A conspiracy theory is a belief about, or an explanation for, some kind of event or situation in the world that suggests that someone or something is ‘behind’ the event or situation and making it happen or controlling the narrative. Many people who believe conspiracy theories imagine that whoever or whatever is behind it is incredibly powerful and that they are relatively powerless. Sometimes conspiracy theories are related to political figures or billionaires and sometimes are religious in nature. Conspiracy theories may appear rational or backed up by evidence, but further investigation and use of reason will usually expose their inconsistency and that other ways of explaining whatever is happening are much more likely.
In today’s world, and especially during the Covid-19 pandemic, conspiracy theories have become more and more prolific. One of the reasons why conspiracy theories have become so prolific is the ubiquity of internet access and the increased amount of time people spend online.
‘Truth’ as in the phrase ‘living your truth’ has become a mantra for self-expression
In order to understand more about conspiracy theories, we need to think about concepts of truth, the phenomenon of ‘fake news’, the power of denial and resistance, and how we look for, receive and process information. We could also consider whether faith can be a factor in helping us not fall prey to conspiracy theories that could be potentially damaging to us and lead us to bad decisions.
What is true?
We often think we know the difference between ‘truth’ and ‘untruth’, but in today’s western world especially, we are offered a series of different ‘truths’ about the way the world is, and the sense that everyone’s ‘truth’ can be different. ‘Truth’ as in the phrase ‘living your truth’ has become a mantra for self-expression, the right to assert oneself in any form or in any way one chooses, and thereby has become associated with human rights to be defended. ‘Truth’ can be more related to ideology and uncontested assertion and can become siloed, so it is not the result of agreed understanding after debate, interrogation and critical thinking, or arisen from investigation and agreed findings, but can be claimed by a person simply because they ‘feel’ it.
It is important to distinguish between the content of truth-claims and the processes which generate them. It is the processes which we have to look at in order to understand conspiracy theory.
One of the important drivers in creating a choice between different kinds of truths, is the concept of fake news, much pushed by former President Trump. He argued that large numbers of news items about him were untrue and made up to discredit him and present him in a bad light, whereas whatever he said about events was ‘his’ truth and to be believed because he was the President. He said this version of truth should not be contested, because media reporting was inevitably designed and politically motivated to undermine and discredit him. This argument helped consolidate his support among those already supporting him, because the concept of ‘fake news’ meant that they could easily dismiss any poor results or objective analysis of his presidency. Mr Trump’s insistence that he was consistently the target of fake news has strengthened the ongoing QAnon conspiracy theory which alleges that President Trump is still actually President and even now working away behind the scenes to combat Satanic and paedophilic activity within the White House. Some online forums have become places where these ideas are discussed and consolidated and many of their participants believe President Trump is an agent of God still working against the powers of evil. Conspiracy theories about Satanic and paedophilic behaviour at the highest level also circulate in the UK.
As seen in the QAnon conspiracy, denial of facts and evidence is a powerful driver behind conspiracy theories. Psychological studies have shown that in the face of atrocity and tragedy, some people refuse to accept it and create an edifice of reason which blots out having to face awful reality. It is like denial in the face of bereavement, when the shock of someone’s death is too much to take in at first. Such denial is well documented: some experiences seem to be too enormous to process for some people. For example, many people blotted out events going on around them in Nazi Germany, refusing to believe the ‘truth’ of the disappearances of their neighbours. Some Americans refuse to believe that 9/11 happened and that the whole event was staged and is some sort of ongoing piece of performance art. Similarly, some people simply refuse to believe things they find worrying or hurtful. There are parents with underperforming children who argue that their children are supernatural or from another planet and actually super-special. ‘Underperformance’ is for them a conspiracy enacted by the state to prevent ‘their’ truth from being revealed.
This process of denial is both dangerous and protective. It protects the self from horror, from guilt and shame, and from overwhelming experiences. At the same time it can expose people to danger, and consolidate into refusal to engage with the world in case dangerous and wounding experiences somehow seep in. In order to cope with the denial, others must be shut out or converted. Evidence and experience which support the thing too dreadful to contemplate must be attacked or frozen out. It is interesting the lengths some people will go to, to make their denial real, such as photographing empty hospital corridors and then claiming that this demonstrates that there is no crisis and no virus. Further research is being done into so-called ‘innocent denials’ of things like genocide, where people have no political or personal interest in concealing the horror, yet continue to do so.
Anxiety, fear and confusion about power and powerlessness often lead to conspiracy theories based on denial of evidence. For example, during the pandemic there have been a number of anxiety driven conspiracy theories, including the ‘plandemic’ which suggests there is no virus and it has been made up to control people and frighten them; the ‘China-lab’ theory which suggests that the virus was deliberately unleashed by powerful groups or nations to wipe out certain sorts of people (including Global Majority Heritage people); and the ‘Great Reset’ which suggests that powerful financial organisations or billionaires are seeking to deprive people of their jobs and wealth through the virus and control all the world’s money for themselves. Similarly, people have been intensely worried that fast-produced vaccination could be about controlling them through microchips or poisoning people or making people infertile. These worries about the virus and vaccination have led to anti-vaxxer conspiracy theories, scare stories, testimonies about control and destruction and escalating worry and fear.
How we get information to feed conspiracy theories
Conspiracy theories cannot be maintained without a drip feed of confirmatory material. In today’s internet culture, people tend to read the things which feed their biases and strengthen them. So there are many online platforms which people can join which bolster their opinions and hear them confirmed in an echo-chamber where the favoured vocabulary is repeated continually. When all your friends agree with you, you tend to ignore your critical reasoning faculties in favour of your trusted relationships.
The truth about God which Jesus offers to his hearers does the opposite of conspiracy theory
With Covid 19, as a completely new and never seen before disease, and where so much about it is unknown, we have been dependent on the language and explanations of others to send us information. Consequently, if the language of government, medical experts and news reports becomes too difficult to manage, people may turn to the comforting words of those who reassure them that there is no virus and nothing to fear.
Some Covid-related conspiracy theories have proved remarkably resistant to counter-argument and evidence and, worryingly, have sometimes divided parents from children, such that their children simply do not recognise them anymore. Damaged relationships are a significant corollary of conspiracy theory belief. This raises questions about how people develop ideas, belief-systems and faith and how these can consolidate into behaviour which alarms or distresses others (as is sometimes seen in cult adherence or radicalisation). This raises further questions about what is ‘evidence’? How do you know (or believe) something is true and then adopt that to your mental worldview? Why are some ideas so resistant to internal scrutiny and why do some theories become so entrenched that even children are estranged from their parents and cannot even speak to them anymore?
The Christian perspective
From a Christian perspective, if we look at what Jesus Christ has to say about truth and belief, then we will understand that it should be a liberating, discursive, open, experience-sharing concept. Jesus had an important conversation about the truth of who he was and what he had come to do with a woman at a well, where the woman was amazed that he was actually allowing her to ask questions. The truth about God which Jesus offers to his hearers does the opposite of conspiracy theory by prioritising the importance of powerless, frightened people, providing reassurance and consolation, and driving out fear, even the fear about death and what happens to us then. The gospels say that people who encountered Jesus instinctively felt drawn to truth about the world and God that he offered and followed him because they were invited to explore it and experience it for themselves.