Conspiracy theories have always been around, but with the advent of the internet, their spread has accelerated, and malicious characters have used them to advance their goals.
I used to think they were mostly harmless, but after elections were swayed and hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of people have died needlessly by forgoing proven medical treatments because of false and dangerous information, I can’t just laugh them off.
I’m writing this series of articles on misinformation and other techniques malicious characters use to further their goals. I hope that if people know the mechanics of how misinformation is created and spread, they’ll be able to inoculate themselves and protect their families from the misinformation.
Why am I the best person to write this series? I’m probably not, but I’ve been fascinated with human belief, psychology, and propaganda for as long as I can remember, but I’m not the expert. I’ll do my best to link to experts and source materials where I can, but in some cases, I’ve lost the original or its tips and techniques I’ve picked up over the years.
I assure you it’s all good information and it’s all true but do your own research. No, don’t do your own research. Trust but verify through multiple sources.
Why do people believe conspiracy theories?
As I mentioned at the top, I used to enjoy a good conspiracy theory. Maybe aliens did build the pyramids. Perhaps Jesus, famous from the bible, was married to Mary Magdalene, and Peter was a jealous hater. Perhaps Bigfoot is quite a virile lover, and he’s left a trail of half Sasquatch, half-human babies all over the pacific northwest.
But lately, more people are falling prey to hucksters pushing more dangerous and sinister theories about killer vaccines and secret cabals of (mostly Jewish) men looking to enact a new world order.
The motives to create and spread these conspiracies are clear as laid out very well in this Twitter thread by author and expert on these sorts of things, Jared Yates Sexton. With so much information available to debunk these conspiracy theories, why do people believe and help spread them?
1. Less education - It doesn’t mean the person is less intelligent; rather, the person doesn’t have the appropriate tools to allow them to determine the differences between good credible sources and bad non-credible sources.
2. Lack of critical thinking skills - People who have a less developed ability to think critically about a topic are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories as they often fail to properly evaluate the claims.
3. Desire for certainty - Chaos is hard for people to accept. People want to feel secure in their knowledge of what’s happening in their world.
4. Desire to feel special - If most doctors are wrong, but you know the “right” cure, it gives the ego a pretty good boost.
5. Belonging - People who believe deeply in the wildest conspiracies like Q-Anon or any number of the anti-vaccine tropes are usually outsiders amongst their families, peer groups, and society. Finding others who believe in the same alternative reality feeds our human need for belonging.
The world is complicated. Uncertainty and insecurity are scary things, as is facing irrelevance. Being 'in on the secret' offers a sense of belonging and importance while also boiling complex webs of cause and effect into simpler terms. It's much easier to believe Bill Gates caused coronavirus than it is to understand how and why viruses are a product of many different social and ecological realities. Some of which are pretty grim.
There are plenty of free resources online where you can learn to recognize fake news and alternative facts to help build up those critical thinking skills. Here is a link to several good ones - https://guides.stlcc.edu/fakenews/factchecking
Part is published, and the other articles will come. I'll update this page when they are.
Part 1 - Let's Make a Conspiracy Theory
Part 2 - Make your Conspiracy a Success Story
Part 3 - Conspiracy Reinforcement - Lock it in (coming soon)