After a long hiatus and much water under the bridge, I have applied fingers to keyboard once again to throw a very small rock into the waters once again. It seems an apt moment to talk about a subject that itself emulates the idea of a small rock being thrown into a pool. In this case, rather than ripples, the potential to create waves seems more appropriate. Are we currently living in times of unprecedented conspiracy theory? Has this always been a feature of social discourse? Has the advent of social media simply magnified the predominance of oulandish claims and polarising narratives? Why are these ideas, stories or ‘news’ items so attractive?
I listened to a podcast recently by an author given to writing books on this subject and heard some interesting thoughts on these questions during my research into the subject. Here are just some of my own thoughts on the subject. First of all, what is a conspiracy theory? Simply defined, a conspiracy theory is a statement of ‘fact’ that has either no verifiable proof or its source is based on ‘theory’ rather than emperical data. I do not necessarily believe that all pronouncements labeled as conspiracy theories are necessarily false or have no bearing on the truth. I do believe, however, that there are an unprecedented number of narratives being shared, particularly on social media, that seem to have no foundation in proven fact. Is this a new phenomenon? Not at all. The earth is flat, the holocaust never happened, Elvis is still alive, Hilary Clinton runs a child sex trafficking ring from a pizza restaurant…etc. etc. These are all famous examples and ones that, to this day, continue to have many adherents. As I write this blog, the current President of the United States is promoting his latest conspiracy theory concerning the election. He claims to have won the election, that millions of votes were cast by dead people and that the Democrats have ‘conspired’ to steal the election from him. This, despite the fact that certified, legal voting mechanisms have confirmed that not only did Joe Biden gain more than 7 million more popular votes, but Biden also won more votes in enough states to give him a clear victory in the electoral college.
So why are these stories so compelling to so many people? I will keep my discussion to the following 3 areas, but realise there is much more to understand.
- We live in a scary and confusing world where much that happends beyond our control makes us uncomfortable, concerned and in many extreme cases has an adverse affect on our mental health. Anything that provides an explanation for the events and cirumstances we do not understand is attractive. A prime example of this is the evangelical obsession with the ‘end times’. If your belief system promises peace on earth and you live in a world that seems anything but, the appeal of an apocalyptic end times allows for a measure of understanding and relief. I understand the current desire to see the Covid19 pandemic as a hoax or at least to contradict its severity. Some suggest the number of deaths is simply fabricated to ensure pharmaceutical companies make huge profits or that because this is a conspiracy engineered by Bill Gates to inject mankind with a computer chip through mandatory vaccination. These are just 2 current explanations for a state of affairs that does not accord with our chosen narrative. However outlandish these claims may seem, they simply add credence through confirmation bias to things we already believe. Do pharmaceutical companies make profit from people being sick? Of course. Would they encourage circumstances that enhance those profits? Like most businesses, I would imagine so. Have they ever done anything that might be considered unethical? Without proof I can only surmise, but I imagine that this may have happened. Do you see how it might not take much of a leap of faith or imagination to extend this from factual to conspiratorial conclusion?
- Confirmation bias encourages us to gravitate to those sources of news and information that accord with our narrative of events. It was both amusing and concerning on election night in the US to see the President’s condemnation of Fox News when they were first to call the Arizona election for Joe Biden. Within the next 24 hours, the formerly right-wing media outlet was branded a liberal propaganda channel and many of its erstwhile adherents, including the President were jumping to news sources even further right. Why? I believe we have entered a dangerous era, largely encouraged by social media where it is more important to feed our confirmation bias than to stay open to hear from those who seek to expose uncomfortable truths or news that does not feed our chosen narrative. I know this to be true of myself despite doing as much as I can to verify sources and spending more time than most in researching the news I take in. The problem with this approach is that we drift to ‘safe places’ that are merely echo chambers reinforcing our current understanding. The more we drift, the more extreme and potentially erroneous are the sources we listen to.
- Most of us have a hankering for that which cannot be explained, the magic, the spiritual, the ‘other’. We want to believe that we are not alone out here in the universe, that there is something mysterious and not everything can be explained by science or plain sight. This is so attractive that it fuels the world’s religions and provides the much needed desire for mystery and magic in our lives. I have been a believer in one of the greatest conspiracy theories of all, the theory that God exists! Please do not get offended, as I already stated, I too am a believer. The difference is that what one personally believes about the existence of God or gods is a personal choice. When that involves the formation of community based around a set of beliefs, whatever the religion, that too can have a positive impact on the lives of those involved and in many cases on the lives of those who are the target of their benevolence. The problems begin when those beliefs or that ‘echo chamber’ claims to be the only truth and its credo demands adherence to an ever widening subset of ‘truths’ that prove to be detrimental to those who do not subscribe to their belief system. An example of this is occurring in our current pandemic. Religious groups are proclaiming their freedom to ignore scientific advice for the sake of freedom to assemble, paying scant regard to the lives of those who may be vulnerable to a disease that has already claimed the lives of over 200,000 people.
This third reason also raises a fundamental question. Where do we derive our knowledge of what is real, true, helpful, empirical? I cannot remember such an overwhelming attack of the news media. We are told by the current President on a daily basis that the news media is fake. Religious groups deny empirically researched and documented science and lable it false. Blind adherence to those ‘leaders’ who we have chosen to follow borders on the cultish as it seems we increasingly dissmiss that which is logical and provable from reliable sources.
Of course the news media is biased to some degree. But to group together all news media as some fake conspiracy is unhelpful and dangerous. We seem to have forgotten that journalism has been and in many cases continues to be a noble profession. Without the determination of those in journalists who risk much to uncover the truth, democracy would not be possible. The exposure of Nixon’s corruption in the Watergate affair, exposure of the lies peddled to justify the war in Iraq, the recent reporting on state surveillance through Edward Snowdon’s revelations, the release of the Panama Papers and so many other examples are all the work of investigative journalists seeking to uncover the truth and report on the news in ways that most of us have no access to. In 2018, over 200 journalists worldwide lost their lives in the course of doing their jobs. Despite the bad example of much of the tabloid press and their talking head counterparts on television, there are still serious journalists at work seeking to bring the news to those who want to know what is happening in the world. There are also many who risk much in challenging unethical and corrupt governments. The same can be said of scientists dedicated to discoveries way beyond what any of us could hope to prove. Why does there have to be a conflict between science and faith? So much of what I have discovered in my limited understanding of evolution, quantum theory and other recent discoveries only increases my wonder at the world we live in.
Where are we getting our news from? Have they been reliable and proven in the past? Can you verify your the information your gather from other reliable sources? Does what we believe cause us to seek news and information that feeds our own confirmation bias? Are we willing to admit that as we cannot possibly have first hand knowledge of most of what happens in the world, we need to focus on ethical and reliable sources of information from those who are actually held to account for their reporting? I do not believe in censorship but I am deeply disturbed by the notion that anything posted on social media that happens to go viral seems to gain credence even though it may have no basis in fact or is missing key elements of a story to give it reliable context.
Do your own research. Read the perspectives of those you don’t agree with. Be open to the mysterious, magic, faith but don’t dissmiss those who think or believe otherwise. Enjoy our differences! But lets not base our lives on unfounded theories that may be detrimental to those around us.
I personally can’t find any harm in you believing the earth is flat, just don’t ask me to sail in your boat!