Big Brain Energy: Why do we fall victim to false conspiracy theories?

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Last summer, I interviewed UConn student JT Lewis, a junior from UConn who is running for state senate as a Republican. In 2012, JT’s 6-year-old brother Jesse was killed in the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown. In the interview, we talked about his political beliefs, honoring his brother through his work, and coping with the unimaginable. We wrapped up and I published the story. All done. 

Until it wasn’t.  

About a week later, I started receiving a slew of emails from a man known as Wolfgang Halbig, who I would come to find out is one of the most prominent Sandy Hook truthers and a dedicated conspiracy theorist devoted to proving the massacre was staged. He began emailing me frequent incoherent paragraphs about how he has proof the victims are still alive, and would even go as far as to attach images of teenagers he believes are current images of those who died in 2012.  

I was stunned. 

I began researching into Halbig on Google and quickly learned how he is infamously known for torturing families of victims, most notably the parents of Noah Pozner, and is inspired by the work of now deplatformed far-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.  

I eventually blocked the email handle, and in January I learned Halbig had been arrested in Florida and charged with unlawful possession of the identification of Leonard Pozner, whose son was killed in the shooting.

Halbig is not the only one jumping on the conspiracy theory train. For years, people all over the internet have made baseless claims that Sept. 11 terrorist attacks did not happen, that former financier and sexual predator Jeffrey Epstein did not kill himself in federal prison and so on. The online right-wing group known as QAnon has recently capitalized on many of these issues in ways that are problematic, concerning, and downright incorrect.  

At its inception, QAnon mostly stayed on the dark web, wiggling its way into 4chan threads and other chat rooms. However, in recent months, its agenda has gone mainstream, with thousands of people sharing baseless claims from the organization onto Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. 

QAnon is, at its core, “the umbrella term for a sprawling set of internet conspiracy theories that allege, falsely, that the world is run by a cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles who are plotting against Mr. Trump while operating a global child sex-trafficking ring,” according to The New York Times. 

In recent months, members of the group have posted falsified flight logs from Jeffrey Epstein’s private plane, which include significant Hollywood names like Tom Hanks, Ellen Degeneres, Oprah and Chrissy Teigen.  

The group was also responsible for the wildly popular Wayfair scandal, which accused the furniture company of participating in sex trafficking by selling children in expensive industrial-grade cabinets and pillows that seemed to bear the names of many missing and exploited kids. The claims have been debunked by Snopes and other independent fact-checkers.  

But why do so many of us seem to fall victim to these types of conspiracies that, beneath the surface, have no sufficient backing or evidence? And the conspiracy claims aren’t harmless either, according to an article from the Scientific American in 2019.

“The gunman who shot and killed 11 people and injured six others in a Pittsburgh synagogue in October 2018 justified his attack by claiming that Jewish people were stealthily supporting illegal immigrants,” wrote Melinda Wenner Moyer, a science journalist. “In 2016 a conspiracy theory positing that high-ranking Democratic Party officials were involved in a child sex ring involving several Washington, D.C. area restaurants incited one believer to fire an assault weapon inside a pizzeria. Luckily no one was hurt.” 

“In 2016 a conspiracy theory positing that high-ranking Democratic Party officials were involved in a child sex ring involving several Washington, D.C. area restaurants incited one believer to fire an assault weapon inside a pizzeria. Luckily no one was hurt.” 

The science of why we believe these claims, though, goes back to our inherent need for a sense of safety and security in a world that is far too untrusting and turbulent, especially with the advent of the coronavirus pandemic and the upcoming 2020 election cycle. 

“New research suggests that events happening worldwide are nurturing underlying emotions that make people more willing to believe in conspiracies. Experiments have revealed that feelings of anxiety make people think more conspiratorially. Such feelings, along with a sense of disenfranchisement, currently grip many Americans, according to surveys,” Moyer said. “In such situations, a conspiracy theory can provide comfort by identifying a convenient scapegoat and thereby making the world seem more straightforward and controllable.” 

As humans, we also feel a constant need to find causal agents for every event that happens. Take a look at the Sandy Hook shooting once again. A deranged 20-year-old randomly walked into an elementary school in a quiet New England town and senselessly murdered 20 children and six educators for absolutely no feasible reason. To this day, we still struggle to understand why the shooter committed his heinous crimes. 

For Sandy Hook truthers like Halbig, the answer is simple: The shooting is so random and unfathomable, it most likely didn’t happen. For many of them, instead, the shooting was staged in order to allow the government to strip citizens of their second amendment rights. These motives are further explored in an article published in 2017 by Douglas & al. of the Association for Psychological Science

“Specific epistemic motives that causal explanations may serve include slaking curiosity when information is unavailable, reducing uncertainty and bewilderment when available information is conflicting, finding meaning when events seem random, and defending beliefs from disconfirmation,” the article says.  

An article from August in Business Insider further investigates how those who believe and disseminate conspiracy theories often feel a sense of superiority to others, in that they believe they are not part of the “sheep” and can think for themselves. In reality, there is little to no critical thinking happening at all.

“We argue that people high in need for uniqueness should be more likely than others to endorse conspiracy beliefs because conspiracy theories represent the possession of unconventional and potentially scarce information,” the article reads. “Moreover, conspiracy theories rely on narratives that refer to secret knowledge (Mason, 2002) or information, which, by definition, is not accessible to everyone, otherwise it would not be a secret and it would be a well-known fact.” 

“We argue that people high in need for uniqueness should be more likely than others to endorse conspiracy beliefs because conspiracy theories represent the possession of unconventional and potentially scarce information,”

The unfortunate reality of conspiracy theories is that they often insensitively invalidate real events, real feelings and real people at the expense of simplicity and indulgence in fantasy. Sex trafficking, for example, is one of the world’s top illegal trades and affects millions of innocent adults and children yearly. QAnon and other conspiracy groups harness these horrendous crimes to insist on proving a political point that is unfounded and downright dangerous. However, no matter how much rational thought you bring the table in discourse with these conspiracy theorists, you will often fail to change their minds.  

“You can’t really argue with people who believe in conspiracy theories, because their beliefs aren’t rational. Instead, they are often fear- or paranoia-based beliefs that, when confronted with contrarian factual evidence, will dismiss both the evidence and the messenger who brings it,” the article from Business Insider says. “That’s because conspiracy theories are driven by the people who believe and spread them and their own psychological makeup- not on the factual support or logical reasoning of the theory itself.” 

4 COMMENTS

  1. Clearly, you didn’t do much research into Mr. Halbig. Or you just cleverly omitted that he was once the country’s leading expert on School Safety, which was how he was drawn into the story and events of Sandy Hook.

    A fair telling of that story, and the numerous anomalies that continue to be unsolved might have made you a better writer, and would show that for some people the issue continues to be murky.

    But no… none of that for you, or your readers.

    • If Wolfgang was such a.”school safety expert”, then please explain how a student successfully managed to steal his gun from him”. That alone proves Wolfgang was terrible at his job.

  2. A “conspiracy theory” is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. Sometimes one is proven to be fact and is no longer theory.

    I would also like to see Mr. Halbig’s questions answered.

    • All 16 of Wolfgang’s silly questions were already answered. He just refuses to accept the answers because the answers don’t align with his hoax fantasy.

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