Why People Fall for Ridiculous Conspiracy Theories and How Not To
With the current COVID-19 crisis conspiracy theorists are running rampant with ideas that this has been planned out by a hidden group of elites to force us into isolation in an effort to somehow gain more power and control. While it may be true that certain entities and people are taking advantage of this crisis in an effort to increase their power and wealth, the notion that a global pandemic which has reached all corners of the globe was somehow a meticulous plan, let alone that these guys sitting in their mom’s basements on their computers have figured out exactly how it was planned and executed is completely absurd. Here I want to talk about the thought process that goes into forming a conspiracy theory, how you can tell when it’s complete hogwash, and the exact point in which these people go off the rails.
In high school, I had a great English teacher who once told us that the only difference between a theory and a conspiracy theory is popularity. This is actually completely true, after all, conspiracy simply means something harmful that was planned intentionally but secretly. In the excellent Netflix documentary, Freeway: Crack in the System you learn that the case against the CIA for essentially causing the crack epidemic was lost simply on the phrasing of “conspiracy” vs. “complicity”. Because the public was crying and using the phrasing of conspiracy, the CIA and US government were able to evade responsibility by voiding the entire argument by saying, “We did not conspire to undermine the black community”, even though they admitted they were involved with known drug traffickers. All this to say that the definition of conspiracy is important whether you are right or wrong in your accusations and that not all conspiracy theories are necessarily wrong, simply that facts matter whether a popular opinion or conspiracy theory. It’s the problem of definition and understanding whether or not something was truly a conspiracy that gets a lot of conspiracy theorists in trouble with reality. This key point is what I want to focus on today.
If you look at any conspiracy theory or talk to any conspiracy theorist they will usually start with some undeniable facts or basic values that most people share. For instance, some people will claim the invention of the television all the way to fast food is all a conspiracy to reduce the public’s health and to make us more docile however they will start with the fact that watching cable TV or consuming McDonald’s is bad for us, that they cause all sorts of social or health problems, respectively. They then, however, will search for a link to tie something, usually to the government or the rich, that “confirms” their suspicion that it was all planned and intentional in an effort to gain power and control. Oftentimes they’ll look at who is in charge of certain agencies, businesses, or banks, who may be profiting off of them and make the conclusion that it all, including all the consequences, must have been a large plan in cahoots with some hidden but supremely powerful group. Most of us who have heard these types of claims and arguments before have developed a sort of immunity to them and don’t waste another second listening or considering. This, however, is unfortunate because it’s best for us to stay open-minded and to consider information presented to us in case something truly malevolent was occurring but it isn’t to the fault of us but instead to the people who jump too quickly to these assumptions and do bad research. The problem of this occurrence lies in those who haven’t been exposed to these ideas before or who may be particularly susceptible to buying into them.
One group is those who are out of the norm and see outside of the norm in society. The people who are prone to question things, to see the errors in the common ways, and who desire to live differently, often independently. Hell, I’m one of these people and I’ll be honest, the first time I heard a conspiracy theory it made a lot of sense. After all, how could it be that so many things are so messed up? That most of the usual things in today’s society, especially in America, are pretty bad for us individually and at large? It had to have been planned right? There have to be some rich people sitting in a room somewhere planning this all out and laughing as they stack their money... Right? Wrong. The fact is that most of these people in power slowly climbed there by simply making something that people like. Whether or not they knew about certain consequences is irrelevant and oftentimes not the case, for even if it was it would be complicity, not conspiracy.
Usually, though, the long-term and at-large consequences aren’t known and couldn’t possibly have been predicted. After all, how could Philo Farnsworth, the inventor of the television, have known that massive marketing campaigns that often change viewers’ behavior for the worse would be playing constantly on his invention? Or that millions of people would do nothing but sit in front of their TVs and pig out? He couldn’t have. Now, of course, we all know of the lawsuits against corporations where they clearly knew they were causing harm but didn’t care since they were making so much money, or just didn’t think those people’s lives mattered. But, again, this is complicity. Even in the cases when they began doing the thing that was so harmful they didn’t know what it would do but just didn’t care when it started to do something, additionally, it wasn’t in an intention TO harm, but not caring that it did because of the other consequence of them getting rich. When it comes to government conspiracies the ties are often harder to understand. They’ll usually claim that technologies such as smart-meters on homes or even our wifi routers were a part of a massive behind-the-scenes scheme of which they’ve uncovered the evidence (usually unverifiable, unfactual, or obviously falsified) to show it was to make us more docile and unhealthy. When it comes to these claims though even the effects can’t be verified. These are usually theories that veterans in the scene end up on after they’ve found all sorts of “connections” wherever else which makes this a recursive problem. It’s sad to see otherwise good and intelligent people run off the deep-end in these regards. In the claims that actually have an initial grounding in reality though the problem usually doesn’t lie in malevolence or even complicity but consumer behavior.
I agree that in certain cases technologies shouldn’t be allowed to exist, at least not without extensive health effect testing which is why I tend to empathize with concerns over, for example, emerging 5G technologies. I’m not going to say that it is outright harmful but instead that there really haven’t been enough peer-reviewed and truly scientific studies on it. In other cases though, such as fast-food or television, there is no problem with these things existing and being available to the public for purchase but instead, there is a problem with the average person not being able to resist things that are bad for them in large quantities. Additionally, this leads to money and power going to individuals and entities who don’t care about our wellbeing over their profits. As I’ve written before, we vote with our dollar.
I implore any conspiracy theorists reading this, or those who are becoming tempted with conspiracy theories, to stop and consider that the biggest problem isn’t in the entities creating and executing these things who are often unknowing to the consequences, but instead with consumer choices at large. Trying to “educate” people on outlandish theories, which are often perceived as quackery, will get your revolution nowhere, but by directly addressing the issue and spreading true values such as health, morality, democracy, and individual freedom, things can actually change.