America Has Always Been A Nation Of Conspiracy Theories — But It’s Worse Than Ever

Jennifer Wright
TULSA, OK – JUNE 20: President Donald J. Trump speaks during a “Make America Great Again!” rally at the BOK Center on Saturday, June 20, 2020 in Tulsa, OK. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
TULSA, OK – JUNE 20: President Donald J. Trump speaks during a “Make America Great Again!” rally at the BOK Center on Saturday, June 20, 2020 in Tulsa, OK. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

As I write this, a pandemic has cost America over a hundred thousand lives, people are protesting in the streets over the police’s murder of more unarmed Black men and women — and the President of the United States is tweeting new conspiracy theories. Specifically, one that originated on an anonymous blog stating that an elderly protester pushed down by the police and left bleeding in the street was a crisis actor.

If only he were alone in thinking this. 

Instead, conspiracy theorists have a welcoming home in the Republican Party. Half of Fox News Viewers believe that Bill Gates wants to use a coronavirus vaccine to implant microchips into Americans in order to track them. While this is a pretty clear conspiracy theory because, hey, phones already have tracking devices, so why go to all the trouble of putting them in vaccines? Still, it’s believed by a significant portion of the population. 

And then, of course there are the people who believe that 5G Wireless towers are spreading COVID-19. Or that George Soros orchestrated the Black Lives Matter protests, rather than that they arose because police keep killing unarmed Black people. And then of course there’s Obamagate which no one — including the President tweeting about it — seems to have a clear handle on. 

In 2020, conspiracy theories are not reserved for your craziest uncle who thinks Stanley Kubrick faked the moon landings. (Obviously false, because, if Kubrick had, they’d have been better filmed). Now, they are the norm. 

That’s not entirely surprising. It’s naive to think that America wasn’t always a nation filled with conspiracy theorists. When Thomas Jefferson, who had many doubts about religion, ran for President, some people were terrified that he was going to outlaw the Bible. Like, they actually thought Jefferson would send people into their houses to take their bibles and burn them. But then, they also thought he was going to sell young white women into prostitution. Now, if they’d disliked Jefferson for being a slaveholder and thus actually participating in the selling of Black people into bondage, that would have been justified. But, unfortunately, that wasn’t a problem for most Americans.

Which is to say, since the inception of this country, people have been enacting some version of Pizzagate when it comes to political leaders, even while ignoring the actual problems these leaders have. 

There have been instances where the conspiracy theories have had wide reaching impact in the fast, largely when they were shared by government officials. In the 1950s, Senator Joseph McCarthy (wrongly) believed that Soviet communist spies had infiltrated every level of the government and that it must be “the product of a great conspiracy, a conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man.” McCarthyism led to a Hollywood blacklist of writers believed to have any kind of “communist sympathies” as well as the execution of the Rosenbergs, who were believed to be acting as Soviet spies.  

The difference between then and now is that McCarthyism was — eventually — meticulously debunked by Edward R. Murrow in what is still considered “one of the greatest journalistic take-downs ever recorded.” It led to the censure of McCarthy from President Eisenhower, and his eventual decline in power. 

That would almost certainly not happen now. Even when conspiracy theories are debunked by responsible mainstream media outlets, faced with facts that contradict their favorite conspiracy theories, people would often rather reject the truth than the theory. That is likely due to the fact that the accessibility of reading material on the internet allows everyone the illusion of expertise. 

In part, that’s due to remarkable successes in society. The fact that 99% of Americans are now literate would have shocked Americans a hundred years ago. That’s to say nothing of the fact that we’re able to research anything we want on the internet, essentially any time we want. You want to know the name of an actor in a movie you liked? You can find it out in 10 seconds on IMDB. You want to know when Delaware became a state (December 7th, 1787)? You don’t need to trudge all the way to a library. You google it. 

Of course, that information goes beyond trivia. Finding out, say, “what caused the coronavirus” is not quite as simple as finding out “who played Han Solo in Star Wars.” Even just 30 years ago, when it came to information about diseases, you would have to get most of it from your doctor. That is not to say your doctor would have always been right, or that you necessarily would have liked the information they gave you. It simply means that it would have been more arduous to access what are now called “alternative facts.” If you wanted to know more about a disease, you would have, at the very least, had to go to a library, and find a book or medical journal (likely written by medical professionals, and fact checked by editors) and begin a rather lengthy process of reading and learning. How much easier to merely click on a Facebook article that informs you in easy-to-follow language that coronavirus is caused by 5G towers. 

And hey, those people will tell you, they researched it. By which they meant, they read an article, perhaps even a few articles! (This is, as doctors will repeatedly tell you, not even close to actual research. Actual research would entail a sample set, trials, and much more. )   

Margaret Atwood, the author of The Handmaid’s Tale, once noted that the American spirit could be summed up in the lyrics of the musical Oklahoma!, which states, “I’m not saying I’m no better than anybody else/ but I’ll be damned if I ain’t just as good.” That’s a noble notion when it comes to people thinking that they have a right to sit at lunch counters or not be murdered by policemen. It’s a foolish notion when it comes to people’s conviction that they know as much as doctors or scientists because they read three articles on FreedomEagle.facebook.com

Though they will certainly feel like they know a great deal after reading a topic, as their knowledge will have increased dramatically in a short time. A person — perhaps a doctor, let’s call them Person A — who has read thousands of articles on vaccination may read one more article. Perhaps, if it is an extremely good article, it will end up comprising 1 percent of Person A’s general knowledge on the subject. Which is to say, their knowledge isn’t likely to increase that much from reading a single paper. Barring the possibility that it is a world-altering paper, they’re about as educated on the topic as they were before. A person who had never read an article about vaccination before, however, can read such one article and find that their knowledge has increased 100%. They feel far better educated than they were before, because they are. 

That said, they’re still terribly informed. They just feel like they know a lot. It takes a certain amount of intellect to know how dumb you are. 

Which brings us to the Dunning-Kruger effect, named after David Dunning and Justin Kruger. The psychologists tested subjects on various qualities — sense of humor, logic and grammar —  and found that those who rated in the lowest quadrants tended to rank themselves as far above average. Incompetent people think that they’re better than they actually are. Not only were they poorly informed, they were too poorly informed to know that they were poorly informed.

How do we even begin to combat that? Well, some papers have said that it’s the responsibility of journalists to ensure that their information is fact-checked extensively. One great quote I remember is that, if you are a journalist, and one person says it’s raining, and another says it is not, it is not your job to present both views. It is your job to go out and see if it’s raining. And there are a lot of newspapers and publications, even those that do have partisan leanings, that try their damndest to do that: The Atlantic. The Washington Post. The New Yorker. The Wall Street Journal.  

You know something those newspapers have in common? They’re behind paywalls. You can read your three articles a month for free, and then you have to pay. You know who you don’t have to pay to read? Publications who persistently fail fact checks . If you can read something you have to pay for, or read something you do not have to pay for, a lot of people will opt for the latter. 

A good approach then, is that when you see something that seems like hyperbolic news, check to see if it’s been independently fact checked. You can check out Snopes, for instance, a publication whose only purpose is to verify widely circulated stories. Or you could embrace the fact that, at long last, Twitter is ensuring that the President’s tweets are based in reality. Facts, and checking them, should be uncontroversial. 

But that’s no longer the case in a world in which people have come to believe there are no facts, only opinions. People are quick to declare that Snopes is fake news and that fact checks are an attempt to censor people

No one likes to have the little knowledge they’ve obtained undermined. It makes them feel foolish. 

And they’re smart, after all. They read an article. They know as much as the fact checkers. They know Thomas Jefferson will steal your bibles. 

Like what you see? How about some more R29 goodness, right here?

How Teens On TikTok Derailed Trump's Tulsa Rally

Why Ivanka Brought Her Purse To A Tear-Gassing

Tiktok's Save Barron Trump Conspiracy, Explained

More From

  • The Most Star-Spangled Fashion Sales You Can Shop Today

    We don’t need to remind anyone that July 4th celebrations are going to look a little different this year. In lieu of crowded backyard barbecues, we'll be searing hot dogs on individual mini grills from a safe social distance of six feet. And, instead of pouring rosé out of a shared cooler while not really keeping track of whose glass is whose, we'll be sipping bottled to-go cocktails beneath the cover of face masks. But, despite all of these time-honored traditions being in a state of flux, there is a holiday staple that we can still expect: the sales. As sure as the sun rising in the east, the annual influx of 4th of July sales is business as usual with many of the deals already in full swing — and they don’t disappoint. Click through to see what scores we rustled up this year. No matter how you end up celebrating the long weekend ahead, don’t forget to don your mask! At Refinery29, we’re here to help you navigate this overwhelming world of stuff. All of our market picks are independently selected and curated by the editorial team. If you buy something we link to on our site, Refinery29 may earn commission.Like what you see? How about some more R29 goodness, right here?Wayfair's July 4th Sale Is Up To 70% OffThe Black One-Pieces Online Shoppers Swear By23 Red Swimsuits For Every 4th Of July Pool Party

  • R29 Readers’ Top Stay-At-Home Picks Are All On Sale For July 4th

    After spending many, many months indoors recently, it's very possible that you already know your way around a good cyber sale. But just when you thought you'd be swapping screen time for sunshine in honor of one star-spangled holiday this weekend, let us remind you that the 4th of July is also a major moment for some of the year's biggest markdowns on everything furniture, decor, rugs, and more. And while we're on the topic of that stay-at-home life we've grown accustomed to as of late, we'd like to point out that many of our R29 readers' favorite finds over lockdown (fire pits, desk chairs, and breathable bedding, to name a few) are having their prices slashed, all in the name of patriotism as July 4 draws near. So we're breaking down the top holiday deals by category featuring the season's most-loved home items so you're well-prepared to ride the wave of promotions that's on its way. With discounts of up to 70% off from popular retailers like Wayfair and Lulu and Georgia, it'll be worth the extra few minutes at your computer. The more efficient your sale shopping, the more time you've got to soak up that all-too-precious vitamin D, so click through our roundup of unmissable steals ahead and keep checking back — we'll be updating this list as long as the markdowns are marching in. At Refinery29, we’re here to help you navigate this overwhelming world of stuff. All of our market picks are independently selected and curated by the editorial team. If you buy something we link to on our site, Refinery29 may earn commission.Like what you see? How about some more R29 goodness, right here?All The Home Sales You May As Well Shop While WFHUpgrade Your Bedroom Decor With This Design HackWayfair's July 4th Sale Is Up To 70% Off

  • It’s Hot. Here’s How To Make Your Face Mask More Comfortable

    I’m going to kick this off with two statements that are likely beyond obvious to you (unless you’ve spent the first half of 2020 living off the land in the desolate wilderness with nothing but a penknife and a ball of cord to keep you company, à la My Side of The Mountain). You should be wearing a mask. And it’s freaking hot outside. What do these two things have to do with other? Well, wearing a mask in the heat is a pain. Masks can get sweaty, feel stuffy, and can even leave us with a heat rash.“It’s worth acknowledging that masks are uncomfortable, especially when it’s hot and humid,” says Nate Favini, MD, medical lead at Forward, a concierge medical service. “They’re annoying, and I don’t think we should pretend that’s not true. I’m empathetic — but it doesn’t mean that wearing a mask isn’t crucial.” Because the fact is, face masks work. They reduce transmission, helping to curb the spread of coronavirus and to quite literally save lives. “The COVID-19 pandemic continues to have an increasing number of cases, so it’s more important than ever to wear a mask,” says Natasha Bhuyan, MD, One Medical’s regional medical director. “Until we have a vaccine, widespread masks are our best defense against this virus.”But when it’s hot and sticky outside, and the humid air you’re exhaling is getting trapped by your mask, things might get a little stifling, admits Dr. Bhuyan. (To be clear: While there’s a myth circulating that wearing a mask can lower oxygen levels, it’s not true. Doctors and nurses wear them all day long, and they’re doing okay. “Even though we are exhaling carbon dioxide, it already exists in the environment… Wearing the mask does not increase this risk,” Dr. Bhuyan says.)So, yes, wearing a face mask on a 100-degree day is still worth it. And to make it easier on you, we asked doctors for their best tips for staying comfortable while doing your civic duty and covering your face in steamy temps. Get a more breathable mask. Choose one that has more structure than those that lie flat against your mouth. But Dr. Favini cautions that the more breathable a mask is, the less protection it may offer to the people around you. “There’s the tension of wanting people to have masks that are more comfortable versus wanting them to have ones that are more effective.” So if you’re going to be indoors and/or around others, wear a more effective mask, even if it makes you feel hotter. (Or layer up. Which brings us to…)Choose the right material. This is especially important if you’re getting heat rashes from your mask. “Consider fabrics that are either natural, like cotton, or synthetic fabrics that wick away sweat, such as fabric found in exercise clothing,” says Ted Lain, MD, dermatologist and chief medical officer at Sanova Dermatology. “The latest recommendation is to use multiple layers of fabric to produce the most effective protective barrier to the virus, so instead of using a thick cotton, consider a thinner cotton fabric but layering it.”Bring backups. A sweaty mask stinks — literally and figuratively. So have a few fresh ones in your bag. That way if you sweat through one, you’ll have another at the ready. This can make you more comfortable, and prevent breakouts. “Sweating and the humidity in the mask area certainly can lead to a dermatitis, or even an acne breakout,” says Dr. Lain. Pack each extra in a clean, sealable plastic baggie so it won’t be exposed to any germs before you slip it on your face.Time your “chin strap” moments. Sure, if you’re totally alone, then it’s fine to pull your mask down and take a few deep breaths. But then pull it back up, Dr. Favini says: “Wearing your mask down around your chin is like having a condom and leaving it on the nightstand while you have sex.” Like what you see? How about some more R29 goodness, right here?

  • The Penumbral Eclipse Will Look Subtle — But Its Effects Are Major

    This weekend, we’ll be experiencing a lunar eclipse; specifically, a penumbral lunar eclipse. We’ve already talked a little bit about what that means for you astrologically, but… what exactly is the event, astronomically speaking? A regular ol’ lunar eclipse occurs when the Earth blocks the sun’s light as it reflects off the moon. This can only happen during a full moon, and there are three kinds of lunar eclipses: total, partial, and penumbral.A total lunar eclipse occurs when the Earth completely blocks the sun’s light from the moon. During a partial lunar eclipse, the Earth partially blocks the sun from the moon. A penumbral lunar eclipse is a little more subtle. “During a penumbral lunar eclipse, the sun, Earth, and the moon are imperfectly aligned in a row,” astrologer Lisa Stardust tells Refinery29. “The Earth blocks some of the sun’s light from directly reaching the moon’s surface, and covers all or part of the moon with the outer part of its shadow, also known as the penumbra.” What this looks like: You might notice a faint shadow cast over part of the moon’s surface. Like we said — subtle. Lunar eclipses are cool astronomical events, full stop. But the reason they get so many attention in the astrology world is because they involve the two luminaries that affect our lives the most — the sun and the moon, Narayana Montúfar, senior astrologer for Astrology.com and Horoscope.com, tells Refinery29. “Eclipses are turbo-charged lunations and the way the Universe creates change in our lives,” she says.Similar to a full moon, a penumbral lunar eclipse brings along endings — sometimes in a way that makes them feel almost like destiny, Montúfar says. “What’s tricky about these eclipses is that those endings will not happen immediately, as they develop over the course of the next six months,” she explains. “And when they end something, they also begin something new, too.” Think of a penumbral lunar eclipse as the celestial version of the famous saying, “When one door closes, another one opens.”Eclipses affect us individually, bringing positive or negative events, depending on what the particular eclipse does in our personal chart, according to Leslie Hale, psychic astrologer at Keen.com. “Sometimes an eclipse is dramatic, or reveals important information if it aspects a significant point in your own chart,” she says. “An eclipse often brings news pertaining to life’s biggest events, and our most significant life happenings often occur close to an eclipse.”Eclipses are often described as wild cards. Montúfar says that the best way to handle their arrival is to be aware that anything’s possible, and to focus on going with the flow, since many of the changes they bring to our lives are non-negotiable. “It’s not rare to feel very emotional during the days surrounding a lunar eclipse, since the energy of the moon is at its highest,” Montúfar notes. During the days leading up to a penumbral lunar eclipse, simplify your schedules. Figure out where your energy and attention is most needed, and let go of anything holding you back. Also, give yourself a lot of time to rest and relax.Ultimately, penumbral eclipses can bring along much-needed change, or shine light on new and exciting opportunities. Pay attention, and take the time during this kind of eclipse to put you and your needs first.Like what you see? How about some more R29 goodness, right here?This Mercury Retrograde, Prepare To Fight