When conspiracy theories spill over into the real world, the results can be tragic

An extraordinary scene unfolded in a Connecticut courtroom the last week of September as parents of some of the 20 children murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 testified to how conspiracy theorists have tormented them since that terrible day.

Robbie Parker, whose six-year-old Emily was killed at school, was one of the parents singled out by Alex Jones, one of the world’s most influential conspiracy theorists, who founded the radio site and far-right fake news, Infowars, more than 20 years ago. The day after Emilie and her classmates died, Jones took to her platform to describe the event as “completely untrue”, claiming the shooting was “a hoax” staged by the US government to facilitate the adoption of stricter gun control measures. Jones went after grieving parents like Parker, repeatedly playing up Parker’s press interviews and accusing him of being a “crisis actor”.

Last year, Jones lost four defamation lawsuits brought by the families of 10 Sandy Hook victims, leading to the recent jury trial to decide how much Jones should pay in compensatory and punitive damages.

The lawsuit also raises other questions about how and why fake news and conspiracy theories flourish and who they benefit and who and how they harm.

web of liesa clever, comprehensive and accessible new book by Irish scholar Aoife Gallagher is a valiant attempt to answer some of these questions.

Gallagher borrows political scientist Joseph Uscinski’s definition of a conspiracy theory as “a means of explaining a certain event or phenomenon by invoking a sinister conspiracy orchestrated by powerful actors, who act in secret for their own benefit and against the common good. “.

While Ireland is thankfully not a hotbed of conspiracies, Gallagher warns complacency is dangerous. One of its main messages is that no one is immune to conspiratorial thought; we are all at risk of falling down the rabbit hole.

“Everyone is sensitive. Sometimes there’s this kind of feeling of, ‘Oh, I’m not going to fall for this thing.’ But what people need to understand is that our brains are made to fall in love with this stuff,” she says, referring to the process by which human beings are constantly trying to make sense of what we are going through. .

And to put it mildly, right now we are going through a lot, all at once.

The climate is changing before our eyes; technology is experiencing new highs and lows, and we are in a global pandemic.

Infowars host Alex Jones has been sued by relatives of some of the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting for calling the massacre a hoax. Photo: AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana

Gallagher turns to Professor Jan-Willem van Prooijen, a behavioral scientist and expert in the psychology of radicalisation, extremism and conspiracy thinking, to explain that feelings of fear and uncertainty are often a trigger.

“Such feelings cause people to ruminate, to try to find the cause of their negative feelings and to make sense of the situation they find themselves in. He says it’s probably part of our evolutionary psychology of self-preservation. : it’s a survival instinct.”

So we’re hardwired to fall down rabbit holes, and there are so many rabbit holes.

Gallagher started out as an investigative reporter at Storyful, vetting online video content from news storylines so news outlets could use it.

She now works as an analyst at the Institute of Strategic Dialogue, a think tank that studies the intersection of far-right extremism, disinformation and conspiracy theories.

She is well placed to enlighten readers on the most common conspiracy theories circulating today and those looming on the horizon.

What is interesting is that few of them are actually new; many are simply rinsed and repeated, enhanced versions of old conspiracy theories. From Illuminati to Red Scare, from COVID-19 deniers to QAnon, today’s conspiracy theories often evolve from old tropes.

At the beginning of the book, she presents us with a potted history of the last centuries of conspiracy theories and their roots in anti-Semitism, xenophobia and white supremacy, and all their deadly consequences.

Gallagher writes: “The same pattern has repeated itself over and over again for centuries: fear, discrimination and stereotyping lead to an irrational belief in a plot to destroy the world. While the Illuminati and Freemasons have borne the brunt of this fear for decades, its coalescence with the scourge of anti-Semitism has resulted in a trail of death and destruction that has changed the face of the world.

“Modern conspiracy theories that borrow themes from The Protocols of the Elders of Zion often mask the role of the Jews, but lightly scratch the surface, and you’ll find that anti-Semitism is watching you.”

While far-right extremist thought is undoubtedly present in Ireland, Gallagher says it is minimal compared to other parts of the world, particularly the United States, where it has been a hugely polarizing factor in a country already contested.

She describes QAnon as “a savage conspiracy theory movement, built on the belief that Democrats and Liberals are evil, murderous child abusers who want to control the world, and that Trump and his allies are the saviors.”

This specific web of lies is so outrageous it could almost be funny, except the consequences can be horrific.

In early September, Igor Lanis, an auto industry worker from suburban Detroit, shot and killed his wife and injured one of his daughters with a shotgun, before police killed him. His other daughter Rebecca Lanis said The daily beast she believed they had argued about the conspiracy theorists.

“In 2020, after the election, he started going crazy. He went down the deep end,” she said, “He started going down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories and QAnon. First it started with the “stolen election”, then it started talking about worse things, 5G, the vaccine, just everything.

Lanis explained that her father believes “the Deep State stole the election and there is a global cabal out to lure conservatives.”

When conspiracy theories spill over into the real world, the results can be tragic, like the Lanis shooting or when people refuse to get vaccinated, believing anti-science narratives.

In a recent US study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, registered Republicans had far higher death rates than registered Democrats during the pandemic, primarily after vaccines became available.

Conspiracy theories and misinformation helped Vladimir Putin justify Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which is now sinking into winter and displacing millions of Ukrainians.

There are other, less deadly, but very damaging consequences for people who subscribe to specific conspiracy theories.

Some of the most moving and insightful parts of Gallagher’s book are when she speaks to family members and loved ones about people they feel they have lost, mentally and emotionally, to obsessions around a whole variety of theories. of the plot.

Many of us have people in our lives who have fallen down a rabbit hole, and Gallagher is both practical and compassionate with her advice for dealing with that situation.

She advises, above all, to keep this person in your life, adding: “This can mean setting limits, telling your loved one that certain topics that can lead to arguments, such as politics or vaccines, are irrelevant when you’re spending time together.”

Gallagher says it’s almost like dealing with a drug addict: there’s no point in scolding or shaming him; it will only drive them away.

Instead, she says, “If you want to try to help bring a loved one to the surface, it’s essential to approach this with empathy and without judgment.”

We cannot do much at the individual level. As long as profits are made by luring people into conspiracy theories, they will continue to thrive.

Aoife Gallagher, author of Web of Lies, works as an analyst investigating the intersection of far-right extremism, disinformation and conspiracy theories.

Aoife Gallagher, author of Web of Lies, works as an analyst investigating the intersection of far-right extremism, disinformation and conspiracy theories.

Near the end of the book, Gallagher looks at who benefits from this global and radicalized force.

She quotes Melanie Smith, who told her that the beneficiaries are merchants of chaos: “Any secret network or manifesto operated by political actors [state-backed or not] have everything to gain from the confusion sown by misinformation and conspiracy theories.

“In other words, groups that want to influence voting segments and those that promote hatred or distrust of institutions and governments all stand to gain from pandering to these communities.”

Individuals and corporations get rich from people who believe in conspiracy theories; Alex Jones is one such individual.

During the trial, a forensic economist said Jones and his Free Speech Systems network likely had a combined net worth of between $135 million and $270 million. By selling sensational lies and dietary supplements, Jones has built an empire on conspiracies and those who believe in them.

In writing web of liesGallagher has given the fight for truth a much-needed boost.

When we spoke, I asked him what would change to improve the whole sad state of affairs around conspiracy theories.

Her answer was not surprising: she would like to change the fundamental structure of social media platforms so that outrage and sensational content are not always what drives the most engagement, which in turn creates huge profits.

“All the platforms want is for the eyes to stay on the screens in order to push more advertising to people; this is the actual business model. If I had a magic wand, this would be the thing I would change.

That would be a massive help, but that’s unlikely to change anytime soon.

In the meantime, Gallagher’s book offers essential background and solid advice on conspiracy theories in Ireland and abroad, as well as suggestions for protecting yourself and your community from the worst of them.

  • Web of Lies is published by Gill