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16 things I learnt about conspiracy theories – from the experts

Conspiracy theories shape how many people see the world. It's important to understand why.

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
23 September 2015
Imagining conspiracies

conspiracy.jpg

Shutterstock.com/YurZap. All rights reserved.A few months ago, this guy rang me and insisted he had a story I should report on. He came with a large wheelie suitcase to my local cafe, and started describing some rather horrible things he had experienced. Eventually, he arrived at his conclusion: the Masons run GCHQ through the Bilderberg group, with funding from the Rothschilds, and were responsible for 9/11. A woman approached our table to tell me how she had removed her kids from the local school because the government were using radio waves to re-programme them. I told them both I wouldn't be able to write about them. He tweeted angrily at me for the next few days.

He was, though, relatively harmless. That's not true of the nice woman I met at an eco-fair in north London. She was running an anti-vaccination stall. With the kindest of intentions, she was part of a movement whose misinformation is responsible for significant numbers of people suffering from brutally painful, life-altering or fatal diseases.

Then there are the patronising climate sceptics, the Zeitgeist crowd and their DVDs, those who believe everything is run by the Illuminati or the Bilderberg group. Occasionally, I've come across the hard-core anti-semites: the world is really controlled by banker Jews.

I've been involved in political activism for my whole adult life, and conspiracy theorists have always been there, in my peripheral vision. Usually I've ignored them. But when I was asked if I would go to an academic conference at Cambridge University on the subject of conspiracy theories and science, I thought maybe it was time to try and understand this phenomenon. Here are some things I learnt and conclusions I came to from two fascinating days listening to the academics talk about their research into conspiracy theories and those who believe them. 

1) People who believe one conspiracy theory are more likely to believe another – even if they are contradictory.

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Daily Express. Fair use.

For example, people who believe Princess Diana faked her own death are more likely to believe that she was killed by MI6 than the general population. Even though those two things are clearly mutually exclusive. As Stephan Lewandowsky of Bristol University argued, this is common among climate sceptics – who often claim both that it's impossible to measure the temperature of the earth, and that they know that it hasn't warmed, or both that the earth is cooling, and that observed warming is natural. 

2) Conspiracy theorists organise in networks and see themselves as part of a movement.

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http://nexusilluminati.blogspot.co.uk. Fair use.There's a stereotype of the lone man, sitting in his bedroom, coming up with his own alternative explanations based on spurious evidence and writing them down on a badly designed website. In fact, interviews done by Bradley Franks and his team at the LSE show that they organise rather like any other political network – gathering both online and in person to discuss their ideas and what to do about them and developing a social identity around their conspiracy theories and others who do or don't believe them, or who believe in other sets of conspiracies which they don't believe in. 

3) ...but they often think that other people in that movement are zoomers.

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The Huntsville Times. Fair use.Although believing in one set of conspiracies in general means you are more likely to believe in others (see above), people apparently have quite clear and subtle ideas about which ones they do and don't believe. They see other people's conspiracies rather like many people might see them. 

4) Being into alternative explanations doesn't mean you aren't politically active in other ways.

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Wikimedia Commons/Justin Ormont. Some rights reserved.Bradley Franks' team also found that everyone they spoke to had voted in the General Election and many were politically active in other ways. Being a conspiracy theorist doesn't necessarily preclude involvement in other politics. 

5) Sometimes there have been genuine conspiracies to spread conspiracy theories.

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Credit:http://www.mixanitouxronou.gr. Some rights reserved.Dr Douglas Selvage has been studying the Stasi archives in East Germany, and found something interesting. The conspiracy theory that the HIV virus was intentionally spread by the US government in order to weaken LGBT and black communities was picked up and intentionally spread by the East German secret police and the KGB. This conspiracy theory is doing the rounds to this day.

 To put it another way, sometimes conspiracy theories have been used in international diplomacy as a way of undermining opponents.

6) The actual conspiracy to kill Osama bin Laden has led to a conspiracy theory which is linked to the spread of polio.

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Credit:http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/. Some rights reserved.As David Hickman explains, the USA used a fake vaccination programme to get into Bin Laden's compound. The resulting flourishing of anti-vaccination conspiracies in Pakistan and around the world is partly responsible for an outbreak of the disease which it recently looked like humanity had defeated for good. Given the long history of conspiracy theories around polio vaccines dating back to the Cold War and before, the consequences of the secret service's reckless behaviour should perhaps have been more foreseeable than you might otherwise think. 

7) We're probably living through a golden age for conspiracy theories.

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Credit:www.businessinsider.com. Some rights reserved.As David Runciman put it here on openDemocracy:

“We need to be careful about assuming that there is more conspiracy theory around now than ever before, notwithstanding its greater visibility online. Research in the US indicates that the tendency to believe in conspiracy theories has been fairly constant over the past hundred-plus years. The overall volume of conspiracy theory doesn’t much vary, only its target: when a Democrat is in the White House, conspiracy theories focus on the hidden influence of foreign powers (Obama is really a Muslim, etc.); when it’s a Republican, they focus on the hidden influence of Wall Street. 

 

“But there have been periods of heightened mistrust in government during which conspiracy theory tends to get more ecumenical. One was the 1890s, when a global depression produced widespread suspicion of ‘moneyed’ interests on both sides of the political divide; another was the 1950s, when fear of communist infiltration cut across party lines. We are almost certainly living through another such period now. Since the financial crisis, mistrust of established institutions has spread across the political spectrum. What the Tea Party and Occupy movements have in common is that they don’t accept the official version of events any more.”

8) A lot of conspiracy theories are still anti-semitic.

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Source:fitzinfo.wordpress.com/. Fair use.This isn't really a surprise, but it is worth reiterating. It is astonishingly frequent that the 'secret club of people who are really pulling all of the strings' are, ultimately, represented as Jewish; whether implicitly (“the Rothschilds”, “Zionists” or images of people with big noses and curly hair) or explicitly. 

9) People in communities with less power are more likely to believe conspiracy theories.

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Credit:humansarefree.com. Some rights reserved.On the whole, it seems the less empowered people are, the more likely they are to believe conspiracy theories. There are, though, some exceptions: apparently climate change deniers are more often middle aged white men – ie, perhaps the most powerful demographic on earth. 

10) It's hard to tell the difference between “the invisible hand” and “the guided hand”…

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Credit:marketoracle.co.uk. Some rights reserved.

(as Peter Knight from the University of Manchester put it).

In a complex world of market capitalism, patriarchy, white supremacy, heteronormativity, etc, it's not surprising that people often believe that there are shady groups of people 'behind the curtain' pulling all the strings. In particular, when corporations first started forming, there was some reasonable discussion about whether these new entities were essentially just conspiracies. Where does the line between the market and a conspiracy fall? Or between men just being sexist without talking about it, and men conspiring to be sexist? Or between people doing racist things, and people plotting to do racist things?

And, of course, sometimes, there are real conspiracies. As David Runciman put it, in the 2008 financial crisis, “the tide went out”, revealing a whole load of genuine conspiracies, like the rigging of LIBOR.

11) Belief in conspiracy theories correlates with apprehension and pessimism.

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"No future", Banksy, 2010. Some rights reserved.According to surveys done in the States by Eric Oliver and his team at the University of Chicago, people who check their locks more regularly and always tear up their bills are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories, as are more pessimistic people.  

12) The majority of Americans believe conspiracy theories of some kind.

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Credit:therichest.com. Some rights reserved.As Oliver puts it: “large majorities of Americans believe in the supernatural and paranormal, accept conspiracy theories as true and reject basic scientific notions of evolution, climate change and health”. And before people in Europe get too smug, it just happens this study was done in the US. There didn't seem to be similar surveys of people over here.

In fact, looking at climate change in particular, Republican America (treated as a separate country from Democrat America), sits with Pakistan and Egypt as one of the places least likely to believe in climate change.

13) “A huge amount of human culture is about emotional management” – Eric Oliver.

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Credit:alleewillis.com. Some rights reserved.Oliver also talked about how Polynesian islanders don't have superstitious rituals before they plant a yam or fish in shallow waters, but they do before heading out into deeper waters – as do British or American deep sea fishers. Sports fans don't rub their lucky coin before their neighbour's kid plays in a match they don't care about. They do when their team is in the final of the national championships. Humans tend to use what's sometimes seen as 'pre-enlightenment thinking', including conspiracy theory, as a way of managing emotions when they are afraid, or when the stakes are high. 

14) Whether people believe something depends a lot on who tells them.

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Source:Twitter. Fair use.So, looking at climate change again, it's not a question of whether people believe authority figures, it's which authority figures they believe. Democrats in the States believe that climate change is a problem because the sorts of people they believe tell them it is. Republicans believe it isn't for the same reason.

15) There are often good reasons that people believe conspiracy theories (even if the theories themselves are untrue). These should be understood, not mocked.

Credit:http://funeralfund.blogspot.co.uk/. Some rights reserved.There is a long history, for example, of doctors in the USA mistreating black people. Harriet Washington documents accounts of people going for treatment with relatively minor problems and, for example, having their leg amputated in order to show students how it's done. In apartheid South Africa, black people were injected with chemicals designed to sterilise them under the cover of inoculation programs.  

16) And often those good reasons expose real imbalances of power.

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Wikimedia Commons/Srikaanth Sekar. Some rights reserved.In a frankly delicious article here on oD, Nayanika Mathur of Cambridge University interrogates the subject of conspiracy theories around big cat attacks in the Himalayan region of India. She points out something vital: that though the conspiracies people believe, which usually revolve around the people on the plains releasing big cats into the hills, may not be true, they do highlight something real. There is a genuine power imbalance.

Whilst this is certainly not true of all conspiracy theories (eg anti-semitic theories), it does seem to often be the case that conspiracy theories, whether they are or are not true, are the product of genuine imbalances of power in society. As such, those with power simply sneering at them is perhaps not quite the right approach.

It's not surprising therefore that there is in some communities, particularly among people of colour, a cultural fear of doctors in general and vaccinations in particular. Such fears are, however, often sneered at as the silly opinions of the uneducated, rather than considered and discussed in their proper historical context. 

What does all this mean?

I left with a couple of thoughts. First, people trying to encourage action on climate change or parents to get their kids inoculated need to be careful about how they do it. If fear and pessimism make people more likely to fall back on conspiracy theories, then scaring them about how bleak the future will be is not a great way to get them to believe you.

Second, most people believe things for which there is little evidence. There's obviously a spectrum, and some of those things are much bigger problems than others. But much of political debate is based on the assumption that we are in some way a rational species. We aren't.

In that context, what interested me is which things are called “conspiracy theories” and which aren't. For example, I was intrigued that the conference focussed on climate scepticism and anti-vaccination campaigns. Neither are things which I would have listed as conspiracy theories, had you asked me. Clearly, though, they essentially are. How could there be such a cast-iron scientific consensus if there wasn't some kind of conspiracy. Then it occurred to me. The difference is that my experience of those sorts of conspiracy theorist is that they tend to be from groups with more social power: respectively, retired, well educated white men, and well-off middle class mothers.

Similarly, perhaps the most dominant conspiracy theory in British politics in recent months was that the people joining the Labour party to vote for Jeremy Corbyn were largely from some Trotskyite grouping or other – as though any of them had tens of thousands of members at their beck and call. But because this conspiracy theory was spread by people with power rather than without it, it wasn't sneered at in the same way as it would have been had this equation been the other way around.

Finally, of the evidence from the UK, which was a little limited, Bradley Franks said that a lot of contemporary conspiracy theorising he'd come across came from people who had been associated with the Occupy movement. Given that these people were described as broadly left-wing, it seems to me that the increased prevalence of conspiracy theories among this group is in some ways a product of a failure of organisation of the broader left. People were looking for explanations for problems in the world and found their way in the answers of conspiracy theorists rather than social theorists. It's a failure worth reflecting on.

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