Conspiracy 101: Why Do People Believe In Conspiracies?

We take a look at why conspiracies become popular and what draws people to them

A person in a black hoodie with photos and post-its linked together with red string
This entry is part 1 of 4 in the series Conspiracy 101

If you listen to any politician, political commentator and the majority of the Twitter “Blue Tick Brigade”[1]NewsWeek: Twitter Blue Checks Dubbed ‘New MAGA Hat’ After Verification Change (and no, I won’t call it X) you’ll begin to see a common theme: the overuse of certain words and phrases which are used to demonise and other[2]The Guardian: Us vs them: the sinister techniques of ‘Othering’ – and how to avoid them any person or group that stands up to them or doesn’t hold the same views.

This then leads into rhetoric, and plain hate speech which is obviously called out and in order to validate the claims that are being made or to prove the way they are phrasing things is warranted, out come the “facts”.

Except more often than not these “facts” are not based in reality however they soon take hold, often becoming the basis of reality for some.

False Legitimacy

This isn’t new, it has been a common tool throughout history to justify what the majority of people would normally consider abhorrent behaviour. Think of how indigenous people were portrayed from the first invasions right up to the 1960s (incapable of looking after themselves, needed to be governed, were stupid, were violent etc.), or how Jews have been perceived by multiple regimes to give just two examples. But now, with the power of modern media, these views can reach a far wider audience and become far more ingrained in the zeitgeist[3]Miriam Webster: zeitgeist than they were previously.

QAnon would have been a fringe theory if it had come about in the 1960s but because of 4Chan, Facebook Groups, Twitter Spaces, Telegram and more social apps, the “theories” were able to spread and quickly gain traction amongst a wide audience.

Add into the fact that you had Donald Trump, a literal United States Presidential candidate, spout conspiracy theories[4]Wikipedia: List of conspiracy theories promoted by Donald Trump and all of a sudden what were fringe ideas believed by a few people on the margins of society became available to all. These ideas are now being beamed into people’s living rooms via Fox News, CNN and other Main Stream Media (MSM) outlets.

Because these fringe ideas are now being reported by both MSM and a Presidential candidate, they must be true, right? If Donald Freaking Trump is telling us that there is a global elite cabal running the world and only he can save us from it, it’s got to be true – I mean, they can’t broadcasr lies on the news can they?

The Illusion Of Truth

“Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth” – Joseph Goebbels (Attributed by some sources)

There is the theory that the more something is repeated, the more credibility it is given and this phenomena is known as the “Illusion of Truth”[5]BBC Futures: How liars create the ‘illusion of truth’.

The issue we face now is that there are multiple media in which we are now presented with these “facts”. We’ll see a politician on the news make a statement, this is then printed in a newspaper, there will be tweets talking about it, your Aunt Linda might share a post about it (which will invariably lead to some dodgy truly fake “news” site) and there will be Instagram Reels and TikToks talking about how they know this is real because So-And-So said it, or they know someone it happened to, or it happened to them.

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In this way the conspiracy – actually, let’s call it what it is: the lie – is repeated multiple times a day, across multiple platforms. At this point it becomes unavoidable, and because so many people are talking about it, it must have a basis in fact or they wouldn’t be mentioning it[6]Psychology Today: What Makes Some Lies More Convincing Than the Truth?.

This then leads to the problem that when the lie is called out, fact checked and proven to be incorrect so many people believe in the lie that they drown out the truth. The conspiracy theorists will claim the fact-checkers are part of a new conspiracy, they’re trying to cover it up and it’s the very fact checker themselves that are the liars. This creates further conspiracy theories and on and on it goes.

Why Doesn’t Everyone Believe In The Lie?

If the exposure to repeated conspiracy theories and outright lies leads to the “Illusion of Truth” then why are some of us seemingly immune to the effects? How come I am able to write this article instead of spouting Anti-Deep State Global Elitist rhetoric?

Research seems to point to a believer needing to satisfy 3 key factors[7]University Of Kent: Explainer: Why do people believe in conspiracy theories?:

  • A need to have a consistent societal framework that makes sense to them and explains why things are the way they are
  • A need to be able to have control over this framework and therefore feel safe
  • An ability to belong within this framework and feel self-esteem because of the status it affords

A conspiracy theory (or multiple as with QAnon) provides the perfect framework for someone who is looking for societal fulfilment.

For example, the QAnon universe provides people with an explanation for why the world is the way it is – that “someone” is controlling it and as a result it’s okay to feel helpless, that now they know about this “someone” they can start to move against them and “take back control” of their lives and it provides a community of like-minded believers who can band together as the plucky underdogs in an “Us vs Them”, “David vs Goliath” movement.

It’s therefore easy to see why those who feel disenfranchised from society – those left behind by the state, people angry at perceived slights or the openly racist who believe that “white power” is being usurped by foreigners among other minority groups – are so quick to rally to a cause that makes sense to them, provides an excuse as to why their lives are they way they are and provides legitimacy because others feel the same way too.

There’s also the suggestion that people who engage in conspiracy theories tend to have a form of “collective narcissism”[8]VeryWellMind: Why People Believe in Conspiracy Theories which is the belief that they, or the group they belong to (white, middle class for example), are better than other groups (e.g. refugees or economic migrants). They feel victimised by the mere existence of these other groups and conspiracy theories are a way to validate these feelings.

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How Many Believers Are There?

According to a 2017 Analysis of US government survey data, more than 25% of the American population believes that there are conspiracy theories behind a lot of what’s happening in the world today[9]Scientific American: People Drawn to Conspiracy Theories Share a Cluster of Psychological Features and a 2015 research project found that “most Britons ticked a box when presented with a list of just five theories” [10]{BBC News: Why so many people believe conspiracy theories (they don’t say what “most” means, or what the 5 theories were so that’s important to bear in mind).

And this is the problem – there aren’t coherent figures.

While “most Britons” might believe a conspiracy about the Royal family “few Britons” might not believe a conspiracy about COVID-19.

Even The Guardian newspaper can’t seem to find a specific percentage saying in one article from 2018 that a “Study shows 60% of Britons believe in conspiracy theories”[11]The Guardian: Study shows 60% of Britons believe in conspiracy theories) (that’s 60% believe in at least one conspiracy by the way, not all that QAnon has to say), and yet another article from 2020 states that “One in four Britons believe in QAnon-linked theories”[12]The Guardian: One in four Britons believe in QAnon-linked theories – survey.

According to Statista in their “Conspiracy Theories In The UK”[13]Statista: Conspiracy Theories In The UK) from 2018 one of the questions asked was “Even though we are a democracy, only a few people run things” and 51% of respondents said “yes”.

Is that actually a conspiracy theory though? We saw from how Boris Johnson and his government behaved during the pandemic that the government were a law unto themselves with party after party and giving PPE contracts to party donors and friends[14]Concern over corruption red flags in 20% of UK’s PPE procurement so it’s easy to see why 51% of people believe this – because it’s essentially true.

So it clearly depends on the conspiracy as to how many adherents the theory will have, it’s not a case of “one conspiracy theory fit all” which sometimes the media portrays it out to be. And just because one party claims something is a conspiracy does not actually make it a conspiracy.

Where Do We Go From Here?

These are worrying times.

As the 2024 US Presidential campaign ramps up, Donald Trump is already laying the seeds of a conspiracy that if he loses the Republican nomination, it’s a plot against him, if he’s thrown in prison it’s because “they” are trying to stop him becoming President and if he loses the election that’s because the FBI and Attorney General’s office committed election interference.

This is the same playbook he used back in 2020 when he stated way before the election itself that if he lost the election would have been rigged, so when he did lose legitimately[15]Reuters: Trump’s false claims debunked: the 2020 election and Jan. 6 riot his base was already primed with the rigged-election conspiracy.

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In the UK politicians are spreading fear about 15 minute cities and ultra-low emission zones (ULEZ)[16]Politico: How conspiracy theories infected British politics, across the world Drag Queens are being vilified for just wanting to read books to kids, books are being removed from libraries and gender and sexual identities are under attack.

Now that conspiracy theories have a foothold in the public consciousness, it’s hard to see how we can push them out.

They’re going to keep trying to force their way into mainstream society and when you have someone like Donald J. Trump throwing fuel on the fire, it’s hard to see how we can put the genie back in the bottle.

We need to hold Politicians to account more – and quickly too. They need to be fact checked on the spot, not in a piece to camera at a later date. If they continue to spread untruths they need to be challenged.

The problem is, this all makes for great television and the US press in particular laps it up because more ratings means more advertising revenue.

Until we ALL start standing up for the truth, we will have to live with the lies no matter how bizarre, hurtful or dangerous they are.

This article is part of a series taking a look at the world of conspiracy theories, modern ideology and rhetoric. If you’d like to know when a new instalment is published, please follow Politically Inclined on Twitter or follow my personal accounts on Threads or BlueSky

If you’d like to support me and writing/research of these topics then please consider Buying me a Coffee – anything you spare helps towards me paying for hosting and buying me the occasional (well deserved I think!) beer.

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