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PI Perspective: How do we escape the conspiracy theory doom loop?

Many Americans have fallen prey to conspiracy theories that perpetually fuel their anger and sense of dread. How do we break the cycle of paranoia and fear gripping the nation?


By Carmen Gentile

Throughout my career, I’ve encountered many conspiracy theories that passed as truth when verifiable facts were in short supply.

I first learned how conspiracies filled the information void while working in Cairo. Some Egyptians would spin fantastic tales explaining all manner of global, diabolical plots designed to undermine their well-being. Alas, rampant paranoia is an unfortunate side effect of living in a repressive dictatorship. 

However, democracies are also fertile breeding grounds for harebrained ideas attempting to explain the unknown. 

Remember this doozy following the Sept. 11 terror attacks? 

“9/11 was an inside job!” 

We all have at least one relative that developed a world-class understanding of metallurgy, high rise architecture, and the exact temperature at which jet fuel burned. 

And of course, there was also the persistent, antisemitic conspiracy about how Jews and Israel were somehow involved in the attack. 

As prevalent and grotesque as some of the Sept. 11 conspiracy theories were, they can’t hold a candle to the conspiracy theory now rotting the minds of many Americans — almost a third of whom still believe the 2020 presidential election was stolen from Trump

But the one that prompted me to address this dilemma here is by far the nuttiest of the bunch: 

“Taylor Swift is a Pentagon psyop!”

That one is a favorite of Fox News, which seemingly is more concerned about a pop star than Russia’s war in Ukraine, Trump’s four indictments, and any number of important stories. 

How exactly is this kind of gobbledygook mistaken for fact when reliable information can be found in our pockets and purses (or wherever you stick your smartphone)?

The Anti-Defamation League outlines some of the reasons why people fall for conspiracy theories and provides suggestions for helping folks escape their addictive clutch. 

In short, the ADL contends, as do others, that some people need immediate reassurance amid a frightening time, like right after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, for example. 

[To learn more about conspiracy-prone people, and how you might help them quit conspiracies, check out this short ADL report.]

Their suggestions for how to gently guide people away from conspiracies are well and good, but they don’t address my original question about escaping the doom loop of conspiracy thinking run amok in America.

The depressing answer is — we never escape it completely. Conspiracy thinking is an inevitable part of the human condition, as we higher apes sometimes detect patterns and assign them value where there are none

[It’s called “apophenia” and it’s worth reading up on.]

So, there will always be conspiracy theories to combat and those who fall prey to them. 

One of the unfortunate facts of humanity is that we’re stuck with this predilection for seeing false patterns — causing some to conclude that windmill noises cause cancer — until we evolve out of this bad habit. 

The good news is we should be able to shake it in another 100,000 years or so.

In the meantime, those of us less prone to conspiracy theories (and don’t lie by saying you’ve never pondered the validity of one) can refute dangerous disinformation in other ways. 

The legal system has already hit some conspiracy theorists where it hurts them the most: their bank accounts. 

Alex Jones had the bejesus sued out of him over the “false flag” Sandy Hook school shooting bullshit he was spinning. 

Fox News also paid an enormous fine for countless hours of unfounded falsehoods pertaining to Dominion voting machines. 

So many conspiracy theories in America revolve around politics, culture wars, and supposed, nefarious forces operating in the shadows (Comet Pizza, anyone?) because many Americans don’t know how the government and election work on a rudimentary level. 

The solution, it seems, is self-evident, though quite difficult. Where there is fertile ground for conspiracies to bloom (i.e. uncertainty and ignorance) you flood the zone with facts and reason. 

Upon his recent return to “The Daily Show,” Jon Stewart spoke of what he learned while away from the “anchor desk,” saying that maintaining a healthy democracy and good governance are tasks we must take seriously every day so that conspiracies cannot flourish. 

“The work of making this world resemble one you would prefer to live in is a lunch pail job, day in and day out …” says Stewart. 

Less-manic and more sagelike Jon Stewart is right. To keep conspiracies from consuming us, we must put in the effort every day to not only stay informed on current events, but expand our horizons and seek out new ideas and people so that our worldview grows bigger and the unknown seems less scary. 

Only then will conspiracies like The Big Election Lie and QAnon be finally relegated to the dustbin of ridiculous fallacies.

Carmen Gentile

Postindustrial founder Carmen Gentile has worked for some of the world’s leading publications and news outlets, including The New York Times, USA TODAY, CBS News, and others. His book, “Blindsided by the Taliban,” documents his life as a war reporter and the aftermath of his brush with death after being shot with a rocket-propelled grenade in Afghanistan. Reach him at

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