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Millions of Americans (Including Some of Us) Have Faith in Baseless Conspiracy Theories: How Did We Get Here?

Oct 22, 2021

In recent weeks those of us in the San Diego Community College District were taken aback when a handful of uninformed folks took to the email DL to regale all of us with a torrent of misinformation.  Many of us were dismayed by the display.  While the number in our ranks of those resistant to getting the vaccine is very small, watching some of our fellow employees let their “inside voice” out complete with a host of conspiracy theories, upside-down world alternative facts, and irrational hostility to science and/or any institution that wanted to “tell them what to do” was unsettling to say the least.

And it’s not just Covid-19 information that this applies to either.

For those of us hoping that the worst excesses of the Trump era might recede into the background after he was out of the Oval Office, the last few months have been disappointing.  Not only do a majority of Republicans still believe the patently false claim that the election was stolen, 15% of them think the QAnon storm is coming, that violence is necessary to right the ship of state, and that, “The government, media and financial world in the U.S. are controlled by a group of Satan-worshiping pedophiles who run a global child sex trafficking operation.”

Yes, despite the failure of the QAnon prophecies to come to fruition, recent polling suggests that for millions of Americans, facts simply don’t matter.  Indeed, baseless conspiracy theories have a following as large as some religious sects, as some disturbing new data from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) illustrates.

In his Washington Post analysis of the PRRI survey, Phillip Bump rightly directs our attention to the role of outlets like Fox News, suggesting that the far right media ecosystem is a petri dish for conspiracy theories:

This is a really surprising level of support for fundamentally baseless or anti-democratic sentiment. But, as you might expect, it’s also not evenly distributed. Republicans, for example, are more likely to agree with the statements above than are Democrats. Those who say they have the most trust in Fox News as a news source generally agree with the statements about as much as Republicans do, which makes sense given the overlap of those two groups.

Later in his piece, Bump considers the question of causality, and one wonders whether what is going on at present is the monetization by right wing outlets of conspiracies born elsewhere in the social media universe:

That’s a key point in all of this. One of the developments that followed the splintering of the media ecosystem with the emergence of social media is that audiences for ideas more easily formed independently of any organization. There could easily emerge a sentiment held by millions of people into which media outlets could tap, preformed audiences looking for someone to agree with them. This isn’t only true of false conspiracy theories, but for any institution willing to cede objectivity to advertising dollars, it proved useful. So you get entities willing to coddle false claims in an effort to gain attention.

Certainly, the role of the rightwing media is a key element in the proliferation of pernicious nonsense but when I ponder how we got to a point where millions of Americans now genuinely believe that the Covid-19 vaccine booster I received several weeks ago contains a surveillance microchip that is the mark of the beast in Biblical prophecy, it seems clear that something more is deeply wrong in our culture.

This phenomenon is precisely what social critic and communications theorist Neil Postman was addressing in his seminal 1992 book Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology where he argues that the United States birthed a historically unique form of totalitarian technocracy.  According to Postman, the proliferation of technologies used to flood the culture with an unprecedented amount of information with bewildering speed has broken down the traditional defenses that cultures employ to regulate and filter information.

As Postman puts it:

When the supply of information is no longer controllable, a general breakdown in psychic tranquility and social purpose occurs.  Without defenses, people have no way of finding meaning in their experiences, lose their capacity to remember, and have difficulty imagining reasonable futures.

Thus, the great narratives of traditional religion, law, scientific inquiry, and liberal democracy itself are overwhelmed by information chaos, and in a world filled with incoherent, contextless, and purposeless information we find ourselves terribly adrift, unable to distinguish fact from dangerous fiction.  Postman’s analysis was prophetic in that it was penned before any of the newer forms of social media emerged.  His solution is to rethink our education system by rejecting the embrace of job training and our fondness for efficient information delivery systems in favor of critical thinking and the teaching of histories of knowledge, both of which are decisively out of step with the current fetish for the business model.

This is unfortunate because we’ve never needed intellectual tools to help us filter the barrage of narratives coming our way more.  As out of style as Postman’s ideas seem, it is becoming clear that our bias in favor of speed over substance, entertainment over analysis, and immediacy rather than context are raising the risk that American democracy will, to paraphrase Postman, amuse itself to death.

–Jim Miller, AFT 1931 VP of Political Action



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