Why are extremists addicted to conspiracy theories?

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The violence at the US Capitol that left five people dead was a shocking display: lawmakers and staffers cowered in bunkers, a trail of damage scattered across offices and hallways. What goes on in the mind of an extremist? Why do they resort to violence and can the constant sense of anger and frustration generated around conspiracy theories be addictive? 

KCRW’s Jonathan Bastian talks with Peter Simi, who has spent more than 20 years studying extremist groups and violence.  He’s an associate professor in the Department of Sociology at Chapman University and the author of “American Swastika: Inside the White Power Movement's Hidden Spaces of Hate.”

The following interview excerpts have been abbreviated and edited for clarity. 

KCRW: What can you tell us about the people who participated in the attack on the Capitol this week; what are they thinking? 

Peter Simi: “There's a number of things we can look at in terms of individuals, as well as group dynamics. So one of the things that's happening is what's called mortality salience; a heightened sensitivity to the likelihood of your death. That experience is a very stressful and emotional experience for individuals as they become closer to death especially if it's for unnatural causes. So if you're being attacked, if there's a person or persons that you perceive that are preying on you, that creates a sense of instability and vulnerability and this is the classic “fight or flight.”  

So what we see among political extremists who resort to the kind of violence it that’s often coupled with a high level of mortality salience and what we're finding is that there's a sense that literally people's physical lives are in jeopardy, and they're in jeopardy from a number of external threats. 

Whether these are demographic changes, where white Americans who have experienced dominance in US society, see their position as threatened by certain individuals; this notion that whites are supposedly going to become a numerical minority in the United States in coming years. So that's one type of threat that's perceived as driving certain kinds of actors who come together because of their perspectives and view of the world. 

Another type of threat is this sense that America as a country is being taken away from individuals. That things are being turned upside down by the threat of communism and this is a long standing fear that has played a pretty dominant role in American politics throughout the 20th century. For instance, some people believe that Joe Biden is a communist, who's bought and paid for by China. So there's this sense that he's going to be working on behalf of foreign enemies and so they perceive that as a threat, there’s a sense that constitutional rights are being taken away from citizens. 

So in the crowd this week there was also a lot of emphasis on the Second Amendment and a real deep relationship to gun culture. There’s an ongoing fear that people's gun rights are being taken away and in the near future, we're going to get to the point where they're going to come door to door and literally confiscate citizens' guns. This feeds into the view that the government wants citizens who are disarmed, so that they can put people in camps. 

These are the kinds of ideas that are widely circulating in digital environments.The ability for disinformation and propaganda to circulate widely makes the problem that much worse. We’ve seen this with COVID and the idea that the government is using the virus to control people. The idea that the virus may actually be the first step towards citizens being forced to be ‘chipped.’  So a lot of conspiracy theories really heighten the sense of mortality salience in the sense of threat and that was a major motivator for what we saw yesterday.”

What happens emotionally and psychologically? Is there a surge of adrenaline? Is that that fight or flight state? 

Simi: “The response is going to be varied. For some people, it'll be too much and they’ll see this as more than they bargained for. They showed up to the event, they took a certain degree of action. For these individuals it's not enough to just have the beliefs, they have to act on those beliefs, so they went to D.C., they took the time off of work, spent the money to get there and made that level of commitment to act, and be present.

As things escalated yesterday, there was a sub-segment of those individuals present who responded by saying this was too much and others who will respond in quite the opposite way. It's almost like they got a taste of blood and they're going to want more. And that's one of the things we have to be very vigilant about looking for is a radicalization effect that's going to likely occur. 

There were many who followed vicariously; watching the live streams that were readily available or they were watching the video feeds on Twitter, or watching on 24 hour cable news networks. There's so much footage readily available, that going to have a radicalizing effect for some individuals. So you get a real kind of variation in terms of how people respond to the very same type of stimuli.

A helpful way of thinking about this is that you're getting a real physical response to immersing yourself in these kinds of ideas and in this kind of action. This kind of physical response, can have an addictive like qualities, not necessarily the same as becoming addicted to heroin, but there can be an almost involuntary sense of attachment to being immersed and organizing your life around conspiracy theories that are so highly emotive, that are constantly generating a sense of anger, a sense of frustration, a sense of despair. These emotional reactions are in some ways very addictive.”

What about a figure like Trump, who can be so persuasive and able to stir up emotions? 

Simi: “In some ways, this might be the scariest part of the discussion because we've known that leaders like this exist in other countries at other times, but to actually live through an experience, where one of our democratically elected officials at the highest level, has this type of leadership style, who has these kind of psychological characteristics that share so much in common, and I'm not speaking in any kind of extreme way here, but has so much in common with, for instance, fascist leaders like Adolf Hitler. 

To see that in our own country at this moment in time is truly frightening and we need to be very clear eyed about how leaders cultivate their followers and how they use misinformation, disinformation, propaganda, how they play on people's emotions and how widespread their followers can become. This doesn't just go away, once that person's not in a politically elected position of power. We still have to address what has happened. 

I fear that as we move forward, there's going to be a tendency to kind of bypass that, there's gonna be a tendency to say, let's find some reconciliation, and pretend like this didn’t happen. And if that's the approach we ended up taking, that'll be a huge mistake because you have, what some people refer to as Trump's army out there, who are still very much aggrieved. So pretending like this didn't happen, doesn't do anything to address the very real threats that this represents. It also doesn't address the broader underlying dynamics that made it possible in the first place. We're going to have to do some real soul searching in trying to figure out exactly how to move forward but pretending like it didn't happen would be a huge mistake.”




Andrea Brody