Throughout history there has been no shortage of conspiracy theories. There appears to be no group of people who are immune to the acceptance of unproven explanations and stories which are often passionately embraced. The theory that UFOs have made contact with us and that our government has kept it secret to avoid alarming the populace has remained intact for more than half a century. Charismatic cult leaders have often used conspiracy theories as recruiting tools. Imagined conspiracies can be used to excuse failures of all kinds, or as weapons to discredit or harm others. Though most could be categorized as harmless gossip, some can have devastating consequences.
THIS STUFF IS NOT NEW
During World War II thousands of American citizens of Japanese and German ancestry were incarcerated due to an unfounded theory that many had immigrated to the U.S. in order to become spies or saboteurs. In the infamous hearings orchestrated by Sen. Joe Mccarthy in the 1950s, he insisted there was a vast communist conspiracy afoot to overthrow the government. Many were accused of treason, which although unproven, left many lives in ruin.
The assassination of President Kennedy spawned a host of conspiracy theories. Those named as responsible for the shooting included, Russia, Mexico, Fidel Castro, the Mafia, the CIA, and even President Johnson. There was a successful movie rife with complex plots which legitimized the conspiracies in some minds. The Warren Commission, which was assembled to investigate, was widely discredited by those with their own conclusions as simply another attempted cover-up. The commission was appointed by Johnson, which raised the question as to their possible involvement in the assassination. In such manner conspiracy theories spread and grow.
THE LATEST POLITICAL TALENT
Our new President is no stranger to conspiracy theories having served as the self- appointed promoter of the birther movement. His continued drum beat that Obama was born in Africa, and therefore an illegal president provided him with a great deal of free publicity and support from the Obama haters. He spiced up his climate change denials by adding the whole thing was a Chinese conspiracy. During the campaign, he alluded to allegations of Clinton misdeeds of many years ago even mentioning the theory that they may have arranged for the murder of Vince Foster whose death had been ruled a suicide. He resurrected the old birther mantra when he learned Cruz was born in Canada, and when that did not gain traction, suggested that Cruz’s father may have been implicated in the Kennedy assassination.
His assertions that the entire democratic process was rigged, that the media were “all crooked” and should not be believed, and his questioning of the integrity of the justice system did little to “make America great again” but rather undermined his believers’ faith in our government. We can only hope that their disillusionment did not extend to the questioning not only our government, but also our form of government for that type of thinking is what has led other countries down the path toward authoritarianism.
BELIEF MAKES IT TRUE
In politics, such stories are common, but in this election we have been bombarded with them. In a previous blog I made mention of the phenomenon of confirmation bias which results from our tendency to accept as true, information which is consistent with our own beliefs. I have since happened onto an article that addresses the problem in great detail. A study by a group of Italian sociologists led by a Dr. Quattrociocchi (no I can’t pronounce it either) followed the Facebook reading habits of over 1 million of their countrymen, and their paper confirmed what had always been suspected, but with some interesting twists.
The results of their study titled ‘Inside the Echo Chamber” was published in the April issue of The Scientific American. In this innovative study, they were able to separate readers into two groups – those who read scientific material versus those who were regular conspiracy theory consumers. There appeared to be very little interaction between the groups i.e. the ones who read science rarely read any of the conspiracy theory material while the conspiracy theory aficionados likewise avoided the science websites, whereas both groups tended to communicate only with those of like mind. It should not be surprising that those of a more scientific bent would be more skeptical of unsubstantiated theories.
Those of both groups were found to have wide ranging social networks in which opinions generally conformed to their own, but those who consumed conspiracy news spread it more widely, which may help explain how such stories go viral. Of more concern was the authors’ conclusion, based on a yet unpublished study, that the so called debunking of a conspiracy theory actually reinforces one’s belief in it. Such a conclusion does not bode well for the effectiveness of fact checkers in their job of correcting misinformation foisted on the masses. As a matter of fact, attempts to correct “fake news” especially when pursued vigorously may simply convince the theorist that the conspiracy is wider than he thought since he knows that ordinary news sources cannot be trusted.
PARANOIA COMES IN ALL SIZES
This refusal, or perhaps inability, to question one’s beliefs is also seen in an extreme form in the minds of patients who are delusional and/or paranoid. I do not suggest that all conspiracists are psychotic; however, any psychiatrist will confirm that it is useless to try to change the mind of those suffering from delusional thoughts. Such efforts are likely be interpreted by the patient as due to your having been duped or that you are a participant in the imagined conspiracy. That latter phenomenon is probably at least partially responsible for the relatively high risk of assaults and worse on mental health professionals. The same phenomenon in milder form may also account for the difficulty of fact checkers to change minds.
IF JOE SAYS IT, IT MUST BE TRUE
The Media Insight Project http://www.mediainsight.org/Pages/%27Who-Shared-It%27-How-Americans-Decide-What-News-to-Trust-on-Social-Media.aspx, a collaboration between the Associated Press NORC and the American Press Institute, did a well controlled study that indicated people were more likely to accept information passed on by a friend as truth than if the same story came directly from its original source. This factor seems also to promote more rapid spread of information and its companion, misinformation. They also note that Facebook was second only to TV as a source of news about our recent election. They state Facebook is closing fast and predicted soon to occupy the number one spot.
Dr. Quattrociocchi states “conspiracy thinking arises when people find themselves unable to determine simple causes for complex adverse circumstances,” which I am convinced is too simple an answer. People are curious by nature which has served us well in our quest to dominate the planet; however can also make us vulnerable to absorbing unproven explanations. Oft times the mere mention of a half-truth may be enough to encourage us to fill in some blanks and come up with a plausible theory. We like to know secrets about others but to divulge them is even more pleasurable. Some call this gossip, and at times the process can be quite competitive. Remember the school yard chant: “I know something you don’t know!” We pass on the information after securing promises that it will be kept secret knowing full well that it is likely to be passed on at the first opportunity. The juicier the better for the more outrageous the more superior we feel.
It is also true that conspiracies are interesting, sometimes even fascinating. I for one am a voracious reader of spy novels and mysteries which of course are always rife with conspiracies, and I am certainly not alone in that. Conspiracy theories are an excellent excuse for failure, and it is also useful to put them in play in anticipation of possible failure as in “the system is rigged”. This strategy can not only help save face, but if one can actually convince himself it is true will leave his self- esteem undamaged in the event of failure.
Events surrounding our most recent election campaign have generated a great deal of interest in the use of such stories. In a previous blog I talked a bit as to how the Russians and perhaps others have been able to use the internet as a tool to attempt to influence the outcome, and how its ease of access allows information of all kinds, real and unreal, to be promulgated at little expense to large groups of people. Although his participation in those nefarious activities are unproven, we do know that our President has demonstrated considerable talent making use of stories about people, groups and institutions which are later proven to be without substance.
WHERE ARE THEY WHEN WE NEED THEM
People are by nature curious, and curiosity makes for fertile ground in which explanations real or imagined can be sown. One would think that our President’s failure to be more forthcoming would elicit conspiracy theories galore. Issues such as his tax returns , foreign business dealings, the alleged Russian connection, etc., would leave one needing only to fill in the blanks left between what is known to produce juicy conspiracy theories of the highest order, yet surprisingly the opposition hasn’t to my knowledge come up with any Manchurian Candidate type conspiracy theories.
While writing this rambling essay I happened on to a website featuring the political satire of Will Rogers, and was amazed to see how timely they are 100 years later. His comments about the effect of money, and untruths in politics lead one to believe that little has changed. The quote in the picture I thought particularly apropos. We could use the genius of a guy like Will Rogers today.
It seems clear that conspiracy theories will always be with us, for they appeal to many for a variety of reasons. We can only hope that they will not be routinely fabricated in order to discredit a candidate for office. The information highway is already fraught with so much misinformation that the ordinary voter finds it difficult to know the truth about a person or an issue. To paraphrase Jefferson, democracy cannot survive without an informed electorate.