This is a pre-recorded message written prior to this Avocadan’s Big Adventure to the opposite side of the world after a couple years spent barely leaving a tiny room in Pandemic, USA. I can only hope that all the frinkiacs I’ve seen here provided sufficient training as a universal language to establish bonhomie amongst people the world over. Truly, I have nothing to worry about…
…except writing these thread headers! Of course, you’re all easily satisfied anyway and I could probably throw up a Simpsons GIF and call it a day, but I want to feed you more than just junk food. Instead, I’ll muster the drive to at least dumpster dive some gourmet scraps. Might not be fresh, but it probably won’t make you sick, and hopefully will take the edge off this insatiable hunger for political news.
How Fringe Conspiracy Theories Invaded the Ketanji Brown Jackson Hearings
On a recent episode of Amicus, Dahlia Lithwick reflected on last week’s Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson confirmation hearings by talking with Stanford Law professor Nate Persily about how the hearings intersected with the bigger misinformation ecosystem. They spoke about how a debunked lie that Jackson was soft on child predators morphed from fringe theory to the Republican party line in under a week, and what that says about the pervasive distrust of the institutions of democracy.
Nate Persily: Kate Starbird of the University of Washington has talked about “participatory disinformation,” and that’s really what we’re seeing here as well. You need to only look at the slogan for Russia Today, which is, “Question more.” Whether it’s in the anti-vax context, whether it’s with respect to the QAnon conspiracy theory, election fraud, or any number of other areas where you’re trying to get some source of authority, some elite opinion on this to then make its way into the mass public, the answer is, “Look, do your own research, because these people have a hidden agenda.” It is extremely difficult to counteract that.
What’s important to understand is that no matter how often you debunk a particular claim, whether it’s about Italian satellites having an impact on the election, Dominion Voting Systems, dead people voting, noncitizens, Sharpies in Arizona, whatever, it’s this was a multiheaded beast. The claims of fraud were so heterogeneous that there was really no way to defeat the argument because there were many different types of arguments. And it’s not just the fringe groups that believe this. It is now orthodox, so that then it has an effect on people in positions of power and decision-making.Slate [archive]
We are not living in a ‘golden age’ of conspiracy theories
Except, maybe we’re not.
A new report from Google’s Jigsaw group explains how conspiracy theories are, in fact, no more numerous than in the past. Rather, it’s the distribution and means of proliferation that’s changed—the technology and internet platforms that focus more attention on out-there beliefs and conspiracy theories that have pretty much been around all along.
That’s not to say that conspiracy theories are harmless. The FBI identified fringe conspiracy theories as a domestic terrorist threat for the first time in July 2019—more than a year and a half before thousands of Americans stormed the Capitol under the mistaken belief that Donald Trump had won the 2020 election.
The Jigsaw report, citing survey research from University of Miami political scientist Joseph Uscinski and others, said that even over the past 10 years (the period in which consistent polling data is available), the overall level of conspiratorial thinking—the tendency to see hidden plots behind world events—has remained steady, with about 30% of Americans consistently agreeing or strongly agreeing with statements like “much of our lives are controlled by plots hatched in secret.”Fast Company [archive]
Study conspiracy theories with compassion
The societal forces that drive people to join a belief system matter more than the specifics of what they believe.
Motivated to end the pandemic, and to encourage vaccination and other health-promoting behaviours, many researchers new to the subject are asking how best to ‘confront’ or ‘fight’ conspiracy theories, and how to characterize people wary of medical technologies. But my field has worked for decades to push back on this tendency to pathologize and ‘other’.
Let me be clear: I am in no way arguing that conspiracy theories are harmless. It is precisely because they are so dangerous that it is crucial to understand their causes. It’s not enough to study individuals and their ideas: we must consider societal structures, and cultural and historical contexts that generate and propagate conspiratorial ideas.Nature [archive]