Why Do We Believe Conspiracy Theories?
If this isn’t the year of conspiracy theories, then I don’t know what else the year could be. First, we had the conspiracy by the Chinese to destroy us with the viral bug. Then we had the election conspiracy, now we have the conspiracy to ‘control’ us by forcing everyone to take the vaccine.
How do so many people latch onto such crazy ideas? Hos is it that a national political party could be led for the last almost 5 years by someone who has been spreading these crazy theories since he first accused Obama of being born outside the United States in 2011 – ten years ago!
I’m certainly no expert in psychology of individuals or mass delusions shared by large crowds. But I have followed the conspiracy theories to a certain degree because they crop up almost every day in the political media which I obsessively read. And all the conspiracy theories in the political arena seem to share some commonalities, which together might provide an answer as to why anyone believes conspiracy theories at all.
Commonality Number One: Conspiracy theories are used to explain the most unusual, unexpected, unpredictable, and therefore the most threatening events. They ‘explain’ what Nassim Taleb calls a ‘black swan,’ i.e., the highly improbable events.
They are also events which do not quickly furnish us with the identity or identities of the individuals whose behavior caused the event. The 9-11 attack was as improbable as anything could be, but we knew almost immediately who planned and carried out the event.
Commonality Number Two: Conspiracy theories are always the handiwork of a ‘deep’ state, by which we mean a bunch of liberals who are either waiting to take over the government or have already made their move and control government whether we know it or not. This was the reason why Trump’s election fraud was such a popular, conspiratorial idea because it was a plan hatched by a secret, liberal cabal that wanted to engineer a coup and push Trump out of the way.
Commonality Number Three: And this is the most important commonality of all. To create a believable conspiracy story line, there has to be at least a little grain of truth. So, we know that Covid-19 first appeared in China and the Chinese were extremely anxious to keep the news to themselves.
Alex Jones made a fortune pushing the idea that the Sandy Hook massacre was a government conspiracy to take away everyone’s guns. But in the initial crush to report from Newtown, the media made initial statements which they then had to retract, including the identity of the shooter and how many shooters were running in and around the school. Once established news organizations like The New York Times began changing their reportage, the door opened up for conspiracy scammers like Alex Jones to say whatever he wanted to say.
The reason why conspiracy theories are the handiwork of the Right and not the Left is that you need a large. organized and well-financed operation to pull off a ‘black swan’ event. And what makes it so easy to accuse the government of being the fount of a conspiracy is that the government has resources which it can use to manufacture and manage the unimaginable whereas nobody else can bring such resources to bear.
The other reason that conspiracies abound on the Right but rarely are a concern for the Left is that the Left happens to be pro-government, which means that the government isn’t the ‘enemy’ in the way the government is usually described by the Right. The Feds aren’t trying to control you by making you take a Covid-19, the Feds are trying to control the virus, okay?
Don’t think for one minute that conspiracy theories originated in the digital age. When I was 18 and a college freshman at the University of Cincinnati, I happened to be walking near the campus and passed by a small bookstore run by – ready? – the John Birch Society. Even back then I was something of a political junkie, so I decided to enter the shop where two, little old ladies greeted me cheerfully and gave me a pamphlet which described how some guy named John Birch had been the first victim of the worldwide Communist conspiracy which was now spreading throughout the United States.
It took me about 5 minutes of polite conversation with these two gals to make me realize that they were both completely and totally out of their minds. Or better yet, they weren’t crazy in a clinical sense, they just held views about the state of the world which seemed totally delusional to me.
The difference between the Birch conspiracy then and the Birther conspiracy now is that we are all connected in some way or another to the internet, which means that anything that anyone says can be multiplied millions of times, whether anyone else is listening or not.
I don’t think we are more receptive to conspiracy theories now then we were in the past. I just think the technology for spreading such theories around has become something we take for granted and live with every day.
After all, is there any real difference between turning on an iPhone and hearing how the Biden Administration has a plan to abolish private property as opposed to turning on an iPhone and being told that I have 30 minutes to get to Stop & Shop and get a half-gallon of ice cream for a buck, ninety nine?