Anatomy of a Conspiracist


John Noonan

Conspiracies derive from our cognitive disposition to see patterns and meaning in a chaotic universe. Also serving as an antidote to our insecurities, they become enhanced by our suspicions of authority

Joey Weslo, General Assignment Reporter

As feds arrested a deranged Trump acolyte for mailing packaged bombs to prominent Democrats and vocal Trump dissidents, pundits like Fox Business’ Lou Dobbs joined the battle to control the public narrative.

“Fake News – Fake Bombs. Who could possibly benefit by so much fakery?” he tweeted.

Targeting opponents like former President Barack Obama, former Secretary of State and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and liberal mega-donor George Soros, conservative pundits portrayed the domestic terror attack as a liberal conspiracy to gain sympathy ahead of midterm elections.

Conservative author Ann Coulter tweeted, “bombs are a liberal tactic.” Right-wing radio host Michael Savage said, “the whole thing is set up as a false flag to gain sympathy for the Democrats…and to get our minds off the hordes of illegal aliens approaching our southern border.”

Once the seed of doubt is planted, a cancer germinates destroying the public discourse.

What makes an individual susceptible to conspiracies? And, psychologically, what makes people gullible enough to become victimized by false information?

Trump came to political prominence claiming former President Barack Obama was born in Kenya. Recently, Trump has fed to his base the idea terrorists from the Middle East have infiltrated the Latin American caravan of asylum seekers. Fear is the most potent motivator in accessing someone’s gullibility.

College of DuPage political science Professor Melissa Mouritsen believes conspiracies are a natural repercussion of a relationship founded on the public’s suspicions of government authority.

“Part of the human tendency is to seek out danger and the fear of needing to protect ourselves from an overarching government.”

Mouritsen said it’s cognitively easier to entertain falsehoods than to understand the complexities of socio-political culture and history.

Referencing the 9/11 insider-job conspiracy, she explained, “Osama Bin Laden’s extremism didn’t sprout from nowhere. It’s easier to question his role in 9/11 than to comprehend the complicated history of American- Middle Eastern interventionism.”

She also referenced the conspiracy that Soros is paying Hondurans to push the caravan of migrants north through Latin America in an attempt to infiltrate the U.S. southern border.

“(Adherents) fail to understand there was a coup in Honduras, and political instability has led to mass poverty. Also, U.S. corporations have been exploiting Honduran workers for decades.”

She believes the complexity of reality offends preconceived narratives. Conspiracies satisfy ideologies like immigrants are dangerous, and liberals will do anything to corrode Republican power.

In the age of information, the prevalence of manipulated reality haunts the daily struggle for reason. With 24-hour news organizations utilizing scare tactics to pervert a caravan of destitute asylum seekers, and social media fermenting absurdities like the Clintons running a pedophilia-ring out of a popular D.C. pizzeria and big oil companies like Halliburton surreptitiously running the government, conspiracies have become an inescapable plague.

As the debased mind reverts further from objective reality, fear and hatred conspire action, such as the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting resulting in the loss of 11 lives. This destabilizes public participation in the government and fractures unity of community. When dependency on falsehoods infects the greater public, violent outbursts become inevitable. Whether a man with a rifle at the pizzeria or mailed bombs to politicians, conspiracies contort public perception and hinder the ability to hold elected officials accountable.

Mouritsen referenced the Dunning Krueger theory to explain our cognitive bias and perceived superiority. The theory postulates people conflate their knowledge or ability in something when they possess little expertise. These people with low expertise fail to realize their own incompetence.

“People who know the least are the ones who are the most likely to overestimate their abilities and knowledge,” said Mouritsen. “You become confident about the tiny amount you think you know, pretending to avoid seeming ignorant.”

It is easier to revert to conspiracy theories than to comprehend the complexities of socio-political events and history. Conspiracies represent a conflation of what little you actually know about a subject

This conflation satisfies personal insecurities and feeds the narcissistic desire to feel special and unique in a world dominated by banality. Everyone wants to feel they are the sole proprietor of esoteric information separating them from political simpletons.

Mouritsen referenced Tom Nichols’ novel, “The Death of Expertise”, saying, “People believe they know better than researchers, or that researchers falsify their evidence.

“In any social or biological science, we research and discover new findings, but the public often doesn’t know how to properly consume this knowledge. Therefore, they dismiss the data and discredit the scientists.”

In his book, Nichols wrote, “These are dangerous times. Never have so many people had access to so much knowledge, and yet been so resistant to learn anything.”

Pseudo-intellectualism distracts the individual from their seething anxieties. The distorted world becomes a justification to assuage the pain of existence.

COD psychology professor Richard Voss believes psychological vulnerability stems from the dereliction of personal responsibilities.

“Admitting (to) have played some role in creating this life of misery would be painful and depressing.”

He believes people find it convenient when conspiracy peddlers preach all misery emanates from minority groups or marginalized outsiders. Manipulating their fears, the individual is coerced into channeling their grief into anger.

“If only people could be a little more honest with themselves and recognize what they’re feeling and accurately identify the source of those feelings,” said Voss. “(Then) they wouldn’t be so vulnerable to charlatans who want to sell them an easy and pleasing explanation.

“People (need to) wake up and learn to recognize demagogues wanting to sell them easy explanations and start genuinely working to solve the world’s problems.”

Columbia University professor of comparative literature Hamid Dabashi, wrote in an article for Aljazeera of the relation between the current state of conspiracy fanaticism to Karl Marx’s statement of religion being ‘the opium of the masses.’ Acting as the desensitizing mechanism for the oppressed creature, belief in conspiracies channel public discourse into a quagmire of political subservience.

This malignant effect on the citizenry’s political responsibilities eliminates government accountability.

“People don’t vote their needs or their interests; they vote their feelings,” said Mouritsen. “They let their morals guide them. I don’t necessarily vote for policies to benefit me financially; I vote for what fits my premeditated way of thinking.”

There is big money to be made in the peddling of conspiracy theories. Pundits like Alex Jones make fortunes off of viewers’ gullibility. Conspiracies are marketed in a calculated fashion to maximize profit

In a complex world where the individual lacks control, people turn to a confirmation bias for an affirmation of personal relevancy. We fear the misunderstood and long for the comfort of an intellectual sanctuary. This sanctuary doesn’t challenge our ideas, but rather, feeds them into an architectured political narrative.

“With organizations making big money, there are no incentives to refrain from bias and questionable programming,” said Mouritsen. “Ann Coulter is making a career and selling books by promoting these fears. Follow the money and you will always find where the conspiracy theories emanate from.”

She believes the responsibility of journalists to cover the facts has always been ambiguous by nature.

“Media can be held accountable for an outright lie, or if they print slanderous material against an individual, but their responsibilities are questionable. Pundits like Fox News’ Tucker Carlson show bias. However, he is not a journalist. He is a television commentator. We need to evaluate what we consider real journalism.”

Mouritsen advocated for the continuance of fact-checking by organizations like The Washington Post in protecting the health of our political discourse.

Pundits’ beliefs in their own conspiracies are often questionable. However, once disseminated to the viewers, these delusions exponentially grow because once you become victimized by false information, you become more susceptible to again fall prey.

A disdain for objectivity leads to gullibility. Ideas such as Trump’s claim the Latin American caravan is filled with terrorists from the Middle East trying to infiltrate the U.S. uses meritless accusations to unite a fractious voter base. Using fear as a motivator, these tactics bring cohesion to a cohort of individuals susceptible to demagoguery.

“(Trump) admitted he has no proof, yet continues with his accusations,” said Mouritsen. “This is completely irresponsible from a leader. As a politician, you have to be someone who values evidence-based claims. However, in American politics today, there is no reward for such behavior.

The ‘Unite the Right’ march in Charlottesville tuned into deadly violence. Conspiracy theories subvert the individual futher and further from reality and into a dangerous realm of subjective distortions of reason. Far-right anti-semitic theories can condition the believer into condoning acts of aggression and violence

“I don’t think he actually believes Middle Easterners are flying to Honduras, learning to authentically speak Spanish and then walking 2,000 miles to infiltrate the U.S., but saying so benefits him politically.

“Leaders distract voters through conspiracy theories and over-inflating danger. (The) 3,500 poor people in the caravan are not a risk to the American public. However, what is a threat is Congress threatening to cut Medicare and Social Security.”

Increasing vulnerability, people are instinctively designed to make spontaneous decisions premised upon intuition. By avoiding reason, this evolutionary adaptation enables us to quickly evaluate a world with constant threatening stimuli.

BBC reported a CDC study detailing attempts to dispel theories of bananas containing a flesh-eating virus. The researchers found offering evidence to counter a falsehood only enforces the conviction of believers. This is because humans construct a framework of ideologies based on our experiences to help decipher the mechanisms of the world. When one pillar of our framework is proven to be unsound, the whole framework suffers. Rather than inspiring the desire to further educate, it instills an existential dread of the unknown.

In a universe of cosmic indifference, we’re dependent upon comforting subjective patterns to save us from the desolation of nothingness. A desire to belong to the conformities of another inspires the herd mentality.

Mouritsen said whether it’s the far-right Q-Anon, liberals believing Russians hacked voting machines or Trump supporters uniting around the belief Hillary would take their guns away, you don’t want to be isolated from this political belonging. This inundates you in singularity of opinion, and if you are exposed to the same conspiracy time and again, you might become persuaded.

The answer to the recent spike in violence is an understanding conspiracy theories are not emblematic of a deranged psyche, but are natural tendencies of the human condition. Preserving a healthy political discourse is required to ensure reason dominates over our insecurities, and what little cognitive independence we possess from further slipping away.