The Bad Psychology Behind Interviewing Conspiracy Theorist Alex Jones

Wired suggests NBC anchor Megyn Kelly made a mistake in booking the controversial InfoWars host.

June 17, 2017 5:00 am
alex jones
Conspiracy theorist and radio talk show host Alex Jones speaks during a rally in support of Donald Trump near the Republican National Convention iJuly 18, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Brooks Kraft/ Getty Images)
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NBC News anchor Megyn Kelly is set to air her interview with Alex Jones, the InfoWars host renowned for spewing right-wing conspiracy theories, on Sunday night.

But there’s a school of thought that it’s a profoundly bad idea from a psychological standpoint.

A conspiracy theory requires some conditions to thrive: a sense of powerlessness, generalized anxiety, deep partisan divide and platforms that easily amplify misleading messages. All of these can be found in the current political climate, claims Wired, which makes Kelly’s forthcoming interview potentially damaging.

Reports suggest that after receiving criticism, Kelly insists that the interview will be hard-hitting and that she challenged Jones’s views—though leaked tapes suggest otherwise. But psychologically speaking, “elevating chicanery and those who propagate it — even to debunk the lie — only spreads their nonsense.”

“Megyn Kelly interviewing Alex Jones is like taking a leaf of poison ivy that you know is making you itch and rubbing it all over someone’s face,” said Stephanie Kelley-Romano, who teaches rhetoric at Bates College and studies how and why conspiracy beliefs take root, to Wired. “You don’t spread it around.”

Kelley-Romano also said that conspiracy theories are a simplification device. They provide refuge in a complicated world. Some researchers suspect embracing a conspiracy theory comes from the human inclination to detect patterns and avoid exploitation. Even the most rational person can believe paranoid fantasies during the worst of times. It is worse when you add extreme partisanship to the mix, because those beliefs get enmeshed in the person’s sense of political identity.

That extrapolates to Kelly’s interview with Jones: Even mentioning the lies he believes — such as the Sandy Hook massacre is a hoax propagated by the Democrats to pass gun control laws — on air will give those lies credence in the eyes of those who already believe them.

Even more troubling, claims Wired, is that the mainstreaming of false narratives risks muddling people’s ability to understand genuine conspiracies. For example, people on both the left and the right have outrageous claims about the investigations into Russia meddling with the 2016 election. The ability to have a conversation about those real facts is undermined when they are being distorted, said Brendan Nyhan, a Dartmouth University political scientist who studies the role conspiracy paranoia plays in society, to Wired.

So how do you stop a conspiracy theory? Nyhan says that journalists, psychologists must cover things responsibly, always leading with the truth and avoiding even repeating the misinformation.

And above all, high-profile journalists like Kelly shouldn’t give conspiracy theorists a platform.

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