Students, faculty weigh in on modern-day conspiracy theories

Illustration by Marisa Stratton

Sahara Sriraman, Contributing Writer
Dylan Seay, Contributing Writer

Mary Ann Owens was on her way to work as an international wire editor for USA Today on Sept. 11, 2001, when she heard a deafening noise. She looked up to see a plane moments before it crashed into the Pentagon.

Owens rushed to get pictures of the building with a towel on her head to protect her from falling ash, she said. She received minor burns on the side of her face from the heat. 

Conspiracy theories began spreading instantly after 9/11 — various blogs used Owens’ photo to claim the terrorist attacks were fabricated, she said. Today, some elected officials at the federal and state levels are spreading similar theories, and Owens said their actions led to the Jan. 6 insurrection in the U.S. Capitol building.

“You cannot ignore the insurrection,” Owens said. “And I cannot ignore Marjorie Taylor Greene.”

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Republican from Georgia, has suggested that a plane did not hit the Pentagon on 9/11 and that the 2018 mass shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, was a hoax.

Owens said QAnon followers are loyal to people like Trump and Greene to the point that they are blind to truth.

QAnon is a conspiracy theory claiming that the country’s Democrats are part of a satanic pedophile ring trying to bring down former President Donald Trump.

Owens said people have died from COVID-19 due to Trump’s claims that face masks are not needed to help slow the spread of the virus.

Masks help prevent the spread of COVID-19 by both close contact and airborne transmission, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

“How many lives have really been lost through Trump’s conspiracy theories?” Owens said. 

Crews extinguish wreckage of a plane that hit the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. VCU professor Mary Ann Owens captured the wreckage on a disposable camera. Photo courtesy of Mary Ann Owens

Virginia reported 553,308 total COVID-19 cases and 7,037 deaths as of Tuesday, according to the Virginia Department of Health. Owens said that if conspiracy theories continue to spread, more people will die from the disease.

Along with mental health services and legislation, a new Fairness Doctrine needs to be created, Owens said. The Fairness Doctrine, first introduced in 1949, is a policy from the Federal Communications Commission that regulates broadcast news in order to keep it fair and honest.

Sociology instructor Volkan Aytar said that although there are many causes of current events and problems, people find themselves unable to explain the causes and reasoning behind them.

“Conspiracy theories are always around, but they gain more support and power when we are in an environment of rapid social change,” Aytar said.

Aytar, who holds a doctorate in sociology, said humans find it comforting to reduce problems down to a single explanation and blame one group. Aytar said that it makes people feel empowered to know what is going on “behind the scenes.”

When people fall down conspiracy theory “rabbit holes,” Aytar said they reach a surreal place that seems to answer all their questions. It presents them with scapegoat groups such as religious and racial minorities, and women.

“It’s the easy explanation and spreads very easily over the internet,” Aytar said.

Conspiracy theories are nothing new to American politics, political science professor Alexandra Reckendorf said. The recent impact they’ve had can be attributed to uncertainty and emotional uproar due to the COVID-19 pandemic and increasingly polarized politics, she said.

“What we see right now are a couple different conspiracies that have a real impact on our politics,” Reckendorf said in an email. “Conspiracies about the origins of COVID-19 and the vaccines that are being rolled out, and conspiracies about election fraud in the presidential election.”

Reckendorf, who holds a doctorate in political science, said these theories provide a cause for people who feel that they have been ignored and excluded compared to those “less deserving than them.”

“It’s been part of the Republican playbook for years, whereby they win through subtraction, rather than through addition, meaning that they focus more on restricting who can vote rather than trying to appeal to those who do vote,” Reckendorf said.

Despite any substantiated evidence, there’s a portion of Americans who feel the 2020 election was stolen. More than 60 lawsuits were filed by the Trump administration, but no courts held that significant voter fraud had occurred, according to the New York Times.

Reckendorf stated that Virginia politics are likely to draw attention over the next few years as the state breaks from traditional primary systems and the influence controversial candidates have in state politics by proliferating conspiracy theories.

“What we do in Virginia might set the pace for other states,” Reckendorf said.

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