Jadeja, a friendly, gregarious man with a quick wit and an easy smile, is an ex-QAnon follower. Back in 2017 he fell down the rabbit hole. Among other things he believed that a secret cabal of Satan-worshipping, cannibalistic pedophiles is running a global child sex-trafficking ring.
It was far from the craziest thing he believed. “Eating babies is a three or four out of 10,” he says, as I look around to see what other customers are making of our conversation. Blue Avians, a group that believes inter-dimensional humanoid birds are living among us, is a six or seven, he says.
Jadeja believed everything the mysterious ‘Q’ posted on image-board site 4chan (known as Q drops) and then found ‘proofs’ to support the claims. Logical inconsistencies and inconvenient truths were brushed aside or wilfully ignored. Speculative gossip and wild, lurid prophecies on the other hand? Those he swallowed whole.
“I just wanted it to be true,” he says.
Jadeja got his most important, most incontrovertible ‘truth’ early in 2018. Q had told followers Donald Trump would use the phrase “tip-top, tippy top” in a speech. Four months after the post, Trump said it.
“I’m like, that’s a very unique phrase,” says Jadeja. “That was proof Q had a connection to Donald Trump. It was the key moment where I was like, ‘Dude, I’m definitely going all in on this’.”
But it was this same phrase that eventually led Jadeja out of his shadowy world. It took 18 months but finally, after seeing a video in which all the many instances of Trump using the ‘tip top’ phrase were tabled, Jadeja finally woke up to himself. The realisation caused his world to crumble. “I was just like, ‘Oh my god. What the fuck?’ It was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
Right now is boom time for conspiracy theorists. The pandemic, the recent US election and now the COVID-19 vaccine rollout mean there’s never been a better time to be someone who traffics in falsehoods. And there’s never been a worse time to be the type of person who’s susceptible to believing them. The problem? That’s pretty much all of us.
When circumstances, ahem, conspire, we all look for an explanation. To do so is human. “Life is uncertain,” says Tim Mendham, executive officer of Australian Skeptics. “Life is chaos. Shit happens. Therefore, you think, ‘Why did it happen?’ We’re very human. We all have our faults and our failings and our fears.”
How do you resist the lure of the fantastic, the temptation of the neat solution and the tantalising hope of the silver bullet in an age of uncertainty and unprecedented, often monumental events? When social media supercharges and amplifies misinformation, digging virtual rabbit holes that run deeper and darker than ever before? Thankfully there are ways to fortify your defences. But it’s a path that requires forging rather than following.
Being prepared to resist your natural impulses and grapple with that most slippery of psychological concepts: self-awareness. You need to search for facts rather than answers, elevate scientists over social-media seers and, ultimately, be willing to accept uncertainty in the absence of explanation.
Do it and you might just emerge from these most trying and chaotic of times with a clear-eyed sense of optimism. And, if you’re lucky, your sense of humour intact.
MIND THE GAP
What happened to Jadeja is complicated and defies easy exposition. In attempting to examine his circumstances for possible seeds of his descent into the sinister world of government plots and elaborate cover-ups, you risk engaging in the same kind of mental gymnastics that conspiracy theorists typically employ to reach erroneous conclusions.
Nevertheless, there are elements to his story to which we can all probably relate.
At the time he fell under Q’s spell Jadeja was depressed and socially isolated as he struggled to complete a degree that had dragged on for over a decade. Without purpose, ambition or a functioning social life, he had something many men struggle to handle: he had time on his hands.
Time to spend up to 17 hours a day devouring theories that promised to remove the veil concealing the modern world’s rotten core. “I used to spend all day just looking at conspiracy theories, reading about them, reading different books, watching documentaries,” he says. “I just fell so far down this rabbit hole.”
An epileptic, Jadeja was also struggling to come to grips with an Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) diagnosis. Later he would be diagnosed with bipolar. As his personal life began to unravel, an event with global ramifications occurred: Donald Trump won the 2016 election. It was a result that Jadeja, who’d been a vigorous Bernie Sanders supporter, was floored by. “That shattered my faith in mainstream media,” he says. “That’s how I started looking for alternative explanations, alternative media.”
Taken together, these factors sent his precarious mental state into free fall. “It was like my micro world and my external, macro world were both shocked,” he says.
When Jadeja did meet up with old friends he was no longer a good hang. “I was constantly agitated, anxious,” he says. “It would just be me talking at them. Just faster and faster, jumping around from subject to subject. And I had to turn every single thing back to this conspiracy shit.”
The worst part was he could see it happening but felt powerless to stop it. “I could see someone losing interest,” he says. “I could see the pity, and shock, and kind of disgust in their eyes, but I couldn’t stop and I don’t know why.”
“If events are caused just by random, meaningless coincidences, that’s psychologically unsatisfying. that can lead to people joining dots”
Jadeja recently watched in horror as far-right groups and QAnon followers stormed the Capitol building in Washington D.C., but it’s an event he once would have cheered, along with things like the declaration of martial law and the prospect of Hilary Clinton being executed. “It would’ve been the happiest day of my life and that’s really fucked,” he says sadly. “I didn’t understand that I had this darkness within me. That I was capable of wanting something so evil.”
Jadeja’s isolation was mentally toxifying. Without friends and loved ones to support us, we’re all liable to drift. And if we’re not finding comfort and affirmation in the real world, there is an online, virtual community – or cult – ready to fill that void.
“Those that are more likely to believe in conspiracies are people having difficulties engaging with others,” says Tamara Cavenett, president of the Australian Psychological Society. “And they’ll take on the views of people around them who then offer a new social group. They feel like they belong a little bit more.”
As you might expect, stress and anxiety in your personal life can make you more susceptible to believing distorted interpretations of external events. “We’re more likely to see patterns in randomness,” says Dr John Cook, an Australian cognitive scientist currently working at George Mason University in Virginia, who created The Conspiracy Theory Handbook (see box). “If events are caused just by random, meaningless coincidences, that’s psychologically unsatisfying. That can lead to people joining dots – ‘Hey, COVID started in Wuhan, and there’s a bio lab in Wuhan. Therefore, COVID must be bioengineered by the Chinese government in the lab’. We tend to interpret things as being by design.”
You’re also more likely to believe in a conspiracy theory if it impacts directly on your life and beliefs, says Cavenett. If you believe strongly in personal freedom, for example, you are probably more likely to gravitate toward conspiracy theories surrounding government policy, such as imposed lockdowns and vaccinations. Naturally, this makes those who hold extreme political views particularly vulnerable, Cavenett adds.
There was one final, crucial factor in Jadeja’s descent. One that will hit home for anyone who’s ever looked at their life and found it bears little resemblance to the way you saw it panning out. “The desire to be special is so strong that you’re willing to latch onto something as overtly ridiculous as this just for that feeling,” Jadeja says. “And everyone has that. I think the people who really, really feel like the disconnect between where they could be or should be and where they are – the gap – I feel like that’s directly proportional to how far you’ll go and how crazy something you’ll believe is.”
IT STARTS WITH A CLICK
I was scrolling through Facebook recently when I came across a video captioned, “CIA releases declassified footage of Air Force encounters with UFOs”.
Immediately I was taken to a story featuring footage of strange-moving objects captured by pilots. Somewhere in my brain a little squirt of dopamine went off. As these videos go it seemed to be legitimate.
The problem for me is that, ever since, my Facebook feed has been bombarded with UFO stories of increasingly dubious merit. It’s relatively benign stuff but part of me wonders just where that particular rabbit hole could lead? Because despite being a colossal waste of time that does nothing for me intellectually, philosophically or spiritually, I keep clicking.
“That’s how most of this stuff happens,” says Dr Timothy Graham, a senior lecturer in digital media and communication at the Queensland University of Technology. “Blokes in particular are drawn to stuff that’s sensational. It plays to our innate drives. So, you see things like car crashes or fight videos. It’s like, ‘Do I really need to look at that?’”
As banal as the entry point might be, Graham says, the danger is that it can be the beginning of a “radicalisation pathway” that exploits your psychological foibles. “We’ve seen that happen so much, particularly on YouTube, where you click on a Jordan Peterson video once and then you go on the next day and you’ve got (conspiracy theorist) Alex Jones at Infowars. And the next thing you know, you’re like, ‘Well, what’s 4chan?’ It’s like, ‘How did I end up here?’”
“You click on a Jordan Peterson video once and then you go on the next day and you’ve got Alex Jones at infowars”
As Graham points out, these rabbit holes are increasingly part of vast warrens of misinformation, creating some unlikely bedfellows. Take, for example, the bizarre alignment of anti-vaxxers sharing misinformation with far-right groups like QAnon. Despite the gulf between these groups’ backgrounds – anti-vaxxers are largely women; QAnon mostly white males – and political ideology, where they come together, Graham says, is in that same yearning for belonging, distrust of the state and institutions, a need to assign blame and
a search for a neat solution. “That’s where
the two tides connect and so you have this unholy marriage playing out,” he says.
This has important implications right now as the government begins the COVID-19 vaccine rollout. The speed of the vaccine’s development has created widespread hesitancy in the community that anti-vax groups are keen to exploit. A report published in The Lancet found that social media accounts held by anti-vaxxers have increased their following by at least 7.8 million people since 2019.
Dr Vyom Sharma, a Melbourne GP, has already seen anti-vaxxer sentiment among patients at his practice. “Often, before they get good information, they’ve been exposed to anti-vax talking points,” he says. “‘Oh, will this vaccine make me infertile?’ And just
all these other side effects for which there’s no proof.”
Take Gary*, a father-of two from Melbourne who works in banking. He has concerns the speed of the vaccine’s development may have compromised the rigour and scale of clinical trials. “They’ve taken it to market so quickly – I’m using bank-speak here – how can we understand the long-term side effects when we have such a limited dataset to analyse?”
Similarly, while he has no previous belief in conspiracy theories and describes himself as politically mainstream, the events of the past year have led Gary to ask questions, if not yet, seek answers. “The one thing I’m suspicious about is whether COVID was created in a lab in the first place,” he says. “It just seems too perfect. It doesn’t impact the young. It’s allowed China to cripple the world’s economy. I worry that this might be a new type of warfare. I mean in the middle of this thing you see people over there in Shanghai going to Louis Vuitton fashion shows, sitting side by side. I smell a rat.”
Or maybe, what Gary really smells, is a rabbit.
A NEW DARK AGE?
When the Black Death decimated Europe in the 14th century it wasn’t long before theories sprang up about its origins, leading to widespread persecution of Jewish people. Ever since, conspiracy theories have raged but never before have they spread as fast or been as dangerous as they are right now.
Events like 9/11, the Obama Presidency and the rise of Trump have seen far-right groups coalesce in online communities in which misinformation is used to highlight political grievances. While many of these theories exist on the ideological fringes, increasingly they gain traction when celebrities and influencers, mindlessly or wilfully, share questionable material.
“This is a new problem in the social media age, where people speak and often
proselytise beyond their expertise to a
base they’ve accrued through unrelated means,” says Sharma.
Collectively these ‘infodemic super-spreaders’ are dangerous. In fact, in the case of disinformation – deliberately deceptive content often created by government agencies – they can be used to do the work traditionally done by bots, says Graham, who likens them to what in the Soviet propaganda playbook were known as ‘useful idiots’ – pawns who unwittingly spread false information.
“If you can get these influencers to transmit, retweet or share false information or weaponised content, then you have a situation where you might be able to trigger these cascades of attention that just pollute the information space and get the job done
for you,” he says.
Graham points to the 5G conspiracy theory around COVID-19 as an example of where ‘useful idiots’ have catapulted a fringe theory into the mainstream.
It begs the question: what do you call someone who believes the ramblings, posts or memes of an idiot? Increasingly, the answer
NO RHYME, NO REASON
As Jadeja and I wrap up our coffee, we discuss what he hopes to achieve by telling his story. He mentions his dad, who he’s sad to admit is now a QAnon follower. “On the drive here he was raving about Joe Biden being a clone because the real Joe Biden is dead,” he says. Jadeja hopes by telling his story he can help his dad and others who might be circling a rabbit hole. But he knows from his own experience just how hard it is to reach someone whose mind has begun to burrow into itself.
“People throw around cognitive dissonance all the time,” he says. “You wouldn’t even know. You would have no idea. It’s like being colourblind and trying to see the colour yellow.”
One of the seven traits of conspiratorial thinking is immunity to evidence, confirms Cook. “So that even if you’re trying to explain to them that, ‘Hey, look at this. It must be wrong because of this evidence here?’ . . . they interpret that evidence as being part of the conspiracy.”
But while trying to reason with conspiracy theorists is largely futile, so is writing them off as crackpots, says Dr Chris Fleming, author of Modern Conspiracy: The Importance of Being Paranoid. “There’s nothing wrong with being suspicious of authorities,” says Fleming. “That’s part of the tradition of the enlightenment. You don’t just believe anything that anybody says. You don’t just believe it because a priest said it, because the king said it, and you don’t just believe it because scientists say it.”
Fleming believes that in their determination to clamp down on conspiracy theorists, debunkers often unduly malign the state of contemporary public discourse and exaggerate the gravity of some of conspiracy theorists’ claims. In doing so, the complexity and nuance of the debate is lost, creating a polarity that turns people into enemies.
He also resists categorising conspiracy theorists as paranoid nihilists. Rather, they’re human beings attempting to make sense of the world, though often without the requisite qualifications to do so. “Linking things that we don’t think are linked is one of the things every academic does all the time,” he says. “That’s what a breakthrough in knowledge is. We’re sense-making creatures. We’re pattern makers. It’s just a question of how good those patterns are.”
Where conspiracy theories do become dangerous, Fleming warns, is when they look to assign blame. “As soon as there is an injury we think there must be some nasty culprit who has somewhere planned our injury,” he says. “It’s not what we call in philosophy an epistemic danger. It’s a danger in us behaving like pricks and scapegoating groups of people.”
Mendham, too, believes conspiracy theorists need to be approached with a level of empathy and understanding, as well as persistence. “It takes a lot of effort to debunk or dissuade, and you’re not going to dissuade most people,” he says. “But you can put a little seed out there that there might be alternative explanations for what they’re thinking about that are more reasonable or more likely.”
As many conspiracy theorists often regard themselves as realists or critical thinkers, this is an area where you can strive for common ground. “By appealing to that common value of critical thinking, you can potentially challenge a person to apply that to their own conspiracy theory,” agrees Cook.
And if you’re the one who’s seeing jigsaw pieces in the jumble of random events? You could start by examining whether your pet theory stands up to Mendham’s nine-word definition of critical thinking: “‘You say you can fly. I say, Show me’. I don’t say you can’t, although it’s probably unlikely. You can apply that to everything.”
What about things that can’t be explained? Phenomena that exist at the limits of our understanding and the frontiers of scientific enquiry?
“There are things where you’ve just got to say, ‘I don’t know’,” says Mendham. “It’s obviously not the best answer, but it’s the best you’re going to get.”
That island of uncomfortable uncertainty is where Jadeja has managed to land. Speaking out about his experience has proven to be cathartic. He even says he’s glad he went through it all. “If I hadn’t gone through it I don’t think I would have the necessary level of self-awareness or critical thinking or even humility to admit that I could be wrong about something I’m so sure about,” he says.
As we get up to leave he turns to me and smiles. “Sometimes I think we all died in 2016. The world died and now we’re in this weird afterlife.” He’s joking. Somewhere out there, though, someone isn’t laughing.
*Name has been changed
See the Signs
This abbreviated coded key called CONSPIR was developed by Dr John Cook and professor Stephan Lewandowsky in The Conspiracy Theory Handbook. Use it to track troubled truth-seeking
Conspiracy theorists can simultaneously believe in ideas that are mutually contradictory. For example, that Princess Diana was murdered but also that
she faked her own death.
Conspiratorial thinking involves a nihilistic degree of skepticism towards the official account.
The motivations behind any presumed conspiracy are invariably assumed to be nefarious.
Something must be wrong
Although conspiracy theorists may occasionally abandon specific ideas, those revisions don’t change their overall conclusion that “something must be wrong”.
Conspiracy theorists perceive and present themselves as the victim of organised persecution. At the same time, they see themselves as brave antagonists taking on the villainous conspirators.
Immune to evidence
Conspiracy theories are inherently self-sealing– evidence that counters a theory is reinterpreted as originating from the conspiracy.
Small random events, such as intact windows in the Pentagon after the 9/11 attacks, are reinterpreted as being caused by the conspiracy and are woven into a broader, interconnected pattern.