As a philosophy professor specializing in language, it is my job to conceptually distinguish fiction from lies. Lies are falsehoods shared with the intent to deceive; fiction is falsehood shared without the intent to deceive. My academic work examines how it is that we think “Hamlet is a prince” is true while knowing that “Hamlet doesn’t exist” is also true.
I teach my students about these distinctions — the difference between “fictional truth” and truth. Yet armed with this intellectual framework, I still can’t convince my own relatives that COVID-19 vaccines don’t have microchips in them.
Why? Because psychological needs drive what they believe. We all need to feel secure, and conspiracy theories can provide certainty and comfort. More than a third of Americans aren’t fully vaccinated, and my research on fiction helps me see that for some Americans, vaccine hesitancy is a rational reaction, a way to produce desired results.
I have experience with being trapped in this kind of thinking. I was involved in a “church” for several years that exhibited all the usual signs of a cult. The charismatic pastor abused congregation members; we met every single day for Bible study, exercise and “fellowship”; we were alienated from family and told we couldn’t trust our own thoughts. I knew something was wrong, but leaving the church was difficult because the cult satisfied deep-rooted psychological needs. I stayed for years.
While trying to reason with a relative this past Christmas, I realized the microchip conspiracy theory — that COVID vaccines contain “the mark of the beast” signaling alliance to Satan — also met powerful psychological needs. One wants to be in control, chosen and special, “awake” during End Times while others “sleep.” Many of my relatives and their friends are Korean immigrants with limited English, had difficult childhoods, unhappy family lives or face financial hardships. Sensational spiritual beliefs make them feel secure in ways life has not.
I’m fed up with anti-vaxxers. But I see that cults and conspiracy theories get something right about our needs. We all need something or someone to tell us that we are in control or, at the very least, that we’re OK. And for some people, that means embracing disinformation and false theories because they appear to offer answers or explain things we don’t understand.
In my academic work, we debate just how, and why, people react to fictions the way we do. We grieve for people we know do not exist while reading “Anna Karenina,” and we internalize Mafia morality and think snitches deserve to die while watching “The Godfather: Part II.”
People respond to narratives, and meanings embedded within narratives, without minding whether it is true or false. The line between fictional truth and “real” truth isn’t always clear in our minds and hearts. Take it from Akihiko Konda, a Japanese man who married Hatsune Miku, a manga character, in 2018.
Our emotional reactions don’t discriminate between fiction and reality, and the same force is at play when it comes to conspiracy theories. “Here’s the thing about feelings — they’re so much easier to control than facts,” says someone in the movie “The Matrix Resurrections.”
When emotionally compelling narratives are presented to us, and we’re unclear whether they are shared with the intent to deceive or not, it can be hard to tell whether the narrative is fact, fiction or a lie. To make reality even more like the Matrix, social media platforms are perfect means for sowing confusion about what’s real. I continue to tell one relative that she can’t believe everything she sees on YouTube. Part of knowing whether something is real or fake, fiction or nonfiction, is familiarity with a given medium, but we have generations of people without media literacy skills.
So, what do we do? Unsurprisingly, demanding reasons for her beliefs didn’t yield good results with my relative. Discussing theology hasn’t worked, either.
Only when I explained why I care did she seem to hear me for the first time. I told her I worried about her health; I said it didn’t matter who was right or wrong, just that she was safe. “I know you’re telling me to get the vaccine because you love me,” she repeated over and over, as if to let it sink in. “Still,” she said, “you should stay vigilant. Don’t accept any microchips.” I agreed I wouldn’t.
I’m not sure how successful I was in the end. I know that I need another narrative to fight the false narrative, though I’m not sure how. For now, all I can do is hope the conspiracy theory will be left behind when it no longer serves an emotional purpose — just as I left the cult to pursue my doctorate in philosophy.
Hannah Kim is a philosophy professor at Macalester College. @thisishannahkim