In its essence, a conspiracy theory is just a story. A pretty bad one actually. Yet under the right circumstances, it becomes so potent, it can cause an insurrection. What makes such a flimsy narrative so strong? From a storytelling perspective, that's a fascinating question. And the kicker? You and I both my dear reader, have already falling for it many times over. Hold on to your knickers, we're diving in the deep end today. And it starts with creativity.
Now that the dust has settled down a bit, let's talk conspiracy! The story of conspiracy theories actually starts with a very unexpected thing: creativity. Human creativity is at its most basic an ability to make new connections. It is a survival technique. Your brain links two (or more) things together in order to better assess and possibly survive a situation. It's called pattern recognition. In a more normal situation we recognize a pattern and then memorize it for later use. In a stressful situation we do it really quickly.
Simple example. We notice that rain fizzles out a bush fire. We store a pattern in our memories: water stops fire. So if the forest around your prehistoric cave was caught on fire, you'd head for the river. You've 'linked' or 'connected' two things, saw the pattern, and it saved your life. That, in essence, is creativity. And everyone has it.
Linking patterns has in human history of course evolved into the full blown creativity we know and love today: the ability to tell a story. We've learned to pass on the patterns we used to survive and thrive to future generations, and have given them names like 'art' and 'stories'. These stories are therefore equipment for living (to paraphrase Kenneth Burke): they convey information that teaches us how to live, how to respond to certain situations and the difference between right and wrong.
In a way, everything is a story. A romantic comedy teaches us about love. Religions are stories too, giving us some explanation on why we live on this planet. Heck, even gossip serves as a storytelling tool. So yes, a conspiracy theory is - just like any other story - also equipment for living for those who support it. And the biggest insight you should have about it is this: you can fall for it too. In fact, you already have.
Beautiful little example: your Spotify music playlist can be put on random. That means that a certain song could theoretically appear three times in a row. That repetition is a real and true possibility of total randomness. Yet, when that does happen by chance, we perceive it as a pattern. We think it can't be chance because our creative brain is trained to recognize patterns.
We immediately start to think the game is rigged, that some record company has bribed Spotify to put one song on repeat. I did it too (shameless plug to our new music project here... hit the follow button!). Our minds just don't want to really accept randomness and coincidence. It wants, almost needs there to be a pattern. It's so bad, that Spotify had to correct their algorithm into something that is not 100% random, but appears random to the human mind.
That's how strong pattern recognition is as a survival mechanism. And it is so ingrained into our being, that we sometimes simply cannot accept randomness. All of us, without exception, have seen patterns that aren't there. Even if it's something innocent like the shape of an animal in a cloud, you've done it.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's stay with the basics of storytelling for the moment.
Different types of story
Officially, we have two kinds of stories. We have fiction, which are made up stories. Some involve aliens or elves, but most fiction is just a made up story set in real world surroundings to make it extra believable. The other category is non-fiction, which are stories about the real world. Obviously journalism is one form of non-fiction. But so are biographies or documentaries.
Yet here, ever so slightly, thinks become more complicated. Unofficially, there is a very large gray area between fiction and non-fiction. Obviously, many people perceive news as biased, which is part of our topic of today. But there is a better example to explain this gray area. You've probably seen the words 'based on a true story' at the beginning of a movie. In this case we say the non-fiction story is dramatized to suit the medium of film, which typically strives to stay within two hours viewing time. Often, real events are exaggerated or sped up compared to the real story, or even a little made up, to stay within that two hour attention span.
Yet even though these stories are 'dramatized' we don't perceive them as fake. We still perceive them as true stories, based in reality. In a minute we'll discuss David Fincher's film The Social Network to make this point clear. It's a great example of a dramatized story based in reality. And it is of course about Facebook, a key proponent in spreading fake news of late. But let's look at the elements of the conspiracy theory first because they, unlike Fincher's movie, really did cross that fictional line.
For a story to become a conspiracy theory the following elements are needed. First, a high level of societal stress. In this case a global pandemic crossed with an ever growing gap with the elite. Second, that creative pattern recognition we've already discussed. Third, a lack of empathy. Fourth, repetition, also known as propaganda. And fifth and most importantly; pride. Let's continue with the third and the fourth: a lack of empathy and a lot of repetition.
A lack of empathy
In political free speech, we often see a lack of empathy. That lack of empathy is why we distrust politicians so much. Not just because we think it's morally wrong, but because a story - even a political one - is just not very good if it has no empathy. In storytelling, political stories are among the lowest grade of stories in terms of quality, on par with that of car salesmen who only empathize with your money.
Political stories are most of the time oversimplified, they lack emotional awareness and are often told by people who's ego's are too big for self-reflection. Hence, most politicians don't even know how bad of a storyteller they truly are. Which gives us all of these super awkward moments with them! For those bad stories to stick they rely on repetition. Think of 'Lock her up' or 'It's the economy stupid'.
Most of the time we take those stories with a grain of salt. It's political free speech and we are used to its oversimplification. However, every once in a while, society has a stressful period. And in times of stress, we flock to simplified versions of stories. Our brains are in survival mode and wants the simple pattern to be true. No exceptions. Even the more enlightened ones fall for it in times of stress.
So, we are attracted to simplified versions of stories. The best example of this has got to be how we describe 'socialism' or 'capitalism'. These are story constructs too. They are all simplifications of 'isms': possible equipment for living. We can live on a scale of how social we should be, or how much we should choose for our individual success, even into extremes such as 'communism' or 'fascism'.
In normal times we have proper debates and we mix and match our isms until we've found the best balance that suits the times we live in. We can do this because we know that all those 'isms' are just perfect or idealized stories that require grains of salt. But in stressful times we need quick and decisive action. And all of a sudden these isms are elevated to survival tools.
Karl Marx his socialism story 'Das Capital' on the left was nothing more than a philosophical look at the future of economies with scarce resources and ever growing populations, not at all dissimilar to Adam Smith his writings or those of John Maynard Keynes on the political right about capitalism. If it were movies, we'd use disclaimers like 'fictionalized' or 'dramatized'. In the book by Marx (which is a hard read by the way), he described theoretical phases of an economy. I emphasize: theoretical. And just in case you didn't know, the last phase ends with small, self sustaining communities.
It was the fact that Eastern European Communists wanted to rush and push forward the 'fifth phase' of community living, that started all the horrible death, destruction and dictatorships we now associate with the story of communism. The insight? This happened in times of high societal stress in that region. In other words, some took a philosophical story on economy literary and tried to force its outcome in the real world, in a trying time, and it become very damaging.
Another ism example is that of 'socialism'. Many governments have made protections to middle and lower classes under the guise of that story, especially in the seventies and eighties in the 20th century in Europe. Perfectly fine protections for perfectly normal people. But that same word was used by Hitler in his 'national-socialism' ideal that ultimately killed tens of millions of people! Again, a philosophical, dramatized or fictionalized ideal was forcibly translated into the real world.
And this principle works for capitalism as a story too. Keynes brilliantly described the theory of macroeconomics (a hard read too), that arguably still influences everything we do and own today. But in practice, mindlessly following the 'ism' of the capitalism story has also led to mass extinctions and global warming.
See my point? It's not the story itself that determines the outcome, but what you do with its message in the real world. Proving that it's not who you are that matters, but what you do (to quote Batman in Batman Begins).
And in times of say, a pandemic, that's even more important to understand. This is a very stressful time. So stressful, that millions of people have not been able to accept a clear and present danger anymore, flocking to conspiracies. Even if its killing people around them.
In other words, the people that believe in conspiracy theories, are scared. So scared, they want the simple pattern. It gives them relief. And crucially, they are allowed to have that relief. They are protected by the freedom of speech.
Little furry purple aliens
There is however, a line that we draw: if your speech hurts others, we've installed safeguards. Hate speech is not freedom of speech to the law. Nor is slander protected by free speech either. Nor is spreading a lie about a virus that kills people. The consequence of your free speech is the key divider here. If you believe little furry purple aliens eat your carrots in the garden every night, you're weird, but you're not hurting other people. And you can live in peace with your opinion on little furry purple aliens. There's no limit to your free speech. There is no hurtful consequence.
So, your free speech has a practical limit: when it hurts someone else, it is no longer free speech. Why? Simple. That other person has freedom too, just as you have, and you're violating that freedom with your actions.
In other words, if there are negative consequences to a lie, it violates the law that we are all created equal and should not be attacked on things we can't help being (gender, sexual persuasion, color of skin, place of birth, economic status, political beliefs, the purple furry planet we originate from... you name it). And incitement to violence is the worst of this breach.
So for those who are worried about your freedom of speech because of social media bans, don't be. Your freedom of speech is not in danger. At least, not by this episode (we'll get back to the real dangers of social media another time on this blog). Other people who are being hurt, are allowed to not let you in their classroom if they so wish. It's their freedom to do so. Even if you don't like it.
But per the law, incitement to violence is not medium specific. It does not matter if you use a Twitter account or a soapbox or a telephone or two tin cans with a wire for all I care, the law does not make that distinction. It just says that incitement to violence is punishable by law, no matter the medium. It says: don't hurt people.
Freedom of speech does not make you right
So how does this work in practice? Well, you are both allowed to yell and scream at each other for days on end if you wish to exercise your freedom of speech in that manner. But if one of you throws in a racist or bigot term, you are in violation of the law. If one of you repeats a lie that it becomes slander, you are in violation of the law. And, if one of you incites violence, you've (obviously) crossed that line.
In those cases it's not about your freedoms. It's about the freedoms you take away from someone else, who has the same right to freedom as you. There it is again: empathy. And crucially, having freedom of speech does not automatically make you right. For you to win an argument, your story needs empathy with what the other person is going through. That can be feelings of love in a romantic comedy to connect with. But also feelings of anger or fear in a political story context.
Stories fall apart when the storyteller does not feel any empathy anymore with a targeted group. That goes for your political beliefs as much as it goes for a film or a book. And this empathy question finally brings us to Fincher his movie, and one of the cores of storytelling in general.
Empathy, sympathy or lack thereof
David Fincher his film The Social Network (written by Aaron Sorkin) is not exactly a flattering story on the rise of Mark Zuckerberg as owner of Facebook. It does not put Zuckerberg in a good light at all. One could say it is not 'sympathetic' to him. In a way, given everything that Facebook has caused of late, it can even be considered quite mild in its lack of sympathy. It is however still very much 'empathetic'.
The filmmakers may not like Zuckerberg very much, and may even have good reason for not liking him, but they do understand him and the choices that he has made. The film doesn't try to tell you if his choices were right or wrong, they just show you they were damaging on the one end, yet also created a flip side: the first globally used social media platform.
The film basically says this: Zuckerberg is a pretty big ass whole... but would you be any different in his shoes? He's a douche... but you might be reading this because of a social media post. In other words, with empathy, we can see both sides.
For any storyteller to make a good story, you need empathy with the characters and situations that you describe or show. You don't need sympathy. In other words, you don't have to like the people. But you do need understanding. If you don't, it will be a bad story. And because it shows empathy and understanding, we don't see the Social Network as a propaganda film or a conspiracy theory, even though some parts are clearly fictionalized or dramatized.
Still, one could argue that The Social Network occupies that grey area anyway. Even if it shows empathy. So what factor defines that a story finally crosses the line into conspiracy territory? Well, that emotion has a very specific word: pride.
Precipitous precedes the fall
The emotion pride is one of the earliest positive emotions that human beings have developed. It originated as a survival tool to convey to the other people in your tribe what was good behavior. Its opposite is the emotion shame, conveying what is bad behavior. You'd show pride if you shot that dear and the tribe could eat tonight. And shame if you missed it and there's no food on the table. Good behavior. Bad behavior. For survival.
Nowadays the most common place we see pride and shame is in sports, with its winners and losers. Pride equals happiness. Shame equals sadness. And people would rather feel happy than sad. Pride is a good thing.
The pitfall of pride comes when it is based on a lie. Pride comes before the fall, as the saying goes. When you are proud of something that isn't true, or is damaging to others (a lack of empathy in essence) your mind starts to short circuit. Your brain is genetically trained to find patterns for its survival, so when you embrace patterns that are not true, your subconscious will rebel and try to fix the damage.
This rebellion comes in the form of anger. Anger is nature's defensive system. You project this anger to the outside world, hurting people even more, while in truth the anger is turned inwards between your conscious decision to follow a false narrative, and your subconscious trying to warn you your survival is at stake: false patterns can lead to death. In other words, you are in denial. Anger, depression, anxiety all follow denial. They are defense mechanics forcing you to reconsider. For survival.
But if you were not trained to admit to yourself that you are fallible in your childhood, or if you hold on to simplified patterns of 'isms' - such as patriotism - or if you are simply overwhelmed with the outside stress of a dangerous situation, such as a pandemic that threatens your livelihood, it becomes even harder to admit you were wrong and hurtful. The pride goes up. Then short circuits. And then comes the fall. Hence, precipitous precedes the fall.
Off the hook
So there you have it. What causes conspiracy theories to spread? Patterns, pride and propaganda. Still not convinced? Buckle up then. For those readers who are holding on to the conspiracy theory that the virus was made in a Chinese lab in Wuhan, know that propaganda works both ways. As we speak, many Chinese people, who are in as dire straits as the rest of us, are now spreading the conspiracy theory that the virus was created in a lab in Maryland, USA.
Bet you didn't see that one coming did you?
Don't worry, I'm letting you off the hook immediately. We are all human beings. And we are all capable of falling for conspiracy theories. It doesn't help that sometimes they really are true (Watergate anyone?). And in fact, we've all stepped into the fake ones too. My mind still can't wrap it's head around 9-11. And even though I minored at law and majored at propaganda studies, and should know better, I still sometimes believe that the attack on the Twin Towers was an inside job. Not when I'm balanced. But when I'm emotional, it just kind of happens. My mind wants a simpler explanation than the horrible notion that some people lack empathy and kill others and themselves to prove the point of some stupid 'ism'. I too, can be scared.
It's our nature to recognize patterns. It's called creativity. Even when they are not there and randomness is really what's going on. It happens on your Q-Anon posts, just as much as on your Spotify playlist. And when reason goes out the door under stressful circumstances and emotion takes over, we can all fall. Just try not to cross that line when you are really hurting others.
A little shame goes a long way.
Love, as always.
And plant trees people. Plant trees. Don't cut those forests down. In the end, that's the only place where viruses really come from. For billions of years they've existed in nature. And when we cut nature down... just think of it as Mother's Earths little conspiracy against a proud human race stealing the carrots from its garden.
Check out my book The Whole Story - The Ultimate Guide to Storytelling here !!!