Column

How to Stop Conspiracy Moms

If we want women to stop pushing dangerous ideas online, we need to understand why they believe this bullshit

When you think of conspiracy theorists, it’s likely you’re picturing an older white man holed up in a basement surrounded by newspaper clippings and a scribbled-on blackboard. The more accurate and modern picture, though, would be someone sleeker and more surprising: A younger, white, stay-at-home mom who dabbles in Instagram influencing.

Whether it’s Covid, QAnon, or vaccinations, theres a new generation of conspiracy moms bringing a facade of palatability to some of the most dangerous ideas in America. These women are giving a polished sheen to ridiculous and menacing theories, and they count among the country’s biggest hurdles to fighting disinformation.

After all, it’s easy to dismiss a bedraggled man shouting on a street corner; less so when it’s a photogenic white woman with thousands of social media followers. These women — historically venerated and culturally powerful — are perfect believable messengers for the most unhinged ideas.

But if we’re going to stop the rise of conspiracy moms, we need to understand why women are susceptible to specific kinds of conspiracy theories. I believe the heart of it is that women are reacting — badly and ill-advisedly — to the poor way they’ve been treated.

We know, for example, that while women are much less likely than men to believe that Covid-19 is a “hoax,” they appear less likely than men to take the Covid-19 vaccine once it’s widely available. Pew reported that while 67% of men say they intend to get the vaccine, only 54% of women said the same.

Why the disconnect? There is something about vaccines, in particular, that strikes a chord with these moms.

Women head up the broader anti-vax movement in part because many distrust the medical establishment, often for good reason. Women are more likely to have their pain or illnesses disbelieved by doctors or be told that it’s all in their head. There’s a clear line between systemic medical mistreatment and distrust of the vaccine in another marginalized group, as well: Half of Black adults — a community that has been experimented on and is abused and disbelieved by doctors — also say they won’t take the Covid vaccine when it becomes available.

While it’s frustrating to see people turn away from science — especially a treatment that could save lives — it helps to remember that they’re not a lost cause. As writer Jill Filipovic points out, women are more likely to go to the doctor, have been better at adhering to safety guidelines around the coronavirus, and it’s been American men who’ve resisted mask-wearing much more than women. So if we addressed the marginalization of particular communities and tried to restore some of that broken trust between doctors and specific patients, it might go a long way toward breaking down vaccine misinformation.

If we paid attention to the systemic issues facing women, we might have seen this coming.

There’s a similar systemic issue at play for the women supporting QAnon, the conspiracy theorists who believe the country is run by a cabal of baby-molesting, Satan-worshipping Democrats. It’s not just that the theory has moved from 4Chan and Reddit to Facebook and Instagram — Kaitlyn Tiffany wrote a must-read piece in The Atlantic about the social media repackaging of QAnon — but that its primary focus has become about saving children from sexual abuse, an issue that many women have experience with. Of course, talking about sexual assault and molestation resonates with women; it’s a horrible part of living in this country while female.

I also don’t believe it’s a coincidence that the most visible women leading the charge against vaccinations or in QAnon seem to be stay-at-home mothers. We know that those most susceptible to this kind of misinformation are people who feel isolated, powerless, or ignored — traits extremely common to moms who stay at home.

People who fall prey to conspiracy theories also want to feel special, like they’re part of something bigger than themselves. Perhaps if we didn’t take ambitious, smart women and tell them the most important thing they can do is change diapers — and suggest they should feel “fulfilled” in the process — we wouldn’t have a rash of women scouring YouTube and sharing nonsense Facebook posts to make themselves feel important.

If we paid attention to the systemic issues facing women, we might have seen this coming. If women felt they could trust doctors, or if society didn’t push them to stay at home and give them zero support when they do, there might be less incentive to seek out conspiracy communities.

None of this excuses bad decisions or absolves those who would spread the kind of dangerous misinformation that leads to violence. And some of this — with QAnon, in particular — is just about old-fashioned racism. But if we want women to stop pushing dangerous ideas online, we need to understand why they believe this bullshit in the first place.

Feminist author & columnist. Native NYer, pasta enthusiast.

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