The architects of some of the world’s most popular conspiracy theories are often highly educated academics and scientists.
The vast and viral internet is big business for those who know how to capitalize on our feelings of helplessness and anxiety in the face of this pandemic. Provocative and convoluted claims are proliferating faster than ever.
YouTubers and charismatic conspiracy theorists can make huge sums of money simply by seducing followers into joining their virtual cult of “elite intellectuals.” Followers are flattered into thinking that they are critical thinkers; too smart to be duped by official explanations for world events.
With every follower they secure, fame and fortune follows. They are not only paid passive income for clicks and followers, but they are invited to do speaking engagements and are given book deals.
The latest conspiracy theory claims on social media include a story that 5G towers are amplifying the coronavirus. They go further and say that Bill Gates is responsible for the virus. Some biologists are even claiming that Covid-19 is a massive hoax.
Conspiracy theories, like the ones I just listed, give the impression that they are supported by facts and data. They create the illusion of rigorous research and method. They substitute mainstream explanations with something called pseudo-science, which only mimics the appearance of science but is not science at all.
Conspiracy theories come with long and daunting lists that package facts and falsehoods into one tortured argument.
Advanced technology enables anyone with a computer and internet connection to create realistic charts, graphs, photos and videos of people saying and doing things that they neither said nor did.
Our brains like shortcuts
Conspiracy theories are attractive because our brains like shortcuts to life’s complicated problems. They fulfill a psychological need not a cognitive one. They are motivated by emotions not intellectual curiosity.
Conspiracy theories help us to alleviate chronic anxiety and to regulate self-worth. Both anxiety and fear are positive predictors for the dramatic increase in conspiratorial thinking.
Conspiracy theories allow us to avoid action. If everything is controlled by hidden ‘behind the scenes’ criminal agents then why study, why achieve, why bother? Conspiracy theories isolate people and deprive them of feeling that they can shape their own future.
The deeper you get into the world of conspiratorial thinking, the more depressed you are likely to become, until anger becomes your only antidepressant.
The search for meaning
When there is so much disregard for human life and so much mismanagement and incompetence in the halls of power, it is tempting to believe that secret plots by powerful actors might be responsible. What else could explain such incompetence?
We all have a difficult time accepting that big global problems and injustice could be the result of just evil and stupidity, or some senseless event. We require grand explanations for grand events.
Disease caused by a big conspiracy or by black magic as opposed to a small thing like a mindless virus allows us to feel that the tragedies that punctuate our life on earth have a purpose and are designed to reveal truths that we would have otherwise never gleaned. They allow us to inject meaning into our mundane lives and feel chosen for an extravagant mission.
This is not to say that there is no meaning to life’s tribulations. But meaning that is derived from explanations that invoke God and his ultimate reality is very different in origin and effect than a meaning that we construct to fulfill some psychological need for control and certainty.
The former is a forgoing of our anxieties into the hands of something greater than us. The latter is a Faustian bargain we strike in exchange for a sense of power.
Arrogant speculation grounded in falsehood makes us feel better about ourselves at the expense of truth and of others. Every conspiracy theory relies on creating an enemy as the central theme of its narrative. Usually this enemy is a small invisible group that is controlling the unsuspecting minds and lives of a larger group.
But there is no malevolent group of villainous insiders colluding to destroy the world. The evil force is our own arrogance being leveraged by greedy opportunists who want to exploit our psychological needs, for their own financial and/or political gain.
The biggest mistake we make is imagining that evil and evil doers are more powerful than they actually are.
True power is in mastering reality not altering our perceptions of it. True power is not in demonizing others or dismissing official explanations so we can feel virtuous or smarter by contrast. Belief in conspiracy theories is not an effective coping mechanism. It is not a means to any end, except the end of your rational mind.
If you are struggling with anxiety or self-esteem, do not look for easy explanations or online communities built on supremacist ideas and fake intellectuals. Be courageous enough to recognize reality for what it is and deal with it by strengthening your faith in the big picture, where God is in control, not invisible men in smoke-filled back rooms.
Once you break the pattern or spell of conspiratorial thinking, you might be tempted to go on a crusade to disprove these falsehoods. But the antidote to the spread of false conspiracy theories is not reason, logic and rationality.
Any argument you make against a conspiracy theory, no matter how reasonable, is presented as further proof of how clever the conspirators are. The more you argue against them the more you validate them. It’s simply best to- walk away and never look back.