Conspiracy theories were a major driver of the Jan. 6 insurgency on the Capitol. They have also been a growing part of the internal struggles of the political right since at least 2008. But why do people believe in wacky conspiracy theories like QAnon? Pizzagate, or the story that the 2020 election was stolen? Why do they act on them, sometimes violently?
If you view irrationality as a consumer good, much like a car or a television, you can better understand why people sometimes say and do crazy things. Think of it like this: people buy more cars and TVs when they’re cheap, and less when they’re expensive.
This logic applies to conspiracy theories.
Here, the price is not necessarily measured in money. The “price” of armchair theorizing is generally low. It costs next to nothing to post crazy stuff online other than a slight social stigma. But this cost is more than offset by other benefits for many. For many fringe figures like anti-vaxxers, flat-earthers, and QAnon conspiracy theorists, espousing extreme belief is not necessarily about the truth. It is about asserting a unique and memorable identity and defending it against external threats.
Any sports fan or political supporter will be familiar with the emotional rush conspiracy theorists feel when they say bizarre things. It’s good to cheer on your team and boo the other team. For some, these emotional benefits can even be worth the cost of losing friends or a job, so they continue.
But what happens when the price of irrationality suddenly rises? Dominion Voting Systems, a company that sells electronic voting hardware and software like voting machines and tabulators, recently announced that it is suing “Kraken” attorney Sidney Powell for libel, seeking damages for $ 1.3 billion, because she has repeatedly argued in public that Dominion software was established “To the direction of Hugo chavezThe Venezuelan dictator who died in 2013. She also said that Dominion used a secret algorithm to rig the 2020 election. His lawsuits against Dominion were dismissed for lack of evidence.
So far, Powell has paid a low price for the public conspiracy. In fact, it may have paid off financially: Dominion argues in its lawsuit that Powell used his newfound fame to sell books and gain clients.
Dominion had previously threatened legal action against several media outlets that peddled false allegations, such as Fox News, Newsmax and One America News. Once their price of irrationality increased, outlets immediately started to “consume” less irrationality. Newsmax even broadcast a nearly two-minute “clarification” retracting almost all of its stolen election claims. It isworth watching.
Powell is currently weighing the likely monetary cost of a deal she is likely to lose versus the non-monetary costs of losing face, admitting a mistake, and giving in to opponents. But now that the price of her conspiracy theory has gone up, we can almost certainly expect her to consume less.
Public officials who played a role in inciting the attempted coup, such as President Trump, Senator Josh Hawley and Senator Ted Cruz, are also seeing a price hike for their irrationality. All three face calls to resign and their political prospects suffer in the long run. The price change they face will hopefully improve their behavior in the future. President Trump even reluctantly pledged for a peaceful change of power for the first time. Even without other consequences, the reduced potency of the three men should at least limit the amount of damage they can cause.
Many rioters will face legal consequences for their actions, driving up the price of their irrationality. At the very least, rioters and their supporters are likely to tone down their violence and rhetoric in response to the price change.
There are a lot of other factors involved in the ugly story we all witnessed on January 6th. Worsening socio-economic conditions, cabin fever linked to COVID, personal grievances and, in some cases, mental illness may also have been factors in the attempted coup.
Thinking of conspiracy theories as a consumer good doesn’t explain everything. But it can help us understand. Raising the “prices” that conspiracy theorists pay for their fantasies, within First Amendment protections and in accordance with common decency, will help contain the costs they impose on others. This can improve the national political debate and help prevent further violence.
Ryan Young is a Principal Investigator at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.
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