Self

Why People Believe Conspiracy Theories — And How To Protect Yourself From Misinformation

Photo: Triff, paulista, Fernando Astasio Avila, Angel_AMX, phive, Sebastian Duda  / Shutterstock
conspiracy theories

Given everything that has happened in life, it's no surprise that there are so many conspiracy theories out there.

What is surprising, however, is that these often fantastical falsehoods have taken hold of many people who otherwise seem to have a healthy amount of common sense.

What are conspiracy theories?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a conspiracy theory as "a theory that explains an event or set of circumstances as the result of secret plots by usually powerful people."

It is a belief held by a large or small group of people that what we are told by the government and mainstream news is actually a cover-up for something way more sinister. These can include theories about real historical, social, and political events.

These theories often arise in times of extreme hardship and widespread anxiety. The most common way conspiracy theorists spread their theories is through social media.

Why do people believe in conspiracy theories?

In a recent survey, the American Journal of Political Science found that half of Americans believe in conspiracy theories that have already been disproven.

It appears that believers in certain types of conspiracy theories have also been involved in such criminal behavior as the attack on the U.S. Capitol, the planting of pipe bombs, and threats to the lives of several prominent Americans, initiated by the spread of misinformation (or disinformation) online. Donald Trump's "Fake News" campaign didn't help either.

There are also totally made-up conspiracy theories about Covid-19 vaccines and the Black Lives Matter movement. Conspiracy groups like QAnon and flat-earthers are flourishing with conspiracy theories and misinformation — for example, "Pizzagate."

There are people who still believe George Bush was responsible for September 11, that the FBI assassinated JFK, and that the wealthiest elite in the world have a shadow government called the Illuminati.

RELATED: ‘Pandas Aren’t Real’ Conspiracy Theory Is Making The Internet Very Suspicious Of Bears

This is a serious issue, which is why it's important to sharpen your critical analysis skills, and keep yourself or someone you love from falling for conspiracy theories.

Advertisement

To remain in the world of truth, we must understand what constitutes a conspiracy theory so you can debunk misinformation for yourself.

Here are 5 reasons people believe in conspiracy theories, and how to not fall for them.

1. They don't consider the source of the information.

Maybe it comes from a friend who tends to believe whatever they are told — the more fantastical the better. People want to trust friends, especially if this is information that confirms an already-existing bias.

To double-check its validity, ask how they learned of it.

Once they tell you, check out the source or the publication. If it isn’t a newspaper or magazine that you know well, delve deeper. Go online and actually read other articles or at least headlines.

Look for biases in one direction or another. Biases can include things like headlines that tell you that a specific politician is a crook or a liar. If you can pinpoint the biases, take those into account when deciding if the information is true or false.

In other words, don’t just take your friend’s word for it. Check it out yourself if you wonder if it might be true.

2. They don't pass information through their filters.

In other words, when people believe conspiracy theories, they aren't using their own knowledge and experience of the world to determine if the information is likely to be accurate.

Instead, ask yourself if things like that happen normally.

For example, there was a conspiracy theory saying that forest fires are caused by giant lasers in the sky. Many people who shared this conspiracy theory included anti-Semitic elements as well.

You know that's not true because most people have seen lightning. It's a natural phenomenon. It looks like a jagged or bright light coming down from the sky shortly before the thunder.

Often, it happens during a rainstorm but not always. In some places, dry lightning is common. Nobody should be surprised when this happens, though the fire has to be put out.

Conspiracy theories like this just don't pass through most people’s filters.

3. They don't question whether a conspiracy theory is designed to target a marginalized group.

All too often, conspiracy theories sound plausible on the surface, but with further analysis involves a religious, ethnic or racial group that is often the target of discrimination.

People fall for these stories because they don't question whether the theory comes from someone who has an agenda designed to hurt that group.

When you encounter a rumor or theory, ask yourself whether the story targets anyone in particular — either a person the theorist doesn’t like or a marginalized group, in general.

For instance, many conspiracy theories feature "evildoers" who are identified as Jewish, or people of color who are immigrants. Coronavirus, in particular, created many anti-Asian conspiracy theories that led to hate crimes and violence.

Conspiracy theories frequently target Jewish, Muslim, or other people unfairly. Usually, a conspiracy theory will conform to a bigoted view of the group.

Theories about other marginalized groups will exploit the bigot’s view of members of those groups.

If you're a member of one of those targeted groups, decide if your group is being portrayed in a fair and factual manner. If it's a conspiracy theory, you will likely find your group is unfairly portrayed.

Realize that if your group is not being portrayed fairly, probably the theorist is not portraying anyone correctly.

RELATED: Inside QAnon’s ‘Serpent DNA’ Theory That FBI Say Influenced A California Dad To Kill His Two Kids

4. They never ask themselves the most important question: Does this story make any sense?

While this seems like the most obvious first step to analyzing a theory or rumor, it's easily overlooked. Perhaps this is because of how quickly technology is evolving, or maybe because we are quick to want to believe in the fantastical.

Regardless, it's important to filter everything we believe through the most basic common sense theories.

Is there a benefit for the targeted group for engaging in the alleged behavior? Does it make any sense at all?

Weigh this as you decide whether the information is true or likely to be true. If there's no benefit, there's not likely to be any reason for the targeted group to engage in the behavior of which they are accused in the theory.

This is especially true if the behavior they're being described as doing is difficult, dangerous or costly.

Shooting giant lasers from outer space into dry forests doesn’t seem like something people can do, given the current level of technology.

It would be difficult — and impossible — to do. If it's possible, at all, it would be very expensive. It's therefore unlikely that this conspiracy theory holds even a modicum of truth.

5. They never question whether the theory benefits the conspiracy theory supporters.

It might place their favored politician in a more favorable light. It might portray a group they dislike in an unfavorable light, possibly even causing others to act vengefully against members of that group.

And it might keep other supporters under their control in some way, like donating money they can then use to put their ideas forward, especially if there's no truth to the theory and no actual societal benefit.

To combat conspiracy theories, always examine who benefits from the rumor or theory being presented. Ask your why someone may be motivated to spread the story.

Does it benefit them politically, by undermining an opponent? Does it encourage people to make purchases they may not normally make? Does it encourage others to oppress a group they see as the "enemy"?

So, as you can see, there are a number of ways to determine whether something you are hearing or reading is a conspiracy theory or the truth. Once you know what it is, you can decide that you don't want to fall for a conspiracy theory.

Keeping those theories, which are by their very nature untrue, out of your life and your decision-making process will be of great benefit to you and the world.

RELATED: Theory Shows How A Celebrity's Eyes Might Predict An Upcoming Tragedy

Nancie Barwick is a clinical hypnotherapist, author, speaker, and medical intuitive. For more information on her services, visit her website.

Sign up for YourTango's free newsletter!