Ever heard of QAnon or flat-Earthers? If you have, you may have questioned how these and other conspiracy theories originate and gain so many followers.
For political science professor Adam Enders, uncovering the mystery surrounding conspiracy theories is a puzzle worth solving.
It’s an especially timely interest, as conspiracies have been “dialed up to 11” during the COVID-19 pandemic, leading to tangible consequences such as people not wearing masks or social distancing.
Add COVID conspiracies to other outlandish ideas already prevalent in society, and it results in heightened difficulty for people to determine fact from fiction. It could also raise anxiety and make for awkward social interactions between those with opposing views.
“I hope I can help people better think about what to be worried about or to what extent to be worried, and how you can interact with other people who believe these things,” he said. “I think a lot of people at this point are having trouble with interpersonal interaction with others that don’t have their same beliefs.”
Enders first began studying conspiratorial thinking while in graduate school about six years ago, at a time when radio host Alex Jones was making it onto the mainstream news more and more frequently with his far-fetched conspiracy theories.
Enders had a hunch conspiratorial thinking would increasingly impact our society. Despite a word of caution from his mentor, who warned the topic seemed trivial, Enders moved forward with his research.
“Maybe in 2014 it was kind of weird to study conspiracy theories, but now everybody has a sense that it actually matters,” Enders said. “When people show up at rallies with QAnon signs and they don’t have masks on or they go driving through downtown Portland with paintball guns and flags, it’s clear that the rubber has hit the road.”
Enders’ research has been featured in national media such as The Guardian, Politico, The Washington Post and even John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight,” proving his hunch that conspiracy theories are undeniably prevalent.
“Understanding why people believe these things is the key to correcting them and mitigating the pernicious effects of beliefs in conspiracy theories and misinformation,” he said.
As for why people believe, Enders said there are individual-level factors and environmental factors. Individual-level factors can include political, social and psychological reasons, while environmental factors include what Enders calls “information environments,” which is what people are exposed to through social and mass media.
“There are a million things that happen in the world every day, but we only talk about like five things,” Enders said. “If elites talk about conspiracies, and especially if they encourage them or at least fail to discourage them, then that’s going to promote belief. Because then you have this trusted authority figure that’s basically sanctioning particular behavior or thoughts.”
People also tend to see patterns in their everyday lives and that plays into conspiratorial thinking.
“We naturally see patterns in the world where there aren’t really patterns. It’s just coincidence,” he said. “But we like to see patterns because it simplifies the world and makes it easier to navigate. Conspiracy theories impose structure on a very messy world.”
The COVID-19 pandemic is a perfect storm to watch this play out. Take, for example, people who downplay the coronavirus or place blame on other countries for its spread.
“The pandemic is this once-in-a-lifetime occurrence that has uprooted our lives and is beyond our control. People to varying degrees just can’t handle that,” Enders said. “So they need to say, ‘China did it,’ or ‘the death toll isn’t even that high,’ or anything to make them feel better. This helps them regain control and feel a little less powerless, and those things subsequently reduce anxiety.”
THE TRUTH CONTINUUM
It can be difficult to not fall down a rabbit hole while constantly being surrounded by out-there theories, but Enders said the key to staying grounded is not to think of conspiracies as black and white.
“The way I see it is truth is sort of a continuum,” he said. “On one end of the spectrum we have scientific thinking and the other end is conspiracy thinking. What sets conspiracy theories apart from other theories is that there is almost never enough evidence to support them.”
That “almost never” is what further muddies his research. Watergate, for example, was a conspiracy theory until people had evidence it was true. That’s why it is critical for researchers like Enders to get to the reasons behind why people think the things they do, which could lead to helping people respectfully interact with those with different beliefs.
“It’s naturally difficult to study something that isn’t well-defined and is always inherently shifting. For example, there isn’t one QAnon conspiracy theory, there’s 100. There are different versions of conspiracy theories and the more outlandish the theory gets, the more people drop off in their belief,” Enders said. “So if I ask people ‘Do you believe in QAnon?,’ I have to figure out what version of QAnon they hear in their mind when I ask the question. Getting everyone on the same playing field as far as what we’re even talking about is a very difficult first step.”
Enders understands the social struggle that often occurs when conspiracy theorists come up against those inclined to fall on the side of science or fact. He, like many people these days, has family members, friends and co-workers who sometimes lean into conspiracies.
His advice for those entering into conversations with conspiracy believers? Approach them from a place of understanding.
When asked how he handles such situations, he thoughtfully considered before answering with a raised eyebrow.
“Uh … carefully. I never start it,” he quipped. “Maybe it’s easier for me because I know why they’re like that. I know it’s a confluence of other things, a cocktail of individual level stuff in their life and what’s going on in the news that leads them down a particular path.”
Enders knows he won’t solve the conspiracy problem completely, but the goal of his research is to help people navigate an increasingly tumultuous world.
“Conspiracies have been around forever and they’re going to continue to be,” he said. “But I hope to help people understand and deal with them.”
And that’s certainly something to believe in.