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Inoculated against reality


Charlotte Alter’s reporting on the pandemic of conspiracy theories plaguing America is . . . well read it.

By far the greatest delusions I heard came from voters on the right. More than a third of the Trump supporters I spoke with voiced some kind of conspiratorial thinking. “COVID could have been released by communist China to bring down our economy,” says John Poulos, loading groceries into his car outside Sendik’s grocery store in the Milwaukee suburb of Wauwatosa. “COVID was manufactured,” says Maureen Bloedorn, walking into a Dollar Tree in Kenosha. She did not vote for Trump in 2016 but plans to support him in November, in part because “he sent Obama a bill for all of his vacations he took on the American dime.” This idea was popularized by a fake news story that originated on a satirical website and went viral.

On a cigarette break outside their small business in Ozaukee County, Tina Arthur and Marcella Frank told me they plan to vote for Trump again because they are deeply alarmed by “the cabal.” They’ve heard “numerous reports” that the COVID-19 tents set up in New York and California were actually for children who had been rescued from underground sex-trafficking tunnels.

Arthur and Frank explained they’re not followers of QAnon. Frank says she spends most of her free time researching child sex trafficking, while Arthur adds that she often finds this information on the Russian-owned search engine Yandex. Frank’s eyes fill with tears as she describes what she’s found: children who are being raped and tortured so that “the cabal” can “extract their blood and drink it.” She says Trump has seized the blood on the black market as part of his fight against the cabal. “I think if Biden wins, the world is over, basically,” adds Arthur. “I would honestly try to leave the country. And if that wasn’t an option, I would probably take my children and sit in the garage and turn my car on and it would be over.”

What is happening to my skin?

The rise in conspiratorial thinking is the product of several interrelated trends: declining trust in institutions; demise of local news; a social-media environment that makes rumor easy to spread and difficult to debunk; a President who latches onto anything and anyone he thinks will help his political fortunes. It’s also a part of our wiring. “The brain likes crazy,” says Nicco Mele, the former director of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, who studies the spread of online disinformation and conspiracies. Because of this, experts say, algorithms on platforms like Facebook and YouTube are designed to serve up content that reinforces existing beliefs–learning what users search for and feeding them more and more extreme content in an attempt to keep them on their sites.

All this madness contributes to a political imbalance. On the right, conspiracy theories make Trump voters even more loyal to the President, whom many see as a warrior against enemies in the “deep state.” It also protects him against an October surprise, as no matter what news emerges about Trump, a growing group of U.S. voters simply won’t believe it. On the left, however, conspiracy theories often weaken voters’ allegiance to Biden by making them less likely to trust the voting process. If they believe their votes won’t matter because shadowy elites are pulling the country’s strings, why bother going through the trouble of casting a ballot?

Experts who follow disinformation say nothing will change until Facebook and YouTube shift their business model away from the algorithms that reward conspiracies. “We are not anywhere near peak crazy,” says Mele. Phillips, the professor from Syracuse, agrees that things will get weirder. “We’re in trouble,” she adds. “Words sort of fail to capture what a nightmare scenario this is.”

But to voters like Kelly Ferro, the mass delusion seems more like a mass awakening. Trump “is revealing these things,” she says serenely, gesturing with her turquoise-tipped fingernails. Americans’ “eyes are being opened to the darkness that was once hidden.”

After yoga in the morning, Ferro says, she often spends hours watching videos, immersing herself in a world she believes is bringing her ever closer to the truth. “You can’t stop, because it’s so addicting to have this knowledge of what kind of world we’re living in,” she says. “We’re living in an alternate reality.”

I strongly recommend Nancy Rosenblum’s and Russell Muirhead’s A Lot of People Are Saying for an analysis of what they call “conspiracism,” aka conspiracy theories that feature no actual theory, however tenuously connected to reality.

For a less scholarly but more amusing glimpse of the insanity that surrounds us, check out the documentary Behind the Curve, about literal Flat Earthers.

Again, Donald Trump is both a cause a symptom of the way we live now, but he’s much more than latter than the former.

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