Links and Comments: Conspiracy Theorists, Psychology, and Beliefs

What does “belief” even mean? How can people claim to believe things that, to others, are transparent nonsense? Clearly belief has nothing to do with what, based on evidence and reason, is actually real. Belief can simply mean conviction to a pleasing, comforting story.

NYT: A QAnon ‘Digital Soldier’ Marches On, Undeterred by Theory’s Unraveling, subtitled “Valerie Gilbert posts dozens of times a day in support of an unhinged conspiracy theory. The story of this “meme queen” hints at how hard it will be to bring people like her back to reality.”

The longish article shows her transition over recent years into crackpot, in distinct contrast from the photo of her, looking mild-mannered and holding a small dog, standing on a Manhattan street.

And part of the answer to my questions are here:

Over a series of conversations, I learned that she had a longstanding suspicion of elites dating back to her Harvard days, when she felt out of place among people she considered snobby rich kids.

What attracts Ms. Gilbert and many other people to QAnon isn’t just the content of the conspiracy theory itself. It’s the community and sense of mission it provides. New QAnon believers are invited to chat rooms and group texts, and their posts are showered with likes and retweets. They make friends, and are told that they are not lonely Facebook addicts squinting at zoomed-in paparazzi photos, but patriots gathering “intel” for a righteous revolution.

This social element also means that QAnon followers aren’t likely to be persuaded out of their beliefs with logic and reason alone.

So: some people by experience resent “snobby rich kids” or “elites” in general; and the attraction to conspiracy theories isn’t about evidence (for which there is none) but for “the community and sense of mission it provides.”

My Facebook friend, the renowned author John Crowley (whom I’ve never meant, but we know each other by reputation), posted this comment about the article:

It seems amazing to me that they can firmly believe that Trump is at this good work day and night and yet in all this time not a single evildoer has in fact been “brought to justice”. George Soros, Hillary Clinton, Angela Merkel, Lady Gaga (!) — not one of them has been even detained or questioned, though years have passed. No dead babies have been discovered. I’m sure that thoughtful followers have explanations, in detail; but the mass of followers must be just a little puzzled that Trump’s vast power as President and billionaire has not summoned up so much as an interview, or a single instruction to his millions, and yet the followers seem to experience not the shadow of a doubt.


A few of the relatively sane Republicans recognize the danger here.

The Atlantic, Ben Sasse (the senator from Nebraska): QAnon Is Destroying the GOP From Within, subtitled “Until last week, too many in the Republican Party thought they could preach the Constitution and wink at QAnon. They can’t.”


Article in yesterday’s NYT: How Republicans Are Warping Reality Around the Capitol Attack, subtitled “Loyalists to President Trump are increasingly relying on conspiracy theories and misinformation, drawing false equivalence with last summer’s racial protests and blaming outside agitators.”

In one of the ultimate don’t-believe-your-eyes moments of the Trump era, these Republicans have retreated to the ranks of misinformation, claiming it was Black Lives Matter protesters and far-left groups like antifa who stormed the Capitol — in spite of the pro-Trump flags and QAnon symbology in the crowd. Others have argued that the attack was no worse than the rioting and looting in cities during the Black Lives Matter movement, often exaggerating the unrest last summer while minimizing a mob’s attempt to overturn an election.

This is gaslighting. It’s saying something untrue over and over until some people, at least, believe it. This is what Trump did for over two months claiming, without a scintilla of evidence, that he actually won the presidential election. This is the so-called “Big Lie”: “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”

NPR: Can The Forces Unleashed By Trump’s Big Election Lie Be Undone?

Washington Post: Never forget Fox News’s promotion of the ‘Big Lie’


And today’s NYT: Why Rage Over the 2020 Election Could Last Well Past Trump, subtitled “A vast majority of Americans do not approve of the riot at the Capitol. But experts warn that the widespread belief there was election fraud, while false, could have dangerous, lasting effects.”

For many Trump supporters, the inauguration of Joseph R. Biden Jr. this week will be a signal that it is time to move on. The president had four years, but Mr. Biden won, and that is that.

But for a certain slice of the 74 million Americans who voted for President Trump, the events of the past two weeks — the five deaths, including of a Capitol Police officer, the arrests that have followed, and the removal of Mr. Trump and right-wing extremists from tech platforms — have not had a chastening effect.

On the contrary, interviews in recent days show that their anger and paranoia have only deepened, suggesting that even after Mr. Trump leaves the White House, an embrace of conspiracy theories and rage about the 2020 election will live on, not just among extremist groups but among many Americans.


As always, I try to step back and look at the bigger picture. These items aren’t about political differences, i.e. policy differences. It’s about how an authoritarian dimwit can have such wide support, and more crucially, how some people “believe” things without evidence, or contrary to evidence.

And one big picture lesson: these parallel the claims that “sincere religious beliefs” should exempt one from following civil law. Because, obviously (as if not already apparent from religion), “beliefs” can have no basis in reality. Beliefs can just be stories that comfort people, or make them feel special.

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