The recent decision by several European countries to suspend the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine will have thrown petrol on the bonfire of conspiracies surrounding the pandemic. These range from believing that vaccines contain microchips so that Bill Gates can track you, to believing that the virus is a global conspiracy to allow governments to introduce new draconian measures to control their populations. Why are so many conspiracy theories thriving today and what do they tell us about ourselves?
During my time serving in Iraq I heard lots of conspiracy theories. Many concerned exaggerated capabilities of the equipment we had, such as the belief that night-vision goggles and even Army-issued sunglasses gave the troops X-ray vision. One of the more bizarre theories started circulating when large, carnivorous honey badgers appeared near Basra in 2007, killing livestock and frightening the locals. The theory that the coalition had released the badgers took hold to the point that a military spokesman had to categorically confirm, ‘we have not released man-eating badgers into the area’. The badgers were historically native to Basra and the re-flooding of marshes that Saddam’s regime had drained was likely causing them to edge closer to populated areas after a long absence.
The conspiracy of the honey badgers has some key components common amongst many other conspiracy theories.
Firstly, conspiracy theories thrive in times of uncertainty such as a foreign invasion or during a global pandemic. They are ultimately stories that help us make sense of our world, especially when our world is turned upside down. They strive to provide the comfort of coherence, not necessarily the truth. Humans are storytellers. In literary history or world folklore, the stories that endure have a similar grammar, a small group of plots that twist through a similar pattern of beginning, middle and end. Constructed conspiracy theories can tap into this universal grammar of storytelling making them intuitively ‘true’ to us, in a way that disordered, messy, reality cannot be.
If the story also confirms our existing worldview it will seem even more coherent and therefore be more readily believed. The more complex the issue the more attractive a simple story that explains it becomes, especially when in the early days of crisis no other narrative has the same certainty. When there are unforeseen, paradigm changing events, it takes time for experts to gather evidence, test hypotheses and consider the consequences. As any good corporate relations professional will tell you: in a crisis you need to get control of the narrative as early as you can. The first story to provide coherence will take seed and will be believed even when later evidence clearly contradicts it.
Secondly, such theories assign human agency to events beyond our control. It is better for our collective ego to believe our situation is of our own making rather than the result of a remorseless natural world or complex interactions beyond our control. If humans are responsible it also suggests that humans can find a solution. In Iraq it was the invading coalition that was assigned agency beyond its capabilities, especially the CIA who could be blamed for anything from spilt milk to unseasonable weather. This assigning of agency often involves the creation of a secret global network. This resolves the paradox many conspiracy theories have of claiming governments are simultaneously capable of high levels of secrecy and logistical and administrative expertise whilst at the same time being massively incompetent. It provides reassurance that there are those of greater capability behind the scenes pulling the strings of those fumbling in front of the cameras.
One of the most prominent ‘secret global network’ theories began when two friends, one a staff writer at Playboy, decided to plant a letter in the magazine attributing all national calamities, assassinations, or conspiracies to an Enlightenment-era Bavarian secret society called the Illuminati. Ironically, the original society's goals were to oppose superstition and obscurantism. They believed that no one would really believe an obscure eighteenth century secret society was running the modern world. Their role in starting this story is largely forgotten, but the conspiracy theory persists.
Throughout history, many of these secret network theories have been thinly disguised anti-Semitism. Recent versions include the claim that the pandemic is a creation of Jewish bankers manipulating the world for financial gain. In Medieval Europe the Black Death persecutions and massacres were a series of violent attacks on Jewish communities falsely blamed for outbreaks of the plague.
Thirdly, conspiracy theories mistake correlation for causation. The honey badgers appeared after coalition troops invaded, there was correlation between the two events but there was not a direct causal relationship. The European Medicines Agency has stated there is no causal relationship between the AstraZeneca vaccine and blood clots, but the correlation of clots in a small group who have had the jab has caused concern in several countries. Psychologists attribute finding a conspiracy where there is none to a mental phenomenon called ‘apophenia’. The term has come to imply a human propensity to seek patterns in random information. In statistics, apophenia is an example of a false positive error. Working in intelligence this is a constant challenge. Is the phone number at the centre of a web of calls from various known insurgent cells a key leader we were previously unaware of, or the most popular kebab restaurant in Fallujah?
We now have more data available than at any other time in history as well as more tools to analyse that data. We will find more and more correlations we will need to contextualise to understand if there is also causation. It will increasingly not be us doing the finding. Pattern recognition is a key strength of AI, understanding context isn’t. Technology is now also able to spread conspiracies at the speed of light down a fibre optic cable and use AI to target those who will find these theories most aligned with their existing views.
This all matters as conspiracy theories can cost lives. Belief that troops could see through the clothes of Iraqi women encouraged some to join the insurgency. Belief that the vaccine is a Bill Gates-sponsored tracking exercise will result in greater spread of the virus from those not wishing to be inoculated. Conspiracy theories also aid those looking to subvert democracy and mislead the public. When a genuine conspiracy is exposed in a society riddled with conspiracy theories, real events can be dismissed as just more fakes.
What does not help is that governments do keep secrets and have whole departments dedicated to covertly influencing events. Occasionally what seems an outlandish conspiracy theory turns out not to be a conspiracy at all. The conspiracy theory that the CIA was testing hallucinogenic drugs on Americans in a secret experiment on behaviour modification turned out to be real. The MK-ULTRA programme started by using volunteers, but progressed to dosing people with LSD without their knowledge. Every whistle-blower that exposes a real conspiracy fans the flames of a thousand conspiracies to which there is no evidence and no basis in reality.
It is only to be expected that after my experiences of witnessing the failed attempts at societal change in Iraq and Afghanistan – while hearing conspiracies requiring incredibly complex international collaboration and an ability to deftly manage unintended consequences – I default to a belief in coincidence or cock-up, over conspiracy. Certainly, the picture of an inner cabal of strategic thinkers directing the course of global events does not seem coherent to me with what I believe about the world. A story of governments riven by internal conflicts, responding to the volatility of popular opinion, U-turning from one crisis of unintended consequences to another seems more believable.
But to navigate our increasingly fast moving, interconnected and interdependent world we have to take on trust some of what we are told. There is a rhyming Russian proverb (we tend to believe sayings that rhyme more than those that don’t) that translates; ‘Trust but verify’. The proverb was regularly used by President Reagan when discussing nuclear disarmament with the Soviet Union in the late 1980s. This current pandemic has shown at times we need to put our trust in the experts and our leaders, but this does not mean we shouldn’t also look to verify what they are telling us. We should ask who benefits, we should establish the credentials of those claiming to have expertise, and we should ask to see the evidence – looking for causation not correlation when we do. At the very least we should ask ourselves, when our world is turned upside down: are we accepting the coherence of a good yarn over the messy untidy truth that no one is really in control?