For as long as people have talked, conspiracy theories have run riot. And while sometimes they’re nothing more than the result of festering boredom or curiosity turned conjecture, they can be extremely dangerous, especially during times of uncertainty.
A conspiracy theory can be defined as a belief that an event or situation results from a secret plan made by powerful people. Often, there is little or no concrete evidence to prove it’s credible, but that doesn’t stop them from gaining traction. In the past, conspiracy theories have been relegated to the outskirts of society. But they’re now growing in number and popularity within mainstream culture. This doesn’t make them any more real, but it certainly makes them more of a threat.
In the past 12 months or so, the media has turned its attention towards several conspiracies – Pizza Gate, 5G and QAnon are just a few. But why have they suddenly become so popular? Well, given that we are living through some of the most turbulent and uncertain times in modern history, the answer may be evident. People want answers, and conspiracy theories provide them. A crisis is a breeding ground for fear, and in times like these, people look for explanations to help them cope, says Karen Douglas, professor of psychology at the University of Kent.
The UK’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic – though it’s not over yet – can be described as inconsistent at best. From abruptly cancelling Christmas to rumours about extending the third national lockdown, it’s no wonder large swathes of our population are left feeling as though they can’t trust leaders. In fact, according to one survey, 57% of the British public don’t trust the government to control the spread of Covid-19. At the same time, an Oxford University study has found that 60 % of adults believe the government is misleading the public about the cause of the virus.
When leaders can’t offer us the certainty we crave, it’s easier to see why people may turn towards extremist and outlandish theories that promise to fill the gaps. On the other side of the spectrum, when people have complete faith in a leader and that figure associates themselves with conspiracies (Donald Trump and stop the count being a prime example), it may also result in more people choosing to believe false and harmful narratives. Ultimately, our governments can play an integral role in stopping the spread of misinformation.
The fake news era
Pandemic aside, the circulation of conjecture disguised as fact is something we’ve seen unfurl at an alarming rate in the last five years or so. As the world becomes more connected, and social media plays an integral role in our lives, we consume hours of often unmonitored content each day. And while giving more people the freedom and ability to share their opinion is important, it can make it hard to know who to trust, especially when those spreading misinformation are entitled to share as much as anyone else.
There is, of course, a distinction between fake news and conspiracy theories. But the role the former – defined as false or misleading information presented as news – is playing in strengthening the latter is something we all need to consider, and using trusted websites and sources to check your facts is a good way to stay responsibly informed.
It’s easy to dismiss conspiracies as harmless, often humorous stories concocted by individuals who are out of touch with the real world. But this understanding seriously undermines the inherent danger they can pose. In 1903, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was an entirely fictional yet widely circulated text that detailed a Jewish plan for global domination. This conspiracy theory perpetuated the racist stereotypes and adverse treatment of Jewish people we still see today.
Sadly, this isn’t an isolated example. Often, conspiracy theories are hinged on finding a scapegoat to explain away a bad situation. That’s why we have to be vigilant by checking and questioning the information we are presented with.
In light of the news that Asian communities around the world have seen an increase in hate crimes since the outbreak of the pandemic, which has been tragically underpinned by the racist attack and murder of six Asian women outside an Asian nail salon in Atlanta, it’s important to consider the impact that conspiracies have had on fuelling these atrocities.
From theories claiming the virus was man-made by China to those suggesting it was part of a covert biological weapons programme. Even Trump referring to Covid-19 as the ‘Kung flu’ – this narrative of mistrust and blame has undoubtedly played an instrumental part in feeding the false narrative that one nation is to blame for others’ misfortune.