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How does someone become a conspiracy thinker?

A HEALTHY DOSE OF SUSPICION

Until recently, conspiracy thinkers were mainly studied to find out what derailed them. But a new generation of researchers is taking them more seriously. ‘The important thing is not whether the theories are correct, but where the distrust is coming from.”

Originally published in Dutch in EOS Magazine 20-2-2018

The 1990s. The age of The X-Files and other tv series full of dark practices, extraterrestrial life and government cover-ups. The young Jaron Harambam (1983), who grows up in Amsterdam, finds it mighty pretty. Years later – he has since started studying sociology – he again comes into contact with conspiracy theories. It is during the financial crisis and a friend tips him Peter Joseph’s Zeitgeist documentaries, zooming in on conspiracy theories about religion, the attacks on September 11, 2001 and the banking system. Harambam is particularly fascinated by the latter: why didn’t he read about this anywhere else? He discovers that a whole movement has arisen around Zeitgeist and he decides to attend a meet-up in Amsterdam, where he meets a wide range of people. At that moment he is just busy arranging a PhD position at Erasmus University in Rotterdam. Now he knows what he wants to investigate: conspiracy thinkers.

Until recently, conspiracy thinkers were only studied by science as oddities. Their ideas were considered bad science, so the creators and supporters of them must be crazy as well, was the credo. Researchers made connections with schizophrenia and paranormal delusions and studied how those people could have ‘strayed’ that way. The researchers invariably took the extreme types, who strongly believe in the most absurd theories. They also dealt with conspiracy theories with fear: if everyone starts to adhere to all sorts of different ideas, our modern society might collapse. But the generation of researchers which Harambam is part of, looks at conspiracy thinkers in a different way. They suspend their judgment and consider the conspiracy thinkers and their theories as a phenomenon that is characteristic of a society – and tells a lot about it.

COMMON DENOMINATOR

Harambam decides to use a method for his research that has never been used before in the particular field: he immerses himself in the world he studies. On a daily basis, he visits well-known (Dutch) conspiracy websites such as Niburu, Zapruder and wearechange.org, he attends meetings and tries to find people to speak extensively. That turns out to be not a simple task. Many of the conspiracy thinkers that Harambam meets are suspicious of his project, because researchers and journalists are often writing negatively about them. In 2011, when he spoke to people at a lecture by British guru David Icke (who proclaims that we are governed by descendants of alien reptilians), he encountered many questions. “It took me time to gain their trust.”

“When my son became sick again for days and days at the second and third vaccination, I thought: now I am no longer crazy”

Slowly he manages to convince them of his open mind, thanks in part to a blog, in which he draws parallels between ‘normal’ critical thinkers and conspiracy thinkers. The reason is a newspaper article in which Huub Schellekens, professor of pharmaceutical biotechnology at Utrecht University, talks about the abuses in the pharmaceutical industry, whereby the profits of the industry and the interests of the government are elevated above those of the patient. This is hardly different from the way many alleged conspiracy thinkers talk about that industry, says Harambam.

In the strictest sense of the word, a conspiracy theory revolves around a small group of people, conspiring, usually in secrecy, to get something done. But conspiracy theories and conspiracy thinkers come in gradations, Harambam discovers during his research. Although there is a common denominator: according to conspiracy thinkers things are different than ‘they’ want you to believe based on the official narrative. And conspiracy theories are immensely popular. For example, a majority of Americans still believe that John F. Kennedy was killed not by one, but by a conspiracy of several perpetrators. A little less than one in three Americans fears that “a globalist elite” (the Illuminati?) Will eventually establish the new world order. Both in the US and in other Western countries, roughly one in five people believe that the US government was involved in the 9/11 attacks. More than half of the British believe that evidence for extraterrestrial life is being suppressed, and in the Netherlands nearly forty percent believe that the pharmaceutical industry can cure certain serious illnesses, but would rather earn money by treating the sick for a long time.

THE OTHERS ARE SHEEPLE

As he penetrates further into the conspiracy thinkers’ community, Harambam finds out that it is anything but homogeneous. He meets a variety of types: with a high or low education, extremely rational or typically hippie, engaged and outlaw. He distinguishes three types of conspiracy theorists: the types seeking alternative facts and evidence, types see those facts and knowledge as local products and always relative, and the more spiritual types, which are open to more subjective truths.

Harambam discovers that the conspiracy theories that are prevalent in today’s western societies, is that they are usually not about outsiders, but about the powerful people and institutions within our own society. In many theories, the conspiracy is not that specific either. People often refer to the ‘power elite’. Even if it is about ‘the other’, as in the case of the supposed Islamization, the instigator is an elite who wants this to happen. Many of those conspiracy theories are about our own institutions, food production, medicines, money and the greater economic and geopolitical reality.

‘In the Netherlands, almost forty percent believe that the pharmaceutical industry would rather make money from the long-term treatment of the sick than to actually cure them’

The theories are not anti-capitalist per se, but primarily focus on abuse of power. In it, conspiracy theories tie in with a general decline in confidence in politics, experts, and institutions – many “ordinary people” do see a grain of truth in such stories. Sometimes it works the other way and conspiracy theories are used by rulers or politicians to justify their policies or beliefs. This often happens in totalitarian regimes, but it also occurs in democracies: because Russia, China and Iran seem to systematically undermine our security and democracy, our secret services must be given more powers, for example. And because the left-wing political establishment is deliberately perishing the Western civilization, fanatic right-wing politicians must save us.

Typical of such conspiracies is that fervent conspiracy thinkers go a little further than others and not only see power structures, but deliberate deception. “They find intent where other people only see chaos or coincidence,” says Stef Aupers, promotor of Harambam and now professor of media studies at the Catholic University of Leuven. “Conspiracy thinking is the icing on the cake of distrust.”

According to psychologists the radar for seeing connections and deeper causes is set too sharply in the conspiracy thinker, which results in many false alarms. But what if they are right? According to Harambam, many people are basing their ideas too easily on the standard explanation given to them – their radar might be too weak. Similarly, the conspiracy thinkers themselves reason that non-conspiracy thinkers are sheeple – “sheep.” They know better than the others.

VACCINATIONS AND IMMIGRANT JOBS

But what determines that one person goes through life with a healthy dose of distrust, and the other sees a conspiracy behind everything he or she hears or reads? Take vaccinations, for example: many people agree that the companies that produce them are mainly after profit and try to suppress any inconvenient facts about their products. A slightly smaller group also has doubts about the intentions of the government. But that does not mean that vaccinations ‘undermine the immune system’, that they ‘contain toxic additives’ and ’cause all sorts of serious side effects that are not recognized’.

Often, Harambam discovers, it is a combination of personal experiences and events and developments in society. The radical thinkers refer to conspiracies that have come true, such as the Watergate affair, the massive eavesdropping by the National Security Agency (NSA) and the interference of the Russians in the American elections. The one becomes a little suspicious of these examples, the other very much.

Take Katrijn Depoorter for example (not her real name, ed.). After her first son had the diphteria, tetanus, pertussis, polio shot, he fell ill for a few days. She called the consultation office, but was turned away. “When he got sick again at the second and third shot, I thought,” Now I’m not crazy anymore, now it’s them.”” Later a doctor told her that that there had been something wrong with the batch of the DKTP vaccines her son’s shot was part of and they had received a striking number of complaints about it. Depoorter still had her son and her two following children vaccinated, but not her fourth child. “I started to wonder what we are doing it for. I think that the advantages of vaccinations are being exaggerated, the government does not want any doubts and the pharmaceutical companies are making millions of them.”

Guilly Koster, a Dutch media producer and presenter, also recognizes this combination of critical thinking and personal experiences. He worked for public broadcasting for years, but now runs his own site, the New Media Platform. Koster is not a fanatic supporter of very specific conspiracy theories, but mainly emphasizes the weaknesses in the official stories about events such as 9/11, UFOs and the assassination of Kennedy. “Look at Kennedy’s murder, for example. Of three fired bullets, one of them is a kind of magic bullet that goes in at the right shoulder, comes out at the left shoulder, goes forward, and goes through another man’s knee. Do you believe that? When the authorities did not want investigate whether more people had been involved, then something went wrong. Then I say: something else is going on here. “

For Koster, delving into conspiracy theories went hand in hand with events in his own life. At the broadcaster he noticed that because of his skin color and Surinamese background he only got the ‘immigrant jobs’ on his plate. When he rebelled against it, they told him to leave. “Anyone who doesn’t obey to the system will be eliminated.” According to Koster, there are three means to control the masses: religion, fear and money. In addition, you train people not to think further than you want. “The reason I believe in conspiracy theories is that I started thinking outside of that thing. At one point I said to myself, “I’m not buying this shit anymore.”

Image: 9/11 truthers demonstrate by Wally Gobetz (Flickr Creative Commons)

GETTING RAILROADED

Over the course of his research, Harambam notices that he is starting to identify strongly with the ideas he comes across. About the financial world, he almost completely follows the reasoning of the conspiracy thinkers. About how multinationals look after their interests outside of our scope, and have the regulators such as the US Food and Drug Administration practically in their pocket as well. How the pharmaceutical industry finances, influences and puts away unwelcome scientific research in drawers, just as governments regularly do. ‘The question is still on what scale it happens. But that it happens is certain, “says Harambam. “After all, it is the interests of countries and multinationals that are better represented than ordinary citizens.”

In both the US and other Western countries, one in five people believe that the US government was involved in the 9/11 attacks. That does not mean that he goes along with all the stories that circulate in the scene. For his research, he explicitly does not check whether the theories make sense. He wants to know how the conspiracy thinkers themselves experience the reasons why they started to adhere to them. Yet it does make a big difference whether those people just drifted off to crazy ideas or ended up with truths that we ‘sheeple’ fail to see.

Those who do not check what is correct and what is wrong are quickly carried away by the stories, says Brecht Decoene, moral philosopher and author of the recently published book Suspicion (Achterdocht), between fact and fiction, about dealing critically with conspiracy theories. In his booklet Decoene warns that a conspiracy thinker, discussing a conspiracy such as the moon landing or 9/11, will easily railroad you. Entering a discussion unprepared is a big risk, because you give them the impression that they are right, while in fact that is often not the case, Decoene says. ‘You just have to have very specialist and detailed knowledge to discover what I call ‘thinking wells’. At a certain point, critical thinking turns into a theory whereby unwelcome information is ignored.”

WAKING UP IN THE SUPERMARKET

Like so many, conspiracy thinkers such as Guilly Koster are opposed to the mainstream media. According to some conspiracy thinkers those media are part of the conspiracy, others say that they let themselves be abused in their laziness and naivety. These conspirary thinkers point to the bankruptcy of journalism, which, due to declining revenues and takeovers by large companies, is increasingly unable to control power. And so they have to take on that critical role themselves, with the internet as their most important source of information.

Harambam also notes that conspiracy theories can be very depressing. Halfway through the writing of his dissertation, he finds himself in a personal crisis, in which he can stop focusing on the dark side of things. “I saw abuses everywhere. I stood in the supermarket and thought: I cannot buy the vegetables, they are full of pesticides, not the fish, they are full of mercury, not the meat, they are full of hormones. What can I still buy? Where should I go? An enormous fear that the whole world was cheating on me came over me. Then I found myself identifying with the conspiracy thinkers, and the trajectories that they must have gone through. “

Conspiracy thinkers themselves call this process ‘awakening’, similar to unbelievers who convert to a religion. As with religions, there are also conspiracy thinkers who are keen to “awaken” others. Others keep awake more to themselves, or try to open others’ eyes purely by sharing their experiences. The overall suspicion that Harambam experienced is recognizable to safety researcher Jelle van Buuren. He obtained his PhD at the University of Leiden at the end of 2016 on the question of how dangerous conspiracy thinking is for democracy. It is not so bad, concluded Van Buuren, because conspiracy theories rarely get large crowds of people into action or lead to concrete violence. Yet he recommends taking conspiracy thinking seriously, but in a different way: plot thinkers who eventually miss the point, often started off from a justified message. We need to focus on that underlying message. “

Van Buuren believes that conspiracy thinking is often being discussed in a too simplistic way. ‘Something like’ mistrust unjustified end of discussion’. But one can also think: There is distrust, what does that say about our society?” Van Buuren considers the conspiracy thinkers as canaries in the coal mine. He cites the idea that many people have about how politicians ignore the wishes of the people and only listen to lobbyists who serve the interests of large companies. ‘If there is any discussion about that, and you propose abolishing the advisory referendum (which offers Dutch people the possibility to request a referendum on a voted law, ed.), As the Dutch cabinet recently did, then you’re just asking for these theories to florish.”

According to Van Buuren, conspiracy theories are a kind of modern alternative to religion. They offer a simple division into us and them and into the good and the bad. They create an overview in the abstract and chaotic world. In that respect there is nothing more human than thinking in conspiracies, since there is nothing more human than forging conspiracies. Harambam takes a little more distance from the world around the completion of his dissertation. Slowly it becomes clear to him what the appeal of conspiracy theories is.

Successful conspiracy theories tie in with traditions, experiences, (pseudo) scientific explanations, sociological theories and visions of the future that people have. That is why we are so sensitive to them, even though they are often wrong. In addition, you should not underestimate the ‘fun’ factor, Harambam emphasizes. It is for good reason that conspiracy theories often pop up in films and pop music. ‘It’s all about thrills and sensation, and there’s the detective factor. You do not have to take them serious all the time. Look at all those children who are spending their time with Illuminati stuff, how they deal with it, that is really playful. It is entertainment. It is playing with the boundaries between reality and fiction. “

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