QAnon and other conspiracy theories may only be a symptom of an underlying malaise. Though some relief might be gained by treating the symptoms, such as adding factcheck warnings to posts or banning advocates from certain platforms, in the long term, the underlying roots of the malaise must be addressed.
A sense of social exclusion is exacerbated by material and financial exclusion. It is a short journey from ‘I have poor access to resources’ through ‘it is unfair that I have poor access to resources’ to ‘who is grabbing all the resources and preventing my access to them?’.
Various studies also indicate a correlation between higher education and decreased likelihood that people believe in conspiracy theories. This connection has been explored by Professor Jan-Willem van Prooijen of the University of Amsterdam, who proposed three mediators of this relationship: belief in simple solutions for complex problems, feelings of powerlessness, and subjective social class. It is probable that in the long term, education is a vital key.
In 2010, I was introduced to the original ‘Zeitgeist’ movie by some friends who were very impressed by it and asked for my views. As I watched the movie it became clear to me that viewers were being asked to adopt a two-tier approach to critical thinking. I now wonder whether this may be a universal requirement for the success of conspiracy theories. We seem to preferentially apply our critical faculty to the deconstruction of a reported event or phenomenon, but then dispense with those critical faculties when constructing an alternative explanation. Destruction is easy to rationalise, reconstruction less so.
In Dr van Prooijen’s analysis, feelings of powerlessness are identified as being a driver of belief in conspiracy theories. Professor Cynthia Wang, Director of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management in the US, along with others, found that feeling less in control caused a spike in conspiratorial thinking and that creating an increased sense of control provides an immunity to conspiracy perceptions. They achieved this through nudging participants in their studies toward adopting a goal-driven mindset and found that they could shift someone’s mindset so they see fewer conspiracies.
This makes sense if we understand that conspiracy theories thrive in an environment where a breakdown in myths and consensus reality leaves an inner vacuum devoid of a sense of purpose. In a culture where self-worth and validation are increasingly based on external factors such as peer approval and achieving societal goals of success, conspiracy theories will continue to gain traction and their appeal will grow.
Paradoxically, their adherents are vaccinated against rationality by the conviction that the reason no one knows about the conspiracy is because of the success of the conspiracy. If ‘evidence’ contradicts the theory, then the evidence, not the theory is at fault. The world’s press is universally Fake News and experts in general and scientists in particular are accomplices in the Elite’s conspiracy to control us. But it seems that conspiracy theories occupy a niche in our inner ecology which was left terrifyingly vacant by the collapse of some very dubious consensus realities, and which can be successfully recolonised by a sense of worth and purpose rather than more equally dubious consensus realities.
At the end of this long journey through the world of conspiracy theories, we come back to the stream from which we started. Sitting by the stream, we see that the water is clear. In each moment, we have a choice. We can relax into the emptiness of the clear water flowing past, or we can jump in and create mud and disturbance, and then invest our lives in trying to clear up the disturbances we have made. It may just be as simple as accepting the clear water as our own, personal, truth.