Originally published in The Thought Project.
As we focus our attention on the urgent business of beating back the pandemic, it can be all-too-easy to forget that our democracy was put at serious jeopardy by an insurrection fueled by “stop the steal” hoaxes and QAnon fantasies about a pedophilic, cannibalistic cabal. But the threat of misinformation and bizarre conspiracy theories is far from over because they have infiltrated the mainstream. Signs include an alarming number of extremists in our military and law enforcement who embrace these ideas, and a recent report finding that nearly a third of Republicans have favorable views of QAnon beliefs.
Unfortunately, our proposed solutions for stopping the spread of these dangerous theories — fact-checking misinformation or prosecuting criminal behavior — while necessary, won’t solve the problem in the long-term. That is because they miss a key fact: anxiety drives people to embrace conspiracy theories. An effective way to defuse the spread of these theories is to treat them like anxiety disorders.
2020 was a calamitous tipping point in the proliferation and escalation of reality-distorting conspiracy theories because, in these overwhelming and unpredictable times, conspiratorial worldviews have a soothing black and white simplicity: They posit that the world and all its problems are under the secret control of powerful cabals, leading to an eventual battle between good and evil. This “privileged,” albeit disturbing, knowledge paradoxically empowers the believer by placing them in an exclusive group of knowers. In 2020, as we endured isolation and catastrophe, and without a healthy reality check by governmental and other institutions, some embraced these theories as a go-to tactic for relieving angst, even if based on debunked rumors and lies.
In short, anxiety — and the need to cope with it — has driven the appetite for conspiracy theories.
Since anxiety and conspiracy theories go hand-in-hand, we can apply principles from the gold standard treatment for anxiety disorders, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), to defuse them. We can start with the core CBT techniques for reducing anxiety — changing beliefs and changing behaviors.
Let’s start with beliefs. CBT teaches us that suppressing anxiety-related beliefs will almost always backfire — tell someone to stop worrying, and the worry is sure to increase. Similarly, suppressing or debunking conspiracy theories tends to become a losing game of factual whack-a-mole, and radicalizes believers further because they feel under siege by outsiders.
The better strategy is to take a grassroots approach to gradually sow doubt in false beliefs. Insiders, like former believers and faith community members, can effectively challenge conspiracy theories because of their “in-group” trusted status. They also have first-hand knowledge of inconsistencies in these worldviews and have experience establishing new beliefs to fill the inevitable void left behind. This is why the idea of a Reality Czar running the federal government’s battle against misinformation will never work: It will only breed paranoia about elite thought police.
Next are behaviors. A phobic’s life, for example, is dominated by unhealthy avoidance of a feared object or situation. When avoidance is halted, the intensity of anxiety drops precipitously. Likewise, we should disrupt a key unhealthy behavior driving the anxiety-conspiracy theory vicious cycle — the use of social media to spread misinformation.
The conservative outrage machine — from political leaders to opining Fox News personalities to fringy talk show hosts — have used social media and other digital platforms to promulgate angst and false information for years. Tech companies are only starting to take responsibility, and need to be pushed to do more. It may be too little too late. Banning Trump and fear-mongers from Twitter and Facebook doesn’t cure the deeply entrenched infodemic of lies.
Yet there are effective approaches: Changing recommendation algorithms on YouTube and inserting delays before conspiratorial posts are shared on Facebook successfully slows the spread of misinformation, as does consistently removing unreliable posts and using social media to pre-emptively make people aware that they might be misled. These steps should be just the beginning.
Finally, if we want to bring conspiracy theorists back to reality, we have to consider sources of anxiety in their lives. To do so, we should coordinate a broad alliance of groups and experts already on the front lines addressing the politics of hate, economic disenfranchisement, and social-political resentments that inspire and amplify conspiratorial thinking.
With our nation at a crossroads, achieving greater unity depends on our ability to defuse dangerous conspiracy theories. We stand the best chance of doing so if we think like psychologists and put the science of anxiety at the center of our solutions.