With all the other things 2020 will go down in history for, it has also proven to be a high-water mark for conspiracy theories. And that shouldn’t surprise us. Science has proven that when the going get tough, the paranoid get weirder. Add to this
the craziness multiplier effect of social media, and it’s no wonder that 2020 has given us a bumper crop of batshit crazy.
As chronicled for you, my dear reader, I kicked over my own little hornet’s nest of conspiracy craziness a few weeks
ago. I started with probing a little COVID anti-vaxxing lunacy right here in my home and native land, Canada.The next thing I knew, the QAnoners were lurching out of the woodwork like the coming of
the zombie apocalypse.
I have since run for cover.
But as I was running, I noticed two things. One, most of the people sharing the theories were from the
right side of the political spectrum. And two, while they’ve probably always been inclined to indulge in conspiratorial thinking, it seems (anecdotally, anyway) that it’s getting
So I decided to dig a little deeper to find the answers to two questions: Why them, and why now?
Let’s start with why them?
My Facebook experience started with the people I grew up with in a small town in Alberta. It’s hard to imagine a more conservative place. The primary industries are oil, gas and
farming. Cowboys — real cowboys wearing real Levi jeans — still saunter down Main Street. This was the first place in Western Canada to elect a representative whose goal was to take Western Canada out of a liberal (and Eastern intellectual elitist)—dominated
confederation. If you wanted to find the equivalent of Trumpism in Canada, you’d stand a damn good chance of finding it in this part of Alberta.
So I wondered: What is
about conservatives, especially from the extreme right side of conservatism, that make them more susceptible to spreading conspiracy theories?
It turns out it’s not just the
extreme right that believes in conspiracies. According to one study, those on the extreme right or left are more
apt to believe in conspiracies. It’s just that it happens more often on the right.
And that could be explained by looking at the types of personalities who tend to believe in
conspiracies. According to a 2017 analysis of U.S. data by Daniel Freeman and Richard Bentall, over a quarter of the American
population are convinced that “there is a conspiracy behind many things in the world.”
Not surprisingly, when you dig down to the roots of these beliefs, it comes down
to a crippling lack of trust, closely tying those ideas to paranoia. Freeman and Bentall noted, “Unfounded conspiracy beliefs and paranoid ideas are both forms of excessive mistrust that may be
corrosive at both an individual and societal level.”
So, if one out of every four people in the U.S. (and apparently a notable percentage of Canadians) lean this way, what
are these people like? It turns out there are a cluster of personality traits likely to lead to belief
in conspiracy theories.
First, these people tend to be anxious about things in general. They have a lower level of education and are typically in the bottom half of income
ranges. More than anything, they feel disenfranchised and that the control that once kept their world on track has been lost.
Because of this, they feel victimized by a
powerful elite. They have a high “BS receptivity.” And they believe that only they and a small minority of the like-minded know the real truth. In this way, they gain back some of the
individual control they feel they’ve lost.
Given the above, you could perhaps understand why, during the Obama years, conspiracy theorists tended to lean to the right. But
if anything, there are more conspiratorial conservatives then ever after almost four years of Trump. Those in power were put there by people who don’t trust those in power. So that brings us to
the second question: Why now?
Obviously, it’s been a crappy year that has cranked up everybody’s anxiety level. But the conspiracy wave was already well-established
when COVID-19 came along. And that wave started when Republicans (and hard right-wing politicians worldwide) decided to embrace populism as a strategy.
The only way a
populist politician can win is by dividing the populace. Populism is – by its nature – antagonistic in nature. There needs to be an enemy, and that enemy is always on the other side of the
political divide. As Ezra Klein points out in his book “Why We’re Polarized,” population density and
the U.S. Electoral College system makes populism a pretty effective strategy for the right.
This is why Republicans are actually stoking the conspiracy fires, including outright
endorsement of the QAnon-sense. Amazing as it seems, Republicans are like Rocky Balboa: Even when they win, they seem able to continue being the underdog.
The core that has
been whipped up by populism keeps shadow boxing with their avowed enemy: the liberal elite. This political weaponization of conspiracy theories continues to find a willing audience who eagerly amplify
it through social media. There is some evidence to show that
extreme conservatives are more willing that embrace conspiracies than extreme liberals, but the biggest problem is that there is a highly effective conspiracy machine continually pumping out
It seems there were plenty of conspiracies theories making the rounds well before now. The shitstorm that became known as the year 2020 is simply adding
fuel to an already raging fire.