Republic of Lies: the rise of conspiratorial thinking and the actual conspiracies that fuel it

Originally published at: https://boingboing.net/2019/09/21/from-opioids-to-antivax.html

2 Likes

Rings very true to me. I grew up in a far left milieu in the 80s and 90s and unfortunately I came across flirtations with certain conspiracy theories, the ‘CIA created AIDS’ theory for example. I mostly saw these as the emotional pain/frustration from real world ills being projected onto a smaller and much neater sub-problem (imagined or not) where it was a lot easier to channel one’s frustration at something/someone specific.

16 Likes

Well the internet certainly DOES serve as a better marketplace for niche ideas, just as it serves as a better marketplace for niche products. So anybody that is predisposed to believe something can find a sufficient number of like minded people for a conspiracy theory to go from crazy to accepted wisdom.

12 Likes

I was just about to quote this same passage because it rings very true to me as well. I think people go beyond the levee example where a historical event is updated to a new situation to become a conspiracy theory. People know they are being screwed by unseen forces and they become unmoored from reality. Maybe theories you thought were nuts before are actually true from chem trails to flat earth.

Also, I blame X-Files and Chris Carter.

6 Likes

The whole conspiracy theory thing is both interesting and confusing. What is it that leads someone to lend more credence to an implausible idea, than to believe overwhelming evidence to the contrary?

  1. Conspiracy theories make the true believer into an insider, with secret knowledge that others miss.

  2. Conspiracy theories fit into a world view where EVERYTHING is confusing and unknowable, therefore why can’t the conspiracy be just as plausible as actual facts?

  3. It is the very implausibility of a conspiracy theory that makes it attractive. It SEEMS impossible, so it must be true. The more evidence that is presented to disprove a conspiracy theory, the more it must be true.

  4. The huge volume of available information overwhelms some people, making it harder so them to discern fact from fiction.

  5. People spend their entire lives being inundated with advertisements and political information which are illogical, exaggerations, or distortions of fact, and all designed to convince the unwary into trusting an unreliable source.

  6. As @simonize notes, there is no theory so outlandish that you can’t find corroboration from others on the internet. Encouragement from others goes a long way.

  7. Certain personality types draw encouragement and nourishment from opposition. The more opposition they draw, the better they feel, and the stronger their convictions grow.

13 Likes

My own hypothesis is that conspiracy theories are a pathology of class consciousness. Feel like there’s a nameless, faceless THEY that makes all the calls, that lies to you all the time, and that absolutely does not have your best interests at heart?

Well…

…you aren’t wrong.

If you are a normal person there is a conspiracy against you, there has always been a conspiracy against you. The system does not have your best interests in mind. The system (even without any malice from its actors!) simply sees you as a resource to be consumed. Always a part of the means, never a part of the end.

The pathology comes when instead of figuring out what’s to blame[1] which is hard work (especially since the left’s been pretty firmly hijacked) you simply alight on a satisfying story that lets you blame someone with a face. See, it’s not very emotionally satisfying to blame ‘fundamental deep-down inadequacies in the way we organize into larger groups and how we prioritize resource distribution’ because you can’t punch those. It’s best to blame… oh, whoever. The Other. Reptile people. Doesn’t really matter, as long as you have licence to hate them and they have faces you can punch. And since no group, no possible group can influence the world to the extent it’s actually broken, it’s natural to start ascribing to them impossible powers, infinite wealth, divine foresight. Eventually it makes quite a story. And people like stories.

[1] The crusty old lefty in me wants to say ‘capitalism’ but it goes deeper than that to the very foundations of how societies structure themselves and what human-nature-in-groups is.

So what you have is the belief into a sort of protean half-formed conspiracy that gets concretized either by a story you tell yourself or a story you hear that seizes on the elements already present. This is why it looks like a contagion. The people ‘infected’ already believe. They just aren’t, quite, sure what it is they believe in until they hear someone with a slick story that covers so beautifully precisely the half-formed thoughts they’ve been having.

But I didn’t do the research on this. It’s just an impression I’ve formed from reading about this.

28 Likes

I think you are onto something.

6 Likes

I’d extend digital technology’s role in the rise of conspiracy culture beyond algorithmic people-finding, powerful though it is. Years before social media and the engagement video model, tech was making itself useful by democratising an ability to create a fast-moving memetic contagion that was formerly only available to those who owned actual printing presses or TV studios.

For example, prior to the late 1980s most conspiracy peddling cranks and charlatans (with notable exceptions like John Birch or the Cult of $cientology) were only able to spread their woo through mimeographed or photocopied typewritten newsletters (hence the famous Simpsons gag). Once GUI word processors and spell checkers and clip art were available, though, anyone with a Mac or PC could put out a professional-looking product that could draw in more rubes looking for someone to blame for their woes (of which the U.S. has always had a particularly large supply).

Then there was distribution. Before 1994 it was word-of-mouth and sidewalk booths for the most part, maybe with some light classified advertising. The Web changed that – if you had basic HTML skills and could grab an official-sounding domain and register your site on Yahoo or Altavista, that nicely formatted newsletter could reach even more traumatised people who lacked critical thinking skills.

I could go on with webrings, digital video, cheap digital ads, and SEO, but the point is that social media’s algorithmic people-finding is only the latest wrinkle in the growth of a medium for spreading conspiracy theories (and lots of other garbage).

In addition to the role of more accessible and affordable technology, I’d add the democratisation of disinformation tactics. The same period saw the American public becoming more aware of how corporations and governments use disinformation and black propaganda through revelations about the tobacco industry and the CIA’s meddling in elections over the late 20th century. Some conspiracy theorists (especially bad actors like Alex Jones) were more focused on the efficacy of these techniques than that they were on their being used by truly destructive actual conspiracies against the public.

All this goes along with an increasing number of potential marks that emerged from growing inequality and from both parties prioritising corporations over humans. I’d add to that the failure of public K-12 education when it comes to teaching critical thinking skills and new forms of media literacy (not that they were particularly good with the old forms) – it’s almost as if there’s a … conspiracy at work there! [dramatic music]

13 Likes

That feels like a rather useful framework. Thanks for putting it out there.

6 Likes

See also:
“The Paranoid Style in American Politics”, by Richard Hofstadter, published in Harper’s Magazine in 1964.

Overview:

The actual thing:

TL;DR - Paranoia and conspiratorial thinking are deep-seated features of American politics, and have been here from the start.

10 Likes

I want to individually like every one of the sentences in your reply.

7 Likes

I recommend reading the Illuminatus! trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson, which I’m sure many of you have, but for those that haven’t, read it at least three times:

  1. The first time through, you’ll have a wonderfully weird trip through a bizarre yet epic story.
  2. The second time through, you will begin to notice Hidden Connections in the real world that you feel the books have opened your eyes to.
  3. The third time, (or some subsequent time through) if you’ve been paying attention, you will finally notice certain things in the books that will bring up questions in your mind that will completely flip your prior understanding of it.

And then, if you are diligent and lucky enough to reach that point, you will have much better critical understanding of conspiracies and conspiracy theories, and why so many people can fall for the latter.

Reading R.A.W.'s other works (especially his nonfiction) can help bring you to that third step. Reading Robert Shea’s other books will make playing the Assassin’s Creed games more fun.

6 Likes

I’d put the blame more squarely on social media than the broader internet. The internet helped me find things I like. Social media helped things I didn’t like find me.

9 Likes

Absolutely! My particular hobby horse has long been to advocate for a mandatory class in basic logic at the high school level. Just having a guided tour through the many forms of logical fallacy would be tremendously useful in dealing with the world. We don’t need to teach them WHAT to think, we need to teach them HOW to think.

12 Likes

The third thing missing as a mandatory standard K-12 course in personal finance. All three courses are present in various forms in individual schools and districts, but there are no state-wide and national standards.

8 Likes

Another key marker that research has identified is authority. A conspiracy means someone is in charge. People feel so disenfranchised that they would rather believe that bad people are in charge rather than nobody being in charge. It’s more comforting that some malevolent entity is in control (and can be fought) rather than accept that the world is a messy, imperfect, mostly random place where a lot of bad things happen for no good reason.

7 Likes

> "The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 isn’t a conspiracy theory, it’s just a conspiracy. "

The fact is that there ARE conspiracies afoot all the time. Every business meeting is a conspiracy against business competitors. Every crime planned is a conspiracy. Most political strategies are a form of conspiracy as are most sessions of a client with a lawyer. So is most advertising. What is highly unusual, in fact, is transparency, and open public honesty.

The problem is that most people do not know how to evaluate data. Take the case of whether Jeffrey Epstein was murdered in jail. Most people think that if his death was due to a conspiracy, it can only be evaluated using the available evidence from the scene of the “suicide”. And that all the “conspiratorial” factors, like the powerful people who stood to lose a lot if he testified, or the fact of multiple failures of personnel,cameras, and suicide watch misevaluation are interesting but irrelevant.

But this is false. All of these factors are indeed important, because all of them bear on the prior probabilities of whether he was likely to be murdered, according to Bayesian analysis. See:

I think that people too readily use the term “Conspiracy theory” to denigrate or disparage what may well be a true conspiracy ( ie, people working in secret to secure advantage). And that we have become too ready to dismiss prior probabilities as irrelevant.

5 Likes

So…
if conspiracies are real, then we’re not paranoid, just paying attention?
Some of the real conspiracies are crazier than the conspiracy theories!

6 Likes

“The internet helped me find things I like. Social media helped things I didn’t like find me.”

I love this.

Part of it for me is being brought up to see most criticism of the internet from a framework of 1st amendment defense, or idea marketplace oppeness, and yet after so much time as an adult realizing people are too afraid to be “that” person to ask about boundary or regulation. The slippery slope fear of idea suppression is so ingrained, but after anytime now on social media I keep silently wondering this cant be it, the aspirational online forums we envision, there has to be a better dialogue where we separate discussion of ideas from insistence of ideas, invitation from algorithmic visibility.

1 Like

Care to respond, provide a response?

1 Like