Nobody is Immune to Conspiracy Theories
How can we deal with that?
The earth is flat. The moon landing did not happen. There are aliens in Area 51. Unfortunately, these facts are concealed from us by the various governments of the world to advance their dark purposes. … Or so it is said.
These are classic examples of conspiracy theories. What makes them conspiracy theories is obviously the fact that they all speak about a conspiracy of influential elite who secretly control national or international events and spread false beliefs in order to further their sinister agenda.
Most people react to the infamous theories above with ridicule and incomprehension. “How can people believe in them?” they ask.
Indeed, how do people decide what they believe and what not?
When we hear some piece of information, we usually have an immediate, instinctive reaction to it. Before we have time to think about it, we already either feel inclined to accept the information, or to question and reject it.
This pre-critical reaction is determined by our worldview — the way we look at the world — which determines what kinds of information we find plausible and what kinds of information we don’t. If somebody tells us a story that fits with the way we see the world, we are inclined to accept it. If the story does not fit, we are inclined to reject it.
For example, take this week’s claim by President Trump that Democrats conspired to commit election fraud in order to steal a second term from him. People who believe Trump is fundamentally a force for good may be inclined to believe that the Democrats are indeed committing fraud. People who believe Trump is a dangerous fool who must not be reelected will likely be inclined to dismiss the claim.
Interestingly, a four-year-old and almost identical conspiracy theory sees the roles of believers and unbelievers reversed. In 2016, the claim went that Trump had conspired with the Russians to win the election for his first presidential term. That time, it was the Trump supporters who were inclined to disbelieve the conspiracy theory, while the Trump haters fervently did believe.
Note that I’m not commenting on the truth of these conspiracy theories. While it is true that labelling something a conspiracy theory usually expresses a disbelief in it, that must not necessarily be so. Conspiracies do happen, so theories about conspiracies are not by definition false.
My point, however, is that nobody is immune to conspiracy theories.
Take climate change as another example. Many deny climate change is a problem and believe it to be a conspiracy by politicians and scientists to acquire more governmental power and control over people. On the other hand, climate change proponents tend to believe Big Oil companies conspire to block scientific inquiry into climate change and alternative energy sources.
Whatever conspiracy fits our narrative, we tend to deem credible. Whatever conspiracy does not fit, we tend to dismiss as humbug.
In my own Evangelical Christian community, plenty of conspiracy theories are currently thriving. Dealing with vaccination, Bill Gates, COVID-19, satanic pedophile rings, Trump, and a one world government, these conspiracy theories are appealing to parts of my community because among other things they are able to tap into a specific apocalyptic narrative that is already prevalent.
I grew up hearing the kind of Evangelical stories and end-times prophecies that were spread during the Satanic Panic in the 70s and 80s and through popular series like Left Behind in the 90s. These spoke of Satanists abusing and even eating children, of the future creation of a single world government under the rule of the Antichrist, of governments that would require the implantation of chips in hands and foreheads for participation in society, etc., tying all these things back to the Bible.
Many of the currently popular conspiracy theories fit the contours of these narratives, leading thousands of Evangelicals, primed with a certain apocalyptic worldview, to adopt these theories.
How should we deal with this? If truly nobody is immune to conspiracy theories, is there no antidote (or a vaccine — ha, ha!) available to help us?
I have noted that our worldview determines the kinds of stories we intuitively deem credible and those we do not. A great start then is to know about ourselves what we naturally find plausible and what not. For example, I personally find the scientific narrative about climate change plausible, and in general I tend to believe the scientific majority opinion. Also, I do not find the claim about Democratic electoral fraud plausible, and generally am inclined to believe Biden over Trump.
Therefore, knowing myself to be this way, I can then proceed to question these intuitive inclinations. When presented with information that I find plausible, instead of lazily accepting the information, I want to ask some questions first. For example, I will take some time to investigate the scientific claims about climate change to see whether my intuition to trust the scientific majority is actually correct.
Conversely, I will not immediately dismiss information that I find implausible, but will temporarily give it the benefit of the doubt and take some time to look into the facts. For example, I will read some of the claims given for Democratic electoral fraud and consider the evidence given. I will click on some of the anti-vaxxer articles I see on Facebook and look at the original sources to check their claims.
Furthermore, I will make sure I am actually exposed to a wide diversity of opinions. I deliberately keep scientists and science sceptics as friends on Facebook, I deliberately follow far-right people, neo-marxists, and everything in between on Twitter, I deliberately read Christians, Muslims, Atheists and others, I deliberately listen (sometimes) to those peddling what I believe to be conspiracy theories, to avoid being trapped in my own social media echo-chamber, where I only hear information that I intuitively find plausible.
Because these social media platforms are built to keep you as long as possible on their websites, they deliberately serve you information that you will probably like and intuitively accept. Many have been led down long conspiracy theory rabbit holes on Youtube because of this mechanism. So, we have to make a special effort to hear other voices.
And finally, I will pray for wisdom and discernment, to be able to distinguish “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure,” from that which is not.
While these strategies by no means guarantee that I will not end up believing some false conspiracy theories, they are far better than trusting my natural instincts only (don’t completely distrust your intuitions either!).
As St. Paul put it:
Don’t be gullible. Check out everything, and keep only what’s good. Throw out anything tainted by evil. — 1 Thessalonians 5:20–22
- Why someone you love might join QAnon — Christianity Today.
- Evangelicals are looking for answers online. They’re finding QAnon instead. — MIT Technology Review
- Questions about QAnon — World Magazine
- Why Your Christian Friends and Family Members Are So Easily Fooled by Conspiracy Theories — Instrument of Mercy
- How to Break Out of Your Social Media Echo Chamber — Wired