Examining our collective tendency to formulate, propagate and believe in conspiracy theories at the most uncertain of times
“Conspiracy theorists believe in a conspiracy because that is more comforting. The truth of the world is that it is actually chaotic…
The truth is far more frightening — Nobody is in control.
The world is rudderless.”
― Alan Moore
In times of uncertainty, whether localized or globalized, whether in retrospect or present-tense, the collective human mind does one thing more than anything else: it tries to find answers, to cultivate information, to understand.
It does this insatiably and intrinsically, calculating and deducing incessantly. And, even when all the answers are apparent, it continues to circle, exploring other possibilities, other answers, questioning everything without end.
We’ve seen this happen countless times over throughout our epoch, a prime example being that of 9/11. Many today will still vehemently maintain that it had been a false-flag operation or something more than official accounts serve to illustrate to us. And, like it or not, there’s no way to effectively reveal an unequivocal and indisputable answer, one way or another.
Why do we do this? Why do we have a tendency to not only question without end but to also disbelieve, to distrust, to formulate some of the most radical or disturbing conspiracy theories that we can apparently think up?
Some will be quick to point to various events throughout history which definitively proved a betrayal of public distrust by a government; perhaps we can look into the abyss that is the gap between class systems; maybe it’s something rooted in the very neurological makeup of our psyche.
With the COVID-19 pandemic currently wrapping itself around our collective psychology, conspiracy theories are spreading as fervently as the virus itself, leading many to wonder about the biochemical laboratories in Wuhan, to question whether a vaccine exists and is being withheld or to look at the innumerable ambitions of the supposed New World Order.
So I sought to get some insight from someone who studies this innate tendency of ours for a living. Dr. Türkay Nefes, who holds an Oxford PhD in Sociology has written at length about the sociological rationalization behind conspiracy theories. I wanted to know what it is that drives us to formulate, propagate, and seemingly want to believe in such conspiracy theories.
The insights that Türkay Nefes would provide me not only caused me to question my own relationship with conspiracy theories but also sought to reaffirm the interesting relationship we have with chaos and uncertainty.
“History is much more the product of chaos than of conspiracy”
― Zbigniew Brzezinski
In response to why we have this tendency, Türkay first outlined his three-point understanding, as cultivated through his doctoral and academic research:
“Based on my research findings, I would like to highlight three points:
1. [the] Human will to learn (the main reason);
1-a. people’s instrumental interests;
1-b. the values people hold.”
He then went on to necessarily affirm the definition of conspiracy theories, as “events in terms of the significant causal agency of a relatively small group of persons-the conspirators-acting in secret” (As published by Brian L. Keeley “Of Conspiracy Theories”, 1999).
He also paralleled the characteristics as commentated by Joseph Uscinski and Joseph M. Parent (in their work, “American Conspiracy Theories”, 2014): conspiracy theories cite ‘as a main causal factor a small group of powerful persons, the conspirators, acting in secret for their own benefit against the common good.’
“As these definitions present, conspiracy theories constitute a specific way of understanding social and political relations as manipulated and dominated by clandestine groups and activities.”
The key thing to appreciate here is to consider conspiracy theories as ways of understanding, reflective of our innate desire to discover knowledge.
“The main reason behind the belief in conspiracy theories is the same with sciences - the will to learn.
Humans constantly attempt to understand the physical and social surroundings.
This need to know spikes up in the face of shocking events, such as the spread of the COVID-19 virus, assassinations of prominent politicians like the John Ford Kennedy and sudden and unexpected deaths of popular people like the Princess Diana.”
Through his own research, Türkay himself had come to understand the curious nature of this social tendency by examining political motivations, all under the context of quantifying people’s general interests and values as a prime motivator to construct and propagate conspiracy theories:
“For example, I studied people’s comments in online forums about the Turkish government’s reaction to the Gezi Park protests in 2013, which centred on a conspiracy theory (Nefes, 2017).
I found that the political views of people predict their responses to the official conspiracy theories, because only if they supported the government, they believed in the official conspiracy account. That is to say, people interpreted the conspiracy theories in line with their political values and interests.
I found similar results in my work on different contexts and conspiracy theories (e.g. Nefes, 2013; 2014; 2015).”
For some, conspiratorial accounts prove to validate their own structures of knowledge or belief. Like Türkay found, there is often a link to be noted between the theory itself and our own interests or values that we hold: perhaps a distrust of our elected leaders, maybe the belief that certain clandestine organizations are trying to suppress us; maybe something as simple as the idea that our freedom is constantly at risk.
As the intelligent creatures we are, we have a habit of contextualizing disorder into order, of disseminating patterns or deciphering complexity into something more comprehensible. We know by now, for instance, that our brain has evolved to recognize patterns and make sense of the world around us, by even the most astounding methods we didn’t previous consider plausible.
Understanding the world around us is no different, even if it entails the construction or adoption of various narratives (often dark narratives) that comfortably fit into our existing frameworks of knowledge and belief or, as Türkay would term, our interests and values.
So what about the current pandemic? Why is it that sensation and uncertainty breeds conspiracy more than anything else? As Türkay would argue:
“The current spread of the COVID-19 virus provides a fruitful breeding ground for the dissemination of conspiracy theories, as there is a sudden and urgent worldwide demand for knowledge, not only by people but also governments.
Besides, it is a matter of life or death!
It is not surprising that people, who hold interests and values of distrusting the government and their scientific advice, create, circulate and believe in conspiracy theories about the pandemic; no matter how ludicrous they might sound!”
It seems that the chaos emanating from this particularly tense event is exceptionally conducive to the proliferation of conspiratorial belief. Our reality is chaotic by nature and our tendency is to make sense of the chaos through our will to learn. Conspiracy theories seem to be a fundamental conduit by which we do this.
That being said, all this should not necessarily function as a pre-requisite to disbelieve in conspiracy theories, as they may serve an underlying, socially-important purpose to denote much about our collective frame of mind.
They can serve to indicate that there actually does exist a justifiable distrust in government, maybe that there is such a considerable amount of distrust that could be indicative of mounting social dissatisfaction. They can serve to effectively and necessarily question and criticize, to demand higher standards of substantiation that would otherwise not be expected. As Türkay also notes, they can also reveal truth from time to time:
“It should not go without stating that we cannot reject conspiracy theories at the outset, as there were various real cases of conspiracies in history.”
In a world filled with disingenuous patterns of persuasion, from insidious corporate lobbying and political scandals to incidents like the Golf of Tonkin, it should be expected that we have a tendency to formulate conspiracy theories, a tendency that could even be embraced as a critical social tool.
Statistically, however, the tool may remain in the dark confines of the tool shed for the time being.
“Nevertheless, they are often wrong. Personally, I would keep my social distance to these accounts like I do for the
All in all, the conspiracy theory is our attempt to make sense out of chaos. And while we often can’t conclusively understand a situation, we can at least try. In this way, they are a testament to the fact that we all have within us a will to learn.
As cited in Dr. Nefes’ comments:
Ramón y Cajal Research Fellow, Institute of Public Goods and Policies, Spanish National Research Council
Research Associate, Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford
Associate Member, Sociology Department, University of Oxford
Photo by Tarik Haiga