In an increasingly uncertain and polarized world that often renders people powerless, conspiracy theories have become ubiquitous these days that they almost become part of the media agenda. As indicated by scientists, people are likely to adopt conspiratorial thinking in times of crisis throughout history. But why do conspiracy theories still prevail when there is scarcely real evidence for that? And what does it mean for us to live in an era that is overloaded with conspiracy theories which are reinforced and polarized by social media?
One recent afternoon, I sat in the sun together with a mother, her baby, and a gaggle at a beautiful park, while an old man who sat beside me randomly started a conversation with me. Amiable and talkative, he told me about his journey from Serbia to the Netherlands in 1999, his life philosophy of seeing the world by foot, and his take on one of the most heated contemporary debates – vaccination mandates. He enthusiastically told me about how the government is using vaccines to control the population and how mainstream media contributes to it. As a stranger to the man and someone who is vaccinated, I was demonstrably intrigued but surprised by his opinions. Before making any judgment, I figured it might be interesting to tap into our minds and try to deconstruct why people believe in conspiracy theories.
The making of conspiracy theories
A conspiracy theory is defined as a belief that a secret but powerful organization is responsible for an (unexplained) event. Spurred by the online media, conspiracy theories seem to be prevalent in almost every field in recent years. In many cases, conspiracy theories are associated with societal crisis situations such as a fire, disease epidemic, plane crash, or terrorist attack. Some of the most prominent conspiracy theories concern the 9/11 terrorist attacks, (which suggest that the attacks were a deliberate inside job), or the well-known “The New World Order theory” (which claims that governments, media, and industry are controlled by a group of international elites who aim to establish global hegemony), as well as “Global warming/ climate change conspiracy theory” (which alleges that the science behind global warming has been created or distorted for ideological or financial reasons).
The two periods in history that marked an era of social change – the second industrial revolution (the year 1900) and the Cold War (the late 1940s and the early 1950s) – had the highest level of prevalence of Conspiracy theories.
Much to our surprise, even before the modern era, conspiracy theories have existed as long ago as the Roman era, which pertains to the death of the Roman emperor Nero, who committed suicide in 68 AD. According to scientists, the two periods in history that marked an era of social change – the second industrial revolution (the year 1900) and the Cold War (the late 1940s and the early 1950s) – had the highest level of prevalence of Conspiracy theories.
Why do people believe it?
Predictably, it is not uncommon for some people to believe these theories, even those with little evidence, but why? Studies have also found that people tend to believe in conspiracy theories when the event has a more harmful consequence, and when people experience a higher level of fear, being out of control. When faced with uncertainty, people tend to find ways to understand and control the situation. In this case, people are more likely to turn to conspiracy theories as they offer simplified answers to make sense of unexplained events, thus fostering a sense of control over their lives during negative or unexpected events.
We are also prone to our own cognitive biases that contribute to the process. For example, people tend to believe in things that can strengthen our existing beliefs, thus rendering ourselves more susceptible to conspiracy beliefs that align with our own ones. Next to that, people also are likely to be overly influenced by the first piece of information (Anchoring bias) and overestimating how much others agree with their own beliefs (False Consensus effect).
Conspiracy beliefs turn into a defensive mechanism to strengthen the social bonds among like-minded individuals and symbolize a sense of protection against the groups in a conflicting position.
Another motivation for people to have conspiracy beliefs, according to researchers, is the need for a sense of belonging and community within their own social groups – especially more so when people feel disadvantaged in an event. In such cases, conspiracy beliefs turn into a defensive mechanism to strengthen the social bonds among like-minded individuals and symbolize a sense of protection against the groups in a conflicting position.
A new trend in the conspiracy world
Traditionally, conspiracy theories were discursively used by the powerless to fight against powerful groups but lately, the new trends tell us otherwise. Coined as “the conspiracy without the theory” by political scientists, this new growing trend of conspiracy is characterized by sheer assertion and repetition rather than proof and explanation. Despite zero evidence, such conspiracy rhetoric has been used as a powerful political tool by politicians to suit their political interests, or intensify tension and polarization, leaving believers holding further divided opinions against the opposite groups. (Examples include world leaders like former American President Donald Trump (Chinese lab-leak theory) and Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro (Biological warfare weapon theory), and the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (Foreign conspiracy).
So, what should we do about it?
In an age of conspiracy, there is no such thing as actual reality, but just our perception of reality.
Believing in conspiracy theories has significant consequences, resulting in not only disinformation but also can potentially lead to health and even safety problems. However, the case for changing one’s conspiracy beliefs is no easy task, but prevention might work better than cure, as indicated by a social psychologist at the University of Cambridge. Amid the uncertain times where people are experiencing collective anxieties, we could be susceptible to one of these conspiracies without us knowing it. But perhaps next time when you hear another conspiracy theory, instead of mocking the conspiracy beliefs, try seeking trustworthy information to gain a sense of control, try to think about the deep-rooted issues and the motivations behind each conspiracy belief, and why people think the way they think. After all, in an age of conspiracy, there is no such thing as actual reality, but just our perception of reality. Maybe until then, you can judge who might be the rightful disbeliever, me or the old man.
Cover: Markus Winkle
Edited by: Yili Char