It’s a bioweapon. It came from an institute of virology. It’s just a case of the sniffles. Conspiracy theories involving the nature of the novel coronavirus have been rife on WhatsApp groups and other forms of social media for a while. It could be that these and more are promoted for less than honourable reasons, but why are they believed and how should one deal with them?
In separate polls conducted in America and the UK over the past few years, significant numbers have expressed scepticism over subjects such as the moon landing, climate change, and the efficacy of vaccines. Journalist Anna Merlan, who’s written about the American fixation with conspiracy theories of all political stripes, feels that a lot of such thinking nowadays arises from a social structure that leaves many locked into their circumstances, and desperate to find someone to blame. In her view, such theories thrive in times of rapid social change, “when we’re re-evaluating ourselves and perhaps facing uncomfortable questions in the process”.
It goes a little deeper than that, according to psychologist and writer Rob Brotherton. In his book, Suspicious Minds, he lays out the argument that it’s the mind’s built-in biases that make conspiracy theories compelling. They tap into some of our deepest desires, fears and assumptions about the world and its people. To illustrate this, he delves into events such as the JFK assassination, the 9/11 attacks, and the Sandy Hook shootings. He also goes further back to examine the supposedly shadowy role of the Illuminati, and the anti-Semitic backlash over the debunked Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
When faced with unsettling events, Brotherton writes, it’s human nature to instantly look for explanations. “We habitually seek order and consistency, and to be ambivalent is to experience disorder and conflict.” This is when other forms of thought kick in, such as the belief that we have all-powerful allies or adversaries. The role of chance is minimised, ambiguities are papered over, and the need for control re-asserted.
These soothe anxieties and render “the inexplicable explicable, the complex comprehensible”. The truth may be out there, but it’s also in our heads.
Brotherton discusses the influential 1964 essay by Richard Hofstadter which analysed the role and causes of conspiracy theories in American history. Hofstadter famously dubbed this “the paranoid style”, exhibited by people who feel alienated from mainstream society. However, as Brotherton points out, conspiracy theories are not exclusively a feature of the fringe. “Mild paranoia is common among entirely ordinary people, a product of our insatiable drive to understand the world and our place in it, and to feel like we’re in the driver’s seat.”
Other thinking biases also make us prone to conspiracy theories. Among them, a need to join the dots to create satisfying patterns, as well as projecting ourselves into the minds of alleged perpetrators. As British social scientist Michael Billig puts it: “In essence… [conspiracy theories] are simple: Events do not have multiple causes and the chance factor in history is discarded. All events are traced back to deliberate decisions taken by conspirators.”
All of us, then, to varying degrees, interpret ambiguous events in the light of what we already believe. It’s useful to scrutinise our assumptions and check if we’re being prudently paranoid, or letting our predispositions get the better of us. Importantly, as Brotherton says, “by painting conspiracism as some bizarre psychological tick that blights the minds of a handful of paranoid kooks, we smugly absolve ourselves of the faulty thinking we see so readily in others”.
Conspiracy theorists exist on a spectrum.
Science writer Mick West continues this line of thinking by pointing out that conspiracy theorists exist on a spectrum. He’s spent years running the website Metabunk, which investigates and discredits a variety of false theories and unusual beliefs. His book, Down the Rabbit Hole, makes the case that to communicate effectively, we need to gain perspective on the range of that spectrum, and where the person’s thinking fits into it.
“We are all conspiracy theorists, one way or another,” he says. We suspect people in power of being involved in many kinds of conspiracies, “even if it’s only something as banal as accepting campaign contributions to vote a certain way on certain types of legislation”.
There’s no doubt that some conspiracies are real, he writes, using examples such as Watergate and the Iran-Contra affair. Further, in a well-functioning democracy, the government, or any large entity with power, wealth, and influence, should certainly be subject to scrutiny.
However, there are theories that are most probably false because of a lack of significant evidence, or demonstrably false, such as those surrounding the Moon landing or 9/11. These “hurt society by distracting from the very real problems of corruption and decreasing citizens’ genuine participation in democracy”.
West cites American academic Michael Barkun in dividing such theories into three types. They can be Event Conspiracies, such as the JFK assassination. They can be Systemic Conspiracies with plots that continue over time, such as chemtrails, the belief that aircraft condensation trails are chemical agents in the sky. Finally, there are Super Conspiracies, with multiple plots spanning a range of subjects linked to one overarching master plan.
West advocates helping people who for one reason or another believe in these, and not mocking or belittling them. “People don’t get sucked into conspiracy theories because they are mentally ill or deficient. They lack relevant facts, they lack context, and they lack perspectives on, and other ways of thinking about, the issues. These are all resources that you can bring to them.”
To address such beliefs, one should foster trust and mutual respect and even look for areas of agreement. After genuine concerns are recognised, relevant, fact-based information can be provided. The attitude ought to be one of honesty and openness, without the need to hurry or score brownie points.
That’s excellent advice, not just when it comes to conspiracy theories, but for all forms of debate. Even on WhatsApp.Sanjay Sipahimalani is a Mumbai-based writer and reviewer.