The Psychology and Economy of Conspiracy Theories
Why do people believe in conspiracy theories, and who's profiting from the industry they've created?
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
Within hours of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, internet forums were buzzing with alternative explanations for the attack. "The official story doesn't add up," people typed furiously into their keyboards. "We're being lied to."
Over the next few days, the rumors spread. Apparent glitches in reporting—as well as the "suspicious" suicide of the detective in charge of the investigation—were taken as evidence of subterfuge.
Most doubters, however, focused on scrutinizing amateur video footage of the event, asking whether policeman Ahmed Merabet was really shot in the head.. The questioning makes for grim reading. "Where's the blood? Why no splatter?" asked Reddit users. Others offered rebuttals, posting videos of bloodless shootings and suggesting: "Heads don't explode like watermelons."
A long, imaginative list of alternative explanations was offered: It was a false flag attack, executed by Mossad to fuel anti-Muslim sentiment; it was carried out by the CIA for the same reason; it was French Jews; it was a "black-op power bloc operation" to back up the war on terror; Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said that the West "playing games with the Islamic world."
Regardless of their source, the Charlie Hebdo rumors have all the hallmarks of a classic conspiracy theory. Apparent discrepancies in the way the story was reported are jumped on, and the official version of events is discredited. From there, a leap is made to another, alternate, explanation, and evidence is gathered in support. The same thing happened after the murder of journalist James Foley, when critics suggested that the video was staged. Debunkers, in this case, asked why the West would bother faking an Islamic State beheading when the group has already carried out so many.
But how unique is the conspiracy theory-creation process? Plenty of bad journalism follows the same formula, and many an article is based on flimsy evidence and pseudoscience, or distorted by exaggerations. In the case of Charlie Hebdo, for instance, we were misled by pictures of world leaders apparently heading up the march in Paris, when really they'd just gathered in a cordoned-off street to have their photo taken.
Of course, "conspiracy theorists" is a blanket term, lumping together those who believe we're ruled by scaly lizard people with those who simply question the role of Big Pharma. Some—perhaps unsurprisingly—would like to see the name ditched altogether.
"It's a loaded term," says Chris, a friend of mine with a penchant for what most would call conspiracy theories. "It's merely a label applied to certain stories, usually to distinguish them from stories which the user of the label wishes to promote or defend by limiting the parameters of debate.
"I doubt most of what I am told, especially by those in authority, who may have an agenda to advance. The circumstances of the Charlie Hebdo attacks seem very suspicious to me, and the evidence for the official theory lacks credibility. Historical precedent also suggests that alternative narratives may be more likely."
In the US, Mick West runs the website metabunk.org, pulling in 10,000 unique visitors a day. He reckons the Charlie Hebdo rumors were predictable.
"It's nonsense," he says. "But sadly it seems like the expected response now. People pick up normal inconsistencies in the initial reporting of a chaotic situation and claim these things are significant. They always make claims about blood and injuries, but seem to be basing their expectations on the depictions of violence in movies and video games.
"It's just cherry-picking, with a strong confirmation bias. The people telling you these things have only one goal: to convince you it was fake. They amplify every little thing that seems to help their case, and they ignore everything that does not."
Conspiracy theories have been around for as long as human beings have been able to articulate the feeling that someone is trying to stitch them up. In living memory, theories have been espoused around the assassination of JFK, Hitler's death, the moon landings, Area 51, Princess Diana's death, the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, climate change, Obama's birth, whether Obama is in fact the Antichrist, AIDS, cancer, 9/11, chemtrails, the MMR vaccine, the Sandy Hook massacre, FEMA camps, the beheading of James Foley, Ebola, the Islamic State, the Scottish independence referendum, the Rosetta mission, and, of course, the Illuminati. And that's just a handful.§
Academics, too, have been trying to get their head around it.
"People who believe in conspiracy theories tend to feel they don't have a lot of control over their lives," says University of Winchester psychology lecturer Michael Wood. "It's reassuring to believe the world can be controlled, even if that means it's not a nice place."
Wood says that being a conspiracy theorist is just another world view, no different from being a diehard liberal or a full-on, fox-killing Tory. While right-wingers might see the Charlie Hebdo attack as evidence that uncontrolled immigration leads to problems, and those on the left suggest it's what happens when a group is marginalized, conspiracy theorists are more likely to go for the false flag explanation.
Robert Brotherton, Research Fellow at Goldsmiths, University of London, says believing in conspiracy theories fits with the way our brains make sense of the world.
"One of our psychological biases is that, whenever anything ambiguous happens, we connect the dots," Brotherton says. "The basis of many conspiracy theories is simply connecting the dots. Another is proportionality bias. When JFK got shot, people wanted to think that something big caused that, not just that some guy you'd never heard of could have killed the president."
But are there any factors that could signal a propensity to believe? Metrics like gender and income haven't been correlated with a belief in conspiracy theories, and there really isn't enough data available on the topic to say for certain whether—statistically—you're more likely than somebody else of a different socioeconomic group, for instance, to believe.
The advent of the internet is not thought to have swelled the ranks of conspiracy theory believers because, as quickly as the theories can be shared online, so too can their rebuttals. Some theories are plain stupid, others are less easy to dismiss.
Innate paranoia can't be a good starting point, but then not all conspiracies are a figment of the paranoid imagination. The black ops, coverups, and covert missions carried out by governments and secret services around the world are too lengthy to list in full. But to throw out a few, we've had Operation Gladio, the CIA and MI5's role in the overthrow of democratically elected governments around the world, Watergate, the Hillsborough cover-up, the Wikileaks revelations, the NSA scandal, and the discovery that, in 1990, PR firm Hill and Knowlton was behind fake testimony from a 15-year-old Kuwaiti "refugee," Nayirah, who swore she'd seen Iraqi troops killing babies.
Problem is, you can't believe every theory you hear, because many are clearly bullshit. Most of the "OPEN YOUR EYES SHEEPLE" stories you see being shared on Facebook come from sites with just as transparent an agenda as Fox News; conspiracy theories are an industry and a handful of people are doing very well out of it.
Alex Jones, who spews forth conspiracy theories from Infowars and other platforms, is estimated to make more than $10 million a year. Right-wing mogul Glenn Beck—who's spawned a number of bizarre theories—reportedly earned $90 million in the year from June 2012 to June 2013. Back in the UK, David Icke isn't exactly on the breadline, with an estimated $9 million net worth, much of which will have been generated through book and merchandise sales, and from tickets to the live shows where he rambles on about reptilians from the fourth Dimension ruling the world.
Plenty of conspiracy theory-espousing websites are making money through pay-per-click advertising, and you're as likely to come across a pop-up window for online gambling as herbal remedies. Make no mistake—for some, "discovering" conspiracies is a job. This isn't to say they aren't true believers, but it is in their interest to "uncover" a constant stream of conspiracies.
And all these conspiracy theories they're "uncovering" can do real harm. Antisemitic hoax document the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which claims to be a plan for global Jewish domination, has been reprinted across the globe, most notably by the Nazis in 1933. The Protocols not only served as a model for conspiracy theories—some now claim that the "Jews" depicted in Protocols are a cover identity for other groups such as the Illuminati, or, according to Icke, extra-dimensional entities—but the document's message still reverberates around conspiracy theory forums, on which Jewish groups are posited as conspiracy masterminds with depressing regularity.
In 1998, The Lancet published a study suggesting a possible link between the MMR vaccine and autism. The article was discredited and the author banned from practicing medicine. Numerous other studies have shown no such link. Nonetheless, 17 years later, many parents still subscribe to the theory that the government is trying to give their children autism in order to appease Big Pharma and, as a result, whooping cough and measles are on the rise.
Individuals have been targeted as a result of these theories. There's a movement of people who don't believe the Sandy Hook massacre really happened, suggesting it was an operation designed to revoke rights to gun ownership. Fanatics have harassed the parents of murdered children and stolen memorial signs.
A questioning of the mainstream press seems sensible—there are direct pressures from shareholders and advertisers, there's sloppy reporting and there are agendas—but knee-jerk disbelief of anything reported by a major news source is misguided. Mainstream outlets frequently question the government and publish things those in power would rather they didn't.
Meanwhile, slavishly agreeing with everything you get from WorldTruth.tv is as sophisticated as pinning a "FUCK THE SYSTEM" badge to a branded sweatshirt made in a Bangladeshi sweatshop.
Perhaps Chris is right; the term "conspiracy theory" covers too much ground to be useful. David Cameron recently described those concerned about the alleged coverup of a VIP pedophile ring as "conspiracy theorists." His intention: to instantly discredit them.
But danger lies in using the small amount of energy you have for politics on chasing illusions. There are plenty of real problems to confront. Question mainstream news, sure, but don't fall into the trap of believing everything you read on Infowars and its ilk. Everyone has an agenda.
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