Anger, not lunacy, is at the root of conspiracy theories.
Halfway through February of 2021, the word “motivation” disappeared from my vocabulary.
Deadlines for work lay piling up on my screen with every passing day. The combination of my erratic sleep schedule, unhealthy eating habits, and lack of movement made me sick. I was once on the verge of smashing the coffee cup in my hand against my wall, desperate for something- or someone- other than myself to blame for my situation. Right then, I had a thought- almost a hypothetical joke, but a thought nonetheless- about my life: what if it was something else I was connected to that had put me in the mess I was in, that somehow benefitted from my frustration?
Google defines a conspiracy theory as “a belief that some covert but influential organization is responsible for a circumstance or event.” Taken in real life, it is not unreasonable to think that most people with center or leftist political beliefs scorn widespread conspiracies that dominate the news.
In a way, people who buy into ideas posed by conspiracies have become the laughing stalk of “the rational.” What some of us don’t realize is that far more Americans subscribe to such beliefs than we think: the University of Chicago’s Eric Oliver and Thomas Wood found that 50% of the American public believes in at least one such theory, whether it is the “birther movement,” anti-vaxxers, or PizzaGate.
I pride myself in turning to substantive research -multiple sources to fact check one another- rather than social media posts when I feel overwhelmed. I have spent countless hours listening to podcasts and reading articles about the nature of conspiracy theories, and even I, a self-proclaimed realist, have slipped into seeking outside forces to blame for the status quo. This is fertile ground for widespread conspiracies that come to permeate the media.
As I grew up, my parents have reacted to only events that are fact-based, so I have never felt the urge to accept baseless claims- especially those that notable scientists have publicly denounced. The minute I stepped into the realm of fury, I took a step toward understanding the viewpoint of those that subscribe to larger, more dangerous conspiracies. I can now accept that people in similar situations who didn’t grow up in the environment that I did would easily fall prey to believing something, even if it seems nonsensical to me.
New York Times reporter Sheera Frankel learned, through her conversations with teenagers like me, that many had shared conspiracy content out of pandemic boredom. The teenagers often did not believe what they shared. Such spreading of conspiracies is all fun and games until someone takes them seriously enough to take violent action in response. This is all too true in the case of COVID-19, whose onset has been wrongfully blamed on the 5G broadband system. Residents of the United Kingdom have since taken to burning 5G towers and threatening the engineers behind the network. The world has been afflicted with a global pandemic, a primary response to which is anger. Tens of thousands of angry citizens would like nothing more than to get answers to the cause of their grief, whether the answers are fact-based or not.
I write this not to support the beliefs of those that reject vaccines as legitimate, or who deny the existence of a global pandemic. The solution to stopping such people from spreading harmful beliefs is not to belittle them, but to educate them in a sensitive way. When someone’s anger gets the better of them, it is not only insulting, but also ineffective to talk down to them.