Many people today (November 2020) believe in conspiracy theories. Are they blessed with deeper insight? Or, are conspiracy thinkers maybe missing or ignoring something? Who is right? What are the consequences of it, or why would it even be dangerous, as I claim? I’ll explain.
First, what is a conspiracy?
If a group of people conspire, a conspiracy is born. A conspiracy is a secret plan by a group of people plotting something illegal or immoral. A conspiracy is a plot to do wrong against one or more people. The greater the nature of the wrong doing, the greater the effect it would have, if it were true. That’s why some people worry so much about it.
Do conspiracies exist at all?
Yes, conspiracies do exist or, more precisely, conspiracies took place in history. So, then someone might argue: ‘if that is true, it may also happen at this very moment’. Yes, but the current conspiracy theories, that we can read about today, can mostly not be proven or lack any substantial evidence at all. That was not the case with those historic conspiracies. They were able to be proven and have also been proven, but usually only after a long time, or when enough information had been gathered to conclude that the conspiracy indeed had taken place. This was usually done by historians, scientists, people who can weigh and judge what happened in its context (for example: ‘the Gunpowder plot’, see here). So, it is essential to realize that this is not the case for the wild conspiracy theories circling the internet today. They have not been proven at all; far from it. But yet, people believe them. Those who believe in it not only have a (divergent) 'opinion’, but very soon start acting and behaving accordingly to it. Any argument to criticize them, is quickly put aside or they just come up with even more (crazy) alternative theories, which should prove them even more 'right'. Without realizing it they come up with fantastic wildly flourishing complex ideas, which are basically unrelated and unproven arguments; illogical thought-structures often, woven together with fallacies mostly. They try to convince themselves and others with it. They don’t realize what’s really going on with them. They live in a self convinced and contained fantasy world, so it seems. They strongly believe it, even against all odds or whatever reasonable counter argument is brought in against it.
What is the reason why there are so many wide spread conspiracy theories today and why do so many people strongly believe in them?
One would expect that any normal, sane thinking person, who just checks the facts and cares to know the truth, would conclude that there would be insufficient information and then put it aside, but that’s not what happens. People rather so strongly believe in it, that they soon start evangelizing about their new found ‘truth’, and they want to ‘convert’ anyone who wants to listen. Everyone has to ‘wake up’, so to speak, like themselves. And very soon they start behaving like modern ‘Jehovah-witnesses’; putting their feet in every half opened door they can find. Why? Because they think that the only way to stop ‘the conspiracy’ and overthrow the ones doing it, is together; by convincing as many people as possible. Only then, when enough resistance is mobilized, they can make a strong fist to stop the conspiracy. That’s why they are so fanatic.
Are conspiracy theories new?
No, they are of all times, but today, with the internet, they are far more widespread, and, of course, more widely (and wildly-) available, and, as a consequence, believed by increasingly more people.
Reasons for believing in conspiracy-theories:
- One is already distrusting the government, authority and politics.
These institutions should partly blame themselves for it. The fact that many scandals have taken place (like Watergate, non existing ‘weapons of mass destruction’ to start a war in Iraq, etc.) contributes to a general conviction of distrusting politicians an politics. Many people are convinced that politicians lie and it is very hard to ever get rid of that stigma. People may become numb for the lying. That may very well be the reason why the current American president (Trump), who is evidently the most, (pathologically) lying president in history, is rather seen as a relief by his followers than that it would yet bother them in any way. They don’t care, because he does what he promised. He shakes things up and breaks down the structures and they regard that a positive thing. Loss of trust and confidence is, however, a huge problem, which can only be addressed by setting positive and good examples. So, they have a reason for their distrust, but it still does not mean that all politicians always lie at all times. And, being a good politician, someone who governs well, also means that such a person is simply not always able to tell everything. It is inherent to this complicated profession, for which one has to be suitable, to be able to shut up and not always tell what is really going on, but saying something else or nothing or avoid telling the truth, when asked. People should understand that, in their own interest, they cannot always know or should be told everything, but they often don’t understand or accept it.
- The lack of information in an era where information is widely and freely available.
Inherent to leading a country, is keeping it safe and protecting their inhabitants, which requires a certain level of secrecy and hiding of information. This is absolutely crucial and essential for a government to be able to guarantee safety to all their civilians. However, this is not what people are used to anymore. They want to be informed about everything at all times, and they demand answers and if they don’t get them, they will start looking for information elsewhere (on the internet). Answers bring certainty, which increases their sense of security. People like being secure; that’s why insurance companies flourish and so people are trying to find answers.
- The internet.
On the internet people can easily find in conspiracy theories all ‘the answers’ they were looking for; a total and complete picture that explains it all. That is in itself very attractive. And then, combined with the suspicion they already have, they experience it like ‘pieces of a puzzle falling together’, it totally ‘clicks’ in their mind. They feel like their eyes are suddenly ‘opened’, almost like a revelation; A light that is suddenly shining through in their troubled mind and all of a sudden they totally and fully ‘understand’ it (so they think…). They describe it like a ‘wake up’, and they want to waken others as well. It is almost like a conversion, and comparisons with religion can indeed well be made. The sad thing is, however, that their mind seems to have rather darkened from that moment on, and they have blinded themselves for the truth completely by embracing conspiracy theories. Once that hurdle is taken, they often are ready to believe all kind of conspiracies that come with it.
- The commercial earning models that exist on the internet.
People on the internet are used to ‘free’ information, for which they don’t have to pay. If it is not directly freely available, they search elsewhere on the internet and can find it anyway. Companies found a way to accept this fact and yet make money, which resulted in big earning models. Facebook and all comparable social media all offer seemingly ‘free accounts’ to people. Once people are hooked up, it is hard to do without. Through the impact of their online ‘friend-network’, they can no longer miss it, the reason why they keep coming back. This in exchange for collecting and giving those companies all the information they need about them; they pay in privacy. Privacy is a currency on the internet today. One 'only' has to hit the OK-button; which everyone does, otherwise there is no ‘service’ at all. It is all about ‘mass’, about databases; about 'big data'; the more people the better. Participants are used as ‘cash cows’ to capitalize the huge value it incorporates for advertisers, who are more than willing to pay big money to reach those people. And it has been proven to work. The downside of it all is, however, that these companies have developed algorithms that create ‘bubbles of interest’ around people, in which they mostly see and yet find only what the algorithm think they would like to see; what their interests are, based on former searches and interests; determined by cookies. That is what the advertisers are paying them for. This is also the case with Google(!) and YouTube. One has to explicitly and deliberately search for other things, and put great effort in it, otherwise one just gets to see what those companies, by their algorithms, present to you. This causes the effect that people may think to commit research, but if they mostly search in things presented to them, they yet end up with conspiracy theories, which in the end satisfies their needs. Before they know it, it is the only thing they yet read and see. And then, sooner or later, they start believing them, because they did not arm themselves against it sufficiently, or lack the ability to analyze it properly.
- The tendency for people to read and search for spectacular information.
People like books and movies. People like great exiting stories and fantasies, things that prickle the imagination. Conspiracy theories satisfy that need in a way. They are usually very exciting, almost unreal from the world, and people love reading them for that reason alone. In that way, it serves a need, comparable with gossip tabloids. People should care a lot about truth and facts, and be very aware and careful, to be able to deliberately ignore those theories or put them aside. It not only requires a strong mind and to understand what it is all about! It also requires trust. The ridiculousness of conspiracies is, at the same time, its attractiveness. Irresistible even to some. It ‘reads’ like an exciting detective. People may think: ‘It certainly sounds ridiculous at first, but what if it is actually really true?’ And then, out of curiosity and a need to know more, they start convincing themselves and surrounding themselves with people who also believe it and listen to them as well, watch all kind of videos about it and then, slowly but certainly, moreover when famous people start spreading it, or more people start believing it, they conclude that it probably is not that weird after all, and then they start really believing in it, until they are completely ‘converted’ so to speak.
People regard themselves nowadays as the center of the universe. Everyone wants to be famous, and ‘I’ is what it is all about. People have become more verbal, more informative, more educated, more learned, more talkative and outspoken, but the downside is that they demand answers which may not be given to them (for whatever reason). Governments used to be trusted in their tasks and people would accept it, even when they didn’t oversee the whole picture or did not get answers. One did respect authority. Today everyone individually wants to see the whole picture and demands a full explanation and does no longer takes 'no' for an answer.
- General conviction about truth.
What is truth? This is the famous and the century old question that Pilate once asked in reply to Jesus. Is there such a thing as truth and can truth objectively be determined? I won’t go into this philosophical question of truth in general, although I do believe that there indeed is an absolute truth and that it is possible to determine it, albeit only for the fact that Jesus (in my conviction) factually and historically (which is crucial) claimed: ‘I am the truth, the way and the life’. Absolute truth is only possible if it is revealed to us from above.
This Christian idea of truth, on which the foundation of science was build, leads to a normality of considering factual observable truth as a reality in which we can trust; things that empirically have been observed and measured by our senses and/or instruments, have really happened and we can rely on that. We rightfully have learned to trust our senses. However, this is not so obvious any more. With computer software the things we see and hear can easily be manipulated and spread over the internet. When computers didn’t yet exist, that was almost impossible (or at least very hard). And because photos and video can so easily be photo-shopped and people got used to this realization by the wide spread use of Photo-shop, in magazines and fashion and the internet, it is much harder to trust (graphical) content as being authentic when being presented to us (one can even make fake movies to make famous people say and/or do things, which look very convincing and real).
So, then it comes down having enough trust in organizations that bring us the factual news. But, can we still trust them, or do we have sufficient reason to distrust them or should we look for alternatives and are there any? Can facts still be checked at all by individuals or has that become almost impossible? I think we can trust some, not all, and yes it is still possible to individually fact checks, but it demands a strongly dedicated attitude towards the truth, towards facts, and trying to debunk unproven theories in general. At the same time, it is also much harder today and requires deliberate effort and understanding of what is going on. One needs to know what ways of reasoning people have and why, what sources of information there are, how independent they are, why and what can or cannot be trusted in comparison to others, and then, from all of that, filter the factual truth. People can easily say that this is way too complex and time consuming for them (in which they are right) and use that as an excuse for not being able or willing to do so. But, if one is really interested in finding the truth, one will take the necessary effort and time to do what is needed, go the extra mile to find the facts; effort that is otherwise easily spend on conspiracy theories or on social media, so time can’t be the issue. Maybe one is just too lazy or does not care enough about the truth or want it to be true.
- People lost interest in finding the truth. Because people clearly seem to have a different opinion about truth nowadays, it more and more seems to be a non-issue to be willing to find it. ‘What can we yet trust?’, people may think. Many also don’t consider it that relevant for their own life any more, so it seems; a big mistake. I think this may have to do with the breaking down of things people used to see as truth safe havens, like their trusted ‘columns of conviction’ they grew up in. Those strong secure ‘columns’ have largely been broken down and have disappeared. What is left over is: one’s own personal opinion, which should be respected and is very true for that person itself and that should be enough (whether it is true or not; for him/her it is and 'that's all that matters). Also, society seems to have moved away from the absoluteness and logic of truth, the way it used to be, which is; if one thing is true, an other thing excluded by the first, cannot be true at the same time; the so called ‘dialectic truth’. One has departed from this idea of absolute truth, of exclusiveness (Kant en Hegel greatly contributed to that, by the way). Both things 'can' be true at the same time now, meaning that what is true for someone else may not be true for an other and vice versa; both may yet be right and it may be personally true for each of them at the same time, even if it seems totally contradictory. This sounds so acceptable that we hardly notice what's wrong with it. But if something is really true, it is true for everyone, not just for one person (that's how it used to be). This also may have contributed to the fact that things that did not factually happen, are seen as truth, while they are basically lies. They are personally interpreted and therefore become true to them individually. Lies can then effectively be believed by millions of people (think about all the conspiracy theories Trump is spreading and most of his followers believe them entirely although they are already debunked or totally lack or lack sufficient evidence).
People have exchanged the truth for a lie, so it seems. They are right in their own respect, which needs to be respected by all sides at all times, and if not, one protests and complains loudly. If that is the new reality, and so it seems (sadly enough), then there is basically no absolute truth anymore in practice and as a consequence there are no absolute facts any more either. Facts are then considered to be highly colored and the way people understand what ‘really’ happens then depends mostly on how one looks at it; through which glasses one looks at the facts. Then there no longer is an objectively observable and determinable truth, real facts and truth is then always completely in the eyes of the beholder. This seems to be totally accepted by too many today. In the new reality everyone is right in a way and stands in it’s rights. Facts are interpreted to confirm at all times what one already believes. What ground remains then? Who can claim then that something really happened if there is no longer a common ground for truth? One would expect, maybe, that this would lead to mildness and tolerance, but the opposite is rather true, because at the same time the belief in one’s own conviction grows stronger and stronger, because one is only confirming oneself constantly and is no longer really open for contra arguments. This is certainly the case for people who completely believe in conspiracies (as many millions of the people who voted for trump do). So, the division only grows. How can we solve that dilemma then? I think we need to go back to what used to be important; we have to find common ground again about what is true and what ought to be considered truly facts. Without that we are lost and completely adrift.
Now, if the old paradigm of truth has, in practice, been exchanged with a new one, there is a major downside and negative effect of it. One can then never ever really convince someone any more with facts any longer, because one would instantly say or think; ‘No wonder you say that, you are a republican, a democrat, a believer, or a non-believer, or whatever...’; he or she carries this or that glasses. Facts are no longer facts, but just one-sided opinions, and that seems to be a fact we have to live with. If we accept that, however, it will never change, so we should fight it and not underestimate conspiracy theories or think they will go over automatically. It is dangerous and people, if more and more people believe in it and people will not automatically and easily understand how crazy it is; no, they don’t. It has to be explained, also by the government. If nothing is done to it, it will break down trust in society, in democracy, in facts presented to us. If people really start to believe that our rulers are ‘pedophile abusers’ and ‘satanic forces to suppress us’, they very well may take violent and immediate action to stop it and this may go very far (guns/shooting). They may start yelling and screaming ‘pedophiles’ at presidents and making it very hard for them to do their work or go into their offices (which already happens in the Netherlands right now). People may not take vaccines, because they may see it as a way to further control them (‘implant chips’), and the virus is seen as ‘fake’ or ‘created in a lab’ and deliberately spread. It is dangerous, because it can completely undermine our society and democracy and the norms and values we so long fought for. It is the dreamed terrorist attack effect of radical Muslims while not having to do anything. The system is breaking itself down from the inside this way. It is also great ‘material’ for dictators and populists to get into power, who then can tell the people anything they want to hear and believe, then stay there and remain there as long as they keep doing and saying what they believe to be important. People and dictators may rule and act based on delusions and/or fantasies, and people would go along with it and do what he asks of them, even while it does not match at all with the real world, just their own created reality. It can happen anywhere, even in (great) democracies, so much is clear by now.
- The trustworthiness of news.
Given the fact of the ease with which things can be manipulated, can newspapers or news organizations in general be fully trusted to bring and present us with real truly have happened facts? To me it is worrying, in a way, that big news organizations are usually not independent, but are often commercial companies, listed at the stock exchange, or owned by very rich individuals. They, like any business, need to serve their customers (readers/viewers) need; they need to make money and profit. In a way one would expect that tempts them to write, or at least take into consideration, what their readers appreciate, which may indeed be one of the reasons they took a paid membership on that newspaper in the first place; that they recognize themselves in it. I think it could be organized differently, better, and (ideally) I would like to see that. It can, in theory, be financed by the public itself in exchange for really independent news. However, it has never been done yet and, as far as I know, the attempts towards this have not been very successful so far. And there may be a good reason for it. Journalists have to be properly educated, which will lead to highly educated jobs and careers, which cost money. They have to be paid properly and be able to make a good living out of it. Gathering news and bringing the news asks for highly qualified journalists and organizations; that costs a lot and needs a constant stream of money. It is also a very intensive daily process, with deadlines, editing, etc. In other words; a constant reliable flow of substantial money is needed to guarantee that (labor intensive high paid jobs). Free and voluntary donations won’t do. And this may be one of the main reasons why it is not successfully done yet (by crowd funding or something like that). Now this commercial reality, which is not optimally objective, may seem to be fueling ‘conspiracy thinkers’ in their often heard claims about the so called ‘main stream media’ or ‘fake media’, or ‘fake news’, but let me quickly disappoint them; that is a bridge too far. Conspiracy thinkers namely put the regular media in the corner of working together with the plot against the civilians, oppressing them and keeping them calm, so they can go ahead and do their ‘evil’ or ‘immoral’ things. They don’t believe anything the (‘mainstream’-) media says anymore (maybe temporarily as long as they are confirming what they are believing themselves) and otherwise they will be looking every where for alternative explanations that supports their believes. Newspapers clearly have an imago problem and are in stormy weather and more and more people distrust them completely.
That is quite problematic and destructive. Don’t people rightfully have reason to be suspicious then? In a way, yes, but there is another essential thing that is very important, which can easily be forgotten. This should give quality news organizations much credit; they have built up great reputations over time and need to maintain that trust the people have in them. They cannot afford to lose it. Good journalists are well educated to bring new facts, news, as objectively as possible and they have to maintain that ethical norm, that high quality journalism standard and usually they do and they are highly embedded in their daily work-code and ethic. Newspapers of high quality have strong reputations and are highly trusted and respected, because they have brought controllable facts for many decades already, which can and have been objectively checked through time and can be considered to be reliable; that’s what is very important to them and also their readers; they have much to lose if they would give up on that. I name the Dutch newspapers (being Dutch myself) which have such a great reputation: the NRC Handelsblad, de Volkskrant and Trouw, which are well-known and highly respected quality newspapers in the Netherlands. Comparably, in America, the 2 most respected newspaper with the highest quality are The New York Times and the Washington Post. Those newspapers do their work with great dignity and dedication and bring the factual truth as objectively as possible and at least do their utmost best to do it independently and objectively. They have much to lose if they wouldn’t. With that, such newspapers can still be trusted in bringing the facts, but one should yet check it anyway, and not take it completely for granted. However when one does check, one should be aware of the downside of having lesser information or even be presented with conspiracy theories. One has to ‘weaponize’ one self, figuratively spoken, against it to withstand that and take into consideration how the internet works. And, sadly enough, there are also wrong examples. There are also newspapers that tend to write only in the favor of certain person(s) or organizations and look and feel more like advertising or promoting those person(s), in a propaganda like manner. I name Fox News, which I regularly watched and checked, and, in my opinion it is a very one-sided colored ‘information’ source, to put it mildly. They even don’t do their best to be independent or honest at all, so it seems, and are often bluntly and astonishingly shameless in their one-sidedness. That is quite worrying, considering the fact that so many millions of people watch and believe it. And many die-hard conspiracy believers, if they don’t like it at some point, just turn away to look for other sources of information that keeps confirming their convictions and believes, rather then to find facts that might eventually show that things may yet be different than what they thought.
That there are such wrong ‘newspaper’ examples does not contribute to the trust in news organizations, but rather breaks it down. That leaders doubt and question quality papers, calling them ‘fake news’ and ‘fake media’ is completely destructive and devastating. And when ‘newspapers’ or a ‘news channel’ spread (unproven) conspiracy theories that should be the end of all discussion. One should right away ignore it entirely. It cannot be trusted and what they bring is even unworthy to be called ‘news’, because they don’t bring facts, but fantasies. A clear example of that is ‘the Epoch Times’, who even against all odds, supports one person at all times in everything (Trump) and also is clear spreader of all kind of conspiracy theories. If one believes that, one is just fooling oneself and shows willingness to completely be at ease with that, and then one will very likely never ever find the factual truth anymore. It inherently proves that one is not really interested in finding the truth, but rather 'being right' for oneself.
Democracy dies in darkness’, the Washington Post says on top of their website, and if the truth is exchanged for a lie and facts no longer matter, and if we start living and acting accordingly to it, we are living in darkness. What should matter again is: the truth and nothing but the truth, so help us God.
- Psyochological reasons and character.
It is a given that negative emotions and not so much rational deliberations cause conspiracy beliefs. They are closely associated with psychological motivations underlying intergroup conflict (see here) and are highly sensitive to social context of someone as well. When people experience crisis or distress, a tendency to believe conspiracies is higher than when everything would be normal and calm, especially when the experienced urgency is severe. Particularly in impactful crisis situations, such as during fires, floods, earthquakes, rapid societal change, violence, terrorist attacks and wars, the tendency to believe conspiracies, for people in general, is much higher. Social structures that shape citizens’ feelings of vulnerability increase belief in conspiracy theories, and reflected in feelings of powerlessness and the distress, and then conspiracy theories are much sooner embraced than if this would not be the case. Conspiracy beliefs are also relatively high among members of stigmatized minority groups. Belief in conspiracy theories is also often associated with problematic interpersonal relationships, interpersonal paranoia, narcissism, disagreeableness, stubornness (being hard headed), and insecure attachment. Showing the ability to detach from friends or relations with relatively great ease is often a very bad sign. It may have to do with feeling of betrayal and no real friendship. Belief in conspiracy theories definitely has implications for people's interpersonal relationships. It has been noted that people who believe conspiracy theories can be subject to stigmatization. And consistently, expressing conspiracy theories (which they usually do) increases expectations of negative evaluations, and fear of being socially excluded and this is often what really may happen. One may (rightly) experience feelings of not being taken seriously and become very disappointed in relationships. Easily moving or changing location and leaving friendship networks may be a very bad sign with regard to that. Conspiracy theories contribute to the process of radicalization, to resist against measures and the law and to develop into resistance in mind and manner and eventually even violence.
Conspiracy theories are grounded in a paradox: Conspiracy theories are often supported by a range of elaborate arguments, suggesting that belief in conspiracy theories is based on analytic and deliberative thinking processes. However, empirical evidence suggests quite the opposite. Belief in conspiracy theories is positively associated with intuitive rather than analytic thinking. Analytic thinking is often a quality that higher educated people have learned and so conspiracy theories can often be found with lower educated people. But not always. It also depends on character, upbringing, believes, and social circumstances, and environment as well. People who rely on their feelings have (although they may seem to be rational) learned to trust their instincts and are more likely to let that prevail; they only seek for ‘rational’ arguments to justify their already emotionally/intuitively made choice. They usually also tend to be very sensitive to experienced present danger of threats to themselves and the group they think is under threat. The greater the perception that society is under threat and the more and greater the impact one realizes, the greater the chance one will hand one self over to conspiracy theories. Bad emotional experiences or disappointment in interpersonal relationships only stimulate the tendency towards conspiracy theories. When ‘suffering’ from all that, one has to be very strong to be able to withstand all that. People may be unable to cope with it in such situations and fall prey to the fallacy and trap of believing conspiracy theories and defending them ‘with their life’, so to speak. People who are living in conflict with others or groups or even seem to need that ‘fight’ or seemingly like to be in constant struggle, have a tendency to conspiracy theories as well. Conspiracy beliefs flourish among members of groups who are involved in mutual conflict. Having a very strong political conviction, certainly when being very diverse from others, may contribute to that as well.
The amygdala is commonly associated with threat experiences, and accordingly, bilateral amygdala volume has been found to predict people's tendency to justify the political system that they live in. As such, brain imaging methodology could test the prediction that amygdala volume is associated with conspiracy thinking. Likewise, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) is associated with higher order cognitive processes such as analytic thinking, and research therefore might examine whether activation of this region predicts belief in, or rather skepticism of, conspiracy theories. Finally, research may examine if belief in conspiracy theories is related with activation of the sympathetic nervous system, or with the release of hormones associated with stress (i.e., cortisol) and intergroup competition (i.e., testosterone).
The article above shows many reasons for believing in conspiracy theories, and I made abundantly clear why it is a real and present danger. The danger lies in the fact that it is emotional and not rational and so they cannot be convinced on the rational level. And even though conspiracy theories are highly unlikely to be true, believing in them may have a great impact on important life dimensions such as health, interpersonal relationships, and safety. This impact is rooted in the subjective reality of belief. What people believe drives their behavior. If it was just an opinion without any possible consequences it would not be dangerous at all. But there are clear and present dangerous consequences, for the individual as well as society. They are, till recently, highly underestimated. It is time to change that and take it seriously, in the way that we should no longer ignore it, but understand it and take sufficient measure to stop or maintain the treat. More research is needed and governments should free budgets to fight it and take measures to make sure every one will be safe and in good health.