We typically interact with conspiracy theories online with a sort of amused wonder, whether it’s watching Alex Jones freak out or learning with dismay that NBA stars believe the Earth is flat or hopping down the rabbit hole of linked social accounts and shoddily produced explainer videos. But there are an awful lot of people that believe this stuff out there, and, beyond the sense of holy-shit rubbernecking, it’s worth hearing their stories, too. A fascinating new article in The Guardian does just that, detailing how a well-educated, left-leaning couple in California became chemtrails believers.
They join some 5 percent of the U.S. population in the conviction that, in order to fight global warming, the government is secretly spraying aluminum, strontium, and barium in the sky in an attempt to control the weather, population, and food supply. For evidence, they point to the vaporous trails left behind airplanes that most of us believe to be mere condensation. Author Carey Dunne gets to know a couple well while working on their farm, and empathizes with their slow conversion from concerned environmentalists, portraying the psychic toll this belief takes on them well:
“See how the sky is a steely color?” Lisa says when I meet her at her home in Penn Valley. The sky is a normal-looking blue, cloudless and trail-less, but she insists this is “rare” and that “it used to be more turquoise”.
Like anti-vaxxers and flat-earthers, chemtrails conspiracy theorists trade spurious data, doctored imagery, and self-reinforcing “news” on private Facebook groups and Instagram accounts. Like right-wing climate change deniers, they insist on an alternate set of scientific truths than the ones the scientists themselves propose. But while extrapolations like these are common, the merit of Dunne’s story is in the slow conversion her subjects undergo, responding to a very common anxiety about the future with a futile belief that they alone possess an understanding of our true enemy, whether it’s chemtrails, the Illuminati, or lizard people. Humanizing stories like this are more than human interest, she writes:
Roughly 68% of Americans share this distrust in mass media. Instead of the news, Rob says he gets his information from friends he respects.
If Rob were to start reading the news, he’d discover that most mainstream reporting about conspiracists ranges from subtly to explicitly condescending in tone. Maybe this seemed all in good fun back when conspiracy theories appeared to hold no sway in national politics. But with our new conspiracy-theorist-in-chief, President Trump, it’s become counterproductive to laugh off the fact-averse as paranoid kooks, or to passively ignore their perspectives in hopes that science will inevitably prevail.
Research suggests that condescension and passive dismissal won’t help change minds – especially given that conspiracy theorists are more likely to meet the criteria for all types of psychological disorder, including anxiety, depression and being socially disadvantaged.
It will never stop being fun to watch Alex Jones freak out, in other words, but we might look to start tempering that with some more details on the very real damage conspiracy peddlers like him create in their followers’ lives. The Guardian article is an excellent start.
Anyway, that being said, here he is singing about chemtrails to the tune of DuckTales.