Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Is Alex Jones a Conspiracy Theorist or a Performance Artist?

Conspiracy, delusion, and the "madness of a thousand"

Public domain
The Return of the Flock, Laren; Anton Mauve (1886/7)
Source: Public domain

“Those are lies. You can’t save the world by lying.”

“I created the truth out of what people needed and what they believed. If I have to crucify you to save the world, then I’ll crucify you. And if I have to resurrect you, then I’ll do that too, whether you like it or not.”

“I won’t let you, I’ll tell everyone the truth.”

“Ha, ha, ha. Go ahead, go on, tell them now. Who’s going to believe you?”

The Last Temptation of Christ, Paul Schrader

In the news this week, we got a glimpse into the heated battle of YouTube/radio personality Alex Jones over custody of his children. Jones, who hosts an eponymous radio show and the companion InfoWars website, makes a living peddling claims that at best challenge conventional wisdom as told by the mainstream media and at worse foment conspiratorial delusion. It seems his ex-wife is arguing the latter, claiming that the beliefs that he espouses on air represent evidence of mental instability and evidence of being an unfit parent. In response, Jones’ lawyer stated on record that Jones is “playing a character… he is a performance artist” and argued that judging Jones based on his radio show is like judging Jack Nicholson based on his role as The Joker in Batman.

News articles picking up the story took this to mean that Jones’ on-air “rants… are nothing more than an act.” Jones has now countered that he “believe[s] in the overall political program [he is] promoting of Americana and freedom,” while noting that he uses both comedy and satire in his show.

This is a fascinating case study in the psychology of belief, because Jones appears to be caught between something of a Scylla and Charybdis of conviction. If he professes that he is indeed a Sandy Hook denier who believes that 9/11, the Oklahoma City bombings, and the Pulse nightclub shooting were “false flag attacks,” he risks losing custody of his children. But if he writes that all off as the over-the-top sensationalism of a provocateur, he risks losing his fan base, who he claims amounts to some 70 million listeners.

Beyond the spectacle of Jones himself, his dilemma raises some interesting questions about followers of The Alex Jones Show and InfoWars.com. If Jones is the true believer that he claims to be, then it could be argued that the faithful listeners who take what he says as gospel suffer from what psychiatry used to call “shared psychotic disorder.” Classically known as “folie a deux” (literally, "madness of two"), shared psychotic disorder was a syndrome used to describe a situation in which an otherwise normal individual takes on the beliefs of a delusional person. It is well known that this dynamic can sometimes involve more than two people, with reported cases of “folie à trois" and "folie à vignt" leading to the possibility of "folie à mille” ("madness of a thousand").

Shared psychotic disorder was removed from the 5th edition of psychiatry’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) in 2013 on the grounds that a delusion is a delusion, regardless of its source. But the most recent updated version of DSM-5 allows for “delusional symptoms in [the] partner of [an] individual with delusional disorder” and the condition remains as a standalone diagnosis in the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-10).1

DSM-5 defines a delusions simply as a "fixed belief that is not amenable to change in light of conflicting evidence." As with Jones, whether or not his listeners are delusional in a pathological sense hinges on their degree of conviction. As I noted in a recent blog post about Flat Earthers (“Flat Earthers: Belief, Skepticism, and Denialism”), many modern holders of provocative unconventional beliefs seem to profess those beliefs as part of a larger rejection of conventional facts rather than with true conviction. And for most of us, conviction lies on a continuum rather than being all-or-none phenomenon. After all, beliefs are ultimately about the probability that something is true.

Edgar Welch apparently believed enough to shoot three rounds from his AR-15-style rifle into Comet Ping Pong in order to “self-investigate” whether there was really a child-trafficking ring at the pizza parlor as was suggested by Jones on InfoWars. Later, he conceded that "the intel on this wasn’t 100%" and stated that he “regret[ed] how [he] handled the situation,” but it’s not clear if he’s ever actually disavowed his suspicions completely. Whether or not he could be called "delusional" therefore remains to be seen, but there's no debating that he could rightly be called “dangerous.” Welch will be sentenced for illegal transport of a firearm and assault with a deadly weapon in June.

As for Jones, he issued a full apology to Comet Ping Pong’s owner last month, acknowledging that there was no actual evidence to support “Pizzagate” and admitting that it was “based on… an incorrect narrative.” This laudable concession suggests that Jones might just be acting the provocateur after all, capable of rational back-pedaling when it really matters. But if that’s the case, what do we call it when listeners become true believers of fiction?

In a previous blog post entitled “Does the Internet Promote Delusional Thinking?” I discussed how the internet has become a powerful driver of belief by giving fiction and opinion the false appearance of well-researched fact. The evidence for even the most fringe beliefs is just a click away. When 39 members of the religious group Heaven’s Gate killed themselves based on the belief that their spiritual essence would be transported aboard a UFO hidden in the tail of the Hale-Bopp Comet, they did so in part because there was evidence of the UFO in photos on the internet that were a topic of discussion on a late-night radio show. Of course, that evidence later was debunked as a hoax, but too late; the damage was done.

Instant access to a seemingly infinite stream of online misinformation can make it harder to distinguish between those who are delusional and those who are merely duped. The irony here is that followers of conspiracy theories often fancy themselves as skeptics, who have “learned the truth” and know better than to be taken in by the mainstream media like so many sheep. But in reality, we all risk becoming sheep when we allow ourselves to be led astray by fake news and charismatic purveyors of fiction posing as fact. Viewers, listeners, and readers beware.

Dr. Joe Pierre and Psych Unseen can be followed on Facebook and Twitter.

References

1. Sharon I, et al. Shared psychotic disorder. Medscape December 5, 2016. (http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/293107-overview)

advertisement