Red Pills and Rallying Lies: Conspiracy Theories, Skepticism, and Collective Action12 December 2022
“Most of the things that we take to be a fact in our lives are told to us through our stories, or the news that we hear. So, my question would be: if they were deceiving you with the stories they tell you, would you be able to recognize that?”
The excerpt above emphasizes our reliance on others for what we believe, and the vulnerability that results from this reliance. This excerpt would be appropriate to an introductory text concerning social epistemology. But it is instead taken from the introductory voiceover for the 2020 QAnon documentary Out of Shadows. The remainder of the documentary promotes an escalating series of outlandish conspiratorial claims, including the notorious QAnon-linked allegation that Democratic politicians and celebrities are involved in the systematic trafficking and abuse of children. The documentary thus neatly illustrates an important role that conspiracy theories play in social and political life. The allure of conspiracy theories is due, in part, to the reminder of our epistemic vulnerability to others, and the abuses made possible by this vulnerability. In this way, conspiracy theories encourage skepticism toward putative experts. Yet conspiracy theories do not end at skepticism—they instead encourage reliance upon alternative authorities and, in so doing, make possible the direction of collective activity toward potentially destructive ends.
While there is a lively scholarly debate as to the appropriate definition of conspiracy theories, let us stipulate that conspiracy theories are allegations of conspiracy that conflict with the widely-endorsed claims of relevant epistemic authorities. So understood, it is possible in principle for a given conspiracy theory to be true. However, that a given conspiracy theory is true will imply that the epistemic authorities—those holding relevant credentials, positions, and the like—are wrong. Thus, believing a given conspiracy theory requires rejecting the claims of epistemic authorities.
Conspiracy theories can in principle arise naturally. Most obviously, if a given conspiracy theory is true, people may come to believe it because of evidence of the conspiracy. Belief in conspiracy theories might also be explained in terms of quirks of individual psychologies. For example, if individuals are overly prone to explaining events in terms of others’ plans, or are prone to finding illusory patterns in noise, they might naturally be inclined to explain events in terms of conspiracies, even when experts demur.
However, the best explanations of belief in conspiracy theories do not always emphasize the psychological tendencies of individual believers. Instead, belief in such theories is sometimes due to the deliberate efforts of other agents. Consider, for example, a compilation of recommendations widely-circulated among QAnon communities under the title “The Basics of Effective Redpilling.” These recommendations, taken from an 8chan thread identified by the researcher “dappergander,” include the following:
Everyone is Red Pilled at least a wee bit about SOMETHING, vaccines, GMO’s, lobbyists, insider trading, Building 7, etc.). Find one area of skepticism first, then slowly work your way out.
The red pill metaphor is drawn from The Matrix and widely used among conspiracist and extremist groups. To be red pilled is, roughly, to reject some mainstream narrative while believing that this narrative is the product of deliberate deception. In the excerpt above, the suggestion is that being red pilled about some particular topic renders one prone to being red pilled about others. Conspiracism springs from a kernel of doubt.
But those who endorse conspiracy theories do not simply doubt mainstream narratives. To believe a conspiracy theory is to reject the claims of epistemic authorities while endorsing an alternative. Nor does conspiracy theorizing involve consistent skepticism toward putative authorities. While conspiracy theorizing is widely associated with mantras like “do your own research” and “think for yourself,” conspiracy theorists in practice rely heavily on the testimony of alternative putative authorities. Conspiracy theorizing thus involves asymmetrical skepticism.
This asymmetricity contributes to the political utility of conspiracy theories, and helps to render believers in conspiracy theories vulnerable to co-option into political movements that are likewise at odds with epistemic authorities. For example, conspiracy theories tend to be central to populist and extremist political movements. Thus, Steve Bannon, former advisor to Donald Trump, has described QAnon as “directionally correct,” meaning roughly that it encourages distrust and hostility toward what Bannon regards as fitting targets.
One might suspect, based on evidence suggesting that belief in conspiracy theories and other political misinformation is rarer than often supposed, that the political utility of such theories is limited. For example, some experimental evidence indicates that endorsements of preposterous political claims are often merely expressive, rather than reflective of sincere belief. However, conspiracy theories can be politically useful even if they are not believed by all parties involved.
Most obviously, as Quassim Cassam emphasizes in his recent book titled Conspiracy Theories, such theories can be wielded by insincere parties to manipulate public opinion for or against certain political outcomes. In such cases, at least some of the parties involved hold sincere beliefs in conspiracy theories. However, conspiracy theories might in principle shape collective political activity even if no one believes them.
Suppose, for example, that everyone who presently expresses support for a particular conspiracy theory does so merely to signal, to themselves, to in-group members, or to outsiders, their loyalty to a given political cause. This phenomenon might shape collective political activity in at least two ways. First, if individuals widely endorse claims they don’t believe to signal loyalty, this may give rise to pluralistic ignorance among a community. In other words, community members might come to believe, like the subjects of Hans Christian Andersen’s naked emperor, that propositions they personally reject but publicly endorse are widely believed within the community. They may thus come to believe that acting contrary to these propositions will have negative social consequences. In this way, a conspiracy theory might come to be the rallying cry around which a community’s activities are organized, despite most or even all individual community members disbelieving that theory.
Secondly, even if a conspiracy theory is initially influential among a community under conditions of pluralistic ignorance, this state of affairs may represent only a transient state in the evolution of the community’s beliefs. Finding themselves among communities of apparent believers in a given conspiracy theory, individuals may set aside their doubts to sincerely embrace the apparent beliefs of their community members. After all, conspiracy theorists—like everyone else—take much of what they believe from the stories of others.