Radicalized and Conspiratorial Believer: Can the Cycle Be Broken?

If your idea of ​​conspiracy theories involves aliens, UFOs, government cover-ups at the Roswell Air Force base, and the tune of The X-Files, you’re not alone. This was, indeed, the classic notion, says Scott tyson, assistant professor of political science at the University of Rochester.

But in the past five years he has noticed a turning point. For starters, the term “theory” no longer applied to convoluted ideas put forth by today’s conspiratorial groups such as QAnon, the Proud Boys, and the Oath Keepers, all of which Tyson largely calls “no theory.” .

For example, Tyson, a game theorist whose research focuses on authoritarian politics, conspiracies and radicalization, points out that those who mistakenly believe that “former President Donald Trump’s victory was stolen,” generally do not believe. not that the votes cast on that same ballot for Republican candidates elected to Congress were tampered with.

Yet these plots have entered mainstream discourse and are at the root of the growing radicalization of average Americans that most visibly manifested in the storming of the United States Capitol on January 6, says- he.

In a recent study, “Sowing the seeds: radicalization as a political tool“published in the American Journal of Political Science, Tyson – with University of Michigan coauthor Todd Lehmann – examines two common policy interventions – economic and psychological – designed to counter the growing radicalization of the American population.

The duo find that improving economic conditions reduce both radicalization efforts and dissent. However, trying to make people psychologically less susceptible to radicalization attempts can backfire and increase the efforts of radical leaders to influence and radicalize more followers.

While sweeping claims of a “deep state” and “stolen elections” have long quietly bubbled up under public discourse, Tyson says those ideas have now entered the mainstream. This shift – from the sidelines to the center stage – according to Tyson, happened during the Trump presidency.

Questions and answers

What is the rough definition of “radicalization”?

“Radicalization” is used interchangeably with “indoctrination”. Essentially, it creates a personal motivation in people to do certain things. You would label someone radicalized when those things that you would normally motivate someone to do – you don’t have to do anymore because they have become motivated. This is where the conspiracy comes in: it restructures the way people view the social world around them. Radicalization involves an element of extremism and is fundamentally political thinking with an ecosystem: there has to be a political group, or set of political leaders who are trying to restructure people’s beliefs or values ​​in a way that helps their own goals. or political causes.

How to fight against radicalization?

The way to fight it is not to hope for the easy way out. It’s a misconception that we can just take out the leaders and it’ll all go away, like we’re just chopping off the head of the snake. It doesn’t actually work. You have to go from the bottom up to start trying to siphon off radicalized people and treat the organization more like a terrorist group, in terms of politics of heart and mind.

Does leadership “beheading” work against a radical group like QAnon?

In our research, we looked at what happens when you threaten to behead leaders and found that you are actually making leaders step up their efforts to radicalize others. The reason is very simple: if we think of radicalized people as having the personal motivation to do things against the government – be it protests, attacks or bombing things – if more people radicalize, the actual rulers are less important in these kinds of anti-government actions. Our theory suggests that the rulers are less important in the actual production of anti-government action, so the government is essentially forced to divert the attention of the rulers to these other threats. Leaders intentionally remove themselves from their own control.

Why have conspiracies been able to enter the American mainstream so pervasively?

Trump played an extremely important role in giving a megaphone to conspiracyists who were previously on the fringes until he became a political force and essentially militarized many of these ideas. When Trump unleashed all of these conspiracies in the public, a lot of people didn’t know they were really fringe ideas. Another reason they were able to spread so quickly is our so-called “media ecosystem”. We have media outlets like Fox News, OAN, and Newsmax who are perfectly prepared to start conspiracies. When it all started in 2015, the mainstream media weren’t ready for this kind of militarization. This is why the conspirators were able to abuse the mainstream media to essentially whitewash their claims: The conspirators would make a bunch of unsubstantiated claims and accusations, which the mainstream media in turn would take up for reporting. Part of the debunking, however, was telling the wrong story. In this way, many of these conspiracy stories ended up reaching a much larger audience.

What role has the pandemic played in the spread of conspiracies and the radicalization of American citizens?

QAnon existed before the pandemic and radicalization campaigns by far-right groups were already underway before. But it certainly accelerated those efforts and made them more effective. Due to the pandemic, people were more isolated, meaning they spoke to fewer people, and the echo chamber became narrower. This, in turn, made people more likely to radicalize. It is very similar to how cults recruit people: they isolate them from their family and friends who are not involved in the cult. They keep new recruits in this echo chamber long enough until they can radicalize them. The number of QAnon members and people radicalized through other far-right groups today would be much, much lower if the pandemic had not forced us all to isolate ourselves as it has.

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