Alice in Blunderland: encountering a conspiracist

While waiting for our train in a Pennsylvania Amtrak station, My Wife the English Teacher and I witnessed something so bizarre we might not have believed it if we hadn’t seen it. We were among perhaps fifty people chatting, reading, or napping in the waiting area when one of them — a middle-aged woman looking like a normal traveler at the end of a long day — began pacing around talking angrily on her phone loudly enough that all of us could hear much of what she was saying. And what she was saying was shocking.

Simply put, she was ranting that the 2012 Sandy Hook school massacre of 20 children and 6 staff members in Connecticut was a hoax — a fake event staged by the government as a means of promoting gun control. Surely, I thought, this person is nuts. A pretend massacre fooling the world’s most credible news sources? A hoax enlisting parents and other loved ones to fake grief? A stunt involving thousands and therefore so easy to expose? Get real.

Well, getting real is just the problem, isn’t it? Not knowing the woman’s name, I think of her as Alice diving down the rabbit hole into a world of unreal fantasy and nonsense. Our Alice-on-the-phone was shouting that all the information about the hoax was on Facebook — “look it up,” she said — and repeated several times, “they’re trying to take our guns.” Angry Alice struck me as exactly the kind of person who shouldn’t have a gun to take.

Clearly, we were in the presence of a conspiracist. We know there are ridiculous plots lurking in dark corners of the Internet — the President isn’t a citizen, climate change is a hoax, the moon landings never happened — but I hadn’t come across a True Believer before.

Watching Alice spreading online fiction to who knows how many eventual Believers was both disturbing and sad: disturbing because we were witnessing the distribution of a lie and were powerless to stop it; sad because we were seeing a human being with the priceless gift of reason twisting it to satisfy her own paranoia without benefit of evidence. Surely she learned the habit of critical thinking in school. Apparently, she broke the habit and is now a recovering thinker.

Our train to Chicago arrived and would make a stop in Cleveland. It was just before the Republican Convention there, so we thought Alice might be attending, but no — she turned up in the Chicago station but stayed off her phone. Maybe her battery died. Maybe the government had been monitoring her calls and conspired with her service provider to shut her down. Maybe that would occur to her. We boarded the train to Kansas City. Alice took a train to Texas.

Curious, I read about Sandy Hook conspiracy theories online and found several varieties. What they seem to have in common, and in common with other conspiracy theories, are internal contradictions, a focus on a few obscure details that can be made to fit what Believers want to believe, and a conviction that reputable sources of information are wrong or, very often, part of the conspiracy.

In an Information Age, it’s unavoidable to find misinformation in the mix and gullible people willing to fall for it. We might ponder, though, the differences between gullible and delusional. At least one analyst has said the appeal of conspiracy theories suggests a need for “a national debate on mental illness.”

The distinguished essayist Christopher Hitchens called conspiracy theories the “exhaust fumes of democracy.” Useless, smelly, and poisonous. Alice, sad to say, was the tailpipe.

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