Doped up on misinformation

Thinking of conspiracy disinformation like drugs and alcohol forces us to empathize with its consumers, just as we do people suffering from what’s now called substance use disorder. (Photo by Rick Loomis/Getty Images)

Just after the sacking of the U.S. Capitol, a friend of mine sent me a typical post found on the MAGA45 page of the emergent social network MeWe:  

Military arrests and takedowns begin this weekend and continue for the next 13 days…International raids have already begun. Italy has also been found complicit in our election fraud….DO NOT travel to any large cities (especially Philadelphia) for the rest of the month. Military operations will be taking place in many of the major corrupt cities…. He only has 13 days to put this corrupt dog down. 

This sounds like the ravings of a delusional fool, and it is. (The person must be deeply unfamiliar with the bumbling Italian government.) But it’s no less frightening for being so. 

The online fantasies of crackpots can easily migrate into real life, shepherded across by reckless political operators and right wing media, as we’ve seen repeatedly in recent years. Recall the President Donald Trump super fan who sent pipe bombs to Democrats and media figures. Or the man who drove 11 hours to kill Latinos at an El Paso Walmart. Or the attempt to kidnap and murder Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.  

Which takes us to the recent attack on the U.S. Capitol. 

Some of the Trumpists looked feral, delirious as they smashed through windows, dragged a Capitol police officer down stairs and pushed ahead in search of the “traitorous” Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Once inside, they vandalized and stole and smashed and in one case smeared feces. 

I get the political operators and right wing media and what they have to gain — political power and money. But it’s the crowd that I haven’t been able to fathom. What would possibly motivate someone — what grievance, what sense of injustice — to travel to Washington to betray their own country, leading to their arrest and national shame?

Watching videos and looking at pictures, however, I recognized the look of euphoria in their eyes. They were drunk on the conspiracy disinformation they were fed, celebrating communally with other lost souls. 

I use the word drunk purposefully here. If you’ve had a good drunk — and I don’t mean tipsy on your birthday — you may understand my meaning. 

Consider the similarities between intoxication from drugs and alcohol and from conspiracy-laden propaganda on display Jan. 6: Euphoria. Loss of judgment. And for many of them, alienation from friends and family.  

I asked Mark Thomas, a professor of neuroscience and director of the Medical Discovery Team on Addiction at the University of Minnesota, about this analogy. 

Thomas told me he tries to remain scrupulously in his scientific lane and avoid speculation. “But the more I thought about it, the more I thought there may be something there,” he told me recently. 

The key neurotransmitter to consider is dopamine, which is widely misunderstood. We’ve all read stories about the opioid epidemic, and dopamine as a chemical messenger of pleasure. 

But that’s not quite right, Thomas explained. It’s actually more like the signal in your brain that says, “Do this again — it is important for survival!” 

The addict’s brain might tell him to get more booze or dope because he needs it to survive, but there are other circumstances in which dopamine signals are induced: “They’re there for a reason from evolution, to motivate behavior that would bring natural rewards, like food, sex and social networks.” 

And a couple others, Thomas said. Solving puzzles and predicting the future, which are obviously important for survival. 

That may be where conspiracy theories fill a neural need.  

“For people who are prone to going down this road, it is like solving a puzzle. They must think, ‘Aha, I’ve got it. The pieces all fit together.’ It’s not hard to imagine a brain stamp of approval when that happens,” Thomas said. 

Then they go deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole: “If it happens again and again and it’s strong enough, it could promote seeking that activity over and over and lead to a sort of addicted state.”

What’s particularly dangerous is that now it’s available at the click of the finger, like an open-air drug market outside your house. Conspiracy disinformation was once whispered from neighbor to neighbor, or maybe went out through former Rep. Ron Paul’s newsletter. It was like moonshine. But Facebook, YouTube and other social networks have mass produced it, for great profit. And their algorithms are designed to encourage addiction, like tobacco companies maximizing nicotine delivery in their cigarettes. 

The number of adherents has grown exponentially. Before the major social media companies finally purged QAnon — which has been called a domestic terrorist threat by the FBI — the conspiracy theory was booming on Facebook. As the Wall Street Journal reported last summer, “Average membership in 10 large public QAnon Facebook groups swelled by nearly 600% from March through July, to about 40,000 from about 6,000.” (That’s 40,000 times 10 groups.) Instagram followers quadrupled. 

Although everyone is responsible for their own behavior and must be held accountable, thinking of conspiracy disinformation like drugs and alcohol forces us to empathize with its consumers, just as we do people suffering from what’s now called substance use disorder. 

In other words, our society is in some ways complicit in these lost souls staring at YouTube with their mouths open, trying to fill the hole in their soul. 

I’m unsure what or who is to blame: The radical individualism of libertine pop culture and the Ayn Randian right, the empty promises of dead-eyed consumerism, or the fraying of family and civic and religious bonds? People seek meaning, and America gives them none. 

If we can’t reach them, they will continue to be prone to the Dionysian frenzy, and tear our republic limb by limb.  

J. Patrick Coolican
J. Patrick Coolican is Editor-in-Chief of Minnesota Reformer, a sibling publication of the Nevada Current in the States Newsroom network. Previously, he was a Capitol reporter for the Minneapolis Star Tribune for five years, after a Knight-Wallace Fellowship at the University of Michigan and time at the Las Vegas Sun, Seattle Times and a few other stops along the way. He lives in St. Paul with his wife and toddler son.