ABOVE PHOTO: Rioters wave flags on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021. As public trust in democratic institutions declines, conspiracy theories are filling the void. In some cases, that’s leading believers to doubt even their own allies. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana, File)
By David Klepper
Daniel Charles Wilson believes the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were an inside job. The war in Ukraine is “totally scripted” and COVID-19 is “completely fake.” The Boston Marathon bombing? Mass shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, and Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas? “Crisis actors,” he says.
Wilson, a 41-year-old from London, Ontario, has doubts about free elections, vaccines, and the Jan. 6 insurrection, too. He accepts little of what has happened in the past 20 years and cheerfully predicts that someday, the internet will make everyone as distrustful as he is.
“It’s the age of information, and the hidden government, the people who control everything, they know they can’t win,” Wilson told The Associated Press. “They’re all lying to us. But we’re going to break through this. It will be a good change for everyone.”
Wilson, who is now working on a book about his views, is not an isolated case of perpetual disbelief. He speaks for a growing number of people in Western nations who have lost faith in democratic governance and a free press, and who have turned to conspiracy theories to fill the void.
Rejecting what they hear from scientists, journalists or public officials, these people instead embrace tales of dark plots and secret explanations. And their beliefs, say experts who study misinformation and extremism, reflect a widespread loss of faith in institutions like government and media.
A poll conducted last year by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that just 16% of Americans say democracy is working well or extremely well. Another 38% said it’s working only somewhat well.
Other surveys reveal how many people in the United States now doubt the media, politicians, science and even each other.
The distrust has gone so deep that even groups that seem ideologically aligned are questioning each other’s motives and intentions.
On the day before Independence Day in Boston this year, a group of about 100 masked men carrying fascist flags marched through the city. Members proudly uploaded videos and photos of the march to online forums popular with supporters of former President Donald Trump and QAnon adherents, who believe a group of satanic, cannibalistic child molesters secretly runs the globe.
Instead of praise, the white supremacists were met with incredulity. Some posters said the marchers were clearly FBI agents or members of antifa — shorthand for anti-fascists — looking to defame Trump supporters. It didn’t matter that the men boasted of their involvement and pleaded to be believed. “Another false flag,” wrote one self-described conservative on Telegram.
Similarly, when an extremist website that sells unregulated ghost guns — firearms without serial numbers — asked its followers about their July 4th plans, several people responded by accusing the group of working for the FBI. When someone claiming to be Q, the figure behind QAnon, reappeared online recently, many conservatives who support the movement speculated that the new Q was actually a government plant.
This past week, when a Georgia monument that some conservative Christians criticized as satanic was bombed, many posters on far-right message boards cheered. But many others said they didn’t believe the news.
“I don’t trust it. I’m still thinking ff,” wrote one woman on Twitter, referencing “false flag,” a term commonly used by conspiracy theorists to describe an event they think was staged.
The global public relations firm Edelman has conducted surveys about public trust for more than two decades, beginning after the 1999 World Trade Organization’s meeting in Seattle was marred by anti-globalization riots. Tonia Reis, director of Edelman’s Trust Barometer surveys, said trust is a precious commodity that’s vital for the economy and government to function.
“Trust is absolutely essential to everything in society working well,” Reis said. “It’s one of those things that, like air, people don’t think about it until they realize they don’t have it, or they’ve lost it or damaged it. And then it can be too late.”
For experts who study misinformation and human cognition, the fraying of trust is tied to the rise of the internet and the way it can be exploited on contentious issues of social and economic change.
Distrust and suspicion offered obvious advantages to small bands of early humans trying to survive in a dangerous world, and those emotions continue to help people gauge personal risk today. But distrust is not always well suited to the modern world, which requires people to trust the strangers who inspect their food, police their streets, and write their news. Democratic institutions, with their regulations and checks and balances, are one way of adding accountability to that trust.
When that trust breaks down, polarization and anxiety increases, creating opportunities for people pushing their own “alternative facts.”
“People can’t fact check the world,” said Dr. Richard Friedman, a New York City psychiatrist and professor at Weill Cornell Medical College who has written about the psychology of trust and belief. “They’re awash in competing streams of information, both good and bad. They’re anxious about the future, and there are a lot of bad actors with the ability to weaponize that fear and anxiety.”
Those bad actors include grifters selling bad investments or sham remedies for COVID-19, Russian disinformation operatives trying to undermine Western democracies, or even homegrown politicians like Trump, whose lies about the 2020 election spurred the Jan. 6 attack.
Research and surveys show belief in conspiracy theories is common and widespread. Believers are more likely to get their information from social media than from professional news organizations. The rise and fall of particular conspiracy theories are often linked to real-world events and social, economic or technological change.
Like Wilson, people who believe in one conspiracy theory are likely to believe in others too, even if they are mutually contradictory. A 2012 paper, for instance, looked at beliefs surrounding the death of Princess Diana of Wales in a 1997 car crash. Researchers found that subjects who believed strongly that Diana was murdered said they also felt strongly that she could have faked her own death.
Wilson said his belief in conspiracies began on Sept. 11, 2001, when he couldn’t accept that the towers could be knocked down by airliners. He said he found information on the internet that confirmed his beliefs, and then began to suspect there were conspiracies behind other world events.
“You have to put it all together yourself,” Wilson said. “The hidden reality, what’s really going on, they don’t want you to know.”