Conspiracy theories: an exploration
What are conspiracy theories?
When no other explanation seems probable and we are left looking for answers, conspiracy theories can provide intrigue and explanations. From climate change to Coronavirus, we have all heard the conspiracy theories that circulate around; hearing of sightings of BigFoot or the Loch Ness Monster, it is like a make-believe story gone wrong. The explanations behind conspiracy theories don’t follow logical reasonings instead suggesting secretive practices from powerful people or groups with negative intent. Often linked to pseudoscience, the explanations do not allow for scientific methods to test these theories. They are often presented as facts but merely consist of statements, beliefs, and opinions. Research suggests they thrive in times of crisis and social upheave. Over the past couple of years there seems to be an increase in conspiracy theories, particularly controversial ones, there have been rises in suspicions of global warming, Coronavirus, and the vaccine. It is easy to dismiss those believing in conspiracies as paranoid, however, the belief in them is widespread and influential.
Why do people believe in them?
Social psychologist, Karen Douglas suggests people are drawn to conspiracy theories for 3 reasons that satisfy psychological motives. These are epistemic, existential, and social motives. Epistemic refers to certainty and knowledge. Humans want to know why things happen and desire to have an understanding of the information. When we apply this to conspiracy theories, this suggests that in times of uncertainty, conspiracy theories offer an explanation and bring comfort. Existential motives refer to safety, security, and also autonomy. Therefore, having a possible explanation for why something happens makes people feel as though they have more control over a situation. The final motive is social. This refers to the desire to feel good about yourself and the ‘social group’ you belong to. In respect to this, many may feel as though having information that others don’t have makes them feel superior.
Most conspiracy theories arise from social or political events, most world events have at least one conspiracy theory linked to them. More common theories are believed by a lot of people, or some will entertain conversations about them.
JFK’s Assassination – believing Lee Harvey Oswald was not alone in his assassination of JFK. The same belief conspiracy surrounds the death of many prominent figures.
Diana’s Death – the tragic death of a beloved public figure, many turned to other explanations to how the Princess died.
Moon landing – some believe the first moon landing was faked and a production.
Coronavirus pandemic – some claim the virus was engineered from a laboratory or transmitted from 5G.
Conspiracies can sometimes happen, so there is some reason to query world events that happen. It effects how we perceive the world and others in it. But under this narrative, it’s harmful to assume there is always a conspiracy hiding somewhere.
Issues surrounding them
In times of crisis and uncertainty, conspiracy theories can act as a comfort, bringing explanation and control over a situation. Despite this, the underlying negativity of suspicion can cause people not to trust information they are given. If anyone tries to argue against it, they may be branded a ‘sheep’ and part of the conspiracy. Many theories also contain an emotional component, making it difficult to discredit.
With the current social and political climate, conspiracy theories have been on the rise over the past couple of years, 5G, Anti-Vaxxers and ‘Plandemic’ all play into the paranoid assumption that there is a hidden agenda behind every major event. With theories suggesting 5G causes Coronavirus, questioning what the vaccine really is and if Coronavirus itself and the pandemic is real or a way for the government to control its citizens. These heavily criticised issues can become huge obstacles against reasoned debates, advice and evidence. Similarly, in January 2021, when Trump lost the Presidential election, he claimed the election was ‘rigged’ and completely disregarded and undermined the democratic processes in place.
Information is much more accessible now than it was 20 years ago, with the growth of social media misinformation can be spread widely and quickly. Rather than turning to credible news sources, many are using social media for news and information and in some cases, these platforms are outperforming reputable news sources. The algorithm of social media shows people posts similar to those they have interacted with, reinforcing worldviews people already have. Reading information that further affirms beliefs and motivates people to continue to seek out like-minded news outlets, strengthening people’s views. As humans we have cognitive biases that make us more susceptible to certain views. Our confirmation bias makes us seek out information that reinforces our current beliefs.
However, as social media isn’t regulated, anyone can share any information, and whilst some recognise this as opinions, others take this as facts. On top of this, as this information isn’t being reported in the mainstream media, many believe these sources are therefore the only reliable sources. This plays into the paranoid idea that information is being withheld causing distrust and suspicion of mainstream media, leading to individuals ignoring and challenging researched information or advice, damaging public trust. This has been seen a lot over the last couple of years with Coronavirus, the vaccine and wearing a mask.
The addictive nature of conspiracy theories can be harmful, leading people to become distrustful of others. Despite the motive to understand and feel control, the idea that something is happening or has happened and the information being held captive feeds into negative beliefs of others and can have the opposite effect of what people want to gain from conspiracy theories: isolation and confusion.
There is often no evidence to suggest these theories are true, yet some people take this as proof that their belief is true and that this is a ‘cover up’. If we take a look at the flat earth conspiracy, some people believe the earth is flat and not a globe. Despite this being discredited numerous times from the Ancient Greeks to NASA’s most recent pictures from space, there are still many ‘flat-earthers’ who simply do not trust the information that is being given.
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