I want to reiterate that I’m writing this so that people can read it and understand how conspiracy theories are created and spread. My hope is that armed with this knowledge, people can break down current conspiracies, and when new ones drop, you'll be able to pick them apart to protect yourself and ideally defang their impact on society.
Lofty goals, I know, but with liberal democracies teetering and the spectre of authoritarianism and fascism emerging, we all need to do something.
Step 1 - Identify your Villain
Every hero needs the right villain to be heroic. When planning your conspiracy, you’re putting the believers in a position to cheer on your hero. Your hero will be the desired outcome as a result of the conspiracies spread, i.e., doubt in democratic institutions or the support of a political leader who is generally wrong for their interests, but a fighter of your chosen villain is thrust into the hero role in the eyes of the conspiracy theorists.
To make your conspiracy villain believable, choose one that your targeted group mistrusts, holds in contempt, or already have built-in anxieties about the chosen “villain.”
You’ll want to blame the villain for events your group finds troubling or anxiety-inducing. Your targets already fear the villain; their confirmation bias will make the connection between the negative event and the villain more believable as the possibilities align with their worldview.
Some popular villains for your conspiracy theory
1. The Jews - Jewish people have been a popular target for conspiracies for several millennia. In modern times, it’s less kosher to overtly blame the Jews in your conspiracy theory, but you can use descriptors or people that racists will easily understand who you mean, such as “The Media,” “New World Order,” “Globalists,” George Soros or The Rothschilds.
2. LGBTQ+ - Like blaming the Jews, targeting the LGBTQ+ has become harder in the past decades. Years ago, people didn’t know, or at least, know that they knew gay people, but now, people are less fearful. But transgender people, chances are your target won’t know any trans people, and their perception is the one you create.
3. Leaders, professionals or other individuals who oppose your desired outcome - If you’re looking to elect an authoritarian, you’ll want to attack popular people who could be influential in preventing your leader from coming to power. Recently, a conspiracy theory that Canadian Prime Minster Justin Trudeau was born out of a secret love affair between his mother and former Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. This one is red meat for the far right as it combines a leader who champions a liberal democratic political ideal, a conspiracy theory hall of fame villain “Communism,” and less obvious but still present female sexual freedom.
Step 2 - Exploit Tribalism
This is an effective tool; everyone from politicians to sports teams to advertising executives exploits human tribalist tendencies.
To be effective, we’ll need to go beyond iPhone vs. Android or Yankees vs. Red Sox to create a lasting conspiracy. You want to make your targeted group feel good about themselves. Make them feel special for being part of this group and disparage all of those outside the group who are seen as rivals.
Your audience will naturally be attracted to your conspiracy theory if it confirms their existing prejudices and is already involved in a mutual conflict with your targets, such as the Religious Right versus the LGBTQ+ or the Religious Right vs. Science, or the Religious Right vs. public education.
Exploiting their tribalism will strengthen the social bonds of your in-group targets. These social bonds will give the targets a sense of protection from the “existential threats” from out-group rivals.
To maximize the threat of the out-group, create uncertainty about that group's intentions and how they plan to subvert your target's way of life and comfort. In times of crisis, people are more willing to turn to conspiracies to give them a sense of security.
The Covid-19 pandemic was ripe for conspiracy spread, with much of the world suffering from anxiety. The blame fell on “The Communist Chinese,” “Greedy Pharmaceutical companies,” and liberal “fascists looking to create a new world order.”
Step 3 - Exploit Ignorance of the Topic
The unexplained is the primordial ooze where conspiracy theories evolve from malicious ideas to malicious actions.
One of the scariest phrases for people to hear is “I don’t know.” When you hear or see an unanswerable question, that is your opportunity to act and provide answers.
When an anxiety-inducing event happens, there will gaps in the “official explanation” that can't be answered because they are immaterial or they are so complex that they’ll take years to fully explain.
We don’t want to leave our targets in fearful ignorance. We want to find a contrarian “expert” to provide comfort. It’s important that this expert has some legitimate appearing credentials to show their “authority” on the topic. It helps if they are outside your out-group villains, so they are trusted more easily by your targets.
Some examples of dubious “experts.”
1. Gays and Lesbians against Trans rights - They’re gay, so they must know all about the nefarious intentions of these transgendered people.
2. Doctors against traditional medical intervention - Often, these doctors are credentialed but aren’t trained in the particular field being attacked. During the early days of Covid-19, osteopaths and front-line medical professionals were trotted out to give their first-hand anecdotal experiences as “evidence.” Later on, the anti-vaccine movement found a biology professor who touted an ineffective Ivermectin cure. Finally, they hit the goldmine with a doctor who claimed to invent the mRNA vaccines.
3. Escaped Political Dissidents - A few are doing the circuit. They are an attractive candidate if they’re from the former USSR, North Korea, or an escaped Muslim woman who suffered under repressive theocratic regimes. It’s easier to believe their horror stories. Where they divert from others is their solutions and warnings are more about the liberals in the west and how they are setting the table for a communist authoritarian to take over or the implementation of sharia law in the west.
Step 4 - Exploit Proportionality Bias
Proportionality bias presupposes that big events must have big causes, and you want to take advantage of this. Your targets will more likely accept your conspiracy if it offers answers to large or important events.
Keep things proportional so that your explanation should scale according to the event's significance. Also, don’t waste your large conspiratorial explanations on small or midsize events. Although small or mid-size events can be tied together with your grander conspiracy but use them with caution.
It would be too easy to say that Michael Jackson died due to an incompetent doctor mistakenly giving him too much propofol. It would be better to say that he was murdered so that “they” could get him out of the music industry, so that “they” could get their hands on the rights to Jackson’s vast music library.
Step 5 - Exploit Projection Bias
I was always told to never make a long-term decision based on short-term emotions, but the projection bias shows most people don't follow those rules.
As explained very well in this Decision Lab piece, the projection bias causes your target to make short-sighted decisions based on their current emotions, values and beliefs that will not necessarily hold up long-term. People can't put themselves in the emotional state of their future selves, which causes them to favour emotional decisions over logic and reasoned decisions. We see this particularly strong in our dietary choices, the quick emotional satisfaction of donuts for breakfast ignores the long-term adverse effects when we step on the scale.
You’ll need to determine how likely your targets will engage in conspiratorial behaviour. Ideally, if your targets believe the selected villain or out-group would engage in the same conspiratorial way, such as spreading rumours or questioning the motives of others, it increases the likelihood of your targets finding your conspiracies believable.
We all know people are quick to believe any new conspiracy theory; these people are your easy wins. The more influential they are, the better chance your conspiracy has a chance to spread. Due to their affinity for conspiratorial thinking, they will more easily dismiss the contradictions in your narrative.
We can see examples of this, particularly in recent fights over cancel culture and “freedom” in the USA. Some groups decry accountability for people’s actions that the larger society sees as unacceptable, such as a journalist or entertainer being “Cancelled” for making racist or other off-putting comments.
The cries from people against “cancel-culture” talked about the dangers of controlling thought, limiting freedoms of expression, and other nefarious ideas grew loudly and, as we have seen recently, are an example of the projection bias at work.
In the USA, more state educational boards have started banning books from libraries, talking about historical systematic racism and passing legislation to hide the LGBTQ+ community from the public service, all while those welding the hammer espouse freedom of expression.
Another good example is the latest conspiracy that Disney Corp somehow grooms children. Disney, a powerful corporation in Florida, finally made a statement against the state's Republican-sponsored “Don’t Say Gay” bill that triggered this conspiracy.
While the words and conspiracy are in the name of protecting children, just a couple of states over, the Republican lead legislature attempted to pass a new marriage law that didn’t include any age restrictions, theoretically allowing children to marry adults. The proposed bill was changed, but the USA is quite weak on child marriage, as you can see in this chart.
Step 6 - Exploit the Need for Group Validation
If you’re reading this, clearly, you’re one of the smart ones. You wouldn’t be an effective target for conspiratorial influence attacks. Other people are much less attractive and fail to think critically like you. I Love you.
Exploiting your targets' need for group validation is crucial to the success of your conspiracy.
Make them feel good about being a believer in your conspiracy by appealing to their collective narcissism and inflated group image. Those with exaggerated nationalistic pride or with racist tendencies are prime targets. Reinforce their “success” of being born with a particular skin tone or on a particular part of the planet. They deserve any advantages that come with this lottery of birth.
The narcissistic belief in their exceptionalism is proportional to the chances of believing your conspiracy as they’re fearful of losing their exceptionalism.
It’s important to create the perception of the group exceptionalism, especially in areas where, due to poverty or government corruption, these advantages aren’t experienced.
Take advantage of their narcissism as, despite their feelings of greatness, they’ll still feel undervalued and underappreciated by others, particularly the out-group, so massage and stroke their perception of themselves.
The economically disadvantaged are exceptional targets as your validation boosts their self-worth and pride, and it gives them something to lose if your villain succeeds in your conspiratorial plan.
White Nationalists, or as many call themselves, Western Chauvinists, are extreme in inflating self-worth while appealing to their targets' feeling of being underappreciated and disadvantaged. These groups will in-still a pride in other's accomplishments in their marks, so they feel more worth than their accomplishments warrant. “Did you know that XYZ was a white man who did great things? You’re a white man, so feel proud of great things.” They connect common traits of the targeted group to the unconnected successes and offer that as the reason for the success.
Step 7 - Exploit Fears
You successfully bonded your target group around your conspiracy. You’ve boosted their self-worth and pride in their group. You’ve given them something to believe in, something worth fighting for. Now it’s time to exploit their fear of loss by ramping up the perception of existential threats to your targeted group's way of life.
Your targeted group lacks direct power to change major events, but they can mobilize to vote your selected champion into political office or organize a boycott against your corporate competitor.
If your politician loses an election, you help rationalize the loss to your target group by explaining that mysterious and powerful forces are conspiring against your candidate. Reinforce their narcissism by claiming they’re really on the right side and the only way they could have lost is the out-group villain.
Your target group's powerlessness against these powerful forces means your champion is their best hope against the evils threatening to take their comforts and freedoms.
This is particularly effective for your goal when your politician represents a small sliver of the population, such as billionaires, weapons manufacturers or fringe but powerful religious groups and not society.
You’ll want to ramp up the fear of higher taxes by claiming it leads to communists, gun control measures by claiming it leads to the government storming your home to confiscate their guns or connect gay rights movements to threats against religious freedoms. These all represent an existential threat to their way of life. You need to ensure your targets feel like the out-group policies and ideas victims.
Once your targeted group is mobilized against your out-group villain, your champion can promise tax cuts, guns in every home and laws to keep gays from public service and enjoy the success at the ballot box the next election cycle.
Step 8 - Exploit Ideology
“I know so many zealots, men and women, who choose a side, an ideology by which to interpret the world. But to get up every day and do the hard work of deciding what to believe, what’s right today; when to stand up or stand down… that’s courage….” - Red Reddington - The Blacklist
Your ideal targets are those with strong political ideologies, and there’s good news for you, my aspiring conspiracist; a 2017 Study appearing in the European Journal of Political Research highlights the increasing divide in established democracies.
“Partyism" is overtaking other social identifiers like race, gender, religion or ethnicity, and unlike those identifiers which are assigned at birth, political party affiliation is voluntary, and it offers a better indicator of a person's belief structure and social attitudes.
The benefit of causing fear and anxiety around their ideology is that there are few social guardrails when disparaging an out-group political affiliation. This gives your targets free rein to crank up the hostility and vitriol towards your villain without the fear of being branded a racist or misogynist. Of course, much of their vitriol will come from those dark places.
Aligning your conspiracy with your target's political ideology lessens the thinking your targets will need to do to buy in; they will want to protect their current worldview.
Once your target audience includes the conspiracy in their worldview, you need to reinforce their ideological worldview by invalidating opposing views before challenging information is presented to them.
Congratulations, you made it this far.
Thank you for making it to the end of this easy 8 step process to create a conspiracy theory. I admit I was intentionally light on a few of the more psychological details involved, much like when the movie fight club changed the recipe to napalm to prevent nutters from going out and making fucking napalm.
I hope I did give you enough information so that you can hear a conspiracy theory and deconstruct it by determining who is the targeted audience, who are the villains, who are the champion, what is the secret knowledge offered and who is the ultimate beneficiary of this conspiracy theory.
There are more pieces like this to follow. Initially, I’m planning on a follow-up on this, offering techniques to make your conspiracy theory sticky and spreadable; perhaps it will come this week but at the latest next week.