Conspiracy Theory? What is it?

Conspiracy Theory and Scepticism

Conspiracy theories are a phenomena that has always intrigued me. They appear to break all the rules of reason and rational thought. Those who believe them hold to them so strongly there is little one can say to convince them of their irrationality.

The problem is that they can be quite destructive and dangerous. For example, here in Australia we, like many other countries throughout the world, are trying to deal with the covid19 virus. The government is promoting vaccination as an obvious strategy to defeat the virus spread. Yet there are quite a number of individuals and groups who believe that vaccination is a conspiracy. Many different quite absurd claims are being made, such as a deliberate attempt by some secret group to kill those vaccinated in the long run. The side effects have been deliberately incorporated into the vaccine to damage the body and so it goes on.

In this presentation i will discuss the nature of conspiracy theory, what makes such theories so appealing to individuals and groups and what if anything can be done to counter their destructive impact on society.

It appears, probably with the assistance of the internet, that conspiracy theories have increased. These include the World Trade Centre attack, the Corona virus, the corona virus vaccine. Also, global warming, the death of Princess Diana, the Kennedy assassination and the 2020 presidential election and many more. 

Irrationality and malicious intent are the main features of conspiracy theories in most cultures. They explain many events as the actions of hidden, unidentifiable enemies. These anonymous perpetrators are powerful and malicious and are destructive of opposition to them.

Both psychologists and sociologists have studied the nature and impact of conspiracy theories. There are several types of conspiracy theories some more destructive than others. I will discuss briefly two of the major conspiracy theories of the last 50-60 years relating to US presidents. I will not cover all major conspiracy theories due to space restrictions. Here I will briefly examine the Kennedy assassination and then the recent conspiracies around the 2020 US Presidential election.

The Kennedy Assassination
See the source image
The Kennedy Motorcade Dallas 1964

The Official Government Warren Report, a t

horough going evidence-based report on the Kennedy assassination of 1964, found that the assassination was performed only by Lee Harvey Oswald himself alone without the support of another person or persons or any organisation or government body. The commission was extensive consisting of pages of evidence and interviews with experts, witnesses, government and military personnel, eyewitnesses, and many others. The evidence presented for this was very strong. It was however difficult to get firsthand evidence from Oswald as he was shot and killed by Jack Ruby a day or so after the assassination.

According to the Official US Government Warren Report on the Kennedy assassination, Lee Harvey Oswald was acting alone without the support of another person or any organisation or government body. The commission was extensive, consisting of pages of evidence and interviews with experts, witnesses, government and military personnel, eyewitnesses, and many others. No evidence was given by Oswald as he was shot and killed by Jack Ruby two days after the assassination. However, The evidence presented for this was very strong despite this.

See the source image
Lee Harvey Oswald

However, to be acting alone appeared to be too simple an explanation for many people and groups and it spawned many doubts and sinister interpretations, many of them quite bizarre. The Mafia, US military leaders, and even the new President Lyndon Johnson were said to be involved. The continuing questioning of the report lead to another congressional investigation in 1979 and it came up with the same conclusion as the Warren report.

However, the conspiracies continued and some more bizarre scenarios accused the Israeli government. The Soviet government, the US Federal Reserve, the limousine driver, wound alterations on Kennedy’s body and many others. Almost 2000 books have been published on the assassination conspiracy and many polls even recently ones showed the majority of the American population believed Kennedy was killed by some sort of conspiracy. A 2009 CBS News poll found In 2009, 76% of people polled believed the President had been killed as the result of a conspiracy, see. [1]

Thus the Kennedy assassination remains as a conspiracy for most US citizens. More than twenty movies and documentaries have been produced over the years since then most of them on conspiracy taking issue with the official original Warren Report See[2]. Below we will discuss some of the major features of conspiracy theory.

US Election 2020

Image result for Trump Images PNG. Size: 139 x 105. Source: pngimg.com
President Trump

Most readers will be aware of the Trump claim of fraud in the 2020 Presidential election. He and his immediate staff and followers claimed a conspiracy to ‘steal’ the election from him. The problem basically with the vote conspiracy was Trump himself who promoted it. He in fact encouraged the idea of fraud and contributed to the notion of an election conspiracy.

The President Trump and his close colleagues asserted fraudulent practices in the election mostly by democratic supporters. These included the submission of unusually high numbers of votes in bulk for the Democrats. They republicans claimed the inclusion of democratic votes from those who were illegible to vote. Also, the use of faulty or manipulated computer voting machines favouring democrat voters and illegal manipulation of votes favouring Biden. Fraudulent hand counting of votes to favour Biden were said to occur. Republican ‘poll watchers’ or ‘election authorities’ complained they were not permitted to get close enough to observe counting.

The focus was on states such as Pennsylvania, Georgia, Nevada, Michigan and Arizona that favoured Trump in the last election. They now showed a majority for Biden. Literally dozens of cases of fraud were presented to courts with most of them thrown out without being heard, (see a summary of such cases [3]). No significant frauds or corruption by voting officials were found. Fact checks show that statistics presented to courts were misleading and false. Trump claimed,for example, that in Detroit (Michigan) there were more votes than people. In fact the official election results show a 50% turnout in Detroit – this claim was false.

None of this deterred the Trump camp who to this day claim fraud was rampant; even broadcasters and public figures favouring Trump who are normally quite rational in their presentations talk of a conspiracy. A fact check of the major fraud clams can be found here[4].

The conspiracy also leads to more serious actions by Trump supporters who invaded the US congress on Jan 6th, 2021. Five people died in what is now referred to as an insurrection or an insurgency and much more damage was inflicted than was thought at the time as new videos[5]  have appeared to show the actual violence of the event. It is not clear whether Trump deliberately encouraged this insurrection. Trump initially appeared to support the insurrection, though as time went by and public outrage at the riot was expressed, he asked the insurgents to return home peacefully.

The Insurgency

Initially the media saw rioters as uncoordinated and disorganised with no plans of attack. Though video footage shows organized groups among the larger mob. Many of the rioters wore military assault-style uniforms, with flagpoles, batons, hockey sticks and chemical spray. Some carrying plastic zip-tie handcuffs, suggesting they hoped to seize elected officials. It appears many militant groups were there. One of them know as QAnon, a major conspiracy theory movement was obvious in its presence in the election.

QAnon

Said to be a haven for conspiracy theorists, the QAnon group has supported a bizarre range of claims held and directed by democrat/liberal groups. QAnon believe the world is controlled by a group of malicious elites. The group has embraced everything from baseless associations linking 5G to health risks to the central Also, a child sex-trafficking ring has also been added as has inferences of cannibalism. They make special reference to ‘ritual sexual abuse’ though do not elaborate on what it actually is. This term is important for the discussion below in relation to QAnon in Australia.

It has been difficult to track the leader/leaders of the organisation as they remained anonymous.Though recently a video series by HBO called ‘Q: Into the Storm’, has claimed the leader is not a high-ranking Trump official but a person named Ron Watkins – the long-time administrator of the group’s online home. Watkins who now lives in Japan has said he is in retirement as administrator. This move has been said to weaken the group as its posts have diminished since the congress insurgency. However, many disagree with the claim the group has weakened, it is strong in Germany (with connections with Neo Nazis).  As we shall see below, Australia also has connections with QAnon. In the US the Anon group has been seeking to explain Trump’s loss with reinterpretations of voter conspiracy.

The Horned Man

The horned man among protesters who stormed the US Capitol on Wednesday has been revealed as actor and hardcore Trump supporter, Jake Angeli. Picture: Saul Loeb/AFP Dressed as a ‘horned man’ in a fury native American type head dress with bare chest showing tattoos and carrying a megaphone, Angeli refers to himself as the QAnon Shaman and the Yellowstone Wolf. Angeli is a regular protester in his native state of Arizona, appearing in various guises other than as the horned man. He is a Trump supporter, an actor and professional protester. He was famous for making the claim in a radio interview that the corona virus is an act of high-ranking government officials who used false information to defeat Trump..

Australian Prime Minister and QAnon advocate Tim Stewart

QAnon is known as having Australian members. One of these is Tim Stewart a member of QAnon and a friend of the Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison.  Stewart and Morrison have been mates for 30 years having first met at a local Baptist church in Sydney’s south. Morrison’s wife Jenny and Stewart’s wife Lynelle are best friends.  The Australian government had employed Lynelle to assist the Prime Minister’s wife. It was later announced that she no longer works for the government.

The Prime ministers Office has been quiet about the PM’s friendship with Stewart and some members of his family. Though Stewart himself is quite open about his connection with Morrison. Stewart has claimed to have influence on the prime minister when it came to the 2018 national apology to the survivors of institutional child sex abuse. According to David Hardaker of Crikey.com in a text message on Twitter.

‘Stewart promised that “disturbing information” he had been given on school sex education would go “straight to Scott”. [6]

Stewart has boasted to friends using his Twitter persona “Burn Notice” under the Twitter handle @BurnedSpy34, that Morrison in the Apology did refer to ‘ritual sexual abuse’. This was a supposedly coded term Stewart is allegedly said he suggested the PM use. In fact in the Apology Morrison did use the term ‘ritual sexual abuse’ to Stewart’s glee. Though Morrison’s office commented when asked about this term that it is a commonly used reference – which it isn’t. While the National apology went over very well, use of the term ritual sexual abuse of children has raised some questions as it is not often used at all about child sexual abuse. Morrison has distanced himself from QAnon after an ABC (The Australian Broadcasting Commission) report on ‘Four Corners” on Stewart and QAnon. He does say Stewart was a fiend of his even though he rejected QAnon’.

Meanwhile Patriot Transition Voice (PTV), a leading QAnon site in the US has organised. Last month according to a Crikey article PTV,

organised a rally in Dallas, Texas — the “For God and Country Patriot Roundup” — giving a platform to key Trump supporters including former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn and Trump lawyer Sidney Powell, a leading proponent of the false vote count conspiracy. Flynn argued that there should be a Myanmar-style coup in the US to reinstate Donald Trump, while Powell collected more funds for her pro-Trump not-for-profit organisation “Defending the Republic”.[7]

At the beginning of this year, Stewart, using a new Twitter name, tweeted his support for the storming of the US Capitol in which QAnon adherents played a prominent role. He has since been silenced on mainstream media.

Discussion

This limited overview of conspiracy theory raises a few questions about why and how they take hold without much questioning. Psychologists and some sociologists have investigated the phenomena of conspiracy theory and have come up with a few suggestions.

It is important to aim to be accurate in the reporting and causes of social and natural crisis as many individuals are impacted by them. Accurate reporting and investigation take time and require attention to the detail and complexity of facts. This is not the case with conspiracy theories, they are simply assertions of destructive intentions by hidden forces.

Having said this, as absurd as some of the claims are, it is important to understand why some individuals find conspiracy theories believable.

In the case of sudden and unexpected crises many people get anxious and even fearful of things to come. The World trade Centre attack caused great anxiety and fear and people sought answers to allay such anxiety. Among the answers were attacks by aliens, a precursor to an atomic attack by an ‘enemy’ nation (China, North Korea, Iran and so on) even an attack by US agents. Many will find some sort of resolution to their anxiety with these explanations – they provide a sort of closure. Also, in the face of limited realistic explanations some feel safer with believing conspiracies.

Psychologists have identified a pattern of thinking they refer to as Illusory Pattern Perception associated with the human brains tendency to find patterns in the world that aren’t actually there. An example in Western Astrology is the night sky that shows twelve patterns of the Zodiac. These patterns include animals such as the Goat (Capricorn) The Bull (Taurus) as well as other phenomena such as the Archer (Sagittarius) and twins (Gemini) and so on. These images provide some meaning to the otherwise random distribution of stars and each sign is associated with birth dates and related personality traits and even providing predictions of individual futures.

In other cultures, signs vary from the Western Zodiac such as in the Chinese Zodiac that consisted of animals, each one representing specific birth years. In ancient Australia there have been numerous star signs dating back thousands of years (these in the same night sky position of the Zodiac) for Aboriginal Australians. This has been recognised in a silver coin by the Royal Australian Mint. It features “Gugurmin: The Emu in the Sky”, from the sky lore of the Wiradjuri people of central New South Wales.

While I am not suggesting that Astrology is a conspiracy theory the attribution of meaningful signs to random events shows a tendency of humans, or the human brain, to seek order in randomness or what appears to be chaos. A website on mental health discusses the relation of illusory pattern Perception to conspiracy theory making the point that:

A study published in the European Journal of Psychology concluded that illusory pattern perception is an important cognitive factor involved in conspiracy theories. The study found that both conspiratorial thinking and supernatural beliefs were strongly correlated with each other and with the tendency to find patterns within randomness. Seeing patterns in chaos but no pattern in structured stimuli was a predictor of irrational beliefs.[8]

Trump supporters found it difficult to believe that the election was lost (Trump in fact encouraged this), it caused uncertainty, and unexpected disorder. The idea it was fraud brought some sort of order to the anxiety. There were many reasons why the election was lost, and some were discussed publicly but for many, including Trump supporters, this complexity was too vague, confusing and unacceptable, so the simple explanation of fraud was appealing to them.  Fraud provided a more believable solution a single common-sense cause and brought about an enemy very difficult to detect, but powerful and evil. This idea of a malignant enemy would reinforce the notion of fraud. The postulation of fraud gives some sort of meaning to the result they want – and it provided them with a motive to defeat the conspirator.

The notion of fraud also gave Trump supporters a sense of camaraderie and a feeling of control of the situation. There was convincing evidence against any fraud, this was ignored saying that the truth will come out in the long run. Many right wing media personalities agreed with this. For example, U Tube personalities such as Dave Rubin (The Rubin Report) Ben Shapiro (The Shapiro Show) both conservative and mildly right wing have indicated support for the fraud conspiracy by implying the truth will eventually come out. Despite all this the so-called facts or truth never did come out in the long run.

Are Conspiracy Theories Destructive or Dangerous?

The short answer is yes as historically most of them have been seriously destructive. Conspiracy theorists of the past include Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot and they were responsible for terrible atrocities. Other serious impacts relate to health care such as anti-vaccine conspiracies. All are to a certain extent destructive and the greatest problem is that they are almost impossible to dispute in believers. Rational discussion is generally not possible and, as argued, seems to increase their irrational claims, and make discussion virtually impossible as any evidence against them is construed as evidence for them.

It is important to ask whether there is any action that can be taken to change minds. Psychologists studying conspiracy theory almost all indicate the strength of conspiracy belief and the very strong psychological investment in such beliefs. Thus, direct challenges (evidence against them) do not have an impact. Some theories do tend to weaken over time when predicted outcomes do not appear. The US Presidential election is now over, Trump has been replaced by Biden and talk of fraud has faded somewhat. No more fraud applications are going to courts. Also some of the main advocates of fraud have been sidelined and ridiculed. Rudy Giuliani, lawyer to Trump, had his law license suspended after a New York court ruled he made “demonstrably false and misleading statements” in the 2020 election of behalf of Trump. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Trump’s press secretary who made outrageous clams as press secretary has also been sidelined and ridiculed. Trump’s son Donald Jr. has made conspiratorial type statements that have been dismissed by the press.

Probably the most successful way of reducing conspiracy theory is education. This means education on the role of scepticism and its demand for evaluating belief with reliable evidence. Some knowledge of scientific method also would assist. According to Douglas, Sutton, and Cichocka psychological research has,

thus far has sampled from populations (under-graduate students and survey panelists) that are not particularly disadvantaged or threatened and that gen-erally do not endorse conspiracy theories. For these people, conspiracy theories are likely to be experienced as unsettling, destabilizing, and potentially alienating.[9]

Thus, education may have an impact on reducing belief in conspiracy theories but for many such information does not reach them.


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_F._Kennedy_assassination_conspiracy_theories#cite_note-Knight-23 retrieved 16/6/21

[2] https://www.imdb.com/list/ls032836549/?sort=moviemeter,asc&st_dt=&mode=detail&page=1 accessed 20/06/21

[3] https://standupamericaus.org/complete-list-of-significant-claims-errors-fraud-of-2020-presidential-election/ accessed 20/06/21

[4] https://www.bbc.com/news/election-us-2020-55016029 Accessed 25/06/21

[5] https://img-s-msn-com.akamaized.net/tenant/amp/entityid/BB1cFmPZ.img?h=720&w=1123&m=6&q=60&o=f&l=f accessed 20/06/21

[6] https://www.crikey.com.au/2021/01/22/australia-qanon-conspiracy-joe-biden/

Accessed 4/0721

[7] Ibid

[8] https://mentalhealthathome.org/

[9] Karen M. Douglas, Robbie M. Sutton, and Aleksandra Cichocka, (2017) The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories, sage pub.com/journals accessed 10/07/21

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