Jacques Mattheij

Technology, Coding and Business

My Friends the Complot Theory Believers

I have friends from all walks of life. Most of them are smart and skilled. Some of them believe the most outrageous things. For instance, there is this one couple that I know that refuse to believe in 911 on odd days and on even days they will go to great lengths to push their theories that it was all make believe, that it never happened and that if it did happen it was all special effects. Nothing, and I really mean nothing, will ever get them to change their minds on this.

Abbie Richards has created a helpful little diagram to allow you to place yourself - and others - on a spectrum going from grounded in reality on one end to detached from reality on the other. My friends are well on the way to ‘detached from reality’, if they aren’t already there. The interesting bit - to me - is that in regular life they are doing just fine. They have their own business, make good money, they vote. And they believe and propagate absolute bullshit.

This is a problem. Not just because they are my friends - well, that too is a bit problematic - but it creates fertile soil for other bullshit to grow in. The whole thing goes back to the time just after 911 when speculation was rife with who did it. Even though there were plenty of indications who did it of course like any big media event (the moon landings, the JFK assassination and so on) there are always details that are less than clear. And into this lack of clarity the wedge of speculation is driven with relentless energy by a few compassionate souls. A few? You’d hope. But unfortunately, also unfortunately for them, my friends are not alone. They’ve found like-minded souls all over the world who will help them to persist in their beliefs, and who in fact make things worse. Much worse.

To the point that my friends are - unfortunately - no longer my friends. They have become so totally ensnared in this web of complot theory adherents that it has become impossible to have a normal conversation with them about anything. It has affected their business, and it is starting affect their health. They are wondering why I can’t see what they see. I am wondering why they, who are obviously intelligent, could stray so far from the path of science and objective reality. But when it happens one step at the time and when ordinary people start tuning you out eventually all this is left is the in-group that will still accept you, and from there on in it gets worse in a hurry.

For now they are only a danger to themselves. But it probably wouldn’t take much to put them on the path to being a danger to others as well, for now they are mostly active online and in real life only by trying to convince others to join them in their madness. I can see some parallels with impressionable youngsters that are radicalized to attack our societies. They too believe - and probably with better reasons - that the world is out to get them. Their radicalization follows a similar path. And they too are a danger to themselves and likely to others.

How many of these people there are I have absolutely no idea. But after Snowden it has become a lot harder to argue that someone is a conspiracy nut case. After all, that’s exactly what the people who wouldn’t stop about the degree to which our lives are being spied on were labelled as. And then Edward Snowden proved them all right, and in fact, in many cases showed that things were much worse than even the most die hard alu-foil wearing mad hatter had predicated.

How far does this rabbit hole go down? To be honest, I have no idea. But apparently there are plenty of people who believe that ‘Pizzagate’ is real, that Donald Trump won the 2020 elections and that they and only they are able to stop the coming of the anti-christ.

It’s a vicious cycle. Start off with one idea based on whatever you think you know something about that doesn’t mesh with what you read in the newspaper or see on TV, and a couple of years later (19 in this case) and both you and your spouse are ready for the funny farm. It’s been painful to watch this, even from afar. Such incredibly smart and talented people, how could they get so lost? And if they could get lost like that, what’s to stop me from getting lost in a similar way? Or you, the reader, for that matter.

Because quite likely all of us have some angle where sufficient applied stress will cause us to depart from reality as we know it into the twilight zone of half truths and outright lies. Once your calibration is off on one subject that can be used against you to break you away further and further. And we are not trained on how to arm ourselves against this at all. In fact, quite a lot of our upbringing goes the other way, we are conditioned to respect authority, to believe lots of stuff uncritically. For the most part all of that is benign and to our benefit. But once those very powerful levers are corrupted it is pretty easy to manipulate people into believing outrageous lies and to sometimes even act on those beliefs, in some cases with disastrous consequences.

I’m not sure what to do about this. I’ve given up on my friends, fully realizing that that makes their situation worse. But I just can’t deal with the degree to which they have slid off into the abyss, it is too hard to watch, remembering them as they were seems to be the easy way out. For those two there are probably 100’s of thousands if not millions (more?) of others who are equally detached from reality. They still vote, they are probably a relatively small step away from acting on their beliefs. It’s a powderkeg waiting for the right match to be thrown in. Too bad we don’t have a way to detoxify our brains from factually wrong information.