How could anyone possibly believe a conspiracy theory as crazy as Pizzagate? It’s a question many people have asked since the meme first popped up about a month ago. Pizzagate, if you haven’t heard, is a bizarre and far-flung conspiracy stitched together from very flimsy evidence — here’s a written explainer and here’s one from the internet-culture podcast Reply All — but the short version is that adherents believe Hillary Clinton, John Podesta, and other big names in the Democratic Party have been running a child-sex-trafficking ring, and that one of the epicenters of that ring is the basement of Comet Ping Pong, a pizza place and all-ages music venue in a wealthy and leafy part of northwest Washington, D.C., as well as various other businesses (it doesn’t even have a basement).
The rumor began right before the election, and has been helped along greatly by 4chan, Reddit, and a boatload of alt-right outlets and personalities serving up tendentious “evidence” to a ravenous group of trolls and paranoid, suggestible internet sleuths. Since the rumor went viral, the businesses “implicated” have faced a wave of online and phone threats and creepy in-person protests from Pizzagate believers. Things came to a disturbing head December 4, when 28-year-old Edgar Maddison Welch of North Carolina walked into Comet with an assault rifle and a .38 in an attempt to “investigate” Pizzagate, eventually firing the rifle inside the establishment. No one was hurt and he eventually surrendered to police, but it was a terrifying reminder of the power of fake news and conspiracy theories.
How does someone like Welch fall into a fake-news vortex, eventually coming to believe things that most people would reject as too crazy to be true? There’s been a lot of talk lately about the widespread decline in trust in institutions like political parties and the media, and surely that’s part of it. But in terms of the social and psychological dynamics underpinning this type of depressing personal tailspin, it’s also useful to look into some research about how people join cults and become violent religious extremists. That’s not to say coming to believe in a theory like Pizzagate is the same as uprooting one’s life to join a fringe movement, of course, but there are surprising similarities — particularly when it comes to how people find meaning in strange beliefs and are gradually socialized into believing them.
So let’s run down some of what we know about cults and terror groups, and then cycle back to Pizzagate to explain the connections. Marion Goldman, a sociologist at the University of Oregon who studies new religious movements (researchers try to stay away from the word cult, since the boundary line between cult and religion is fuzzier than most people think), told Science of Us that one of the “truisms” of her field is that “anybody can believe anything at any time.” That is, there’s a tendency to think that only “crazy” people can believe far-fetched things, but belief is actually a lot more complicated than that: Otherwise normal people, who have no clinical indicators of any sort of mental distress or cognitive impairment, can be induced, fairly easily under the right circumstances, to embrace truly bizarre and sometimes dangerous beliefs.
Usually, Goldman explained, people who end up joining cults are dealing with some sort of struggle or sense that they are missing a full-flung identity or purpose. Sometimes, this is because of the stuff we traditionally associate with lostness and aimlessness — addiction or family strife, and so on. But a lot of the time, it can be vaguer and less well-defined, just a niggling sense that you’re missing out on something bigger. Oftentimes, for the people most susceptible to the appeals of cults, “there’s a real disconnect between the life they wanted to and possibly expected to lead compared to their current lives.” What cults offer is “the idea that you’ve come to a turning point in your life,” she said, and have a chance to make things better for yourself. Key to that concept of better is a social identity. “I think belonging to a group is very important,” she said.
Lorne Dawson, a sociologist at the University of Waterloo who studies how people are radicalized into joining jihadist groups like ISIS, emphasized the risk factor posed by identity struggles, by people seeking a firmer, more meaningful sense of self. “As the literature shows, but as our interviews [with former extremists] are showing too, there is some kind of preceding really significant identity struggle, and it almost always involves a person feeling out of control in their environment and not feeling comfortable with the options available,” he said. “And I think the guys who end up becoming foreign fighters are able to articulate all this and find a more sophisticated, though bizarre, way out of it.”
It’s almost always young people who get radicalized, Dawson explained. “All the individuals we deal with, they all point somewhat to an adolescent struggle, they all point to their early turn to religion and how they made sense of their lives and how that put them on the right track.”
When young people who feel uncertain about their identities encounter radical material online, Dawson said, they also encounter the community propagating that message — a community that can offer them a sense of belonging. The young person in question might not believe the radical material they are seeing at first, but it doesn’t matter: They have found a place online to hang out, to vent their frustrations, to spend time with people who seem to understand or identify with what they’re going through.
Gradually, they’ll spend more and more time in these online communities, Dawson explained, and as they do, their access to outside information will get more and more cut off. They may not really believe Israel secretly controls the world when they begin frequenting the jihadist forum, but over time the social dynamics of their environment will make it harder and harder for them to not believe such conspiracy theories. “You’re being fed all this stuff now because you enter into certain social networks and those networks become your primary source of self-worth and identity,” said Dawson, “and then of course you’re self-censoring like crazy.” That is, you don’t want to question what you’re hearing because it could threaten your important burgeoning new social identity as a member of the online group in question. So “any info that comes in that’s contrary, you have lots of reasons to rationalize it away — and then you have a supportive network that’s immediately dismissing any contrary info” as well.
There’s also an important slippery-slope aspect, said Dawson. Here he turned to the example of gruesome ISIS beheading videos. If they were the first things a potential recruit were shown, he explained, that recruit would likely be horrified and want nothing to do with ISIS. But that isn’t what usually happens. Instead, “You start with videos that are about the terrible things that U.S. forces did to Iraqi citizens,” he said. “They don’t start by watching beheading videos — they get drawn into the worldview that Muslims are being victimized, are being systematically persecuted, that it’s a plot to undermine all Muslims’ situations, that it’s Satanic.” Then and only then, after they’ve been exposed to a great deal of such programming, might the recruit be sufficiently morally reoriented (or disoriented, perhaps) to accept ISIS’s more gruesome practices. If you truly believe Muslims everywhere are being slaughtered indiscriminately by infidels, beheading the informers and spies supposedly assisting those evildoers suddenly doesn’t seem like such a stretch.
More broadly, said Dawson, it’s usually the case that the lure of group membership comes first, and full embrace of the belief comes second. You find a group that seems to accept and understand you, and then, after hanging out with them a bunch and getting more and more cut off from alternate information sources, you realize that their ideology explains your own struggles, your own inability to fit in or find meaning. There’s usually “Something from their background that tips it one way or another in terms of which kind of ideology appeals to them,” Dawson explained. A frustrated young Muslim is more likely to find his way to ISIS, while a young white man in the American South is more likely to find his way to a white-supremacist organization. But overall, it really is that sense of group identity that sparks and solidifies the belief. Again, social belonging matters a huge amount to human beings.
That’s a key point: The same dynamics are at play regardless of the specific ideology in question. “Both politics and religion seem to have similar effects,” said Nathaniel Wade, a psychologist at Iowa State who studies religion and spirituality. “They induce strong passions. They are often framed as ‘us against them’ (which, by the way, such thinking patterns have a series of psychological correlates that are mostly not healthy). They attempt to solve basic problems in living. They occur in groups that often reinforce those beliefs and shelter against alternate views.”
So how much of this applies to Welch and other true believers in Pizzagate and other conspiracy theories? There certainly appear to be similarities. “In many ways what makes fake news possible are the same things that make people believe (and act) in ways that many people think is downright ridiculous,” said Wade.
All this becomes clearer when you understand that Pizzagate sits in a wider ecosystem of beliefs and conspiracies propagated by the alt-right. Key to all these beliefs and conspiracies is mistrust in the Establishment. The media are lying to you, politicians are lying you, and it takes brave truth-sayers — Alex Jones or Mike Cernovich or whoever — to tell it to you how it is. The media and political elites are just so corrupt you can’t believe anything they say.
Imagine what it must be like to be a confused or frustrated or identity-lacking young person who stumbles upon the alt-right and its ideas about how the world works. Those ideas offer a lot of clarity. They offer, through social media, at least something of a sense of social identity, and no shortage of culprits — elites and feminists and minorities and globalists and (in some corners of the alt-right) Jews — to explain why you have been held down and prevented from leading a meaningful or successful life. And the alt-right, by dint of its operating theory about the corruptness of the Establishment, has a built-in mechanism to slowly cut you off from traditional news sources. What’s going to happen if you post a Washington Post article debunking the latest conspiracy theory? “It’s the Post — they’re lying.”
But it’s the alt-right concept of so-called red-pilling where this subculture appears more similar to “traditional” cults and extremist groups. Adapted from The Matrix, “taking the red pill” or “getting red-pilled” simply means seeing the world as it really is. In the online subcultures that gave rise to the alt-right, its most famous meaning is in reference to feminism: After you take the red pill, the scales fall from your eyes and you can see that feminism is really just an attempt to emasculate and bully men, to allow social-justice warriors to run rampant over masculine (and traditional) values and ideals in favor of a shrill and judgmental far-left radicalism. Recently, the definition has expanded a bit — these days, in an alt-right context “getting red-pilled” probably means something more like “understanding that progressivism is a lie and part of a large-scale effort to hurt you and people like you.” But the basic point is the same: This is the moment at which you start to see things as they really are.
This is exactly the sort of transformative experience offered by cults and extremist movements: After this, things won’t ever be the same for you. After this, you will have a role to play in an important battle that will determine the fate of the world. Your life will take on an enhanced meaning. Whether or not Welch explicitly thought he had been “red-pilled,” Goldman says that “what’s really interesting is he fits [extant ideas about radicalization] perfectly, because what he felt was ‘this is a turning point in my life and I have to do something.’” Reading the text messages Welch sent to a friend that were released as part of the criminal complaint against him, as reported by the Daily Beast, it’s hard to disagree with Goldman’s assessment. Welch wrote that he was planning on “Raiding a pedo ring, possibly sacraficing [sic] the lives of a few for the lives of many. Standing up against a corrupt system that kidnaps, tortures and rapes babies and children in our own backyard … defending the next generation of kids, our kids, from ever having to experience this kind of evil themselves[.]” It was clear he saw himself in somewhat heroic terms: “I’m sorry bro, but I’m tired of turning the channel and hoping someone does something and being thankful it’s not my family. One day it will be our families. The world is too afraid to act and I’m too stubborn not to[.]”
It’s important to note that only a tiny fraction of believers in conspiracy theories go on to commit bad acts. But there is a point, said Wade, at which certain beliefs take on a dangerous momentum. “Of course, the seriousness of the action varies,” he explained. “If religion or politics makes people scream, wail, and faint, well, that is odd behavior to some people, but nobody is really getting hurt. But when it means shooting off a gun in a family pizza shop, or blowing up abortion clinics, or firebombing a black church, or any number of political/religiously motivated violence, then it gets very serious and there needs to be some sort of check on the processes that are encouraging such behavior.” That’s all the more reason to better understand how people come to believe these ridiculous, sometimes dangerous conspiracy theories.