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Conspiracy Theories are Not Beliefs - At Least Not Anymore.
Classical vs. new conspiracism and conspiracy intuitions
I was only 4 years old at the time of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which makes me one of the lucky ones. I remember absolutely nothing from that day. I played with my Simba stuffed animal as my parents followed the broadcast live and made calls to my grandfather who was in the city at the time. And yet, the events of 9/11 don’t feel any more a part of my life than do the tragedies before my time. None of my memories from that day are my own, but rather they were passed down second-hand from my parents.
Eventually, I desired a deeper understanding than what my parents could provide. At this point, I’m in my preteens, equipped with an insatiable curiosity, but without the tools to filter reliable information from misinformation. And so I went down the youtube rabbit hole attempting to learn as much as I could.
“Jet fuel doesn’t burn that hot?”
“This guys says that buildings don’t fall that way.”
“I guess that smoke cloud does look a bit like the devil.”
At the time, youtube’s algorithm was built to lead its viewers to extremist content. It might have been unintentional, but there were no systems in place to moderate what video plays next. It doesn’t matter where you started; you would be recommended an Alex Jones video soon enough.
Luckily for me, this phase didn’t take too much of my time, nor did any of the conspiracy theories stick. I was probably around 10-13 at the time, so the most odious interpretations were a bit over my head. I eventually grew out of my obsession, realizing that the magnitude of the attacks will forever be incomprehensible, even for those who witnessed them firsthand. It is perhaps this inability to comprehend extreme events that lead us to project meaning onto them.
Reflecting back on this phase, I’m taken aback by how elaborate the 9/11 conspiracy theories (CTs) were. Conspiracism used to be a sport. It was almost hyper-analytical - with believers reading into every detail and discovering convoluted patterns that weren’t actually there. Conspiracy theorists made earnest attempts to defend their ideas and sometimes could even stump their interlocutors. It almost makes me nostalgic.
Conspiracism has gotten lazy. With the vast number of information outlets offering different variations of the same story, the consumer is able to pick and choose which narrative they accept as the truth. Anything that disagrees with their chosen narrative is met with claims to be “just asking questions” and scattershot accusations of “Fake News.” Nowadays, conspiracism is more about doubting the mainstream narrative than it is about creating one of its own. It is conspiracy theory without the theory.
Does that make this era the golden age of conspiracism, or the previous? There are notable peculiarities to both. In their book, A lot of People are Saying, Russell Muirhead and Nancy L. Rosenblum distinguish the new age of conspiracism from “classical conspiracism.” Here is a summary of how the two are different:
The case has been made that new conspiracism is more corrosive than classical conspiracism. Classical conspiracism’s goals were mostly internally oriented. Whether it be loneliness, uncertainty, or lack of control over one’s life, the theories were used to fill some sort of psychological hole within its adherents. This underlying goal of ameliorating psychological discomfort kept the conspiracy cults small and insulated; they only occasionally had effects on the rest of society.
New conspiracism presents far more externalities. Not only is it epistemologically deranging, but it seeks to undermine the very meaning of truth. It views journalism as curated pandering, universities as indoctrination camps, and medical institutions as corporations concerned only with profit.Ironically, new conspiracists - and especially those on the right - love touting the phrase "facts don't care about your feelings", yet they disregard every truth that contradicts their own.
Further, new conspiracists view error correction not as evidence of integrity, but of corruption. When the CDC switched its position on mask-wearing at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, they were castigated as utterly incompetent and unworthy of public trust. It’s hard to imagine what the CDC should have done instead. Should they not make recommendations for developing pandemics? Conspiracy theorists scrupulously document such mistakes - while ignoring the accuracies - until our institutions appear completely broken.
Finally, what sets new conspiracism apart from classical conspiracism is that while tearing down every established narrative, no concrete one is offered in its place. Conspiracy theories are no longer beliefs about current events, but condemnations of targeted figures. Only the most gullible of the far right actually believe that Hilary Clinton is orchestrating a satanic pedophile ring. Most others just play along because it feels “true enough” and provides another way to say “I hate Hilary Clinton.” In a way, conspiracy theories are no longer beliefs at all, but something more instinctual.
In their 2022 paper, “Introducing Conspiracy Intuitions to Better Understand Conspiracy Beliefs,” Researchers Russell Roberts and Jane Risen distinguished conspiracy beliefs from “conspiracy intuitions.” Conspiracy beliefs are firmly held beliefs about stories that generally involve powerful individuals. Conspiracy intuitions, in contrast, are mere suspicions that the truth about some event is being kept from the public, potentially for nefarious reasons.
Conspiracy intuitions are not beliefs, but rather anti-beliefs: a bitter refusal to be pinned down to any explanation of events. This can be seen through the use of strategic disclaimers (i.e., “I’m no expert but…”), moving the goalposts (i.e., “fine, but can you explain this???!”), and claims of “just asking questions.”
In another sense, conspiracy intuitions resemble pre-beliefs. It might be the case that all conspiracy beliefs are born as intuitions, with some developing into fervently held beliefs, and others stagnating in the intuitive phase. For example, conspiracists have a demonstrable tendency to believe in mutually contradictory conspiracy theories, such as the belief that Princess Diana was both assassinated but also alive and hiding. The underlying intuition is that the truth behind the beloved Princess’s death is being concealed.
Our new age of conspiracism is perhaps driven more by conspiracy intuitions than they are conspiracy beliefs. They are an ejaculation of one’s political opinions, tribal loyalties, and outgroup resentments, all the while bypassing obligations toward explanation and justification. New conspiracy theories need not burden themselves with an investigation or even a consistent narrative. Narratives that seem “true enough” are enough.
Thus, we live in the age of ephemeral albeit viral conspiracy theories. In Roberts’ and Risen’s words:
“prevalence of conspiracy beliefs, their connection to ordinary and automatic features of human cognition, their sensitivity to experimental manipulation, and the fact that their hallmark feature is suspicion rather than certainty, all point to the importance of recognizing conspiracy intuitions as a kind of liminal mental state between doubt and belief that often precedes capitulation to full-blown conspiracy theories and functions as fertile ground for their acquisition.”
In short, classical conspiracists reason from their intuitions; new conspiracists reason with them.
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I am not trying to paint these institutions as angelic or incapable of wrongdoing. Any organization comprised of humans will inevitably make errors. Noticing these errors does not make you a conspiracy theorist. Being conspiracy-minded is characterized by the paranoid tendency to suspect that everything is a conspiracy and that the truth is constantly being concealed from the public.
The science on this subject is still yet to be explored, but future research might find that conspiracy intuitions are only loosely related to one’s actual beliefs about reality, and more related to one’s group affiliations, for example. I don’t know whether this news story is true, but I don’t like the guy who is reporting it - FAKE NEWS!