September 22, 2019

No Use Fighting Conspiracy Theories

“Shortly before killing 50 people at two New Zealand mosques, the man arrested for the Christchurch massacre posted an online manifesto that alluded to the “Great Replacement” — a racist demographic theory that stokes fears of white people becoming, effectively, extinct. Within hours of the shootings, this act of terrorism inspired by a conspiracy theory had already gone on to birth conspiracy theories about itself. Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh speculated that the shooter was a secret leftist hoping to use the attack to smear the reputation of the political right.

That a single tragedy could be so tangled in conspiracy mongering should be no surprise at this point. We’ve all watched conspiracies grow from myriad soils: the missing Malaysia Airlines jet, the political passions of George Soros, vaccines, climate change, even the football secrets of the New England Patriots. Conspiracy theories appear to have become a major part of how we, as a society, process the news. It might be harder to think of an emotionally tinged event that didn’t provoke a conspiracy theory than it is to rattle off a list of the ones that did.

The ubiquity — and risks — of all these conspiracies has caught the attention of scientists. For years, the potentially dangerous consequences of conspiracy led many researchers to approach belief in conspiracies as a pathology in need of a cure. But that train of thought tended to awkwardly clash against some of the facts. The more we learn about conspiracy beliefs, the more normal they look — and the more some scientists worry that trying to prevent them could present its own dangers.”

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