The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories in US Public Life

This episode was first released at the end of August 2020.

Off-topic: Conspiratorial Thought

Warning: Contains Opinions + Politics. If you do not want to hear anything, any takes, hot or chilled or otherwise, about US politics, the state of the world in 2020 — and I really cannot blame you at all — please switch off now and wait for normal programming to resume.

Something that’s becoming increasingly unavoidable as a point of discussion in these times of COVID-19 is conspiracy theories and conspiratorial thought. This is something I spend far too much time thinking about, given our culture’s fascination with these things, given the lurid spectacle of conspiratorial belief, and given what I’d describe as the unknown level of impact that these beliefs have on our society.

Whenever I talk about stuff that’s outside my wheelhouse, I have to preface it with an apology. One thing that studying in academia has really taught me is that a great many of the more obvious thoughts you can have have already been thunk by someone else. When an amateur or a layperson comes into a new field and says “hey, here’s an idea, maybe THIS is something to think about”, 99 times out of 100 this “new idea” is either something incredibly well-known and well-studied, or it simply doesn’t work out for some quite basic reasons. This is not to insult people. It’s just a consequence of having seven billion people on the planet, many of whom can specialise in sub-areas of sub-disciplines of thought. Chances are, someone’s come up with it already. So I will apologise if I’m mangling concepts that are already familiar to a lot of you out there.

The reason why I think I’m fascinated with it is that I think we are all, as humans, subject to a kind of cognitive bias. And that is a cognitive bias of, essentially, being biased towards assuming that everyone else around us is living in the same kind of world that we are. This is quite an unconscious thing: people are seldom consciously doing it. But, nevertheless, unconsciously we assume that we are living in a shared reality. That means we live with a shared landscape: shared moral ideas, for example; a shared basic understanding of how the world works; a good degree of shared knowledge, and shared means of coming by that knowledge; a shared world philosophy, if you like. We are implicitly biased towards assuming that people are, basically, like us: that they might see the world through our eyes. There may be points of difference: perhaps you know something I don’t, perhaps your perspective is informed by different priorities — but on the basics, we agree.

Plenty has been written about how nowadays, online algorithms that are designed to serve up the content that you’ll find most engaging absolutely reinforce this. There are, of course, plenty of filter bubbles that existed before the internet: the newspapers you choose to read, the TV channels you watch, the people you hang out with, who may be of your generation, or class, or race predominantly. School and work and geographic location filters us further and tends to mean that we mix with like-minded people. So, quite often, you can get this subsconscious bias reaffirmed — yes, all my friends seem to think in the same way and seem to have similar ideas, and so it must be that we are all actually sharing one landscape, culturally, morally, intellectually, whatever you want to say.

Of course, this isn’t true, though. And the extent to which it isn’t true lies behind so many of our worst miscommunications. It’s a bit like mathematics. Mathematics is a formal system of logic based on a set of things that have to be true for the whole system to work — these are called axioms. The axioms are the things you have to assume as self-evidently true: and then you work from there to construct other arguments, other ideas, or other leaps of logic.

When we have this kind of disagreement, it’s almost as if the axioms that we’re using are different. At this point, it can feel pretty hopeless to communicate with people. It’s not a case that someone’s telling you that six times seven is 41 — where you can go in, explain the error in thinking, add some more logic and thought to the conversation, and reach agreement. They’re telling you six times seven is a drawing of the Taj Mahal. How are you going to reconcile that?

And the thing that’s a little distressing is that we have to share society with everyone; you can’t just limit it to people who share your axioms. It’s important in so many ways that everyone is on the same page. Take the whole nonsense about 5G and the Coronavirus — this conspiracy theory is literally a threat to public health, because it makes people less likely to comply with restrictions that are designed to stop them from spreading the virus. Conspiracy theories surrounding climate science have muddied the waters and muddied the politics to help prevent meaningful action for decades. Whatever you think of Hillary Clinton, and whether or not she would have been a good President, the fact that a non-zero proportion of voters went into the booth believing that she was at the head of a Satanist cult that tortured children has obviously impacted society and the world quite radically.

The original Satanic Panic in the 1980s and 1990s, where at least thousands of Americans believed that Satanic ritual abuse of children was happening in pre-schools throughout the country — based on incredibly flimsy evidence — also had a massive, tangible impact. Children were traumatised by being subjected to lengthy police questioning. Seven people were put on trial, accused of the most heinous crimes you can imagine; a trial that lasted seven years and was the most expensive case in US criminal history, and led to no convinctions. A colossal amount of effort was devoted to discussing and prosecuting a massive hoax.

Of course, conspiracy theories can promote racism and discrimination — many of the most popular conspiracy theories throughout history have been antisemitic, or encoded antisemitism in some way.
Their presence, and the credence that is given to them, can ruin the lives of the individuals who believe in them. Take, for example, people with certain kinds of paranoid schizophrenia or other issues which involve delusional thinking. If you’re able to go online and exposure yourself to countless hours of people talking about secret cabals that run the world and suppress their opponents, or harrass them with targeted stalking and directed energy weapons or whatever — and believe me, there are so many countless people you can easily find online who are just trapped in these belief systems — the paranoia and suspicion is going to prevent you from getting the help you actually need.

The popular Qanon conspiracy, of which more later, has ruined a lot of families. The Qanon Casualties subforum on Reddit, dedicated to people who are trying to help their relatives out of this conspiratorial mindset, has 17,000 members. How many more people are struggling to deal with friends and relatives who are suddenly operating from totally different sets of axioms?

More than this, when conspiracy theories don’t actually impede or direct how people behave in ways that directly influence other people, there’s a whole plethora of indirect effects. I think a lot of conspiracy belief comes from a sense that there’s something wrong; something unexplained, unjust, or unfair: and it gets misdirected, or redirected, into nonsense rather than genuinely and constructively questioning the way things are, the systems that exist around us, and how they might be influenced and changed for the better. At other times, it can promote an immense sense of nihilism: what’s the point of any sort of activity when shadowy forces are secretly controlling everything around you?

So there’s this rather disturbing process of running around not knowing whether the person you’re talking to is actually living in a shared reality with you: if they come to their beliefs in the same way, and if they have the same moral standards and concerns as you do. If you want to persuade people to act with you towards some common goal, how can you do that when you’re speaking completely different languages, using different axioms?

Conspiracy theories are, in many ways, the ne plus ultra of this fact. The nature of conspiracy theories is generally that you simply aren’t working from the same evidence base and the same set of shared, acknowledged facts: and therefore you can’t possibly agree about the conclusions. If you present some counter-evidence, even if the person is willing to engage with that evidence and doesn’t have some pre-set counterargument, the conspiracy theorist will say that it’s fabricated, falsified, or simply doesn’t matter. Often you get classic things like the burden-of-proof fallacy, where conspiracy theorists will simply say “well, you must believe everything that you’re told, where’s the evidence for that?”, as if every point of view is equivalent regardless of how outlandish, ill-defined, or illogical it may be, and is asserted totally without evidence.

It can often feel like there’s no sense in even having the discussion, because the nature of many conspiracy theories robs you of any shared axioms that you can start from to have that discussion. The basis for the belief is the rejection of any evidence you can provide against the belief, and so where can you go from there?

So I don’t really have much interest in debunking individual conspiracy theories here, but instead thinking how they are structured, about why people believe in them. I will do a lot of this specifically with reference to the Qanon conspiracy theory, which has really taken on the dimensions of a quasi-religious faith at this point, and is probably the most influential conspiracy theory on politics — at least in the US.

For those that don’t know — and count yourselves lucky — the actual tenets of the Qanon conspiracy theory has become increasingly difficult to pin down. Not least, when you ask people who “follow it” what they actually believe, they will more often than not tell you to “do your own research” rather than actively making any specific and falsifiable claims or predictions. This is a good way of keeping the movement cohesive, given that they can’t actually agree on the core precepts of their theory. In other words, it’s quite unlike some of the very elaborate narratives that were attached to previous conspiracy theories — where people are required to believe a whole heap of specific interpretations about historical events, such as, for example, the idea that a second assassin actually killed JFK, or the World Trade Centre towers were destroyed by thermite rather than planes.

But broadly speaking, the following is true. There’s a poster on a series of anonymous online message boards who claims to be someone who has a security clearance in the US government. In their first ever post, they predicted the arrest of Hillary Clinton and John Podesta, her campaign manager, to occur imminently. Three years later, this obviously hasn’t happened, but the conspiracy has now evolved into a very elaborate series of cryptic, anonymous posts. They hint at things like the former Pizzagate conspiracy theory — that the world is secretly controlled by a cabal of satanic pedophiles who abduct children, which is supposedly evidenced by leaked Hillary Clinton emails that make reference to ordering pizzas. The idea is that Trump, along with Qanon, are secretly working to dislodge the satanic cabal that secretly runs the world, in some kind of event that is called “The Great Awakening”, or “The Storm.”

As you can see, with a theory like this, it’s pretty clear why no-one wants to make any specific claims about what’s going on: it is bizarre and easily falsifiable. Current events are regularly brought into the theory, or interpreted through the lens of the theory, so Qanon and the adherents of this digital prophet will try and interpret and come up with their own explanations for things like Donald Trump firing his cabinet members, the deaths of celebrities, the mid-term elections, investigations into Trump’s government, and of course global events like the coronavirus pandemic.

Much like Nostradamus, the posts that Qanon makes are usually very cryptic and open to interpretation. Much like Nostradamus, there’s a large enough volume of material that is cryptic and vague enough that it is easy to link world events to specific lines of text.

So for example, Nostradamus wrote:

The blood of the just will be demanded at London,

Burnt by lightning fire in the twenty-three the sixes:

The ancient lady will fall from her high place,

And many of the same sect will be killed.

This is interpreted as a prediction of the Great Fire of London because the words “London” and “fire”, and the word “sixes” appears in the same line, and that fire happened in 1666. Never mind that no lady fell from a high place, or that many of certain sect were killed, or what “the blood of the just” means, or that there are thousands upon thousands of lines that can be interpreted as linking to given historical events… this is the kind of thing that passes for a robust prediction. Obviously, all of the lines that have no clear links to any historical event are ignored.

Similar things happen in the case of Qanon where vague pronouncements are linked with historical events, or just imagined historical events, on very little basis, and any false prediction is simply ignored. Part of the reason people are motivated to keep this thing going is that many individuals make money selling these “interpretations” or describing these “proofs” to their followers, so as ever, there is an element of grifting people who have already demonstrated themselves to be vulnerable and gullible here.

A few years ago, the Q people used to get more excited about specific dates when some grand revelation was promised to happen — for example, the state of the Union speech, or repeated references by Q to “a week to remember”, or something similar to that. Obviously, nothing on the scale that they were expecting to happen — the exact nature of which remains unclear — ever actually transpired.

In this, I’m reminded of a couple of historical conspiracy theories that just go to show how the form of so many of these conspiratorial beliefs can remain the same, even as the context and content changes with our culture, and with our historical times.

When the Bible first began to be translated into languages other than Latin, there was a series of religious movements that arose from people who were now able to interpret their own holy book for the first time. This led to a great many protestant religious movements — including the anabaptists in Europe. When Anabaptists took over the German city of Munster, there was a protracted siege, where the anabaptists were under siege by the former leadership of the city. As the siege progressed, the apocalyptic predictions by one of the anabaptist leaders, Jan Van Leiden, became more and more elaborate.

To explain why he was caught in bed with a local scullery maid, van Leiden pointed to passages in the Bible that encouraged polygamy and explained he was under divine orders to make everyone polygamous. Van Leiden predicted particular dates when the divine salvation would come for the anabaptists in Munster. When those dates arrived, nothing seemed to have happened, the siege and gradual starvation of the population continuing. But Van Leiden told them that they had misunderstood his prophecies — and that, in actual fact, he had been telling them that they would be “spiritually saved”, rather than “physically saved.”

Clearly there are strong relationships between this type of attitude and Qanon’s approach. Whenever inconvenient truths about the world arise — a pandemic that is poorly handled by the Trump administration, a failure of anticipated arrests to arise, or a loss in the mid-term elections — followers root through the “clues” left by Q to explain away these facts as all part of the plan. And, of course, many strands of the conspiracy theory involve the idea that things which were predicted to have happened have, in fact, already happened and will be revealed later on. In the early days of the conspiracy theory, when the arrests failed to materialise, many conspiracy theorists looked for evidence that the people concerned were “under house arrest” or “wearing ankle monitors”. This is totally analogous to Van Leiden telling people that they had, in fact, been spiritually saved when the peril of their situation was still very much apparent to them.

This type of confabulation is myth-making in its purest form — because the myth arises to help you deal with what would otherwise be cognitively distressing facts. Those under siege in Munster had to reconcile the idea that they were chosen by God, that they had the only accurate interpretation of the Bible, and that they would surely be saved with the increasing desperation of their situation. They had to reconcile the idea that Jan Van Leiden was virtuous, holy, and communicating with God with the scandals surrounding his personal life.

Qanon operates in a similar way for some of the more fanatical supporters of Trump. For some people, perhaps they expected that he would make good on his specific promise to “lock up” Clinton and the other people that they are convinced are involved in heinous crimes. Others maybe just expected an improvement in their quality of life, or simply competent leadership, that hasn’t materialised yet. The fact that you voted in the election, your preferred candidate won and promise to make everything better, and things haven’t improved — the mismatch between expectations and reality — does give rise to some cognitive dissonance. But you can address that by imagining this vast shadow-battle between Trump, Qanon, and other “patriots” against these shadowy forces that secretly control the world. The reason things aren’t better yet is because the day of revelation, the day of reckoning, or the “awakening” of the general public hasn’t arisen yet. But rest assured that it’s coming. And that’s how you address the cognitive dissonance.

This is, of course, similar to how many authoritarian regimes retain their support in spite of counter-evidence. Take the Soviets, endlessly denouncing “wreckers, saboteurs, Imperialist spies” and so on. On one level, it gave people like Stalin an excuse for murdering his own political opponents. On another level, it explained to true believers why utopia hadn’t arisen yet, and why their conditions for labour might remain bad or even get worse: it’s the fault of the saboteurs. Take Hitler. His theory is that the Aryan race is superior to all others; why then did Germany lose the First World War? The answer, again, is this narrative of a shadowy group of saboteurs — in his case, Jewish people — “stabbing Germany in the back.” This rhetorical device is everywhere in politics.

Of course, this bears a lot of relation to something else we talked about — with respect to the end times, in “the psychology of the end of the world”, episode and the concept of Millenarianism as an aspect of thought. Again, you have this nice, broad-brush, simplistic narrative: things may be bad now, but some massive destructive event is coming, after which all of the evil will be defeated and the forces of good will triumph. For some people, this is a global revolution. For others, it’s the Rapture — and there’s a lot of crossover between extremist Christian eschatology and Qanon, who regularly cites Bible verses almost at random. For others, it might be ecological and environmental breakdown that will cause this. I’m picking on Qanon here as an extremist fringe of Trump supporters, but very similar narratives are also pervasive at the very fringes of the kind of thing I talk about. I think it’s worth saying, getting into US politics again, that there was a fringe of conspiracy theorists who were very active when the Special Counsel Mueller investigation was going on — online accounts like Louise Mensch and others making wild proclamations about secret arrests or indictments. Mensch even claimed that Steve Bannon had been given the death penalty, which obviously didn’t happen. Beyond a mirror-image on the other side of US politics, there are millennialist narratives in the field of climate change. In terms of technology and artificial intelligence — people who think the singularity is coming at some point soon, transhumanists who are staring at exponential graphs and waiting to be uploaded to the cloud. The point is that this narrative is deeply ingrained in a lot of people’s psyches, for one reason or another.

It appeals to our sense of drama and allows us to explain away, justify, or stop worrying about the bad events that we see around us, which are negated by our faith that things will all work out okay. And, to a certain extent, for some people, it seems to justify inaction. After all, imagine for a second that you did believe that a cult of satanic pedophiles were secretly in control of the world. You might feel inclined to act on that fact. This is in fact one thing that always gets me about people who apparently believe conspiracy theories, or even sometimes certain types of religious belief as well: if you believe this, how are you even able to think about or concentrate on anything else? Surely acting on it immediately becomes your moral imperative. In that sense, the conspiracy theorists who run around with placards yelling about the end of the world are at least acting rationally… once you have those beliefs in place.

But of course, you can’t underestimate the ability of people to totally compartmentalise things that they apparently believe, or at the very least will say that they believe when prompted, and what might appear to be the necessary consequences of those beliefs. There was a famous Public Policy Polling survey which suggested that 15% of respondents believed the government added mind-controlling technology to TV broadcasts… I wonder how many of them actually owned TVs.

In the case of Qanon, the narrative of the conspiracy theory gives you an excuse not to act, even though it might seem that you should. The message provided by this community is often cryptic phrases like “Enjoy the show.” or “Nothing can stop what is coming”, or “God wins.” In this way, believers are comforted by the notion that things will inevitably work themselves out.

And, in fact, because believers are confronting phantom foes they can do nothing against, but also that they’ll work themselves out in a single flashpoint of revelation — a Great Awakening — they are absolved of the real work of trying to improve the world that we find ourselves in, which is slow, and painful, and difficult, and often requires sacrifice. This is what I mean when I say that I view a lot of these conspiracy theories as wasted potential. People evidently have a profound sense that something is wrong with the world, and a mistrust of elites — even if they can’t articulate what it is. Rather than investigating real issues, though, it’s all diverted into this fantasy, which is comforting even as it is distressing.

In short, then, it might seem inexplicable that many thousands of people (at least) appear to be drawn into this vague, delusional, and bizarre conspiracy theory. But of course, we see examples of this kind of thinking, and this kind of story, throughout history. There is a great book — Fantasyland, by Kurt Andersen — which tries to deal with this stuff in a specifically US historical context, linking the threads of conspiratorial and paranoid thought through the generations and threading it into the fairly unique historical and cultural context of the US, to explain why this is often a phenomenon that begins there and then gets exported to the rest of the world.

Some of it actively draws on earlier narratives that are familiar to people — plucking out direct details from something like the Satanic Panic, protagonists and antagonists from the ongoing political drama in the US (which is itself sensationalised), and more broadly drawing on this tendency for millennialist thought that is an aspect of human psyche. Our attraction to lurid, dramatic narratives in which the bad guys are defeated, the heroes win, and a moment of revelation saves the world.

Those involved get a sense of community; they get to feel important (and smarter than others) for having privileged knowledge that others don’t have; they get explanations and a framework for interpreting a confusing and disturbing reality and to erase any cognitive dissonance they might have; they get reassurance that, someday, salvation is coming.

I think as well as this, one undeniable point is that people increasingly mistrust mainstream news sources. If you ever push back against a conspiracy theorist, they will accuse you of being gullible, a “sheep” who believes everything they are told. The irony, of course — that they are generally ascribing to far more outlandish beliefs from far less reputable sources which provide far less evidence for their extraordinary claims — never seems to sink in.

And of course, it’s true that the mainstream media has an agenda, and often has bias. That doesn’t actually have to be in the form of some shadowy cabal of people meeting up and deciding how they are going to secretly subvert democracy and run the world, by the way. It can just be lots of people acting in what they perceive to be their own self-interest. If the status quo is working well for you, you will act to defend it against perceived threats to that order. You don’t need a conspiracy for that to happen. But people’s, often justified, mistrust of the media narratives that they are presented with is part of that cognitive dissonance, and is weaponised by conspiracy theories.

We feel better as individuals when we can filter and sort the events of our lives into some kind of overarching narrative, particularly if it’s positive, particularly if it can explain away inconvenient truths, particularly if it has a happy ending and fits with our pre-conceived biases. I may have failed here, but it was only a stepping stone on the road to success. This misfortune or setback actually helped me in the long run. That kind of thing. Similarly, we have a lot of people running around in the world today trying to rationalise why a massive pandemic has suddenly turned everything that we thought was normal upside-down. It’s no coincidence that these conspiracy theories are on the rise as people spend ages stuck indoors, unemployed, and online, trying to make sense of the way that the world has suddenly changed. Anti-vaccine conspiracy theories, theories that there’s a secret “CURE” for coronavirus like chloroquine, and theories that the pandemic was started intentionally have all arisen as narratives that explain the events we’re seeing. Qanon has embraced many of these.

The reality — as anyone who listened to the TEOTWAWKI specials will tell you — is overwhelmingly likely that we are constantly confronted by an endless parade of existential risks, or at the very least catastrophic risks, which we have often failed to prepare for adequately when times were good. But that’s not very comforting, is it? There’s no rhyme, reason, or overall narrative to be derived from that. No one is in control of it, although their negligence and lack of foresight may have made it worse. It’s simply that, for the third time this century, a coronavirus has crossed from animals into humans — only this time, it was harder to contain, and we did not succeed in doing so, and it’s caused a global pandemic.

On the side of the people who promote it, they can get unbelievable levels of online engagement, attention, often money in the form of donations or sales of books and merchandise — believe me, there are plenty of grifters floating around here, as there generally are for all conspiracy theories. And in return, all they have to do is sacrifice a lot of time — and a few friends — by going down a really grim and depressing rabbit-hole.

So what do I think is going to happen with this movement? Again, history does give us some examples. We can think about the Millerites, for example, who predicted an explicit date for the end of the world and the Rapture on October 23, 1844. When this specific prediction didn’t come to pass, the result was known by Millerites as “The Great Disappointment”, and the movement split between those who were totally disillusioned and quit the cult entirely and those who continued to wait, in some form or another, believing that even if they had been slightly deceived or mistaken on some details, the basic core of the narrative remained true.

I think that it is quite likely that something like this does happen, whether it’s after Trump loses the 2020 election or after four more years of Trump. There will be some who never give up on the conspiracy theory, others who believe that it was basically correct but some of the details were wrong, others who follow whatever it transforms into in the future — quite possible that it becomes some kind of religious or social movement and jettisons a lot of the more specific claims about satanists, the Deep State, and all this kind of conspiratorial thinking — and still others who just quietly move on to the next conspiracy. We have examples of earlier conspiracies even in the days of the internet where similar things have happened: there was the NESARA conspiracy theory, where people believed that a secret law had been enacted by Congress to make everyone wealthy and return to the gold standard. There was John Titor, an anonymous poster on message boards who claimed to be a time-traveller from the future and posted cryptic clues as to what world events would transpire. [El Psy Congroo.]

In the long run, then, the specifics of this particular conspiracy theory, or cult, or whatever you want to call it, may not be that important. I realise that it might sound pretty ironic given that I’ve just spent half an hour talking about it, but it’s very easy to overemphasise how important this kind of thing is. For example, an Emerson Research survey in August 2019 suggested that just 5% of Americans actually “believe” in Qanon, while in March 2020 only ~25% of people had even heard of it. One interesting fact is that more liberal Democrats have heard of this conspiracy theory than Republicans, which might suggest where it’s getting a lot of airtime and emphasis. On the one hand, 5% of people is a very small minority. On the other hand, it’s slightly disturbing that, if this was borne out universally, it would correspond to millions of people.

Compare that to conspiracy theories surrounding climate change, the JFK assassination, or 9/11, all of which got to be far more mainstream (albeit that they are often less specific.) There is a certain danger in giving this kind of thing the oxygen of publicity.

But there are two particularly distressing things about this conspiracy theory which I think are worth bearing in mind.

The reason why it’s disturbing to reflect on the fact that people might be harbouring a totally different reality from you is that it can easily change how they are going to behave. One of the people I knew in real life who believed in conspiracy theories thought that they were in contact with someone who had a cure for cancer. That person, if they find they have symptoms, will probably put their faith and trust in this quack doctor rather than mainstream medicine — which becomes perfectly rational if you believe what they’re selling. Qanon’s central ideas are that there is some ongoing “war” against a cabal of evil, satanic people who are secretly running the country. Unlike some earlier conspiracy theories, or quasi-religious movements like the Millerites, it deals with real characters in the earthly sphere.

Believers in this conspiracy theory fantasise relentlessly about their hate figures, like Obama or George Soros, being detained and even executed at Guantanamo Bay: fantasies of political violence, in other words. You have to question, then, whether elements of the group are going to be enticed into political violence if their anonymous, 4chan prophet starts asking them to do it. After all, killing a satanic murderer of children is probably morally justified in their eyes. Indeed, we have already seen attempted bombings by Cesar Sayoc of many of the hate figures involved. As I was writing this script, Trump himself essentially endorsed the cult in a press conference. When asked whether he believed their story that he was fighting against satanists and pedophiles, his response was “Isn’t that a good thing?” and “These are people who love our country.”

This has obviously emboldened the group. And again, I would say, regardless of your political views, you would presumably accept that the presence of a large body of people who are disconnected from reality, extremely politically engaged, following the whims of an online anonymous account, in the midst of incredibly dangerous and volatile political times, in a country where mass shootings are a regular event, right before a contentious election where the result is likely to be disputed… it’s not a recipe for peace and stability.

Indeed, you can see that many in the Qanon group are actually concerned that they are inciting violence. They warn about “false flag” attacks. The idea here being that when, inevitably, some Qanon member goes on a killing spree or attempts to attack the people they have been told are the embodiment of evil, this will be portrayed as a set-up by their enemies to “discredit the movement”… rather than an inevitable consequence of diving off the deep end of reality and indulging in paranoid fantasies of political violence. If the anonymous poster orchestrating all of this decided to tell people that they needed to commit acts of violence to stop evil from winning, or to accelerate the day of reckoning, would some followers heed that call? It’s the kind of thing I don’t really want to find out about.

The second is the larger trends. Of course, algorithms sorting people into filter bubbles online and exposing them to endless hours of this type of content, gradually radicalising them, is a big part of the problem, which people have discussed elsewhere.

And so is the general… what I guess you might call ontological trend here. The way in which people decide what is real and what is not real — which here is clearly based much more on paranoia and emotion than any kind of rationality; an assessment of the facts that decides that some random anonymous online poster is more trustworthy, not only than any kind of general consensus, but also the evidence of your eyes, ears, and general logic.

And so we return to the start of the show again, and the notion — the idea — that there are people running around in the world who don’t really share your reality at all. You may assume that they do. But in fact, fundamental assumptions about the nature of how things work, about the narrative of how history is unfolding before us, about the significance of events in the world around us… and even assumptions about how you should come to these conclusions, and what valid sources of information and interpretation are… are totally different.

If you believe there are lots of problems that we need to work together to solve collectively, how do you get around that problem?

Answers on a postcard. Nothing can stop what is coming.

Thanks for listening to this extremely off-topic episode of the show, that has if nothing else allowed me to get all this off my chest and on the record for the time three weeks in the future when conspiracy theorists turn out to be totally correct about everything.

Comments, questions, concerns? Want to hear more like this, want to hear less like this? There’s more I have to say about US politics and geopolitics that I try not to bring into this show because it’s so much everywhere and that’s not what we are really about… but a Twitter poll gave me permission to go off topic and so I’ve written this.