Walk With Me (#29): The Cold Comfort of Conspiracy

An advice column for folks who don’t like to be told what to do.

Dear Asha,

While we’ve all been struggling through the muddy waters of the pandemic, I have found myself disappointed, concerned, and mystified by someone I had (formally) considered informed, educated, and a friend. This person has been constantly posting conspiracy theories about COVID on social media, which wouldn’t be such a big deal, if say they were just your average person. However, this person happens to be a pillar of their local community, someone who a lot of people not only look up to, but look to for advice, often health advice. They have hundreds of friends in the community, and their social media accounts are popular, and have a very active following.

As a bit of a background, I myself am a healthcare professional. I contracted COVID five months ago, and am still suffering the effects (Post-COVID Syndrome). I’ve tried reaching out to this person, and I’ve had other professionals in the field (including public health professionals) reach out to them as well, and it’s all fallen on deaf ears. Whenever I post anything in response to their propaganda, showing that it’s conspiracy theories/fake news/false, and share correct information, they will promptly delete it. They even go so far as to post stories and insist that people read them to the end, but if anyone posts anything in disagreement, all posts that disagree with their viewpoint will be deleted.

My question to you is what would compel someone to not only believe in conspiracy theories about COVID, but also, to feel compelled to share them far and wide on social media, and defend them tooth and nail? I’m a very logical person, so maybe I’m unable to understand why an otherwise intelligent person would do this.

Additionally, for my own mental health, do I just “unfriend” them? I feel somewhat of a duty to protect the greater public health of the community by screening their page, but fear it’s a sinking ship. I’m hoping you can shed some light on this for me.

Stumped

Dear Stumped,

After my first child was born I got drawn into the anti-vax community, which is somewhat prevalent in the area I live in. I had some specific concerns about family history of auto-immune disease that got thrown into the pot with a general suspicion of corporate Western medicine and a whole ton of fear of the unknown, creating a perfect environment for arguments against vaccination to take hold in my psyche.

The fear, quite honestly, was the largest ingredient in that particular stew — fear that I would make an irrevocable mistake and harm my child, fear that I couldn’t protect him from a dangerous world, fear of everything I didn’t know about how to raise him to be healthy and safe. Refusing vaccinations felt like one thing I could do to keep the dark unknown at bay, to feel some control over our fates.

We did get him vaccinated, in the end. We had only ever planned to delay until after his first birthday, which felt like a compromise between my fear and our need for him to eventually go to public school. I don’t know if I would even say now that I regret our choices. One, because nothing bad happened, and two, because having been drawn into the fringes of what has proven to be a virulent conspiracy theory, I feel better able to confront the present moment in regards to COVID.

The kind of behavior that this person you’re describing is engaging in is textbook if you dip even a pinkie toe into the psychology around why people believe conspiracy theories. The reality that there is a deadly threat created by a complicated, somewhat chaotic, unexpectedly convergent, and yet largely unknown, set of factors is a situation that far exceeds the capacity of our primal lizard brains to handle. And make no mistake, our brain’s capacity to look for patterns to protect us from overwhelming deadly threats has been with us from the beginning. Rational, scientific thinking has not.

We are ultimately a vulnerable, tribal species. Superstition and gossip both allow us the illusion of holding danger at bay and cement our feeling of belonging. This particular person, passing around conspiracy theories on social media, is engaging in these two very primal pastimes for likely exactly these reasons. It makes them feel like they can make some simple sense out of an enormously complicated threat. It also creates a sense of connection with others who agree with them. They get to have a tribe and feel some sense of control, all in one fell swoop. It may be cold comfort, but it is comfort all the same, and right now comfort is all many of us are looking for.

People are prone to cross over to actually endangering others as a result of their paranoia and commitment to conspiracy theories when the theory gets tied to their identity. This is absolutely what happened when my identity as a mother got tied up with my fear of vaccination. I would guess that this person is pretty attached to their position as an authority figure in their community. Feeling like they “know the truth”, they are duty-bound to spread the word. That’s what leaders do. If they were to admit they were wrong, or that they are incredibly terrified and don’t know what to do to guarantee safety for themselves and their community, they might lose their status as a community pillar. Their ego may not be able to handle that level of catastrophe.

Is it selfish, irrational, and dangerous? Yes. Is it a fairly predictable outcome of the combination of fallible egos, attachment to identity, and primal lizard brains? Also, yes. I’m not making excuses, mind you. Just being pragmatic and upfront about the reality that humans often act fearful, dumb, and dangerous. That we manage to be anything else often feels like a miracle.

Let me suggest, however, that there is something else that has contributed as much to the present moment, I think, as our ancient lizard brains. Science is an amazing thing. Truly, the existence of the modern scientific method and all of the discoveries that it has brought to our current lives have changed the world for the better in many respects. Yay, science! But scientists are sometimes fallible, ego-bound, dangerous people, just like the rest of us. Some scientists have actively participated in, and benefited from, the politicization and corporatization of science, to the detriment of vast swaths of humanity and the planet.

It was a scientist that told anti-vaxxers vaccines might give their children autism. Scientists, many of them funded by fossil fuel companies, have stood up publicly and denied climate change. Scientists allowed themselves to get paid by chemical corporations to “discover” every single toxic chemical that currently pollutes our air and water, and then created research that allowed governments to justify their use. Scientists have used science to justify racism, and experimented on black and brown people throughout the history of this country. I could go on.

And, yes, there is a lot of “bad science” involved in all of those situations — scientists cutting corners, publishing faulty research. But there’s also plenty of examples of what is, or was, considered perfectly sound science being used to support power structures and institutions that create harm, and bolster existing social inequities.

Science learning in this country should teach us healthy skepticism, but the way that some scientists, their corporate patrons, and governments have allowed science to be politicized and monetized in pursuit of power has pushed many people’s lizard brains from healthy skepticism into paranoia. We cannot simply hold individual conspiracy theorists responsible for the existence of COVID-denial. We have to insist on accountability for a political and economic system that uses science to hurt people to make a fast buck, creating fertile soil for individual people’s fear and powerlessness to spiral out of control.

Not to mention a political and economic system that allows tech companies to make obscene amounts of money spreading misinformation faster than any one person could possibly consume it or combat it.

It sounds like you have tried valiantly to confront this particular person’s paranoia with good science, and rationality. But, like much of Western medicine, that approach focuses on symptoms rather than underlying causes. With physical sickness, if the underlying causes are less entrenched or systemic, then that approach can be very successful. In this case, the absolute determination to defend a conspiracy theory (or theories) displays deeply entrenched fear and feelings of powerlessness. Focusing on the symptom here is not going to fix their systemic sickness. Unless, or until, those underlying causes are addressed and healed, the fear, defensiveness, and paranoia are not going to go away.

Instead of wading into their newsfeed with facts, you could wade in with acknowledgment and empathy. You could name their fear and powerlessness, and provide some window into your own fear and powerlessness in the face of this enormous, dangerous threat. You could talk about your own struggles following contracting COVID or struggles that people you know and love are facing. You could reframe the conversation from one of ideas and theories to one of feelings and shared humanity. Depending on the extent to which their fear is tied up with their position in the community, you might try to move the conversation to private messaging, where they may feel less need to protect themselves from public scrutiny.

Honestly, all of this is much harder than duking it out on social media. Calling people in, as opposed to calling them out, is always harder. It requires a tremendous amount of emotional labor on the part of the person doing the calling in, to be vulnerable and connect, to offer education tempered with tenderness, with no guarantee the labor will bear fruit. You may not have it in you right now to do that labor, and that is okay.

If you do not have the emotional energy to call this person in right now, then absolutely unfriend them, or block them for 30 days, or unfollow them. Take care of yourself and your people. Live to call someone in another day. There will be an opportunity, believe me. In a world overflowing with threats, so much that is unknown, and so many vulnerable, imperfect humans trying to make their way through it all, I can guarantee it.

Thank you for walking this journey with me. Love to you and yours.

XO, Asha

Do you have a question about relationships, sex, parenting, politics, spirituality, community? Send them to me at ashasanaker@gmail.com with the subject line “Walk With Me”. Let’s walk each other home.

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Asking questions, telling stories, giving my people information they can use to make change happen.

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