Anti-lockdown protesters have attracted ridicule and scorn across the country, but experts warn dismissing or mocking extreme beliefs can only harden the resolve of conspiracy theorists.
Hundreds of people, connecting via social media and online forums, have held rallies in Australia’s state capitals recently, with the largest demonstrations taking place in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.
Some activists are protesting against 5G mobile networks, some are anti-vaxxers, while some believe the coronavirus pandemic is made up or has been planned by governments.
There’s evidence a growing number of Australians subscribe to a US conspiracy theory known as QAnon.
It’s a far-right belief that US President Donald Trump is waging a secret war against enemies in the “deep state”, enemies that include an international child sex trafficking ring run by satanic pedophiles and cannibals.
While it’s easy to laugh at such extreme beliefs, experts say this type of reaction just hardens the conspiracy theorist’s resolve and deepens their disconnection from wider society.
Understanding and connecting with people who believe conspiracy theories is far more constructive, they argue.
Griffith University PhD candidate Shane Satterley says conspiratorial thinking comes from the human evolutionary adaptation of seeking patterns.
“We’re pattern-seeking animals, so if there’s a rustle in the bushes it’s better to think that it’s a tiger rather than not to worry about it, because if you’re wrong it doesn’t matter, but if you’re right it does,” he says.
“Searching for patterns is an evolutionary trait, but for some people it’s a personality trait and they really run with it.”
Mr Satterley says certain people have a psychological need for closure and an intolerance for ambiguity, which is quelled by the clarity offered in the grand narratives of conspiracy theories.
Professor Roger Berkowitz, from New York’s Bard College, says people find conspiracy theories logical and comforting in an increasingly complex and chaotic world.
“They work by logical deduction: if Obama is a threat, he is a foreigner. If the virus is dangerous, it comes from China and is man-made,” he says.
“The logical steps are reassuring. They bring a fictional coherence to the unruly world.”
Personal identity crises brought on by trauma, divorce, family breakdown or death can spur people to shift their beliefs to the extreme.
Prof Berkowitz says many people are suffering a retreat from and eventual loss of religion, tradition and institutions that once granted us meaning, place and purpose.
“We are thrust back upon ourselves. Even as we are with others, we are without sense and meaning,” he says.
Conspiracy groups, along with new religions and extremist outfits, all serve to give people a sense of connection in an increasingly distanced and lonely world.
“One of the biggest underestimated appeals of these sorts of groups is the love and camaraderie that comes with it,” Mr Satterley notes.
“In these mainly digital groups it’s hard to know whether they are getting that social payoff, but it’s possible. If someone is really lonely, participating in an online forum is better than nothing.”
Societal and national identity crises due to rapid social change, technological modernisation and disasters help conspiratorial groups grow and proliferate.
There’s always been conspiracy theories, Mr Satterley says, but the internet and social media have magnified them to an unprecedented scale.
“Back in the day we had news outlets, but there was a few of them; everyone had access to very similar information,” he says.
“Now the echo-chambers are rampant, so you can go down a rabbit hole in any direction you want that fits your personality, that confirms your bias and you can be perfectly happy sitting in with potentially tens of thousands of people that are all misinformed about something.”
In other words, the rise of conspiracy theories can be traced to the failure of modern mass societies to include individuals and provide them with meaning, amplified by the accessibility of misinformation.
Prof Berkowitz says the antidote to modern loneliness is not winding back the clock, but reaching out to people and teaching them how to find inner meaning amidst constant complexity.
“There is a beauty and courage and strength to persisting in uncertainty and finding meaning in the chaos of the moment,” he says.
“We need to to create institutions and practices that encourage and nurture people who can thrive without the comforting banisters of tradition and religion.”
Mr Satterley says the media have a role to play in dialling down blanket sensationalism and negative reporting, which only confirms the warped sense of reality that vulnerable people feel.
“The media is in a very tough spot, I don’t envy it, but getting more positive stories out there is the only way I can see it helping,” he says.
On an individual level, experts say it’s important to connect with individuals who subscribe to conspiracies to help them think critically rather than publicly mocking and further alienating them.
Mr Satterley says asking people what evidence would make them scale back beliefs from 100 per cent to 99 per cent, or how they would make sense of the world if their belief didn’t exist, can help.
“By asking questions like that you sort of get some cogs turning in people’s minds. You’re not attacking them, you’re building rapport and having a conversation,” he says.
“Calling them stupid and giving them a whole bunch of facts and figures does nothing, it’s counter-productive.”