The High Cost of False Narratives and Conspiracy Theories
Why Truth-telling Matters
Given the chaos and unending losses of the past six years, it should come as no surprise that false narratives and conspiracy theories abound. When disturbing, disquieting, or threatening events unfold, we humans crave order and explanations. And “in the absence of knowledge, guesswork and propaganda flourish.”
A few notable examples that have appeared in the past two years:
Covid-19 was genetically engineered as a bio-weapon in a joint effort between Chinese and American authorities and “thousands of doctors, scientists, and elected leaders are conspiring to hide the truth.”
Bill Gates planned to insert a chip into our brains via the Covid-19 vaccine.
Donald Trump legally won the 2020 election and liberal democrats worked behind the scenes to prevent him from staying in office.
Ukraine is being overtaken by Nazis and Putin and his fellow Russians must liberate their neighbors from this evil scourge.
Of course, there’s nothing new about false narratives or conspiracy theories. After all, The National Enquirer has been around for more than sixty years. Wild explanations abound connected to the moon landing, JFK and Lincoln’s assassinations, and even Nero’s death, back in 68 AD.
Why are human beings so quick to create, embrace, and disseminate lies when we live in an age of information? It’s complicated.
Backing up for a minute, the main difference between false narratives and conspiracy theories is scale. Think of the former as an individual conspiracy. People create and live within false narratives to protect themselves from shame, blame, or failure. Trump blames the Democrats for stealing his victory rather than admitting that he may have made too many consequential mistakes and actually lost to Joe Biden. Conspiracy theories involve the belief that powerful (mostly evil) conspirators have concocted elaborate, secret plots which are meant to harm us and/or prevent us from knowing the truth. Conspiracy theories often scapegoat marginalized or unpopular people groups or those whose beliefs do not coincide with their own.
At core, creating and perpetuating false narratives and conspiracy theories give us a sense of control and a sense of belonging. When we experience loneliness and alienation or when the world feels out of control (both have been true since early 2020), fear and anxiety escalate and compel us to do—or believe—strange things.
Take the Apollo 11’s landing on the moon in 1969. “Opinion polls over the years regularly show that around 5% of Americans [or approximately 16 million people] believe the Apollo moon landings were faked.” The idea of astronauts traveling an astonishing 240,000 miles in a little metal rocket was (and for some, still is) too far-fetched to believe. Others assumed that the American government faked the landing to divert attention from the war in Vietnam or so that “we” could beat Russia to the goal of a moon landing.
If we look at the tendency toward perpetuating false narratives and conspiracy theories on an individual basis, several commonalities pop up.
Some people in this category tend toward binary thinking and feel uncomfortable with mystery or paradox. Others opt for false narratives or conspiracy theories if a specific truth causes cognitive dissonance or exposes a potential hypocrisy in their lives. So a white Christian who refuses to believe that systemic racism exists clings to their false belief because it protects them from needing to change. The longer someone believes a false narrative or conspiracy theory, the more difficult it is for them to admit they made a mistake and let it go.
There are at least four corporate factors that contribute to the creation of false narratives and conspiracy theories.
One: Though Americans are generally highly individualistic (we value individual rights over sacrifice and the needs of the community), we tend toward group think. Group think discourages creativity, decreases individual responsibility, and feeds off an “us versus them” mentality.
Two: We increasingly look to celebrities and allow them to shape our choices. We spend so much time “together” we feel like we know them and that makes easier to trust them. Many of these men and women are astonishing artists, actors, and musicians—but skill, beauty, and fame do not always come packaged with wisdom and discernment.
Three: Our critical thinking skills are decreasing. Whether that’s due to changing educational norms (including overemphasis on memorization for standardized tests), the many ways we default to machines and their algorithms to make choices for us, or not enough play/creative time for children, we don’t demand as much from our grey matter as we could—and it shows.
Four: Many people no longer trust the government and large institutions (e.g, the mainstream media, Google, etc.) at all. Unfortunately, some of this mistrust is merited. The American government has done far too many unsavory, unethical, and inhumane things. These include giving cigarettes to servicemen during the wars, injecting syphilis into Black men, and permitting toxic chemicals to be used in food production.
Given the many complex factors at play here, how can we avoid falling prey to deceit and disinformation?
Do your homework before sharing anything consequential or potentially inflammatory on social media. “Follow the source links in an article and confirm they are real and that they actually support the claim. Check multiple sources—across all biases—for confirmation. Check for original sources and studies, not just news articles that summarize the points. Talk to people who have more expertise than you do. When reading an original, scientific study, make sure it was published in a respectable journal, with peer-reviews.”This post lists the top five sites for fact checking.
Remember, the gurus who post on YouTube and TikTok are largely in it for the money. They don’t care about you or your well-being anymore than celebrities do. Sadly, fiction has become more profitable than truth. Sensational claims garner more hits and likes and as we all know, capitalism reigns here in the U.S.
When reading the news, be cognizant that all news is biased. It’s our job to discern what those biases are and filter what we read. Does The New York Times lean left? Absolutely, but that’s not true for all of its writers and that does not mean that everything published in the TNYT is false. An article can be biased but also contain facts. Dismissing new as fake simply because we disagree with it is lazy.
Be cautious about believing or posting anything that lays the blame on a group of people who are notably different from you. This is a form of othering. It’s divisive and often dangerous. Similarly, pay attention to how you respond to stories that confirm your strongly-held biases or preconceived ideas. We like to be right. We will not mature or become more empathetic if we only choose sources that make us feel good about ourselves and our beliefs.
If you post something and then discover that it was wrong, own it. Remove the original post and let others know that you posted something that was not true. Humility matters.
If you have friends who perpetuate false narratives or endlessly pursue conspiracy theories, challenge them but resist belittling or making fun of them. To escape this worldview, they will need love and acceptance. Part of what draws people into these orbits is a sense of belonging.
Here’s the thing about both false narratives and conspiracy theories. They don’t work: individually or corporately. If you need several drinks to get through your night but deny that you’re addicted, you’re not going to get better. If you spend time watching YouTubers who contradict reality (be that climate change, Covid-19, or Biden’s legitimate win), you’re wasting your time and squandering your creativity rather than doing something that would affect positive change.
Furthermore, those of us who are from Judeo/Christian backgrounds have a moral obligation to speak the truth. Bearing false witness—telling lies—is one of the Ten Commandments and throughout the Bible, lying never goes well. (See Acts 5) This passage, written centuries ago, still applies today: “You must not pass along false rumors. You must not cooperate with evil people by lying on the witness stand. You must not follow the crowd in doing wrong.” (Exodus 23)
According to historian and educator Cornell West, “There is a price to pay for speaking the truth. There is a bigger price for living a lie.” The final sticker price is up to us.
Header image by Jametlene Reskp on Unsplash.
You can find more of my writing and information about my books on my website.
Quote from an email exchange with Kristen Wensel