With nations struggling under lockdown, it’s no surprise that the conspiracy theory generation machine is at it like never before.
The virus is a world government plot to microchip us all, or a plot by China to take over the world, or it doesn’t exist at all and is a massive hoax, or, and this is my personal favourite, all viruses are a hoax perpetrated by the medical community. That one appeared in the comments section under a video of Doug Ford, right wing premier of Ontario, who has actually been following the science (more or less).
Why Human Psychology is Vulnerable
Those of us who view our own sanity and objectivity as features rather than bugs may find it difficult to know what to say when confronted by one version or another of these theories. We may find it difficult to understand why people fall for them in the first place.
This is why conspiracy theories of this sort appeal to human psychology.
1. Control: When events in our lives and the world in general seem impossible to get a grip on, conspiracy theories give us back a feeling of control by providing
2. Enemies: We can’t fight ‘market forces’ or pandemics, at least as individuals. Imagining that our misfortune is the result of an evil cabal give us an outlet for
3. Anger: Angry populations historically are easily misdirected in their anger, and once they have an outlet for it, it’s difficult to let go of. It also gives a feeling of
4. Community: Believers and nonbelievers, insiders and outsiders, the enlightened few and the ignorant masses – it’s a very familiar dynamic, the foundation of the tribalist impulse that kicks in whenever things aren’t going our way. Conspiracies also cater to
5. Pattern Recognition: Once cued to look for a particular thing, we can find that pattern everywhere. That’s why paranoia is so powerful. Real effort and study is required to recognise and interpret complex patterns, whether economic or epidemiological. We don’t need nearly that much effort if we aren’t concerned about evidence against our supposition, which is why conspiracy theories are
6. Circularity: The emotion defines the reality. As far as human psychology is concerned, that’s like creating a safe space we can retreat into. Everything that supports the emotion is right, everything that contradicts it is wrong. That's why conspiracy theorists build vast arsenals of convincing-sounding but unfalsifiable 'facts' while dismissing anything that endangers their worldview as 'fake news'.
Society’s Failures Have Created A Perfect Breeding Ground
With all of this in mind, we can see what a perfect breeding ground for conspiracy theories we live in.
Nearly a quarter of the US workforce is jobless. That means inability to pay bills, evictions, hunger, homelessness. Small businesses are facing an apocalypse. Healthcare systems are inadequate to the task. People are isolated from friends and family, sometimes cut off from dying relatives. And in most countries, but particularly in the United States, the measures being taken to help people are not nearly sufficient. It is a massive systemic failure obvious to everyone, and it is natural enough to blame the system for it.
It’s natural to be angry. But these conspiracy theories, while giving people back the feeling of control, deprive them of the ability to actually make a difference, which requires understanding why this failure really occurred.
Open-Minded Objectivity: A Lost Art
The more we understand of the world, the more we see how many implausible things we have to accept in order to believe this kind of conspiracy theory, and we start to have some idea of what is likely to be true, what we need to verify before we accept it, and how to go about doing that.
The trouble is that many people never absorb that level of knowledge, that understanding of facts and verification, that need to objectively verify, in school. The prevalence of conspiracy theories is evidence of the systemic failure of education, especially when it comes to blue collar communities. What’s really required here is not only critical thinking, but the socialization of difference, and particularly of different points of view. Take in enough viewpoints from different sources, and you can begin to analyse causal and contributing factors in highly complex processes objectively.
You begin to realize how many factors go into those processes, how many people are involved. You can begin to discern how people view their own self-interest in a particular situation, how they exert it. You see the role of money, of human psychology, of fear, of cultural programming, all interlocking.
The Sign of a BS Conspiracy: Slipperiness Plus Emotional Fixation
When you confront an emotionally-invested COVID conspiracy theorist with the impossibility of all the things that their theory requires them to believe, they will find a new mental gear to switch into. It will usually have no more factual explanatory power; it will merely reassert their belief.
Let’s take the position that COVID-19 itself is a hoax. This requires that the governments, scientific and medical systems and news outlets of China, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Iran, Israel, the European Union, the UK, India, Russia, Ukraine and the United States, to say nothing of the rest of the world, are all collaborating on a giant conspiracy either to exaggerate the effects of COVID or simply to falsify a pandemic.
Never mind that the nations involved are sharply divided on issues of global and regional hegemony, historical enmity, present-day border disputes, political systems, political ideology, religion, trade and hundreds of other outstanding issues.
The deflection can then be, “Don’t you realise how vast this conspiracy is? It’s the Illuminati – Central Banks – Leftist – Globalist World Government – Islamist – [Insert Your Preferred Bogeymen Here] conspiracy to have us all microchipped."
Never mind that this mishmash of completely contradictory interests, only half of which exist in any form, let alone the one they imagine, would have to have the most perfect security and most efficient organisation in history, which stands against the norm of all international organisations and vast bureaucracies.
By this point, you may be tempted to point out that none of this can explain the actual people who are getting sick and dying. Even if you don't believe the statistics, you can actually go and talk to their families, their doctors, anyone you want. You can videochat with people living in COVID hotspots and talk to workers from the retirement homes that have been decimated. It’s a free country. Many of us know victims who have died before their time.
But that kind of evidence is not the point of the conspiracy theory for the believer. Emotion determines reality.
That’s why it’s a sliding scale, so that even if you really pin someone down on something, they can simply shift their ground to reassert the emotion. Okay, maybe viruses do exist, but COVID doesn’t exist. Okay, maybe COVID exists, but it’s no worse than the flu. Alright, maybe it is worse, but not much. Okay, maybe it is much worse, but it’s still a globalist conspiracy, made in a Chinese lab at the behest of Leftist-Globalist-Islamist-Illuminati-Bankers-CIA-Obama, and is also caused by 5G.
The only thing that will wake up the determined conspiracy theorist is when the virus really hits their own communities and they can’t ignore the fact that they or their friends, neighbours and family members are dying.
As to the one defensible argument in the room: yes, in the short term, the lockdowns can do more damage than the virus, particularly in the United States, which doesn’t have the social infrastructure to support people through a scenario in which a quarter of the work force is on unemployment and many of them facing eviction and poverty.
But that’s the thing about the lockdowns. They’re too little, too late. By the time an epidemic seems bad enough to the public, and to politicians, to justify this kind of measure, it’s already too late to contain it.
New Zealand locked down hard and early, and with no more cases is going back to a more normal life. This is exactly what you should do if you haven’t thoroughly prepared for this kind of pandemic beforehand. Taiwan, which had prepared for flu-type outbreaks, could perform just as impressively with more precautions but fewer restrictions.
As of now, countries that can’t adequately contain the virus, having locked down too late, and won’t adequately support their underemployed populations, have put themselves in a situation where they have to defend more draconian measures over a longer period with the public increasingly angry at having been put in a no-win situation.
Real vs. Fake Conspiracies: Investigating Claims
We live in an era where many conspiracies have actually come to light. An article by a former believer in Illuminati conspiracy theories explains why it was so easy to accept:
“In the same high school where I learned about the Illuminati, I also learned about Watergate, MK-Ultra, Iran-Contra, the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. I wrote my senior thesis about COINTELPRO, a wide-ranging government surveillance effort that would sound like pure paranoia had the FBI itself not admitted to it after the fact. About 75 miles north of my parents’ house sits Bohemian Grove, where the global elite gather in secret every July, and where friends of friends reported finding summer work as NDA-bound cater waiters.”
At this point we have to make two distinctions: small vs. large conspiracies, and evidentiary credibility.
Small conspiracies are by nature far more common than large ones, because they are easier to organize and maintain secrecy around. Corporations covering up water poisoning or plotting to rig markets, government departments and law enforcement covering up mistakes, intelligence organisations doing shady things abroad, these are the staples of real conspiracy.
True high-level conspiracy, such as the attempt by the Bush administration to forge cause for a war against Iraq, are often ham-fisted, obvious and don’t hold together very well. When they work, it is because they depend on confidence tricks, persuading people to believe what they want to believe. The fact that that particular one worked, in the sense that a large proportion of the American population was swept along at the time, has everything to do with the easy outlet it offered for national anger, incidentally demonstrating how easy it is to misdirect collective anger to a target that had little to do with the problem at hand.
That’s why the biggest and most successful of the real conspiracies made use of public anger, and often succeeded precisely on the back of another conspiracy theory.
The Nazis rose to power on the back of the conspiracy theory devised by army officers such as General Erich Ludendorff after World War I to claim that the German Army was undefeated, that it had been stabbed in the back by Jews and Leftists (Germany and its army were starving at the time of the surrender and the army rank and file, with morale nonexistent, was unwilling to go on).
Stalin instigated his Purges on the basis of conspiracy theories about counterrevolutionaries infiltrating the Communist Party and the Army. Pinochet’s military junta took control of Chile on the basis of conspiracy theories about the socialist government and its nefarious plans to make Chile a communist country.
The biggest conspiracies are thus those that use conspiracy theories. It is an easy way to short-circuit the rational powers of the majority of a population by making them feel as though they’re taking back control against a secret enemy who had ruined their lives, giving the stamp of popular will to any sort of agenda those who manipulate conspiracy theories want to push.
That leaves the issue of credible sources providing verifiable facts. By credible source, I don’t simply mean someone who was in a position to know. I mean someone with a track record of telling the truth, who will speak against their own interests and their own side when the truth requires it, and who provides verifiable facts. Preferably, a range of sources who don’t have a common political interest in what they’re saying.
These are the kind of people, Republicans as well as Democrats, military, intelligence officers, politicians and public servants, who told us about the reality of the intelligence manufactured for the UN Security Council before the Iraq War. Their positions were consistent, and they didn’t ask us to take their word for it. Facts and documents could be and were secured which verified their claims. Colin Powell himself has admitted that he was used to sell falsified information.
Finally, of course, not only must the facts be verifiable, the claims must be falsifiable.