Admit it, we’ve all done it. It’s 2am, one of “those” nights where you are just unable to sleep. You find yourself on a YouTube bender watching video after video, or somehow falling into a Reddit spiral. Suddenly, you’re a hyper-aware being: the Illuminati is real, our government has covered up UFO sightings, the moon landing was faked, and don’t forget about those damn Chemtrails.
Conspiracy? I think not.
Although often criticised and debunked, the rise of conspiracies within a virtual space is an interesting way for us to explore the world around us and make sense of all the chaos. It’s important to understand what drives a conspiracy, the blurring reality, and the impact of our perception of the world around us.
Then and Now
Conspiracy theories are not a new concept. Some of the most notable conspiracy theories of our time include:
- The US Government faked the moon landing in 1969
- Belief in UFOs, extraterrestrials and questioning the Roswell Incident of 1947
- The growing number of people who believe the world is flat, dubbed flat-earthers
- The growing number of people questioning the events of the attack on the World Trade Centre in 2001, or 9/11 ‘truthers’.
- Belief in a group of the rich and elite called The Illuminati are controlling world events, trying to bring about the new world order
- Chemtrail conspiracy theorists, who believe our governments control our weather and have the potential to poison us all
While some of these theories may seem far-fetched, it is undeniable that things happen in our world which simply don’t add up. A research study in the American Journal of Political Science found there has been a notable growth in the belief of conspiracy theories, with approximately half of Americans between 2006 and 2011 having publicly endorsed at least one conspiracy theory. It is naive to believe that our governments are entirely transparent in all social, political and scientific advances.
In fact, there are many examples of conspiracy theories that have been proven true. One famous example is the conspiracy theory that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of the United States have experimented with mind control, using substances such as LSD. The project, commencing in 1953 and named MK-ULTRA saw the CIA undertake an extensive, unethical series of psychological experiments involving hypnosis, shock therapy and hallucinogens. It is, however, the conspiracy theorists who refuse to accept scientific evidence or who promote conspiracies to defame or stigmatize groups within society that can give this community a bad name.
Popularisation of Conspiracy Theories
With YouTube becoming a popular platform for content-creators sharing their conspiracy theory ideas, the modern day conspiracy has become more outrageous, questioning the involvement of celebrities and popular icons within conspiracy theories. A cultivator in this space is none other than Shane Dawson, an early adopter of YouTube with 13.5 million subscribers, his content has changed dramatically over the years. His conspiracy videos are usually a mix of popular culture conspiracy theories, and elements of larger, more sinister conspiracy theories such as the questionable disappearance of flight MH370. A highlight from this particular episode is an overview of the conspiracy that blew up online that Mattress stores could be a money laundering front.
Another big influence in the conspiracy theorist communities is Alex Jones, host of popular US radio show Infowars who has been given the title of America’s most prominent conspiracy theorist. Infowars is known as America’s conservative conspiracy theory outlet. Jones has become infamous for fuelling a range of inflammatory conspiracy theories including that 9/11 was an inside job and perpetuating anti-vaccination ideologies. Similarly, Infowars has claimed that high profile mass shootings in America are, in fact, hoaxes, staged by the government, and “crisis actors” who are used to push new gun laws. Jones has received six defamation lawsuits following his claims that the Sandy Hook shooting of 2012 was faked for political gain and that the families who were televised grieving their loved ones were actually crisis actors.
There is a growing concern that YouTube’s algorithm can distort truth and spread conspiracies not grounded in any truth. Research published by Algo Transparency suggests that the content algorithm amplifies videos that are divisive, sensational and conspiratorial. YouTube has attempted to stop the spread of false information as well as hate speech, banning content creators and issuing warnings to channels such as infowars for making false claims and slanderous remarks.
The psychology of the Conspiracy
It is important to remember that conspiracy theorists are diverse and are from all walks of life, not just your typical tin-foil hat wearing basement weirdos. There are a lot of personal indicators that drive belief in conspiracy, the first being political extremism, whereby individuals are inclined to believe in conspiracies to make sense of societal events. Mental well-being has also proved to be a strong indicator for belief in conspiracy theories, a study examining the link between attachment styles and belief in conspiracy theories found that participants higher in anxious attachment style were predisposed to belief in conspiracies.
Similarly, another study suggests that conspiracy beliefs are a form of motivated reasoning which refers to the unconscious tendency to of people to process information in a way that suits their agenda. This is also the notion that people are motivated to engage in reasoning processes aimed at maintaining or bolstering their attitudes in the face of attitude challenging information. Which could explain why, in the face of so much scientific evidence, people still hold outlandish beliefs.
From Crop Circles, to Conclusions
In a world filled with many mysterious happenings and unanswered questions – conspiracy theories are a way to engage in critical thinking. Similarly, conspiracy theory culture online does not need to be divisive, and can be a fun way to explore the spooky, the peculiar and the unknown. Forget nothing, question everything, explore the world of conspiracies, and don’t forget your tin-foil hat!