These flamboyant evangelical media made it clear that anything with a whiff of leftism—From science to higher education to news and entertainment media — was aligned with an infamous their to destroy the white Christian we. Not everyone took these conspiracy theories the same Pat Robertson – level extremes. But the underlying beliefs were ubiquitous, especially on far-right radio networks, which has become the primary source of information for many rural Americans as local news started to fall apart in the 1990s.
When Fox News entered the scene in 1996, it build a group around the white Christian conspiratorial grievance. This has been visible in everything from the network racist fear about the “great replacement” of his hand spin on a non-existent “Christmas war” at, of course, his most recent misrepresentation about electoral fraud. But Fox did not wholesale these beliefs. He exploited what was already there. And the omnipresence and pure normality of anti-liberal conspiracy theory in mainstream conservative circles later helped QAnon and Deep State theories develop as they did – including, not surprisingly, within Evangelical communities. Existing conspiracy theories provided narrative models; existing far-right media networks provided favorable ecological conditions.
Of course, QAnon’s full and unconditional support has been and likely will remain on the sidelines, especially after the storm long promised by Q flopped so spectacularly. Likewise, most Republicans didn’t walk around shouting about the deep state when Trump was president, let alone have now that Biden is sworn in. But that’s not what made the lions, tigers and bears the insurgency on Capitol Hill dangerous. What made them dangerous is what made them possible. As long as what made them possible persists, the threat persists.
And so the question we must continue to ask ourselves is, how do we change the ecological conditions to cultivate a healthier landscape for all Americans? It is not simply a question of preventing the next violent attack, although that is the clearest and most present danger. Evaluating these conditions is the only way to begin cultivating oneness. We cannot hope to heal our divisions until we identify what caused them.
The first and most crucial step is to double down on media literacy, and not just as a toolkit for navigating the lie. As I explained in a interview with Edweek, it’s not enough to respond to false information as it arises, as if the lie is an unfortunate but natural by-product of the information environment. Teachers must help students understand why the lower layers of the biomass pyramid are so prone to lies. It means questioning the disproportionate and decades-long role that far-right media have played in shaping the environment, which The Berkman Klein Center report shows, reached a zenith in the 2020 election.
Likewise, researchers and journalists should highlight political and historical causes information disorder, not just its symptoms. Framing the problem in terms of symptoms, which is bad platform information, will limit the solutions offered to the platforms themselves: content moderation, de-datming, and demonetization. These things are important. But the problems we face are ecological. Our solutions must be too.
These efforts will undoubtedly give rise to accusations of anti-conservative bias. But it is a trap. It is not conservatism that is the problem. It was lies and economic forces that motivated them.
But telling how we got here will not be enough. Conservatives who genuinely care about unity – who see the dangers in predators at the top and who occupy a much quieter section of the biomass pyramid – need to think about their place in this story and do their part to ensure that ‘she never repeats herself. To that end, I would ask conservative and center-right readers to do something unexpected: Think about the types of media you’ve engaged with, what you’ve learned, and the types of stories, especially about liberals, who left their mark on you. . After you think about it, talk to your liberal friends and family members about your experiences and listen when they talk about theirs. Better yet, talk to your more conservative friends and family who resist unity. The expectation is not that everyone will suddenly agree; beliefs, especially those that have developed over decades, do not give way so easily. But we can’t cultivate new foundations until we explore what thrives at the bottom of the pyramid. Sharing stories is one way to start.
For unity to be meaningful, we need to have honest conversations. It means assessing the ecological conditions that fostered insurgency violence. It also means assessing our personal place in the landscape and asking ourselves: What did I feed? Thinking about it and making changes is the only way to start breaking the cycle.
More WIRED stories