In this excerpt from Dylan Reeve’s Fake Believe: Conspiracy Theories in Aotearoa, the author wrestles with the questions of why some people propound conspiracy theories – and why some believe them.
More than almost any other question, the thing that I’m asked most often (and the thing I wonder about most often) in relation to conspiracy theories is . . . how?
How do people come to believe these things?
A common assumption is that the people who adopt conspiracy theory belief are, for want of a better word, stupid.
“How could people be this dumb?” observers ask when seeing the outline of some conspiracy belief. “You’d have to be an idiot to believe that!”
But the thing about that idea that has always struck me is that the many believers I’ve spoken to are decidedly not stupid. Many are highly intelligent, some with strong academic backgrounds. They are often people who consider themselves, not unreasonably, to be deep thinkers and naturally inquisitive.
In many ways they often remind me a lot of myself (I’m certainly not academic, but I do spend a lot of time learning and thinking). It’s amazing how often I find that we have similar experiences, ideas and backgrounds.
Of course, that’s not universally true — like any aspect of society, the broad communities that engage in these conspiratorial beliefs entirely defy simple classification.
However, it is important, I think, to recognise that, on a fundamental level, most of the people who are honestly engaging in these ideas are not far removed from ourselves. Indeed, the cognitive quirks that attract people to conspiracy theories are things that we all fall victim to from time to time.
Like me, many of the others I’ve spoken to that study and observe these groups and ideas often find themselves thinking something to the effect of, “There but for the grace of God go I.”
The subject of just why people come to believe these things is certainly not one that is lacking academic study, and no doubt the explosion of conspiratorial narratives in recent years will deliver a similar explosion in further study. But still there remains a lot of disagreement among academics about the drivers of conspiratorial belief, and even in cases where conclusions are widely accepted, they don’t tell us all that much on an individual level.
A 2019 meta-study by Andreas Goreis and Martin Voracek that looked at 13 prior studies about the psychology of conspiracy theory belief, for example, draws a number of plausible and supportable conclusions.
Their study, presented in the journal paper ‘A systematic review and meta-analysis of psychological research on conspiracy beliefs: field characteristics, measurement instruments, and associations with personality traits’, found for example that fear and anxiety, along with paranormal belief, are potentially predictors of a susceptibility to conspiratorial belief. But the study points out that psychological factors aren’t necessarily the only consideration. A number of the studies reviewed by Goreis and Voracek seek to find connections to socio-political factors, and in that direction they see many connections with things like perceived powerlessness, negative attitudes towards authority, and even religious beliefs.
In the end, after reviewing psychological literature on the matter we could arguably end up with some assessment that suggests anxious people, with a distrust of authority and a willingness to believe in ghosts, are more at risk of accepting conspiracy-based ideologies.
But that certainly isn’t to suggest that anyone who fits that description is suddenly about to believe that a global child-trafficking ring is operated out of the basement of a Washington DC pizza restaurant.
In fact, if we’re honest about it, we’d likely accept that many of us could fit the potential psychological profile of someone likely to adopt conspiracist beliefs.
If we honestly assessed any given individual – our cousin who keeps warning us about the Covid vaccine, perhaps – against the many contributing factors that are cited across the vast body of literature, we would certainly find many hits. But, similarly, if we indulged in deep introspection we would certainly find many correlations in ourselves also.
It’s a bit like reading a horoscope after the period it claims to predict – there are always many correlations to be found in retrospect.
I don’t think psychology can tell us who, in a specific way, is going to find their way to these beliefs or even specifically why. But it does shed light on general ideas and factors that make these theories and narratives appealing to people as a larger group.
I often think about the motivations of conspiracy theorists. Many, perhaps even a majority, are good people in the sense that they believe the things they fight against and the ideas they spread are helping people or doing good for society. They are – justifiably, they believe – convinced that their fellow humans are in danger; that there is a vast and secretive effort to harm them.
In their online forums they talk about saving people, and about “waking people up” to the evil that threatens them. They express despair and anguish over what they believe are attacks on the people around them. They vow action against, and accountability for, those who are responsible for the harm they see.
They are, fundamentally, motivated by care and concern.
But this care and concern sees them causing harm themselves. They spread misinformation that can result in people making decisions against their own interests. They amplify and promote ideas that can form the justification that some individuals feel they need in order to threaten, attack or even kill people.
One prominent New Zealand conspiracy theorist – still subject to suppression orders by the courts as I write this – even stands accused of allegedly conducting literal sabotage against infrastructure in the service of his conspiratorial beliefs.
There are also many who weaponise these generally good instincts in others to manipulate them for their own ends. They craft conspiracy narratives and exploit fears and suspicions to radicalise unsuspecting people in ways they might not perceive.
Many conspiracy theories are derived from well-established racist, xenophobic and anti-Semitic ideologies. Extremist political and societal ideas are also readily found among conspiracy theories.
There are, at times, overtly bad actors seeking to seed ideas into a community that’s always ready to believe. They are people who will purposely create content they intend to become a fully formed conspiracy theory.
In some cases, these provocateurs are motivated by a desire to spread their harmful ideologies or to undermine people and ideas they oppose. In other cases, it may be that they are simply in it for “the LOLs” as they might say – seeing their faked claims becoming accepted as a suppressed truth is some type of victory.
The origins and influences of a given conspiracy theory quickly become murky as it is subsumed into a culture that adopts and embellishes it to fit a new idea into existing assumptions, concerns and suspicions. Everything about the environment in which conspiracy theories grow is geared to change, grow and morph them to fit the current moment, or the specific geopolitical situation.
A conspiracy theory rapidly becomes like some massive version of Chinese whispers, in which each step it takes adds a new element or twist.
Typically, ideas are passed, effectively, from person to person with each reporting on it and adding their own spin. On the many conspiracy-oriented alternative news sites, this manifests as original articles that use other sites as sources, which in turn use other sites as sources. Within conspiracy-centric social media channels it tends to be various influencers and wannabe influencers reposting content from higher-profile channels, while adding their own interpretation and speculation on top.
As such it’s usually impossible to meaningfully determine whether some claim was planted with a specifically malicious anti-Semitic intent, for example, or it has just become that because of the ubiquity of existing conspiracy narratives that ultimately see Jewish control at the root of events.
So in the end we find well-intentioned people standing alongside those motivated by existing hateful ideas, all repeating the same claims. Even they can’t necessarily identify one another. As I turn this issue over in my head, it feels to me, in some ways, a lot like religion.
The majority of religious people are, I assume, motivated in large part by good intentions and care for those around them. They often believe that our mortal souls are in danger, and that we are being threatened by evil powers that seek to harm humanity.
These beliefs can lead to well-meaning people doing and saying things that cause real harm. And some aspects of these religious ideas even end up forming a sort of justification for people who threaten, attack and even kill others.
Additionally, there are religious extremists who exploit these beliefs and concerns in order to convince people that they need to take certain actions, or make certain decisions, that might harm themselves or others.