Conspiracy theories spread like measles: First they infect the weak and vulnerable; then they spread like wildfire among the entire population. Researchers have found that if a person believes in one conspiracy, he or she is more likely to believe in others—even those unrelated to the initial theory. Which is to say, once conspiracy becomes part of our beliefs, it can be harder to see the world as it truly is. Conspiracy depends on a rejection of the world as it appears to be. Once this belief takes root, it becomes harder and harder to differentiate truth from fiction.
In other words, it is not the methodology of conspiracy that’s the problem. When paranoid thinking opens up possibilities, it can serve a useful function. The danger comes when conspiracists remain wedded to their theories in the face of conflicting information, when they refuse to do the hard work of confirming and substantiating their own assumptions and beliefs. Woodward and Bernstein did not simply point to a trail of shady campaign contributions and tweet that Nixon was behind it all. They followed the facts, step by painstaking step, all the way to the Oval Office.
The promise of conspiracy—that it will assuage our anxiety—is a false one. Watching Donald Trump from the social media sidelines, expecting at any minute that the Deep State will appear and fire a single magic bullet from the Grassy Knoll and put everything right again, is a dangerous delusion. It offers false assurance that you, as one lone individual, can’t do anything, even though American democracy has never needed you more.