Make It Make Sense
Why are some people drawn to misinformation, while the rest of us roll our eyes?
When my thoughts have space to wander, they often wander to the problem of misinformation and conspiracy theories. This is a personal obsession, and a painful one, because my own family has totally fractured over this stuff.
I feel this tweet, big time:
Why do some people believe stories about microchips in COVID-19 vaccines, while the rest of us roll our eyes? Level of education is a predictor of whether people believe in conspiracy theories, but it’s hardly definitive. Kurt Andersen’s tweet above is so relatable to me because I also know some smart, highly-educated people who have plunged into the abyss. I constantly find myself wondering why.
In a reply to Andersen’s tweet, Douglas Rushkoff made a comparison to addiction, as in “how could he become an addict when he was so smart?” I think this is a really apt analogy, because what is addiction but an unhealthy and inappropriate response to pain or confusion or trauma that is absolutely real? And as a response to real pain, addiction is something that I can understand. I feel like I can explain it. Falling down an abyss of misinformation and conspiracy theories is also a response to a kind of pain, and seeing it as its own kind of addiction makes it explicable to me on a certain level.
If climate change really threatens the possibility that humanity will survive beyond the next few decades, then why are we all just carrying on with normal life? If the GOP really represents a threat to American democracy, then why is the political media operating as it always has? Why are big corporate donors throwing their money at all the same people as ever? If the pandemic is really crushing the economy, then why does the stock market keep going up and up? None of it makes any sense. It’s confusing, and it’s painful.
I think about this quote a lot:
“Humanity today is like a waking dreamer, caught between the fantasies of sleep and the chaos of the real world... We have created a Star Wars civilization, with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and godlike technology. We thrash about. We are terribly confused by the mere fact of our existence, and a danger to ourselves and to the rest of life.” – E.O. Wilson
The middle sentence is the one I most often think about, but it’s the first and last that are relevant to the topic at hand. The more you examine modern life, the more it feels not only confusing, but toxic and genuinely painful. So mostly we avoid examining it. You could say that a lot of modern life consists of elaborate distractions from examining it, and that all the time we spend building and pursuing distractions is one grand act of avoidance. Substance abuse, you could argue, is simply a more extreme act of avoidance.
People understandably crave something to relieve their pain, whether powerful drugs, or simple answers that resolve their confusion and make things make sense. This is what conspiracy theories do. They offer answers that make things make sense, which literally feels good.
Not long ago, a short video of a person loading a Pez dispenser went viral because it appeared to show that we’ve all been doing it wrong this whole time. I’m pretty sure I shared it myself. But later when I saw another video debunking it, I realized I’d fallen for disinformation. Although the subject matter was totally trivial, I was disappointed in myself, and I reflected on the experience. As I thought about my own reaction to the first video and what had motivated me to share it without any skepticism, I understood that it had given me a little hit of pleasure. I had enjoyed the feeling of discovering a novel and useful trick and then paying it forward. I probably also enjoyed the feeling of being in-the-know, being someone who could spread this new knowledge. If the knowledge was about something more consequential than Pez, if it had addressed something that gives me serious angst or confusion, I can easily imagine that it would feel like a balm, something that I would not give up easily.
With all kinds of pain, some people are more resilient than others. Some people have a high pain tolerance. And just as with pain tolerance, it seems to me that people exist along a spectrum, where some people seem to require simple answers, heroes and villains, while other people are more comfortable with questions, complexity, and ambiguity. Where a person sits on this spectrum is influenced by education and other external factors, but again it is apparently not dependent on these.
I don’t know then, what determines a person’s need for answers or their comfort with uncertainty. It may be a fundamental quality or trait that we have, or even a genetic predisposition. The ability to tolerate uncertainty may be a cognitive capacity that is weakened or strengthened by a combination of internal and external factors. And one’s dependency on simple answers may be a sort of condition, like anxiety, influenced by a variety of identifiable risk factors. Whatever the case, it’s not something we can argue our way out of with facts and logic.
It’s a big problem, because one major difference between addiction to drugs or alcohol and addiction conspiracy theories is that a lot of conspiracy theory people believe they’re fighting for a true and righteous cause. They see themselves as soldiers in an information war, and they use every tactic they can think of to spread their ideas.