Carnegie Mellon University

Professor Jason Blazakis discusses conspiracies, disinformation, and COVID during IPS event

November 04, 2020

Professor Jason Blazakis discusses conspiracies, disinformation, and COVID during IPS event

By Abby W. Schachter

Bill Brink

On Thursday, October 29, 2020, the Center for International Relations and Politics sponsored a Policy Forum webinar entitled “Conspiracies and Disinformation: The impact of COVID and online trends.” CMU’s own Colin Clarke, an Assistant Teaching Professor at the Institute for Politics and Strategy, hosted the virtual presentation and Q&A session with Jason Blazakis, Senior Fellow at the Soufan Center and a professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies (MIIS) where his research is focused on violent extremism, terrorism financing, and counter-terrorism.

Seventy-five members of the CMU community listened to Blazakis outline what he defined as the “online activities that allow for hate to proliferate,” arguing that such conspiracies and disinformation “create online pathways for individuals to become radicalized.” He added how his presentation was meant to be understood within the general context of the white supremacy movement in the United States.

Blazakis began with a definition of conspiracy from Joseph Zonis as “explanatory beliefs of how multiple actors meet in secret agreement in order to achieve a hidden goal that is widely considered to be unlawful or malevolent.”

Individuals who tend to believe conspiracies share various characteristics, Blazakis explained, including extreme fear, a tendency toward exaggeration, deep uncertainty and a sense of disorientation. He also made clear that at times of great uncertainty, and especially our current moment of economic disruption that has resulted from the already extreme situation of enduring a global pandemic, Blazakis urged his audience to consider how understandable it might be to have people be susceptible to believing in conspiracies or alleged malevolent actions by groups working against those without power or influence.

Blazakis’ presentation focused significant attention on a recent conspiracy generated by an unknown individual identified as QAnon. Blazakis made the connection between the potential for harm by those who spread conspiracies and those who learn about the supposed threat and then may take actions that can turn violent. He also highlighted the good work of US investigators and law enforcement to successfully prevent some conspiracy followers from carrying out violent action in the name of whichever conspiracy they happen to believe is the most imminent threat. As well, social media companies have “taken action against QAnon accounts” Blazakis explained.