By DAVID KLEPPER Associated Press
Daniel Charles Wilson believes that the attacks of September 11, 2001 were an inside job. The war in Ukraine is “totally written” and COVID-19 is “completely false”. The Boston Marathon bombing? Mass shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas? “Crisis actors,” he says.
Wilson, a 41-year-old from London, Ontario, has doubts about free elections, vaccinations and the Jan. 6 insurrection, too. He accepts little of what has happened in the last 20 years and gleefully predicts that one day the Internet will make everyone as distrustful as he is.
“It’s the information age, and the shadow government, the people who control everything, they know they can’t win,” Wilson told The Associated Press. “Everyone is lying to us. But we will get through this. It will be a good change for everyone.”
Wilson, who is now working on a book about his views, is not an isolated case of perpetual disbelief. He speaks for a growing number of people in Western nations who have lost faith in democratic government and press freedom, and who have turned to conspiracy theories to fill the void.
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Rejecting what they hear from scientists, journalists or public officials, these people embrace stories of dark plots and secret explanations. And their beliefs, say experts who study disinformation and extremism, reflect a widespread loss of faith in institutions like government and the media.
A poll last year by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that just 16% of Americans say democracy is working well or extremely well. Another 38% said it works only slightly well.
Other polls reveal how many people in the United States now doubt the media, politicians, science, and even each other.
Mistrust runs so deep that even groups that appear ideologically aligned question each other’s motives and intentions.
The day before Independence Day in Boston this year, a group of about 100 masked men carrying fascist flags marched through the city. Members proudly uploaded videos and photos of the march to online forums popular with supporters of former President Donald Trump and QAnon followers, who believe that a group of cannibalistic and satanic child molesters secretly rule the world.
Instead of praise, white supremacists were met with disbelief. Some signs said the protesters were clearly FBI agents or members of antifa, short for anti-fascists, seeking to smear Trump supporters. It didn’t matter that the men bragged about their involvement and begged to be believed. “Another false flag,” wrote a self-described conservative on Telegram.
Similarly, when an extremist website that sells unregulated ghost guns (firearms without serial numbers) asked its followers about their plans for the 4th of July, several people responded by accusing the group of working for the FBI. When someone claiming to be Q, the figure behind QAnon, resurfaced online recently, many conservatives who support the movement speculated that the new Q was actually a government plant.
Last week, when a Georgia monument that some conservative Christians criticized as satanic was bombed, many posters on far-right message boards cheered. But many others said they did not believe the news.
“I don’t trust that. Still thinking ff,” one woman wrote on Twitter, referencing “false flag,” a term commonly used by conspiracy theorists to describe an event they believe was staged.
New York City-based global public relations firm Edelman has conducted public confidence surveys for more than two decades, beginning after the 1999 World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle was marred. for riots against globalization. Tonia Reis, director of Edelman’s Trust Barometer polls, said trust is a precious commodity that is vital for the economy and government to function.
“Trust is absolutely essential for everything to work well in society,” Reis said. “It’s one of those things that, like air, people don’t think about until they realize they don’t have it, or they’ve lost or damaged it. And then it may be too late.”
For experts who study misinformation and human cognition, the erosion of trust is tied to the rise of the Internet and the way it can be exploited on contentious issues of social and economic change.
Mistrust and suspicion offered obvious advantages to small groups of early humans trying to survive in a dangerous world, and those emotions continue to help people gauge personal risk today. But mistrust isn’t always well suited to the modern world, which requires people to trust strangers who inspect their food, police their streets and write their news. Democratic institutions, with their regulations and checks and balances, are one way to add accountability to that trust.
When that trust is broken, polarization and anxiety increase, creating opportunities for people to push their own “alternative facts.”
“People can’t check the facts of the world,” said Dr. Richard Friedman, a New York City psychiatrist and professor at Weill Cornell Medical College, who has written on the psychology of trust and belief. “They are inundated with competing streams of information, both good and bad. They’re anxious about the future, and there are a lot of bad actors with the ability to weaponize that fear and anxiety.”
Those bad actors include scammers selling bad investments or bogus COVID-19 remedies, Russian disinformation agents trying to undermine Western democracies, or even local politicians like Trump, whose lies about the 2020 election sparked the Jan. 6 attack.
Research and surveys show that belief in conspiracy theories is common and widespread. Believers are more likely to get their information from social media than from professional news organizations. The rise and fall of particular conspiracy theories are often tied to real-world events and social, economic, or technological changes.
Like Wilson, people who believe in one conspiracy theory are likely to also believe in others, even if they contradict each other. A 2012 paper, for example, looked at beliefs surrounding Diana, Princess of Wales’s death in a 1997 car accident. The researchers found that subjects who strongly believed that Diana was murdered said they also strongly believed that she might having faked his own death.
Wilson said his belief in conspiracies began on September 11, 2001, when he couldn’t accept that planes could bring down the towers. He said that he found information on the Internet that confirmed his beliefs and then began to suspect that there were conspiracies behind other world events.
“You have to put it all together yourself,” Wilson said. “The hidden reality, what’s really going on, they don’t want you to know.”
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