Op-Ed: Fighting conspiracy theories with empathy and compassion
Now is the time to bring
Now is the time to bring our conspiracy-obsessed friends and loved ones back from the brink
I woke up before dawn on Inauguration Day, eager to settle in and watch the transfer of power to a new administration. On Facebook and Twitter, I saw my friends and colleagues across the political spectrum anticipating the swearing in of then-President Elect Biden. There was general agreement among them that change was long overdue.
Then I signed into Gab, MeWe and MyMilitia to see what the angriest supporters of President Trump — including the white nationalists, QAnon believers, unlawful militia members and conspiracy theorists — had to say about it. I expected a cacophony of darkness, hate and threats, which indeed was present. But I also found confusion and cognitive dissonance.
Law enforcement is finally catching to the myriad threats of domestic right-wing extremism against our communities and democracy at large. It is shameful that it took an assault on the Capitol for this national wakeup call to happen, given the militant sentiments that led to it are nothing new and well documented. The people who incited and participated in the Capitol insurrection will hopefully be held to account.
But how are we to react to the cognitive dissonance playing out online when it comes to nonviolent conspiracy theorists — some of whom are likely our friends, family or neighbors? As emotionally satisfying as it may be to gloat or mock, the exact opposite approach is needed if we wish to bring the conspiracy-curious back into the fold. Now is the time for us to summon our compassion and reach out to them.
As senior fellow at the DFRLab and in prior roles beforehand, I’ve spent the last two decades monitoring how social media can be used to lift up, as well as undermine, democracy. Ten years ago this week, the Arab Spring was in the air, as activists across North Africa and the Middle East shared hashtags inviting people to attend local protests — #Jan25 for Egypt, #Feb14 for Bahrain, #Feb17 for Libya. Over the course of 2020, though, I’ve concentrated much of my energy try to better understand the dark forces at play online attempting to undermine public health, democracy and the rule of law in the United States, from COVID conspiracy theories last spring to threats against civil rights protesters that summer to unlawful militias intimidating voters at polling places in the fall.
In the weeks and months since Joseph Biden won the 2020 presidential election, chatter skyrocketed on far-right social media channels about ways that extremists could interfere with him taking the oath of office. It came in many forms — militia groups planning armed caravans to DC and state capitals, Q supporters predicting that “The Storm” had finally arrived, cries of treason against any member of Congress who certified the election. On January 6, 2021, I watched in horror as this pent-up rage and paranoia came to fruition: our citadel of democracy desecrated, our Constitutional processes interfered with, and five people left dead. The international team at the DFRLab, spread across five continents, rallied that week to identify and report potential threats to prosecutors and law enforcement, and expanded its capacity to do the same in the days leading up to noon on January 20. The extremism monitoring community got little rest from the 16th until the moment President-Elect Biden became President Biden. (I hope some of them are sleeping now rather than reading this.)
And as the days turned to hours turned to minutes before the swearing-in ceremony, I opened up a cascade of browser tabs to monitor the extremist online communities where some of the most threatening activity had taken place. As President Biden completed his oath, many of the angry discussions I had monitored in recent months changed their tenor to one of denial, confusion, and cognitive dissonance. The Storm had not happened, nor had the Awakening. President Trump did not swoop in to take the oath of office himself. The military did not surge across the west front of the U.S. Capitol arresting the pedophiles, cannibals and even lizard men so many of these conspiracists truly believed to be among them. Not only could they not believe what was happening, they couldn’t understand it. They couldn’t process it.
As reality began to sink in for these countless individuals who had fallen under the sway of Q and other extremist conspiracy forces, back on my mainstream social media feeds, schadenfreude became the order of the day. A viral video of a woman Trump supporter sobbing that she couldn’t understand why he hadn’t come to the rescue, praying for him to “save us.” Proud Boys arguing among themselves if they had been deceived by the now-former president. Conspiracists theorizing if it was possible that Biden was actually the savior that was promised to rid the government of cannibal pedophiles and lizard men. In the brief moments it took Biden to recite the 35 words that constitutionally ordained him as president, their entire worldview had been shattered. So now came the opportunity for the rest of us to mock their foolishness, gloat at their weakness, and share popcorn emojis to express how much we were enjoying their psychological implosions devolve into rhetorical fistfights among themselves.
As tempting as it is for us revel in this schadenfreude or to say “I told you so” to friends, family or complete strangers who embraced this collective delusion, I would like to suggest a different response: reaching out to them and asking, “Are you okay?”
It would be extremely naïve to believe that many of the people who assaulted the U.S. Capitol and the law enforcement protecting it are suddenly going to see the light of day and reject their previous beliefs. White nationalism, racism, antisemitism and other hateful beliefs aren’t embraced overnight, nor are they shed easily. People who committed crimes to interfere with our democratic process should have their day in court, and if convicted, be punished accordingly. But for the countless others swept up in online conspiracies whether due to perceived grievances, rage, moral injury, or loneliness — a loneliness powerful enough to drive people into the arms of extremist communities because they feel no other community would have them — we must respond differently. We must seize the moment to reach out.
Asking “Are you okay” to friends and family who have embraced conspiracy theories is an important first step, because it shows you’re willing to listen and are concerned about their emotional wellbeing. Listening may not be easy, but it is essential, even if you’re not able to understand, even if you’re struggling not to judge, even if you’re not ready to forgive. Not everyone will respond positively — the plague of hatred that exists in this country won’t simply vanish in response to good will, and will continue to be an intergenerational struggle. Other people, perhaps even many people, will double-down on their beliefs, compounding existing rifts and extremist threats. But some who have embraced extremism and conspiracy theories — some of them — can still be brought back from the brink. Even if only a fraction of them ultimately come back into the fold of civility, reason and civic discourse, it will have been worth the effort.
Right-wing extremism is a cancer in our society, and all the empathy and compassion in the world won’t will it away; we must use the legal tools at our disposal to hold those who have threatened our democracy to account and mitigate future threats. But an opportunity will be lost if we revel in the current moment and laugh at the collective cognitive dissonance of nonviolent conspiracy theorists. That laughter won’t easily be forgotten. The simple act of reaching out and asking, “Are you okay” — for some people at least — might make all the difference in the world.
Andy Carvin is Resident Senior Fellow at the Digital Forensic Research Lab.
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