As a truck driver in Illinois in the mid-2000s, Dave would drive through the small hours listening to Coast to Coast AM, a late-night radio talk show with a penchant for the paranormal. He loved his job, and he was good at it; his family had owned a trucking company, and he'd always felt it was the natural route for him to follow. Then he was diagnosed with a heart condition that ended his career.
Dave, 42, suddenly found himself untethered, flung out into a sea of dead time. He'd always been interested in the "strange and unusual," and, feeling isolated and disenfranchised, he fell down the internet's rabbit hole, spending anywhere between 10 and 12 hours daily on conspiracy forums and listening to Alex Jones's live streams. And in that hole he found a home. "I went from a career I loved and was good at, to contributing nothing to society," he said. "But my fellow conspiracy theorists didn't know that. I could hide the parts of me that I didn't want to acknowledge. But people knew me. People valued me."
Typically, the figure of the conspiracy theorist appears in the popular imagination as a fringe figure in a tin-foil hat. This is despite belief in "extreme" conspiracy theories being rare, and the fact that most people believe in at least one theory. For Joseph Uscinski, professor of political science at the University of Miami and coauthor of American Conspiracy Theories, this complicates the definition of who we mark as a conspiracy theorist. In fact, he suspects "everyone is a conspiracy theorist at least some of the time," but that some people are particularly predisposed to view the world this way. And, despite the perennial headlines hailing the era of the conspiracy theorist, Uscinski stresses there is no data to show beliefs are on the rise. Regardless, conspiracists have received prominence in recent years, not least given the election of a president who advanced the racist birtherist theory.
According to Michael Barkun, emeritus professor of political science at Syracuse University, three core principles characterize most conspiracy theories. Firstly, the belief that nothing happens by accident or coincidence. Secondly, that nothing is as it seems: The "appearance of innocence" is to be suspected. Finally, the belief that everything is connected through a hidden pattern.
Real conspiracies do exist and a healthy level of skepticism is vital to any society. But, as researcher John Cook and psychologist Stephan Lewandowsky note, they are rarely uncovered by conspiratorial thinking. What's more, conspiracism is often embraced by people who feel powerless; they are a way of coping with threats and explaining unlikely events.
Uscinski puts it plainly: "Conspiracy theories are for losers." He's quick to explain that he means the term descriptively rather than pejoratively, though that hasn't spared him the ire of conspiracy theorists over the years. Conspiracy theories tend to be pushed by those out of power, regardless of their political alliances. The research on demographic factors is mixed: Uscinski's study found there is almost no difference between genders, a little between races, and a fair bit between people of different educational attainments, income levels, and generations. Socialization appears to play a role in developing predispositions that make some people more vulnerable to theorizing.
Richard, 27, tells me his upbringing "made it easy to fall prey" to conspiracy theories, and his descent into the conspiratorial mindset appears more like a slide than a fall. He grew up as a Young Earth creationist, which he says facilitated "the transition into a full-blown conspiracy theorist," saying: "In order to be a Young Earth creationist you have to believe that the education system and the institution of science as a whole is incompetent at best and malicious at worst."
As teenagers in the British Columbia interior, Richard and his sister were inducted into the "full-blown" conspiracy world by their mother, who made them watch YouTube videos about the ever-impending apocalypse, but also ones about secret societies with strong anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic overtones. Richard believes his mother's shift towards more "traditional" conspiracy theories—"the kind that come from YouTube rather than Bible studies"—was a manifestation of her doubling down against reality. "For ultra-conservative fundamentalists like my mother, it can be difficult to reconcile what she believes with what is obviously going on in the world," Richard said, referring to the separation of church and state in North America. He said that, somewhat inevitably, her latest fixations involve the coronavirus pandemic.
Barkun appears to second this view. In Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America he writes: "The more elusive the end-times are, the more tempting it is to blame their delay on secret evil powers," whether these are capitalists or Satanists. "Conspiracism explains failure, both for organizations and for the larger world."
For Richard, starting a job where he was surrounded by people from outside his church for the first time "shattered" the worldview he had been molded into. "Adventism necessitates an us versus them narrative, even for those who aren't conspiracy theorists," he said. "Adventists are taught that they are a special few people who exist among the evil masses." He had attended private Adventist schools, had only been allowed to have friends from within his church, and grown up with restricted media access. "When your only social circles are other people of your faith who believe the same thing, it's very easy to simply accept that as truth."
Exposure to the outsiders he had been conditioned to see as "inherently evil, lost souls" acted as an important turning point for his belief system. "It didn't take long for that notion to be completely shattered," he said. " These people were all good people, cared for others and had ethics and morals."
Though Dave's increasingly fringe worldview lent him a sense of purpose, and even a feeling of "euphoria" at laying claim to supposed insider information hidden from the mainstream, it isolated him from many of his friends. "I was being conditioned to view anyone who didn't believe as I did to be inferior," he said. "They were sheep." Despite the ego boost it offered him, Dave grew increasingly disillusioned with the online community over the years, becoming frustrated with a recurring theme: Nothing ever happened naturally, by coincidence or by accident. A parent himself, Dave told me he left after being "disgusted" with the hoax theories around the Sandy Hook shooting. "Where cracks had been forming already, that was a sledgehammer."
Dave told me he left after being "disgusted" with the hoax theories around the Sandy Hook shooting. "Where cracks had been forming already, that was a sledgehammer."
Although both Dave and Richard identify turning points for their worldviews, it's important to note that we don't know how typical these stories are. They are anecdotal windows into a world we have limited academic knowledge of, and it's also likely there are selection effects in play, particularly regarding gender. And, while Richard recognizes a turning point, he takes pains to underline that there was no "gotcha moment" for his beliefs; it was the change of environment that shed light on his mindset rather than a reason-based debunk. "Conspiracy theorists can't be reasoned out of their positions because they didn't reason themselves into those positions to begin with,” Richard said. “Subscribing to these theories is a symptom of a flawed worldview—that worldview has to change before the symptom goes away."
Many of the people involved in the movement are trying to make sense of the "bad stuff" that happens, Dave believes. They reason, he said, that "if bad things happen for a reason, maybe those bad things won't happen to them. The concept that day-to-day life is relatively random is terrifying, even to an otherwise rational person." He sees the conspiracy movement as a "mutation" of the natural human tendency—an evolutionary trait—to see patterns where they don't actually exist. Barkun echoes this, adding that while "magnifying the power of evil" leads to pessimism among conspiracists, it's comforting to make sense of the meaningless.
When I spoke to Jonathan, 29, he described the flipside of this comfort. After studying politics at university and disengaging from the conspiracy world, he became depressed and "almost had a mental breakdown" at the idea that he'd "wasted two years of [his] life" believing conspiracy theories about 9/11 and chemtrails, among others. He reasoned that it may have been easier to disengage because he hadn't been immersed in that frame of mind for very long, saying that for more invested conspiracy theorists, it becomes something close to a "form of religion." It's much harder for someone to disavow their belief system when it has become part of their identity.
Jonathan had spent a couple of years as an "online info warrior" in the comments section of various YouTube channels, and now runs a blog debunking conspiracy theories in an attempt to "deprogram" others and "help them from going further down the rabbit hole". Whereas fact and logic based debunking is effective in inoculating the wider public, research shows it is less effective in deradicalization. However, these counter-messages are generally received more positively if they are created by former members of the community.
The question of how to challenge conspiracism is complex. Barkun is hesitant to be prescriptive, explaining that the right response depends on how attached the individual is to the theory: the less committed to it, the more likely the presentation of opposing evidence is to be effective. For someone on the other end of the spectrum, "whose worldview is structured around plots," changing their mind this way is likely to be impossible.
"Contrary evidence is likely to be disposed of as a trick planted by the conspirators themselves, or material that would itself be invalidated by material that has been deliberately hidden by the conspiracy," he told me. "In that sense, many conspiracy theories are closed systems that resist falsification."
These days, Dave lives differently. "Mentally, I'm in a much better place. There isn't a boogeyman around every corner. The mistrust and paranoia is gone. Some of my former compatriots would compare me to Winston Smith at the end of 1984, but that couldn't be further from the truth. I am able to trust that 2+2=4. Earthquakes happen, people die, stuff happens. There isn't always a nefarious plot behind it."
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