A conspiracy theory is defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “a theory that explains an event or set of circumstances as the result of a secret plot by usually powerful conspirators”. Another definition given is, “a theory asserting that a secret of great importance is being kept from the public”.

Conspiracy theories are not a new phenomenon. Though many different conspiracy theories have been developed, evolved, and debunked through the years, there are still a few widely popular conspiracy theories that are prevalent today.

Professor Fraser McNeill, Associate Professor in the Anthropology and Archaeology Department at the University of Pretoria, told PDBY that the popularity of conspiracy theories is closely connected to economic inequality. “I think there is a relationship between increasing global economic inequality (and local manifestations of this) and the extent to which people are more likely to believe in, or at least entertain, the possibility of conspiracy theories.” Prof. McNeill added that conspiracy theories have been around for a long time, such as in “ideas that the Freemasons conspire to empower themselves or that senior politicians worship Satan”. He went on to say that he“think[s] these can also be explained by people trying to make sense of mysterious processes of making and maintaining power and wealth”. Another reason given by Prof. McNeill for the popularity of conspiracy theories is that “it’s much easier to believe that this small group of people gain their power from ritual sacrifices, drinking the blood of virgins, etc, than to try and understand how neoliberalism has created the inequality that we currently live with”.

In the article, “Conspiracy theories: why are they thriving in the pandemic?”, written by Rod Dacombe on The Conversation, the possibility that the pandemic contributed to the rise in popularity of conspiracy theories is discussed. According to this article, conspiracy theories were equally popular during previous pandemics, such as the Black Death in the 1300s, the Russian flu of the late 19th century, and the 1918 flu pandemic. During times of uncertainty, people are constantly looking for explanations. Conspiracy theories provide individuals with these explanations, however bizarre they might be.

It needs to be noted that social media also contributed to rise of conspiracy theories during the current pandemic. Although conspiracy theories were very prominent during the previous pandemics, the ability to share stories and articles instantly through social media allows for a much wider reach. Conspiracy theories have grown in popularity over the past few years, especially due to the presence of conspiracy theorists on social media platforms, such as Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok. These social platforms attract a large audience and allow for viewers to like, comment, and share the content videos posted across the world.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, social media contributed to the spread of conspiracy theories. YouTube was the first notable social media platform to contribute to the popularity of conspiracy theories, particularly through YouTube sensations like Mark Dice, Paul Joseph Watson, and All Time Conspiracies. While multiple conspiracy theorists’ accounts have been suspended, a few still remain. One of these theorists, Paul Joseph Watson, has 1,87 million subscribers and attracted 12 million views on his most popular conspiracy theory video. The article, “The psychology behind conspiracy theories”, by Beth Ann Mayer on Healthline, aims to explain why people are so vulnerable to conspiracy theories. In the article, Dr. John Cook, founder of the website Skeptical Science, states that “when people feel threatened and out of control, it’s natural to want to feel more control and bring order to the randomness by resorting to conspiracy theories”.

Another explanation is that “certain life experiences and personality traits make people more likely to buy into fraudulent claims”. According to clinical psychologist, Dr Carla Marie Manly, individuals “want to believe in their cause and fight for their cause even if their rational mind tells them it’s not something they believe in”. Dr Manly added that “sometimes, people get behind a theory because they agree with the underlying cause”. During difficult times, individuals turn towards groups to feel safe, a defense mechanism that Dr Manly believes to be another reason for individuals’ eagerness to believe conspiracy theories. Dr Manly also says that pride was a contributing factor, explaining that, “for some people, it’s a matter of pride. There are certain people who, until the bitter end, will hold onto something that is not true because they don’t want to believe they’re wrong”. The article added two more factors to explain people’s vulnerability to conspiracy theories, the first being the power of having access to information nobody else has access to, and the second being the level of education an individual has.

“Looking under the tinfoil hat” is a study posted online in the Journal of Personality, where Shauna Bowes and Scott Lilienfeld studied a group of 1927 adults to determine the correlation between conspiracy beliefs and certain personality traits and facets. The outcome of the study noted that “the nonclinical individual prone to conspiratorial ideation is somewhat likely to display a complex mixture of traits including distress, immodesty, impulsivity, and negative affect”. This suggested that certain personality traits could contribute to an individual’s ability to be influenced by conspiracy theories. In the article, “A Theory about Conspiracy Theories”, written by Benedict Carey on The New York Times, the two personalities most susceptible to conspiracy theories are described as firstly, “the injustice collector, impulsive and overconfident, who is eager to expose naïveté in everyone but him-or herself”, and secondly, “a more solitary, anxious figure, moody and detached, perhaps including many who are older and living alone”. Although there are other personality traits that can contribute, these are the most common.

Popular conspiracy theories:

There is a vast network of conspiracy theorists, many with very different conspiracy theories. Prof. McNeill told PDBY that “some of my favourites are that the British Royal Family and some other powerful groups are actually lizards from another planet, in the form of humans. There are pictures where it is said their tails have slipped out of their suits”. Another theory mentioned by Prof. McNeill is “that AIDS is actually the American Institute to Destroy Sex”. A similar theory about a virus is that 5G caused COVID-19. Prof. McNeill emphasised that “all these can be understood by thinking through the relationship between power/wealth, knowledge, and the effect that a small group of people can have on much larger populations”.

‘Pizzagate’, an American conspiracy theory alleging that members of the Democratic Party were involved in a child sex-trafficking ring, linked to Comet Ping Pong, started in early November 2016. Although this theory has been debunked due to the lack of supporting evidence, it resurfaced and merged with another, similar conspiracy theory.

The theory, sparked by “Q”, who eventually became known as QAnon, is an American far-right conspiracy theory that has been documented in American news since October 2017. The theory alleges that a secret group of Satan-worshippers, cannibals, and pedophiles is running a child sex-trafficking ring. It also alleges that this ring plotted against the former president of the United States, Donald Trump. This theory has since been disproven and discredited.

Area 51 is the focus point of another conspiracy theory that originated in the United States. This theory centres around a secret base near Nevada. According to the theories, this base hosts an alien spacecraft, and is also the site of many UFO sightings and abductions.

The latest conspiracy theory regarding COVID-19 is that the vaccine is responsible for a number of deaths. Conspiracy theorists have continued to blame the vaccine for the deaths of people, even though medical facts have indicated otherwise.

The article, “Conspiracy theorists destroy a rational society: resist them”, on Business Live by John Thornhill, highlights a very important reality about this conspiracy theory, which is that “our response to the pandemic will be undermined if the anti-vaxxer movement persuades enough people not to take the vaccine”.

A study, “The conspiracy-effect: Exposure to conspiracy theories (about global warming) decreases pro-social behavior and science acceptance”, by Sander van der Linden of Princeton, tested this conspiracy-effect. This test concluded that individuals who watched a conspiracy theory video were less likely to believe in the scientific agreement on human-caused global warming, sign petitions, or volunteer.

Prof. McNeill highlighted another possible effect of conspiracy theories on society: the effect on social and economic justice. He explains that “conspiracy theories about The Illuminati for example serve to justify and explain why some people are ridiculously wealthy and others barely have enough money to eat. I think that any justification for such extreme inequality is immoral and damaging to any effort to achieve social and economic justice”.

Conspiracy theories is an entertaining topic of discussion amongst many young individuals. Although conspiracy theories are just theories created to explain unexplainable situations, the impact that it can have on an individual and society as a whole, cannot be ignored. It remains important to do research and compare fact to fiction.

Image: Bernhard Schiele

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