Just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you. That used to be something of a joke, but no longer. It seems that people have a need to believe they know something dangerous or controversial, that they are on the inside of things, and the rest of us are being duped. Conspiracy theories abound these days, as they always have; but in the age of social media they have developed a power and a credibility that hasn’t always been the case.
Throughout history, there have been conspiracy theories involving secret, powerful groups whose intentions were to rule the world from some hidden place known only to the initiated. For centuries, many believed that there was a Zionist agenda ruling the world, that the Jews were somehow the power behind world events, despite the fact that the Jews were being persecuted, murdered, discriminated against and even exiled from entire countries. Some power! But, said the theorists, there is a book, a secret book, that contains all the secrets, all the dreadful plans, actions and ambitions of these people. And so there was a book, known as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and no matter how many times it was exposed as a fraud and a forgery, there were still, and are still, many who remained convinced of its validity.
Then there’s the Illuminati: another mysterious group who are said to rule the world covertly, using symbols and codes to identify themselves to each other and to conspire to attain, or maintain, world domination. This used to be the favourite conspiracy theory, but it has recently been replaced by other, more esoteric theories. You’ve heard about them: who killed Kennedy; the moon landing never happened; the 911 attacks were actually planned by the CIA, or some other covert government agency. A survey in 2015 found that about half of the general public in the USA endorse at least one conspiracy theory. It’s the thing to do.
But things may be getting out of hand. It would appear that the lockdown experienced by so many in the last months have driven more and more people online to investigate the “truth” behind world events, and the results are quite unsettling. Whereas some people have a legitimate fear of vaccinations, or even of wearing face coverings, others are absolutely convinced that these things, as well as the 5G networks, smart meters, and the internet itself, are all part of a worldwide conspiracy to enslave the human race. The QAnon-linked sites also casually refer to aliens and other less immediately relevant topics. Remember Trump citing the woman as an impressive source for medical information regarding Covid-19, who talked about demon sex and alien interference? Others claim that the virus was actually invented by Dr. Fauci, or the Chinese military, or Bill Gates, though why is a question that conspiracy theorists don’t always answer.
Not every warning is false. Not every theory is ridiculous. Not every claim is unfounded. But we have to learn to discern one from another. It may be easy to ridicule many conspiracy theories, but that is not the point any more. People are believing so many strange and impossible things, without using any kind of filter, without looking to see where the ideas are coming from, their logic and rationality, or what the motive for disseminating them might be. In the atmosphere created by terms like “fake news”, “alternative facts”, and accusations of “hoax!” made against valid questions and investigations, it has become more and more difficult for people to discern truth from fiction.
It does seem odd that deep state conspiracies, designed by secret and nefarious organisations, can be so easily read about everywhere. Not very competent conspirators, it seems. There are times to laugh and there are times to weep: the practical impact of conspiracy theories over the centuries have often led to serious persecution, deaths, and panic.
They feed on fear, the kind of fear that allows people to enjoy horror movies and frightening stories. Society is rapidly falling into a state of paranoia and fear, with really dangerous potential. We have to learn, or re-learn, how to judge facts and information. We need to ask penetrating questions of the ideas we read about and hear promulgated. The insistence on rationality, evidence, something more than dramatic allegations, is essential in these days of rumour, where every blogger, every poster on Facebook or Twitter, everyone with an agenda, can be given the same credence as the most well-researched and vetted academic publication.
As Dylan complained: “Someone’s got it in for me, they’re planting stories in the press. Whoever it is I wish they’d cut it out but when they will I can only guess.” That is what so much of on-line jabbering is these days: idiot wind. Society depends upon an informed citizenry: men and women who will take the time and trouble to examine what they’re told, no matter what the source may be, to find out what is reliable. Quite literally, lives are coming to depend on us doing that very thing. Otherwise, we become what Dylan described: “Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your teeth. You’re an idiot, babe, it’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe”.