In college, I published a zine filled with writing on music and art, with essays from friends on their passions of the moment: cats, travel, ska, tea. Its manifesto called for supporting the artists in our midst and turning off corporate media.
Soon after one issue came out, I received a long handwritten letter from a stranger. He’d read the zine and believed I was the voice that his fringe movement was waiting for. He cited one story in particular as the reason he wrote.
I wrote the article in question quickly to fill up a blank space before going to press. In my recollection, it was unserious and possibly even funny. I intended it as satire. I remember little more than that. I like to imagine I was channeling the classes in literary criticism I was then growing to love. Perhaps it was a Marxist-feminist hypothesis about the tyranny of laundromats. I’m not sure I want to read it, but perhaps I’ll dig up a copy in the next 89 days. The part I do remember is the headline I ran above it: “conspiracy theory of the month.”
Despite — or possibly because of — the headline, my correspondent took it seriously. His letter put a contemporary spin on what I now know is one of the oldest and most hateful conspiracy theories going: thinly veiled antisemitism blaming all the world’s problems on the banking system bankers and elite newspapers.
Most people would probably call the guy a crank, crumple up the letter, toss it in the trash, and forget about it. But it haunted me. I’m still thinking about it two decades later. What makes someone so desperate for a glimmer of belief in a fringe idea?
Yesterday I ran across Tanya Basu’s article in MIT Technology Review, “How to talk to conspiracy theorists—and still be kind.” In it, she looks at how we’re all susceptible to believing conspiracy theories, and offers tips from a patient online community devoted to talking people down from conspiracy theories, which are on the rise amid the isolation of Covid-19 shutdowns.
It’s very human and normal to believe in conspiracy theories. “Conspiracy theories resonate with us all, to some extent,” says Rob Brotherton, a psychologist who’s written two books on conspiracy theories and fake news. It’s a defense mechanism: we’re primed to be suspicious and afraid of things that can’t be explained.
Conspiracy theories are powerful in part because a cover-up is always part of the story — the idea that powerful people don’t want the “truth” to be told. For people stuck in a conspiratorial mindset, the institutions that use scientists and fact-checkers are themselves suspect; fake news. And so, they become more and more isolated, trusting fewer and fewer sources of information, and the friends who would point them to prominent sources.
A kind debunker can spend days and weeks hand-holding to build a convincing fact-based argument using primary sources that the conspiracy believer will accept as true. It is hard work. And if it involves an important personal relationship, the risk might not be worth it.
I wonder what I would say to the conspiracy letter writer today if he wrote to me. Would I have the patience to point out the flaws in his beliefs and come to a shared understanding? How long would it take? As the pandemic continues and election misinformation circulates, these skills seem in high demand.