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 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 have gotten 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. It may also give some a sense of community.
Conspiracy theories may – for some – be a way to deal with discomfort. It may be easier to indulge in ideas, whether rooted in reality or not, than face our own discomfort, fear, sense of lack, and trauma.
Sometimes, if it’s just an innocent mistake, it may be enough to find and present more accurate information.
Other times, it may be helpful to ask questions.
For instance, what’s the source? Do 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 instead of a small group of people pulling the threads?
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.