Conspiracies, shared communities and individual certainty

Fake news and conspiracy theories are problems that many people seem to think can be mitigated by real facts and better reporting. However, this may not be enough because what may hold people’s attention and motivates them around conspiracy theories lies more in our sense of shared communities and individual certainty.

I am writing this now because of an encounter yesterday with people talking about conspiracy theories around Bill Gates and Covid19 vaccinations. They were nice people, fathers of friends of my son, who are articulate and well educated (please note I appear to have a bias here about somehow excusing inarticulate and ill educated people). Yet they told stories about doing research that confirmed ridiculous ideas about what Bill Gates is doing and how vaccination programmes work. I listened as our children played cricket. The ease of conversation and the mutual approval of conspiracy theories that linked globally disparate elements of science research and public policy was quite startling. None of it convinced me but that is the point. It bonded them more tightly as friends and it helped each of them feel more assured personally that they were right to believe in the conspiracy theories.

This post tries to bring together three elements from my encounter yesterday and uses some ideas from media I have learnt from lately.

The three parts are:

  1. Why conspiracy theories work so well as stories
  2. Why friendships and communities enable conspiracy theories
  3. How conspiracy theories play upon our individual desires to be certain and confident

Conspiracies

There is a new three part BBC Radio 4 series called Conspiracies: The Secret Knowledge (currently still available on BBC Sounds). It is about the modern popularity of fake news and conspiracies and tries to explain some of the reasons why they are so prevalent.

The elements that interested me are the idea that conspiracy theories play upon folklore storytelling to be narratively and cognitively ‘sticky’. They appeal because they are just hard enough to understand as a story (some effort must be expended to understand them) but simple enough to confirm and then retell to others.

The final programme of the series includes an interview with the writer of the TV series Utopia (about a global conspiracy). He talks of encountering people who believed in his fictional conspiracy (I was reminded of Alternative 3: an April Fool TV programmed that was too believable). He made the useful point that his conspiracy was a story in which every element was clearly stated and every person involved was relentlessly competent. This is how conspiracy theories can be sorted from real conspiracies: they are too clear, too competent, too complete. Conspiracy theories are just too good as stories and this links back to the folklore idea of ‘sticky’ narratives.

That the fathers could talk about doing their research on the internet to prove how Bill Gates, WHO and governments were planning and running a global vaccination programme with malicious intent is the exact reason why it is unbelievable. Real conspiracies are incredibly messy, take years of patient research to piece together and are full of errors and accidents.

There is an idea of retrospective narrative certainty which can be a problem in historiography. Retelling historic events and creating a coherent overarching narrative can become trapped in a sense of inevitability. Presenting an argument using a selection of evidence can become too homogenous, too certain, too clear. This, as I’ll talk about in the third part of this post, can play dengerously with some individual biases.

In summary, conspiracy theories are brilliant stories which is enables them to be both believed and spread more widely. Not everyone will listen but enough will.

Shared Communities

Rutger Bregman’s Humankind just came out in paperback in the UK. It is a book about hopeful futures centered on human kindness.

In the book, he talks about some historic moments of deep unkindness: World War 2 is one of them. There is a section about why Germany kept fighting even when it was being crushed between Allied armies. Soldiers kept fighting against impossible odds. Yet it was not fanaticism. It was not strong belief in the Nazi Party or Hitler. It was friendship.

Fighting for your friends is a strong motivator. Individuals will sacrifice themselves for their mates/buddies/pals/friends. Communities of friends can achieve huge things together for good and bad.

Shared community: to be part of a group, to be in with the In Crowd, to be accepted as a member. All of these senses of melting individuality into a group thru friendship matter to all of us. Humans are fundametally successful because we learnt to be powerfully socially connected.

Conspiracy theories abuse our sense of friendship (as did the WW2 German Army) by playing upon our desire to seek and be accepted as part of a shared community. The ‘Red Pill’ idea of right wing groups depends upon drawing people in with conspiracy theories and holding them in with community. It is a double lock of narrative and friendship patterns.

The fathers speaking of Bill Gates and vaccincations were bonding as friends thru stories. They were connected by narrative and a shared sense of secret knowledge. To fight fake news is not about telling real facts but about understanding how to pull apart friendships and communities that were created thru those lies. How that is done is something I don’t know and seems very hard.

Individual Certainty

Stephen M. Fleming’s Know Thyself just came out in hardback in the UK. It is a book about the neuroscience of self awareness.

The book discusses a range of ideas about how individuals try to sense and perceive what is going on around them and to take actions to successfully manouevre thru physical and social environments.

The foundational elements are dealing with Perceptual Uncertainty and managing Prediction Deviation.

Perceptual Uncertainty is the basic problem of being sure enough about what you sense to have a solid enough idea of reality to take action. It is not enough to be definite about what you see/hear/feel/smell/taste. You need to be able to have metacognition layer to judge if your senses make sense. Being certain is easy but dangerous. Being uncertain is harder but more flexible.

Prediction Deviation is being able to match how actions differ from what you planned and thus enabling corrections. Humans depend on autonoesis to imagine and play around with alternative consequences of differing actions. However, there is that point where you must act and then you need some way of comparing what’s happening to what you hoped would happen. Again this is about metacognition (thinking about thinking): being able to understand deviations in the moment of actions. This is about providing confidence: that what you are doing is going well or that you can adjust and still succeed. It is also about lack of confidence and facing a growing sense of failure. Individuals want to feel confident but are aware of, as with uncertainty, the need sometimes to be less confident. How to balance over- and under- confidence is tricky.

Metacognition is hard. Self Awareness is hard. Humans often try to take shortcuts thru stereotypes and biases. This is not necessarily bad. It can be sensible but, like friendship, these things can be hijacked with negative consquences.

Conspiracy theories are good stories that enable social connections. They also provide clarity and certainty. In a complex world, that can be a temporary balm to an individual. As discussed in the first section, conspiracy theories are beautifully tight in their folklore storytelling. This tightness is a form of certainty.

For the fathers discussing conspiracy theories about Covid19 vaccinations, the stories provide some semblance of certainty in among all the wildly fluctating events of the last year. Conspiracy theories latch onto our need for certainty and confidence. They know what is going on. They are sure of what has happened, is happening and will happen. They can be confident about how they will not be fooled and they, with their new friends and communities, will succeed.

Conspiracies, communities, certainties

This post is just me trying to understand events from yesterday thru the filters of some new ideas and research I have encountered lately.

I am definitely not offering solutions. I am first practicing how to use my capacity for metacognition to understand my deep sense of uncertainty and lack of confidence in the face of people who are finding such community and certainty in conspiracy theory thinking.

Update

How to speak to conspiracy theory believers

Just been reading this downloadable book The Conspiracy Theory Handbook (available in multiple languages on the page).

It explains a lot of different reasons why people believe in conspiracy theories and also adds a simple guide to how to speak to people who are believers.

  • Trusted messengers
  • Show empathy
  • Affirm critical thinking
  • Avoid ridicule

I find this interesting in sense that it does show the importance of friendship (trusted messengers come from the same community not from outside it) and self awareness (critical thinking is good but it has to be applied well).

Sensory Design Consultant, usability researcher and workshop facilitator. www.linkedin.com/in/alastair-somerville-b48b368 Twitter @acuity_design & @visceralUX