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Politics

We’re at a high point for conspiracy theories. Here’s how to stay sane

Anyone can fall for a conspiracy if the theory reinforces their already-held beliefs. Jonn Elledge joins BetterPod to help us protect ourselves.

On January 6 last year, a mob tried to overthrow a legitimate US presidential election result. Many were fuelled by QAnon – a baseless far-right conspiracy theory that claims a cabal of satanic, cannibalistic child-abusers conspired against Donald Trump while he was in office.

It’s just one example of a conspiracy making the jump from online message boards to dangerous real-life action. Similarly, anti-vaxxers and climate change denialists can – through their action and inaction – threaten society as a whole.

We are living in a “high point for conspiratorial thinking” says journalist and conspiracy expert Jonn Elledge. In the wake of the 2008 economic crash and the Covid pandemic, it can feel comforting to believe that someone has a plan, he says. Even if that plan is nefarious.

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Along with Tom Phillips, former editor at Full Fact, the UK’s independent fact-checking organisation, Elledge has uncovered the long history of weird and wonderful beliefs that people have falsely held – and a few conspiracies that turned out to be true – in their new book Conspiracy: A History of Boll*cks Theories, and How Not to Fall for Them.

On this week’s BetterPod, Elledge warns that anyone can fall for a conspiracy if the theory reinforces their already-held beliefs. With that in mind, we ask for some tips to stop ourselves falling down the rabbit hole.

This is an abridged version of the conversation on this week’s BetterPod. Listen to the full interview below, or at your normal podcast provider.

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The Big Issue: How widespread is the belief in conspiracy theories?

Jonn Elledge: I think we all have sort of a mental image of what a conspiracy theorist looks like. It’s socially awkward men, who probably spent a lot of time in basements. But if you actually look at the polling, loads of people believe in some form of a conspiracy theory.

Since JFK was assassinated in 1963, there has never been a point in which fewer than half of Americans believe there was a conspiracy to kill him, even though there is absolutely nothing in the historical evidence to suggest it wasn’t just one guy with a gun. But, you know, that doesn’t feel like enough of a cause so people have always believed there must be something else going on there.

To a certain extent, any one of us really can fall for a conspiracy theory, as long as it kind of fits our existing prejudices.

Why do you think human beings are so attracted to conspiracy theories?

A big part of it is just how our brains evolved. Intelligence is basically pattern spotting. If you’re a small furry mammal, and you can tell when there’s a tiger in the bushes, that’s an evolutionary advantage. But if you think that through to the next level, there is no evolutionary disadvantage in being a little bit paranoid. In fact, it is probably better to see tigers where there aren’t tigers, than to not see tigers where there are.

But I think also, it can be a comfort. If you think about how much of the state of your life is down to random chance, that’s kind of terrifying. It’s almost comforting to imagine that there is somebody with a plan, even if it’s an evil plan.

Jonn Elledge on conspiracy theories
Jonn Elledge, author of Conspiracy

Conspiracy theories have been around for thousands of years. Why is now different?

I do think we’ve been living through a bit of a bit of a high point for conspiratorial thinking. Donald Trump and [Brazilian president] Jair Bolsonaro have used conspiracy thinking to promote their own political lens.

Part of that is we’re still living with the consequences of the [2008 economic] crash. Because some banker in Reykjavik made a bad bet on the Florida housing market, it ruined all our quality of life – and means that no one in Britain has had a pay rise for a dozen years. That just doesn’t fit the logic of how you see the world. So, I think conspiracy thinking is filling that gap.

But also, it’s the internet, isn’t it? The internet has undermined existing media; it’s created our own little filter bubble where we get our existing ideas reinforced. Also, it’s things like YouTube algorithms that present content to keep you on YouTube. It turns out the kind of content that will do that is stuff that appeals to your existing prejudices. Which is often conspiracy theories, essentially.

How can conspiracy theories become dangerous to individuals who believe in them?

Sometimes it can be a sort of a radicalisation. If you think of someone who believes in ‘flat Earth’ or another of the sillier conspiracy theories in the book, I don’t think that’s especially dangerous. But one of the biggest conspiracy theories of the last few years is QAnon. It operates sort of like a cult. Believers tell each other to kind of cut off friends and family who don’t buy into it because they think it’s a moral crusade.

Can conspiracies be dangerous for society as a whole?

Conspiracies can spark physical violence. There was that story a couple of years ago of the guy who invaded the Washington DC pizza restaurant where Hillary Clinton’s fictitious paedophile ring was meant to be operating out of the basement. This restaurant literally did not have a basement, let alone one where anything dodgy was happening. But nonetheless, this guy turned up with a gun to liberate these imaginary children. That’s literally political violence, spinning off from a belief in a conspiracy theory.

Or look at what happened on January 6 last year in the US, where you basically have a mob trying to overthrow an election result. Again, that is a conspiracy theory that is having really dangerous real-world effects.

Climate change denial is a conspiracy at this point. If that stops us from addressing the climate crisis, that one could destroy civilisation.

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What can we do, as individuals, to stop ourselves from falling for conspiracy theories?

I think one useful thing you can do in your own life is just check your prejudices. If you agree with something because it appeals to your existing biases, it is good to look at it extra carefully. Because you are more likely to just accept information that fits with what you already think.

I also think it is probably healthy to not start imagining yourself to be the rational person in the conversation. That can be quite a poisonous attitude: to imagine that, unlike the people to your left or your right, you are uniquely rational and sensible. I’ve seen a number of people who started from that position veer off into all sorts of insane beliefs.

Is there something that can be done by regulators or governments or even us in the media to inoculate the public against conspiracy theories?

Probably. One of the difficulties you run into is that there is evidence to suggest just presenting people with evidence that they are wrong doesn’t work. You need to handhold them a little bit, and let them come to the conclusion on their own. This can be a problem with the fact-checking websites. A slight difficulty with the business model there is that the people that need to hear this stuff are often going to be quite resistant to it.

Conspiracy: A History of Boll*cks Theories, and How Not to Fall for Them is out now.

Listen to the full BetterPod conversation with Jonn Elledge at your usual podcast provider or here

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