October 17, 2021

I'm supposed to be reassured by this Rolling Stone interview with conspiracy expert Joseph Uscinski. I'm not reassured, even though Uscinski's expertise comes highly recommended.

“Joe knows this stuff better than really anyone else does,” says Ethan Zuckerman, the former director of the MIT Center for Civic Media and a current professor of public policy, communication and information at the University of Massachusetts. “Joe has the data and Joe’s data is good. The rest of us are just dabbling. So I’m never going to contradict Joe on what conspiracy theories are and how they happen.”

Uscinski insists that there's no increase in conspiratorial thinking these days, and that the people who are falling for the worst conspiracies are people who were already psychologically unstable.

As Uscinski’s research bears out, a certain percentage of people (he puts it at 5-7 percent) will be predisposed to believe a certain type of anti-establishment conspiracy theory, and when they go looking, they will find it every time, in whatever form it is currently lurking. And ultimately, that means that in our collective hysteria over the QAnon phenomenon, we’ve gotten caught up in the weirdness of the ideas while perhaps losing sight of the weirdness of the people — and the fact that this potentially explosive weirdness has been an undercurrent of American society all along.

If you believe in extreme conspiracies, Uscinski says, it's because you were nuts to begin with. Here's a quote from the interview:

I mean, there’s this style of reporting that’s been out for a while, like, “My cousin became a QAnon and now I don’t know what to do.” These articles always start off with: “My cousin used to be so normal.” What’s really going on is the cousin was never normal or you just didn’t pay attention to the cousin and he was probably weird but you didn’t have a word to put on that.

But then you hear “QAnon” in the news. Now you can categorize what your cousin is doing as something. You’re like, “Oh, my God, this thing just happened to him.” Well, no, it didn’t just happen. Your cousin was always a wackadoo. I’m sorry....

You know, there’s always anecdotes of these things, but when you read the write up of these, you’re not getting this full picture of whatever that person might have been into before or what their other issues might be. I mean, there was a write-up last summer about this woman who trashed the mask aisle at Target, and all they’re talking about is social media, conspiracy theories, how conspiracy theories overtook her life. You have to get to paragraph 15 to find out that, oh, by the way, she’s diagnosed with severe bipolar disorder, was off her meds for a few months, had lost her job, was facing severe anxiety and was suffering from isolation due to the pandemic. Well, OK, that should be paragraph one.

Uscinski may have data to back this up, but he doesn't show his work. Maybe it's because Rolling Stone is the wrong venue for that. But I would have liked to see some supporting evidence.

Uscinski insists that people believe crazy things because they want to.

What does engaging in a conspiracy theory do for someone who has that mindset? Are they getting constant dopamine hits of their worldview being validated? What’s in it for them?
There’s some discussion that perhaps these are coping mechanisms, but bad ones. Imagine you want to cope with uncertainty. You say, “Oh, I don’t know why the pandemic happens. I can’t sleep at night. So I’ll decide that it’s China trying to kill us all.” Well, that might ease your uncertainty, but knowing people are trying to kill you with bioweapons does not really ease your anxiety. I think it’s a lot more simple than that — it’s that people like ideas that match what they already believe.

But there's a problem here: Believing that the COVID virus is a Chinese bioweapon isn't an off-the-rails conspiracy theory -- it's very close to what many Very Serious People want us all to believe. We've been hectored for months about the lab-leak theory. The belief that the virus escaped from a laboratory in Wuhan and that scientists, in China and elsewhere, conspired to cover up the leak is utterly mainstream. Lab-leak believers may not be willing to say that virus was created as a bioweapon, but many believe it was created, as part of "gain of function" research to see what a really bad virus might do, and from there it's a short step to the bioweapon theory. Are all the journalists who believe in the lab-leak theory mentally ill? Morris never asks Uscinski that.

The interview continues:

But the algorithm certainly isn’t helping with that.
I think that’s getting overestimated, because what do algorithms do?

Give you what you already want.
Right. And nobody wants to really come to grips with the fact that people already want this.

If everyone who succumbs in this way was destined to do so sooner or later, why did my parents smoke cigarettes for decades (in my mother's case, sixty years) while I've never become addicted to them? My answer is that I never started to smoke in the first place. I'm sure I could have easily become an addict if I'd started to smoke, just the way my parents did. Following Uscinski's logic, if I'd been susceptible to tobacco, I would have gravitated toward it. But that's not how people operate. Being susceptible to a toxic substance isn't the same as inevitably succumbing to it. It has to grab hold of you first.

Uscinski may be right when he says that the percentage of conspiratorialists rarely changes. In that respect, maybe there's nothing new about belief in QAnon. What's new is that the belief is weaponized by one political party -- as Uscinski acknowledges, almost as an afterthought, at the very end of the interview.

Leaders will use conspiracy theories from time to time whenever it suits them. Normal mainstream presidents and presidential candidates tend to eschew it. Not entirely, but they tend to not use them....

But having a major presidential candidate like Trump doing it is sort of a new thing. And it wasn’t just about one theory or one thing. It was an attempt to essentially build a new coalition within the party. Nobody in recent history has done what Trump has done and has gotten as far as he has. And I think the danger here is when our political leaders start using this stuff to build political coalitions and then to guide policy....

So we have the behavior of our political leaders bringing into our mainstream politics a bunch of people who have anti-establishment views and engage in anti-social behaviors. I mean, we can call it QAnon — you can call it whatever you want. But what you have there is a bunch of people with unsavory psychological characteristics and unsavory worldviews being activated by unscrupulous politicians. What the Trump presidency showed us is that our system is clearly vulnerable to that. That does keep me up at night.

Yes, that's the problem. Also, although Uscinski won't acknowledge it, Trump and other Republicans don't merely bring conspiratorialists into the fold, they spread conspiratorialism far and wide, and many people who don't believe every aspect of the conspiracies now say, Elitist liberal pedophiles run the world, and one of those pedophile elitists is Bill Gates, who's using COVID vaccines to depopulate the earth, and in the meantime the 2020 election was stolen by means of satellite skulduggery from Italy and fake ballots printed on bamboo paper in China. Not everyone believes every conspiracy theory. Many of them don't believe JFK Jr. is alive and will be Trump's running mate in 2024. But maybe they believe Joe Biden is completely senile and the government is secretly being run by Barack Obama. Or maybe they just believe Democrats cheat in every election, which is something they've been told by most Republican politicians and Fox News for nearly two decades.

What's the solution? Uscinski says:

Well, I think there are things that could be done. One, the parties need to have better control over who they allow to run under their banner. The Republican Party should not be allowing the Trumps, and the Democratic Party should not be allowing Maryanne Williamson. If people are espousing unacceptable ideas, those people should be removed from the ballots.

Congress also needs to hold their members accountable for engaging in this sort of stuff. [Ted] Cruz and [Josh] Hawley should have been booted from the Senate for their actions. Replace them with another Republican — that’s fine. They need to hold themselves accountable before they start to censor any of us.

Oh, is that all? I'm sure that should be easy to accomplish. The GOP won't have a problem with it, right?

Uscinski might know his stuff, but he really doesn't understand how conspiratorialism is operating in American politics today.

Posted with permission from No More Mister Nice Blog.

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