What’s behind the apparent surge in conspiracy theories? Why do new groups – for instance, holistic health practitioners – get into it?
I have written about this before, but thought I would make a quick summary of some possibilities:
Internet & media bubbles. We seek out information and groups that fit and support our desired worldview. That’s even easier now than in the past due to the internet and the general fragmentation of the media landscape.
People benefit. Some benefit from creating or peddling certain conspiracy theories. Trump and his folks benefit from QAnon. Putin benefits from the erosion of western democracy, encouraged by Russian troll-farms. In general, people who are actually doing something that people would be upset about if they knew, benefit from the distraction conspiracy theories provide.
Appealing to people’s values. Most conspiracy theories appeal to people’s existing values. Trump is going to save the world (QAnon). Vaccines harm people. If you get into these conspiracy theories, you feel you are a good person and on the side of the good.
Foot-in-the-door. When people take one step in a certain direction, it’s easier to take the next. If we get into a small conspiracy theory, it may be easier to go into the larger and more serious ones.
Wishful thinking. For some liberals in the US, it may be easier to imagine Trump as a secret savior (QAnon) rather than a horrible narcissist who was elected president of the United States. Some conspiracy theories gain a following because they offer simple solutions and some form of salvation.
Fearful thinking. Similarly, conspiracy theories often seem founded in fear. The ones creating or peddling conspiracy theories often use people’s fear as a hook. There is a vast network of pedophiles. Vaccines have tracking-chips in them. 5G is seriously harmful.
Grain of truth. The essence of conspiracy theories often has a grain of truth in it. For instance, it’s true that governments hide some things, although it’s mostly (not exclusively) to protect the state from other countries. It’s true that our current system is rigged to benefit the already wealthy and powerful, but that’s a feature of the system and no conspiracy is needed to make it happen. It’s also true that vaccines sometimes have harmful effects, although it’s rare and – as with so much else – we decide it’s worth it. The grain of truth may be there, but it’s often taken too far, understood in a too simplistic fashion, or taken in a misguided direction.
Lack of media literacy and valid logical reasoning. Again, the more we know about and familiar with this, the easier it is to recognize and avoid pitfalls. The conspiracy world survives because of a lack of basic media literacy (examining sources and messages), and a poor understanding of valid logical reasoning.
Lack of perspective. To me, what’s actually happening in the world is far more serious than the topic of any conspiracy theory I have seen. We are in an early stage of a massive – and for us catastrophic – ecological shift. We have an economic and social system that doesn’t take ecological realities into account and where those who already have the most benefit the most. This is not disputed and is far more serious than just about any conspiracy fantasy. Conspiracy theories distract from what’s actually happening.
Lack of historical knowledge. If we know a bit about the history of conspiracy theories, cults, millennial movements, and so on, then it’s easier to recognize and avoid them. There is a repeating pattern.
Checking our sources and information. Conspiracy theories typically require a not-so-thorough examination of the sources. The remedy is to ask: Would this information hold up in a court? Would a serious historian or journalist use it? What are the sources? Are these reliable? Can the information be verified? If not, set it aside as a very loose “maybe”.
Social aspect. Conspiracy theories can give a sense of community and belonging. If you are lonely or feel like an outsider, these communities can seem attractive.
Boredom. Some may feel bored – especially during this pandemic – want some drama and excitement, and the actual drama of the world isn’t enough or of the right type. Conspiracy theories can feel like a puzzle and a game and draw people in.
A sense of knowing. If we have low tolerance for ambiguity and not knowing, conspiracy theories can seem attractive. They give simple and clear answers, and they often paint the world in black-and-white.
Blame. The world is complex and confusing and we cannot know anything for certain. For some, it can feel good – like peeing in the pants to stay warm – to blame someone. It’s easier than a deep analysis of history, social dynamics, and complex social systems.
Distraction. In general, it seems that conspiracy theories serve to distract from what’s actually happening. By going into the – for some – fascinating world of conspiracy theories, we can distract from the pain in our own life, and perhaps also the pain that’s triggered in us when we see what’s actually going on in the world (poverty, hunger, wars, ecological destruction).
Trauma. We can use anything as an obsession or compulsion to distract ourselves from our discomfort or pain. For some, it may be easier to get obsessed with conspiracy theories than dealing with their own pain. If I am honest, a lot of what I see in the conspiracy world looks like trauma behavior.
Compensating for feeling not enough. Going into conspiracy theories can make you feel that you know something others don’t. If you feel you are not good enough, as many do, then this is a way to compensate for it.
Feeling powerless. If we feel powerless and left out, being part of the conspiracy community can give us a sense of power. We know something others don’t, we are many, and we’ll do something about it.
Outsider identity. If we already feel like an outsider to mainstream society, it’s easy to hook onto things that’ll reinforce this outsider identity. The conspiracy theory world fits the bill for some.
Victim identity? I don’t know enough about the conspiracy world, but I wonder if not people with a victim identity also are drawn to conspiracy theories. The content of many conspiracy theories seem to fit with and reinforce a victim identity.
A questioning mind losing its bearings. People who go into conspiracy theories may, by nature, be more questioning. There is nothing wrong with questioning basic assumptions, but this questioning has to be disciplined and tied to intellectual honesty.
Other priorities than intellectual honesty. When I see people who are into conspiracy theories, it often seems that the conspiracy theory often takes priority over intellectual honesty.
Most of these dynamics are universal and we all have done or do it sometimes and in some areas of life. The conspiracy world sometimes turns the volume up to eleven.
NOT ALWAYS FANTASY
Conspiracies are not always a fantasy. Sometimes, they happen. And almost always, they are uncovered by official investigators, investigative journalists, or historians. Not people on the internet.
The danger of rampant ungrounded conspiracy theories is obvious: it harms our democracy and society. So what can we do?
One solution is education, for instance in the media and schools. This could be an education in the history of cults, millennial movements, and conspiracy theories, media literacy, logical fallacies, existing power structures & systemic problems, and some basic related psychology.
WHAT CONSPIRACY THEORIES CANNOT SURVIVE
In general, it seems there are several things conspiracy theories are not likely to survive or cannot survive.
If we know the patterns of past cults etc., we are likely to recognize those patterns in the conspiracy world and be cautious.
If we know and are rigorous with logical reasoning and avoiding logical fallacies, most conspiracy theories fall like a house of cards.
If we are intellectually honest, the same happens.
If we are aware of the many and serious systemic problems in today’s society, including at a global level, we are less likely to fall for simplistic scapegoating theories.
If we are rigorous in working on our own issues and recognizing our projections, we are similarly less likely to fall for the emotional reasoning behind many conspiracy theories, and also the coarse projections required to prop them up.