Kafer: 2020 election conspiracy theories are dangerous

The fiery blast Christmas morning that rocked Nashville was not the act of a troubled loner with a bomb, but rather the work of a clandestine group with a missile. The target was a nearby building where an audit of Dominion voting machines was being completed. The blaze of fire obliterated evidence of manipulated vote totals. Kaboom!

If the stolen election conspiracy theory lacked a certain Hollywood action movie luster, it has it now — at least according to a tweet by Trump ally Patrick Byrne. Byrne, the former CEO of a successful company and graduate of elite schools, is a smart guy. So why have he and other intelligent people I know fallen for the Trump-actually-beat-Biden-but-for-a-vast-coordinated-voter-fraud-plot conspiracy theory?

Turns out a lot of people fall prey to this kind of wishful thinking. According to researchers at the University of Chicago, half of Americans believe in at least one debunked theory like the government orchestrated 9/11, a cabal of Wall Street bankers caused the Great Recession, or billionaire George Soros is plotting to take over the country. A quarter of Americans believe powerful individuals were behind the COVID-19 outbreak, a poll by the Pew Research Center found. And, nearly half of Americans polled continued to cling to the notion that Donald Trump colluded with Russia in the 2016 election after the Mueller report failed to find a smoking gun.

Conspiracy theories are enticing because they fulfill a need for certainty, security, and positive self-image observes David Ludden, professor of psychology at Georgia Gwinnett College. Uncertainty is unpleasant. People yearn for an explanation that is proportional to the event and answers all the questions. A deep plot to assassinate President Kennedy is thus a more satisfying explanation than
a deranged nobody got off a lucky shot. It fits better.

Humans also crave predictability and control. A world where a lethal virus randomly jumps from an animal to a person is far scarier than a world where scientists create pathogens for nefarious purposes. A world where an outlandish television personality beats an experienced political insider becomes more rational if Russian influence is behind it all. Likewise, it is more comfortable for some to believe that massive voter fraud caused Trump to lose to “a guy who never left his basement” to quote a friend, an Ivy League grad no less, who believes Biden stole the election. A conspiracy theory is a safe harbor from the chaos of the real world.

Once embraced, a conspiracy theory has a virus-like effect on the brain coopting its mental circuitry to find evidence and dispel counterevidence. People who pride themselves skeptics of mainstream knowledge are particularly good at asking questions no official answer will satisfy.

As Christopher French, a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London notes, “The real-world events that often become the subject of conspiracy theories tend to be intrinsically complex and unclear. Early reports may contain errors, contradictions and ambiguities, and those wishing to find evidence of a cover-up will focus on such inconsistencies to bolster their claims.”

The 2020 election with its disorderly shift to absentee ballots due to COVID-19 fears, provided abundant material for a conspiracy theory. Add to that petri dish proof of real incidents of voter fraud, epic partisan distrust, social media censorship efforts, and Trump’s goading, and you’ve got a viral conspiracy theory for which some people have no resistance.

Unfortunately, the stolen election isn’t just another fringe theory to file alongside Area 51 and the faked moon landing, a victimless crime against reality that we can joke about someday. It’s destructive. Just ask fellow Coloradan Eric Coomer. The director of product strategy and security for Denver-based Dominion Voting Systems had to go into hiding because of accusations he colluded
with leftists to throw the election. Coomer is getting death threats like the parents of young victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting who were targeted by a conspiracy theory peddler. Like them, he is fighting back in court. May he prevail.

As for the impact of this viral conspiracy theory on the body politic, one can only guess. If the Nashville Christmas missile idea is any indication, feverous speculation will continue to spike.

Krista L. Kafer is a weekly Denver Post columnist. Follow her on Twitter: @kristakafer

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