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Conspiracy theories can affect anyone and lead to real-world harms

By Christopher T. Conner, University of Missouri-Columbia
A man holds a QAnon conspiracy flag in Hollywood, California, on August 22, 2020. A conspiracy by QAnon conspiracy theorists circulated, without evidence, accusing Hollywood actors of engaging in crimes against children. File Photo by Christian Monterrosa/EPA-EFE
A man holds a QAnon conspiracy flag in Hollywood, California, on August 22, 2020. A conspiracy by QAnon conspiracy theorists circulated, without evidence, accusing Hollywood actors of engaging in crimes against children. File Photo by Christian Monterrosa/EPA-EFE

May 28 (UPI) -- After the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, former NBA player Royce White became an outspoken advocate of defunding the police. Over those ensuing months, he appeared at a number of protests and marches in Minnesota -- demonstrations that conservative politicians and pundits excoriated.

Four years later, White accepted the endorsement of the Minnesota GOP in the state's 2024 U.S. Senate race.

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In the interim, White had appeared on the show of conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, where he decried the "establishment" and "corporatocracy." While on Steve Bannon's "War Room" podcast, he complained that women "had become too mouthy." Elsewhere, he lambasted the LGBTQ+ movement as "Luciferian" and described Israel as the vanguard of a "new world order."

White's transition from an NBA player who advocated for progressive causes to an acolyte of Jones is more common than you might think.

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Many people might associate conspiracy theories with certain demographics or political leanings. But the reality is far more nuanced, with emerging research finding that there is far more diversity among conspiracists than scholars previously thought.

Conspiracy theories are just as likely to be held by your MAGA-hat wearing uncle as they are your best friend who's a fan of the band Phish and goes to CrossFit three times a week.

Entering the margins

For the past four and a half years, I've immersed myself in spaces occupied by conspiracy theorists.

What began as an attempt to understand the QAnon conspiracy movement quickly expanded into an exploration of a wide range of alternative belief systems.

These include, but are not limited to, discredited intellectuals who promote race science; butthole sunners who believe that by harnessing the sun's rays, they live longer; and semen retention enthusiasts, which is a practice that discourages ejaculation as a way to boost testosterone levels.

Most researchers have understood conspiracy theories and alternative beliefs as being a product of poor education or misinformation spread on social media. But recent research has found that support for them exists regardless of educational level or income. Some of the most privileged people in U.S. society hold deeply conspiratorial beliefs, as do sports fans, yogis and video game enthusiasts.

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While some many say that believing in UFOs or Bigfoot may not be that big of a problem, these ideas can lead to real-world harms. Butthole sunning, for example, has been linked with cancer.

By understanding how conspiracy theories and alternative belief systems intersect and evolve over time, you can see how anyone -- no matter their political leanings -- can become subsumed by them.

Forbidden knowledge

Different conspiracy theories, forms of psuedoscience and discredited beliefs -- such as the notion that the Earth is flat -- occupy the same space.

They are part of a collective waste bin of discarded ideas, a phenomenon that political scientist Michale Barkun characterizes as "stigmatized knowledge." Because they've been discredited by mainstream institutions, they often only emerge on the fringes of society.

Certain stigmatized narratives can also become tools wielded by politicians and media influencers who will say or do anything to make money and gain power.

For example, in their book "Conspirituality: How New Age Conspiracy Theories Became a Health Threat," Derek Berry, Matthew Remski and Julien Walker document the ways in which contemporary New Age spiritualism has been hijacked by social media influencers, who have then gone on to promote vaccine misinformation and foment government mistrust.

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Social media platforms provide financial incentives for individuals creating the most engaging content. Of course, what's engaging is not necessarily what's accurate or truthful. Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of these influencers became popular by suggesting that they had "sacred" or "secret" knowledge on how to defeat the virus.

It's one way people can go from embracing seemingly harmless ideas, like Bigfoot, to becoming open to more radical beliefs like the Great Replacement Theory, which is the conspiracy theory that illegal immigrants are colluding with Democrats to change the racial demographics of America and, in doing so, shape future elections.

The intersection of politics and alternative beliefs is not a recent phenomenon.

Some of these beliefs, like the imaginary continent of Atlantis, were used by the Nazi party to create a link to a mythical pure race. Indeed, a key component of the Nazi's rise to power was the promotion of ideas that today would be described as New Age mysticism -- a spiritual movement that emphasizes magical experiences and the notion that spiritual forces connect everything in the universe.

The complexity of conspiracists

While many pundits point to White Christian nationalists as the group most susceptible to conspiracies -- and there is some truth to this claim -- it's important to pay attention to others who possess conspiratorial ideas.

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The anti-vaccine movement is now a pet issue for many on the right, but it first gained notoriety among wealthy liberals. One of the most visible promoters of the movement is current presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.

Jacob Chansley, also known as the "QAnon Shaman," is another well-known example of this juxtaposition: He's been seen protesting on behalf of both right- and left-wing causes and was at the Jan. 6, 2021, storming of the U.S. Capitol.

A 2021 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 23% of Republicans believe that "the government, media and financial worlds in the U.S. are controlled by a group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles."

The number might seem high, but probably isn't all that surprising: It's one of the core tenants of the right-wing QAnon conspiracy theory. But I found the survey's other findings somewhat startling -- that 8% of self-identified Democrats and 14% of independents also agreed with that statement.

Where do we go from here?

While seemingly unrelated at first glance, conspiracy theories such as QAnon and alternative wellness practices such as drinking urine share common themes. Namely, they're united by distrust in mainstream institutions. They long for alternative belief systems that confirm their existing beliefs and ignore contradicting evidence.

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Being critical of those in positions of power is a healthy thing, but there are times in which trust in leadership makes sense -- like listening to firefighters evacuating a building or public health officials during a global pandemic.

In fairness, the number of Americans who believe in conspiracy theories does not seem to be rising. At the same time, conspiracies were a core motivator for many of the Jan. 6 protesters who attempted to interrupt the peaceful transfer of power.

As the contributors to my forthcoming edited essay collection argue, conspiracy-laden narratives not only undermine societal institutions, but they also strain relationships with fellow citizens. They train people to be suspicious of trusted sources of information -- and suspicious of one another.

None of that bodes well for liberal democracy.The Conversation

Christopher T. Conner is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Missouri-Columbia. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article. The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

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