Last updated on July 13, 2022
Conspiracies. The moon landing, Area 51, Paul Mccartney, the existence of birds. Conspiracy theories are shiny and appealing. They elicit intense emotions. Yet, we often forget the real implications of what we give our attention to, and these theories are becoming more dangerous than ever.
In 2013, Facebook users who believed the Democratic party fabricated the Sandy Hook shooting gathered in the Sandy Hook Hoax Group. Deniers speculated that victims were still alive, going as far as to say that they were secretly attending their own funerals. Lenny Pozer, whose son died in the Sandy Hook shooting, founded HONR, a nonprofit dedicated to stopping the spread of such outlandish theories – because the cruel reaction to Sandy Hook was not an isolated incident. American mass shootings have since been consistently accused of falsification.
The once-fringe conspiratorial movement is becoming mainstream in the United States and beyond. We should be wary of its violence, dehumanization, and radicalization.
Some level of skepticism is necessary; I’m not advocating for absolute conformity. But, there’s a difference between reasonable suspicion and unjustified conspiracy theory: while reasonable suspicion is grounded in evidence, conspiracy theories don’t need to be proven. Baseless claims gradually become hyperreality with repetition and assertion. Theories such as the Sandy Hook hoax are politically motivated and, without grounds, run on paranoia – eroding the fabric of society. These conspiracies “without the theory” exist across the political spectrum: take QAnon from the American right and Trump’s speculated coup d’état from the left.
Why do we latch onto these conspiracy theories, which are often obvious falsehoods? Political figures manipulate fear for a last-minute power grab, and when people feel their favored political party’s power is dwindling, they are increasingly vulnerable to accepting irrationality. Theories become the foundation for a group’s identity, leading to dehumanization as well as extreme defensiveness from challengers. And, groups feel a reinforced intellectual superiority.
Paranoia runs especially rampant in American politics, where distrust in institutions has only been exacerbated by Trump denouncing intellectual expertise in recent years. Collective fear of immigration has manifested into the “great replacement” conspiracy theory. This month, a white shooter targeting Black Americans in a Buffalo grocery store killed 10 people. The shooter’s screed draws from the far-right “great replacement” theory, which argues that white people are being intentionally displaced by nonwhite individuals in the U.S. and Europe for political purposes, eventually leading to “white extermination.” “Great replacement” theorists often propose segregation and forced return of immigrants as solutions. The most concerning implications have been white extremist violence like the Buffalo shooting. Through the exploitation of preexisting anti-immigrant paranoia, this theory insinuates that violence is the only option.
Conspiracy theories are increasingly disseminated to even wider audiences with the rise of social media. While these ideas aren’t going anywhere, we can undoubtedly dampen their dangerous effects. So, though it may be exciting to wonder, be conscious of what type of logic you’re entertaining.