How to Recognize a Conspiracy Theory

There are real reasons to distrust governments and corporations. Indeed, there are many influential people who act in their own interests, often at the expense of others. There are, in real life, legitimate conspiracies and cover-ups. Tuskegee. Watergate. That strange thing when Volkswagen falsified the emission test results . But the real conspiracy is different from the conspiracy theory that lives its own life, divorced from the facts.

At first glance, it can be difficult to distinguish one from the other. Doesn’t having real conspiracies mean that conspiracy theories are sometimes correct? The trick is not to look for wrongdoing, which, unfortunately, is often possible in our world, but to look for signs of contradiction and ambiguity.

At the core of these conspiracy theories – like QAnon, like anti-vaxxer, like Pizzagate – is a vague but unswerving assertion that something bad is going on . Any fact (or falsehood!) Can be creatively added to this cloud of suspicion, and believers will insist that the theory has been strengthened.

To understand the distinguishing features of a conspiracy theory that exists only for support, this Conspiracy Theory Guide explains the difference and provides a handy list of red flags to watch out for (with the mnemonic “CONSPIRACY” symbol):

  • Conflicting Ideas : Ideas that conflict with each other are absorbed into theory, even if one were true, the other would have to be false.
  • Main suspicion: People who support the conspiracy theory will immediately ignore official sources, regardless of their content.
  • Nefarious Intent: The forces that run these alleged conspiracies never have boring (or benevolent) motivation.
  • “Something must be wrong”: Even if you can refute some of the information that supports the theory, believers will still believe in the theory because of the feeling that something must be wrong here.
  • Hunted victim: People who are considered heroes are also called victims. If the alleged informant turns out to be a fraud, it is only because the conspiracy is trying to discredit him.
  • Immunity to evidence: Any evidence that appears to contradict a conspiracy theory will be rethought by believers as a lie, the existence of which proves that those in power are trying to discredit the theory, which in turn strengthens their belief in the theory.
  • Rethinking randomness: Events that have nothing to do with the essence of the conspiracy theory will be interpreted as if they are somehow related.

With that in mind, it can still be tricky to spot the beginning of a COVID-19 conspiracy, but once you start looking for them, you will see them popping up in articles (or social media posts) of people who believe in some other conspiracy theories.

I almost find these tips more useful for telling how trustworthy a person or post is than for sniffing out a specific news item or a specific situation analysis. One person on your Facebook feed claims we should cancel block orders, but does the reason for canceling them change every week? (At first the virus was fake; then it was real but harmless; now we are all immune; blocking will somehow make us more susceptible to the virus next week.) Off about four different fields in our list above.

Let’s try some examples of coronavirus. Is the federal government really delaying shipments of PPE destined for states? It’s real and it’s terrible. I believe one red flag from the list could possibly be checked, which is nefarious intent. But there is no clear explanation as to why this is happening. Snopes notes the caution “that the intervention efforts appear to be part of a broader distribution plan that purportedly aims to secure supplies to regions with the most pressing needs,” while I have also seen arguments that the takeovers have dark political motivation. The story is complex and convoluted, as is often the case in the real world.

So here’s another example you’ve probably seen: is there a worldwide cover-up involving Dr. Fauci and Bill Gates that is about selling vaccines and infecting everyone (in which case we won’t need vaccines)? It’s the plot of a fake Plandemic documentary that captures facts that don’t fit together, spends almost half of its time highlighting the pursuit of its hero, and ticks all of the aforementioned red flags. Follow these characteristics in other stories you see on social media.

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