Choose your reality: trust is waning, conspiracy theories are rising

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Daniel Charles Wilson believes the 9/11 attacks were an inside job. The war in Ukraine is ‘totally scripted’ and COVID-19 is ‘totally fake’. The Boston Marathon Bombing? Mass shootings in Newtown, Connecticut and Buffalo, New York and Uvalde, Texas? “Crisis actors,” he says.

Wilson, 41, from London, Ontario, also has doubts about free elections, vaccines and the January 6 riot. Accepting little of what has happened in the past 20 years, he cheerfully predicts that one day the internet will make everyone as suspicious as he is.

“It’s the information age, and the hidden government, the people who control everything, know they can’t win,” Wilson told The Associated Press. “You lie to all of us. But we’re going to break 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 perennial unbelief. He speaks for a growing number of people in Western countries who have lost faith in democratic government and a free press and have turned to conspiracy theories to fill the void.

These people reject what they hear from scientists, journalists or officials and instead embrace stories of dark conspiracies and secret statements. And their beliefs, experts studying misinformation and extremism say, reflect a widespread loss of trust in institutions like government and the media.

A poll conducted last year by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that only 16% of Americans say democracy is working well or very well. Another 38% said it only works reasonably well.

Other polls show how many people in the United States now doubt the media, politicians, science, and even each other.

Distrust has run so deep that even seemingly ideologically allied groups are questioning each other’s motives and intentions.

The day before this year’s Independence Day in Boston, a group of about 100 masked men with fascist flags marched through the city. Members have proudly uploaded videos and photos of the march to online forums popular with supporters of former President Donald Trump and QAnon supporters who believe a group of satanic, cannibalistic child molesters are secretly ruling the globe.

Instead of praise, the white supremacists met disbelief. Some posters said the protesters were clearly FBI agents or members of Antifa — short for anti-fascists — who wanted to defame Trump supporters. It didn’t matter that the men bragged about their involvement and begged to be believed. “Another false flag,” wrote a self-proclaimed conservative on Telegram.

When an extremist website that sells unregulated ghost guns — firearms without serial numbers — asked its followers about their plans for July 4th, 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 supporting the movement speculated that the new Q was actually a government plant.

When a memorial in Georgia that some conservative Christians criticized as satanic was bombed last week, many posters on far-right forums cheered. But many others said they didn’t believe the news.

“I don’t trust that. I still think ff,” one woman wrote on Twitter, referring to “false flag,” a term commonly used by conspiracy theorists to describe an event they believe was staged.

Global public relations firm Edelman has been conducting public trust surveys for more than two decades, beginning after the 1999 World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle was overshadowed by anti-globalization riots. Tonia Reis, head of polls at Edelman’s Trust Barometer, said trust is a precious commodity that is vital to the functioning of business and government.

“Trust is absolutely necessary for everything to work well in society,” Reis said. “It’s one of those things, like air, that people don’t think about until they realize they don’t have it, or they’ve lost it or damaged it. And then it may be too late.”

For experts studying misinformation and human cognition, the decline in trust is related to the rise of the internet and the ways it can be exploited in contentious issues of social and economic change.

Distrust and distrust offered obvious benefits to small groups of early humans trying to survive in a dangerous world, and these emotions continue to help people today assess personal risks. But distrust doesn’t always sit well in the modern world, where people must trust the strangers who control their food, patrol their streets, and write their messages. Democratic institutions, with their regulations and checks and balances, are one way to add accountability to that trust.

When that trust collapses, polarization and fear increase, creating opportunities for people to advance their own “alternative facts.”

“Humans cannot examine 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. “You are inundated with competing streams of information, both good and bad. They worry about the future, and there are a lot of bad actors with the ability to weaponize that fear and anxiety.”

These bad actors include scammers selling bad investments or fake cures for COVID-19, Russian disinformation activists trying to undermine Western democracies, or even domestic politicians like Trump, whose lies about the 2020 election spurred the Jan. 6 attack.

Research and polls show that belief in conspiracy theories is widespread. Believers are more likely to get their information from social media than from professional news organizations. The rise and fall of certain conspiracy theories are often linked to real events and societal, economic or technological changes.

Like Wilson, people who believe in one conspiracy theory are likely to believe in others as well, even if they contradict themselves. For example, a 2012 paper looked at beliefs surrounding the death of Princess Diana of Wales in a car accident in 1997. Researchers found that subjects who strongly believed Diana was murdered also strongly believed it were that she might have faked her own death.

Wilson said his belief in conspiracies began on September 11, 2001, when he could not accept that the towers could be shot down by planes. He said he found information on the Internet that confirmed his beliefs, and then began to suspect conspiracies were behind other world events.

“You have to put everything together yourself,” Wilson said. “The hidden reality, what’s really going on, they don’t want you to know.”

FILE – Rioters wave flags on the west front of the US Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021. As public trust in democratic institutions wanes, conspiracy theories fill the void. In some cases, this leads believers to doubt even their own allies.

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