Post-truth. Alternative facts. Fake news. We are living in a world where conspiracy theories are allowed to flourish. With every mass shooting, terrorist attack, and new political policy announcement, it seems like a new conspiracy theory will be dreamt up somewhere both on and offline to explain the reasoning behind an event. But what exactly is a conspiracy theory, why do they flourish, and how dangerous are they? Sam Smith spoke with M Dendith and Patrick Stokes.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length
Sam Smith: Let’s start with M Dentith. Could you give us a basic definition of what a conspiracy theory is?
M Dendith: This is a definition which doesn’t necessarily conform to ordinary usage – although there is a question here as to whether there is an ordinary usage of this thing called conspiracy theory – but I define a conspiracy theory as any explanation of an event that sites a conspiracy as a salient cause.
SS: What would you add to that Pat Stokes?
Pat Stokes: I think that is probably the dominant definition in the epistemology literature on conspiracy theories. Others have tried to add extra bits and pieces, like some people say it has to be for a morally disreputable purpose, or it has to be counter to an official narrative. So there have been attempts, but it has been pared right back to that very formal definition. Which raises the worry for some of us that we may not be quite getting with our definition at exactly what people talk about in the street when they say conspiracy theories. So there is an interesting tension there between a revisionary definition that is very usable in philosophy versus a really messy non-definition that the average person uses.
SS: And do all conspiracies fall under one definition or are there quite a few different types of definitions?
PS: I think there are a number of different types. They probably all do fall under that definition just because it is so capacious, but there are different kinds. I made the distinction between, for instance, conspiracy theories that are born conspiratorial – so they start by looking at an event and saying this is a result of a conspiracy. But there are some theories that become conspiratorial as a result of trying to defend a theory for instance, so it may not be a conspiracy theory but then when other evidence comes in they will say ‘Oh, well the reason is that the theory looks bad is because somebody is working to cover this up’.
SS: Would you agree with that M?
MD: Yes, I think the problem when we are talking about conspiracy theories is that there are a lot of things that are called conspiracy theories, some of which aren’t even theories about conspiracies. So, Jesse Walker who is a contributor to the Joe Uscinski book Conspiracy Theories and the People Who Believe Them points out that after [Malaysian airliner MH370] disappeared, one news organisation listed ten weird conspiracy theories about the disappearance of that plane including it was swallowed by a black hole. And as he pointed out, black holes are not conspiratorial, it is just a weird belief. But often when we talk about conspiracy theories there is a conflation between theories which are about conspiratorial activity and stories that we just take to be false or unlikely. So it is very hard to narrow down what the ordinary usage of conspiracy theory is, which is why I go for the capacious definition because I think it is the most useful one for the analysis of theories about conspiracies, even if it doesn’t necessarily map on to how the ordinary language user talks about things called conspiracy theories.
SS: How do conspiracy theories begin exactly and how is it that some manage to survive over time while others disappear?
MD: There are two dominant discourses that will explain this. So you will get what we call the generalist position which will put down conspiracy theories to some kind of epistemic or psychological pathology. So they are malformed beliefs by people interacting with the world and coming to the wrong conclusions, at which point conspiracy theories are almost always likely to be false by this particular kind of view. And because of that they are formed in malformed ways and it can be all sorts of reasons, whether it be you are psychologically conditioned to see conspiracies where they are not, you have an epistemic fault where you infer the existence of a conspiracy without considering competing explanations. And then you get what is called the particularist position, which is kind of dominant in those of us who do the philosophy of conspiracy theories that say, look conspiracy theories often form with relation to evidence and sometimes they are malformed and sometimes they are well formed, and so you need to look at what evidence people put forward and what kind of assumptions they are operating with. I spent a year and a half working in Romania. Romania is a very corrupt political space, they have an openly corrupt government, Romanians suspect conspiracies are behind an awful lot of things that go on in the Romanian political sphere, so they suspect conspiracies because conspiracy is normal in that space. Pat and I come from a much more benign political space…and so we kind of think of conspiracies as being relatively rare in our political situations and thus we are less likely to assume that that is a kind of primary cause for events in our political space.
SS: What would you add to that Pat?
PS: One thing that is worth noting about the etiology of conspiracy theories – M is quite right in some ways it is going to come down to how conspired you take your body politic to be and that is to a certain extent going to license how reasonable any of these beliefs are going to be – but it is also noticeable that a lot of them tend to follow pre-defined sorts of narratives or structures for what you think explains a certain kind of action. So if you look for instance at any time a mass casualty event in the US happens, there will always instantly be some move to declare that it is some sort of false flag exercise, that either it didn’t really happen, or it did happen but it was the government who perpetrated it. That is a very common trope and this same explanatory picture keeps being re-deployed in different contexts. So in some ways we look at the origins of these theories but we also have to look at the way in which there is a social practice that is being appealed to. And that social practice will differ according to different contexts. So it may look very different in a corrupt society where conspiracies turn out to be happening all the time, compared to a more transparent society.
I have in the past sometimes said that in some ways conspiracy theories, when they become excessive or frequent, it’s kind of analogous to hypochondria rather than an illness itself. You are seeing every signal that comes out of the body politic as sinister; everything is meaningful and everything is sinister, there is no noise, it is all signal and everything has some dark meaning behind. [That is] in some ways quite analogous to what happens to the hypochondriac, where their body becomes opaque to themselves and everything that happens is meaningful and could lead to disaster. So there are interesting things to be said about the etiology of conspiracy theories which in some ways sit awkwardly with what as philosophers we might want to do, which is to come up with a nice clear definition and see how rational that definition is.
SS: I would like to turn to the role of the internet and the media in contributing to the rise of conspiracy theories and conspiracy culture. How has the internet contributed, firstly, to the rise of conspiracy theory culture? Very recently we have heard a lot about 8Chan and 4Chan for example.
MD: Yes, so the internet plays I think a fairly important role with why we talk about conspiracy theories. What I am going to say now is contentious amongst conspiracy theory scholars. There was a book that came out in 2014 called American Conspiracy Theories written by Joe Uscinski and Joe Parent and they looked at a whole bunch of letters to the editor in these newspapers in the US over the 20th century trying to map as to when the peak of conspiracy theorising was going on in US discourse. And they say, ‘Well, look actually it was the 1960s that was the peak of when people were talking about conspiracy theories and actually conspiracy theories have been in steady decline ever since’. And, of course, this ends up being contentious amongst scholars of conspiracy theories because anecdotally conspiracy theories look really popular at the moment. Uscinski and Parent go, ‘Well that might just be a reporting thing because conspiracy theories are even more rare than usual they actually end up being more notable and so the media reports on them more and thus we hear about them more’. In the same respect there has been a general decline in criminal activity in Western nations over the latter part of the 20th century, beginning of the 21st century which has conversely led to increased reporting of crime because crime is more notable. So there is a question here as to whether conspiracy theories are the big issue they appear to be, but they certainly are very easily spread because in the old days, if you had a conspiracy theory and you wanted people to learn about it you would have to write a letter to the editor in a magazine, publish an article in a magazine or write a book, and then you would have to wait for people to read that material, then you would have to wait for people to reply to that material and then you might engage in a really prolonged discussion of that material for years and years. Now, if I was put a conspiracy theory up on my blog I would have people responding to it within hours if not minutes of the post going up. So there has been a kind of weird focussing effect we are seeing with the internet. It is very easy to find out about conspiracy theories now.
SS: Pat, your thoughts?
PS: I would add to that too, that not only is it easy to find out about conspiracy theories but with any kind of counter-cultural or counter-consensus belief of any sort it is much easier to find ‘your people’ now. It is much easier to find a community of people who believe the same things you do or who are at least inclined to go down the same kinds of pathways. This means it is much easier to sustain these sorts of views because there are people around you who are prepared to constitute what M would call a ‘community of inquiry’ who do actually explore and investigate these ideas but also give you some validation if you like and make it much easier to maintain that sort of belief.
So there is a point about speed of dissemination of conspiracy theories, but there is also a point about the way in which epistemic communities can arise to reinforce these beliefs amongst each other. I mean, it is not a conspiracy theory, but maybe it generates conspiracy theories: something like flat earth belief, which is kind of the shorthand now for irrational belief or whatever, that not only is much easier to disseminate now but it is also much easier to build a community of people and say ‘Well, okay maybe this isn’t an irrational thing to believe because so many of the people around me seem to entertain it as a serious view’. It is much easier to form those communities now.
SS: How dangerous can it be for a conspiracy theory to flourish and the culture around certain conspiracy theories?
PS: It depends by what you mean by dangerous. There are two ways of looking at this. One is a consequentialist way, which is to say that conspiracy beliefs do often motivate people to do harmful sorts of things. We saw that with the Pizzagate controversy in the US where people actually burst into restaurants with guns and things. The reply to that you can make of course, is that plenty of non-conspiratorial beliefs motivate people to do terrible things and plenty of conspiracy theorists don’t do terrible things. So there is that. I think in some ways conspiracy theories does make it easier to make accusations against people for instance, so it is psychologically a bit easier to harass, say, a grieving parent by saying your child never really existed and you are a crisis actor. It is probably much easier to do that if you have a prior commitment to the world being a certain way and to a conspiracy as the best explanation for a certain kind of event. There is also, and this is something I know M and I disagree on, a broader issue about whether conspiracy theories license accusation, where simply accusing someone contains a certain kind of non-consequential moral wrong in itself. That is, if we have a duty to think well of people, does entertaining conspiracy theories make us more likely to conclude that people are not what they appear to be or that they are actually doing terrible things that they don’t acknowledge doing?
SS: What would you say to that M?
MD: I think part of that can be mopped up by trying to assess what kind of society you are in. So once again, in the Australia-New Zealand context where conspiracies are, as far as we are concerned, relatively rare, maybe we do kind of have a duty to be trusting to one another all the time, or at least most of the time. Well if you are in a corrupt polity where your levels of trust are very low, or imagine growing up under the Stasi in East Germany a situation where you really cannot trust that your neighbours are looking after you, then you will have a completely different attitude towards these things and the ethics of how you talk about conspiracy theories will change depending on the culture of historical time you are in. I also think it is important to note that yes, it is true that some conspiracy theorists do terrible things, and as Pat points out, that is because some people just do terrible things anyway, sometimes because of conspiracy theories, sometimes for other reasons. But also, conspiracy theorising as a phenomenon can also be a useful release valve in a democratic system because we need to be aware that there could be conspiracies going on in our political system now. We know conspiracies have occurred, we need to be attentive to the idea that they could occur again and normally we are pretty concerned if there is a political conspiracy because that tends to mean that politicians are up to something that they don’t want the public to know about. And the presumption there is, if it is not sinister activity, it could be suspicious activity that needs to be checked nonetheless. So, I mean there are negative consequence to belief in conspiracy theories but there are also positive social consequences as well.
SS: Anything there you want to pick up on Pat?
PS: You may say that part of what we need in any healthy polity is a kind of standing distrust of power, a standing suspicion of power. And I think that is true, but it is also worth noting that looking for conspiracies can make us try and interpret events in terms of deliberate agency on the part of powerful actors, to make us look at these things and say ‘These people are deliberately and consciously trying to bring this about’. And that can also then lead to the intention that very often we need to look at our societies in terms of how things happen that no one intends, but are actually as a result of institutional structures or forms of power. [Michel] Foucault makes this point quite often that power doesn’t necessarily need projects: power can sometimes just act on people and things without anyone intending for things to come out a certain way. So there is a tension there, there is a distinction between institutional theorists and conspiracy theorists. An institutional theorist will interpret everything as a result of institutional power forces, a conspiracy theorist might interpret everything in terms of individual agency, and the truth is almost certainly going to be a mix of those two things, we don’t want to be blind to either of them.
SS: I would now like to talk about some specific examples of conspiracy theories. Recently we have had the Christchurch terrorist attack and the internet went wild with a lot of conspiracies. What have you seen M around this issue?
MD: On the afternoon of March 15, almost immediately, because I am used to looking for these things, found a 4Chan thread about it, found a link to the manifesto…and suddenly we had this fully formed, within minutes of the event occurring false flag hypotheses. People were saying ‘Well I have watched the video and it looked like it was staged’ or ‘It looks like it is using crisis actors of some particular kind’. So this conspiracy emerged almost immediately and I think this is part of what Pat is talking about here about there being particular narratives. When you get a mass shooting there is a certain class of person who thinks this event is so extraordinary that it must be fake in some sense and immediately latches on to some kind of false flag mass shooting hypothesis which then goes ‘Well, if it has been faked, who could have faked this? Why was it faked? what is the rationale behind it?’ This of course [goes against] the actual manifesto of the shooter which goes to very great lengths to talk about how long he took to plan the event and exactly what his motivation for the event was.
SS: Pat, your response?
PS: That event is an interesting one in the sense that this may be part of why false flag-type conspiracies do occur so much now, because that was such a mediated event. I mean obviously not for the people who were there, but it was an event that was increasingly like other mass casualty events is presented to us – in a kind of heavily mediated sort of way and that perhaps does lead people into this distrust which can lead people down that route. But also again, as I say, if you are antecedently committed to the idea that false flag events happen and happen fairly routinely, that this is a thing that Western governments do, then it is going to be much easier to immediately interpret new, shocking events through that explanatory lens. And we do this with everything, when an event happens we immediately kind of have an explanatory repertoire which we draw on to explain how this unexpected thing came about. If a big part of your explanatory repertoire is ‘the government acts behind the scenes and fakes this stuff’ then it seems like that is going to be something that is much easier to apply more or less automatically.
SS: Some events through history have led to some massive conspiracy theory industries around them. I am talking about 9/11 truthers, the moon landing, John F Kennedy’s assassination, why is it that events like these have taken on a big scale?
MD: Some of that is due to the way in which governments responded. So one of the interesting things about the JFK assassination and the aftermath was the formation of the Warren Commission, which was made up of party political insiders that people were suspicious would be there to kind of cover things up rather than reveal details. They then produce a report, the Warren Commission Report, which is a set of volumes with no index whatsoever and all of the evidence put in a fairly random manner, which then led people to go ‘What are they trying to hide by trying to confound people?’. Now the reality is that no one thought the Warren Commission Report would ever be read so there was no need to have an index, there was no need to be systematic with the evidence. But it turned out that JFK was a beloved president, people wanted to know why exactly did this lone gunman do what he did, and so the report and the response to the assassination, even if it wasn’t a conspiracy looked like a cover-up of some kind. So I can kind of understand why people conspiracy theorise around JFK, and I can kind of also understand why it continues to be a big issue because people don’t feel it has been dealt with properly, although I would argue actually there have been several very good books that put the final nail in the coffin to show that [Lee Harvey] Oswald really was the person who did the event.
Things like the moon landing are slightly more interesting I think, in part because the growth of moon landing fakery stories don’t really occur at the time the Moon landing occurs. They really start to occur when we are not going to the Moon anymore. And so there is this question of ‘Well, we went to the Moon apparently, we are not going to the Moon now, was that all just an elaborate fake out?’ It is kind of post hoc reasoning trying to explain why we appeared to have this really spectacular space program at one particular time and yet now we have just left the Moon alone.
SS: What would you add to that Pat?
PS: The thing with JFK and also, say, Princess Diana, part of what is going on there I think, is that we psychologically have a bias against the idea that big events can have mundane causes. And the thought that the president can just be driving down the street and get shot by a random guy from a window, or that the Princess of Wales can die just because of a drunk driver, those sorts of thoughts somehow offend our sense of the proper scale on which causation should work…Also the moon landing as well, there is the interesting fact that not only is it something that we stopped doing, it is also the fact that it is something that the average person has no epistemic access to. I think the way conspiracy belief operates in some ways is going to be sociologically connected to the increasing lack of connection that we have to the knowledge-generating mechanisms of society. ‘We went to the moon, how do we know? Well here is a bunch of photos we took you are just going to have to trust us. Human activity is causing massive climate change and threatens to destroy us all, how do we know? Well we have to offload that to scientists because most of us can’t work that out for ourselves’. Increasingly we have this thing about distributed knowledge, that expertise and knowledge is distributed among experts which means for most people you have to take this stuff on trust and you become more and more alienated from those knowledge-generating mechanisms and you have less and less reason to trust them and more and more reason to see them as potentially being sinister or motivated against you.
SS: Of course, not all conspiracy theories are overtly political, some are more weird or quite fun to laugh at. I am thinking people who are flat Earthers or believe in the Illuminati or the 2012 Maya apocalypse idea. What do you make of some of those conspiracies?
PS: They have the appearance of games, and sometimes they take off beyond that. So the Paul McCartney is Dead one, which started in the late 60s basically as a joke, and what you can do is you can take one of these premises and it then becomes a fun sort of game to try and put as much evidence together as you can for that. The Germans have got a really good one: there is one particular town in Germany [Bielefeld] which doesn’t exist because you don’t know anyone who has ever been there. Or the ‘Australia doesn’t exist’ one, which is a good one, that Australia is a fake country, which apparently circulated among some flat earthers.
The thing is though, is that those ideas can then connect with people who maybe have mental health issues or other problems and they can actually go into some pretty dark places. And if you look into the Paul McCartney is Dead stuff, you pretty quickly stumble upon some websites that are disturbing or allusive because, of course, these ideas can really resonate with people who might be in a dark place and generate some stuff that is well outside the intended kind of fun spirit of the original theory.
SS: M, thoughts?
MD: Another thing to note about these things is that there is a difference between being a true believer in some conspiracy theory, and being someone who is willing to entertain the conspiracy theory but not being committed to its truth. It is fairly clear that for a period of time in the 20th century and the early 21st century the Flat Earth Society [was something] you joined as a bit of a joke. It was one of those things like, ‘Oh, I am a flat earther, do you believe the earth is flat?’ Well it could be, but people really didn’t believe it, they were just entertaining the idea. And I think as Pat points out, the Paul McCartney is Dead thing started off as a bit of a joke, it was a fun conspiracy theory to talk about because it allowed you to go, ‘Well, look we actually know so little about Paul McCartney’s personal life and there are all these gaps in the story that suddenly you can fill those gaps by putting in the hypothesis that he died’. And it turns out that people have done the same thing with Britney Spears, Avril Lavigne, there are all these conspiracy theories that x was replaced with y at point b for some rationale. And it is not clear if people are serious about these, they are simply entertaining them and that is something we need to kind of remember when we talk about conspiracy theories: not every conspiracy theorist is committed to the truth of the conspiracy theory they espouse. Sometimes they are simply entertaining an idea because it might be true but if you push them they are not going to say ‘I absolutely believe it’.
SS: Now both of you study conspiracy theories but do either of you actually believe any conspiracy theories?
PS: I don’t know. To be honest, the ones I would be more likely to believe, I don’t, like that Oswald didn’t act alone [in shooting JFK]. There are ones I believe that everyone accepts, such as the Gulf of Tonkin incident being used to justify the invasion of Vietnam for instance, those sorts of things I think most people accept. This is the point some of our colleagues have made which is a sense everything is a conspiracy theorist because everyone believes some conspiracy events did actually happen.
MD: I mean my standard response here is that I am more interested in talking about the theory of conspiracy theory, I don’t want people to think that I am pre-judging my conclusions by saying I believe x or y. But yes, the shortcut to that is historical events which were the result of conspiracy, such as the Gulf of Tonkin, the assassination of Julius Caesar, the Moscow Show Trials, the Watergate affair, and depending on how you want to define things, the ‘dodgy dossier’ motivation for the invasion of Iraq in 2003 – all seem to be clear cases of cover up and collusion that led to events which were pejoratively labelled as conspiracy theories by people in power at the time, but turned out to be warranted on the evidence nonetheless. So in that particular respect, there are a whole bunch of historical conspiracy theories that I am quite willing to say, yes those things really were beliefs that resulted from conspiracies.
SS: Final thoughts. Pat, what do you see as the future being like for conspiracy theory culture, do you think it is going to continue to grow or is it going to continue a decline?
PS: I think it probably will, just in a sense that there has been a shift in terms of people’s willingness to take on board certain kinds of epistemic authority which had previously been arrogated to other kinds of knowledge-generating mechanisms. What I mean by that, is that people are much less likely to believe what governments or universities or doctors tell them is the case. And in that context, I think it is quite likely we will continue to see conspiracy theories offered because very often to sustain those sorts of beliefs, you have to posit the corruption of a lot of these very powerful actors. So I don’t see them going away any time soon, but I also think the times suit conspiracy theories, to put it that way.
SS: Final thoughts from you M?
MD: I think part of the issue of course, is that we currently have a leader in the world who engages in conspiracy rhetoric all the time. So, even if there was a breakdown in general trust in the population over time, which may or may not be justified depending on the kind of information you have about the world, when you have someone in charge of the US like Donald Trump who engages in conspiracy talk a lot and uses that to energise and enrage his base, then conspiracy theories become a really big issue. And given that there is this angst in America at the moment, can we fix our political system and go back to how things used to be, we may well be stuck for the foreseeable future in a world where conspiracy theories are going to become a political tool that people use rather overtly. I mean we are seeing that with Brexit, we are seeing that with the rise of populist governments in the EU, arguably it was a major part of the Australian election. It doesn’t seem to be a major issue in New Zealand at the moment, and we really don’t know if we are going to follow the leaders globally or continue to be our little benign dot on the landscape.
This interview originally aired on the Scholars’ Circle. To access our archive of episodes and download this interview, click here.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this discussion reflect the opinions of the guests and not necessarily the views of The Big Q.