On conspiracies

The Guardian has an opinion piece by Julia Ebner on how conspiracy theories undermine democracy. She mainly focus on the role of non-transparent algorithms used by platforms like YouTube in spreading conspiracy theories. Though we agree with her on that those algorithms should be transparent and the conspiracy theories are harmful to society, we are missing a fundamental piece.

That part is the question why people believe such theories in the first place? We believe that there are two main reasons why people are inclined to take conspiracy theories serious.

The first reason, we believe, is the lack of teaching critical thinking at schools. Unfortunately education around the world is still not adapted to digital age and hence children fail to learn how to process the information they find online.

However, the most important reason why people are vulnerable to conspiracy theories is the fact that authorities around the world are failing to take serious the concerns of their citizens. Whether it is crime, unemployment or immigration people see that political leaders are not addressing their problems.

People are not stupid and if, for instance, they are told that the economy is doing well but the average man on the street does not receive a raise or is unable to find a job, while simultaneously large businesses are making immense profits and government continue to cut spending – it is not strange that people start to question the “official story”.

Conspiracy theories offer an alternative, albeit wrong, explanation of what is happening in society. People who have lost their confidence in the authorities might find such theories attractive as these confirm their distrust of institution.

Blaming online platforms for the spread of harmful conspiracies and urging those to take action is at best a partial solution. But at worst it will only reinforce some people’s believe that the “powers that be” do not want you to know “things”. If authorities around the world really want to restore confidence in public institutions, they need to take their citizens seriously and to address their real grievances.

4 thoughts on “On conspiracies”

  1. I agree with this post. I however would like to add that people sometimes have reason to disbelieve the state. I will give you a local example.
    In the 1990s, a minister of state was kidnapped from his home and brutally murdered. the government told the citizens the fellow killed himself, thereafter poured acid on himself and lit a fire. no sane person would believe this story so alternative stories have come up as to the how and why he was murdered.
    i also think people are generally stupid and have no time to investigate the conspiracy theories, besides some sound so believable that an average person on the street will likely believe them.

  2. I agree with Mak, and I would add that real conspiracies occur not just in government but in other institutions as well. The assassinations of Julius Caesar and Abraham Lincoln, among others, were the result of conspiracies. The U.S. intelligence community conspired for decades to depose democratic governments in Central and South America, the Middle East, and other regions. ExxonMobil conspired to hide its own scientific research on climate change from the public. The Catholic Church conspired to conceal pedophilia within its ranks. Now, U.S. law enforcement agencies are investigating a possible criminal conspiracy between Russia and President Trump.

    People are predisposed to believing in conspiracy theories because they know it does happen. What’s unfortunate, like Mak said, is that most people don’t take the time to investigate. We humans are quick to judge but are slow to learn… and, that is the real problem.

    1. I fully concur with you, real conspiracies do exist and those contribute to increasing popular distrust in public and private institutions. And hence solely blaming online platforms for the distribution of conspiracy theories is not only incomplete but also counterproductive.

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