On Conspiracy Theories, extended

In my first installment I described how traditional authorities used disinformation campaigns to manipulate public opinion and hide their own misdeeds. The late 20th Century information technologies revolution democratized access to the documentation of violations of both civil and human rights on all levels of government around the globe. The facts of these conspiracies could no longer be hidden by the bottlenecks created by subject matter experts and the traditional news media. Anyone with a library card and the patience to do the reading could discover proof of clandestine government programs related to overthrowing elected governments to impose military dictatorships, unethical mind-control experiments, and innumerable cover-ups and propaganda campaigns. Most of these amateur sleuths had no journalistic training or credentials to assist them in publishing the findings of their research. Those who did attempt to inform others would face intense skepticism, incredulity, and even outright character assassination. Thus was born the popular trope of the mentally ill “conspiracy theorist” scrawling incoherent manifestos while protecting their brain under a tinfoil hat.

In the cosmic horror stories of H.P. Lovecraft, the narrators will often assert that if they told anyone their story they would be considered insane. This statement expresses the manifest truth of the danger of engaging with these theories too credulously. When rabbits dig their burrows, they construct blind turns and false pathways to confound predators. A fox might chase a rabbit down a hole only to wriggle out the other end of the warren having never caught the rabbit.

Due to their labyrinthine quality, the tunnels rabbits dig are an apt namesake for a class of mystery where multiple threads lead to confusing dead-ends. Of course, what cements the concept of a “rabbit-hole mystery” in our collective consciousness is the story of a little girl who stepped down into one and found herself in a bizarre alternate reality. Even individuals with robust mental health can be deeply disturbed by the cognitive dissonance that results from entertaining the possibility any of these conspiracy theories could be true.

For those whose mental health has been compromised (by stress, or intoxication, or a chemical imbalance), the line between verifiable reality and the theoretical one can become blurred beyond distinction. Impressionable individuals ill-prepared to parse fact from fiction, or predisposed to magical thinking, are more vulnerable to losing their grip on reality under duress. This fact is often exploited by charlatans and propagandists either for personal gain or to obtain political power.

A popular right wing conspiracy theory spawned from an election year smear campaign has undergone a metamorphosis passing through the looking glass into an outright rejection of verifiable reality. The individuals who elect to accept this set of theories are suspending all disbelief in favor of illogical counter-factual narratives. I know this because I grew up in the neighborhood where it all started. Not only did I grow up there, but, through happenstance, I was living back there when the rumors first emerged.

I know that block of Connecticut Avenue intimately. I fully understand the practical absurdity of running any kind of crime ring out of such a location. There is no hiding on that block. There are security cameras everywhere, observation points abound, it is just a bad place to try doing anything that is supposed to be clandestine. The grade of the hill and soil under the roads make it a practical impossibility to have secret tunnels in that location. They’d be flooded, and with repeated flooding they’d be washed out and there would be sinkholes opening.

Those who accept these theories as plausible are necessarily rejecting fundamental principles of natural science to believe impossible things are real. Personally, I have no problem with folk making the choice to believe impossible things that improve their material existence. So long as they are not doing harm to anyone else with those beliefs. And, this is where these conspiracy theories become hard to handle. Because, some of them do far more harm than others.

For those of us living in the United States these disjointed realities are manifesting as an unexpected aberration. But, to those of us who have been tracking this phenomena since the 1980’s, everything happening today falls into a pattern. A painfully predictable pattern…

10 thoughts on “On Conspiracy Theories, extended”

  1. You’ve got me thinking and overthinking. I think the number of conspiracy theories, the hordes of conspiracy theorists, and the number of people they are affecting is on the rise. Many of these are harmful to whole communities on a very large scale (for example, anti-vaxxers claiming that vaccines cause autism). However, I must agree with you, if an individual has a belief in some sort of conspiracy theory, and it is not to the detriment of anyone else, all the best to them.

    BTW, I loved the Alice in Wonderland references.

    1. Hi Vera, thanks for sharing your thoughts. It is absolutely true that we now live in a time where anyone with an internet connection can put in their tinfoil hat and spread wild far out theories to millions of likeminded individuals. I’m on the fence about whether they can ever be fully harmless, although there is a distinct difference between thinking the government is lying about UFO’s (which seems increasingly likely to be true and harms no one) and believing a particular religious minority are secretly running the global economy (something which is not only false but exceptionally harmful).

  2. I also think that the number and type of conspiracy theories are on the rise. Whether it is harmful or not is dependent upon how it manifests. A belief on its own isn’t really harmful, as it is something inside someone’s head. However, when that belief develops into behaviours that affect the individual and others around them, it can be quite harmful indeed.

    1. Caroline, that is a valid perspective to take. To me, they become harmful when they cause believers to disengage from the material reality. When they become a proxy for religious beliefs and unprovable assertions turn into articles of faith, it can subvert critical thinking making the individual more susceptible to propaganda. Many conspiracy theories are a direct product of propaganda campaigns, and the rest are attempts to explain the truths that the propaganda was meant to obscure.

  3. Speaking about the government lying, have you read Operation Mockingbird? It’s about how the CIA “allegedly” attempted to use news media for propaganda purposes during the early cold war years. Interesting book. I have read each one of your articles and they have definitely got my gears going. You have touched on subjects, that always interest me. I have saved your stuff in my favorites bar in case you write more.

    1. Thank you for commenting. Yes, I am aware of Op. Mockingbird. Probably one of their least disturbing plots, honestly. I’ve been working on a follow up to this article and you can expect to see the 3d instalment of my series On Witch Hunts posted very soon.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.