Why Conspiracy Theories Are So Addictive Right Now

Some of what’s happening is related to the dynamics of social media platforms, which favor bold, engaging claims over dry and careful ones. But there seems to be something else happening, too — a force that is pulling us all toward conspiracy theories these days, no matter our political persuasion.

On Tuesday, Facebook officially barred the QAnon movement from its services, labeling it a “militarized social movement.” The purge was good news for those of us who have watched QAnon morph from a fringe message board stunt to a dangerous quasi-religion that organizes mass harassment campaigns, spreads life-threatening misinformation and threatens its enemies with violence.

But while QAnon may be a singularly dangerous movement, the reflexive paranoia and rejection of authority it represents are not an isolated phenomenon, or one that is limited to far-right extremists.

On Monday, as I watched a video clip of the president standing on a White House balcony, I was struck by the realization that virtually no one was simply accepting the scene at face value. Democrats were theorizing about what secret maladies he was trying to cover up. Republicans were speculating about what signals he was trying to send to his political opponents. Everyone was “doing their own research,” and looking behind the curtain for the real story. There was no text, only subtext.

I thought of Martin Gurri, a media theorist whose work I find provocative, even if I disagree with some of his conclusions. In his book “The Revolt of the Public,” Mr. Gurri writes that social media, and the internet more broadly, have eroded the authority of longstanding mass-media gatekeepers — like the newspaper you’re reading right now — and replaced it with “vital communities” of digital insurgents who are united around shared interests.

These groups, Mr. Gurri writes, develop their own sources of authority. For one group, a phalanx of white-coated doctors standing outside Walter Reed might seem authoritative. For another group, a teenage girl’s TikTok feed or a QAnon believer’s YouTube channel might hold more sway. Every group creates its own evidentiary standards, and processes information in its own way. There is no “consensus reality” they can all agree on because the idea of a single, shared reality was an artifact of the 20th century, when most people got information from a handful of big mainstream sources.