I’ve been writing online about autism since 2005 and, over that time, autism-related conspiracy theories have been one of the most consistent features of the social media landscape. They were prominent and disruptive in the earliest internet conversations about developmental disability, long before I started blogging. And they are only more common today. It is distressing to note that, at least here in the United States, conspiracy theories are more mainstream than they have ever been.
(As mentioned in a previous post, tech companies like google and facebook have provided a great deal of infrastructure and momentum to conspiracy world that it had lacked in previous decades, but I will not be going into that here.)
It seems clear to me that a lot of the newer, politicized conspiracy trends have learned lessons from the older generation of anti-vaccine/autism conspiracy theory efforts (which in many ways functioned as practice runs for the post-2016 internet).
Watching the conspiracy stuff ebb and flow and morph into so many different forms over the years has made it easier to see the shared patterns in how they operate. What follows is my best effort to summarize those patterns. I am trying to get at what conspiracy theories are, at their core, and the specific ways they are used to generate public confusion and social division.
I will be emphasizing the “disinformation” element in part to distinguish it from well-documented histories such as the racist practice of medical experimentation on Black Americans that took place during many different time periods in the United States. When I refer to conspiracy theories, I am pointing to identifiable disinformation campaigns that have fraudulent or fabricated evidence at their core, a classic example being the debunked efforts to link autism and vaccines.
II. The quick, rambling overview:
Disinformation campaigns are designed to promote social unrest. And conspiracy theories are a common form of disinformation. Their purpose is to subtly alter the way a person makes sense of the world around them. This is accomplished by using falsehoods to manipulate people into a certain state of mind, one that makes a person less trusting in reliable information and more trusting in unreliable information.
To put this in more specific terms: one purpose of disinformation is to provide a targeted individual or group with a way to (psychologically) detach from the rules and laws of the culture/society around them. Once a person invests trust in disinformation, they essentially give themselves “permission” to devalue their previous sources of understanding (be that a country’s laws or one’s preferred news/information platforms, medical experts, church and/or political leaders and so on).
Conspiracy theories are a head game. They are a trick. I think of the strategy behind it this way:
How do you get a person to believe something patently ridiculous? You don’t focus on selling the ridiculous-sounding parts of a theory. You focus on undermining what the other person believes. You psychologically attack where they invest trust, how they make sense of the world. Once a seed of doubt has been planted- once the parameters of a person’s belief structure have been made a little fuzzier- absurd theories and bad information get a lot easier to sell.
Shorter version: trust uninvested in reliable information lowers a person’s psychological defenses and makes them vulnerable to then housing that trust in a hostile point of view.
It’s good to not buy into manipulative conspiracy theories, but to those who laugh at some of the weirder bits with these things, you should know: the stuff that sounds ridiculous is there by design, it is part of how the head game works. A group aiming to control how its members perceive reality will always need ways to push out those who might raise questions. Absurd elements in a conspiracy theory are useful in getting potentially noisy skeptics to self-select out of the group. This leaves behind a larger number of members who aren’t as concerned about the details and are easier to manage. Meaning: the various people behind conspiracy theories, who know it’s a scam, want the general public to laugh at their members. It helps them build and maintain social cohesion within their efforts.
I do not have a more specific point with this writing, it is too sprawling of a topic and I am overly tangential at the moment. I am hoping to sketch out broad patterns that I and many others have witnessed over the years, in case it is helpful to anyone out there sorting through issues relating to this topic.