Listen: The Comforting Appeal of Conspiracy Theories

Why false narratives can sometimes outrun facts

On this episode of Social Distance, James Hamblin and Katherine Wells talk with Adrienne LaFrance, the executive editor of The Atlantic, who wrote the June cover story, about the QAnon conspiracy theory, as part of “Shadowland,” a project about conspiracy thinking in America. They discuss the viral disinformation campaigns creating even more uncertainty about COVID-19.

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What follows is an edited and condensed transcript of their conversation.

Katherine Wells: A listener named Ashley wrote into the podcast asking about an alarming video she came across online that she couldn’t get out of her head. She sent us a link to the video, which has since been taken down, but is called Plandemic. This video has gotten a lot of attention, and to discuss it we decided to call Adrienne LaFrance. Adrienne, what is this Plandemic video?

Adrienne LaFrance: It’s a conspiracy theory positing that a secret group of elite world leaders unleashed the coronavirus on the global population as part of a plot to either enact population control or force people to get vaccinated. There is no evidence to support any of it.

Wells: How widespread is this video? Is this just something on the fringe of the internet?

LaFrance: It’s really difficult to quantify the reach of these sorts of theories, but it’s clear that it quickly spread very quickly across the internet. It’s murky how many people saw it in communities that are either QAnon-friendly or otherwise fringe communities, and then how many further saw it because it started getting more media attention as news organizations felt compelled to debunk it.

Wells: For the uninitiated, what is QAnon?

LaFrance: QAnon is a conspiracy theory. The basic premise is that Q is a military insider who has proof that a secret group of world leaders are working with the deep state to torture children and that Donald Trump is aware of this and working to fight them. Q posts clues on the internet known as “Q drops” that advance these ideas. It’s a real-time, participatory conspiracy theory.

Wells: Is the Plandemic video directly related to QAnon?

LaFrance: It’s extremely QAnon-esque. It borrows a lot of the same language and narrative structure, if you can call it that. The same people who promote QAnon are now promoting Plandemic. The video fits very squarely within the QAnon worldview.

Wells: One of the claims made in Plandemic is that the virus was made in a lab, potentially by the U.S. and Chinese governments. Did the virus come from a lab?

LaFrance: Not to my knowledge. But this is an advantage of conspiracy theorizing, because people can always say they’re just asking questions. It’s premised as a desire to find the truth, but with a total rejection of empiricism. When you encounter conspiracy theorists and present them with facts that don’t fit into their worldview, they’ll reject them. But then they’ll still say they’re only trying to find the truth. It’s a brain-melting contradiction that I encountered in reporting the QAnon story and see in the Plandemic universe as well.

Wells: Jim, is the idea that the virus originated in a lab a legitimate question?

James Hamblin: When people ask that, they’re often asking it with innuendo, implying that the virus was made deliberately. As best as science can know, there’s no evidence that this was manufactured by people for deliberate purposes or released in a deliberate way. It is impossible to know if there was potentially someone studying this virus in some lab and it somehow was not contained, but that does not seem likely and we don’t have any evidence that that happened. But like so many conspiracy theories, it’s just a negative that we can’t prove. It’s really hard to prove that something 100 percent did not happen. All we can say is there’s no evidence to suggest it did.

Wells: Is it common that kernels of legitimate questions are embedded in conspiracy theories?

LaFrance: On the one hand, any question is legitimate, right? So making a worldview all-encompassing enough that it answers or cleanly resolves something that’s otherwise inexplicable has some appeal. There are people who claim that terrible events like terrorist attacks or mass shootings didn’t happen. One could imagine the emotional appeal of explaining away a terrible reality. But when I talk to people who study conspiracy theories, they often say that a desire for coherence is not the driving thing that contributes to a propensity to believe in absurdities like this.

Wells: Do conspiracy theories like QAnon or Plandemic have consequences? Why do they matter?

LaFrance: They matter because they represent a mass rejection of reason and Enlightenment values and empiricism. They discount all of the ways we’ve learned to understand our world. It’s a rejection of reality, and it’s dangerous when we can’t agree on a common set of facts that make up the world we share.

For Plandemic, the extent to which it’s challenging science and the efficacy of vaccines is extraordinarily dangerous because people will decide not to get vaccinated or get their children vaccinated. That presents a very real public-health threat.

With QAnon, I think a lot about Pizzagate, which was a precursor to QAnon that shares a lot of the same core beliefs about a secret cabal of elite, high-profile politicians, celebrities, and CEOs abusing children ritualistically. Someone who had been really drawn into this conspiracy theory drove from his house in North Carolina to Washington, D.C., and took weapons into a local pizza shop, ready to uncover what he thought was the secret child-abuse ring. Of course, he didn’t find it, because it didn’t exist. But he did fire his weapon, and there were families and kids sitting there eating pizza. No one was hurt, but that’s obviously still a very frightening and real outcome.

Hamblin: Obviously, we all want answers. It’s much nicer to have things wrapped up in a nice little package, but Plandemic is not even a nice little package. It doesn’t even provide a motive. It makes less sense than what I’m hearing on the news. What do you think is drawing people to things like this?

LaFrance: When I talked to the QAnon true believers, I kept language that borrowed from an end-times worldview. There’s a lot of picking apart the Book of Revelation and talking about a battle between good and evil and casting Donald Trump as a savior. There is this very strong spiritual aspect of it that I wasn’t aware of before I started following it really closely.

Hamblin: Do you have a solution?

LaFrance: I hope journalism will help a little. It’s especially tricky for the people who see their loved ones sharing stuff that is so patently absurd and dangerous, because we know that just confronting someone doesn’t work. You can’t just tell someone how ridiculous they’re being and expect them to trust you more.

Wells: A listener actually wrote in about experiencing this, because her mom is being sucked into coronavirus conspiracy theories. When she tried to send her mom accurate journalism about the pandemic, her mom texted, “The media needs to shut down and then 80 percent of the world’s problems would be gone” and then two pink heart emojis.

LaFrance: In the course of my reporting, I talked to Joseph Uscinski, a professor of political science who has been studying conspiracy theories for ages. It came up in one of our conversations that his mom had started believing in QAnon.

Wells: He’s a conspiracy-theories expert, and his mom believes in QAnon?

LaFrance: Yes. I talked to both of them, and they understand that their worldviews are at odds. They don’t try to convince each other. But to me, like, if even your conspiracy-theory-expert son can’t convince you, how are the rest of us supposed to do it? I think it’s on all of us to be disciplined in how we share information and vet the things that we encounter. I also think that platforms have a much bigger role to play in making sure that the informational environment is not harmful to all of us.