When to wager that a conspiracy theory is false

Stories about conspiracies have different narrative structures depending on whether the stories are true or false. That gives us hope that we can learn to spot fake stories.

A UCLA study, published in June 2020, used “sophisticated artificial intelligence and a deep knowledge of how folklore is structured” (according to a UCLA press release) to examine conspiracy theories.

A true story rests on a large number of facts. Various facts may come to light slowly—over years, even—as journalists ferret them out. If one fact is missing, discarded, forgotten, or even debunked, the rest of the story remains intact. Without knowing all the facts, it will take longer to tell a coherent version of the story and have confidence that we have learned the truth, but we can still approximate the story and get ever closer.

A false story, by contrast, often hangs on a single falsehood. The UCLA researchers examined so-called “Pizzagate” as a quintessential example of a fake conspiracy theory. (The Pizzagate story maintains that politicians in Washington, D.C. operated a child sex-trafficking ring in a network of caves under a pizzeria.) One of the researchers, Timothy Tangherlini, said they discovered “that if you take out Wikileaks as one of the elements in the story, the rest of the connections don’t hold up.” For the Pizzagate story, he said, the storytellers’ interpretation of Wikileaks material is “the only glue holding the conspiracy together.”

Detail of a diagram from the UCLA study. From an area labeled "Wikileaks," starting from points labeled "james_alefanti" and "handkerchief," lines radiate toward an area labeled "Satanism."
Detail of a diagram from the UCLA study.

[Novelists, take note: A fiction is stronger if its narrative threads do not all pass through a single hub. A good fiction probably should anchor to multiple believable spots.]

The study authors are not telling us how to write benign fiction, however, but rather how to identify harmful fiction so that we can reject it. If we can recognize that a certain story’s “narrative framework…has the hallmarks of a fictional conspiracy theory,” the authors write, we might thereby reduce our gullibility.

See also my previous posts for this blog: “The effect of conspiracy theories” and “Is a ‘political lie’ different from a garden variety lie?”

The effect of conspiracy theories

“Conspiracy,” a photo by Fleeting Pix. Colorized and digitally altered by Tucker Lieberman.
Wikimedia Commons, CC 3.0 license.

How do conspiracy theories arise? Why, despite how implausible they sound to most people, are they so “sticky” for others?

Telling stories that aren’t true

If Only by Neal Roese.

Neal Roese, in If Only: How to Turn Regret Into Opportunity (2005), discusses the role of counterfactual expressions—that is, things that just aren’t so. At their best, they help us analyze a situation and seek a better path. One type of counterfactual is “it could have been worse” which is supposed to serve as consolation.

Here’s one of Roese’s examples. An employee of Cantor Fitzgerald—a company that suddenly lost hundreds of employees in New York City when the World Trade Center fell on September 11, 2001—survived because he happened to be inquiring about a gym membership and was not in the office when the plane hit the building. The counterfactual narrative that he easily might have died does not meaningfully explain why he lived. The simple observation of his near-brush with death, applied to this situation of survivor’s guilt and when taken up as an existential perspective, “is a counterfactual that shoots blanks,” Roese says. Such an approach “can get in the way of successful coping by conjuring phantom explanations and phony sense making or simply by failing to provide resolution and understanding.”

The man’s survival is random, yet that answer leaves most of us itching. Some will contort themselves to come up with a different explanation.

What existential function might a conspiracy theory serve?

A conspiracy theory—pick one, any one—is, in my view, a more elaborate kind of counterfactual. It asserts itself to be true, or at least plausible and meriting more inquiry, but it is not true. Like other counterfactuals, it serves the need to point out unresolved questions and find some way to make sense of the world.

Power Corrupts: “Conspiracy Theories.” Launches May 2, 2019.

This is explored in the “Conspiracy Theories” episode of the Power Corrupts podcast that launches today (May 2, 2019) on iTunes, Spotify, RadioPublic, and Stitcher. Brian Klaas, the podcast writer and narrator, says that the tendency to adopt conspiracy theories

“seems to be part of a coping mechanism: a human instinct to deal with large, unexpected, and often tragic events. Sometimes things just happen randomly; not for any reason, not because of sinister forces. And in human psychology, randomness is much more threatening than discernible causes, even if those causes are shadowy or sinister.”

Paranoid by David J. LaPorte.

We tend to want to believe that Someone (or Something) is calling the shots and that what happens to us (or to our known world) matters within some grand plan.

Conspiracy theories are often products of paranoia. A paranoid person believes that “you can’t trust what you see, so you need to interpret and see behind the surface presentations of situations,” David J. LaPorte wrote in Paranoid: Exploring Suspicion from the Dubious to the Delusional (2015). Such people report experiencing a “sudden clarification,” which feels as if they “immediately recognize [an event] for ‘what it really is.’” Their sudden clarification feels true even if it is not.

A believer in a conspiracy theory, Klaas says, is “choosing to discount evidence and rational thought in favor of snippets of ‘What if?’ speculation.” In this case, unfortunately, “the normal way of convincing someone of an idea by presenting rational thought and evidence just isn’t very effective.” It is hard to persuade someone to abandon these theories. They are constructed in such a way that they cannot be falsified, and criticism only triggers a paranoid person’s suspicion of outsiders.

I have never knowingly been a conspiracy theorist on any matter. Generally, such stories are repugnant to my occasionally obsessive fact-checking habits, to my worldview in which ethics does not reduce to a battle between good and evil, to my personality that tends to be more trusting and less paranoid, and to the social bonds I form with people whose attitudes are similar to my own.

I do, however, see how conspiracy theories might appeal to someone else. Counterfactuals more generally—the past that wasn’t, the future that isn’t yet—are “entertaining,” according to Roese, because they are imaginative variations on a known theme, and they are “cognigenic, meaning that they spur further creative thought.” I suggest that conspiracy theories, too, fit this description. They are intricate fictions and mostly self-contained worlds. If I were to allow myself to spend time with one and if I were to engage it on its own terms, I could see myself growing fond of it.

One of Klaas’ interviewees for Power Corrupts says that believing in a conspiracy theory predisposes one to begin believing in yet another, even if the two theories are unrelated or contradictory. Klaas describes conspiracy theories as having “a weird way of metastasizing: they morph as they spread; they grow more outlandish; the conspiracy gets weirder and weirder as people build on the unhinged beliefs of others.” For this reason, to me, such stories feel a bit dangerous, like ideological gateway drugs, and I have always avoided them when I recognize them.

What we become

At the end of the road of a multitude of conspiracy theories, a person may be well trained in the consistent rejection of logic.

Denialism by Michael Specter.

According to Michael Specter, author of Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Harms the Planet and Threatens Our Lives (2009), the rejection of science is a coping strategy for living in an increasingly technological society that every day becomes a little harder to understand. When people are fearful and “decide that science can’t solve their problems,” they may abandon scientific process and findings, gravitating instead toward some other answer on the merits of its perceived popularity. This is a problem: “Either you believe evidence that can be tested, verified, and repeated will lead to a better understanding of reality,” Specter warns, “or you don’t. There is nothing in between but the abyss.”

In politics, similarly, embracing a multitude of conspiracy theories may lead a person to distrust and reject democratic principles. Ultimately, experts are not believed; leaders are not trusted; process is not given credibility; norms are not understood; facts cannot be verified; no one can be held accountable. This is a terrible outcome, but it is hard to stop conspiracy theories from starting and spreading. Perhaps being aware of their psychological function can prompt us to think of other ways to confront the human fear of random, small, and impersonal causes.