Why Conspiracy Theories?

By Gerrit Van Wyk.

Have you heard?

Much ink was spilled on and about conspiracy theories during the COVID pandemic by people who spent little time trying to understand it.

As humans, we need stability, and change and instability triggers fear, which makes us question existing power structures, norms, groups, facts, etc. We create stories to make sense of such events and reduce the uncertainty. Scientists’ theories, or stories, are models for making mathematical predictions to make our world predictable, but other stories blame dark forces for what’s happening. The devil is doing this. The devil is also in the detail.

Many conspiracies are based on believing a group of malicious people have a secret agenda with hidden goals. Vaccine companies were secretly funded by Bill Gates to change people’s DNA and sterilize them, for example. It often contains unconscious hidden fragments of religious beliefs, which we then project onto outsiders and minorities. Conspiracies provide us with simple answers to help us cope, create a sense of belonging, community, and safety for the group believing in it, and create a framework for making predictions and anticipating future events. The more powerless we feel and scared we are of dying or of being harmed, the more likely we will believe in a conspiracy.

Exposing conspiracies, removes the framework of stability and brings back uncertainty, which is why those believing in them resist. Conspiracies are not things, they are part of collective psychological processes connected to fear, uncertainty, and loss of control. As such they are based on feelings and emotions, not facts and evidence, which is why they can’t be factually or logically refuted, also because they often originate from people we believe are credible. Most COVID conspiracies can be traced back to 12 online personalities with 59 million social media followers as part of a network effect. Online media disseminates both truths and falsehoods rapidly, with the latter spreading faster, further, and deeper through peer-to-peer diffusion for unknown reasons.

We believe people claiming they are experts based on the fact they have titles and social status, like doctors, nurses, scientists, have a PhD, are lawyers, etc., but the fact you have that, doesn’t mean you are an expert in virology, immunology, epidemiology, etc., as well. Most of those starting conspiracy theories about COVID had no expertise in those areas at all.

Rumors start in settings that may be true or false, but conspiracies are specifically about a threat to our personal or collective identities, the groups we belong to, our values, or anything else important to us. Trying to counter conspiracies with logic or facts is useless, you must understand what makes people believing in them afraid and scared.

Conspiracies mushroomed during the pandemic due to a failure of leadership. Instead of giving people hope by creating stability, it allowed many competing voices and perspectives to add to uncertainty and fear, with the media cheer-leading the latest fearmongering. And then we act surprised when the uncertainty we created and allowed spirals into conspiracies, and attack the people believing in them as rock spiders, supremacists, Neo-Nazis, and more, with the attack on their credibility predictably increasing resistance. Scientist, experts, and others, equally afraid of the unvaccinated, tried to fight their own fear by creating more fear and resistance to vaccination, thereby worsening opposition to them and their own fear of the unvaccinated.

Governments didn’t cover themselves in glory. The term gaslighting means deliberately feeding someone false information to get them to doubt themselves as a form of manipulation and control. In time it becomes difficult to see the truth of a situation.

Gaslighting often plays out on an individual level, but compare that to political spin which is an attempt to control communication so people will believe your story, which is the norm today. Or propaganda, which is spreading twisted truths to favor a group or political party. Commercially it’s known as advertising and public relations management, and commonly reach us through news reports, government reports, junk science, movies, television, the internet, etc. Its essence is leaders and managers know what’s best for us and try to tell us how to think or feel. It means getting us to do or think in ways we normally would not, which is a way of lying and coercion. Contrast that to persuasion where we are presented with an argument and facts and left to decide for ourselves how to think and respond. During the pandemic, we had lots of gaslighting, spin, and propaganda thrown at us, and little honest persuasion.

Much of what we were confronted with, was different provinces trying to justify different policies based on superficially the same facts, and a sustained federal program for scoring political points, both of which contributed to confusion, anxiety, fear, loss of trust, the belief in secret agendas, etc., coalescing into conspiracies. What we needed was a coherent collective approach from the federal and provincial governments, but that light-bulb never went off. When we can’t trust our leaders, we look to others for answers and often the others can’t be trusted either.

We currently think of the health care industry as simple, stable, benign, and controllable, which is comforting. The reality is its complex, constantly changing, and we have less control over it than we would like to believe. The dysfunctional response to the pandemic and fear and anxiety it created is proof the clockwork model doesn’t work. We must acknowledge the complexity of what we are dealing with and do things differently. But, like for conspiracy theorists, this idea creates fear amongst our politicians, leaders, academics, planners, bureaucrats, etc., and to protect the threat to their personal or collective identities, the groups they belong to, their values, or anything else important to them, they resist the truth. Ultimately, there is no difference between us and conspiracy theorists.

Some say the definition of normal is someone like me. We are quick to denounce others thinking differently than us, and even quicker in defending our own beliefs and thinking, without thinking much about it. Others who think differently from us scare us, and because their thoughts threaten the stability of our own lives, we resist them, often by attacking their thinking. Note how similar that is to what happens in the scientific and academic worlds. Ultimately, the only difference between conspiracy theorists and us is we think our logic is better than theirs. We share the fear of what is different and the instability caused by change.