Why do some people get into conspiracy theories, almost as a lifestyle?
One answer is lack of critical thinking, media literacy, and willingness to check the sources and facts. This has partly to do with our educational system.
Some may want to feel important, that they know something others don’t, that they can “stick it to the man”, and so on.
It may come out of a general distrust in authorities. (Which is healthy, to some extent, but can also go too far if it’s compulsive.)
It may come out of general frustration and sense of powerlessness. It may be tied to lack of opportunities in life and reflect a structural social problem.
As anything else, it’s a projection. We see in others and the world what’s in ourselves. Whatever we see out there and can set word on, we can turn it around to ourselves and find examples of it in ourselves and our own behavior as well. This, in itself, doesn’t mean it’s not also out there in the world. It’s certainly here and can also be out there. “Blind” projections – where we don’t recognize it as a projection and take care of it – can make conspiracy theories into a compulsion.
Getting into conspiracy theories can, paradoxically, be a way to feel more safe. It can feel safer if there is one simple answer to a lot of the problems we see in society today. Instead of the randomness of life and systemic problems in society, it can feel somewhat comforting if one small group of people are behind it.
It may be rooted in fear. A way for people to deal with their own unmet, unloved, and unexamined fear. It’s a way for them to try to exorcise their own demons.
I also suspect it can be rooted in trauma. It’s a way for some people to deal with the pain of their own trauma. Instead of meeting that pain and the fear behind it, it seems easier to get upset about something in the world and blame someone for it. It’s a distraction and a coping mechanism.
Why is it difficult to have a rational and grounded conversation with people who are into conspiracy theories?
It may be because nothing we can say can disprove – in their mind – their views. What we say is just evidence that we are brainwashed or are actively in on the conspiracy.
Conspiracy theories tie into identies and most people want to hold onto their identities. In the case of conspiracy theories, some of these identities may be as a rebel, someone who knows what others don’t, someone who is willing to question authorities, someone who is independent, and so on. (Although none of those may be true – they may not actually know anything real, they may not question the authority of the source of the conspiracy theories and their own thinking, they may just follow along with others who are into conspiracy theories.)
Getting into conspiracy theories may give some a sense of community. Perhaps they already feel like an outsider, so they find a community of others who feel like outsiders – and that community happens to be a mostly online conspirary theory community.
Conspiracy theories may be a way to deal with discomfort. It may be easier to indulge in ideas about a few people out there being responsible for many of the problems in the world instead of facing our own life, life challenges, discomfort, fear, trauma, and sense of lack and not being enough.
Conspiracy theories often give a simple and clear cut answer to very complex real-life issues. It gives us scapegoats while the real culprit may be the randomness of nature (natural disasters), systemic problems (our current economic system), and the cumulative effects of humans functioning within this system. It may feel comforting to have clear-cut scapegoats.
Sometimes, conspiracty theories become a kind of religon. It can’t be disproven. It’s woven into people’s identity. It is a source of (stressful) comfort.
What’s the best way to communicate with people into conspiracy theories?
It’s always good to keep an open mind. Be willing to look at the sources. Examine the evidence. See if you can verify it. If the source and evidence seems questionable, it may be good to just leave the conversation.
If we want to engage in a conversation, a couple of things may be helpful.
It may be an innocent mistake, for instance, someone may have reposted something they saw and resonated with on social media. In this case, it may be enough to find and present more accurate information.
If it’s more ingrained, it may be helpful to ask some questions.
For instance, what’s the source? Do you know who they are? Can the source be verified? Is it possible they have a particular motivation?
Is there verifiable evidence? Would the evidence hold up in a court? Would it be sufficient for a serious historian or investigative reporter?
Isn’t it possible that what we see in society comes from known structural problems, and sometimes predictably unpredictable random events, instead of a small group of people pulling the threads?
Why shouldn’t we automatically believe conspiracy theories?
What we know is going on in the world is often far worse than any conspiracy theory. Giant corporations owning a large number of other organizations and media outlet. Big money influencing elections, politicians, and policies. Huge gaps between the few very wealthy and everyone else. Large numbers of people around the world living in poverty. Destructions of ecosystems. Minorities marginalized around the world. Widespread animal abuse. An economic system that does not take ecological realities into account. Poor preparedness for large-scale disasters. And so on.
harebrained conspiracy theories serve to distract us from serious issues we know are real – in our own lives and the world – and need to address.
Also, many who are into conspiracy theories do not go far enough in questioning authorities. If you want to question authorities, question ALL authorities, including the sources of conspiracy theories and – especially – your own thinking. Are you certain you know what you think you know? Explore critical thinking, media literacy, and how the human mind operates from biases, shortcuts, and logical fallacies.
Why do we see a blossoming of it now?
I imagine conspiracy theories have been with humantiy since beginning of civilization and perhaps before.
And yet, there seems to be an upswing of conspiracy theories now. Why is that?
One answer is internet echo chambers and the ease of finding information and people on the internet that will support and endorse just about any view.
Before internet, most of us got our news and information from mostly or partly the same sources. We had a shared understanding of the world although our ideas about what to do with it differed. Now, we disagree on basic facts.
Some individuals actively create and spread disinformation for whatever personal reason, including entertainment and – in some cases – profit.
More seriously, some groups and organizations – including some governments like Russia through their state-sponsored troll farms – actively create and spread disinformation for political purposes. Often to sow confusion and weaken rival countries and alliances, and it’s a new version of the old divide-and-conquer strategy.
The problem with conspiracy theories seems obvious. It distracts people from actual and more serious problems in the world most of us agree are real. (Unraveling ecosystems, hunger, lack of clean water, lack of education, huge gap between a few super wealthy and the rest, poverty, Big Money influence on policies, and so on.)
And it’s a problem for our democracy and public discourse when we cannot agree on basic facts and some get fixated on things that are not grounded in critical thinking and solid evidence.
Isn’t it possible that some conspiracy theories are true?
Yes, of course. I am all for serious investigation into possible conspiracies, if it’s rooted in critical thinking, examination of the sources, and solid and verifiable information.
Most conspiracy theories seem clearly false and are perpetuated through lack of critical thinking, lack of media literacy, lack of knowledge of history and science, and a willingness to jump on an idea without first checking the sources and facts.
One thing to remember is that historically, the uncovering of actual conspiracies was done through investigation from historians, journalists, or official investigators. Not
cooks people on YouTube and the internet.
Is this only about others?
No, this is about me and each of us. We all go into our own version of conspiracy theories, at least sometimes. I could as well written this as us instead of they, and that would have been more accurate and inclusive.
I sometimes take an idea as true just because others do. To some extent, that’s what makes up a culture and shared worldview.
I sometimes latch onto some information without checking it just because it fits into my worldview and what I want to be true.
I sometimes hold an idea as true – even a scary one – just because I want to and it feels good in the moment. Perhaps it’s a momentary distraction from my own fear or discomfort.
Have shared things on social media because it happened to fit into my worldview or how I want things to be and without fact checking it first.
I sometimes want to find a scapegoat even if systems, circumstances, or conditioning plays more of a role.
I sometimes want to blame someone else instead of looking at my own role in a situation.
I sometimes irrationally hold onto an idea even if a more grounded take on it would show me that something else is more true.
I sometimes tell myself I know something even if I actually don’t know or don’t know for certain.
In these and more ways, I am the conspiracy theorist. I am just like the conspiracy theorists I see out there, although the outward form it takes may be a little different.
It’s about us, not them.