Conspiracy theories: The siren song of simplicity
It’s Monday, and I woke to clickbait ads promising me an alternative to traditional funerals. Just what I needed to set me up for another week. And then, like a fool, I opened a social media site and met with the latest conspiracy theories.
The past few days, like every other past few days, have confirmed the world is a hot mess. Between pandemics, wars, economic meltdowns and the ever-looming threat of climate catastrophe, keeping up with the news is enough to give anyone whiplash.
It’s only natural to long for more straightforward narratives–sweet little lies that promise to explain away the chaos. If you’re a visitor to Twitter/X – and exposed to what Elon Musk calls ‘free speech’ – you’ll already have a whole load of conspiracy theories to pick from and phantom villains to blame. Social media echo chambers promise a cosy sense of belonging. Flexible “facts” allow us to twist reality until it fits our preconceived notions.
The truth they didn’t want you to know
The appeal is obvious. Who wouldn’t want pat answers in an increasingly convoluted world? But here’s the catch: succumbing to this siren song of simplicity makes us vulnerable. Systemic issues demand nuanced solutions, not catchy slogans or cute videos that show ‘the truth they didn’t want you to know’. As appeals to our base instincts gain traction, truth becomes collateral damage. And just who ‘they‘ might be varies, depending on the level of drooling stupidity behind each keyboard warrior.
Anti-vaxxers cling to debunked claims, sacrificing public health for the comfort of knowing that the vaccine they accepted into their body is why they’re sick. It’s nothing to do with lifestyle choices. This perpetuates misinformation and undermines public health efforts, making it harder for us to tackle real issues.
Proponents of secessionist movements like Brexit seek to “take back control” without considering complex geopolitical realities. Those allowed to vote are whipped into a frenzy by provocative buzzwords that often obscure more than they illuminate. The Brexit referendum promised the UK a chance to “take back control,” but what does that control mean if we’re unwilling to engage in meaningful discussions with our European neighbours? Heaven forbid, the slogan lacked any real commitment to improving governance or international relations. Because that’s just how it looks from where I’m typing.
How long until the gender-critical bigots make out Russell Brand was perfectly lovely when they met him in some pub or outside a chippy and that it’s THE ESTABLISHMENT (aka ‘mass media’) who want his worldview silenced? The rape thing is just a distraction.
Conspiracy theories disconnect us
This attraction to simplicity stems from cognitive dissonance–the disconnect between our beliefs and observable reality. When faced with facts that contradict our worldview, we’ll bend over backwards to dismiss them rather than revise our opinions. Social media platforms exploit this tendency by siloing us into custom echo chambers that validate our biases. The verb “conspire” means to plan with others. Those who pedal conspiracy theories want others to conspire with them.
Conspiracy theories resist falsification and are reinforced by circular reasoning: counter-evidence and a lack of evidence are taken as proof of the theory. They vilify groups like government agencies, ethnic/religious groups, and big companies (unless they share the same ideas). Any rebutting evidence is dismissed as fabricated by the conspirators themselves.
In the internet age, sensational headlines are just a click away. Buzzwords like “globalist” and “tyranny” have become potent click triggers, often used out of context to distort our understanding of complex issues.
So, where does this leave us? Adrift in a sea of conspiracy theories–misinformation and tribalism, anchors aweigh.
Reclaiming our moorings means embracing the messy complexities of life. We need to seek out perspectives beyond our filter bubbles, even when they make us uncomfortable. As a writer of feel-good books, I realise fiction offers a temporary escape from the madness–but we cannot let imagined realities substitute for wrestling with the world as it exists in all its maddening complexity. Escaping into a feel-good novel is one thing, but using fiction—or any other simplified narrative—as a lens through which to view the world is quite another.
These are challenging times, no doubt. But meeting that challenge will take complex solutions aimed at the roots–not simplistic narratives that merely hack away at the branches. The appeal of banner headlines is strong, but succumbing to that siren song could steer our ship onto the rocks. If we stay the course of truth through the maelstroms, we may arrive at safer harbours.