Like many Americans, I spent Jan. 20 witnessing a quintessentially American exercise – the transition of power in the presidential inauguration. While I spent most of the day educating my students on the symbolic nature of the event and the importance of Republicans and Democrats uniting together at this moment, a particular news item caught my eye. Apparently, the fairly uneventful and peaceful inauguration had gone horribly wrong for one group of people.
Followers of QAnon, a wide-ranging conspiracy theory that (among other things) believes that the government is run by Satanist pedophiles, had declared Jan. 20 would be the day of “The Storm.” This was to be an event where members of Congress and the “deep state” would be arrested by the National Guard, and Donald Trump would emerge as president for a second term.
None of this came to be, of course. And it left many followers of the conspiracy questioning what would come next.
While it may be fun to see such a conspiracy have its logic obliterated so embarrassingly, it does force us to ask important questions. What causes people to believe something so outrageous? How can we make sure that we do not fall into the same trap?
First, it’s important to understand it’s not unusual for conspiracy theories to exist. According to the American Psychological Association, about half of Americans believe in at least one disproven conspiracy theory. This doesn’t mean conspiracy theories are harmless; support for conspiracies also tends to increase the likelihood of prejudice, violence, and terrorism.
So why do we fall for them? Again, the APA focuses on a few psychological needs that are met by conspiracy theories. First, we have an inborn desire to find a pattern in random events. It helps us with a sense of control over our world. It is easier mentally to believe that events like the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter protests, and the contentious 2020 election were all connected in a conspiracy than to see them as separate events. In an odd way, it makes us feel more secure to think that evil forces are behind these events.
Additionally, conspiracies help feed our desire to feel unique; we have access to “exclusive” knowledge of which the outside world is unaware. QAnon in particular fuels this sentiment. The main individual behind the movement (“Q”) claims to be a high-ranking government official and leaves “drops” of information for his followers to interpret. “Q” allows their followers to believe that they are privy to secrets only a high-ranking official could provide.
Finally, such theories (and particularly sharing and talking about them) meet one of the most basic human needs – the need for connection. Finding a community of people who feel the same way as us (even if it’s that you’re all anxious about the state of the world) fulfills our sense of belonging and helps reassure our sense of worth. Ironically, even a pillar of a healthy democracy – a strong sense of community – can be warped for nefarious purposes.
How do we protect ourselves against this threat? After all, as powerful citizens, it is important to make informed decisions. There is a great article from the Washington Post that discusses some strategies to repel conspiracy theories. You can read it in full to get the bigger picture, but I latched on to these key ideas:
Stop the “doom scrolling,” use critical thinking, accept the circumstances.
“Doom scrolling” is this idea that your social media feed is filled with all sorts of terrible news that only serves to make you anxious. The more you scroll, the more anxious you feel. We must be able to separate ourselves from the vicious cycle of news – not to become ignorant, but to allow our minds to see the good around us.
We must think critically about the information we’re getting. Does it seem far-fetched? What do other sources say? Is there an expert I can talk to who can verify these facts? This requires work, but it helps us stay on the side of truth and facts.
Finally, we must accept the circumstances. Events happen that are outside of our control (and are not necessarily any one person’s fault). Again, this doesn’t mean that we accept the negative consequences or become indifferent. Instead, it means that we come to terms with reality and focus on how to adjust to that reality.
May we see this embrace of reality – instead of conspiracy – as we move forward together.
Jordan Martin teaches social studies at Wilber-Clatonia Public Schools. He moonlights as an assistant one-act drama coach in the fall and a speech judge in the spring. For more Civic Nebraska Writers Group columns, click here.