Conspiracy Theories Are Running Wild - But It's Not Because People Have Gone Crazy
Updated: May 28
Rampant censorship is breeding paranoia and mistrust in America
According to the The Washington Post, nearly half of Americans today embrace at least one political or medical conspiracy theory. And there’s no shortage of theories to choose from.
When the Coronavirus pandemic erupted, rumors surfaced that the virus was developed in a lab. Many even speculated that vaccine guru Bill Gates was using the pandemic to control the population. When Black Lives Matter protests gained momentum this summer, billionaire George Soros was blamed for instigating unrest in his quest for world domination.
While it’s obviously crazy to believe that conspiracies lurk around every corner, it’s probably just as crazy to think they don’t exist. Conspiracies aren’t fanciful figments of our imagination, like leprechauns or chupacabras. We’re talking about two or more people who decide to do something bad without telling anyone else. That’s all a conspiracy is.
From the Iran-Contra scandal to the Bush administration’s manufactured evidence of Iraq WMDs, from Enron’s scheme to manipulate energy markets to Volkswagen’s sneaky “emissions cheating” software, we’ve seen conspiracies at the highest levels of government and business. So no reasonable person would deny that powerful people sometimes plot to deceive others.
But when half the country believes this is happening on a semi-regular basis, that’s a bad sign.
That conspiracy theories have penetrated the mainstream has caused considerable alarm among those who discourage “fringe” thoughts. Factchecking has suddenly become a cottage industry that keeps Snopes & crew busy debunking rumors 24/7, and it’s not hard to see why. Conspiracies pose an existential threat to the Establishment because they reflect a lack of trust in fundamental institutions. When we don’t trust the people who lead and inform us, the fabric of society unravels.
“If I trust the scientist and you trust the guy on YouTube, there’s no common ground between us,” says Roland Imhoff, a social psychologist at Germany’s Johannes Gutenberg University. “And having a shared understanding of reality is essential to society. Without it, there is no truth anymore. That’s a huge danger.”
So why have tens of millions of people suddenly lost trust in our “shared understanding of reality”? That’s a question mainstream thinkers and “experts” are frantically trying to answer.
Some speculate that conspiracy thinking takes root when external forces like racial and social inequity erode our trust in authority figures. According to UCLA psychiatrist Joseph Pierre, when people lose faith in “official” explanations, their search for answers often takes them “down the rabbit hole” to find answers that resonate with their mistrust.
Other studies suggest that conspiracy theories thrive during times of crisis because they offer a straightforward narrative and someone to blame when fear is rampant and explanations are in short supply. And right now, there’s no shortage of confused and fearful people: half of voters believe the election was stolen; just as many oppose lockdowns that spare them from being victims of Coronavirus but rob them of the ability to earn a living; and many question a vaccine that appears to eliminate symptoms while not doing much to reduce the spread of the virus, itself.
Yet while these explanations help us understand why conspiracy theories are appealing, they don’t answer the more pressing question: why are they appealing to so many people now?
After all, fringe thinkers have embraced conspiracy theories for decades: millions believe the government hid proof of an alien crash in Roswell in 1947, just as many believe the 1969 moon landing was faked, and 40% believe that 9/11 was an “inside job.” We’ve been frightened and confused before, too: this isn’t our first global pandemic, and the U.S. saw widespread unrest during the Civil Rights movement. We’ve even endured devastating depressions and wars without half the population succumbing to conspiracy theories.
So what’s different now?
I think distrust is running rampant for a reason “experts” are ignoring or disregarding (and which I cover extensively in my new book): an unprecedented number of people believe their reality is being distorted.
We're sensing a major disconnect between the world we’re told we live in and the world we actually live in. A disconnect between the government we’re “told” we have, and the government we actually have; the freedoms we’re told we have and the freedoms we actually have; the lockdowns that are supposed to save our lives, yet seem to be destroying our ability to survive.
In other words, a LOT of people feel like they’re being gaslighted, which makes it almost impossible for them to embrace a “shared understanding of reality.”
When so much doesn’t add up and so little makes sense, people begin to wonder if there’s something they’re missing. They begin to suspect they’re not getting all the information they need to properly assess their reality. If they’re allowed to openly discuss these distortions and gaps in their reality — to question things that don’t make sense — their concerns are validated, and they’re more likely to trust and accept the answers they’re given.
But that’s not what’s happening.
The distortions and gaps are being dismissed or ignored, and people who point them out are are being silenced. Americans who were once able to speak freely have suddenly found their voices muffled or taken away.
Anyone in this position is bound to feel helpless — and yes, maybe even a little paranoid. They’re likely to wonder what isn’t being shared with them. If the people they’ve always trusted aren’t helping them make sense of their world, they’re likely to seek help from others. The bigger the distortions and gaps in their reality get, the more desperate their search for answers becomes.
And if their efforts to seek out answers are hindered or blocked? That’s when things can go off the rails. This creates a fertile breeding ground that allows imaginations to run wild, which is exactly what we're seeing.
We’ve seen monopolies in the telecommunications, cable TV, and oil industries, but what’s happening now has never — and should never — exist in America: an information monopoly.
In the last decade, and especially since the 2016 election, corporate-owned media and Big Tech (i.e. Google, You Tube, Twitter, and Facebook) have claimed unrivaled power to determine what’s “real” and what’s fake, what we can and can’t believe. Their information monopoly requires us to disregard anything that comes from any other source — because if it’s not confirmed by their "approved" fact checkers, it must be wrong.
Not long ago, thinking outside the mainstream merely carried the risk of being branded crazy or stupid. Not anymore. Today, no one has the right to be “wrong.” That means "misinformation” can't simply be disregarded or mocked.
It must be completely eliminated.
Mainstream news outlets and social media giants have waged all-out war on “misinformation.” Armed with truth squads, they dismiss or remove content that doesn’t come from “trusted” sources. It’s a war that’s led to censorship on an unprecedented level, increasing in frequency and scope.
YouTube removes interviews with epidemiologists who oppose lockdowns and even blocks videos on less inflammatory topics, such as “Israel’s Legal Founding” (by Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz) and “Why Don’t Feminists Fight for Muslim Women?” (by the Somali-American women’s-rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali ).
Twitter blocked links to the New York Post’s Hunter Biden laptop story (and even locked the newspaper’s account). Google arbitrarily excludes websites from its search engine and has repeatedly displayed political bias (sending reminders to vote to liberal users, but not conservatives).
I recently experienced Facebook’s censorship first-hand after posting a story about a leak of Chinese Communist Party members who hold key positions in British government agencies, businesses, and schools. The article, which appeared in a mainstream publication, wasn’t removed — but the 20+ comments to the post were mysteriously deleted. Friends have reported private conversations removed from Messenger, and links to websites that can’t even be shared on the app.
The information monopolists have created an environment that’s increasingly hostile to attempts to fill gaps in our understanding of reality. When people face such overwhelming resistance, they’re likely to turn to any explanation or theory, no matter how unbelievable. Because when nothing makes sense anymore and companies are trying to keep us from understanding what’s happening, all bets are off.
We’re no longer living in a world we recognize, so we're willing to believe anything. Because anything is possible now.
Relentless censorship has created a societal Petri dish where conspiracies can bloom and thrive — and the people most invested in maintaining our shared understanding of reality only have themselves to blame.
If they understood human nature, they would know that telling us what we can and can’t believe makes us less likely to believe anything we’re told. They would know that making information taboo only makes it more attractive and gives it “heat.” We can see this play out with humans at the earliest age: make an area of the house off-limits to a child, and he’ll obsess about how to get in; freely grant him access, and he’ll have no interest in exploring.
Information monopolists defend censorship by appealing to our fear (a tactic that would make Stalinists proud). They warn that “misinformation” isn’t harmless; it’s dangerous. If we believe Coronavirus is a “hoax,” we’re less likely to adopt behavior that will keep the virus from spreading. If we believe elections are fraudulent, it will undermine faith in the democratic process.
Here’s what these back-door authoritarians are missing: free speech, not censorship, is the best way to confront these dangers. The open exchange of information and ideas allows us to hear arguments on both sides. If those seeking our trust offer explanations that make sense when compared to wacky theories that don’t stand up to logic — which should be the case — then reasonable people will believe them.
But forcing a narrative without allowing people to consider alternative explanations is the kiss of death for a society that relies on a shared understanding of reality. Depriving them of the opportunity to consider any theory, however outlandish, inevitably leads even reasonable people to wonder: “Why don’t you want us to talk about this? What are you hiding?”
There’s no legitimate rationale for silencing people in a free country, even if the goal is to protect them. The dangers of allowing others to unilaterally, and potentially arbitrarily, determine what we can and can’t believe are far greater than any conspiracy theory because it creates a toxic feedback loop: censorship begets more censorship. If it continues, at some point even most level-headed people will begin to question their shared understanding of reality. The majority may realize that the conspiracy theorists weren’t so crazy after all.
One can only wonder what information monopolists will resort to once that happens.