In 2016, the bizarre tipped over into the dangerous when the so-called Pizzagate conspiracy spread online. It claimed that Clinton was implicated in a pedophilia ring being run out of a pizza place in Washington, D.C., and it found eager propagators on social-media sites like Twitter and bulletin boards like 4chan. Ultimately, it inspired a man to enter the pizza place with an assault rifle in the apparent belief that he would bust up the activities. He was arrested without hurting anyone.
This is emphatically not to say that conspiratorial thinking causes violence. As with any trait common among extremists—childhood trauma, say, or any of a spectrum of political or economic grievances, or deep religious commitment—not all extremists have it, and the overwhelming majority of people who do have it never become extremists. Some conspiracy theories themselves are benign; they don’t necessarily serve as vehicles for identity-based grievances and the demonization of another group. It suggests no violent remedy to believe, for instance, that the moon landing was faked, or that Paul McCartney died in the mid-1960s and the Beatles replaced him with an imposter.
Bartlett and Miller describe the function of conspiracy theories instead as a kind of “radicalizing multiplier.” Amarasingam describes the process this way: “The conspiracy theory comes along and says, ‘Yeah, you’re absolutely right, this mysterious out-group is out to get you, is controlling everything, is orchestrating the downfall of the community that you hold so dear.’”
“You start to see the attacking of the out-group as not only justified, but morally required. That leap is quite a dangerous one, and almost always leads to violence of some kind,” he said. “You start to see attacking them as fundamentally necessary for your own survival and the survival of your people.”
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Bartlett and Miller published their paper eight years ago and were surprised to find how far conspiracy theories were spreading “under the radar.” Since then, social media has aided their proliferation, both by facilitating access to conspiracy theories and by connecting like-minded individuals who might otherwise have remained isolated.
Meanwhile, trust in traditional purveyors of information, such as the media and the government, has declined in the U.S. and elsewhere, encouraging people to doubt official accounts and seek other sources of information, not all of them equally reliable. Finally, there is President Donald Trump himself, who came to political prominence promoting the “birther” conspiracy that his predecessor, Barack Obama, a natural-born U.S. citizen, was born in Kenya, and who has embraced conspiratorial language about immigrants, the media, and others consistently ever since.
Conspiracy theories thrive online, but they don’t necessarily stay there, Miller said. “Pizzagate is an obsession in 4chan one moment,” he noted, “and the next, someone’s bursting into a pizzeria with a rifle seeking to bust open a pedophile ring.” As the events of the past week show, the outcome can be significantly worse than that.