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Understanding conspiracy theories

The “causes” Craig Kelly promotes on his Facebook page are often conspiracy theories – that various people he disagrees with have hidden agendas that we should fear. So it is helpful to understand conspiracy theories, why they are attractive to some people, and how best to respond to them.

What is a conspiracy theory?

A conspiracy theory is a belief that some covert but influential organisation or individual is responsible for a harmful event or movement.

Conspiracy theories seem to be rife these days. Vaccinations cause autism. Covid is a hoax, or maybe a Chinese plot. The US election was stolen. And Hilary Clinton was part of a satanic human traficking and child sex ring, based in a pizza parlour (yes!).

And, of course, climate change is a hoax promoted by scientist to get research money, and the United nations, so they can control us all.

All conspiracy theories, and pretty much all wrong.

Craig Kelly and conspiracy theories

Craig Kelly doesn’t accept climate science. But he also says the Bureau of Meteorology staff are “fraudsters”, part of a “warmist climate cult” led by “UN Globalists” who are plotting “the great reset” so that “everything is owned and controlled by a small cabal of global elites and bureaucrats”.

He doesn’t just think that Hydroxychloroquine should be used against Covid-19, but he says not using it is the “crime of the century”, a “concerted campaign; to commit fraud, to demean and vilify, and to ignore the evidence”.

Not only does he disagree with the Victorian Government’s covid lockdowns (which actually led to weeks where there has been zero community transmissions), but he accused Premier Dan Andrews of being a “dictator” who employs “para-military forces against women”, and compared this to “Nazi Germany”.

Having an alternative view of climate change, Covid-19 medical treatment or Victorian politics is quite normal in a democracy. But finding hidden agendas by international cabals and impugning the motives of those who hold a view he disagrees with is classic conspiracy theory.

Climate change & conspiracy theories

The opposition to the truth of climate change has developed over time. First, there were genuine scientific questions about the science. Then, as the science became clearer and better established, opponents had to find ways to discredit it. They did this by highlighting minor disagreements, cherry-picking and misrepresenting data to disguise and question the scientific consensus, and urging everyone wait until the science was more sure.

But eventually the scientific consensus was so strong, and the counter arguments so weak, that opponents had to find a way to explain why otherwise expert scientists were getting it wrong (in their view).

A conspiracy theory is the logical outcome of such a process. If you can’t refute the facts, discredit the messenger. And so the only way to “explain” the scientific consensus is to suggest that the scientists have some ulterior motive.

Initially, this motive was supposed to be the attraction of extra funding for their research, a pretty lame and unlikely motive for thousands of scientists from so many countries. And so we end up with the full-blown conspiracy theory promoted by Craig Kelly – climate change is no less than a United Nations, globalist, socialist plot to take over the free capitalist world.

The difficulty of providing evidence for this accusation explains why tactics like misrepresenting data are necessary. The conspiracy theory has become a web of claims that relies on wild accusation and misrepresentation, and it can only be convincing if all opposing views are discredited.

Who benefits from conspiracy theories?

Some conspiracy theories are true, for sometimes government, businesses or other groups do conspire to defraud, win power or protect their interests. For example, a US judge found that the tobacco companies really did conspire suppress the links between smoking and cancer for decades.

Some conspiracy theories start with a suspicion. It seems obvious (to some) that someone benefits from an unexpected or questionable chain of events, and so the facts are interpreted in a way that strengthens the conclusion that something shady has been done.

But other conspiracy theories start because someone sees a benefit and deliberately starts the theory. It serves a nation’s foreign policy, it defends a company’s interests, a politician sees political advantage, or someone is beginning a scam to make money. (For examples of these, see here.)

But the critical things is how and why a conspiracy theory is spread. Politicians, celebrities, businesses and groups with a “dark” political agenda can use social media networks of conspiratorial thinkers to spread a message and build a constituency.

Those who are disposed to conspiratorial thinking or who believe in the “cause” can become “hard-core” followers whose self image is enhanced by being part of the in-group that knows what so many outsiders don’t know. Others find the conspiracy congenial (e.g. many Republicans found it difficult to accept that they had lost the recent Presidential election, and so found it easy to believe there had been a conspiracy to “steal” the election, despite the lack of evidence).

Why do people believe in conspiracy theories?

“There’s good evidence that conspiracy theories flourish during times of crisis,” says psychiatrist Joseph Pierre. And 2020 has been a crisis for many people – bushfires, climate change, a global pandemic, loss of jobs and temporary loss of freedoms for many, terrorism fears, an unstable US presidency and election, and so on.

Some people are prone to conspiracy thinking

Some people are innately more likely to believe in conspiracy theories. They may be:

  • mistrustful or overly suspicious, especially towards elites and experts;
  • dependent more on personal experience and other people’s opinions than objective evidence;
  • anxious and distressed by uncertainty and feel the need for security and control; or
  • self-focused, with a need to feel special.

When faced with difficult or distressing information, some people:

  • see patterns and links that may not be real;
  • listen mainly to one source of information (confirmation bias);
  • feel disturbed by major disappointments or challenges to their thinking (cognitive dissonance) and need to explain it;
  • find comfort in explaining “big” events in a chaotic world;
  • gravitate towards conspiracy theories that affirm their own views.

People want to belong and have self esteem. Sometimes this leads to a greater openness to conspiracy theories, because:

  • being part of a group that “sees” the conspiracy that others can’t see can make a person feel special and knowledgeable, and so maintains self image;
  • a conspiracy means blame can be attributed to others, not us;
  • a small group of like-minded people, especially on social media, can reinforce each other and make each other feel better by repeating the “truths” that they know and outsiders don’t.

If you read the comments on Craig Kelly’s Facebook page, you can easily see many of these motivations.

How to recognise a conspiracy theory

Check the source

  • Check whether the author is expert, and if they have an obvious bias (such as who pays them).
  • Check if the claimed facts are actually true. Particularly check if the facts are cherry-picked from among other evidence that supports a different conclusion. (This is one of the most common features of conspiracy theories.)
  • Check if the references are reliable sources and actually say what is claimed.
  • If the author writes emotively rather than factually, they may have an agenda. And if the author asks lots of rhetorical questions without offering actual evidence, it may be that they have no evidence and are using the questions to raise unfounded doubts. (This is another common feature of conspiracy thinking.)

Check other sources

  • Use Google to check as many other sources as you can find. Give most credence to reliable sources.
  • See what recognised experts say.
  • See who else supports the conspiracy theory and who doesn’t.

Responding to conspiracy theories

Most of us will want to help people recognise conspiracy theories for what they are, and to learn the truth. But some responses are known to be counter productive. Here is a summary of the experts’ advice:

Attitude

  • Recognise the emotional dimensions and show empathy.
  • Try to establish common ground (values you both hold).
  • Avoid ridicule. Some people say it can help break the hold of a conspiracy theory, but most say that it only reinforces the theorist’s view that the world is against them, and so drives them further into dependence on the conspiracy community.
  • Don’t push too far or too fast. Give people time to think and draw their own conclusions.
  • It helps if you are seen as being competent in the matter under discussion.
  • Make sure you are well informed yourself.
  • Be prepared for the possibility that your scientific explanation and the experts you quote may be seen as part of the conspiracy.

Words

  • Try to focus on facts as much as possible, not the conspiracy theory itself. When you do mention the theory, always say that it is wrong, so it isn’t reinforced via repetition.
  • Target the source of the theory, not the person you are discussing with.
  • Ask questions about their beliefs about the conspiracy to ensure you are addressing the issue important to them.
  • Ask “Socratic questions” which require them to explain what in fact may not be at all clear, either to them, or in the original theory (which is likely irrational at some point).
  • Go step by step with simple facts that challenge the theory, not complex explanations. Don’t overwhelm with information.
  • Provide fact-based alternative explanations of the facts supposedly explained by the conspiracy theory.

Get used to disappointment!

Many (most?) conspiracy theorists are unlikely to change their minds quickly, if at all. Don’t get anxious or lose your cool. As the man in black said: “Get used to disappointment!”

Our main aim is to win over those who are open to changing their minds or are still questioning both “sides”. Discussion with harder heads may serve that purpose as uncommitted people listen in on the discussion.

Being rude or angry may feel good but is unlikely to win people over. Being polite, careful and knowledgeable stands a better chance.

Read more

I’ve looked at conspiracy theories in more detail, with many references, in Understanding conspiracy theories.

Photo by Rosemary Ketchum from Pexels

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