The world seems rife with conspiracy. Never before have we had a population so well educated, yet apparently so vulnerable to believing in vast conspiracy narratives. It seems like a contradiction. Researchers at UCLA have been using AI to work out how such conspiracy theories seem to emerge and subsequently collapse with ever greater velocity. But they struggle to explain why these ideas emerge at all.
The attraction of conspiracy theories is the promise that beneath the apparent chaos of the world is some underlying order and meaning, even if that meaning is negative and the order is destructive. It’s a desire to feel control, to possess agency over one’s own life.
In an ever more individuated and atomised world, the natural human desire for bonding en masse, for submerging into a gestalt and having a sense of belonging, therefore becomes subverted by such theories. Conspiracy theories are less ideas than they are communities.
The question is not why do conspiracy theories occur. They occur because of the human need for meaning and desire for order. Nor is the question how they may be combated or defeated. They can only be challenged and overcome by implementing transparent order in society. Transparent in this sense includes the underlying principles of fairness and dignity, because people will also strive for alternate explanations when they are treated unfairly or suspect they are being stripped of their human dignity.
The question that remains about conspiracy theories is why certain narratives prosper and others do not. To an extent this is a cui bono question – who benefits? Who makes money from proliferating certain conspiracies? And certainly, there are many who make a healthy living propagating nonsense and half-baked ideas to the masses. They may even be acting in good faith, believing in the attenuated and baroque web of connections they themselves are weaving. But more significantly, it’s an issue of what cultural anxieties are exposed by conspiracy theories.
The current most prolific conspiracy theory – that shadowy cabals of elites operating both in and out of the public eye are attempting to implement population reduction and totalitarian rule – is in this sense a throwback to the unequal and undignified social structures of the laissez-faire 19th century or even earlier, to feudalism. But it also expresses very contemporary anxieties about the Covid pandemic, and deeply held suspicions about the democratic unaccountability of transnational bodies in particular, be they the EU, the IMF, the World Economic Forum or the UN.
There are, in short, no easy answers to conspiracy theories, because conspiracy theories ARE the easy answers. They satisfy the atomised citizen’s need to bond in dignity with fellow citizens and they provide a simple and moralistic order against which to resist, thereby providing meaning.
History suggests that people, no matter how well educated, will be inclined to prefer such easy moralistic explanations of the world in which they live. The attraction of such explanations is as hardwired as the desire for sugar or animal fats, and as difficult to break as a habit.
Only a world which offers its citizenry ever greater fairness and dignity, which entrusts them with agency over their own lives, has any hope of competing with the memetic addiction to conspiracy. Until such a world is in place, people will continue to believe that shadowy forces secretly rule the world and wish them harm, be they demons, or Illuminati, Elders of Zion, or psychotic men in the boardrooms of Brussels and Washington.