(Completes the earlier Post Conspiracy Theory-part one ,May 25th 2010)
Part Two: Seeing the wood for the trees
The very fact that there are so many theories, and people who believe in them, raises an important question: Amid so much evidence to the contrary, why do people believe in conspiracy theories at all?
Tragedy is usually the result of a randomly cruel world, ‘time and unforeseen occurrence’. That, however, doesn’t demean people who were victimized by or who are afraid of tragedy should not feel the need to blame someone or something. After all, we are uncomfortable with ‘randomness’ – we feel if something happens, it must be because ‘someone’ caused it, there’s no such thing as an ‘accident’, ‘someone’ must be to blame, and the more prominent a person is, the more in the public eye, the greater the forces needed to pull them down or kill them. Accidents and lone gunmen are for ‘ordinary’ people, not ‘special’ ones, and they certainly don’t commit suicide, do they?
The term “conspiracy theory” is frequently used by scholars and in popular culture to identify secret military, banking, or political actions aimed at stealing power, money, or freedom, from the general populace.
Today, there are more conspiracy theories and more conspiracy theory believers than ever before.In the article ‘Paranoia and the roots of Conspiracy Theories‘ for ‘Psychology Today’, Ilan Shrira wrote: “Conspiracy theories help us cope with distressing events and make sense out of them. Conspiracies assure us that bad things don’t just happen randomly. Conspiracies tell us that someone out there is accountable, however unwittingly or secretly or incomprehensibly, so it’s possible to stop these people and punish them and in due course let everyone else re-establish control over their own lives. Conspiracies also remind us that we shouldn’t blame ourselves for our predicaments; it’s not our fault, it’s them! In these ways, believing in conspiracies serves many of the same self-protective functions as scapegoating.” That is one view..
Conspiracy theories are like cultural viruses. Once they infect the zeitgeist (Zeitgeist is thegeneral cultural, intellectual, ethical, spiritual, or political climate within an entire generation, or nation, or even specific groups of individuals, along with the general ambiance, morals, and mood we may associate with an era.), it is extremely difficult to counteract them, no matter how solid the evidence against them may be. Studies have shown that in common with other forms of belief, good or bad, people who are prone to believe in conspiracies display an innate bias towards information which supports that conspiracy, no matter how spurious the source of that information may be.
Though much of the news media reports are true and some verifiable, much is not based on what most people would consider reliable information. Some reporting can end up being accidentally misleading, repeating rumours, biased by commercial interests, and worse still, may deliberately express the view of the prevailing authority.
It has been pointed out that conspiracy theorists tend to be on the ‘losing side’ (politically, socially, or economically) of society, and that believing in conspiracies is therapeutic for them. They explain why they are on the losing side (“we were robbed, deceived”) they salve their hurt (“the people who deceived us are so powerful, so evil, it’s understandable that they appear to be the winners”) and then restore their egos (“we have seen the truth, we are so much cleverer than ‘ordinary’ people, we are different”). Not only that but we have a fear of insignificance, of being ignored. If we feel we are being reduced to mere ciphers in a complex society, belief in conspiracies is perhaps an effective therapy for us.
Jamie Bartlett, head of the Violence and Extremism Programme at the independent think tank Demos, has studied this worrying trend. “We looked at 50 organisations including far right, far left, cults, religious extremists, radical Christians, radical Muslims, and what we found was that every one of them has some kind of conspiracy attached. ,” he says. “The members believe in a conspiracy; sometimes it is a big global one, sometimes one directed at their specific group or interest. The conspiracy holds the group together and pushes it in a more radical direction. It serves to harden the group’s ideology.”
There are several reasons why conspiracy theories are increasing. Mainly it is because the internet has made it easy to propagate rumour and supposition on a global scale. Social networking sites allow conspiracy theorists to seek out and link with like-minded individuals. People interested in conspiracy also have access to online reference material which can be selectively edited to support an idea. Video sharing on Youtube and easily manipulated visual content on Photoshop etc. has created a wider audience.
Of course, authorities traditionally have not helped. For example, the extent to which governments and companies conspire in far less serious ways and therefore give credence to the possibility of the theories. The media frequently expose the many day to day collusions, frauds and deceits that governments and companies carry out all the time. These clearly range from the minor to the spectacular.
Interest in conspiracy has developed into a counter-cultural youth movement. Bartlett explains: “You still get the old-school conspiracy theorist that spends a lot of time poring over journals looking for tiny anomalies. But you also have the student types who think it is cool to be anti-government, anti-US or anti-imperialist. Then you have a large number of young people from disadvantaged and minority backgrounds that haven’t looked into any evidence but accept conspiracies because they hold the belief that the government is corrupt.”
The number of people who believe conspiracy theories is staggering. According to various recent surveys, a third of Britons believe Princess Diana was murdered (a Daily Mail survey), a quarter believe the moon landings were faked (from Engineering and Technology magazine), nearly half of all Americans do not believe global warming is man-made (a Yale University survey) and 84 per cent of them believe 9/11 was an inside job (a New York Times/CBS poll).
The rise of conspiracy as a cultural phenomenon can in part be attributed to the uncertain times we live in. In the same way that paranormal beliefs and religious extremism peak during times of economic and social upheaval, so too does the number of people who believe in conspiracies. Yet conspiracy theory remains a little-studied area. “There isn’t a great deal of data out there on why people believe in conspiracy theories – in terms of research it is a bit of a blank slate,” says Dr Karen Douglas, Associate Professor at the School of Psychology, University of Kent, one of the leading academics in the field.
Studies have identified a core set of psychological variables which correlate to belief in conspiracy theories. Perhaps, unsurprisingly, these include low levels of trust – not just in authority but in individuals – and high levels of anomie (a lack of social norms; “normlessness”, the breakdown of social bonds between an individual and their community ties, fragmentation of social identity and rejection of self-regulatory values) and the feeling that things are getting worse, feelings of alienation and powerlessness (See Durkheim and Social Change).
Along with his colleague, Robert Brotherton, Chris French has identified a number of personality traits which correlate to whether someone might be susceptible to conspiracy beliefs. These include people who believe abnormal things can happen to them, outside of their own actions or control. French continues: “Believers are mainly people who are trying to make sense of a chaotic universe and looking for some form of framework to guide them to do that“. Traditionally, people were guided by the Church, the education system, the family- all seemingly deficient today.
Indeed, we as human beings often appear to need major events to be explained by equally major causes. It is too frightening to live in a world where a few maverick individuals can change the course of history in a matter of a few hours. Instead, it is easier to believe that a huge government conspiracy is controlling events.
A mistrust of government is a key factor behind many theories. The most enduring conspiracy theories almost always involve some aspect of malign and underhand government or secret-service activity. One study carried out by Dr Karen Douglas and her team concerned the democratic process. “We asked people to read a range of theories about the government. Without any supporting evidence, the theories suggested that governments hide information, are involved in shady plots and that we should be suspicious of them. We found that the people who read that kind of information were more reluctant to engage in the political processes.”
The conclusions both Douglas’s and French’s studies have drawn are that increasingly, people are basing important decisions about issues ranging from voting to vaccinations on conspiracy theory-derived information they read on the internet.
“This is a big issue with a lot of serious implications,” says French. “People … are making life-changing decisions without employing any critical thinking skills.”
This lack of critical thinking reinforces questionable belief systems and allows them to spread. Its prevalence in society led calls to introduce measures in schools to help students distinguish between reliable and spurious online sources of information.
They found that schoolchildren were unable to differentiate between the two and that one third of pupils between 11 and 13 thought that Google organises its search hits in order of the reliability of content. They had no idea how search engine optimisation works.
Jamie Bartlett explains: “The national curriculum needs to get on top of this and teach kids about these things. In the information age, creation and sharing of content is more unmediated than ever before and there are no useful signs to differentiate between what is good and what is bad. There is an intrinsic value in getting to the truth of something and that is being lost. The fact that lots of people hold absurd propositions regardless of evidence is uncomfortable. It is worrying because of the way in which people are going about understanding the world.”
This willingness to believe without question explains why some people have been able to make profitable livings by peddling conspiracy. For example, books and DVD’s by 9/11 theorists have sold millions of copies worldwide.
Although it is worth pointing out that some conspiracy theories have been proved true (Watergate, for instance, proved suspicions about Nixon’s dishonest activities were soundly based) and that in a democracy authority should be questioned, the mind-set displayed by die-hard political conspiracy theorists leads to a lack of understanding about how governments work and, on a psychological level, stops people reasoning properly and making deductions based on evidence.
“If you do believe in conspiracy theories, the reasoning you apply is illogical, emotion-driven, irrational, and non-evidence based,” says Bartlett. “I don’t like people believing nonsense because it doesn’t do them any good. Conspiracy theories absolutely demolish the small modicum of trust we still have in our governments. We still need people to trust that sometimes authorities do the right thing, yet there are millions of people who genuinely believe they conspire against and murder their own people.” Sadly, however, examples of just such actions by ‘authorities’ could be cited.
If you know the right place to look, the truth is not hard to find. But conspiracy theories and crackpot myth can be just one more means by which the truth remains masked.