There has been a disturbing rise in the last few decades in baseless conspiracies. Spread throughout the internet, these conspiracy theories can sometimes be harmless jokes that most don’t take so seriously, like Walt Disney being cryogenically frozen, or that Avril Lavigne died years ago and a döppelganger has taken her place. Unfortunately, a much more deadly kind of conspiracy has emerged and, in some situations, their believers sometimes take these theories to dangerously fanatic levels. One of the most popular of these theories is the group known as QAnon, a baseless theory whose supporters believe in a secret cabal of Hollywood elite, Democrats, and billionaires engage in Satan worship and who kidnap children in order to steal life-extending chemicals from their blood. Several QAnon supporters have been sighted at and arrested for involvement of the Capitol Hill riot on January 6th, 2021.
Ideally, people would gather conclusive evidence before believing in such ludicrous claims. But even without substantial evidence, QAnon supporters (and followers of other conspiracy theories) seem to make these theories a way of life, countering non-believes with claims that they are secretly aligned with the “deep state” or that they’re “sheeple” unwilling to see the truth.
Except, how do theories like these start in the first place? How do stories without credible evidence attract so many devoted followers?
“I think the more serious conspiracies allow for a certain sense of community and solidarity with others,” says Memorial University Sociology student Melissa Marie. “Unfortunately this sense of community can create an echo-chamber filled with confirmation bias. People who follow far-fetched theories seek out information that confirms what they already believe, and it’s not hard to do that when your friends and community agree with your ideas and beliefs.”
Furthermore, Sociology professor Judith Adler says “People relate to the world differently than other animals, we relate to the world through narrative a lot. Our instincts don’t tell us what to do as much as our stories and our myths, our understandings of reality. What strikes me about conspiracy theories is that they’re very dramatic and fairly simple stories, evil versus good. They help define the identity of people who buy into them, you can see yourself as acting on behalf of good. At the same time human beings make sense of reality together, so some of these theories should be looked at in social terms as opposed to individual.”
Many see the lack of evidence as proof that something does exist. For some followers this only strengthens their belief, arguing that the lack of evidence proves someone is trying to cover something up. But what about those theories with copious amount of evidence to the contrary? For example, Flat Earth is a popular conspiracy despite the fact that human beings have proven the Earth was round as early as the third century. However, there are still those who refuse evidence and proof, continuing their disputed claims.
MUN Sociology alumni Meghan Fillier says on the topic, “I think its a way for people to feel like they’re in control of themselves and their surroundings; kind of a way to make sense or cope with of the reality we face everyday.”
A running theme in many conspiracy theories such as QAnon is a heavy emphasis on antisemitism. Antisemetic conspiracies are nothing new, Hitler used Jews as scapegoats for the German people, they were blamed for the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, Holocaust denial, even as far back as the 14th century Jewish people were blamed for the Black Death.
Melissa says, “many conspiracy theories are born from antisemitism, and much of antisemitism is based on conspiracy theories. It’s hard to tell which came first. Many right-wing extremists believe that Jews have total control of the media and banking institutions, and everyone else is under this control.”
Professor Alder weighs in, “antisemitism has a 2000 year old history, it’s like a cultural virus. Antisemitism has been linked with conspiracy theories, the form taken in antisemitism is often that there is a minority group that secretly control the world. We’re seeing it now, how some are saying “the vaccine is a way for the power to implant chips in people. I would say antisemitism is a good place to seek out conspiracy theories.”
The advent of social media has certainly assisted the spread of conspiracies in scope and time. People today are exposed to information from all over the world at a faster rate than ever before in human history, and this can be taken advantage of by people hoping to spread misinformation. When asked about recent social media bans for the POTUS for inciting violence, Melissa said “This is a good step for limiting public spread of disinformation, but it also angers existing conspiracy theorists and leads them to alternate sites which host their own echo chambers. Social media conspiracy theories seem very difficult to control, because they’ll pop up again somewhere else.”
It may seem to some that conspiracies spread like wildfire, and some believe that to fight these flames one must confront, challenge, and argue with conspiracy theorists. While this may work sometimes, many conspiracy theorist tend to dig in their heels and shun any challenge to their belief. Meghan says, “In truth, the idea that conspiracy theories can dwindle and disappear is not often as easy as we try to make it. So long as there is a power that holds authority over the working class or even those who rank lower economically, socially, etc., there will always be those lower ranked social individuals to oppose and conflict. Because government institutions hold so much power in society, we as citizens are always keenly aware of the potential and authority, they hold over us. What society can do to help form better understanding between believers and non-believers of conspiracy theories is to remember that we as social individuals are never entirely disempowered.”
There was some disagreement when asked about the relationship between education level and an acceptance of conspiracy theories. Melissa says, “Education teaches us critical thinking, analysis, and how to conduct reliable research. Formal education such as a college or university degree strengthens these skills further. I think there is a relationship between education, socioeconomic status, disillusionment and belief in conspiracy theories.”
Meghan and Professor Adler have a similar opinions in that education is not a primary driving factor. Meghan says, “it is often a plentiful combination of factors such as, class, race, religious beliefs, formal and informal relationships, sexual identity, and even political identity.”
Judith Adler made reference to the Nazi rise to power and how many well-educated individuals went along with antisemitic conspiracies to get ahead in life. “Educated professionals, like other people, can be opportunists. So when there’s an advantage to be had by buying into conspiracies, education and middle class status isn’t much of a protection.
It is tough seeing baseless claims of conspiracies spread to masses who may take to the street, but it’s even harder if someone close to you becomes embroiled in these same theories. Professor Adler has a unique thought on how to get through to these loved ones: make ’em laugh. “Paranoid thinking is grandiose, angry, and pretty humourless. In some ways I think cultivating a sense of humour and irony is useful in that it doesn’t look for someone to blame. A direct attack on someone’s conspiracy convictions is very unlikely to change anyone’s mind.”
The best defense against the rise of conspiracy theories is to ensure you don’t fall for them yourself. It’s always good to question authority, hold them accountable, and seek reassurance that what they’re telling you is true, but don’t assume that everyone in a position of power is out to get you. Spend your time researching the subjects you’re concerned about from multiple, credible sources. Don’t get your information just from one spot – ensure that honest sources are giving out the same information to verify it’s validity.
Conspiracy theories may have been part of human society for hundreds if not thousands of years, but alongside those theories there will always be honest people willing and able to expose the truth. Not to incite fear and anger, but doing so out of respect, integrity, and responsibility.