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Don’t silence conspiracy theorists Our collective sense of horror needs an outlet

All riled-up. Credit: Win McNamee/Getty


January 6, 2022   5 mins

A year ago, riled-up by claims of a stolen election, hundreds of pro-Trump protestors forced their way inside the Capitol in Washington DC, perpetrating a secular desecration that shocked the world. 

In the aftermath, Donald Trump was impeached by House of Representatives, but acquitted by the Senate. The social media companies were not so lenient. The 45th President of the United States was de-platformed by Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. 

The chaotic end of Trump’s presidency provided a pretext, though, for a much wider purge of anything deemed to fall under the category of conspiracy theory or misinformation. This week the Republican congresswoman, Majorie Taylor Greene, had her Twitter account permanently suspended; and Joe Rogan who has had content removed by YouTube.  

The attack on conspiracy theory — and the power of the elites to define it as such — is a dangerous one. And not just because of the threat it poses to free speech and the growing influence of big tech that it points out. It’s also because conspiracy theories are an understandable — and sometimes useful — response to a confusing world. To repress this very human instinct risks doing more harm than good.

That’s not to say that this mode of thought is never pathological. But if the conspiracy theorist is obsessive or hateful, the problem is the obsession and the hate — vices which can apply to any belief system.

The trouble is, many conspiracies and cover-ups do exist. And they’d never be uncovered if no one theorised about them. 

So as well as de-pathologising conspiracy theories as a concept, we need to understand conspiracy theorists as a group of people. Most of them are quite ordinary. And, according to recent UK-based research from Ipsos, there are a lot of them. Asked about three conspiracy theories randomly assigned from a list of 11, half the people surveyed considered at least one theory to be “plausible”, with 20% endorsing two or three. 

Therefore, if you want to drive conspiratorial thinking out of society, you’re up against millions of your fellow citizens— not just a few fanatics. Of course, one could argue that’s all the more cause for a crackdown. How can we tolerate a situation in which whole swathes of the population believe in crazy stuff? Except that most of them don’t believe it. Not really. 

For a start, there’s a huge variation in the extent to which different conspiracy theories are accepted. The theory considered the most plausible — with 40% of those asked agreeing — was that “Princess Diana’s death in a car crash was not accidental”. In contrast, the notion that “the COVID-19 vaccine is a cover for implanting traceable microchips” got the thumbs up from just 4% of respondents and the allegation that “5G mobile phone towers are responsible for the spread of COVID-19” a mere 2%.

What do people mean when they say that they find a conspiracy theory plausible, though? What do the Diana conspiracy theorists truly believe? That she was literally assassinated? In some cases, yes. But for most of the 40% it’s probably something much less extreme — like blaming the media for hounding the princess at every turn. 

The researchers found “a high overlap” between those who consider a conspiracy theory plausible and those who consider it “not strictly accurate but a reasonable challenge to the official explanation”, which is telling. It’s not so much that they believe the conspiracy, but that they’re using it to express their doubts about the institutions that tell us what we ought to believe.

Ipsos asked about trust in various kinds of institutional authority. While more than 40% of respondents considered media and political institutions to be “untrustworthy”, the corresponding figures for scientific and public health organisations were much lower — just 3% and 6%. It’s clearly no coincidence that the Covid conspiracy theories had the least public support.  

The lesson here is that those in authority would do better to make themselves more worthy of trust than to wage epistemic war on the public. For most people who indulge in them, conspiracy theories are not about dogmatism, but uncertainty.

As human beings, doubt comes naturally to us. Rational analysis may persuade us to think a certain way about a situation, but inevitably we’ll have irrational thoughts about it too — including secret fears and sneaking suspicions. And why not? Until a situation becomes clear it pays to have multiple, perhaps contradictory, ideas about it. Even if our gut reactions prove unfounded, we’re bound to have them anyway. This isn’t to say that we should allow the emotional, instinctual side of our nature to dominate, but to repress it completely would be just as unhealthy. 

I’d argue that the equivalent applies at a collective level. Though a society doesn’t have a mind like a person does, it does have what Emile Durkheim called a “collective consciousness” composed of a shared set of understandings. Not everyone thinks the same thoughts about everything, of course — a non-totalitarian society makes room for multiple interpretations of reality. Nevertheless, through mechanisms such as democratic elections or the price setting function of the market place, decisions can be collectively arrived at. 

Conspiracies theories are part of this bubbling mix of interpretations. At the social level, they’re equivalent to the stray thoughts, nagging doubts, daydreams and nightmares that individuals experience. As such, they need to be talked about, not repressed — taken seriously, if not always literally.

They might, after all, turn out to be true. Consider the origin of the Covid pandemic. The idea that the virus escaped from a Chinese laboratory was once repudiated as delusional, not to say xenophobic. Fortunately, there were some investigators willing to question the established view. Though not yet proven, the lab leak hypothesis is now taken seriously. At the very least, it has focused much-needed attention on the perils posed by high-risk research.

Just because conspiracy theories aren’t true, that doesn’t mean they don’t serve a purpose. There’s no conspiracy theory — no matter how obscure — that doesn’t speak to some unmet need to make sense of the world. 

A deliberately silly example is the bizarre claim that Paul McCartney died in 1966 and was replaced by a look-alike. What possible psychological need might that satisfy? Well, how about the desire to comprehend the astonishing pace of cultural change over the course of the Sixties? Like the Beatles themselves, the world looked completely different at end of the decade from how it did at the beginning. I don’t think that McCartney’s supposed death and substitution provides any sort of useful explanation, but it does reduce a question of unfathomable complexity to a human scale. 

The same psychological forces are at work in Covid conspiracy theories. Take the notion that vaccinations are being used to inject us with tracking technology. On one level it’s obvious nonsense, but on another it’s symbolic of the vastly expanded capacity of the state to monitor and control our movements. Even if we believe that these measures were justified, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t also be horrified by what’s been done to us. A necessary evil is still an evil. 

Our collective sense of horror needs an outlet. Conventional politics has done a poor job of providing one — as has the mainstream media. So, instead, the trauma bubbles to the surface in the form of conspiracy theories. Which is why I worry about the actions of the social media companies. Who are they to edit the collective consciousness?

They may imagine that they’re shutting down opportunities for charlatans and demagogues. But what I fear they’re really doing is closing off a safety valve.


Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.

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Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
2 years ago

Good article.

I’ve spent some time in totalitarian countries, notably Syria in the 1990s under Assad senior.

In those places, where information is strictly controlled, the wildest rumours and conspiracy theories have credence even among well-educated people.

Free speech might be messy and unpleasant at times, but the alternative is far worse.

Kerie Receveur
Kerie Receveur
2 years ago

The difference is about three weeks at the moment.

Kerie Receveur
Kerie Receveur
2 years ago
Reply to  Kerie Receveur

Sorry, put this in the wrong place!

Doug Pingel
Doug Pingel
2 years ago
Reply to  Kerie Receveur

Well go on then – where should you have put it – and why? The suspense is killing some uunherders.

Jesse Porter
Jesse Porter
2 years ago
Reply to  Kerie Receveur

No, you didn’t. Artificial intelligence did. Artificial in the extreme, intelligence hardly.

Edit Szegedi
Edit Szegedi
2 years ago

In the Eighties there was a rumour in Romania that Ceausescu is so mentally ill, that he will never get cancer – i.e, he is immortal.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago

What is a conspiracy theory? And what is the difference between a conspiracy theory and theory. Or conspiracy theory and fact.
Let’s stick to Covid days ‘conspiracies’. The Wuhan lab leak as mentioned by the author? Digital vaccine passports will be introduced? Vaccine mandates will be introduced? Cloth masks and ‘surgical masks’ don’t work against an airborne virus? Many governments will cling onto emergency powers? There are many ways of treating Covid prior to hospitalisation besides the current protocol of sending people home until they battle to breathe? Pharmaceutical companies are corrupt and their biggest spend is ‘sales and marketing’ e.g. lobbying politicians, bribing doctors and scientists, sponsoring corporate media, paying vast sums of money to the organisations that regulate them? Lockdowns will not cause economic harm?
I’m sure there are more – please feel free to add.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
2 years ago

As you say, a conspiracy theory shakes down to a theory. No argument there.

But I ask the same question as I ask above with GT. As long as I remember the UK health service has been led by prescription of pills. Doctors had never had the time or inclination to give real advice. Pharmaceutical companies have leapt in so that there is a magic pill for everything – they are suggesting that statins should be offered to all people over 40. These ideas are not new; we are talking about fifty years of this behaviour, way before Covid.

But is this not the Capitalist system? You make someting, you advertise and lobby doctors, you give special offers if the doctors go along with the plan. Obviously, it is corruption but it is Capitalism.

The alternative is for governments to sit back and do nothing and allow all Capitalists equal opportunity. Let everybody come up with Granny’s pet remedy and ignore the fact that thousands are dying. Could any government in the world exist under such conditions?

It could well be that governments all over the world have made bad errors; they have probably panicked and closed businesses, stopped children from getting education, they have almost certainly been corrupt – but could they have done nothing at all?

In the UK, if the Tory government had done nothing the opposition would have gone on and on about it, the media would have carried stories of laziness in government, the government would have been brought down. The Left would have been voted in and they advocate perpetual lockdown and neverending payments to people for staying at home.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

I agree that there is a pill for everything, that a lot of people endorse – though not all. The smoking gun here is that every medication (or more correctly cocktail of medications) being used with great success by doctors, was discredited and discussion was not allowed. Even papers were removed. Where were the forums of doctors discussing success with repurposed meds as a matter of urgency? They were not being created by organisations in power, that’s for sure. Organisation was at a far more granular level done by very concerned doctors. Just watch one talk by Dr Peter McCullough – one of the most published in his field. Brave distinguished man who saved countless lives – now a ‘quack’ because he dared challenge the narrative that it was not necessary to send Covid patients home with no medication – just the advice to go to hospital if one struggled with breathing.
And even a capitalist system is capable of regulations to limit corruption and bias – the fact that they do it so poorly is not necessarily a reflection on capitalism per se. Socialism is also a society of elites – difference is that there is no aspirant middle class.
I wouldn’t let governments and organisations off the hook – they had nefarious reasons. Always follow the money.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
2 years ago

Agree that a capitalist system ought to be capabable of being controlled but I don’t see how it can be done with globalism. The history of control is a sort of benevolence from the richer to the poorer but this can’t easily transcend borders. To me, this appears to be the attraction of the US of E. Here, the uninvited leaders can demonstrate their benevolence more easily.

Or you can have a fixed national boundary containing benevolent capitalists – but could it succeed in isolation? I am proud to have voted for Brexit and am fiercely anti-EU but most of my clothes and household goods are made in China.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

One thing the pandemic surely taught all of us that we can agree on, is that supply chains need to be relooked and that accepting the increasing power of China is pure folly.
China has no human rights standards to moderate their behaviour and it was easy peasy for them to unlock the peasantry, pay them peanuts and become the factory of the world – and so start on their march to global power. The world will come to rue the day, especially as western ‘progressive’ governments increasingly play into the hands of China. Indeed some are starting to resemble them in respect of some aspects of the manner of rule.
I am pro smaller government who are accountable to their citizens and have become increasingly wary of globalism.

Iris C
Iris C
2 years ago

I wonder what the Chinese citizens thinks about their government? From recent programmes on China. they seem to be content with their lot.
I have been reading an article on Xi Jingping who (at age 7) during the cultural revolution followed his father into exile, living in a damp cave and working all hours. That must have influenced his decision to open up the Chinese economy to competition. Of course they had a flying start because the state owned all the land and so it was easy to build modern railways and roads – unlike the UK where every patch of land has to be bought and protesters moved on before work can start – if it ever does!.
Yes! China will be the next super power but will it be any worse for us than being under the American thumb, which has involved us sending our young service personnel to fight against citizens in less powerful sovereign states with different histories and religions. in order to force western standards.
.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago
Reply to  Iris C

You clearly know very little about China.
The Chinese citizens are given a taste of the immense riches amassed by the country and are told what to think. Censorship and control happens on a grand scale and inconvenient citizens disappear.
Amazing how so many in Hong Kong remembered the taste of freedom, but Covid put paid to their insurrection.

Kerie Receveur
Kerie Receveur
2 years ago

The difference is about three weeks at the moment.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
2 years ago

I think of the demarcation between intellectually respectable theory and conspiracy theory in terms of the relation between data/explanandum and hypothesis/explanans; specifically, whether the hypothesis explains the data simply and elegantly, without infractions of Ockam’s or Hanlon’s Razors or other logical or methodological principles.

Last edited 2 years ago by Drahcir Nevarc
Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago

It is not a conspiracy about the covid response – it is fact, that all the lockdowns and forced vax is nothing to do with health, and all to do with making the Global Elites even more obscenely rich. $12 Trillion went from the USA Workers into the super elite’s pockets in two years. The money printed, or done as QE, or as small businesses crushed so the mega corporations may displace them, and so on. The young and the savers will pay for this.

The Plandemic was about $$$$ and Power, Not about health. I recommend watching the youtube deleted video reported on the earlier article, from the man who created the mmR vaccine science, 30 years in the very highest level of Virus Vaccine science, Md and PhD. https://odysee.com/@BannedYouTubeVideos:4/JOE-ROGAN-AND-DR-ROBERT-MALONE:c

Then Dr Bret Weinst6ein and Dr McCoullough, a very top scientist, MD, and over 1000 research publications (a record)

Both tell the story of how very good therapies exist for covid, but were made impossible to use, or research, as if there was an early treatment (before hospitalization – the only treatment allowed by the West) it would cause ‘Vaccine Hesitancy’, and the agenda was that 100% must be vaccinated. And also if there was no ‘Crisis’ the Elites could not impose their economic Martial law.

But you all saw the lockdowns – what 99% of the sheep did not see was that was happening to the economy. The significance of as much being spent as during WWII years, but also wile national debts were astronomical, and the entire distortion of the global economies. The Billions transferred to the super rich, and all to be paid back by the stealth tax called Inflation. How interest is kept at Zero by Trillions in QE so workers get NO return on their pensions and savings, and assets prices doubled as the Trillions and Trillions created by Central Banks (in the name of covid response) – created super bubbles in equities, and hard assets, and when it all collapse soon – a depression beyond belief will fallow, with all your money and assets taken.

The Plandemic was to take all the Middle Class, Working Class savings, money, income, and pass it to the wealthy. It was also to make people used to totalitarian abuse of a horrifying level, and to ask for more rather than fight back.

You are all sheep to be shorn, and sent to the abattoir, and you just go about eating weeds and baaaaing… This was to make a Neo-Feudalism across the world, not to save granny.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

This is a good post and I probably agree with you but what is new? All the wars have been about making rich people richer, all human suffering can be brought back to the mighty dollar. I think that this is fairly well established.

BUT there is something I don’t understand. You would be the first to advocate Capitalism over, say, Marxism. You would argue that in Marxism, the leaders get rich by taking from the poor, that the leaders send the Herd out to fight for Marx, that the Herd are reduced to poverty because of a theory.

But if Capitalism means that the rich want to get richer at the expense of the Herd and Marxism is the same, which -ism actually works for the Herd?

Carmel Shortall
Carmel Shortall
2 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

No ‘ism’, no ideology works for the herd!

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

A very good example of conspiracy theory – and one of the drivers of people refusing to get vaccinated.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
2 years ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

I guess a theory becomes a conspiracy theory when you don’t agree with it.

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
2 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

No. A theory becomes a conspiracy theory when it starts rejecting all contrary evidence on the basis that the people providing the evidence (or not) are part of the conspiracy. Conspiracy theories are unfalsifiable, by definition.

Tim Bartlett
Tim Bartlett
2 years ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

Its a good job the state never lies to us. It could get really tricky working out what to believe.

Marianne Vigreux
Marianne Vigreux
2 years ago
Reply to  Tim Bartlett

yeah, really good job
really tricky


Edward De Beukelaer
Edward De Beukelaer
2 years ago
Reply to  Tim Bartlett

aaaah, I don’t know whether to uptick or downtick… I am confused….

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago

You can uptick, because the state never lies

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
2 years ago
Reply to  Tim Bartlett

It sometimes is tricky. But there is a solution: Ask yourself what it would take to convince you that your theory was wrong. If the only people you will belive are those who agree with the theory, we have a conspiracy theory.

Tim Bartlett
Tim Bartlett
2 years ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

Not completely. Its good to keep an open mind, but at some point an ideological opponent must be deemed completely wrong and destroyed either intellectually or physically. If you always respect the other point of view you’ll end up someones slave.

Jesse Porter
Jesse Porter
2 years ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

That makes all major theories conspiracy theory, including the theory of evolution.

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
2 years ago
Reply to  Jesse Porter

No. There is lots of evidence available in favour of the theory of evolution, and people are addressing it. You may or may not agree with them, but people who believe in evolution do not need to dismiss 90% of the evidence in order to build a theory that fits with the 10% that remain.

David Uzzaman
David Uzzaman
2 years ago

I’d rather have millions of mad conspiracy theories circulating than a single government approved narrative. This pandemic has brought out an authoritarian desire to eliminate dissent. People questioning government strategy have been vilified and experts at least as well qualified as Sage marginalised.

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
2 years ago
Reply to  David Uzzaman

If you are talking about the McCulloughs being marginalised, it is because they have stopped relying on data and instead putting their individual hunches up as a rival truth. That will get you marginalised, no matter how many Nobel prizes you might have.

Sarah Johnson
Sarah Johnson
2 years ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

He’s probably talking about the authors of the Great Barrington Declaration – all professors of epidemiology or public health at Oxford, Stanford and Harvard – being marginalised. Not to mention demonised and censored.

Or maybe he’s talking about some scientifically illiterate moderator at Instagram shadow-banning Cochrane Medical, the gold-standard in evidence-based medicine, for accurately stating the risks as well as benefits of vaccines.

Or maybe he had some other incident at the top of his mind. There are so many to choose from.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago
Reply to  Sarah Johnson

Indeed, it is a smorgasbord.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
2 years ago
Reply to  David Uzzaman

But it doesn’t work for a Herd, which would go round and round in confusion. Good for the UnHerd though.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
2 years ago

What I can’t stand about conspiracy theorists is that, the moment you try to spell out your scepticism about their hypotheses, they immediately start talking over you. Just try having a rational discussion with a Free Man On The Land nutter.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
2 years ago
Reply to  Drahcir Nevarc

Their inability to produce any hard evidence to prove their theory is merely proof that’s all been covered apparently

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
2 years ago

The main problem with shutting down conspiracy theory loons (and 99% of conspiracy theories are absolute nonsense) is that you give their rubbish an air of legitimacy. Big Tech deleting channels and people who they don’t approve makes it look as if they have something to hide

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

‘99% of conspiracy theories are absolute nonsense’ – please quote sources for this.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
2 years ago

I’m not going to sit here and waste my time with your pedantry, everybody with a brain is fully aware it’s merely a figure of speech.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Anyone with a brain would know that I was making a point that 99% of theories are not conspiracy.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
2 years ago

And the argument goes around and around. Basically, your view on a theory depends on whether you agree with it or not.

Carmel Shortall
Carmel Shortall
2 years ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

“Their inability to produce any hard evidence to prove their theory is merely proof that’s all been covered apparently”

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
2 years ago

I’m confused, are you suggesting I peddle conspiracy theories?

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
2 years ago

An important part of conspiracy theories is that sources of conflicting information can be ignored, because they are just part of the conspiracy. Only carefully selected sources, experts etc. can be trusted – and they just happen to match those who back your theory. In short, conspiracy theories are unfalsifiable – based not on information but on faith and emotion. There is no point asking for proof that some deliberately undisprovable theories are wrong. The choice is another. Either we base our ideas on data – and reject emotionally satisfying ideas that are designed to be unverifiable. Or we embrace our fact-free imagination – and go back to believing in witchcraft and worldwide Jewish conspiracies. Those theories were emotionally satisfying too.

Francisco Menezes
Francisco Menezes
2 years ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

And remember:’Your government is the only source of truth’

Bill W
Bill W
2 years ago

Good article.

Kiat Huang
Kiat Huang
2 years ago

Is there a reliable list of well-known conspiracy theories that have turned out to be true?

Jesse Porter
Jesse Porter
2 years ago

Probably intended as clickbait, but true nonetheless.

Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
2 years ago

It seems to me the article’s premise of conspiracy theories being a good thing is a red herring.

The article clearly sets out how tech giants now control the narrative. That is clear and obvious, profoundly anti democratic and a better discussion piece than sending us off disputing each other’s “evidence.”

Iris C
Iris C
2 years ago

I am not on social media so I don’t hear much of this but the assassination of President Kennedy by the Secret Service man on the running board of the car behind with a loaded rifle answered all the questions raised at the time – two shots, etc.. The shock of the initial shot made his driver step on the brake, jolting him forward and the rifle went off,. the bullet hitting President Kennedy in the head. Remember all the secrecy of the officials afterwards – no one allowed in the operating room. etc., etc. I can well understand the cover-up – the soldier must have been devastated… but there you are!!
Some are cover-ups.

Last edited 2 years ago by Iris C
Carmel Shortall
Carmel Shortall
2 years ago

“In contrast, the notion that “the COVID-19 vaccine is a cover for implanting traceable microchips” got the thumbs up from just 4% of respondents”

It depends how you frame the question. If, instead of the above, the poll had asked, “the covid vaccine is a cover for rolling out vaccine passports which are effectively a ‘trojan horse’ for rolling out a CCP style digital ID/social credit system and that this might well end up with the herd being implanted with microchips – as is currently being trialled in Sweden,” then it’s a bit different!

Edward De Beukelaer
Edward De Beukelaer
2 years ago

Another one to throw in here: The British Medical Journal complaining to Facebook about its suppression policies…
https://trialsitenews.com/the-bmj-to-facebook-stop-censoring-us-and-shut-down-your-incompetent-fact-checkers/

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
2 years ago

When the public sees the State makes mistakes there are two options, incompetence or corruption. As no politician and state employee admits to incompetence, certain people consider corruption to be the problem; hence conspiracy theories.
It would be easy to assume Chamberlain was in the pay of Hitler if one examines all the mistakes made. Chamberlain was not corrupt, just incompetent.