There is Nothing Like a Good Conspiracy

While many bloggers can spout a conspiracy theory once in a while, there are some blogs that specialize in conspiracy theories, from making them up (okay, to be fair, investigating and proving them) to debunking them. The top post on one such conspiracy theory blog, Above Top Secret, is The Coming Revolution:

Back in the 1940s the governing forces on this planet were warned by certain parties not from this planet, to change the course of the direction they were headed in, so that the peoples of Earth could unanimously have a better and positive future. Not only did the governing forces of this planet ignore the issues that they were warned about, they irrationally reacted by interpreting this warning as a declaration of war. They then diverted all their attention to developing interstellar weapons and systems to prepare for an interstellar war. They also systematically developed highly advanced technology that would control the populations of the world in every area of life. The governing forces were helped by certain extra-terrestrial intelligences that supplied them with the specifics of technology that this civilization was in no way prepared for.

This technology was used with the specific intent of controlling the minds of every individual on the planet…

You may laugh, but some take this very seriously, finding evidence all around them to support their positions. Read their evidence long enough, and you may start to see pieces of the puzzle clicking together as the irrational and disconnected are brought together in a way that makes sense.

As part of this ongoing series on Blogs and Conspiracy Theories, let’s look at how conspiracy theories get started and developed. They begin by trying to make sense of the puzzle pieces.

Conspiracy theories work because we are constantly looking for connections, trying to find explanations for the unexplainable, especially when it comes to the death of someone famous or young. As Sherlock Holmes, a master of solving conspiracies, explains to Watson, “Eliminate all that is impossible, whatever remains is the explanation, however improbable.” Sometimes, the improbable is easier to believe than the reality when there isn’t enough evidence to support reality.

Holmes goes on to explain in “The Five Orange Pips”:

As Cuvier could correctly describe a whole animal by the contemplation of a single bone, so the observer who has thoroughly understood one link in a series of incidents should be able to state all the other ones, before and after.

The best conspiracy theories last because of the logical progression of the events make sense in their relationships to one another, as well as their chronological nature.

Why Conspiracy Theories Survive

Another interesting perspective on why conspiracy theories survive came up in a recent paper published in the New Scientist called “Lure of the Conspiracy Theory”. The researcher presented two identical scenarios about a presidential assassination. In one, the president died, and in the other, the president lived. The study showed that participants were more likely to assume a conspiracy if the president died:

To appreciate why this form of reasoning is seductive, consider the alternative: major events having minor or mundane causes — for example, the assassination of a president by a single, possibly mentally unstable, gunman, or the death of a princess because of a drunk driver. This presents us with a rather chaotic and unpredictable relationship between cause and effect. Instability makes most of us uncomfortable; we prefer to imagine we live in a predictable, safe world, so in a strange way, some conspiracy theories offer us accounts of events that allow us to retain a sense of safety and predictability.

Other research has examined how the way we search for and evaluate evidence affects our belief systems. Numerous studies have shown that in general, people give greater attention to information that fits with their existing beliefs, a tendency called “confirmation bias”.

…The study, which again involved giving volunteers fictional accounts of an assassination attempt, showed that conspiracy believers found new information to be more plausible if it was consistent with their beliefs. Moreover, believers considered that ambiguous or neutral information fitted better with the conspiracy explanation, while non-believers felt it fitted better with the non-conspiracy account. The same piece of evidence can be used by different people to support very different accounts of events.

Graphic copyrighted by Lorelle VanFossen - the sky is fallingIf we already are pre-disposed to doubt authority, and have a suspicious nature, then the odds are increased that you are more likely to believe in a conspiracy than others.

Throughout history there are stories of conspiracy theories told to children such as Chicken Little warning that the sky is falling and the boy that cried wolf enough times, no one believed him when the conspiracy turned real. While these moral stories are supposed to teach us about the perils of lying, they also teach us about how a good conspiracy get get a lot of attention, and how easily it is to convince a social group to believe – at least until the evidence says otherwise.

US News and World Report’s article, “Viewing 9/11 From a Grassy Knoll”, discusses the tremendous effort made to debunk conspiracy theories in everything from JFK to 9/11, including describing polls associated with the fifth anniversary of 9/11 which state that “16 percent of respondents said it was ‘very likely’ that federal officials either assisted in the 9/11 attacks or allowed them to happen to justify war in the Middle East, while a further 20 percent said it was ‘somewhat likely’.”

The article explores the controversies over the controversies:

The members of the official 9/11 commission have kept their distance after deciding jointly that responding to the frequent E-mails from conspiracy theorists would only give them undeserved credibility. “I have a tremendous amount of confidence that the basic thrust of our story … will hold up to historians,” says Jamie Gorelick, a commission member.

That’s not to say the conspiracy theorists go unchallenged. The National Institute of Standards and Technology, which last October issued the definitive 43-volume technical study of the towers’ collapse, last week released a 14-point rebuttal of the controlled demolition theory. A blog and movie called Screw Loose Change both specialize in snarky commentary about Loose Change’s flimsy evidence. On a recent Saturday at ground zero, bickering between the 9/11 Truthers and their critics, who have also taken to showing up weekly, grew so heated that they were broken up by a police officer.

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When you have conspiracy theorists arguing over their conspiracies with other theories, you have good drama, don’t you? Of course, blogs are going to take up this subject, which the article claims helps to fuel the fires of conspiracy theories, even sensationalizing the debunkers.

Conspiracies are great attention-getters, whether spouting them or debunking them. CNet Tech News features “Blogma”, a whole category dedicated to the current tech conspiracies, gossip, rumors, and stories behind them. Recently, they featured “‘Halo’ in the pews: Go to church, blow people up?”, based upon a he New York Times article on the use of violent video games in many Christian youth ministries, luring children to their religious community with the violent games. Some of the “conspiracy” questions the article brings out are:

As a result, there’s some pretty broad analysis out there. Whether churches should use violent video games as a recruiting or “outreach” tool is a topic that raises a number of questions.

Is it OK for a church to expose 12-year-olds to rated “M” games? Is this any better or worse than youth fellowship paintball leagues? Is pixellated graphic violence unwholesome? Does violence in entertainment lead young souls to perdition?

Are churches advocating warfare? Are they training soldiers? Do they talk over the ethics of a just war with the youth? Do they talk about whether and when it’s OK to kill another human being? Is God on anyone’s “side” in an armed conflict?

Ask the right questions, without evidence to back them up, in a way that inspires others to answer, and people will start churning out their own conspiracy theories for you.

Like any communications art form, conspiracy theory writing is a skill.

And big business, which I’ll cover in the next article in this series.

Article Series on Conspiracy Theories and Blogs

View Comments (5)
  • @Tina Anderson:

    Whether you “buy them” or not, some element of conspiracy attracts attention, thus bloggers use them to motivate click throughs to their blogs.

    Not long ago, many bloggers wrote “sensational” articles covering the issue of commercial WordPress Themes called “Premium” versus spam-filled, link abused Themes, grouping them together even though there was no “grouping” as they are two different groups. But titling and filling their posts with accusations created a controversy and suspected conspiracy though few recognized it as such. It was a “debate of interest” even though it was built on misconceptions, assumptions, and no fact nor truth.

    In order to recognize a conspiracy and unnecessary controversy when they appear, we have to know what what looks like. That was the purpose of this article series – as well as offering tips on how to go controversial if that is your goal. It’s an art form – often tainted but still a writing and publishing art.

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