I’ve written about conspiracy theories and the tech that spreads them in the past, but I feel the subject needs some revisitation after 2020. 2020 was troubling, with businesses shutting down, people out of work, and looming fear for many people. People with less to do spent more time glued to digital devices. This increased availability with nothing to do supercharged even the most ridiculous theory.
Like a Cult, Only Worse
Something I’ve been saying for the past couple of years is that conspiracy theorists are like cult members, only worse. Worse, because a cult has a leader, but conspiracy theories make you the leader. This everyone is a leader concept is incredibly empowering and addictive, mapping perfectly into our current selfie culture.
This cult-like nature is critical to keep in mind when trying to break someone away or even reason with someone who is deep into conspiracy theories. After someone launches into the conspiracy lifestyle, it’s almost impossible to get them out as you watch them plunge deeper and deeper into disconnection from reality. Since they aren’t following a leader, it is much harder to realize the hole they are in. I’m not following anyone, I’m following myself. Are you trying to tell me I’m stupid? Do your own research! These are just a few of the questions and comments you can expect and one of the reasons conspiracy theories are so sticky.
Unlike a cult leader who chooses the direction for followers, conspiracy theorists lack a general direction leading to unpredictability. This open and empty vessel fills with content from multiple purveyors building up in some cases where the theorist believes they have to take action. Action on conspiracy theories is almost always damaging and, in many cases, deadly as well.
In the past, you’d have to come into contact with a cult leader or followers to influence others. A cult leader’s sphere of influence would be limited. With modern technology and social media, toxic ideas can flow and expand at an alarming rate, infecting people who typically wouldn’t have come into contact with those ideas. This constant feed allows conspiracy theories to spread at a rate far surpassing any cult leader’s wildest dreams.
Heroes, Victims, and Empowerment
How can otherwise rational people believe things that are so blatantly irrational?
I’ve said that conspiracies persist because they make you both the hero and the victim at the same time. If we dig a little deeper, there’s another theme running through these theories that lead to their persistence, and that’s blame. At its core, people want someone or something to blame, and once blamed, they want accountability.
If there is some all-seeing, all-powerful entity behind the scenes pulling the strings, then that must explain someone’s hardships, failures, or lack of success. We shouldn’t underestimate this effect when analyzing these situations. Reality is increasingly bad for people, so we shouldn’t be surprised when they look for explanations in even the most ridiculous places.
Imagine if your profession, work, or other activities felt like it had a minimal impact on the world. With conspiracy theories, you now have access to secret knowledge, complex geopolitical revelations, and even companies trying to cause harm to people. Quite often, the harm comes to children for additional emotional hook.
Sure, there have been actual conspiracies, but they don’t scale. Every time something you can’t explain happens, it can’t be a conspiracy. Deep down inside, conspiracy theorists have to know this. But, if you continually look for someone to blame, mentally, you can justify just about anything.
The Looming Danger
A friend of mine asked me why I care so much about this issue. It was a valid question since it monopolized our conversation. What irritates me about this subject comes down to two factors, manipulation and potential danger.
People make money off of purveying this garbage. Look at the more famous personalities. They aren’t selling you secret information. They are selling you something else. Maybe it’s vitamins and supplements, or perhaps it’s contributing money to them so they can “fight” something, but that money goes directly into their pockets. It’s wrong to refer to conspiracy theory purveyors and content creators as the leaders. In reality, purveyors are more like drug dealers. To give people more hits and keep them engaged, they need to push more and more theories no matter how ridiculous they are.
Plain and simple, it’s a con, and purveyors of conspiracy theories are con artists. It’s like when John McClane realized that Hans Gruber was only after the money and wasn’t some ideologue with an agenda. We need to create more John McClanes, who peer through the ruse discovering the reality underneath.
Ignorance and stupidity have consequences. Let’s talk about accountability. When an event never happened, holding someone accountable for that non-existent event is dangerous. When people bring a gun into a pizza place for access to a non-existent basement or blow up a telecom provider, it’s their way of holding them accountable. People will continue to be hurt by others’ ignorance.
Conspiracy theories are inclusive and hierarchical according to their ridiculousness and danger. For example, it may be relatively harmless to think that the government has alien bodies at Area 51, and someone who believes that may not believe something more absurd like 5G towers causing Covid-19. However, someone who thinks that 5G towers cause Covid-19 definitely believes that the government as alien bodies at Area 51. The higher up you go, the more you are obligated to believe everything below. In a way, Area 51 aliens are the gateway drug to Pizzagate.
People have and will continue to die. It’s not just keyboard warriors or simple destruction of property. We recently had someone kill themselves by blowing up an entire city block in Nashville over 5G conspiracies, and other conspiracy theorist destroyed vaccine doses. After Pizzagate, a man stormed into Comet Ping Pong and discharged a weapon. Thankfully, nobody got hurt. It’s going to get a lot worse. The freshly minted conspiracy theorists of 2020 aren’t going anywhere.
Sadly, people who seem so obsessed with gaining knowledge are so far away from it. I think an increase in complexity, erosion of trust in institutions, and an increase of time on people’s hands have lead to a massive surge in conspiracy thinking.
Now, it’s time for a scary thought experiment. Just think, if you believed in some of these theories, what would you do? What lengths would you go to?
FUD stands for fear, uncertainty, and doubt. FUD creates the perfect breeding ground for conspiracy theories, mainly because they appear to have an answer. This answer is for why a particular event is happening, but it doesn’t offer a solution. The solution is the fill in the blanks part that people are left to actualize for themselves.
There is a danger with assuming everything is malicious intent. If a particular company or government agency did something, it must be to cause harm. Some of this is rooted in fundamental misunderstanding. Most people have never solved a major, fast-moving problem playing out in public. When people who don’t understand observe this, they assume either malicious intent or incompetence due to disorganization. The reality is, the situation changes as you learn more.
Take a pandemic, for instance. An agency may publish initial guidance based on data available at the time. As time goes on and the agency learns more this guidance changes. This situation is neither malicious or incompetent, but for ignorant observers can lead to a lack of trust.
Hanlon’s Razor states you should never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity. You can insert “ignorance” in place of stupidity. Although Hanlon’s Razor doesn’t apply to the pandemic example above, it does apply to many other situations that are breeding grounds for conspiracy theories.
You add a lack of knowledge about how things work and sprinkle a hint of distrust and you have a recipe for conspiracy theories.
Conspiracy theorists are growing, and the situation is getting ever more dangerous. Breaking someone away from this culture takes a lot of time and care that you’d only employ if they were a close friend or family member. Try to nurture their curiosity. Remember, they are the leader and possess secret knowledge. Also, employ different techniques to see what works best for the individual.
We need to create friction to falsehoods and decrease friction to reality. The opposite is in place today where content manufactured to look like news is available free and real news is behind a paywall. It also takes many years to become a doctor, but only 5 minutes to watch a YouTube video.