January 6, 2022

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.