Source: Public Domain, Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead
In the days following the spate of mass shootings around the country in August 2019, “false flag” conspiracy theories claiming the shootings didn’t happen or were staged by “crisis actors” predictably appeared, just as they did after other tragedies like Sandy Hook. Why does this happen? Dan Funke at Politifact.com reached out to me for answers for his article “Why Do Some People Think Mass Shootings are Staged Every Time?”
Here’s the full transcript of our interview:
According to your research, why do people believe these kinds of conspiracies? Is there a psychological reason that people share posts that claim shootings were faked?
In order to understand the “psychology of conspiracy theories,” we have to start by acknowledging that about half of the U.S. population (as well as that of other countries) believes in at least one conspiracy theory. Unlike delusions, which, by definition, are for the most part not shared beliefs, conspiracy theories are usually shared by groups of people. We should also acknowledge that conspiracy theories occasionally turn out to be true. So belief in conspiracy theories is relatively normal and shouldn’t be conflated with being “crazy.”
That said, there has been considerable recent research in psychology to understand differences between those who believe in conspiracy theories and those who don’t. This body of research has revealed a number of different “cognitive quirks” of people who believe in conspiracy theories, like greater need for control, certainty, and “cognitive closure” (the desire to have an explanation for events when explanations are lacking) or the desire to be unique. Other research has found that those who believe in conspiracy theories are more likely to have a cognitive bias called “hypersensitive agency detection” or “teleological thinking” whereby events are over-attributed to hidden forces, purposes, and motives. Finally, it has been found that lack of analytic thinking and something called “bullshit receptivity” — the tendency to be duped by superficially profound statements that are in reality meaningless — are overrepresented among those who believe in conspiracy theories.
In my own academic work, however, I have noted that these findings don’t necessarily apply to everyone who believes in conspiracy theories or across conspiracy theories of different themes. I like to model belief in conspiracy theories as a two-step process that starts with mistrust. When you don’t trust the authoritative account of things or when you don’t trust in traditional institutions of knowledge, this can result in an “epistemic vacuum” or “informational void” that one then tries to fill. In this day and age, people tend to do that through by online “research” as opposed to in-person conversation. As a result, they can find themselves diving down a rabbit-hole in which both information and misinformation abound. This is the second step of the conspiracy belief process. Note that in searching for explanations, many conspiracy theorists aren’t so much theorizing as they are trying to construct a story based on available information — I like to call them conspiracy “theists” rather than “theorists.” The man who took an automatic weapon into Comet Ping Pong looking for a Hillary Clinton-led child trafficking ring didn’t come up with that notion on his own; he learned online it from places like Reddit, 4Chan, and InfoWars.
Once you’re falling down the misinformation rabbit hole, “confirmation bias” — the tendency to seek out information that confirms pre-existing intuitions — tends to steer us toward certain kinds of information over others. For example, research suggests that “conspiracist ideation” — the general belief that hidden, nefarious forces are pulling the puppet strings of human events — may be one kind of pre-existing intuition that accounts for why people gravitate towards conspiracy theories and why belief in one conspiracy theory tends to predict belief in others. But the related cognitive process of “motivated reasoning” whereby we sift through evidence to reinforce our ideological beliefs rather than to find objective truth also accounts for why people are drawn towards particular conspiracy theories. According to this view, people might believe in false flag theories about Sandy Hook or some of the other more recent mass shootings based on pre-existing beliefs about gun rights and concerns about liberal politicians taking their guns away. Confirmation bias and motivated reasoning mean that we discard information that detracts from our narrative, but we also discount information to resolve cognitive dissonance. So, if we have a core belief that guns make us safer, then becoming a mass shooting denialist helps resolve evidence to the contrary. It’s basically a kind of gaslighting with a goal of downplaying the danger of guns.
Are there types of people who are more prone to shooting-related conspiracies than others?
Most of the research on conspiracy theory beliefs to date has tended to focus on “general conspiracist ideation” rather than belief in individual conspiracy theories. And so, I’m not aware of any specific research on conspiracy theories related to mass shootings, just as there has been little to no research on groups like Flat Earthers, or, as I sometimes call them, round earth conspiracy theorists.
But according to the motivated reasoning model, which is supported by good evidence, conspiracy theories with a political slant thrive because they align with political ideologies. Likewise, according to my model of mistrust as a core feature of conspiracy theories, the target of that mistrust shapes conspiracy theory beliefs. For example, Holocaust denialism is embraced by people with antisemitic attitudes. Similarly, people who are drawn to false flag conspiracies about mass shootings will predictably be those with strong beliefs about gun ownership and gun rights who are mistrustful of government in general and liberals in particular. This is exactly the kind of political ideology captured within QAnon conspiracy theorists and those who believe that the “Deep State” is operating behind the scenes to promote globalism and a New World Order. Add that to specific concerns about government coming to take one’s guns away and you have fertile ground for false flag conspiracies about mass shootings to take root.
This shouldn’t be taken to mean that only conservatives with right-wing ideologies are inclined to believe in conspiracy theories, as is sometimes claimed. Although there is some evidence to support this view, such findings are biased by questionnaires that only ask about conspiracy theories with conservative themes. Studies that ask about more varied conspiracy theories have found that both liberals and conservatives endorse conspiracy theories according to their respective ideologies.
Based on what you’ve seen, what factors most facilitate the spread of these conspiracies?
According to my model, the contagion of conspiracy theories is determined — in a reciprocal fashion — by lack of trust and availability of misinformation. When mistrust is high, such as when an opposing political party is in power or when there has been a violation of trust by an institution of authority, people will tend to gravitate more to conspiracy theories.
In terms of the spread of misinformation, the role of the internet is hard to ignore, particularly when considering the vast amount of information and misinformation out there, the conflation of objective news with editorial opinion, and a business model geared towards showing us what we want to see. Confirmation bias is already an artefact of human brains, but with the internet, we’re dealing with “confirmation bias on steroids.” Very few of us have ever been taught how to become more discerning consumers of online information and the media giants aren’t incentivized to improve the quality of information. On the contrary, misinformation is big business.
I mentioned at the start that delusional beliefs aren’t typically shared. Similarly, if an individual who is skeptical of official accounts and looking for alternative explanations mentions a conspiracy theory among friends or family, “trying it on for size,” they may very well get shot down. But the internet has become a safe haven for fringe beliefs such that it’s no longer difficult to find someone who might share a belief — about false flag operations, a flat earth, UFOs and alien abductions, or the Mandela Effect — and point you to others that are just as appealing, however improbable. In this way, an idiosyncratic belief can become a movement.
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