AdviceHey, Bonita!

Are Conspiracy Theories Dangerous?

Hey Bonita,

I read your column in the paper every week and feel you do a great job. However, I believe your advice for the conspiracy theorist [Apr. 4] was somewhat off. There are real-world consequences to letting people fall down the Infowars/conspiracy theorist rabbit hole. Death threats were sent to parents of the Sandy Hook shooting. The kids from the Parkland shooting will live their entire lives not only with the memory of the massacre they survived, but with all the idiocy attached to 4chan trolls and the like. If this behavior just stayed within the confines of a few random message boards, perhaps it wouldn’t matter. But unfortunately, much of this nonsense is becoming mainstream and thus being reiterated by somewhat credible sources.

When people become isolated from society because of their beliefs, it’s easy for them to become defensive and even more entrenched. It seems that many of the people who believe in such extreme views end up being dangerous to themselves and to others. I have a hard enough time having a civil conversation with my parents, who are informed solely by Fox News. I can’t imagine how I’d cope with them if they were on Reddit or watching Alex Jones. The problem is, they are already testing the waters of the Alex Jones world, because some of his beliefs are ending up on Fox News.

While I agree with your advice that the writer should be able to express his or her beliefs freely, I think the caveat to that advice should have been the expectation of being isolated from friends and family. Sure, the people who care about the writer will hopefully recognize the real person behind the conspiracy theorist, but in the real world, that doesn’t seem to happen. Human beings will always form their tribes, and those who don’t fit in will be pushed further and further away. Admittedly, I don’t have a solution. I’m not sure what would be prudent advice for someone like this, but I worry that in today’s political climate, people who fall for the Alex Jones conspiracies will become more isolated, fall through the cracks and end up becoming the next school shooter or Unabomber.

Thank you for sharing your perspective and being a supportive reader. I advised the writer to live their truth exactly for the reason you state—to avoid isolation and diving so deep into conspiracy that they live in an echo chamber that does little more than confirm their biases. This person’s tone wasn’t such that I assumed they’d end up immediately alienating themselves from their loved ones, though you seem to think that’ll happen.

Indeed, this is way bigger than “agreeing to disagree.” Conspiracy theorists, as we think of them currently, have proven to be dangerous in the past, and we have the right to look twice at people who champion that kind of stuff. Timothy McVeigh bombed a federal building and killed 168 people to “retaliate” against the government for ATF actions against the Branch Davidians and Randy Weaver, and he believed that the government orchestrated both of those actions, to a degree. He also believed that the USS Cole attack was a “false flag,” just like the person who wrote in. The Waffle House shooter apparently once declared himself a “sovereign citizen”—two words that are a huge red flag for me personally—and he also managed to only shoot persons of color. You’re right: Our questioner is in the company of some potentially dangerous ideas, and they should be judicious about what they choose to believe.

I’m sure the writer will experience some isolation from friends and family. The fact that they were so afraid to “come out” about their beliefs tells me that they expect to be shunned and/or ridiculed at least a little bit. I didn’t feel I needed to tell them that, because they were already clearly afraid of being rejected by their loved ones, but thanks for your feedback. Hopefully they’ll have room in their bunker for both of us when the shit goes down.

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