The Eerie Similarities Between Fan Theorists and Anti-Vaxxers

By way of some background: first I made a little costume analysis debunking the Frozen/Tangled fan theory, and in my last post I addressed some of the more tenacious fan theorists' rebuttals, with all of the grace and dignity a blogger can muster...

It's not often that my mood is equally well communicated by both The Little Mermaid and a possessed psychopath on a murderous rampage.

But, you know, I do have a blog to write, and I figured I ought to move on to other topical Disney-related news items, like that measles outbreak at Disneyland:

The happiest place on earth, if you happen to be an airborne virus with 90% infectivity, a decent surface-survival time, and permissive incubation phase.

As the measles outbreak spread to many more states each day, I read parents saying stuff like this:

Yes, it is in fact difficult to voice crazy beliefs "without sounding crazy."

All the while my comment notifications were filling up my inbox with this:

True fact: randomly appending "hahaha" to sentences totally makes you seem like a thoughtful and reasonable person, and in no way like you might murder someone.


Me, during all this.

Now, I should take this opportunity to acknowledge that while I find fan theories incredibly irritating, I am not for a moment suggesting any kind of equivalence between my transient annoyance and the real-world harm caused by anti-vaxxers. Compared to anti-vaxxers, inane and insistent fan theorists are practically saints.

Congratulations! You haven't recklessly killed or sickened an infant or a cancer patient! This is literally the lowest possible standard that can be set for human interaction!

But that being said, these two particular brands of irrationality do bear some striking similarities in how people get attached to them and defend them. Many of these mental pitfalls are common to a wide swath of conspiracy theorizing, from Moon Landing Fakers to 9-11 Truthers to Birthers and all the way to Flat-Earthers. I'll be focusing on anti-vaxxers because I'm a Disney blogger and anti-vax is the particular form of nonsense that is most directly affecting Disney right now (unless there's some petition to include Kennedy Conspiracy propaganda in the Hall of Presidents and I missed it...).

So, without further ado, 10 eerie similarities between fan theorists and anti-vaxxers:

#1: They get hyper-focused on random details and completely miss the big picture.

At the heart of any good conspiracy theory is a little compelling nugget. It's not that the nugget isn't really there, it's just that the theorist has such a simplified level of understanding of the matter at hand that they utterly fail to see how the attention-grabbing nugget fits into the larger whole. The larger whole may have hundreds of cues that put stories in a particular time and place, or may have the millions of cases of safe vaccination or the equivalent rate of disability in unvaccinated children--but either way the theorist hyper-fixates on that one anecdote, image or soundbite. This can be one of the most frustrating aspects of trying to educate someone past their little pet theory--everything circles back to "but [this one thing]!!" and all attempts to introduce context or the concept of weighing evidence is completely for naught.

#2: They love to believe things in the world are way more purposeful and connected than they really are.

You know, I get it: humans are pattern-recognizing animals. That's how we evolved to be, that is how we accomplished literally everything we have ever done as a species. Finding the connections in things is what we do. HOWEVER, this natural human tendency does have a bad habit of going into overdrive, and conspiracy and fan theories are prime examples of this. Sometimes, things happen for no reason (or for trivially silly reasons, like "the animator thought this would be funny to include here"), but for a certain type of person it's much more comforting to believe that someone, somewhere is in control of everything and has it all figured out (yes, even if they're apparently evil pharmaceutical companies intent on giving your child autism and covering up natural cures for common diseases, because at least that would mean there's someone you can fight against rather than the cold hard fact that there's way too much about developmental disability that we don't understand and can't control).

#3: Believing in the theory is more about satisfying self-perception than learning real things.

People like to believe they're special, and buying into a theory can be profoundly psychologically compelling. In the case of fan theorists, supporting these theories becomes a way to tell oneself, "I am a true fan. I am more knowledgeable and perceptive than casual fans. I am better at figuring out the true meaning of the movies in my fandom than other people." Anti-vaxxers, meanwhile, can tell themselves that they are being proactive about their child's health, and are protecting their children from the big scary world with its big scary pharmaceutical companies. Furthermore, the time-consuming nature of combing through ones favorite movies for tidbits or adhering to rigid organic, health-conscious, all-natural lifestyle choices both become devotional acts meant to reassure the true believer that they are living up to their ideal of being a good person.

#4: Flattering their self-perception with the theory actively prevents them from achieving that self-perception.

In perhaps the cruelest irony in all the psychological defenses and motivated reasoning that goes into believing a fan or conspiracy theory, believing in the theory actually does the exact opposite of what the proponent wants it to. For a group of people who really want to be knowledgeable and observant about Disney movies and fandom, I was stunned to find a large number of them who didn't even know something as basic as the fact that Disney movies have had Easter Eggs since Snow White. (I will also point out that, while I haven't done an extensive study on this point, it does seem to me that I haven't seen a lot of the same usernames on discussions like "ZOMG you guys Frozen and Tangled are totes connected!" and "Glen Keane discusses bringing the hand-drawn aesthetic to CG in Tangled's visual development." Y'know, just sayin'.) Similarly, if your primary goal is to be a good parent and to keep your kid safe, denying them the single most successful medical intervention in history and leaving them vulnerable to potentially fatal and debilitating diseases is a pretty major fail (as is setting off a multi-state measles epidemic!).

But wait, there's more! Join me next time for even more eerie similarities!

Emphasis mine throughout. Anti-vax screenshots from recent articles on the Disneyland measles outbreak and associated comment sections. Fan Theorist screen caps 2 and 3 are from stand-alone fan posts promoting theories, and the remainder of the Fan Theorist screencaps are all actual rebuttals to my recent debunkings.

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About the Author

Satiricalifragilistic grew up during the Disney Renaissance, and The Little Mermaid was the first movie she ever saw in theaters at age 3. Her mother flatly refused to let her leave the theater when Ursula got huge and terrifying, and maybe that explains her troubled psyche.

While she'll admit to being an inveterate nitpicker, she firmly believes in loving a piece of art even while criticizing it, and in the importance of engaging critically with what she loves. She has special contempt for anyone who tries to claim the politics in Disney films don't matter because "they're just movies," because she knows exactly how much the Disney Canon influenced her little gradeschool self—for good and for ill!

She loves art, design, music, dancing, movies from Hollywood's Golden Age, and British comedy...expect a lot of these to turn up in her reviews and mashups!