Why We Love Conspiracies

And Why They’re So Popular These Days.

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Birds.

Birds are everywhere. Look outside and there’s a good chance you’ll see a bird. But think back to the government shutdown. Do you remember seeing any birds? If birds are so ubiquitous, then why didn’t you see any during the shutdown?

Across the internet, this was exactly what people were claiming. Birds had disappeared. And this was because birds are, in fact, not real.

What we think of as birds are actually government manufactured drones built to spy on the citizenry of the United States. So when the government shutdown in December, the funding for the robotic bird-drone program was suspended. Thus, the conspicuous absence of our flying feathered friends.

Of course, there were birds. But that didn’t stop people from making the claim.

This is an offshoot of the aptly named conspiracy theory “Birds Aren’t Real.” Started by a 20 year old college student, Birds Aren’t Real is a joke. It’s hardly more than a meme, and it’s definitely a transparent attempt to sell T-shirts and merchandise.

There is something alluring about conspiracies. Something about them makes us want to believe them — no matter how far-fetched. The popularity of Birds Aren’t Real is a testament to our enduring love for conspiracies. In fact, we’ve seen a rise in conspiracies over the last few decades. So why do we like them so much?

Well, it could be that we’re built to believe in conspiracies. And ridding ourselves of these crazy ideas might be harder than you would think.

But first let’s talk about two George Washingtons.

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But the president assured the reverend that the Freemasons were not under the influence of the Illuminati.

But that didn’t mean the president didn’t believe the Illuminati existed. In fact, he was careful to point out that he had no doubt “that the doctrines of the Illuminati . . . had spread in the United States.”

Problem was the Illuminati didn’t exist. (Not anymore anyway. The Bavarian Aristocracy had snuffed them out years before.)

Here was the first president of the United States lending credibility to a bonafide, batshit insane conspiracy theory. Who was going to dispute him? After all, he couldn’t tell a lie.

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To this day the Illuminati figure prominently in a number of conspiracy theories, ranging from orchestrating the 9/11 attacks to planning the forced sterilization of the world. Conspiracy theories like this are as old as humanity. In the first century BC, the Roman Emperor Nero was not only infamous for concocting conspiracy theories against the Christians, he himself was the subject of a number of conspiracy theories alleging he was the Antichrist and that he faked his own death.

But conspiracism holds a special place in the history of the United States. As that correspondence between the two George Washingtons revealed, our affinity for conspiracy theories stretches back to the beginning of our nation. And their popularity has only intensified since then.

President John F. Kennedy was assassinated by the CIA. The moon landings were faked. An alien spacecraft crashed in Roswell, New Mexico — these are some of the most famous conspiracy theories out there. They have persisted for decades now and as time passes they only seem to become more firmly embedded into our cultural consciousness.

So what is it about them that we like so much?

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Conspiracy theories stem from some very basic aspects of human psychology. For one, humans tend to be very adept at spotting patterns — whether they exist or not. Pattern recognition is great when it helps us spot a familiar face or identify the footprints of an animal we’re hunting but it can also make us see a man in the Moon and imaginary figures in the clouds.

And it can make us believe that there is purpose and coordination in random, unconnected events.

There are a couple cognitive biases at work here.

One is confirmation bias. This is the tendency for us to cherry pick evidence that already conforms to and reinforces our preferred worldview. If you don’t believe in, say, vaccinations, you will be more likely to find and absorb information that reinforces that belief and reject sources that say vaccinations are perfectly safe — which they are.

Another is proportionality bias. Here we tend to think major events — events that change the course of history or determine the fates of large numbers of people — have to have proportionally major causes. So if a president is assassinated, it’s easier for us to believe that only a vast cabal of powerful conspirators with diabolical plans could be responsible for a tragedy of such magnitude — not some lone gunman with inscrutable motives.

This is somewhat like Newton’s 3rd law. Every action must have an equal and opposite reaction. If you throw a large rock into a pond, you expect to make proportionally large waves. But human affairs don’t always adhere to the physical laws of the universe and it doesn’t always take a huge effort to cause a big ripple.

In a way, our brains are wired to find conspiracies all around us.

And the numbers seem to confirm that.

A 2014 study out of the University of Chicago found that half of the American public believed in at least one conspiracy theory. A 2013 Gallup poll found a majority — over 60% — of Americans believed that the assassination of President John F. Kennedy was due to some kind of conspiracy.

But these quirks in our cognitive architecture only make us more likely to spot conspiracies. Something else makes us want to to believe in them.

For all the villainous forces and diabolical scheming at work in most conspiracy theories, they can be comforting to believe in. A good conspiracy involves a great number of disparate people from all kinds of occupations and backgrounds all working together toward a common goal.

Take Birds Aren’t Real for instance. To pull that off, you not only need the government to work so well that it can hide the fact that all birds — every single chickadee, penguin, bald eagle, and songbird — are robotic surveillance drones, every individual and institution that works closely with our feathered friends — from birdwatchers to pet shops to major zoos — have to be in on the ruse. Just getting the government to agree on next year’s budget is a nearly impossible task. How could they ever pull off replacing the world’s birds? And if you forget the fact that most conspirators are bent on mass destruction or world domination, their ability to get humanity to come together and accomplish something on an enormous scale is downright optimistic.

For this to be possible, someone has to be in control.

A good conspiracy has a person or shadowy group making sure things go as planned, and everyone is working toward their common goal. This means that if you believe in a conspiracy, you believe that there is a mastermind out there, pulling all the strings. There are no accidents. Everything is part of the plan. Everything happens for a reason. Having someone in charge can be more appealing than everything being random coincidence or incompetence — even if that plan is evil. You have someone to blame.

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A world in the grip of a vast conspiracy might be frightening but at least it is a simplified world. Instead of being at the mercy of complicated and convoluted historical forces that are entirely beyond our control, a good conspiracy makes the world black and white. If an unscrupulous pharmaceutical industry is foisting dangerous chemicals on unsuspecting parents for profit, the cause of autism isn’t an unknown anymore. It isn’t an intricate confluence of environmental, genetic, and neurological factors that we are only beginning to understand. It’s the inevitable outcome of a greedy corporation. A good conspiracy eliminates uncertainty and ambiguity. It’s us vs. them. Good vs. Evil. You are the hero in this narrative, the underdog fighting a global, seemingly unstoppable menace.

Best of all, you are special.

You know something nobody else does: the conspiracy. This knowledge sets you apart from the herd and gives you the agency to act on your own, to take control. You don’t have to be powerless. You can do something. You can protect your family from these dangerous vaccines. You don’t have to worry about global warming if it’s all just a scam to secure that sweet, sweet grant funding. Calamities and disasters and almost anything bad that happens can be explained, and maybe even avoided, if you are privileged enough to be aware of the conspiracy in the first place.

But that doesnt mean youre alone.

You can connect with others who believe the conspiracy too. You can join an anti-vaxxer discussion forum or Facebook page. Within that group, you can not only confirm and reinforce your own beliefs, you can attain a sense of belonging. For those who have felt isolated from mainstream society, these fringe communities can become an alternative support network.

This is how groups of conspiracy theory believers can sometimes come to resemble cults.

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At their very core, conspiracy theories supply us with a sense of order, control, and belonging. These make up the very bedrock of human needs. But more than anything, conspiracies answer one of the most fundamental questions of existence. What does it all mean? They infuse life not only with purpose, but grand significance. Everything is connected and important. Especially you.

So it’s no wonder why we like conspiracies so much and why so many have persisted over the centuries.

But why do they seem more popular than ever? In particular, why does America seem to be such a hotbed for conspiratorial thinking?

Well, it could be because there have been genuine conspiracies perpetrated on American soil.

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The Red Scare, Watergate, and the Tuskegee Syphilis experiments were all real life conspiracies orchestrated by the US government. These real conspiracies sowed widespread distrust of authority. Consequently, we saw an ever-growing number of Americans ascribing to conspiracy theories by the end of the 20th century.

Things haven’t changed much in this century.

In the run-up to the Iraq War, the George W. Bush administration tried to connect Saddam Hussein to the September 11 terrorist attacks — although the intelligence community found no credible evidence for such a link. But the administration repeatedly made claims that Iraq was in cahoots with Al Qaeda or had weapons of mass destruction or both in order to mislead the public and rationalize the invasion of Iraq. In other words, the US government concocted a conspiracy theory.

If these real life conspiracies eroded the public’s faith in authority, the internet absolutely vaporized it. Message boards, websites, and eventually social media all acted as catalysts for our insatiable desire for conspiracies.

The popularity of conspiracy theories on the internet has become such a problem that social media networks like Facebook, Youtube, Twitter, and Spotify have all had to take measures to cut down on the amount of fake news and misinformation being circulated throughout their platforms. Prominent right wing personality and prolific conspiracy theorist, Alex Jones, was banned from most of these platforms in 2018. In January of 2019, Youtube tweaked the AI curating its video recommendations so that conspiracy theory content would no longer appear — although those videos are still available on the site.

Despite these actions, the public’s trust in authoritative sources has plummeted in recent years. We’ve reached the point where expert analysis is nearly indistinguishable from personal opinion.

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The entrance of conspiracy theories into our political theater certainly hasn’t helped matters at all. Unfounded accusations that President Obama was a secret Muslim or not born in the US or scheming to institute martial law under the guise of a military training exercise were conspiracy theories that — if not outright embraced by his political opponents — were at least tolerated. Now we have a president who is an avowed conspiracy theorist who regularly claims a mythical “deep state” is plotting against him.

These conspiracy theories aren’t just innocuous political scheming or harmless fun like Birds Aren’t Real. They have real life consequences.

Incited by an anti-abortion conspiracy, Robert Lewis Dear opened fire on a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs in November 2015, killing 3 people. In 2016, Edgar Maddison Welch shot up a DC area pizza place. He claimed to be investigating a conspiracy theory that a pedophilia ring was being run out of its basement. Families of mass shooting victims have faced harassment from people who believe these tragic events were nothing more than false flag operations orchestrated by the government to enact strict gun control.

In 2019, the World Health Organization named the anti-vaccination movement as a global threat. Measles and polio — diseases that had once been nearly eradicated from some countries — are seeing a resurgence because of this conspiracy theory. Over a million lives could be saved every year if vaccination rates were improved. But that would require dissuading people of the false and pernicious notion that vaccines are unsafe.

Not as easy as it sounds.

A 2017 study published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology showed that when participants were introduced to anti-vaccinations arguments, their belief that vaccines were harmful remained even after being exposed to information debunking the conspiracy. This suggests that once someone believes a conspiracy theory, it is almost impossible to change their minds. No amount of fact checking or reasoning seems to do any good. After all, the internet is the largest repository of human knowledge ever created. We all have access to the facts. So we should be able to debunk these conspiracies on our own. But that’s not what’s happening. Instead we are retreating into our own echo chambers, where we can curate our own truth and believe whatever we want — regardless of the facts.

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Conspiracy theories and misinformation are like a contagion. We are susceptible to them. They are highly communicable, and once contracted, they can be difficult to cure.They have infected our body politic and contaminated our social media networks. With the amount of misinformation and fake news being transmitted throughout our media landscape, it’s like we’re living amidst a global conspiracy pandemic.

Just as vaccines don’t work after you’ve contracted the disease, challenging a conspiracy theory is largely pointless after the belief has taken hold. In fact, once someone ascribes to one conspiracy theory, they are much more likely to believe in other conspiracies.

But we can inoculate ourselves against them.

In that same study, exposing someone to anti-conspiracy arguments before being exposed to the anti-vaccine arguments made them much more inclined to vaccinate their own children. The facts made them resistant to the conspiracy.

Revamping an algorithm or two won’t restore our trust in our leaders or institutions or our news media. That will be a lifelong endeavor — one with varying results and an uncertain outcome.

We will always want to believe in the simple lie over the complicated truth. For that fact alone, we will always be plagued by conspiracies and misinformation. But we don’t have to succumb to them. We aren’t powerless. We can beat this.

But you’ll just have to trust me on that.

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