The Tin Foil Hat Era

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I get some cool newsletters on Sunday mornings — I also send one! — and today I got one from Northwestern’s Kellogg School that contained a link about the rise of conspiracy theories. And actually, just yesterday I had gotten a New York Times newsletter with a link about how Bill Gates is now the target of multiple conspiracy theories. I understand that very rich people will always be a target online, but to attack Gates — a nerd whose “second act” is basically at-scale giving and funding — seems questionable. (Now, all that said, I would like to know more about the Bill Gates-Jeffrey Epstein ties.)

OK, so go back to this Northwestern article (first link). The reason for the “scale” of conspiracy theories is framed around a rise of uncertainty (have written about that) and how people feel like they need to be in control of something (ditto). This is probably the most important paragraph in terms of “research:”

Yes, we found a difference between “promotion-focused” individuals, who tend to be more go-getting and feel more in control over their environment, and “prevention-focused” individuals, who are more vigilant and try to protect the security they have. This latter group tends to fall prey to conspiracy theories more often. But what we found was that there are interventions that help people be less persuaded by conspiracy theories. So if you ask people to think of a time when they had control over a situation, they see fewer conspiracies in their environment.

Makes sense — most of our lives, even if we don’t admit it, are organized around “in-group” and “out-group.” If you think Trump winning or some other global trends are not tied to that, you may be delusional.

The only way to cut through this “tin foil hat” moment, in reality, is to have experts — insofar as we trust expertise anymore — appear on “silo’ed” platform channels, i.e. Dr. Fauci talking to Steph Curry on Instagram or talking to my friend Peter on Snapchat. People need to see information in their terms and on their battlefields of choice, otherwise conspiracy theories are going to spike.

Spike how much? Here’s the scale of Tin Foil Hat stuff, per that second link above, from New York Times: “The misinformation includes more than 16,000 posts on Facebook this year about Mr. Gates and the virus that were liked and commented on nearly 900,000 times, according to a New York Times analysis. On YouTube, the 10 most popular videos spreading lies about Mr. Gates posted in March and April were viewed almost five million times.”

Those aren’t IG influencer numbers, but they are big.

Bottom line: in moments that lack a sense of control and a semblance of certainty (PS most moments are uncertain; it’s just a question of how much we realize that), people will rush to the poles of conspiracy.


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