest hangouts provide positive emotional feedback, and if they do, a group like that can become a full-fledged community. And though this is rare, when that does happen, people will move into a new domain of psychological motivations: group-based reasoning. Identities will form, tribal psychology will emerge, social costs and rewards will take hold. And that will become the main drive, the main motivation for maintaining this belief system. That’s how conspiracy theories can become ideologies that snowball into large political movements and mass political action group behavior based on delusional and incorrect interpretations of the facts based off prejudice and other psychological motivations that will lead to this group based behavior. So, yes, conspiracy theories like this, the ones that form communities, are rare. So it’s not that the Internet makes conspiracy theory communities more likely, it’s that it lowers the barriers to creating a community in general, speeding up the process by which anything can become a community. And as we’ve learned from past episodes, most conspiracy theorists are reasonable, intelligent, curious people. They love their families. They hold down jobs, they pay their bills. In other words, they’re not crazy and they’re not stupid. So given all of that, what does this new research tell us about how reasonable, intelligent, curious people fall into logic loops that keep them trapped inside their fringe beliefs? Specifically, what leads someone, perhaps someone you know and love to fall into QAnon or one of these other examples of conspiratorial communities, spontaneous combustion? All that after this break.
David McRaney I’m David McRaney. This is the You Are Not So Smart podcast. And we’re about to hear about QAnon from conspiracy theory researcher Joseph Uscinski. And then after that, we’re going to sit down with Anni Sternisko who will walk us through the concept of conspiratorial narratives. But before we begin the conversation with Uscinski I wanted to make sure both he and I weren’t misrepresenting the potential harm that can result from radicalization and extremism, which, whether incepted or emboldened within a conspiracy theory, or outside of one, has caused harm to people several times. When it comes to QAnon, this has happened 22 times.
David McRaney So QAnon itself isn’t an organization that can muster large numbers of people to do much of anything. But like any gathering place online, the conversations and information cherrypicking that goes on there can influence small numbers of people to grow more extreme in their attitudes over time, more certain of their beliefs, and in rare cases, it can influence individuals to take violent action. And like I said, that’s happened 22 times. According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the earliest incident took place in June of 2018 when a man drove an armored vehicle onto Hoover Dam, which resulted in a standoff with the police. And he was carrying a sign that promoted a QAnon theory. In March of 2019, a QAnon supporter shot Francisco Cali, an alleged leader of the Gambino crime family, because this QAnon believer believed Cali was a member of the deep state. And in November of 2020, two men tied to QAnon were arrested for allegedly plotting to attack a vote counting center in Philadelphia with the intent of preventing what they believed would be a delivery of false ballots. And then, of course, there was the insurrection, which included a lot of QAnon influence and support. And there was sort of the inciting moment of all of this, the infamous Pizzagate incident, which Uscinski spoke about on stage a few years back.
Joseph Uscinski Individuals can take action on these theories, and they can cause incredible damage when they do it. So just two years ago, a guy got a loaded weapon, went into a pizza shop, fired off a round that went only a few feet from somebody’s head, then went to a broom closet door, expected to find a secret tunnel that would lead him down to the sex slave children that Hillary Clinton had been had been molesting and then burning in the pizza ovens. And he was shocked to find brooms in the broom closet. And he went in front of the judge and he said, gosh, I’m really sorry, but I was just there to save the children. And the judge said, you’re one, you’re going to jail. And two, that bullet was only a few inches from blowing somebody’s head off so people can take bad action when they believe these theories. Somebody is going to fight fire with fire.
David McRaney Despite this, the CSIS says it doesn’t consider QAnon a major threat. Twenty two violent incidents in three years, none of which could be classified as terrorism, three of them fatal. That sounds very bad. But in the scope of anti-terrorist and anti extremism research and national security efforts, this is actually considered very small. There’s a threat from QAnon extremism, but it’s considered small because in that same time period, far right extremists not associated with QAnon committed 139 violent acts in the United States. Also, in that same time period, there were 34 religious based attacks not associated with QAnon and 37 incidents by people classified as far left, not associated with QAnon. All of this within the same three years as those 22 incidents by QAnon believers. So all that being said, the FBI has classified QAnon as a potential domestic terrorism threat. And they have their eye on them and in a report from 2019 they wrote, “Anti-government identity based and fringe political conspiracy theories very likely motivates some domestic extremists wholly or in part to engage in criminal or violent activity.” They added,”Certain conspiracy theory narratives tacitly support or legitimize violent action.” And they also added, “some, but not all individuals or domestic extremists who hold such beliefs will act on them.” And they put all this out in this bulletin, because when it comes to QAnon, it’s not really an organization; it’s a gathering place for people who are bound by a collective distrust of authority and institutions. And in such a gathering place, whether it’s QAnon or flat earth, people can easily find a way to tie any lesser conspiracy theory they already entertain to the grand conspiracy. In this case, it’s the deep state and just about anything can be explained as being part of the deep state once you run out of evidence for something else. Places like QAnon, because of this, become the last stop for such people, because when you’re locked in distrust, you will go looking for sources that better confirm your attitudes and beliefs than mainstream sources that seem to challenge them. And if your alternative sources betray you, you will go deeper and deeper into the fringe until you find something. And along the way you will abandon all the sources that other people trust. And you’ll end up in a safe space like QAnon, where you can on the daily receive confirmation you’re not wrong and that your fears and prejudices and sometimes your hate is justified. In such an environment with so many different attitudes and prejudices, there’s plenty of conspiracy theories within that are going to be racist and homophobic and misogynist and worse. And that’s why Uscinski says it’s very important that we study this aspect of human psychology. What people believe, especially about their governments, affects how they vote, what they value, and it can push them toward or away from individual or collective actions that affect the unfolding of history. But. Uscinski says he has some surprising news in our conversation about his most recent paper, which explores the psychological underpinnings of QAnon. He told me that he has found several challenging truths about this particular conspiracy theory. One is that it is not a far right organization. Another is that it is not very big and it’s not growing larger and it doesn’t have very much influence, if any, on government or politics. It’s more that the influence that’s happening on government and politics is also influencing QAnon. And finally, the motivations behind the people who are compelled by this particular theory. Just aren’t what you might expect. So here’s that interview about that paper:
Joseph Uscinski When we ask about Kennedy conspiracy theories, we wind up still with about 45 percent of the country saying that they buy into some form of Kennedy assassination conspiracy theory. But when you dig a little bit deeper and say, well, who do you think did it? Half of that don’t even know. So it’s not like they were compelled by some fully formed theory. It’s just, oh, I think there was a conspiracy. Someone was behind it. I don’t know who or what or how or why, but the official story can’t be true. It must be some conspiracy. So it’s not like they were compelled by some specific narrative. Instead, it was just they prefer a conspiracy theory and it doesn’t matter what
David McRaney it wasn’t until recently, that is that especially your paper, this is something that I find very compelling. The idea that, I have a note over here, like, correct me if I’m wrong about this, but you seem to have said that the biggest predictors of support in QAnon and membership in QAnon were these anti-social personality traits that also that then predict a need for self identification, that then predict a tendency toward conspiratorial thinking as a way of assuring your uniqueness. And then this so happens. Some people like that met up in a place that appeals to them, which is 4chan is a great place for edgelords to hang out. And they just happen to have a conversation about politics. And it was just these multiple filters led to a group of like minded people then engaging each other in a way that generates the groupishness that leads to conspiratorial community. Am I wrong in any way in that construction?
Joseph Uscinski So one thing I’ve been following lately is, is the people who join these sort of I guess we would call them extreme conspiracy theory groups. I was watching the QAnon documentary on HBO for the last few weeks. When you look at the meetings of these folks are kind of grizzled, and they’re outside of the social norms. I mean, you’ve got a guy with painted face horns and furs. These folks aren’t in the mainstream of society. So one of the first investigations we did, I was looking at how populist orientation’s Manichean thinking, which is thinking politics is a battle between good and evil and conspiracy. Thinking drove QAnon and we found that those things together very much drove QAnon. And in fact, right, left orientation’s whether it’s Republican, Democrat, liberal, conservative, don’t really predicted that well. Instead, it was it was these other things, and then as we continued down the research we found, it was it was also these antisocial dark triad personality traits. So think about that person who believes they’re getting secret messages on an anonymous chat room from a secret government agent who’s talking just to them, and they got to go share this online because they have information about the children who are being eaten by Tom Hanks and Bill Clinton. You know, so so in order to adopt those beliefs which are way outside of societal norms. You also have to be a person whose personality is sort of outside of societal norms. And and I don’t want to…I don’t want to paint everyone with that broad brush. And again, we’re using surveys which give us averages across populations, but we tend to find that people who are adopting these more extreme conspiracy theories are going to exhibit these traits.
David McRaney Well, that that is surprising, because I think it may just be because the media, which is a stupid way to put it, but like the right now, it’s very popular for journalists to talk about QAnon. And right now it’s very popular for if you’re in a Internet savvy community that trades memes back and forth. It’s also popular to talk about QAnon because because it’s an Internet thing and you put those two together, and it makes it feel like QAnon is this giant thing that appeared and is getting bigger and it’s going to take over politics or at least going to take over one of the parties. You have a lot to say about that in the papers. So if you could please correct that in my mind, in the mind of anyone listening who is afraid that QAnon is taking over the world and it is gigantic. What did you find in your research?
Joseph Uscinski So the big claims from 2020 from journalists were that QAnon was big, getting bigger and on the far right. And just those arguments on themselves don’t make sense because you can’t say it’s far right or extreme right and also that it’s gone mainstream, as they were saying all the time. So those things can’t all be true at the same time. But putting aside that that logical inconsistency, I started polling on this in Florida in late summer of 2018 after a few QAnon folks wore their regalia to a Trump rally in Tampa. And there was a flurry of coverage about it. And I read a poll in Florida and put QAnon movement on the on a feeling thermometer from zero to 100 and averaged about 24. And just as a foil, we put Fidel Castro on their chill and he averaged about a 22. So if you know anything about Florida, you know, coming in two points better than Castro is not a stunning endorsement. And even even then, in 2018, a lot of people didn’t do the right thing because they hadn’t heard of it. Now we’ve continued that style of polling with the feeling thermometers both in Florida and nationwide and have found no increases at least through October. But we of last year. But we don’t have any reason to think it’s gone up since then. And we’ve also asked questions similar to what some other polling places have. And we get like 5, 6, 7 percent at most. So that puts it on par with, like the most fringy conspiracy theories that we poll on, like lizard people and moon landings and whatnot. So it had never gone mainstream. And here’s an interesting one. So when the top top journalists from CNN, Brian Stetler, he wrote this big piece in the summer that said it’s going mainstream, you know, we’re ignoring it and it’s much more bigger than people want to admit. And then in February of twenty twenty one, I think one of their lesser known reporters wrote a piece about QAnon said it’s truly fringe and it’s a tiny number of people who buy into this. So, you know, there was an echo chamber that filled up with this QAnon talk in journalistic circles over the over the summer. And they were all repeating what they were saying and they were doing exactly what they complained conspiracy theorists were doing, just repeating stuff without evidence.
David McRaney Well, so there’s that, which is also I was Anni told me, that in her research they found that the for a while there, the hashtag #QAnon has as many instances as the hashtag #metoo. They have almost the same number of instances, which is strange because #metoo actually is something that has changed society, whereas QAnon is probably going to have almost no impact whatsoever. But the conversations about the two are about of equal magnitude in certain online forums, which I think that’s pretty wild.
Joseph Uscinski There’s an important thing that we have to be aware of, and one is that people who say they like QAnon also say they like sharing false information online. There are also people who use a lot of social media and Brigg’s things such ways to get more tweets out there and to amplify their voices. So it’s clear that every tweet, every Facebook page represents lots of real people. I think there is a real problem when we try to equate what goes on on Twitter with real beliefs in the real world. So when you look at actual get togethers of Q and unbelievers, it’s like 50 people. And so when they did these Save the Children rally last summer, people said, oh my God. Nationwide rallies everywhere and they show close ups of the folks with the signs. But then when you pan out, you see this is not impressive at all. When QAnon held a big rally in twenty nineteen at the Washington Monument. It was like 40 people when they did one of these big QAnon conferences in in I think late twenty nineteen. There was like nobody there, but they had a Holiday Inn with like 50 people in it. I mean, so they’re not able to muster sort of this widespread support offline, which leads you to question, well, how authentic is all of this online stuff?
David McRaney Every time I look at my front page, I see more news about conspiracy theories.
Joseph Uscinski Well, you’re observing the correct things because this is this is the dialog that’s going on out there. I mean, I started a Google alert on the term conspiracy theory about 10 years ago. I used to get back five articles a day. Now it’s between 50 and 100 every day. If you search to The New York Times for how many times they wrote something on conspiracy theory, in it, it was like 50 articles in two thousand seven hundred and fifty in twenty twenty. So there’s there’s a lot more attention to this in many news outlets have journalists who are dedicated to just this beat. Right. And you will find articles out there. I mean, there’s there’s a whole branch of journalism now, which is find the weirdest conspiracy theory on any chat room anywhere and write an article about it. But the thing is, that’s giving it more attention than it will probably was getting in whatever chat room it was holed up in. This is really important. So journalists have been saying forever that conspiracy theories are in their golden age now, but they’ve said it every year for the last 50, 60 years, and they’ve never had any evidence to back up those claims. I’ve been tracking this for some time, and even going back and looking at historical surveys. We don’t find any evidence that belief in conspiracy theories is increasing. We don’t find strong evidence that people are more conspiratorial now than they have been in the past. We’re paying attention more to it now, but that’s just creating an optical illusion. I mean, we can we can see it online now because the conversation at the water cooler just disappears into the wind. But Twitter, it’s there forever and we’re confusing, I can see it with there must be more of it.
David McRaney One thing you also debunk is this notion that QAnon is a far right conspiracy. And of course, I think the reason that that’s a common belief is because there’s so much Trump in it. What did you find in your research?
Joseph Uscinski So one thing to think about is that when people were rioting at the Capitol, they weren’t there saying, “Yay, Republican Party” or “yay, we love conservative ideology.” I mean, they wanted to hang Mike Pence. So that doesn’t sound like normal partizanship or conservative ideology. I mean, the reason why they were supporting Trump wasn’t because he was a Reagan Republican. It wasn’t because they read National Review last week. They liked Trump because he was an outsider and he had an outsider ideology in which he essentially trashed the political establishment. He said it was a swamp that needed to be drained. And that’s what matched these people’s views, not entrenched liberal conservative ideology or attachment to Republican Democrat dogma. If you go through QAnon rhetoric, it’s just not the case that it’s the Republicans. They like Trump, but other than that, that’s it. They don’t like either party very much. They just don’t like the establishment writ large. So once you poll on QAnon correctly, I mean, the first thing you find is that not many people buy into it. But because of that, you don’t find big differences between right and left buying in and even on surveys where you do find those differences. When we put them into our models, partizanship and ideology drop out. And so so the QAnon support is much better explained by conspiracy, thinking, dark triad, personality traits and other things that have nothing to do with Left-Right politics. When, as I often say to people, it’s not like, you know, these people were radicalized because they read some Ronald Reagan speeches and then read some William F. Buckley and then satanic baby eaters. It doesn’t work like that.
David McRaney I’m wondering what you what you thought when you saw the insurrection, when you just when it started to get into your news feed, you were seeing the first videos from it. What did you think?
Joseph Uscinski At first? This is conspiracy theory, politics. I mean, when Trump got into the race in 2015, he didn’t have a ready made coalition. He didn’t have an experience. He wasn’t a conservative, and he was barely a Republican, given that he was in a race against 20 other more experienced, more conservative, more Republican Republicans, he had to differentiate himself. So he turned the game on its head. He said, oh, you have eight years experience as governor that just shows your eight years more corrupt than me. Oh, you’ve been a good party member or have a consistent ideology that just shows you that much more corrupt and you’re a sucker. So he flipped the whole game upside down in terms of picking a nominee for a party. Trump had to dance with the people who brought him to the prom. So he continues to do that during his presidency and and the insurrection is the end result. I mean, you you should expect about 40 percent of the party after the election to think that it was rigged. That’s normal. Both parties do that after every presidential election. They were cheated here. It was a lot more Republicans. I think I saw polls were 80 percent of Republicans thinking they were cheated. Well, why? Because you had president and members of Congress and the Senate and the conservative media saying for months that it had been rigged against them. The president told people to come here at this time and do this thing. If you think about who the people they were appealing to, it wasn’t regularly Republican folks. It was people who have these anti-establishment views who hate the government writ large and probably have elevated levels of anti-social traits and higher levels of inclination towards violence against the government. So so none of this is a mystery. So so he built this group of people, activated them into politics for his own partizan ends. And this is going to be the end result.
David McRaney You talk about these traits that we find, and that something that correlated strongly with all these people, that seem to be the thing that was more predictive, is the type of things – I’m reading for your paper. “The type of extremity that undergirds such support has less to do with traditional left right political concerns and more to do with extreme antisocial psychological orientations and behavioral patterns.” If you could talk about those particular traits and behavioral patterns a bit and what you found in the research.
Joseph Uscinski So the neat thing is that we have about 10 years of solid research now, both for myself and a whole lot of other researchers in both political science and psychology looking at the things that go with conspiracy beliefs. Now, in the beginning, I was sort of like, well, it could be the case that psychologists and political scientists are just looking for bad traits to go with conspiracy theories. And then, you know, we’re ignoring, you know, the potential that conspiracy theorizing could have good personality traits attached to it. But I think I’ve sort of let go of that belief over time. And, you know, the number of of traits that we would consider anti-social has has increased quite a bit over time to the point where, you know, narcissism is one that’s showing up quite a bit. Other the other dark triad traits of psychopathy and Machiavellianism studies have found that that that people who believe in conspiracy theories are often more willing to conspire themselves. They’ve taken part in low level crime. So what this paints is a picture of people who sort of have antisocial personalities. They’re living outside the mainstream. They’re they’re outside the norms. And and it could very well be the case that it’s these antisocial personality traits that are driving them both to non normative beliefs, antisocial beliefs and the behaviors. So oftentimes this models that people adopt the belief and then it leads them to a behavior. Well, I think there’s probably something undergirding both at the same time. And it could be the belief, you know, directing what behavior it will be. At the end of the day, these people with these antisocial traits are going to act antisocial.
David McRaney And it feels like QAnon. And I feel like every conspiracy is like this, but QAnon since we’re talking about it, feels like it’s a bar. It is just a place where that is attractive to a certain kind of person. And then when people go out, when those types of people go to hang there every Thursday night, if they get into a ruckus, or they they organize in the bar and decide to go do something outside of it, we might want to we might say, ‘oh, look, that bar makes these people crazy,’ but it feels more like, no, these people just tend to gather in that bar. It is just a bucket where they end up going, and they end up being collected by it. But that’s not the function of QAnon. These people are in the world. And this is where this is the place they hang out. They’re hanging out. If it wasn’t this…
Joseph Uscinski …all the beliefs of QAnon, except for the fact that it was a secret agent giving secret clues existed long before QAnon. Some of them for centuries, if not millennia. So none of this stuff is new. I mean, I grew up in the ’80s and ’90s where there was all these satanic panics and all they were going to take you and do sexual Satan rituals on you and stuff that’s just been around forever. So there’s really no improvements. And it’s the same slop the QAnon is putting out. And all it did was appeal to people who already were there, who already bought into this stuff. So it didn’t I don’t think it really convinced anyone of anything.
David McRaney So to sum up this research from Uscinski, the biggest predictors of support and membership within QAnon are antisocial personality traits, which are narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy, so-called the dark triad, which then predict a strong need for self identification, which then predicts a strong tendency toward conspiratorial thinking as a way of assuring one’s uniqueness. And this is shared across the political spectrum. And that’s why it’s not a right-wing conspiracy. The second biggest predictor is a deep-seated antipathy toward political institutions. This is sort of a both sides are bad attitude mixed with the all politicians are corrupt attitude, mixed with never trust nobody attitude, which is, of course, never trust the government. All that put together this becomes a motivation. It’s a combination of things that, if you include all sorts of life experiences that people share in this era across the political spectrum, you get a personality profile, and this is the one that is most dominant within this particular community.
David McRaney Also, it’s small, it’s not growing in size. It’s not taking over politics in any way. And most people have never heard of it. It’s very popular in the media, very popular in the meme-literate online discourse, which both make it seem rampant. But it’s not. It’s merely a conspiratorial community formed by antisocial individuals who met each other online because they were talking about all the ways they felt politically anxious. Now, he did this research before the HBO documentary, so now people have heard of it. But before that, it was not something most people had heard of. And if they had, they had no idea what it meant or what it was all about.
David McRaney Furthermore, his research shows it appeared in the way that it did because there was a forum, a gathering place that attracted a particular kind of psychological profile. I think on the Internet, we would call them edgelords. And in that place, again, those people started a separate conversation within that community about their political angst. And once that happened, these filters selected from the general population, a small cohort who then, after forming a community, became motivated by other psychological triggers, group psychology, tribalism, conspiratorial logic loops and so on. And at that point, a spiral began that pulled in Trump and all the rest of the world news. And soon everything became another piece of evidence for the conspiracy. It mutated and matured. And then the most extreme people in that group, the people who were the most anti-social and the most angry and afraid, became intensely motivated to take action. And that has led to all sorts of weird behaviors, including in part, the insurrection.
David McRaney And there’s a lot to gain from understanding all this, because it’s likely the blueprint for how most conspiratorial communities form and become influential in the lives of their members, affecting their thoughts, feelings and behaviors to the point that their social lives become poisoned and their friends and families become concerned. People find their way into conspiratorial communities online because online gathering places filter people into like-minded enclaves that confirm their fears and support their beliefs, instead of disconfirming their assumptions and challenging their preconceived notions. And after that, the social forces that drive all of our business can take over. And then motivated reasoning does the rest. So what about Trump? Well, because they organized as supporters of Trump at some point within their evolution, QAnon seems political. It seems Republican, but it’s not for QAnon. Trump’s appeal wasn’t conservative politics, but the idea that he was an outsider, a nonpolitician, a rogue who wanted to disrupt maybe more than all that he was plainly anti-social in ways which they also personally identified as in both regards, he felt like one of us to small groups of conspiratorially inclined people across the USA and then he leveraged that support for political gain. Before winning the presidency, he was sharing conspiracy theories, I mean, he was the person who put birther ism on the map and as president, he refused to disavow conspiracy theories that worked in his favor. So. After becoming president, all this behavior moved him into the position of a political elite for the conspiratorially inclined, something they rarely ever get to enjoy.
Anni Sternisko So I think the narrative is at this point, almost every conspiracy theory that you can believe in is like mashed in.
David McRaney That’s Anni Sternisko. She’s a psychologist who studies conspiracy theories at NYU. And recently I got a chance to visit her when I was in New York City.
Anni Sternisko But that’s just how it how it started is the idea that there is a deep state doing all sorts of sketchy things, including child trafficking or child abuse. It went so far that some of the beliefs are that they are ritual satanic rituals where Democrats are drinking children’s blood. So it’s also like very, you know, narratives from like 1800 basically. It’s like very well known narratives. It’s like now they’re the satanic group is basically became like the Democrats and Trump is their savior. Basically, Trump is the promise to unravel this deep state and take back control over our society in it like in a good way.
David McRaney We’re going to hear from Sternisko about a really interesting new way of examining how people get into conspiratorial thinking. And she told me she didn’t initially plan on making this her primary area of research, but then she read an article about Alex Jones.
Anni Sternisko It was the funniest story. I was studying something totally different. I was I was actually in hindsight, it wasn’t that different. I was studying the sense of control and like more like a social cognitive approach to it. I used to live in Betsi, which is like a 40 minutes commute to New York University. And I was like reading the news. And then there was this article about Alex Jones getting sued for the Sandy Hook hoax conspiracy theory and like spreading it. And I was reading this article. I was just so fascinated and I was like, that is bonkers. And then I also like kind of being informed by my research and sense of control. And I was like, I wonder whether the desire to be in control of the world kind of feeds into that, ironically. So I like read about it. And then I just like got into the science rabbit hole basically about it, and which is super fascinating. I wanted to study it and at that time it was actually more a fringe topic. So it wasn’t super. I very well studied field and kind of like very unusual. So I also had to bounce around a little bit of like finding someone who wants to study it with me. And then it’s obviously like right up the alley of the social identity and morality lab. And I ended up there, the social identity and morality lab in my youth studies group, psychology and its impact on behavior. And that’s now a big part of what studies go studies in relation to conspiracy theory communities, their fundamental needs that we all have as humans. We want to be part of a group. We want to feel special and unique. And when someone is feeling a lack of it and doesn’t really have a good outlet or like a tool to satisfy this needs, this person might turn to conspiracy theories because they are very good and promising, not necessarily then eventually meeting them, but like promising to have a community to like, understand the world, make the world easier to grasp and whatnot. So, yeah, I think that is one of the interesting things that we could potentially do as a society meeting the needs that people initially draw to conspiracy theories and then also hold them there like such as having a community being validated, having someone who validates your views.
David McRaney As I mentioned earlier in the program, Sternisko, along with Alexandra Chichoka and Jay Van Bavel, produced a paper a year earlier than Uscinki’s, which he heavily cited in his own research. And that paper outlines this hourglass model. The people who find their way into conspiratorial communities begin with interests and anxieties and attitudes and beliefs that just make one conspiracy more appealing than another. And then when they go into the bottleneck, these conspiratorial ideologies will push them into a new range of interests, anxieties and attitudes and beliefs that then become identifiers of their inclusion and thus become part of their new group identity on the other side. And as I said earlier, it’s similar to being a fan of a particular movie or television show or comic book or video game or anything that has a large fandom. There may be many reasons for why one particular person gets into that fandom, but once inside, they start sharing attitudes and beliefs and common values with the people who are members of that fandom, they say in their paper, like movies, all conspiracy theories could be categorized by content or they could be categorized by quality. And they say that the way a person chooses which sort of fictional story they want to sit down and read or watch is similar to how one chooses to get into a particular conspiracy or another. The content of a conspiracy theory is its unique narrative. The topics, the characters, the setting, the plot in the major conflicts, while the quality of the conspiracy theory is the genre and the value in that is what being a fan of that theory signals to others about you. The meaning of it, the non narrativity, the community, the shared reality, the fandom, if you will. It’s either one or the other that initially attracts a person. And that attraction has to do with a person’s motivations. All conspiracy theories are attractive thanks to three base motivations, which are a need to feel good about yourself and the groups to which you belong. The need to make sense of our environment and a need to feel safe and in control. But with those in place, you also have two other motivations that are going to drive you towards something specific. There is the social identity motive, and that’s what draws people to the contents of a conspiracy theory, the contents being that which makes you feel good about the groups to which you already identify. So that’s going to include things like prejudice. While uniqueness, motives draw people to the qualities of the conspiracy theory, which makes you feel good about your own uniqueness and reputation as a free thinker or a non normative person, a way to be someone who is in the know. Not a sheep. Woke, in a conspiratorial kind of way.
Anni Sternisko Yeah. So the argument that we are trying to make here is that you can be attracted to any sort of ideas and news and belief systems that make someone who you just don’t like look bad. Right. It’s great. We love it. And that can draw someone who is, for example, strongly identified as a Republican or Democrat to a certain conspiracy theory that makes the opposite party look bad. It’s not about the conspiracy itself. It’s about validating the belief that the other party is the worst and justifying your belief that you’re in the right. So it’s not so much that the conspiracy theory itself, the entire narrative and what comes with it, that there’s like this nefarious group and what exactly they are plotting, that’s not the primary appeal. The primary appeal is, OK, the takeaway is the opposite party is nefarious. They are a bunch of people you can’t trust. So this is one way that can draw people to conspiracy theories. And then, of course, once they’re in, they experience all these other benefits, like they experience that community. All the sudden the world is easier to explain. Like when we look, for example, at covid-19 right now, it’s like it’s perfect. You believe in a conspiracy theory. You you start off with QAnon, for example, that like there’s a deep state that is drinking blood and all of a sudden you have a pandemic, you like what is going on. And then the conspiracy theory helps you to simplify that. And it’s like, OK, I get it. Yeah, that’s like part of the cabal that I already knew was sketchy. And so then it’s like it adds qualities, it adds, yet it adds benefits in addition. But that might have not been the first draw, like why you were drawn to it in the first place. And then on the other hand, some people might not care so much about the content of a conspiracy theory, but the qualities of it. So like qualities. What I mean by that is that conspiracy theories that often counter normative. So you kind of stick out. I don’t know whether I can use that word, but I do sometimes piss someone off and then you know, like when you’re on Thanksgiving dinner and then like, you know, we all know all these, like, contrarian teenagers who just say crazy stuff to piss their parents off. Right. And it’s like a similar thing, like a conspiracy theory is contrarian. And you stick out and people even talk about you because you’re a crazy person. But like at the end of the day, it makes you feel special. And people one way or the others care about you. So it’s not so much about the conspiracy theory. Like it could be the conspiracy theory that you believe in lizard people or the flat earth or whatever. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that you stick out and that it helps you to satisfy this need of feeling special. And that I would argue these are very different pathways.
David McRaney What makes Sternisko’s models so fantastic to me is that she is part of a group of scientists who prefer the term conspiracy narratives instead of conspiracy theories, which is why she and her colleagues use so many movie metaphors in their paper.
Anni Sternisko In Germany, there are researchers that I really admire who are studying conspiracy theories, too, and they refer to it as conspiracy narratives, which I like. Yeah, and that, I think, is what we’re studying. That’s what we are referring to when we talk about people burning down five G towers, because I think this is the actual reason for the covid-19 symptoms. It’s like a narrative; it’s not based on any profound evidence, it is cherry picked. It’s oftentimes not falsifiable. It’s just like any sort of counter evidence is integrated. It’s very unlikely to be true. And this is what we’re talking about when we talk about conspiracy theories. So I think it’s similar to picking a movie in terms of like which conspiracy theories are you drawn to or like pick. I want to have a horror movie tonight. I want to have a really shocker. I feel that way. When you browse Netflix, you care that it’s a shocker, and it doesn’t matter which actor is actually in it. Which location is that place? Is it in the US is in Canada? That’s not the point. The point is that you want to get a thrill out of it. And that is, I think, comparable to someone who wants to feel unique or wants to understand the world, being drawn to a conspiracy theory for that reason, because it’s not normative. It doesn’t really matter if it’s like that earth or lizard people. Whereas some people might really enjoy a movie in which Will Smith stars or Julia Roberts and are drawn to go through Netflix, let’s look at the movies where this actor is starring. I really like that. Let’s watch one of those. And that is comparable to someone who just wants to confirm certain beliefs about certain groups or in other words, someone who wants to feel good about their group or like wants to feel wants to reinforce an idea. The other group is bad, social identity motives. They would be drawn to a conspiracy theory that gives this narrative that reinforces the beliefs that my group, whatever, like my party, my religious group, whatever, my nation, is superior, is great. And it doesn’t really matter whether the conspiracy theory is more like a fringe conspiracy theory or very popular, that the hope is that it reinforces my identity needs.
David McRaney So after all this, I asked any Sternisko if she had any advice for more or less saving the world from the kind of collective action that can result from a community like this, organizing and planning to do things in the real world outside of the forums and message boards where they gather?
Anni Sternisko OK, yeah, perfect. Easy question. And I’m just going to ramble now. So like one one thing I think is say let’s learn from this. Like let’s focus on preventing New QAnon communities. And I also understand that’s not 100 percent preventable. Of course not. But there is, I think, things we can do as a society. I do think now like my hippie comes out. Sure. And now I do think that, like, a lot of people just feel left behind and that draws them to online communities and to kind of like have an outlet for their anger and having basically like a face, you know, for like what? Like who is harming them. Like, I think that is something we as a society can work on, similar to how we communicate. I mean, it was very tricky with covid-19 because scientists learn daily to like no one had a clue what was going on. So, like, oftentimes the information was inconsistent or like was like retracted. It’s like, oh, no, it’s actually mostly and it’s like it’s just people were confused. And that also draws them to conspiracy theories. So kind of like thinking about how we communicate complex matters, I think will be a fruitful strategy down the road so that people don’t have to turn towards simplistic answers. Part of it will be how we even talk about these communities. I think at the moment it’s very condescending. And like I of course, I understand it’s like there’s also a lot of violence associated with these communities, but that further perpetuates the idea of being isolated. If you, for example, I think that’s a great example. If we have this like famous cranky uncle. Right, like living like Q and on conspiracy theories. Right. Like if we meet that with a lot. Of contempt or like kind of like brushing it off and laughing at this person that will further drive the person towards this community because like another connection to someone is kind of like broken. So I think instead of instead of ridiculing the people, I think it’s having an empathetic dialog and hearing them out, even though you vehemently disagree and then kind of take it from there and have a communication. And I mean, I understand that like that’s like talking as a scientist and it’s a little bit unrealistic given what these kind of beliefs are sometimes and like what they are leading to like. I mean, it’s hard to say like, oh, OK, I’m going to meet my uncle with a lot of empathy. You know, it’s like it’s almost like a really unrealistic thing to ask. But I think that is what we can do as an individual, like building communities, building relationships that give people just like social net.
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