A Conspiracy Spreads Because of Trust

Which conspiracy do you believe?

Have you heard the latest conspiracy? May I whisper it in your ear?

You may not have had that bit of conversation but you probably have heard a conspiracy theory or two and wondered how it got started. Further, you may have wondered what to do with the new-found bit of information, gossip, inference, whatever. Not only does a conspiracy leave you wondering what to believe and who to believe, but it can rock your world. Reality takes a spin.

121420 Conspiracy

There’s a reason a conspiracy makes sense

The perplexity cleared a bit as I read the November issue of The SUN magazine. The confusion is not new, though it is growing beyond earlier recognition. A voice, already over two decades past, is informative as Fran Peavey, is quoted in The SUN magazine, as taken from her 1994 writings of Us and Them.

Those of us working for social change tend to view our adversaries as unreliable, suspect, and generally of lower moral character. Saul Alinsky, a brilliant community organizer, explained the rationale for such polarization this way:

One acts decisively only in the conviction that all the angels are on one side and all the devils are on the other. A leader may struggle toward a decision and weigh the merits and demerits of a situation which is 52 percent positive and 48 percent negative, but once the decision is reached, he must assume that his cause is 100 percent positive and the opposition 100 percent negative. … But demonizing one’s adversaries has great costs. It tacitly accepts and helps perpetuate our dangerous enemy mentality.

Instead of focusing on the 52 percent “devil” in my adversary, I choose to look at the other 48 percent, to start from the premise that, within each adversary, I have an ally.

The growth of a conspiracy is a science

That bit of advice is reassuring but it doesn’t really explain how we got here from where we started – you know that place where sanity seemed to rule. The main interview from the same November issue of The SUNwas conducted by Finn Cohen as he interviewed Whitney Phillips. As Mr. Cohen explains:

Whitney Phillips, an assistant professor of communication and rhetorical studies at Syracuse University, has been studying disinformation and media manipulation for more than a decade. … In Phillips’s view, we are facing a storm that threatens the concept of democracy, and most of us don’t even know we’re contributing to it by sharing the latest viral video. “So much of the pollution that is loosed across the landscape is unintentional,” she says.

Ms. Phillips’s extensive studies puts our current reality upheaval in context:

There are two major conspiracy-theory templates in the United States, which historian Kathryn Olmsted lays out in her excellent book, “Real Enemies.” One is the “subversion myth”: the idea that some unwelcome other — usually immigrants, a demonized “they” — is threatening “our” way of life. Everything “we” hold dear is in danger from “them.” That template has been used to justify violence against a whole host of immigrants and non-Christians. In the twentieth century another template appeared: the idea that the government itself is the nefarious “them” that is out to get “us.” When people on the Right promote this type of theory, the argument is that the government is trying to take away our freedoms.

When you accuse someone of being “crazy” for believing a conspiracy theory, you’re failing to consider how that theory dovetails with the person’s worldview.

Ms. Phillips explains how tied we are to social media and how it (not us) is such a strong factor in manipulating our thinking. The Internet arrived on the scene followed closely by email. Suddenly, we’re now all connected. In a few short years, those connections have mushroomed into a variety of social media platforms. Each exercises its own set of algorithms to drive messaging to us based on what we click on, what we like, what we seek. She says:

We have way more communication tools today than people did in the seventies. And the people in the seventies had way more tools than people did in the fifties. The underlying pattern is: The more communication tools we have, the more saturated our media environment becomes. And the stronger the networks, the faster the information can spread.

Conspiracy depends on trust

Those media platforms seek to serve so we will buy more, become addicted even, to further confirm our bias – our perspectives. They work well. Phillips continues:

One of the consequences has to do … with trust. The more steeped you are in the idea that the “leftist” media is unchristian and bad and out to censor and delegitimize “us,” the more inclined you are to distrust what’s reported by the mainstream news. So, people on the Right, who have been hearing these anti-mainstream, anti-leftist messages maybe their whole lives, are more often googling for alternative explanations of news stories. If you’re a Joe Biden supporter and you don’t think institutions are the enemy, you’re also generally likely to think that what “The New York Times” publishes is factually true.

This blog is meant to be informative. It’s also a warning. If we’re not mindful of how we consume information, we participate in making our social and political and personal divides even wider. As we do, our society and our government and our relationships are at risk of not surviving.

Conspiracies will persist. Our democracy asks that we respect one another as all of us seek facts and truth as we preserve our cherished republic.

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By Jerry Spriggs and the Equal Voice Voting Team

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