True Believers and Conspiracy Theories

Are we in a Pandemic or a "Plandemic"?

Posted Jun 01, 2020

A neighbor of mine is a respected professional whom I’ve known for more than 20 years. We are not close friends, but we have pleasant conversations. 

While on an isolated walk during the coronavirus pandemic and quarantine, I saw him in the distance and we approached each other (masked and socially-distanced, in case you wondered). 

We exchanged greetings, spoke briefly, and as we were parting, he suddenly asked what my thoughts were about the "cause" of the pandemic. He agreed it was a dangerous reality (not a “hoax”) that had upended our lives, but he was much more interested in its origins. I wasn’t sure what he was driving at, but I responded that it was likely derived from bats and possibly introduced by the sale of feral animals in an unregulated marketplace, possibly in Wuhan, China. 

He seemed disappointed, even annoyed by my opinion. I expected he was going to blame China or Russia, or some other nefarious entity, but he immediately shared the “real” identity of the perpetrator who unleashed this lethal virus: It was, he said, “the Democratic Party!”

He intimated that the Democrats planned and funded this conspiracy to release Covid-19 to oust Donald Trump from office in the Federal elections. “They hate him so much, they’ll do anything to get rid of him!” 

I was incredulous: Many thousands of Americans (and others) had already died as a result of this terrible virus, and I asked if he believed they were purposefully killed (sacrificed) by the Democrats in an effort to remove Trump. He reiterated this firm belief and we went our separate ways. 

Like you, I had heard wild conspiracy theories before in relation to the coronavirus and other “plots,” but I had not heard this particular one. I found it unbelievable, but also somewhat "chilling,” as these words were not emanating from a disturbed or marginalized individual. The man who described this conspiracy was a husband, father, and grandfather, a law-abiding and productive citizen.

It was clear, however, that he had joined the ranks of “True Believers” in a “Conspiracy Theory.” These individuals are absolutely certain about the validity of unsubstantiated thoughts regarding a sinister plot, and who cannot be convinced otherwise by “facts,” which are immediately mistrusted (implied falsehoods).

To him, I must have seemed ignorant or misguided or perhaps even in on the plot.

Throughout history, there have of course been revolutionaries who have wanted to overthrow cruel regimes (in the American, French, Russian, Cuban Revolutions, for example). 

But the term “Conspiracy Theories” in the current vernacular refers to True Believers who harbor strongly-held but invalid beliefs about a social group whom they perceive as malevolent and threatening traditional society. Their ideas are so fixed that debate or refutation by facts or science cannot sway them, their beliefs so emotionally entrenched that rational appeals to reality are futile. This is especially so during the period of “conversion” to the “truth” of their thoughts from suspicions to convictions.

True believers get powerful support from others who are fervent adherents to the same conspiracies. They use the energizing power of social media to proclaim concocted plots that spread like wild-fire among those most susceptible. These are fueled by pundits like Alex Jones and others, and most recently by a powerful social media movement “QAnon,” which has been fueling zealotry and feeding aroused hatreds and rage.

The ignited energies and exciting feelings spread through “social contagion”: The joiners feel righteous, justified, energized, and especially angry at doubters, critics, and naysayers. (Ironically, in this aroused state they feel better about themselves: Their personal anxieties are alleviated as they now know the cause, and the cure, of their problems.

Conspiracy theories are decidedly not a recent phenomenon. They have appeared repeatedly throughout human history, and have taken all kinds of different forms. Some are mindless, transient, and harmless, but others can be (have been) dangerous and lethal.

In other eras, they resulted in horrific slaughters of innocents who were accused of past or planned or imagined crimes, or believing in the "wrong" God, or fulfilling imagined or distorted biblical retributions. They have been concocted and believed about Jews, Muslims, Catholics, Protestants, and other religions, often precipitating terrible atrocities (in the name of God!). 

Novel or radically new ideas or random seminal events have often been met with far-fetched rumors to “explain” their complexity, reduce confusion and anxiety, and inevitably, to angrily “blame” an individual or a group.   

Just within the last century, there have been invalid theories which spread like wildfire about JFK's assassination, Watergate, dangerous immigrants (varying with decade), Communist infiltration, imminent attacks by other countries or planets, or A-bomb attacks, suicidal and other cults, Hillary speculation, Birther controversy, vaccines causing autism or other diseases, dangerous racial attributions, mind control, and of late, China (or Democrats) releasing Covid-19 as part of a plan to dominate the world, and so many others.

These theories give their true-believing followers some semblance of a “rational order" of things, mitigating the discomforts in their lives. They confer on them strong motivation, a “cause-celebre,” enabling them to pinpoint their enemies. 

They are particularly susceptible to a persuasive demagogic leader (sometimes self-anointed, sometimes elected) who can inspire zealotry. Punishing laws have even been passed to legitimize the hate, or if not, “vigilante justice” has been inflicted. 

It is jarring that adherents to half-baked conspiracies live among our fellow citizens and neighbors, harboring angry dogmas against innocent people. As mentioned, reason and facts do not sway intense True Believers, so convinced are they of the validity of their attitudes and feelings. They have discovered the real causes of their dissatisfactions, and their anger is focused on their imagined perpetrators. 

I hear you asking, “Dr. Levine, if these True Believers in Conspiracy Theories can’t be reasoned with, what are your suggestions for their mitigation?! (Good Question.)

I have no guaranteed answer to diminishing these die-hard fanatics and fantasists in our midst. They have been around for centuries, and I daresay will likely always be part of the human fabric.

I do foresee problems if, for example, an effective anti-Covid-19 vaccine is discovered, and many vaccine-antagonists evade their public responsibility. I also worry about committed anarchists harnessing their inner demons to destroy outer social norms.   

I take comfort that people eventually do come to their senses, as their passionate ideological flames eventually extinguish themselves. I learned this from history, but also when I studied hundreds of members of intense cults, the vast majority were out on their own volition in under two years. This does not mean that there was no harm done since we know that is not true. The problem is that sometimes we can’t wait because targeted victims of conspiracy theories or collateral damage can be inflicted. 

If one lives in an enlightened democratically-elected country, there is a much better chance of these fantasied conspiracy theories eventually dying out because of the diversity of ideas and checks and balances of society. In autocratic regimes, however, those with alternate ideas are often attacked, arrested, or banished. 

I am afraid that Conspiracy Theorists and Theories are part of the human condition. They can hopefully be countered by effective public education and dialogue and debate about facts and science. They can even be tolerated if totally harmless. 

But if public safety or lives of citizens are endangered by violence, true believers may need to be confronted by laws, the judiciary, and even legal guardians.