Why you’re not immune to conspiracy theories
“It is easy to dismiss conspiracy theories as unhinged beliefs held by a small number of paranoid idiots.” — writes the author of an article in The New Scientist — a bastion of logic and reason. This sums up how many of us who believe ourselves to be intelligent and rational, feel about conspiracy theorists. But there are a growing number of believers amongst us, aided by the viral spread of Q-Anon and its related theories.
Last year, my partners’ perfectly sane and lovely aunt whatsapped a heavily edited video of Boris implying that the forthcoming COVID-19 vaccine was going to be nano-chipped — for the purpose of mass surveillance. One in four Britons are now said to believe in Q-Anon related theories.
Conspiracy theories can be dangerous in more ways than just the obvious. They draw our attention away from real issues and problems, distracting us with a more exciting illusion.
Take the Q-Anon linked “save the children” conspiracy theory, which has drawn large protests around the world. Proponents vehemently believe that children are being snatched from the streets, to be sex-trafficked, or maybe worse — have their body parts harvested by wealthy elites. In their colourful imaginations, these blonde-haired little boys and girls are lured away from suburban safety and tossed into the back of blacked-out vans, never to be seen again. Although it might be the basis for a good Taken-style thriller, this kind of situation almost never happens. HuffPost investigative reporter Michael Hobbes points out that this conspiracy hinges on a report from 1990 on the number of missing children annually, but it does not reflect the number of children found again (more than 90% return). Entertaining a witch-hunt for nonexistent “bad guys” draws the focus away from the real reasons behind human trafficking — chiefly poverty and lack of state protection. Nowhere near as dramatic and exciting as the Q-Anon illusion.
The rise of wild conspiracy theories and our increased exposure to them through the media threatens to divide us into tribal camps — them and us. The believers and the non-believers — who are informed by science, news, and evidence.
But ironically, non-believers get sucked into conspiracy theories too. They just don’t know it.
A conspiracy is simply a secret plan with other people to do something bad or illegal. It is referred to as a “theory” if there isn’t sufficient evidence to support it.
Let’s take some big examples to illustrate. The attempt to delegitimise the result of the 2020 election by Trump and his supporters is a very well-documented conspiracy theory. The campaign of misinformation had a huge and devoted backing both from pro-Trump supporters (a substantial base of which subscribe to Q-Anon) and the mainstream media outlet Fox News (although they shortly backtracked on that position). Yet to this date, there is still no compelling evidence in favour of the conspiracy.
In contrast to the dispute over the 2020 election legitimacy, a similar dispute was had over Trump’s 2016 election win. A number of papers focused overwhelmingly on this being the result of Russian interference. However, the lengthy Mueller probe concluded that although the Trump campaign welcomed Russian interference and expected to benefit from it, insufficient evidence was found to bring any conspiracy charges against Trump. Like the save the children example, this conspiracy theory is a distraction, because it actively ignores the real reasons behind Trump’s popularity. It allowed democrats to stay secure in their bubble, believing the result was mainly down to outside meddling, rather than widespread public discontent.
In his recent films documenting the emotional history of the modern world, BBC documentary maker Adam Curtis argues that we’ve lost our ability to tell the real conspiracies from the fake. He believes this is because our brains have been trained to act like an AI would — searching out patterns and connections in the vast amounts of information we’re exposed to. We’re no longer thoughtful, but aroused.
The way the media reports on the news is carefully crafted to play into this arousal because the more reader outrage they can elicit, the higher their content engagement rates. For an industry that relies on advertising revenue, maintaining engagement is critical. Research from Yale University has shown that tweets containing emotional moral words are 20% more likely to be retweeted than those without. In other words, the more outrage a message generates, the more likely it will be spread.
The New York Times A/B test around a third of their headlines to increase engagement. An article on the Oprah Meghan and Harry interview was far more popular when run with the headline “Meghan says life with U.K. Royals almost drove her to suicide” than with the (arguably more accurate) headline “Saying her life was less a fairytale, Meghan described the cruel loss of her freedom and identity”.
And because we expect and rely on our preferred news providers to have done their due diligence, we often take what they report at face value. But the news is veering more towards client journalism — where mainstream media favour stories that suit those in power. You can’t really blame them. They need to keep relationships with politicians sweet to get first dibs on insider information and keep their engagement high.
Remember the run-up to the 2019 general election? Boris Johnson and his party spouted a long list of verifiable falsehoods (which can be checked on various fact-checking sites), and he was met with next to no dispute or challenge by mainstream media. The lies ranged from the building of more hospitals in deprived areas, to EU membership costing an extra £1bn a month, to doctoring video footage of the opposition to undermine them. The former Chief Political Commentator at the Daily Telegraph — Peter Oborne — revealed that senior BBC execs believe it wrong to expose lies told by the British prime minister as it would undermine trust in British politics.
Look at another example away from politics. If you paid any attention to the Harry and Meghan Oprah interview, you’d have seen the blatant contrast in how Meghan was described as “contrived” for holding her bump, while Kate was “glowing” for doing the same thing.
When you combine the incentive to curry favour with those in power, a drive to sensationalise content, and social networks built for rapid sharing, you’ve got a situation where conspiracy theories can spread like wildfire, but undetected.
So next time you read something that outrages you, stop to think about whether the narrative plays into your own beliefs. Does the evidence presented check out? It won’t always be labelled as a conspiracy theory.