Op-ed: They think they're the heroes
The goodwill of the average conspiracy theorist is often overshadowed by innate danger
Conspiracy theories are as American as apple pie and for a reason that’s as good as any; the federal government and national intelligence agencies in the U.S. have sometimes conducted themselves in ways that could be described as “sketchy” at best.
Many individuals drawn to ludicrous conspiracy theories like QAnon believe their actions are somehow exposing that kind of nefarious behavior. Some believe their involvement means they will be clued-in to information that can rescue the world from evil. The misplaced goodwill can cause lasting damage and inspire occasional violence.
This is not an article about bad actors, like conspiracy theorist broadcaster Alex Jones. Jones and others like him have clear financial and career incentives to mislead people and deploy extreme rhetoric. Sadistic manipulators do not deserve our empathy or compassion. Rather, this article is about the everyday people who get caught in the mix.
A recent poll found that millions of Americans are caught up in conspiracy theories. It’s remarkable how ordinary the people who fall into rabbit-holes can be. They are our neighbors, babysitters, family members, and coworkers. The on-ramps to conspiracy theories are as diverse as ever, spanning from religion to professional fighting and mommy blogs.
Although a thriving micro-economy of conspiracy theory influencers exists—and it’s a testament to the line of thinking’s influence and staying power—few people beyond an elite handful are able to monetize these ideas into a sustainable living. Most followers are among the audiences of such influencers and endure immense amounts of suffering to maintain their beliefs.
While covering conspiracy theory movement gatherings in real life, I’ve frequently encountered good faith participants. Ordinary people passionate about conspiratorial falsehoods often believe they are acting with the best intentions. Simply put: They think they are saving the world. (It’s worth noting here that these supposedly well-meaning individuals have been leveraged by anti-democratic actors to advance fascist causes in the not-so-recent past.)
I was watching the Netflix docuseries “Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel” with my fiancé last week and I was stuck by the way that those who had taken it upon themselves to “investigate” an odd death at a Los Angeles hotel in 2013 regarded themselves and their actions. These folks wound up creating and spreading webs of misinformation and conspiracy theories, often at the cost of innocent people’s lives. But at the time, they were convinced they were championing truth.
In our modern day, we’d accurately call these people “conspiracy theorists” the same way we’d use the term to describe people who obsessed over the murder of former DNC staffer Seth Rich during the 2016 election. And rightfully so; the people and online communities that took it upon themselves to digitally “examine” this mysterious death at the Cecil Hotel had targeted uninvolved people and subsequently rained hell upon their lives. The case is a clear example of the dangers of conspiratorial thought movements online, which can manifest both in and out of political contexts.
The ultimate effects of conspiracy theories are often unrelated to their truth value. But for people who genuinely believe in these falsehoods, their purpose is existential. If you genuinely believe that a satanic pedophile ring is conducting its activities in plain sight, why wouldn’t you want to tell the world? If that didn’t work, what actions would you take to “solve” the “problem?” Therein lies the danger.
Any approach to conspiracy-driven extremism and disinformation in the country must recognize an often-held goodwill and attempt to work with that understanding in mind. I tend to view most ordinary people who fall trap to conspiracy theories as victims of toxic disinformation. Perhaps I’m naïve, but I think that most well-meaning individuals can be rescued from the brink with enough time and effort.
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And finally, a song to close on:
If you built yourself a myth
You'd know just what to give
What comes after this