Episode 12: It's A Conspiracy!
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Laci Green: (00:18)
What's up guys? Thank you so much for the warm welcome back. Last week, um, I wanted to pick up on part of the conversation that we had last week actually about worldviews, what they are, where they come from, and how they shape our society today. A curious worldview that's been getting a lot of attention lately. The conspiracy theory. Do you subscribe to any conspiracy theories? When I was a kid growing up in Washington state, I desperately wanted to spot Bigfoot. I watched all these weird documentaries on late night TV and had totally convinced myself that he must've lived nearby, never did spot them. But I still keep an eye out today, year 2020, it feels like we're living through some sort of conspiracy. Boom. At least half of the country believes that conspiracy theory, and we've recently learned that about a third of Americans think that Kogan 19 was spread on purpose. Covet might be new, but conspiracies, definitely not new. Yeah, JFK, UFOs, LSD, all three letters, by the way. And yet today's conspiracies fuel more loaded and consequential than ever. If we're wrong, we have a lot to lose, like thousands dying from preventable disease or accidentally falling off the edge of the world.
Laci Green: (01:46)
Chapter one, the anatomy of a conspiracy, the stereotype of the paranoid delusional dude down in his basement kicked off in the sixties when Richard Hofstadter famously argued that Americans, especially conservatives, were infected with paranoia. We've since learned the conspiracy theorists are not, you know, this group of tinfoil hat wearing crazy people. There are normal people who are attempting to make sense of the world in the allure of a conspiracy theory. It appears to increase when society is in crisis.
Joe Uscinski: (02:20)
I think the uncertainty, the feelings of powerlessness, the loss of control that people are having both from the virus and the policies meant to combat the virus. You know, people are out of a job, you know the economy shut down. Those things are going to play a role in a sense that they may be pushing people to cope with it. And for some people, conspiracy theories may be that tool they reach for people who wouldn't necessarily conspiracy, theorize that much, maybe pushed a little bit more and may wind up engaging in it. With that said, if you don't already have a worldview that gets you to conspiracy theory, then then then simply being uncertain isn't going to do it on its own.
Laci Green: (02:58)
This is Dr. Joe Uscinski
He is a political scientist and he studies, you guessed it, conspiracy theories. Rather than thinking of conspiracies as random fringe beliefs, he describes them as a worldview. In this worldview, a small group of powerful people act in secret for their own benefit. At our expense, researchers have identified five themes that are present in most conspiratorial worldviews. The first conspiracy theorists don't see themselves as conspiracy theorists. They see themselves as true seekers pursuing enlightenment on a journey toward forbidden knowledge. The ingroup beat us is people who share the belief and are also aspiring toward enlightenment. While the outgroup or them is people who are complacent with the conspiracy or the people who are involved in it. Taking action is also central to a conspiratorial worldview. Boycotts, protests, blogging, YouTube videos. These are all avenues to demand justice. Lastly, there's a focus on an idealized future where the downfall of the evil elites or whoever paves away toward radical change.
Laci Green: (04:06)
As I was reading this, I was like, Hmm, this is actually sounds like other worldviews that I am familiar with. But like any belief system, it's not always that serious. Plenty of people think conspiracy theories are just a bit of fun. They're entertaining, they're interesting, you know, just a way to pass the time while others obviously take them very seriously. 28 year old Edgar Welch was arrested in Washington Sunday afternoon outside comment ping pong, a popular family pizza parlor. Police say, well drove all the way from North Carolina to self investigate pizza gate, a fictitious online conspiracy theory.
Laci Green: (04:43)
So I wanted to know what kind of person becomes a conspiracy theorist. What would it take for you or me to fall all the way down the rabbit hole?
Joe Uscinski: (04:53)
So the first thing is I would differentiate what I call conspiracy thinking, which is this worldview. I'm from paranoia. And this is the paranoia is about people in my life are out to get me right. So it's very personal, whereas conspiracy thinking is people are out to get us. So rather than just explaining things in my life and how people are interacting with me, it's explaining things that are more out in the world and out to get my group or groups that I belong to. Um, so it's much more political, um, than it is personal with the conspiracy thinking. So to measure this, this underlying worldview, I use statements like, uh, the people who really run the country aren't known to the voters or the recent recession and Wars are controlled by small groups of people working against us. So we're not, not trying to measure specific conspiracy theories directly, but trying to get under the hood into that sort of latent disposition to accept conspiracy logic when it's presented.
So who, who has that? Well, there really isn't a demographic group that jumps out more than others. It's not more Republicans than Democrats. And despite how much Democrats hate hearing this, they're the same as Republicans on the score. Sorry if you don't like it, it's, it's not more white or black or Hispanic or anything like that. Um, and it's not more men than women. Anyone can buy into this. And I think my favorite, my favorite example is the show, the view, you know, show by women for women. And you know, almost every host on there has engaged in conspiracy theorizing like Rosie O'Donnell when she was on it. Jet fuel cap, Mt steel nine 11 was an inside job or Whoopi Goldberg was questioning the moon landing. Um, Jenny McCarthy has vaccine conspiracy stuff. She talks about, um, the list will go on. Um, so it's not, you know, white guys hanging out in their, in their basements.
You know, Alex Jones is an easy example and maybe it's the case that some of the conspiracy entrepreneurs fit that mold, you know, like Alex Jones or David Ike. But, but in terms of mass beliefs now, I mean, the two things we do find are that people who are more educated and make more money tend to have less of this disposition for reasons that we're not entirely sure of yet. I would like to think as a professor that it's, you know, we educate young people and they become better thinkers. But I'm not sure that's the only thing going on. I'm sure that's part of it. People who are more analytical thinkers tend to, you know, a shoe this style of thinking. But on the other hand, you know, people who have the scientific tools will fall victim to it sometimes too because they have the scientific thinking to protect their beliefs and to pick out evidence that supports what they want to believe.
I think the best answer I can give you is that, that these worldviews, the disposition to jump to the conspiracy explanation above others probably stems from, from people's, um, socialization. So that something is going on in their upbringing, whether it's being imparted by the media, the parents, the circumstances they're brought up in things that were exposed to, um, is going to lead them to have this as part of their operating software. And it's not going to be unlike how partisanship colors, how people see the world or, um, how their ideological identity colors, how they see the world.
Laci Green: (08:29)
Psychologists have a number of theories about this operating software. Those who subscribed to conspiracies tend to have lower trust in the government. They tend to feel less in control of their lives and they may feel more alienated from society, but the exact relationship, and you know what's going on here isn't totally clear.
Joe Uscinski: (08:46)
I guess where I would start is I don't really know what trust means, right? Like political scientists have been measuring trust for for a long, long time. And we, you say that it's important. Trying to define it is a very difficult task. So when we say people trust the government or don't trust the government, what does that mean? Right? Then if we say, well, what does it lead to conspiracy theorizing? Well, maybe, maybe the two go hand in hand and aren't really causal at all. Or maybe conspiracy theorizing is leading to a lack of trust. So if you ask a hardcore conspiracy theorist, do you trust the government? They're gonna say no, but I'm not. I'm not sure that that, that lack of trust is causing the conspiracy theories or, um, that the conspiracy theories, theories are causing the distrust.
Laci Green: (09:30)
Evolutionary psychologists add another perspective. They say that as Hunter gatherer societies, conspiracy theories may have helped him in survive. Finding patterns in seemingly unrelated data points or suspicion toward a powerful out-group may have helped us to detect threats. But in modern times, the concern is that conspiracy theories themselves are the threat and that social media is a megaphone. Chapter two, web of lies. I was shocked to learn from dr [inaudible] that apparently conspiracy theories don't appear to be more common today than they were before the internet.
Joe Uscinski: (10:13)
It is happening now, but I don't know if that means it wasn't happening before. Many of the conspiracy theories we're seeing are just continuations of the same things we've been seeing for decades, if not hundreds of years. This isn't the first disease that has, has had conspiracy theories attached to it. I mean, there was AIDS conspiracy theories and bird flu conspiracy theories and Zika conspiracy theory. So, um, this is just the new thing to attach. Um, conspiracy theories to it's, it's, it's sorta like those mad libs that we used to do when we were kids and you just sorta fill in, you know, blank put down here is caused by a conspiracy of powerful people and said, Oh yeah, Colvin. When we talk about are there more conspiracy theories now, are we talking about more theories, more ideas that have been put forward? Is it that there's more people believing? Is it the same amount of people believing in more? Is it the same people believing in the same ones more strongly? This has never defined, but that never stops people from saying, now is the time. It's the conspiracy golden age and this is the apex. And if you look through newspapers, you will find that almost every year journalists say that going back decades.
Laci Green: (11:26)
Hmm. That sounds familiar. In the past couple of years, YouTube and Facebook have received an avalanche of bad press about conspiracy content. Even Congress got involved.
Alexandria Ocasio Cortez: (11:36)
Do you see a potential problem here with a complete lack of fact checking on political advertisements? Well, Congresswoman, I think lying is bad. And I think if you were to run an ad that had a lie, that would be bad. That's different from it being from it, from we're in our position, the right thing to do to prevent, uh, your constituents or people in an election from seeing that you had lied.
Alexandria Ocasio Cortez: (12:01)
So you won't take down lies or you will take down lies. So I think there's just a pretty simple yes or no
Mark Zuckerberg: (12:06)
Alexandria Ocasio Cortez: (12:08)
I'm not talking about spin, I'm talking about actual,
Mark Zuckerberg: (12:10)
yes, you need democracy. I believe that people should be able to see for themselves what politicians that they may or may not vote for.
Alexandria Ocasio Cortez: (12:18)
Won't take them down or for themselves. So you won't, you may flag that it's wrong, but you,
Mark Zuckerberg: (12:24)
Oh, Congresswoman, it's a, it depends on the context that it shows up. Organic post ads, the treatments.
Alexandria Ocasio Cortez: (12:31)
One question, one more question. In your ongoing dinner parties with far right figure, some of who advanced the conspiracy theory that white supremacy is a hoax. Did you discuss so called social media bias against conservatives? And do you believe there is a bias?
Mark Zuckerberg: (12:46)
Uh, Congresswoman. Um, so I don't remember everything that was in the center in the question. I'll move on.
Laci Green: (12:54)
Some conspiracy theories have the potential to do real harm and yet I'm also not totally sure that Zaki boys should be the one to decide, you know, what ideas are over the line. So Facebook seems to be attempting to combat COBIT conspiracies by having a dedicated tab that shows, you know, information from the CDC and other trusted sources. Twitter seems to be doing this as well. Meanwhile, YouTube has done a couple of things. I've noticed little explanations below videos about chem trails, about what's going on. They've also promised to crack down on conspiracy videos by demoting or removing them. But if the fear is that there's a shadow force that is restricting access to information, how effective is it for a giant faceless corporation to be removing random posts?
Joe Uscinski: (13:41)
You know, when people talk about the internet, like, you know, Oh, I'm going out on the internet to get conspiracy theories because that's all they have there. It's like, no, that's not, you know, the internet is just a reflection of everything else going on in the world. I mean, are we really saying that if we took down Facebook and Twitter and Donald Trump that no one would think Covina is a conspiracy? Really? Are we really saying that? And, and it's like, it's sort of alleviates our political elites and our mainstream news and our other legacy media outlets of responsibility. It really does. It's almost disgusting. And, and, and, and it doesn't rise to the level of conspiracy, but there's clearly self-interest when you have journalists at legacy outlets saying, Oh, this is all Facebook and it's all Twitter, and they're all radicalizing people. Well, they engage in all sorts of nonsense.
I mean, these newspapers, I've been putting out all this alien crap for the last couple of weeks saying, you know, the military is releasing these videos of UFO. They know exactly what they're doing and they know exactly that people are going to think that it's aliens and they know it's not. Um, so it looks garbage. And then we've had the cable news last few years pushing all this Trump, Russia nonsense. Russia is going to shut off your power. And Trump's a Russian agent has been so for 40 years. And it's just like, you know, they have responsibilities too and they're just kicking it all off on social media. And a lot of the complaints I see about Facebook are like, Trump lies. Therefore we have to sensor Facebook. Well, no, get a better president.
You know, blame the person who does a lot. And in that, that also takes responsibility away from the fact that your pillow, your mainstream political institutions are engaging in this rhetoric. The legacy media propagates it too. And I don't, I don't want to say that the internet has no blame whatsoever to go around, but it's, it's just a tool to spread what other people are doing anyway. And it's not that I think we should do nothing about it, but I think we have to, there's a lot of blame to go around and simply blaming the new technology for an old human problem misses the point. It's an old human problem.
Laci Green: (16:05)
Legacy media. Pointing the finger at YouTube while they air midnight specials about ancient aliens is a big fat LOL hypocrisy. It hurts me, but at the same time, social media is a very different piece than a newspaper, right? I mean, for one thing, there's no barrier to entry. It can amplify information so much faster, but as I've talked about at length before, I think it was episode four, I'm very worried about, you know, people justifying censorship because of this misinformation issue.
Joe Uscinski: (16:37)
Everyone has in their own mind what a conspiracy theory is and it's what someone else believes, right? It's never their own beliefs. No one says you should censor my ideas. The sense of sense of the other guy's ideas. I mean, I, when I watch like Alexandra, occasional Cortez grilling Mark Zuckerberg in Congress, and she's like, well, Trump spreads all these conspiracy theories and other politicians on the other side spread conspiracy theories and you allowed on your platform. Well, let's deal with them. You know, you want Facebook to discipline the person in the United States. You're a congressperson and you're mad about the people in Congress spreading conspiracy theories, patrol. What you say on your own committee. Hearings patrol, what you say on the floor of Congress, but they won't and there's a good reason for it because they know that open debate is needed. You can't start censoring debating.
Laci Green: (17:29)
Chapter three real conspiracies. So our last stop here is the elephant in the room. Once in a while a conspiracy turns out to be true. The tobacco industry buried evidence that it causes cancer. The CIA gave LSD to unknowing citizens in order to test mind. And then there was that time that the government pretended it was treating a group of black men with syphilis, but instead was letting the disease run its course in order to see what would happen. History and common sense have taught us that questioning authority, questioning people with power, holding them to account. These are all really important. In fact, I'd argue that they're even noble pursuits and that means that conspiracies can't be done away with entirely. And Joe actually argues that they shouldn't be.
Joe Uscinski: (18:17)
There's a lot of reasons why people believe stuff, right? And if you ask a more normative question, which is, do we want to live in a world where everyone believes the same thing all the time? Well your Facebook feed would go from being aggravated to being really boring, right? And it'd be like, why talk to anyone? Cause everyone believes the same things. Um, and the, and this is where, you know, I think it's good, like many of my colleagues, um, are involved in, um, seeking out methods to change people's minds about conspiracy theories. And I think that's good to an extent. But one thing I don't want is for those tools to fall into the wrong hands where people can just like, Oh, well, um, I'm going to cover up my misdeeds and I'm going to change everybody's mind. So they believe what I want them to believe. And I don't want, I don't want powerful people to have the tools to do that. I think it's good that there are people who will question um, and, and disagree and, and I know that's tough to say now where you have people who are adopting patently false beliefs and then engaging in really deleterious behaviors. But as a general rule, I think having the tools to change minds too easily could easily be abused.
Laci Green: (19:31)
I think the one thing that we can all oppose is mind control except maybe for the lizard people they, they probably would like that. What I found out there though, it's not, you know, academics trying to figure out how to control people's minds or you know, even change minds. Really it's more about giving people tools to help them reveal and even prevent abuses of power. Dr. John Cook over at skeptical science argues that the conspiratorial frame rarely uncovers real conspiracies and that's largely because of the complicated relationship with evidence. But we definitely benefit from are things like measured skepticism, careful consideration of evidence, which includes being willing to be proven wrong and recognizing then eliminating contradictions in our beliefs. The way I see it and boils more or less down to this, we all have false beliefs, whether they're conspiracy theories or not, and our task as fingers and citizens of the world is to figure out which ones those are. Thanks so much for joining me guys. As always, transcripts, links to studies in the video version of this episode can be found on my website. Lacy green dot TB. Take care of yourselves out there and I will see you in a couple of weeks.