We’ve all got that one friend on social media who seems to spend most of their time concocting elaborate theories that appear to not even share the same plane of existence as basic facts. It’s easy to accuse them of paranoia, but do we ever take the time to consider why they believe the things they do and whether or not those things might actually be based in fact?
What is concerning is, all the conspiracy theorizing, is it good or bad for our culture?
In a world that finds most of its information online, conspiracy theories spread easily, take hold quickly, and sometimes even become commonly held beliefs. Instead of writing off people who believe outrageous theories about government conspiracies, there might be more benefit to understanding what it is about current culture that encourages the spread of these ideas in the first place.
Why do people believe in conspiracy theories?
First things first—don’t be too quick to assume that it’s only your great uncle who latches onto conspiracy theories. The truth is, most Americans are much more susceptible to paranoid lines of thinking than we like to believe.
I can see that people are willing to be open-minded about other things.
In fact, half of the American population believes in at least one conspiracy theory, according to the American Journal of Political Science.
It is certainly easy to jump to conclusions about people who believe in conspiracy theories, but Dr. Barna William Donovan, Professor of Communication and Media Studies at Saint Peter's University in Jersey City, New Jersey, prefers to keep an open mind. He even believes there is some basis for many of the theories that people believe, like the belief in government mind control or the idea that 9/11 was orchestrated by the United States government. His open mind is exactly what has driven his research on the topic, including authoring a book about popular conspiracy theories in America.
“Where I see the plausibility, or the reason, why people can be open-minded about conspiracies is when you go and see a real life instances of the abuse of power," Donovan tells Urbo. "So, you see something like the Watergate Scandal or the Iran-Contra Scandal...the real instances of cover-ups, incompetence, bad policy making, and criminality with something like Watergate. Then, I can see that people are willing to be open-minded about other things.”
This open-mindedness, Donovan says, is often what leads to people asking more outrageous questions. It isn’t that hard to get from the idea that the government is covering up the abuse of power to questions about whether or not the United States government was behind the attacks on September 11, 2001. And, although he personally doesn’t believe that 9/11 was any more than bad decision making and poor policy decisions, he understands how poor judgment on the part of the government would influence people to believe in more outlandish theories.
“They say, ‘Well, this is what we’ve seen. This is the tip of the iceberg of really bad leadership, bad decision making, incompetence, corruption. So, now I can imagine they could be capable of so many bigger things.’”
Which conspiracy theories are based on truth?
So, just how often are conspiracy theories based in some shred of truth? It's more often than you might think.
For starters, if someone were to try to convince you the government is trying to control your thoughts, you’d probably slowly back away, right? Well, it is easy to see why someone might believe this once you learn that years of experiments were conducted in the 1950s attempting to do just that.
These experiments were a part of a CIA project called MKUltra. They lasted for nearly 20 years, driven by the desire to find both biological and chemical materials that would be capable of changing how humans behave, according to Smithsonian Magazine. The very idea of these type of experiments are terrifying and unethical, but knowing that they were carried out on people who couldn’t resist, such as terminally ill cancer patients and addicts in prison, makes the whole thing 10 times worse.
It’s difficult to keep a big, complex plot secret, but it’s not entirely impossible.
“MKUltra, again, was an abuse of power," explains Donovan. "It was a completely unethical disregard for people’s lives and safety. We had the CIA and the Army doing this ongoing experiment on drugs and mind control from '50s into the '70s ... I understand, when all of this becomes public, that people are cynical and they are willing to believe that maybe you had crisis actors pretending to get shot in some big massacre,” he says, in reference to one conspiracy theory that school shootings are staged and part of the government’s desire to gain citizen support for arms control.
Of course, mind control isn’t the only instance when a conspiracy theory has had some factual basis. In 2009, for instance, Congresswoman Michele Bachmann was the voice behind a boycott of the United States Census. In her statements, she more than once insinuated that the government couldn’t be trusted with private information about citizens and encouraged her constituents to only share the number of people living in their home, according to The Guardian.
Although there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that sharing information in recent U.S. census surveys has been dangerous, it is easy to see why people might not want to be so forthcoming with details about their ethnicity or faith. After all, the government hasn't always acted ethically with that information: For instance, we know that the census was used to obtain the names and addresses of United States citizens of Japanese descent during World War II, who were then placed in internment camps.
Lastly, we know that the idea that government is watching American citizens isn’t all that out there (Edward Snowden, anyone?). This is especially true in an era of constant connection via technology. We know that and that avoiding being watched isn’t all that possible, especially if you live in a major city—using public surveillance cameras to thwart crime is common practice.
Surveillance, some fear, could be entering our homes: in March 2017, CNBC reported that the CIA can rig Samsung smart TVs to listen in on conversations even if the TVs appear to be turned off.
Donovan believes the fear of government control or surveillance is certainly justifiable, especially with the creation of technology that keeps track of consumers for financial reasons, and he asserts that this type of surveillance could be easily abused since it is easily hackable.
So, what should we believe?
Maybe, like me, you sometimes feel that being a little paranoid isn’t a bad idea, or perhaps you think believing certain conspiracy theories isn’t all that outlandish. But take a deep breathe and slow down for just a minute.
Yes, it's true that instances of government corruption do exist. But Donovan points out that we should remember why we now know about these specific events: they're big deals, and it's simply too hard to keep them under wraps.
“When you have something that is really going wrong, it becomes public very fast. We know about the intelligence failures that led to 9/11. It’s difficult to keep a big, complex plot secret, but it’s not entirely impossible,” says Donovan.
He went on to explain that the United States government carrying out something like 9/11 might be technically possible, but it would have required an estimated 6,000 people to make it happen and keep the whole thing a secret. Personally, he has the mindset that people who want to make extraordinary claims about an event are free to do so, but they need to be able to provide an exceptional amount of evidence to back it up.
According to Donovan, the foundation of conspiratorial thinking is the belief that anything bad that happens in the world is orchestrated in some way; he also says that this is a line of thinking that should be avoided.
“What is concerning is, all the conspiracy theorizing, is it good or bad for our culture?" he questions. "I used to think there was something very good in all of this...it inspired people to ask questions and question authority.”
However, Donovan now sees a darker side to adopting a conspiracy mentality, and he believes it is important that people avoid creating a belief system for themselves that does not allow for contradiction. Too often, those who believe in conspiracy theories distrust research from trusted sources, such as academic studies, textbooks, or the media, simply because it doesn’t align with their personal belief system. For these people, it is easier to say that these sources are a part of the cover up than to admit that their theories don’t have a factual basis.
He gave the example of climate change. Despite endless research providing sound scientific evidence, many people, even those in power in Washington today, have dedicated themselves to the belief that climate change is a hoax.
“We are entering into this time in society when we can’t agree on what is a fact, what is the truth,” says Donovan. He says it's worrisome for a culture to adopt “alternative facts” as an acceptable version of truth—or reality.
Ultimately, it is our personal responsibility of citizens of the United States (and the entire world) to be responsible consumers of information. Now, more than ever, we have to commit ourselves to thorough research and being quick to question what we see on social media and what we hear from the mouths of leadership.