In Peshawar, a so-called journalist from a private news channel was, holding a mic asking questions from every participant around, “Have you seen a single covid-19 patient? if not, then why the government is hell-bent on imposing restrictions on our movements?” The purpose of the survey was to incite hostility toward the authorities for placing restrictions to prevent the spread of corona, though the journalist claimed to test the water. What the journalist was adamant to mount in the minds of citizens had already been brewing since the first day of Covid-19’s advent in Pakistan; BELIEVE IN CONSPIRACY THEORIES WHILE REFUSING TO FOLLOW SOPS. It was not a single show, an individual or a few people dismissing the existence of Covid-19. In fact, the entire world, including Pakistan, appeared crippled before conspiracy theories. The requests of authorities to observe smart-partial or complete lockdown were unheeded in the face of rampant conspiracy theories, compelling us to question the mighty spell of conspiracy theories over the minds of citizens. However, before tinkering with the individual, psychological, and social factors that lead to believing in conspiracy theories, let’s define conspiracy theories, their ideal breeding ground and who basically are the conspiracy theorists?
According to Merriam Webster, it’s the belief that an event or set of circumstances is the result of a secret plot by unusually powerful conspirators. To simplify, it’s the belief that out there some powerful people are conspiring to attain a hidden, evil goal at the expense of certain people, certain communities. For instance, Bill Gates, through vaccines is placing microchips in the brains of people or it’s an attempt to sterile Muslims and so on. Though these are some of the local conspiracy theories, you probably have come across even on a global level, explaining global events, i.e 9/11 was an inside job, or Osama Bin Laden was not killed in the Abbottabad operation. Examining them in-depth, it becomes evident, that In almost every conspiracy theory we could recognise quite a similar pattern, hence:
- Connecting random or unusual dots to explain an event,
- Satanic plot,
- Powerful people/group
- Evil motives
- Persistent secrecy.
Nevertheless, it’s equally not important for every conspiracy theory to contain all of the points, though it’s pretty unlikely.
We could, however, be faced with a relevant question. The dilemma, though. The belief in conspiracy theories or harbouring conspiracy beliefs is actually considered to be a personal matter. You can’t simply dictate the way people think, could you? Besides, we all have one or another kind of belief. The fact that this writing could be a conspiracy to some, can not be ruled out, either. After all, everything is being viewed through the lens of suspicion. Well, It’s the same argument that we heard against the SOPs, or getting vaccinated. INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS. But Wait! Do you think your beliefs are staying limited to your mind or do they command your actions? For instance, not believing in Corona is one thing, refusing to follow SOPs because you believe Corona to be a hoax is quite another thing. Are you not actually endangering yourself and others? People are entitled to entertain diverse and every kind of beliefs (even if they are harmful like sexism) if they remain confined to the brains without translating into actions, however, once they render into action, it’s going to create quite a mess. Plus, to be mindful, we are not talking about one individual given the conspiracy theories align and engage with hundreds of people, presenting three far-reaching threats, making it inescapable to confront conspiracy theories;
- Putting the health of oneself and others in danger, for instance, read this BBC story.
- Instigating resentment towards authorities, who are accused of condoning the malicious actions of the powerful, evil groups. (Obviously, you remember the day when Trump allegedly encouraged his followers to attack the US Capitol)
- Wrecking necessary efforts to address the perceived problem.
If the harm of your belief is stretching beyond your scope, compromising your right might become the only choice.
People are entitled to entertain diverse and every kind of beliefs (even if they are harmful like sexism) if they remain confined to the brains without translating into actions, however, once they render into action, it’s going to create quite a mess.
To be honest, conspiracy theorists are not some aliens. Contrary to the stereotypical notion, (that only a small, uncommon, paranoid fringe and intellectually compromised people believe in conspiracy theories) gender, education, income or qualification do not make much difference when it comes to believing in conspiracy theories. A scholar could be just as conspiracy-minded as an illiterate individual. Similarly, a person retaining a leading authority, an accolade and even someone with a medical background could also fall prey to the traps of conspiracy theories. As per Rob Brotherton, conspiracy theorists are ordinary people, even reasonable when comes to investigating evidence to back their theories, however, with a slight increase in paranoia. Although, the word paranoia itself embodies a clinical issue, (taken from Delusional and schizophrenic disorder) in comprehending conspiracy theories, we could say that these people doubt things little more than the average person. The speculation, connecting random dots into meaningful events and attributing big causes to big events, even when they don’t happen to exist, are some of the major characteristics of these people.
Notwithstanding, these people could not be credited the entire blame for fashioning suspicious towards authorities if we dig up roots behind this attitude. There were actual stories, like conducting the syphilis experiment, under the guise of offering free health care to African-American men. In reality, the scientists continued studying the natural development of untreated syphilis, involving 399 men who had syphilis but were unaware of their condition and 201 healthy men as a control group. The experiment continued for 40 years. During the entire time, patients were kept in dark, about the experiment, about their actual medical condition, besides leaving their illness untreated caused horrible consequences to those men, including killing some. Furthermore, in 1998, doctor Andrew Wakefield, along with a team of colleagues, published a study giving birth to an anti-vax movement. The study though couldn’t produce sufficient data to prove its claim that vaccines might have caused or at least played role in causing Autism, had sabotaged the credibility of vaccines prompting parents to refuse to vaccinate their children. Later, it was confirmed that the entire study was conjured based on zero evidence but the damage was already done. In the case of Pakistan, faking the Polio campaign to inspect the presence of Osama Bin Laden in Abbottabad, the embedded distrust of the west and confusing messages coming from authorities (If doctors called Corona a fatal virus, some leaders in the corridors of power called it the simple flu. In some places, people believed that fake results of covid-19 were being documented to obtain foreign aids). Hence proving that even conspiracy theories originate from some source.
When do people are more prone to believe in conspiracy theories?
According to “THE PSYCHOLOGY OF CONSPIRACY THEORIES”, a society in crisis is likely to breed and flourish conspiracy theories. A by-product indeed. It’s not rocket science, that fear and uncertainty are the favourite offspring of crisis, fostering a sense of vulnerability in targeted victims. Being human, we are fond of the status quo. Always reluctant to a change. So whenever this status quo is challenged, disturbing our symmetry; we feel vulnerable losing control of the happenings around us, and we don’t like that, right? That sense of vulnerability drives our behaviour in three ways;
- More and more counting on compensatory control. For instance, thinking that however vulnerable we are God will be always on our sides. Or forgiving the powerful enemy, in hope that God will avenge the wrongdoer.
- Creating a scapegoat: Here we tend to hold some people or communities responsible for incurring trouble on us. For instance, believing that women wearing jeans causes earthquakes.
- Escaping cognitive dissonance: For decades, people have been inculcated dogma and contempt against the west by our religious and cultural precepts. Now, when they see the west materializing a formula to save their lives, creates a disconcerting dissonance, challenging their ingrained belief system. The questions like, why the vaccine is inexpensive when all other medications are costly? Why the west is being blindly followed to vaccinate people? Why pre-emptive jab, why not after the disorder hits you? (Explaining to your people that how vaccines work is another headache) take place in their mind. There they are faced with two choices, either to overhaul their perception of the West and accept that even the West could be accommodating in the time of crisis (that would invalidate their implanted opposed perception) or reject the vaccination altogether, they choose the letter.
It’s not rocket science, that fear and uncertainty are the favourite offspring of crisis, fostering a sense of vulnerability in targeted victims.
Dealing with conspiracy-ridden minds is not actually easy. Confronting them with logic and evidence could generate a backfire effect, (as they could say, you are being duped by the shrewd officials) or might lead them to adopt a confirmation bias (cherry-picking information to suit their already established beliefs) so what should you do, if you read a conspiracy theory?
1- Before believing the news, crosscheck the source of the news. Who is bringing the news? What is the authenticity of the news? Does the alleged source have the required credentials to make the news?
2: Compare the claims with fact-checking sites. Go for crowdsourcing to verify the authenticity of the claim.
3: For Journalists, emphasising fact-based news should be a priority. Fake stories, disinformation and conspiracy theories should not be given enough space to mould the opinion of the public.
4: Government need to adopt transparency not just in its policies but even in communication with the common people. Confusing statements should be discouraged given, these messages fuel distrust.
People holding conspiracy theories are not criminals so they should not be dealt with like one. Having beliefs is not wrong but if the belief is posing harm to oneself or others, it becomes worrisome and that’s where we are supposed to confront them but extending empathy and trying to walk in their shoes. Parents don’t hate their children when they express their suspicion of vaccination, they are mindful of the health of their children, but have you heard a story? A monkey to shoo away a fly off the nose of the king, ended up hitting the king with the sword? The monkey didn’t mean harm but the expression was harmful. The same applies to conspiracy theorists.
For further details, read:
1: Suspicious Minds; Why do we believe in conspiracy theories.
2: The Psychology of Conspiracy theories.
3: Covid- 19 and Conspiracy theories,
4: Conspiracy theories and people who believe them.