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Aliosha Barranco Lopez is an Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Philosophy at Bowdoin College. She is a member of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.
Around 41 million Americans, or about 16 percent of the adult population, believe in QAnon conspiracy theories, according to a survey from the Public Religion Research Institute. Some QAnon followers have claimed that Russia’s recent attacks against Ukraine are part of a global effort to combat sex trafficking. QAnon followers likely won’t change their minds about Russia’s “real” motive to attack Ukraine despite strong evidence against it. So, how can we have a productive dialogue with them about what the U.S. policy should be in this conflict? This shows us echo chambers’ real danger: they make it impossible to have rational debates about policy making.
Let’s focus on QAnon. QAnon followers believe different conspiracy theories that are endorsed by Q – an anonymous user who started the QAnon phenomenon. Most notoriously, they believe that an elite cabal of devil-worshiping pedophiles control the government and the media, and that Donald Trump will bring them to justice. Most QAnon followers don’t take the evidence against those conspiracies properly into account.
Philosopher C. Thi Nguyen has explained phenomena like this by appealing to echo chambers – communities which create a significant disparity in trust between members and non-members of their communities. For QAnon followers, Q is trustworthy, and people who challenge Q are untrustworthy. Of course, it makes sense that if untrustworthy outsiders challenge Q’s claims, they are not going to believe them.
But things are more complicated than that. Even when QAnon followers are not dealing with an outsider, they fail to adapt to evidence contradicting their beliefs. For example, some QAnon followers kept believing that JFK Jr., dead for over 20 years, would reappear last year even after he did not show up in downtown Dallas as they thought he would. How can they resist changing their minds even after receiving conclusive evidence that they were wrong?
I think the answer to this question is that echo chambers are not simply communities with strict relations of trust and distrust. They are, also, places where our identities are transformed in ways that make it virtually impossible for us to change our minds. People in online echo chambers acquire a number of new beliefs about what type of persons they and others in their group are. A QAnon follower, for example, thinks about herself as part of the group of people who get things right, and those who are not part of that group are people who get things wrong.
Yes, not all people who are in social media groups develop this idea about the world and about themselves. But certainly, those who are part of an echo chamber like QAnon develop this view. This explains why even when QAnon followers are not dealing with an outsider, they fail to adapt to evidence contradicting their beliefs. Doing so would force them to accept that they are mistaken, that they are not, after all, part of the group who get things right. Psychologically, this is extremely difficult.
QAnon followers are diverse, some of them have real power; they can make decisions that would affect all of us. Even worse, QAnon is one among many echo chambers that affect both people from the right and from the left. As long as there are echo chambers, it is virtually impossible for their members to update their beliefs rationally.
There are two things we can do. At the individual level, if you react harshly to criticism against the beliefs you and your group hold, this might indicate that you are in an echo chamber. Beware. At the collective level, our political parties must not ignore politicians who openly embrace the irrational beliefs of an echo chamber. Otherwise, we’ll soon no longer be able to have rational discussions about policy making even in cases that really matter – like in the Ukraine-Russia conflict.