The Danger of Conspiracy Theories

I love the internet. There are so many awesome things out there, waiting for people to discover. It’s enabled us to do things we couldn’t do before. YouTube acts as one of the best teachers out there, always ready to show you a video on how to do just about anything, whether it’s changing a tire or brushing up on an art technique. When I need to do research for a novel, I can find just about anything I need from the comfort of my couch. It’s a fantastic resource.

But.

The internet is built on a few key principles that have led to some very damaging side effects. First of all, everything on the internet is created by people, and people generally don’t create things just for kicks. They want to be compensated for the time it took them to create whatever it is they have to offer. And I’m all for the idea in principle. I mean, here I am writing a blog each day, and at the end of each post I put out a call for people to support my writing by becoming a patreon. But there are three general ways people get paid back for what they put online:

  • They do it for free, hoping that the “exposure” will eventually turn into something more. (Note: this is usually temporary. People generally give up on doing things for free, because time is limited. If the thing you’re putting out there is gaining no views or no interest, you usually just stop putting it out there. If it’s gaining views and interest, you start wondering if you can’t somehow be recompensed for it through other means. Like Patreon. This is one of the main reasons so many personal blogs just end up dying.)
  • They do it for a fee, meaning they either are employed to do it, they’re supported by others (like Patreon), or the return on that item is conveyed through other means. Maybe higher views gives them the standing they want to be able to turn that into something more than a side gig. (“Other means” is also a road that typically ends in transitioning to something else. Maybe the death the content.)
  • They do it for the ad fees. YouTube lets you monetize your videos. You can stick ads from Google on your websites. The more clicks those ads get, the more money you receive.

I had ads on my site about ten years ago, but I finally made the decision to do away with them, because I found myself writing articles for the purpose of getting more clicks. Sort of like a rat in a lab experiment. Press this button and get a treat. You do that enough, and all you start thinking about is how many treats you can get.

The majority of what we consume online these days is supported by ads. If you are reading something for free, it’s usually free because someone else is paying for it, or because the content creator is making money off your clicks. (Sorry for the cynicism. There are definitely exceptions to the rule, but they are generally rare.)

Speaking as someone who’s blogged daily for more than a decade, I can say from experience that the road to more clicks comes through creating content that resonates with people, for good or bad. You get more views by voicing strong opinions. Ideas that either make people want to throttle you or sing your praises. In my opinion, this is why news organizations have drifted more and more toward inflammatory opinion pieces instead of just presenting the news.

And that’s bad enough, but one of the more extreme results of this is the rise of a plethora of conspiracy theories, from flat-earthers to QAnon to Holocaust deniers. On the surface, it might seem trivial. If people want to believe the earth is flat despite scads of evidence to the contrary, fine. Idiots have to idiot, right? Except it’s not just people being bone heads. In an article just published by Time, the reporter found that

In more than seven dozen interviews conducted in Wisconsin in early September, from the suburbs around Milwaukee to the scarred streets of Kenosha in the aftermath of the Jacob Blake shooting, about 1 in 5 voters volunteered ideas that veered into the realm of conspiracy theory, ranging from QAnon to the notion that COVID-19 is a hoax.

Conspiracy theories don’t just stay harmless ideas on the fringes of the internet. They inspire people to take very real actions. To avoid vaccinations. To vote for or against different people. To wear a mask or not wear a mask. And if you want to believe the earth is flat, chances are you’re not going to hurt me by that belief, but if you start voting people into office who also believe the earth is flat, and those people begin to enact governmental policies around that concept, then we’re playing a whole different ball game.

Why do people believe conspiracy theories? I think it’s because we like to feel like we’re in the know. That the “truth” is out there, and that if you just put in the time to piece together all the different proofs, you too can become enlightened. And of course, the internet is right there waiting to help you find all the pieces of the puzzle. Better yet, there are people who have already found all the pieces and are ready to present it to you, all tied up with a bow.

Conspiracy theorists are resistant to arguments that go against the theory they’ve invested in. For one thing, the theory comes prepackaged with the concept of “people will try to convince you this is wrong, but they’re just deluded.” So as soon as you try to tell those people why what they’re believing is off base, they’re already immune to your arguments. “You’re just one of the other sheeple,” they’ll say. “Wake up!” For another, the more invested people become in an idea or cause, the more important that cause being right becomes to them. If you’ve very publicly stated your belief, you become that much more invested in doubling down on it, for the simple reason that people don’t like to admit they were wrong.

And conspiracy theories let people make more sense of a world that sometimes just feels like it’s lost its grounding. Change happens so quickly. Demographics are switching. Global pandemics are raging. Governments are using hush campaigns to undercut other governments. And now forest fires? Surely there’s a reason for all of this. It doesn’t just happen by accident, right?

From that simple desire to have meaning restored, people head down the path that (for some) ultimately leads them to think Hollywood, the media, and Democrats are holding on to power so that they can continue a global child sex trafficking operation. An operation only Donald Trump can save the world from.

As I said, there are plenty of “sources” out there that will help prove these theories. The rabbit hole that leads to this sort of searching can often start out innocently enough.

  1. Hear about real world examples of sex-trafficking rings, like Epstein.
  2. Read about the horrifying statistics around child molestation.
  3. Read about how Netflix just released a new movie centered on 11 year old girls twerking for money.
  4. Hear the media decry the outrage around that movie.
  5. Wonder what else the media isn’t telling you
  6. Turn to Google

From there QAnon is waiting with its slew of articles and videos that all claim to tell you what’s really going on. (And never mind that “what’s really going on” is that Netflix made a really poor choice of marketing materials, and this Cuties outrage has grown far beyond what the film really seems to warrant.)

(What am I basing this on? A few things. For one, it premiered at Sundance back in January, winning the World Cinema Directing Award but not really making much of an impact beyond that. See this review, for an example. It’s particularly interesting to note the statement: “the film establishes its critical view of a culture that steers impressionable young girls toward the hypersexualization of their bodies.” I have not watched the movie, but I can certainly relate to the concept that society is hypersexualizing young girls, and all I have to do to support that assertion is point to the scores of dance pictures and dance outfits taken at yearly dance recitals every. single. year. And indeed, the articles I read about the film (the ones that aren’t rabidly denouncing it as evil incarnate) seem to fall in line with this. And then there’s the fact that this pedophile argument falls right in line with pre-existing far right furor, and it all just doesn’t pass the sniff test for me. It wouldn’t be the first time a film made to critique something becomes accused of promoting the very thing it’s critiquing.)

But again, how do you combat this line of argument? You could suggest people actually watch the movie, but if you do that, then you’re accused of trying to promote child pornography. You could watch the movie yourself, but you get the same accusation. I don’t think there’s a way out of this except to clamor for people to cancel Netflix. Otherwise, you’re clearly just another person enabling pedophiles.

Sigh. This post is getting derailed. Let me get back on track.

The bottom line is that the gateways to these conspiracy theories are much more reasonable than the destinations they end up leading to. But getting out of the conspiracy theory is much harder than getting in.

How do you avoid them? Always question your sources. If it’s something written on a fringe site, what are the qualifications of the author? Why does the fringe site exist? Where does it get its money? One of the sad side effects of the internet is that quality information costs money, but crappy information is free or ad-based. (Written by the man who’s providing free commentary.) And because those free or ad-based sources get money based on clicks, it’s in their interest to accuse the subscription sources of being biased or wrong.

But I think a main reason so many of these conspiracy theories are taking stronger and stronger root in society is that they’re being used as a continued way to convince people to support certain candidates or campaigns. This isn’t really up for debate. Trump retweets articles and supporters of these QAnon conspiracies. He parrots back some of them on the campaign trail. (And when you’re no longer able to make a reasoned argument for why you should be reelected, but instead need to resort to people believing you’re the only person saving the world from child-eating monsters? Maybe you should reevaluate your campaign platform.)

But it’s not just people on the right falling for them. People on the left buy into them too. Bush planned 9/11 was a popular one back in the day. The flurry of reports of the Robert Mueller was “really going to do” was another, and some of the claims around Trump get very outlandish, to say the least. (He’s either an idiot or a mastermind, depending on the theory. Sometimes both. That doesn’t add up.) If you think only “other people” fall for conspiracy theories, you’re not helping things.

(Of course, the world being what it is, there are some who would have you believe some actual world events are nothing more than conspiracy theories. Climate change, for example. But I don’t have time to go there today.)

Anyway. That’s all I’ve got for you on that for now. I’m out of time as it is. I’m just hoping we can, as a people, be a little more questioning of information. Not all sources are created equal. Be extra careful when you start buying into an argument that “everyone wants you to ignore.” I’ll leave it at that for now.

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