NASA faked the moon landing. The Earth is flat and hollow. Jeffrey Epstein didn't kill himself.
2019 was a peak year for conspiracy theories, with numbers of flat earthers rising (or just coming out of the two dimensional closet) and the Area 51 "raid" capturing our collective distrust of the government. At least 55% of Americans believe in at least one conspiracy theory. In fact, Americans' trust in the government is nearly at an all-time low, according to decades of surveys. Of course, an individual's propensity for believing in conspiracy theories exists on a spectrum of paranoia, a desire to be unique, and personal experiences. But in 2019, the world of conspiracy theories transformed from an eccentric subculture to a dynamic realm of political and cultural discourse: Conspiracism is both a weapon and a lens through which to understand an unraveling world.
Under every conspiracy theory is anxiety about imbalances of power. Suspicion of the status quo is fundamental to Americans' political sensibilities. In the words of two political scientists from the University of Chicago, "Conspiracism is not only an important element in American political culture, but also is expressive of some latent and powerful organizing principles behind American mass opinion." In one recent study at the Australian National University, researchers found that many active online conspiracy theorists today show "sensible" interests. "These people might believe false things, but with good reason—because similar things have happened in the past," lead researcher Dr. Colin Klein writes. Belief doesn't stem from ignorance, but rather a sense that "unseen, intentional forces exist and that history is driven by a Manichean struggle between good and evil, particularly in the high proportion of Americans who believe we are living in biblical 'end times.'"
Our Inner Eye tells us that corrupt power structures are everywhere, and positions of power are filled by corrupt men who abuse the system and those weaker than they are for personal gain: Something is afoot, Big Brother is watching, and we're all being blue-pilled by The Man. But so does the news. Anxieties about gatekeeping and what information to trust in an age of "alternative facts" have demonstrably intensified in the age of social media. When millions of followers and a blue verified check mark denote authority, then a rapper tweeting that the earth is flat has the same reach as an astrophysicist. Information is about being prolific rather than accurate, feeling true rather than being supported by evidence.
"But It Feels True...": Conspiracy Without Theory
Unlike the tin hat-wearing conspiracy theorists of the predigital age, also called "classic conspiracism" by Nancy L. Rosenblum in her book The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy, today's version is conspiracy without theory. The echo chambers of social media, from Reddit and Twitter to extremist forums like 4chan, allow believers in "alternate facts" to find each other and rail against "disinformation" campaigns. Rosenblum writes, "Conspiracist thinking that was once on the margins of American political life now sits at its heart."
The new wave was ushered in largely with the election of Donald Trump, who rose in the public eye as tabloid fodder and then reality TV star—a man of slogans and catchphrases—and took America's highest office with the ethics of an influencer. That is to say, he's only interested in what feels true, as well as what will result in his personal gain. With 68 million followers on his private Twitter account, Trump's power to insert fallacies into public discourse is unprecedented. As of November 2019, he'd retweeted at least 145 unverified accounts that pushed conspiracy or extremist ideas. "There's no answer for it, which is why it is so seriously disorienting to people," Rosenblum notes. "We've never seen anything like it. We don't know how to meet it. It's an attempt to construct a reality, and when it comes from the president, he has the capacity to impose that reality on the nation." Myriad mental health professionals have analyzed his behavior and language to warn about his toxic narcissism, but one of its most sinister features is the disposal of foresight. Only the present matters, with the highest priority being to satisfy the needs of right now. There's no concern for evidence, society at large, or the future.
When it comes to protecting the leader of the free world–even from himself–that means cover-ups. In late 2018, a senior White House official wrote an anonymous op-ed in The New York Times, exposing the administration's inner alarm about Trump's impulsivity and loss of reason. The source warned of his lack of "any discernible first principles that guide his decision making … his impulsiveness [that] results in half-baked, ill-informed and occasionally reckless decisions that have to be walked back, and there being literally no telling whether he might change his mind from one minute to the next." In agreement was Yale psychiatrist Bandy X. Lee, one of 27 mental health experts who conferred to assess the president's stability in their book The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump. Lee followed up with a Vice article, noting, "These reports are also consistent with the account I received from two White House staff members who called me in October 2017 because the president was behaving in a manner that 'scared' them, and they believed he was 'unraveling.'"
Dataminr via NY Times
To the American public, today's political divisiveness (at its worst since the Civil War) isn't just a matter of picking sides in the culture war–it's grounds for suspicion. Just as in the 1890s, 1960s, and 1970s, which were peak times for American conspiracy theories, as well as times of great cultural and political upheaval (the turn of the century was rocked by the Industrial Revolution, and the '60s and '70s saw the Vietnam War, Cuban Missile Crisis, and Watergate Scandal), truth is being obfuscated by our dominant power structure. To some, the most closely guarded secret is Donald Trump's worsening mental instability, while to others it's alien spacecrafts being hidden in Area 51. Rosenblum argues that modern conspiracism, one without theory or evidence, "betrays a new destructive impulse: to delegitimate democracy." Just look at Trump's Twitter feed, and it's clear that conspiracy theories can be wielded as weapons to undermine facts, manipulate public information, and create chaos.
But for most people, conspiracy theories have become a sensible response to the existing chaos that defines modern existence, from imminent climate crisis to impeachment trials. Dr. Rob Brotherton, psychologist and author of Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories, notes that people often feel as if they're living in a golden age of conspiracy theories, but it's usually just our mind's survival instinct to make sense of a chaotic, unstable reality. "Our brain has a bias towards seeing meaning rather than just chaos," he writes. "So sometimes we may think we see a pattern when it doesn't really exist." While our deepest survival instincts tell us that there's unseen danger in the world, our minds refuse to send a warning signal without a good explanation; and if we can name it, then we can fight it. White House raid, anyone?