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Op-ed: Why Do We Fall for Conspiracy Theories?

Morristown Minute

In the spring of 2020, 5G cellular towers were set aflame across Europe amidst conspiracy theories that 5G was spreading COVID-19. In January of this year, a pharmacist in Wisconsin was charged with deliberately destroying hundreds of COVID-19 vaccines on the belief that the vaccines were somehow changing human DNA. When COVID-19 first reached pandemic levels, a decent portion of Americans fell behind the theory that the virus was engineered by the Chinese government. On one side of the line, people point out a lack of evidence supporting these theories. Meanwhile, on the other side of the line, people argue that the evidence is right under our noses and the only source you can trust is yourself.

A new study from the University of Chicago indicates that 50% of Americans believe at least one conspiracy theory.[1] The researchers in this study surveyed thousands of Americans and discovered that of their sample size 19% believed the government was behind the 9/11 attacks, 25% believed the most recent financial crisis was caused by a small group of Wall Street bankers, and 11% believed that the US government was mandating the switch to compact fluorescent light bulbs because it makes people obedient and easier to control.

Conspiracy theories are not uncommon. But what is a conspiracy theory? Before we tackle why people believe such theories, first let’s define the five critical ingredients of a conspiracy. According to The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories by J. W. Van Prooijen[2], a conspiracy theory:

  1. Uses patterns to assert that a series of events did not happen coincidently but caused a certain outcome.
  2. Asserts that an event was caused purposefully by intelligent actors using a detailed and sophisticated plan of action.
  3. Involves a coalition or group of multiple actors, not necessarily required to be human (e.g., Alien-Lizard conspiracy theory).
  4. Claims the actions and results are purposed towards hostility, pursuing evil or selfish goals that are not within the publics' best interests.
  5. Revolves around secrecy, meaning the theory has not been proved by hard evidence and it is assumed that the operations remain secret and unheard. Thus, by definition, conspiracy theories are unproven.

Conspiracy theories are not a new, modern-day development. Conspiracy theories can be dated back to as long as human beings have been living in organized groups. Morristown Minute recently published an article on the history of contesting elections in the United States where we examined how conspiracy theories have impacted the nation's response to election results since 1800. A long history of conspiracy theories in the United States has created the development of stereotypes about those who believe in such theories. However, like all stereotypes, these beliefs are not always accurate. The stereotypes surrounding conspiracy theorists claim those who believe in unproven theories are poorly educated, political partisans, or exceedingly superstitious. However, this is not the case according to the University of Chicago study. Researchers found that those who believe in conspiracy theories do not fall into one social or political category. Belief in conspiracies is widespread across all groups regardless of political or social belief systems. The only single predictor for belief in conspiracy theories was what researchers called an “All-American attitude.” An “All-American attitude,” according to researchers at the University of Chicago, is one where an individual believes in individualism and has a general distrust of authority. These two beliefs generally translate into a desire to avoid being controlled by large, secret forces. Researchers found that many of the ideals that “make us American” make us more likely to believe in conspiracy theories.

It is inevitable that someone will comment on this article condemning my words and research. I have, in the past, received angry comments from individuals claiming my words are rhetoric of “big brother,” or that I am “part of the problem” keeping people from seeing the light. The one thing many, if not all, conspiracy theorists have in common is anger and hostility towards those who disagree or publish information contrary to their beliefs. Thus, the distrust does not come from a place of validity but from the fact that the information is contrary to their belief system. To this, I have two responses: 1. Perhaps these people may need to scroll to the bottom of the page and click through my cited research, and 2. Before sending an angry comment or email, ask yourself, what’s in it for “me?” Why would I publish information denouncing conspiracy theories? I’m a journalist; that statement may prompt some people to say that my motivation comes from my journalistic background itself. But let’s deconstruct that statement. Journalism is built on two important pillars, primary source information, and trust. Trust is the most important aspect of journalistic reporting. A journalist collects a following by publishing accurate, non-speculative information (though opinion articles are often published on journalistic platforms, this is not the topic of concern at the moment, despite there being an editorial aura in these words). If I were to publish an article based on purely speculative, unproven information (remember, by definition, conspiracy theories are unproven) I would likely lose the trust of my regular readers. Therefore, anything I write must be backed up with information cited from reputable resources.

Now, the next logical argument against my words would be to attack the source of my information. So, let’s deconstruct what is and is not a reputable source. Reputable sources of information come from a variety of platforms. However, all journalists can identify source strengths and weaknesses based on the platform's goal. To determine the goal of any platform from where you are extracting the information you must look at why, how, and where it was published. All journalists will prefer sources from academic institutions for two reasons, 1. They are often published not-for-profit, and 2. All information and research included in academic journals are peer-reviewed by other academic and scientific organizations. The flagship journal of the Association of Psychological Science is a peer-reviewed, scientific journal published by SAGE publications and has over 130,000 subscribers and even more monthly readers. If the journal were to publish unfounded and incorrect information or even information that is correct but not supported by primary sources or research, they would quickly lose their subscriber base of psychological professionals. This fact brings up a further point, money. While most academic institutions publish not-for-profit, many other sources of information make revenue through subscribers, readers, viewership, or advertising revenue. How your source of information makes money is extremely important.

Take FOX News for example. FOX News, along with CNN, MSNBC, and most if not all cable news, makes most of their revenue from advertising. Advertising revenue can work in many ways, but what is important to know is FOX and those other cable news organizations make more money if they have more viewers. Thus, it is in FOX's best interest to report on stories that will drive up viewership. This might be obvious to you, you may say, “of course, everyone does this and so do YOU.” However, there is one important factor that may go unsaid, news organizations don’t have to rely on viewership to make money. Yes, in the cable TV world, views equal revenue, but there is another way. Morristown Minute, for example, charges a flat rate that is not dependent on viewership. So, it doesn’t matter how many views we get, our revenue is not based on drawing in more viewers, we grow our reader base by reporting on news that matters and charge a flat rate to avoid the sentiments of our advertisers from flowing over into our reporting. But not everyone does this. And for this reason, many news organizations have leaned left or right to align with the sentiments of its viewership. The point of this tangent now becomes clearer, a news organization that relies solely on viewership to drive revenue is more likely to report on and align with the content that connects with its audience. So, if a majority of FOX News viewers believe in a conspiracy about the COVID-19 vaccines changing human DNA, that is exactly what FOX News will report on, or rather avoid reporting on because there is no evidence to support these claims and the news organization wouldn’t want to upset their viewers.

Finally, conspiracy theories rely on a narrative to drive more people towards unproven “facts.” The important thing to know here is that the best conspiracy theories are good stories. This doesn’t mean they make sense, rather they contain all the elements of good storytelling. First, there is the main character. That main character is often “you” or a smaller group of “woke” individuals who are privy to information that is being disguised from the “general public.” This sets up a narrative where the hero (You) faces a conflict (the secret agenda of an evil ruling class) that only they have the tools and information to solve. Right away, any information pointing to the fact that these theories are unfounded is immediately disregarded as “propaganda” by our antagonist (the evil, big government).

So, what can we do? You may feel overwhelmed and disheartened by the fact that half of Americans have fallen for at least one conspiracy theory, but there is a solution. Occasionally an unproven theory, branded initially as conspiracy, will turn out to be true. This happens more often than you think. In 1950, the US and UK governments were conducting a study to determine the amount of radioactive strontium-90 being absorbed by humans due to nuclear testing. A conspiracy theory quickly reigned its ugly head claiming the governments of both countries were taking dead bodies, many of which were children, to study the effects of nuclear testing on human beings. In 2006, an investigation revealed that this was partly true. The US and UK governments were taking body parts of dead people to test the effects of nuclear weapons on human beings. What started as a conspiracy theory eventually transformed into a legit coverup by two massive countries. The key difference here, this belief did not remain unfounded for long, and thus transitioned from conspiracy theory to unproven fact, until its discovery in 2006. Corruption in government is not non-existent, and it is cases like this that make people question reality and ultimately jump on board the conspiracy train. However, this case also shows us one part of a two-part solution. Conspiracy theories, truly unfounded and incorrect information, always remain as such, theories. Generally, in the world of online information that moves across the globe in a matter of seconds, unfounded information will spread, but so would substantiated evidence to prove or disprove such theories. This doesn’t solve the problem of conspiracy theorists denying any contrary information placed in front of them, but it does help those who are unsure about information or stories. Simple research, Snopes.com is a great fact-checking source, can often alleviate any concerns one might have to the validity of the information. The second part of our solution comes from narrative storytelling. 

Conspiracies rely on emotionally motivating stories to target people who already question the validity of otherwise legitimate organizations or groups. Therefore, an emotionally motivating story can be used in the opposing direction to correct false beliefs and fake news that captures large groups of susceptible audiences. If you want your conspiracy-believing uncle to stop posting unfounded “facts” on Facebook, your best plan of action is not to throw facts and sources at him, but rather form a story that connects to his underlying morals and motivation to distrust legit sources. So, if you want a friend or that crazy uncle, to stop touting misinformation about vaccines, your best approach is to create a competing narrative, regardless of its validity, that connects emotionally with the individual and draws them to question their stance based on their deep-rooted, often unchanging moral and ethical compass.

I’ll remake one final, pivotal point. Distrust of the “media” or news organizations does not solely come from biased reporting or misinformation. Most people will tell you they watch the news that more aligns with their belief system. Thus, the distrust many hold for news organizations does not come from logical critiques of bias and irresponsible journalism, but from the fact that the information on which the news organization is reporting is contrary to their current beliefs. This creates a world where we seek out the information we agree with and disregard that which does not fit into the narrative we’ve created. I will never want to watch FOX News, but would my listening to the opposing side of an argument, no matter how ridiculous and unfounded I believe it to be, benefit me? Perhaps it would. Maybe the best solution is not to disregard everything we hear that is contrary to our motivations but listen for the sake of listening. You can certainly decide you don’t agree with what you heard, but if you listen you will at least begin to understand the narrative being formed by those you disagree with, and this is the best way to begin a meaningful conversation that combats conspiracy theories and fake news.

Sources:

[1]“Understanding QAnon’s Connection to American Politics, Religion, and Media Consumption” PRRI-IFYC (May 27, 2021). www.prri.org/research/qanon-conspiracy-american-politics–report/

[2]Van Prooijen, J. W. (2018). The psychology of conspiracy theories. Routledge.

https://www.apa.org/research/action/speaking-of-psychology/conspiracy-theories

https://faculty.lsu.edu/fakenews/about/rumors.php

https://www.prri.org/research/qanon-conspiracy-american-politics-report/

https://www.npr.org/2014/06/04/318733298/more-americans-than-you-might-think-believe-in-conspiracy-theories

https://www.nytimes.com/1995/06/21/us/in-1950-s-us-collected-human-tissue-to-monitor-atomic-tests.html

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