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How the pandemic and politics gave us a golden age of conspiracy theories – CNN



Now, QAnon supporters, Sandy Hook truthers, birthers, Pizzagaters, anti-vaxxers and science denialists move openly in influential circles. They occupy powerful positions, legislative chambers and government agencies. Emboldened, fellow believers emerge from stigma’s long shadow to push their conspiracies further into the light.
In our current climate, truth is so elusive that even when the President himself says he has Covid, some people still doubt it.
We have entered a golden age for conspiracy theories — a crease in a candidate’s shirt can even spark one — and there’s a reason it’s all happening right now.
How did we get here? Looking back, the path was clear all along.

It starts with a crisis

Pick one. Let’s start with coronavirus. Understanding something as complex as a pandemic doesn’t play to humanity’s strong suits. We’re notoriously bad with risk and scale. Without deep knowledge of statistics or immunology, it’s hard to grasp the full impact of it all. Then there’s the paranoia, the economic fallout, and the crushing mental weight of isolation.
Add in some widespread unrest, and with it, shifting racial paradigms that chip away at closely held identities and narratives. Is that not enough? Don’t forget the full rancor of a divisive presidential election, one framed as a battle for the very soul of our nation.
In this environment, nothing seems clear. But at the same time, everything feels painfully, critically important.
“When there are huge events that challenge someone’s core identity, especially the American identity, there is a spreading of this type of thinking,” says Molly McKew, an expert on Russian influence and information warfare and a senior adviser for the Stand up Republic Foundation.
“Everybody feels that things aren’t going right for them and that the system is failing them. There is a quiet unraveling of everything that we trust.”

Doubt grows

When the world is off its axis, concepts of truth and trust start to get dislodged. In the US, our commonly held notions of truth have been eroded by years of alternative facts and constant calls of “fake news.” Media outlets are branded as liars, and even long-respected scientific institutions like the CDC are shrouded with doubt at a time when their expertise is needed most.
“That kind of distrust is built up over time through the erosion of shared beliefs, of validity and objectivity, and of certain things in society that we all kind of agreed to,” says John Grohol, a psychologist and founder of the Society for Participatory Medicine.
Under the stress of crisis, these fractures of doubt can become chasms of mistrust.
For instance, McKew has worked in former Soviet states and observed how the Russian government has propagated disinformation campaigns at times of crisis to further certain agendas.
“A conspiracy theory tells you how things are supposed to make sense and where you fit in. This is normally a function provided by religion, or your sense of community, your society or your government,” she says.
“But we’re in this weird disruption era where all of those things feel very fragile and there is some open space to ask what the answers are.”

An easier explanation arises

Facing these world-altering problems, people search for the order in the chaos. Unfortunately, it’s not always that easy.
“We live in a super complex society that’s only getting more complex. And that means difficulty navigating those complexities,” says Grohol.
“With a conspiracy theory, a person can turn off that complexity. Wouldn’t it be simple instead, they think, to believe that there is, say, one group of people that has an enormous amount of power? In their mind, that brings more order to the world and simplifies it.”
Though some conspiracy theories seem outlandishly convoluted, the worldview they point back to is actually quite simple. It’s one of order.
Grohol mentions 9/11 and the various theories — all thoroughly debunked — that center around when and how the World Trade Center buildings fell.
“The complex, real explanation had to do with structural engineering and how the buildings were made and reacted to catastrophic destruction, but on a basic level it’s hard to understand because it’s such a tragic incident,” he said. “If we explain it with this other kind of logic, that makes it seem a little less tragic.”
In a world where everything is ruled by an unseen hand and everything happens for a reason, terrorists don’t fly planes into buildings. Men don’t slaughter schoolchildren in their classrooms or worshipers in churches.
In this simple world, politicians are either very good or very bad and the notion that tiny molecules made of the same stuff in your aluminum foil are put into a syringe to ward off disease sounds like fantasy.
From this perspective, elaborate notions of “false flags” and secret-society power grabs make a little more sense — in theory, at least.

The believers are connected

The internet, as usual, acts as a potent alchemical vessel for these ideas. Not only does it allow believers to connect with each other, but sophisticated algorithms and the self-limiting power of social media lets people seal themselves off from dissenting views.
These online factions also serve an important psychological purpose.
“People who believe conspiracies are generally more socially alienated and feel disconnected from society in general,” says Grohol. “These are people who are already primed and may feel lonely and disaffected, and the internet gives them a place to come together and share their false beliefs.”
That can create a powerful sense of community, of “us against the word,” embodied in slogans like QAnon’s “Where We Go One We Go All.”
“People desire that social connectedness, and if they were to reverse their conspiracy thinking, they would have to give up that social connectedness,” Grohol says.

Their beliefs are reinforced

Once firmly inside their echo chamber, whether it’s an online forum or a carefully curated Twitter feed, the conspiracy theory can run rampant, often taking over followers’ lives.
McKew says QAnon propagators are especially good at this.
“QAnon people have been hyper-interpreting any potential signal from President Trump that he supports them,” she says. ” From very early on, they were finding things that they think point to the fact that he’s in on it … You have to participate in it to be a believer, you have to figure out the cues and do the research.”
President Trump and members of his administration have openly courted QAnon sympathizers and have even endorsed a known QAnon supporter for a House seat in Georgia. Their embrace of such believers, along with climate change deniers and other conspiracy theorists, is a gift to a group of people whose ideas are typically rejected by mainstream society.
And once those beliefs are reinforced, they become virtually immovable.
“If you try to use facts and evidence to argue, people who are interested in conspiracy theories may reject that reasoning because it’s not a belief that’s based in fact. It’s based in a belief system, and it’s very difficult to argue with that,” Grohol says.
Furthermore, challenging a conspiracy theory often has the unwanted result of reinforcing the theory to its believers.
“If you were to flag a false video online, or create a campaign to identify mistruths, that just becomes another example for a lot of conspiracy theorists that the system is working against them, and that they’re trying to censor the truth,” Grohol says.

The theories adapt

Even when a conspiracy theory or disinformation campaign is disproved, it’s not easy for followers to just let go of their beliefs.
“If you’re recruiting for a conspiracy, confirmation bias is a huge factor in the hardening and expansion of it,” McKew says. “As long as the air of it feels true, it allows people to believe in parts of the theory and not the whole.”
QAnon is a perfect example of these moving goal posts. Every failed prediction — that Special Counsel Robert Mueller was working with Trump, that Hillary Clinton would be arrested — was framed by the theory’s creators as just another twist in a never-ending game.
It’s not unlike religious cults who would predict the date of the end of the world.
“Once they’d get the date wrong, they’d just do new calculations,” McKew says. “Things may go wrong, but as long as the core tenets of a theory still hold, the vague bare bones of it, people will explain it away.”

The damage is done

These theories may start as the harmless whispers of a silent online minority, but once they get traction, they can create serious damage.
Sandy Hook truthers, who believe the murder of 20 children and 6 adults at a school in Connecticut in 2012 was a false flag operation to justify stricter gun laws, have terrorized the families of the victims for years. Right-wing media personality Alex Jones, a prominent Sandy Hook truther and vocal supporter of President Trump, was taken to court over his role in the conspiracy theory (which he now rejects).
Anti-vaxxers and climate change deniers threaten to halt scientific progress and have ushered in new threats of disease and pollution.
The list goes on.
“It’s dangerous and terrifying,” McKew says. “The demonization and the dehumanization preached by these conspiracies allows followers to do and say terrible things in the name of their beliefs.”
When these theories are weaponized, the delicate balance of our world, already disrupted by crisis, threatens to upend completely. Truth becomes meaningless, trust is foolishness, paranoia is strength, perception is a lie.
And when nothing seems to be true, anything can be.

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Pandemic politics: Biden shuns 'false promises' of fast fix – CTV News



Focused firmly on COVID-19, Joe Biden vowed Wednesday not to campaign in the election homestretch “on the false promises of being able to end this pandemic by flipping a switch.” President Donald Trump, under attack for his handling of the worst health crisis in more than a century, breezily pledged on his final-week swing to “vanquish the virus.”

The Democratic presidential nominee also argued that a Supreme Court conservative majority stretched to 6-3 by newly confirmed Justice Amy Coney Barrett could dismantle the Obama administration’s signature health law and leave millions without insurance coverage during the pandemic. He called Trump’s handling of the coronavirus an “insult” to its victims, especially as cases spike dramatically around the country.

“Even if I win, it’s going to take a lot of hard work to end this pandemic,” Biden said during a speech in Wilmington, Delaware. “I do promise this: We will start on day one doing the right things.”

His comments reflected an unwavering attempt to keep the political spotlight on the pandemic. That was a departure from the president, who downplayed the threat and spent his day in Arizona, where relaxed rules on social distancing made staging big rallies easier.

The pandemic’s consequences were escalating, with deaths climbing in 39 states and an average of 805 people dying daily nationwide — up from 714 two weeks ago. Overall, about 227,000 Americans have died. The sharp rise sent shockwaves through financial markets, causing the Dow Jones Industrial Average to drop 900-plus points.

Trump, who frequently lauds rising markets, failed to mention the decline. But he promised that economic growth figures for the summer quarter, due Thursday, would be strong, declaring during a rally in Bullhead City, Arizona, “This election is a choice between a Trump super-recovery and a Biden depression.”

As Trump spoke, an Air Force fighter thundered nearby and released a flare to get the attention of a non-responsive private aircraft that was flying in the restricted airspace. North American Aerospace Defence Command said the plane was escorted out by the F-16 “without further incident.” Trump was at first caught off guard but later cheered the fighter, proclaiming, “I love that sound” as it roared overhead.

The president also condemned violence that occurred during some protests in response to the police shooting of Walter Wallace Jr., a Black man, in Philadelphia saying Biden stands “with the rioters and the vandals.”

But Biden said in Wilmington, “There is no excuse whatsoever for the looting and the violence.”

Bullhead City is just across the border from Nevada, a state Trump is hoping to flip during Election Day next Tuesday. A Trump Nevada rally last month attracted thousands and led to the airport that hosted it being fined more than $5,500 for violating pandemic crowd restrictions.

Rather than curb his crowd, Trump moved just across the border and used his rally Wednesday to scoff at Democratic leaders in states like Nevada for trying to enforce social distancing rules. The event’s crowd looked to be mostly from Arizona, though there were attendees from Nevada. Few wore masks.

The weather was far milder than during a Tuesday night Trump rally in Omaha, Nebraska. After Trump left that one, hundreds of attendees at Eppley Airfield spent hours waiting in the cold for transportation to cars parked far away. Several people were taken to hospitals amid concerns about exposure.

“Because of the sheer size of the crowd, we deployed 40 shuttlebuses — double the normal allotment — but local road closures and resulting congestion caused delays,” Trump spokeswoman Samantha Zager said in a statement.

Trump is trailing Biden in most national polls. Biden also has an advantage, though narrower, in the key swing states that could decide the election.

Biden voted early in Wilmington on Wednesday and received a virtual briefing from health experts. One, Dr. David Kessler, director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, warned, “We are in the midst of the third wave, and I don’t think anyone can tell you how high this is going to get.”

Trump was nonetheless defiant, declaring, “We will vanquish the virus and emerge stronger than ever before.”

In a campaign sidelight, the president lashed out after news that Miles Taylor, former chief of staff at the Department of Homeland Security, was revealed as the author of a scathing anti-Trump op-ed and book under the pen name “Anonymous.”

“This guy is a low-level lowlife that I don’t know,” he said. “I have no idea who he is.”

Trump views Nevada favourably, despite it not backing a Republican for president since 2004. Hillary Clinton won it by less than 2.5 percentage points in 2016.

And Biden wants to flip Arizona, which hasn’t voted Democratic for president since 1996. His running mate, California Sen. Kamala Harris, was in Arizona on Wednesday, meeting with Latina entrepreneurs and African American leaders as well as holding two drive-in rallies.

On Friday, Harris will visit Fort Worth, Houston and the U.S.-Mexico border town of McAllen in Texas — a state that hasn’t backed a Democrat for president since 1976 or even elected one to statewide office since 1994. Texas was long so reliably red that top national Democrats visited only to hold fundraisers.

“I am really grateful for the attention that they have given Texas because it has been so long since a presidential campaign gave this state a look,” said Beto O’Rourke a former Texas congressman and onetime presidential hopeful. But he declined to predict that Biden would win the state, saying only “There is a possibility,” contingent on turnout breaking records.

Biden heads later in the week to three more states Trump won in 2016, Iowa, Wisconsin and Michigan, where he’ll hold a joint Saturday rally with former President Barack Obama.

Democrats point to a larger number of their party members returning absentee ballots — results that could be decisive since more people are likely to vote by mail during the pandemic. Trump’s campaign argues that enough of its supporters will vote on Election Day to overwhelm any early Biden advantage.

Around 71.5 million people nationwide have so far voted in advance, either by casting early, in-person ballots or voting by mail, according to an Associated Press analysis. That’s already far more than the total advance ballots cast before the 2016 presidential election.

“We’re talking to people everywhere,” Harris said. “And there’s no area that’s off limits.”


Weissert reported from Washington, Jaffe from Wilmington. Associated Press writers Michelle Price in Bull City, Arizona, Kathleen Ronayne in Las Vegas and Zeke Miller in Washington contributed to this report.

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UNBC Alumni dipping their toes in politics atop Parliament Hill –



Hughes graduated UNBC earlier this year with a joint major in Global and International Studies and Political Science.

“The jobs that I held as a research assistant, student assistant, and journal assistant at UNBC were invaluable for the development of critical research and writing skills necessary for a parliamentary intern.”—Hanna Hughes, UNBC Alumni

Hughes says that she applied for the internship in part to gain non-partisan experience to prepare her for a potential career in government.

For her, her most memorable moment, two months into the internship, was when she was able to Zoom with former Prime Minister Paul Martin where she was able to “ask questions about the formation of the G20, his role as Finance Minister, and how to operate in a minority government,” said Hughes.

Lukac is grateful for his time at UNBC and says that it prepared him with writing and analysis skills which he says have been crucial for him professionally, “and perhaps more importantly, nurtured my passion for politics and political philosophy,” he adds.

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Two Religion Reporters Cover Where Faith and Politics Meet – The New York Times



Times Insider explains who we are and what we do, and delivers behind-the-scenes insights into how our journalism comes together.

The discourse surrounding the background of the Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett and the support of white evangelicals for President Trump has deepened political divisions in the country, and the conversations are two examples of why it’s important to understand conservative Christians and their impact. For our religion reporters, Ruth Graham and Elizabeth Dias, covering more political stories as the election draws nearer has become inevitable. We asked them a few questions about digging into the facts on the faith beat.

What challenges do you face covering religion in the United States?

RUTH GRAHAM One challenge in this particular moment is that the pandemic has made reporting so much harder. That’s true on every beat, of course, but religious observance in particular has so many sensory elements that really have to be experienced in person: music, prayers, food, décor, incense, emotion. Calling people up on the phone and asking direct questions about their beliefs will never capture it all.

ELIZABETH DIAS The polarized political climate has made reporters’ jobs harder all around. I’ve found conservatives are increasingly wary of talking with us no matter what the story is, from sexual abuse in evangelical churches to Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court nomination. That means these important stories often take longer to do because access to accurate information is harder to get.

Religion and politics seem inseparable these days. Has that always been the case, or has something shifted?

GRAHAM I think they seem inseparable partly because it’s election season, and as journalists we tend to view things through that lens ourselves. For ordinary believers, the connection is not always so clear. Some people clearly draw a connection between their faith and their views on national politics; others definitely don’t. I try to keep that in mind as a reporter and not force every story into a political frame.

DIAS Religion and politics both reflect shared, larger questions. They are both about power. They are both about people. They are both about how people structure life together. For centuries religion was politics, and it still is today in many parts of the world — the Vatican is a city state. Each generation works out its own relationship to these bigger questions and to history, and the election is just one way we are seeing that play out now in the United States.

Credit…Rozette Rago/The New York Times

How is covering religion during the 2020 election different than in 2016?

DIAS So much was revealed in 2016: the political influence of prosperity gospel preachers, who connect faith with financial wealth; the complete marriage of white evangelicals to President Trump; the depth of the racial divides within Christianity. Four years later these themes are all present, but that does not necessarily mean the election outcome will be the same. When the votes are tallied we will learn how the president’s religious coalition has and hasn’t changed after four years.

Would QAnon ever cross into your beat? What would that look like?

GRAHAM Yes, I’m actually starting to work on a Q-adjacent story right now. It’s a movement that has really taken off among Christian conservatives, and some have argued that QAnon itself is best understood as a homegrown religious movement. So there’s a lot of natural overlap on the religion beat.

What considerations do you take when reporting on religious groups that feel distrust toward the media?

GRAHAM The rising distrust of the media among a lot of conservative religious people is a major challenge, and one that is not going away. My starting assumption these days is always that I will have to work to convince conservative believers to talk with me. I do my best to acknowledge their wariness and explain why I want to include their voice in the story. All I can do is try to build trust by continuing to produce work that takes religion and faith seriously.

DIAS Trust grows over time, so I try to build long-term relationships with people I interview and to think of the body of work I’m building, versus only one specific story. Deep listening happens slowly, and requires appropriate empathy. I also spend a lot of time talking with people off the record, even though it means I may need to do more interviews, because I want to learn from them however I can.

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