On a squally winter’s afternoon on January 6, 2021, the world watched in disbelief as an angry red sea of protestors stormed the US Capitol building in Washington, DC. Their intent to disrupt the formalisation of Joe Biden’s election victory.
Beneath the Statue of Freedom atop the building’s signature dome, droves of impassioned citizens waving American flags and wearing Trump caps forced entry into the Capitol. Looting ensued. Several were armed. One wore buffalo horns.
Their vehement cries of voter fraud and displays of violence struck observers numb. Gathering in various rooms they fervently shouted, “stop the steal”, “murder the media” and “hang Mike Pence” among other chants. “Three separate people threatened to shoot me,” a Washington Post photojournalist tweeted. The mob’s actions have been condemned as threatening the very principles of the democratic system, and experts say the insurrection remains a salient real-world example of the impact conspiracy theories can have on society.
Videos circulating via news and social media captured scenes of insurrectionists beating up security personnel, breaking windows, striding through Congress and stealing furniture. Five people died as a result of the siege. It was the first time the Capitol had been stormed in 207 years, since British troops marched into Washington in August 1814 and set fire to several public buildings.
Two centuries ago, the threat came from a foreign adversary. In 2021, it was orchestrated by America’s own.
“If you want to explain how conspiracy theories can damage society, there’s no more tangible, concrete an example than the Capitol insurrection,” says Dr John Cook, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Climate Change Communication Research Hub at Monash University.
His initial research interest. more than a decade ago, was debunking climate change myths. But he soon came up against a Pandora’s box of misinformation on a plethora of topics. It led him to where he is now, researching conspiracy theories.
Cook speaks to me from his office in Melbourne. He was living in the US during the four years of Donald Trump’s presidency and has been back in Australia for barely a month. In our Zoom call, the sunny blue sky and white clouds outside the windows of his spacious modern office are a far cry from the dismality of that fateful winter’s afternoon in the US. It felt a world away when he watched the incident unfold over the news from a house in Northern Virginia, just 30 minutes away from the Capitol.
Cook doesn’t think the historic attack would have occurred without the influence of conspiracy theories.
“Sowing distrust in the integrity of the election was an integral part of all these people turning out in Washington, DC. Coming from all parts of the country, all converging because they didn’t believe the results,” he says.
“That’s really textbook conspiratorial thinking: Not believing the mainstream account, not believing governments, not believing institutions.
“It was a tinderbox and then it just got lit and turned into violence.”
The most pervasive conspiracy theories currently in circulation involve 5G towers, the coronavirus and political institutions. They include the far-right’s discredited QAnon conspiracy which alleges there is a secret group of Satan-worshipping, cannibalistic paedophiles who run a global network of child sex trafficking operations. Believers are convinced former US President Donald Trump is (or was) destined to take down this imaginary cabal. QAnon was said to be a deep-state insider, but he was identified earlier this year as probably being an avatar or associate of online extremists Jim and Ron Watkins. A separate conspiracy theory blames Trump’s 2020 election loss on voter fraud, which was subsequently disproven by US courts.
Among the voices raising concern about conspiracy theories is FBI director Christopher Wray, who said in April 2021 that the FBI will soon be releasing a public report on domestic threats from QAnon.
Also in the mix is a smorgasbord of conspiracy theories surrounding the coronavirus. Some believe the pandemic was planned by global elites to embolden their power and profiteer, as outlined in a viral Plandemic video, which social media platforms have since removed. Some believe 5G towers cause the virus. Some believe the virus isn’t real. The pervasiveness of these theories has led health authorities all over the world, including the WHO, to address them in their debunking efforts. As UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres puts it, the world isn’t just dealing with the virus itself, but “our enemy is also the growing surge of misinformation” about COVID-19.
UNESCO’s Journalism, Fake News & Disinformation handbook from 2018 points towards the online world as a key environment for misinformation and disinformation to spread. Additionally, a paper in the International Journal of Information Management published in June 2020 cites a 40–100 per cent increase in reliance on internet services. More than a year out from the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the UNESCO handbook’s messages still ring true.
Cook describes the context of global insecurity due to the pandemic – compounded by increased internet usage and heightened collective anxieties – as fertile ground for the proliferation of conspiracy theories.
“The internet has facilitated the spread of conspiracy theories – made it a lot quicker and easier for people to spread them. Currently, we’re seeing this cross pollination across different conspiracy theory networks,” he explains.
“The COVID conspiracy theories have allied with the vaccine conspiracy theorists and they’re kind of synergizing. QAnon has tapped into that as well. They’re also finding ways to connect, whether it’s WhatsApp or Pilot, different networking apps.
“All these things combined to make things particularly dangerous now.”
In March 2020, Cook and another expert on misinformation, Stephan Lewandowsky, released The Conspiracy Theory Handbook. It explains how conspiracy theories spread and includes how to talk to people who believe in them. Cook says early intervention is the most productive approach to combatting the spread of conspiracy theories.
The handbook describes conspiratorial thinking as a means for people to deal with feelings associated with perceived threats and to increase control in their own lives. For some people they are a way to simplify and cope with a complex world around them.
Part of his approach includes developing a video game called Cranky Uncle aimed at building resilience against misinformation and a “CONSPIR” model to identify the seven traits of conspiratorial thinking, which are: Contradictory ideas; Overriding suspicion; Nefarious intent; the idea that “Something must be wrong”; a Persecuted victim; Immunity to evidence; and the Re-interpretation of randomness.
Cook sees his work as a way to “inoculate” the wider population against conspiracy theories, saying, “misinformation is like a virus that spreads from person to person”. He adds that critical thinking forms a large part of building resilience against misinformation.
In a world where the notion of 2 + 2 = 5 is clawing its way out of Orwell’s pages into the online world and parts of society, it seems misinformation is bound to continue spreading. But it’s not without people fighting tooth and nail for the virtue of truth.