What Can You Do About QAnon?: A Short Take from Documentary Filmmaker Kirby Ferguson

You know that QAnon supporters figured prominently in the Capitol insurrection. Two QAnon conspiracy theorists now hold seats in Congress. And perhaps you read the disturbing profile this weekend about the QAnon supporter who attended the elite Dalton School in Manhattan and then Harvard. So–you’re maybe thinking–it’s finally worth understanding what QAnon is, and what we can do about it. Above, watch a 10 minute Op-Doc from filmmaker Kirby Ferguson, whose work we’ve featured here before. As you’ll see, his recommendations (from late October) align with expert advice found in our recent post, How to Talk with a Conspiracy Theorist: What the Experts Recommend. After the violence of January 6, however, it’s reasonable to ask whether we need something more than coddling and patience.

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How to Talk with a Conspiracy Theorist: What the Experts Recommend

Why do people pledge allegiance to views that seem fundamentally hostile to reality? Maybe believers in shadowy, evil forces and secret cabals fall prey to motivated reasoning. Truth for them is what they need to believe in order to get what they want. Their certainty in the justness of a cause can feel as comforting as a warm blanket on a winter’s night. But conspiracy theories go farther than private delusions of grandeur. They have spilled into the streets, into the halls of the U.S. Capitol building and various statehouses. Conspiracy theories about a “stolen” 2020 election are out for blood.

As distressing as such recent public spectacles seem at present, they hardly come near the harm accomplished by propaganda like Plandemic—a short film that claims the COVID-19 crisis is a sinister plot—part of a wave of disinformation that has sent infection and death rates soaring into the hundreds of thousands.




We may never know the numbers of people who have infected others by refusing to take precautions for themselves, but we do know that the number of people in the U.S. who believe conspiracy theories is alarmingly high.

A Pew Research survey of adults in the U.S. “found that 36% thought that these conspiracy theories” about the election and the pandemic “were probably or definitely true,” Tanya Basu writes at the MIT Technology Review. “Perhaps some of these people are your family, your friends, your neighbors.” Maybe you are conspiracy theorist yourself. After all, “it’s very human and normal to believe in conspiracy theories…. No one is above [them]—not even you.” We all resist facts, as Cass Sunstein (author of Conspiracy Theories and Other Dangerous Ideas) says in the Vox video above, that contradict cherished beliefs and the communities of people who hold them.

So how do we distinguish between reality-based views and conspiracy theories if we’re all so prone to the latter? Standards of logical reasoning and evidence still help separate truth from falsehood in laboratories. When it comes to the human mind, emotions are just as important as data. “Conspiracy theories make people feel as though they have some sort of control over the world,” says Daniel Romer, a psychologist and research director at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center. They’re airtight, as Wired shows below, and it can be useless to argue.

Basu spoke with experts like Romer and the moderators of Reddit’s r/ChangeMyView community to find out how to approach others who hold beliefs that cause harm and have no basis in fact. The consensus recommends proceeding with kindness, finding some common ground, and applying a degree of restraint, which includes dropping or pausing the conversation if things get heated. We need to recognize competing motivations: “some people don’t want to change, no matter the facts.”

Unregulated emotions can and do undermine our ability to reason all the time. We cannot ignore or dismiss them; they can be clear indications something has gone wrong with our thinking and perhaps with our mental and physical health. We are all subjected, though not equally, to incredible amounts of heightened stress under our current conditions, which allows bad actors like the still-current U.S. President to more easily exploit universal human vulnerabilities and “weaponize motivated reasoning,” as University of California, Irvine social psychologist Peter Ditto observes.

To help counter these tendencies in some small way, we present the resources above. In Bill Nye’s Big Think answer to a video question from a viewer named Daniel, the longtime science communicator talks about the discomfort of cognitive dissonance. “The way to overcome that,” he says, is with the attitude, “we’re all in this together. Let’s learn about this together.”

We can perhaps best approach those who embrace harmful conspiracy theories by not immediately telling them that we know more than they do. It’s a conversation that requires some intellectual humility and acknowledgement that change is hard and it feels really scary not to know what’s going on. Below, see an abridged version of MIT Technology Review’s ten tips for reasoning with a conspiracy theorist, and read Basu’s full article here.

  1. Always, always speak respectfully: “Without respect, compassion, and empathy, no one will open their mind or heart to you. No one will listen.”
  2. Go private: Using direct messages when online “prevents discussion from getting embarrassing for the poster, and it implies a genuine compassion and interest in conversation rather than a desire for public shaming.”
  3. Test the waters first: “You can ask what it would take to change their mind, and if they say they will never change their mind, then you should take them at their word and not bother engaging.”
  4. Agree: “Conspiracy theories often feature elements that everyone can agree on.”
  5. Try the “truth sandwich”: “Use the fact-fallacy-fact approach, a method first proposed by linguist George Lakoff.”
  6. Or use the Socratic method: This “challenges people to come up with sources and defend their position themselves.”
  7. Be very careful with loved ones: “Biting your tongue and picking your battles can help your mental health.”
  8. Realize that some people don’t want to change, no matter the facts.
  9. If it gets bad, stop: “One r/ChangeMyView moderator suggested ‘IRL calming down’: shutting off your phone or computer and going for a walk.”
  10. Every little bit helps. “One conversation will probably not change a person’s mind, and that’s okay.”

Related Content: 

Constantly Wrong: Filmmaker Kirby Ferguson Makes the Case Against Conspiracy Theories

Neil Armstrong Sets Straight an Internet Truther Who Accused Him of Faking the Moon Landing (2000)

Michio Kaku & Noam Chomsky School Moon Landing and 9/11 Conspiracy Theorists

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Social Psychologist Erich Fromm Diagnoses Why People Wear a Mask of Happiness in Modern Society (1977)

Modern man still is anxious and tempted to surrender his freedom to dictators of all kinds, or to lose it by transforming himself into a small cog in the machine. —Erich Fromm

There are more think pieces published every day than any one person can read about our current moment of social disintegration. But we seem to have lost touch with the insights of social psychology, a field that dominated popular intellectual discourse in the post-war 20th century, largely due to the influential work of German exiles like Erich Fromm. The humanist philosopher and psychologist’s “prescient 1941 treasure Escape from Freedom,writes Maria Popova, serves as what he called “‘a diagnosis rather than a prognosis,’ written during humanity’s grimmest descent into madness in WWII, laying out the foundational ideas on which Fromm would later draw in considering the basis of a sane society,” the title of his 1955 study of alienation, conformity, and authoritarianism.

Fromm “is an unjustly neglected figure,” Kieran Durkin argues at Jacobin, “certainly when compared with his erstwhile Frankfurt School colleagues, such as Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno.” But he has much to offer as a “grounded alternative” to their critical theory, and his work “reveals a distinctly more optimistic and hopeful engagement with the question of radical social change.” Nonetheless, Fromm well understood that social diseases must be identified before they can be treated, and he did not sugarcoat his diagnoses. Had society become more “sane” thirty-plus years after the war? Fromm didn’t think so.




In the 1977 interview clip above, Fromm defends his claim that “We live in a society of notoriously unhappy people,” which the interviewer calls an “incredible statement.” Fromm replies:

For me it isn’t incredible at all, but if you just open your eyes, you see it. That is, most people pretend that they are happy, even to themselves, because if you are unhappy, you are considered a failure, so you must wear the mask of being satisfied, of happy.

Contrast this observation with Albert Camus’ 1959 statement, “Today happiness is like a crimenever admit it. Don’t say ‘I’m happy’ otherwise you will hear condemnation all around.” Were Fromm and Camus observing vastly different cultural worlds? Or is it possible that in the intervening years, forced happinessakin to the socially coerced emotions Camus depicted in The Strangerhad become normalized, a screen of denial stretched over existential dread, economic exploitation, and social decay?

Fromm’s diagnosis of forced happiness resonates strongly with The Stranger (and Billie Holiday), and with the image-obsessed society in which we live most of our lives now, presenting various curated personae on social media and videoconferencing apps. Unhappiness may be a byproduct of depression, violence, poverty, physical illness, social alienation… but its manifestations produce even more of the same: “Them that’s got shall get / Them that’s not shall lose.” If you’re unhappy, says Fromm, “you lose credit on the market, you’re no longer a normal person or a capable person. But you just have to look at people. You only have to see how behind the mask there is unrest.”

Have we learned how to look at people behind the mask? Is it possible to do so when we mostly interact with them from behind a screen? These are the kinds of questions Fromm’s work can help us grapple with, if we’re willing to accept his diagnosis and truly reckon with our unhappiness.

Related Content: 

Albert Camus Explains Why Happiness Is Like Committing a Crime—”You Should Never Admit to it” (1959)

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Arnold Schwarzenegger Reflects on the Parallels Between Trumpism & Nazism, and How We Can Save Our Democracy

He grew up in the ruins of World War II–the ruins created by the Nazism and its ideological commitment to conspiracy theories, violence and white supremacy. Based on that formative experience, the former Republican governor offers his take on this week’s coup attempt in Washington: “Being from Europe, I’ve seen how things can spin out of control… We must be aware of the dire consequences of selfishness and cynicism. President Trump sought to overturn the results of an election, of a fair election. He sought a coup by misleading people with lies. My father and our neighbors were also misled with lies, and I know where such lies lead.” To avoid a similar fate, we must hold the conspirators accountable, find public servants who will serve higher ideals, and, most importantly, “look past ourselves, our parties and our disagreements, and put our democracy first.” Amen Arnold.

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Umberto Eco Makes a List of the 14 Common Features of Fascism

Hannah Arendt Explains How Propaganda Uses Lies to Erode All Truth & Morality: Insights from The Origins of Totalitarianism

Mayhem Inside the Capitol: 40 Minutes of Footage

Reporter Ryan Lizza writes: “I don’t think I fully understood what happened Wednesday until I watched this video. It’s long and includes the shooting of one of the rioters, but you will have a new appreciation of the demented psychology coursing through this mob.” This is the insurrection that Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, Mo Brooks and others incited and cheered on. They’ll hopefully pay a steep price.

Warning: The shooting of the rioter is shown at the beginning, and again at the end–except the footage at the end is graphic and not greyed out.

For more sobering footage, watch the report from ITV News Washington Correspondent Robert Moore. And this segment, “Must-see new video shows Capitol riot was way worse than we thought.”

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Umberto Eco Makes a List of the 14 Common Features of Fascism

Yale Professor Jason Stanley Identifies 3 Essential Features of Fascism: Invoking a Mythic Past, Sowing Division & Attacking Truth

Hannah Arendt Explains How Propaganda Uses Lies to Erode All Truth & Morality: Insights from The Origins of Totalitarianism

The 25th Amendment: An Introduction

Read along with the text of the 25th Amendment online here. And get some background from the Constitution Center here, and Vox’s explainer here.

Antonio Gramsci Writes a Column, “I Hate New Year’s Day” (January 1, 1916)

I want every morning to be a new year’s for me. Every day I want to reckon with myself, and every day I want to renew myself. No day set aside for rest. I choose my pauses myself, when I feel drunk with the intensity of life and I want to plunge into animality to draw from it new vigour.

“Everyday is like Sunday,” sang the singer of our mopey adolescence, “In the seaside town that they forgot to bomb.” Somehow I could feel the grey malaise of post-industrial Britain waft across the ocean when I heard these words… the dreary sameness of the days, the desire for a conflagration to wipe it all away….

The call for total annihilation is not the sole province of supervillains and heads of state. It is the same desire Andrew Marvell wrote of centuries earlier in “The Garden.” The mind, he observed, “withdraws into its happiness” and creates “Far other worlds, and other seas; Annihilating all that’s made / To a green thought in a green shade.”




Is not annihilation what we seek each year on New Year’s Eve? To collectively wipe away the bad past by fiat, with fireworks? To welcome a better future in the morning, because an arbitrary record keeping system put in place before Marvell was born tells us we can? The problem with this, argued Italian Marxist party pooper and theorist Antonio Gramsci, is the problem with dates in general. We don’t get to schedule our apocalypses.

On January 1st, 1916, Gramsci published a column titled “I Hate New Year’s Day” in the Italian Socialist Party’s official paper Avanti!, which he began co-editing that year.

Every morning, when I wake again under the pall of the sky, I feel that for me it is New Year’s day.

That’s why I hate these New Year’s that fall like fixed maturities, which turn life and human spirit into a commercial concern with its neat final balance, its outstanding amounts, its budget for the new management. They make us lose the continuity of life and spirit. You end up seriously thinking that between one year and the next there is a break, that a new history is beginning; you make resolutions, and you regret your irresolution, and so on, and so forth. This is generally what’s wrong with dates.

The dates we keep, he says, are forms of “spiritual time-serving” imposed on us from without by “our silly ancestors.” They have become “invasive and fossilizing,” forcing life into repeating series of “mandatory collective rhythms” and forced vacations. But that is not how life should work, according to Gramsci.

Whether or not we find merit in his cranky pronouncements, or in his desire for socialism to “hurl into the trash all of these dates with have no resonance in our spirit,” we can all take one thing away from Gramsci’s critique of dates, and maybe make another resolution today: to make every morning New Year’s, to reckon with and renew ourselves daily, no matter what the calendar tells us to do. Read a full translation of Gramsci’s column at Viewpoint Magazine.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Your 15 Favorite Posts on Open Culture This Year–and What a Year It Has Been


So, it’s been a year. For those of us in parts of the world where the pandemic still rages uncontained, it’s going to be an even longer winter. It may be utterly trivializing to speak of silver linings when it comes to clouds this size, but there’s no reason not to use our time wisely in quarantine, lockdown, cocooning, or whatever we’re calling it these days. For all of the enormous challenges, outrages, sorrows, and horrors of 2020, natural and manmade, we can be grateful for so many opportunities for personal growth.

“Those of us who are not sick, are not frontline workers, and are not dealing with other economic or housing difficulties” Rebecca Solnit writes, are given the task “to understand this moment, what it might require of us, and what it might make possible.” It is a moment, she says (echoing Heidegger’s ruminations on life after the dropping of the atomic bombs), in which “the impossible has already happened.”




Impossibles can be catastrophic and world changing disasters that “begin suddenly and never really end.” They can also be radical responses to disaster that open up possibilities we never imagined:

A disaster (which originally meant “ill-starred”, or “under a bad star”) changes the world and our view of it. Our focus shifts, and what matters shifts. What is weak breaks under new pressure, what is strong holds, and what was hidden emerges. Change is not only possible, we are swept away by it. We ourselves change as our priorities shift, as intensified awareness of mortality makes us wake up to our own lives and the preciousness of life. Even our definition of “we” might change as we are separated from schoolmates or co-workers, sharing this new reality with strangers. Our sense of self generally comes from the world around us, and right now, we are finding another version of who we are.

It is no exaggeration to say we have collectively witnessed the world change in a matter of a few months. Since Solnit wrote in April, we’ve had many more opportunities to meet circumstances wildly beyond our control. We are shaped by events, but how we respond, individually and together, also determines the kind of people we become.

We at Open Culture like to think we’ve contributed in some small way to our readers’ personal growth in the time of coronavirus, to their view of the world and their sense of who “we” are. Our readers responded most to messages of hope, resources for self-improvement and self-understanding, and cultural phenomena that have become sources of delight and inspiration no matter what’s going on. See our 15 top posts of 2020 below.

  1. Quarantined Italians Send a Message to Themselves 10 Days Ago: What They Wish They Knew Then
  2. Download Free Coloring Books from 113 Museums
  3. Use Your Time in Isolation to Learn Everything You’ve Always Wanted To: Free Online Courses, Audio Books, eBooks, Movies, Coloring Books & More
  4. Exquisite 2300-Year-Old Scythian Woman’s Boot Preserved in the Frozen Ground of the Altai Mountains
  5. Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli Releases Free Backgrounds for Virtual Meetings: Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away & More
  6. Google Introduces 6-Month Career Certificates, Threatening to Disrupt Higher Education with “the Equivalent of a Four-Year Degree”
  7. Janis Joplin & Tom Jones Bring the House Down in an Unlikely Duet of “Raise Your Hand” (1969)
  8. The Names of 1.8 Million Emancipated Slaves Are Now Searchable in the World’s Largest Genealogical Database, Helping African Americans Find Lost Ancestors
  9. Why “The Girl from Ipanema”‘ Is a Richer & Weirder Song Than You Ever Realized
  10. Watch the Rolling Stones Play “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” While Social Distancing in Quarantine
  11. Bill Murray Explains How He Was Saved by John Prine
  12. The Story Behind the Iconic Photograph of 11 Construction Workers Lunching 840 Feet Above New York City (1932)
  13. The Grateful Dead’s “Ripple” Played By Musicians Around the World (with Cameos by David Crosby, Jimmy Buffett & Bill Kreutzmann)
  14. Watch Joni Mitchell Sing an Immaculate Version of Her Song “Coyote,” with Bob Dylan, Roger McGuinn & Gordon Lightfoot (1975)
  15. The 150 Best Podcasts to Enrich Your Mind

Let us know in the comments what other posts that didn’t make the list resonated with you in this time of sweeping change, and why. Perhaps it’s one more cosmic irony that the nightmarish year of 2020 also happens to be the number we use to symbolize perfect hindsight. But also tell us, readers, what did you learn this year, and how did you grow and change in ways you might have thought impossible a year ago?

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Sign Up for Open Culture’s Free Daily Email 

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

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