“In a sense, the birth of conspiracy theories is really similar to the introduction of a new product into the market,” during the conversation agrees Alfredas Buiko, a religious researcher, publicist, fiction fan and a man who spends his philosophy PhD days studying the phenomenon of conspiracy theories.
From seemingly funny and harmless theories about McDonald’s soft ice cream or guilty pleasure, experienced when watching YouTube videos about lizard people, to a real threat-posing antivaxer movement or the better-known dramas when saving girls. All this is brought together by the imaginative and increasingly challenging conspiracy threads.
How would you describe the conspiracy theory phenomenon and what, in your opinion, are the reasons for its activation? Is it possible to predict what new conspiracy theory will raise the public’s attention?
There are various definitions, but, to put it simply, conspiracy theory is the belief that a group of few or more individuals is seeking malicious goals while minimizing the field of knowledge. It is also possible to name conspiracy as a worldview when it is believed that the world is dominated by some dark force of evil.
Despite their so-felt increased activation, it is not a new phenomenon, and today the number of conspiracy theories is likely to be lower than the Masonic fever in the 19th century and the eve of World War II. Even the efforts of the conspiracy theories’ activists to spread them, probably, descend to Henry Ford, who, in pursuit of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories’ popularity, in the 3rd decade of 20th century distributed over half a million printed copies at its own expense.
Conspiracy theories are constantly being created for many centuries, but even today it is still very difficult to predict where a new theory, that will become popular, will emerge. It is like a video becoming viral: we can name the elements that have contributed to its success post factum, but to plan viral content for the video from beginning to end for it to become 100 per cent successful is difficult.
However, the classic conspiracy theories like the Illuminati or the Jewish conspiracy are constantly rotating in our narrative, fluctuating, and now, apparently, growing. To rephrase the philosopher and writer Umberto Eco, one cannot have a good conspiracy theory without Templars, therefore, the “successful” conspiracy theories usually incorporate the old ones, thus acquiring legitimacy. Their creators, similar to the creators of commodities or services, strive for widest movement, only here more often, but not always, value is not money, but believing in your own truth. Consequently, we can see that attention and dissemination are their purpose and, at the same time, the necessary conditions to entrench.
Today, the Internet is the most influential factor in the increased conspiracy theory activation. It also helps them integrate into the field of common and current topics. It also does not happen without the input from the media: conspiracy theories almost always agitate and split people into at least two camps, as if not allowing them to stay neutral. This naturally increases the number of clicks, dissemination and starts a vicious circle. It can be said that they work in the media almost as well as the catastrophes – only the latter must actually happen, and the real facts of conspiracy theories are not necessary.
What mechanism lies behind their attractiveness?
Some are lured by the pragmatic goals, others by the fact that conspiracy theories give a certain alternative version of the world narrative, soothe and provide it with logic – otherwise it would have to be admitted that the world is too complex for us to understand, and bad things simply happen. It also shows that people are dissatisfied with the narratives offered to them and seek to change them, feel unheard, and this encourages them to join groups where they might feel understood, be a part of them.
Sounds like a mechanism for fulfilling stereotypical psychological needs. From it also arises a stereotypical portrait of the conspiracy theory fan. If we imagined them as a particular target audience, do you think it would be possible to distinguish the essential features?
Probably most people firstly imagine a man who is evaporating vinegar and wearing a hat made of foil, but unfortunately, there are no common definitions among conspiracy theory believers. Based on human identity, we can only suppose what conspiracy theory one might be more inclined to believe, but not how strongly. US Republicans tend to be more inclined to believe in a deep state conspiracy, but Democrats are not resilient to them either and, for example, will be more likely to believe that the September 11th attack was staged. Although we tend to believe that only marginalities believe in conspiracy theories, they actually involve completely statistically normal people, which makes it particularly difficult to fight them.
The Dunning-Kruger effect is also useful for analysing this aspect – it describes a phenomenon where people with lower abilities are unable to comprehend the limitations of their abilities, and a person who has accumulated more knowledge in a certain area remains more critical than the first one, who is named to be located on the hill of stupidity. However, studies show that even among people with higher education, one-fifth believe at least one conspiracy theory. We can only grasp a few areas, hence, this explains why, for example, a NASA scholar will hardly doubt a fact of landing on the moon, but that does not necessarily mean that he will not be affected by the conspiracy theories about GMO, whereas the geneticist could be convinced with the first theory.
In other words, today we all feel that we know everything, a huge flow of information forces the media and the environment to present and trust superficial information. When the Internet is only encouraging individuals to close inside their social bubble – we have the right soil for conspiracy theories.
Despite the ephemerality of conspiracy theory control, is it possible to distinguish the main ingredients of a good conspiracy theory?
Yes. They all have a fairly typical structure: bad guys or protagonists who are responsible for everything need to be created, with an idea how they are responsible for it, how they work and what is their purpose. If you can also find starting points in past events or discover a topic that has a strong emotional impact on society, it is likely that a conspiracy theory can be formed. In terms of history, the US will always be more concerned with theories associated with the Masons and the Illuminati, whereas in Lithuania, there will traditionally be more ideas on political engagement, children or culturally inseparable elements such as trees and wolves. In a sense, the birth or creation of a conspiracy theory resembles in most cases the introduction of a product into the market, and when a product is introduced and has become universal, the fact that it is created or how it was created loses its meaning and no longer hinders its operation.
Nevertheless, publication and acknowledgement of the positive facts of conspiracy theories resonate with a mantra repeated in communication, about transparency, the importance of trust and the reason, why black PR is not only unethical but also extremely risky. What is the effect of the “clarified” truth?
In general, conspiracy is a normal phenomenon, because criminal organizations, to some extent, also act according to conspiracy principles. Even the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact could in a sense be interpreted like this: there were official and unofficial parts of it, two levels, positioned and realistic goals. In terms of the strategic use of the two bottoms, it is logical that this may be used as a convenient tool to divert attention. In terms of the enemy, whatever it might be, after the society is split and with a planted seed of doubt in their minds – half of the work is done.
But when the facts come to light, confidence is lost and it is very difficult to restore it. It is enough to remember the situation when it appeared that from 1932 to 1972 the US Public Health Service pretended to treat syphilis-infected black people when they actually watched the course of the disease without treating it (the so-called Tuskegee’s syphilis study). Even today, this demographic group is characterized by greater resistance to health issues, new theories take root faster there and this results in very real consequences. On the other hand, recent years show that society’s tolerance to lies, indiscretion and alternative facts, especially on issues in politics, is increasing.
Returning to the real threats posed by conspiracy theories to states or businesses – what are the main tools to fight them? How would you assess the currently slowly applied social media mechanisms to stop fake news and conspiracy theories?
It is noticed, that if a person at some point begins to believe that, for example, there was no landing on the moon, changing this attitude is already tricky, therefore, education is traditionally the greatest weapon. It is not the fear of ignorance but alienation that encourages the birth and obedience of conspiracy theories. If we look retrospectively, most of the new things (whether it is credit cards and 5G), or communities like Jews or Masons that are becoming the object of conspiracy theories – they distance themselves from ordinary people, are characterized with some degree of decoupling or secrecy from our usual norm. Thus, the first step is to look for ways to reduce that strangeness and ignorance.
However, after becoming a conspiracy theory target, it is important to realise that it is often not useful to devote yourself to open conflict – it will only strengthen the opposing beliefs. One of the biggest challenges posed by conspiracy theories is that they play a non-falsified narrative of good and evil, which means that arguments are powerless here. For example, for the antivaxers the fact that there was no research done on particular aspects, would mean that the truth was hidden and not investigated, new research means conspiracy, and the opinion of the authorities would only increase the distance to the faithful ones.
Therefore, when it comes to conspiracy theories, it is very important to learn to create alternative narratives, to speak not only in arguments but also in emotional language, to look for stories that would provide other interpretations of the world. Another option is to look for ways to reduce their perceived threat. As an example, let’s imagine that toys with Illuminati symbolism can be created, to some extent to infantilize evil. In an environment where any kind of advertising is still advertising, you would start creating a product yourself. It is also likely that both the opponents and the supporters would buy that product. It would also benefit sales, and in the long run, the topic could even become trivial.
Of course, we see that when real threats occur, only soft measures may not be enough. I do not think that complete censorship would solve these issues, but the mere fact that the most popular social media would stop advertising and monetizing posts on conspiracy theories would already be effective. It can be speculated that the Internet space was supposedly separated from the real world for too long, you could do and say anything there without any consequences. However, today we already see that this will change. The actions of victims’ parents of Sandy Hook school and Alex Jones show that step by step, the other half is forced to weigh and answer for their words.
Nevertheless, this does not mean that more radical censorship should take over – it is too likely that this would have the opposite effect. If people no longer have a place where to talk, that does not mean they will not talk. Pressure can even stimulate to radicalize, relocate to the underground, close inside oneself, and then the consequences will become really unclear – when the profound causes of obedience to conspiracy theories have not vanished, the actions of their representatives could mutate into abnormal and even more dangerous forms.
And finally, a bit of criticism to our mainstream culture: do you see realistic and conspiracy theory-imposed identities? Does it contain adequate mechanisms for conspiracy or propaganda, that with all the proper criticism are highlighted in the North Korean documentary “Propaganda”?
Of course, our culture has elements of both conspiracy and propaganda. It really does not lack the tools that see a person as a consumer, encourage buying, a constant fear of missing out, dictate the need and means for creating one’s identity. It is an open question whether this is a cultural goal or a by-product. However, even if we agree that the ultimate goal of the West is to sell more, for it to become the subject of conspiracy theories, this narrative must have a greater purpose – as the attempt of great evil to turn us into, for example, zombies. In this case, conspiracy theories would present a logical narrative, where someone is responsible and has a plan when in reality we have many small power centres that do something harmful or unethical not because they want to, but simply because they do not think about the consequences of their actions.