What Drives Someone to Become a Conspiracy Theorist?

UFOs, the Illuminati, anti-vaxxers, QAnon.
UFOs, the Illuminati, anti-vaxxers, QAnon. Photo: Wikicommons/Getty Images

In a society with extreme economic inequality, a broken health-care system, and a crumbling social safety net, it’s easy to imagine that many people might feel as if the system is stacked against them. But while the more discerning and less suspicious may look to established facts and media outlets, others turn to conspiracy theories, desperately seeking to place blame on the hidden, self-serving Other working against what they believe to be the common good. From the conviction that 9/11 was an inside job to the theory that climate change is a Chinese-invented hoax — one of our president’s favorites — conspiratorial thinking is all around us.

The world of modern conspiracy theories is dizzying, but through exhaustive research, personal interviews, and a critical yet at times appropriately empathetic approach, writer Anna Merlan has written a captivating book that illuminates the landscape of conspiracy theories and what they might say about society as a whole. That book, Republic of Lies, is out today from Metropolitan.

Though no two conspiracies look exactly the same — and even those behind the same theories often hold conflicting convictions — Merlan writes that much of conspiratorial thinking is “the symptom, not the disease” of an unequal society. So, while Twitter can de-platform paranoia-peddling white supremacists, and tight-knit communities can build trust in health officials to combat anti-vax misinformation, in the long term, Merlan says the only lasting way to push back against dangerous conspiracy theories is to build a more just world.

Below, the Cut spoke to Merlan about what draws certain people to conspiratorial thinking, some of the country’s notorious conspiracy “entrepreneurs,” and what our widespread belief in aliens says about us.

In the introduction, you write, “People who peddle lies and half-truths have come to prominence, fame, and power as never before.” What about our current political and economic systems have created this flourishing market for conspiracy theories?
What I became really focused on in the book, is that first of all, the Trump administration was engaging in just as much conspiracy thinking and conspiracy peddling as a lot folks who were not in power. So, we were seeing — and this is not totally unheard of historically, but it’s huge — this environment where people who feel extremely disempowered and locked out of the political, social, and financial systems, and the people directly in charge of those systems, are engaging in conspiratorial activity all at the same time. I also looked a lot at the role of social media and YouTube and blogging platforms, which I would argue have created a better market for people to promote conspiracy theories and try to monetize them.

So what draws someone to a specific theory? And how much does it shape or is it shaped by their worldview?
We know that the conspiracy theories that people are drawn to have a lot to do with their specific social and economic and cultural background, and we also know that people for whom historically America has worked less well, are slightly more likely to engage in conspiracy thinking. So, I write in the book about conspiracy theories that are specific to black Americans that have to do with historically rooted trauma and actual conspiracies against them.

I found your approach to your subjects to be appropriately sympathetic, when warranted. How did you gauge your sympathy for people who engage in conspiratorial thinking?
Well it really depends! I talked to white nationalists, who I have no sympathy for, and I talked to the people who were terrorizing the families of children who died at Sandy Hook, for whom I also don’t have a lot of sympathy. But then, when I come up against people who are afraid of vaccinating their kids or are holding other medical conspiracies, there is a range of reactions that I had personally.

Could you speak to the overlap between the emboldened white nationalist movement and conspiracy theories?
I think it’s important to recognize that a lot of hate groups and extremist movements are fundamentally larded with conspiratorial ideas. They’re doing something that a lot of conspiracy thinkers are doing, which is saying, “Here’s the elite: the Other that has control of your life, at which you should be mad.” So one thing that Matthew Heimbach of the Traditionalist Worker Party was really open about, was his desire to use that unformed sense of grievance and anger, and push it in a way that he hoped would persuade people to become white nationalists. The purpose of that chapter for me was to talk about the way people find conspiracy theories useful for promoting hateful ideas.

I was struck by something you said on the Trillbilly Worker’s Party podcast: that we don’t know if people like Alex Jones, who promote conspiracy theories, even believe what they’re peddling.
I think it’s really, really hard to tell what people believe versus what they’re selling, and I would argue that it’s not really knowable. So I think instead, we should focus on what these folks are doing. Alex Jones got kicked off of a public radio gig when he started promoting conspiracy theories about the Oklahoma City bombing, claiming that it was a false flag. So he, like a lot of people who become conspiracy entrepreneurs, lost his grip on a more mainstream path to success, but at the same time, found that he was getting this incredibly warm reception from people — in his case — in the far-right, and in patriot and militia groups. A lot of people I talked to who became conspiracy entrepreneurs found an extremely fervent fan base among a relatively fringe group of people, and went in that direction.

So how do we fight back against these “conspiracy entrepreneurs”?
I think that we are seeing a really interesting test case with Alex Jones right now, because he is being sued for defamation, finally. He has had to issue two retractions in the last couple of years, so we’re seeing some of these guys who used to be ignored, by and large by the legal system, are now seeing, like, Oh, I can be sued. But I don’t think that lawsuits are necessarily that satisfying. I would instead say that the broader solution probably lies in trying to understand what individual conspiracy theories do for people, and question the purposes that they’re serving.

I talked to a lot of people for whom conspiracy theories were giving shape and meaning to their lives. So one thing I thought about a lot is that if these people were less isolated, and if they had more of an actual outlet for some of this desire to help people and seek justice, that maybe that would be a really productive use of their time! We first have to recognize that conspiracy theories are always going to be there; they’re just part of having a free and vibrant discourse. So, my question is, how do we make it so that they are not derailing us? How do we make is that they’re part of the conversation, and not the whole conversation?

One trend I noticed that I found to be especially perplexing was anguish over pedophilia and human trafficking — we saw it in Pizzagate. Why do you think this is a recurring fear?
I think that it is actually due to a desire to demonize your enemies in the worst possible way. There’s nothing worse than being a pedophile. So in some ways, it’s the logical endpoint of a conspiracy culture — you know, what worse thing could you call them? But I was also shocked! Pedophilia and anti-Semitism really are the through line of the book.

To end this on a fun note, let’s talk about the existence of aliens, which, you write in your book, is an incredibly popular conspiracy theory. What do you think our enduring belief in aliens says about us a society? Belief in aliens isn’t just common for us as a society — it’s common across the world. I think it speaks to our collective desire for deliverance, and that somebody is going to come down and show us a better way of being. It also just has to do with our fundamental desire to see what is out there beyond our known existence, and to believe that there are still things yet to be uncovered that are either benign or actively good. I think for a lot of people, it is really exciting to think that there are things out there that will someday make our lives better.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

What Drives Someone to Become a Conspiracy Theorist?