Nicholas Goldberg: Why do people believe in conspiracy theories?


Watching the Jan. 6 committee hearings, one could be forgiven for believing we’re living in the heyday of conspiracy theories, between the Holocaust denialism of the Oath Keepers, the loony pedophilia fears of the QAnoners and the “Stop the Steal” ravings of Sidney Powell, Rudolph W. Giuliani and former President Donald Trump himself.

But don’t be too sure. Conspiracy theories have a long history. They date back to the Emperor Nero and the great fire of Rome, for instance. They’re as American as the witchcraft trials in Salem, Mass.

Assassinations spawn them too, from Abraham Lincoln’s (which was a conspiracy but presumably not orchestrated, as some suggested, by either the pope or Secretary of War Edwin Stanton ) to John F. Kennedy’s (which was carried out by Lee Harvey Oswald, not by Vice President Lyndon Johnson or the CIA).

These days, it’s true, people seem especially resistant to expertise, science, the media and elected officials, and have turned to conspiratorial thinking to make sense of the world.

And the rise of the internet and social media have magnified unfounded “alternative versions” of events and spread them through the population.

Did you know, for instance, that the attempted murder in 2012 of Malala Yousafzai, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Pakistani activist, was not orchestrated by the Taliban but by her father and the CIA and carried out by a man who looked suspiciously like Robert De Niro disguised as an Uzbek homeopath? Some people apparently believed that after misreading a satirical article in a Pakistani newspaper.

Did you know the Denver International Airport sits above an underground city that is the headquarters of the New World Order, a shadowy group planning to take over the world? Loopy? Of course it is.

But how much more far-fetched are those theories than the assertion from QAnon adherents that a cabal of Satan-worshipping elites who run a child sex ring are trying to control American politics and media? That’s as nutty as they come. Yet these tenets are believed by as many as one in four Republicans, polls show.

Conspiracy theories often focus on news events. Over the years, people have believed the moon landing was faked, that alien visitations were hushed up and that Elvis Presley and Osama bin Laden were not actually dead — but Paul McCartney was.

Often, believers are unmoved by evidence that disproves their theories.

Part of the appeal of QAnon, I think, is that people find it fun. I’ve spent hours reading the posts of QAnon adherents, and for them, it’s like a video game or TV thriller. They’re suddenly characters and participants in a drama, part of a community heroically unraveling a mystery and saving the world. How they’ve so totally conflated fact with fiction I can’t explain.

One final point: Conspiracy theories should be debunked, unless of course they turn out to be true. It has happened.

Here’s my own experience. In 1997, as a Middle East correspondent, I got a tip that two Israeli Mossad agents traveling on fake Canadian passports had been captured trying to stab a poisoned needle into the ear of a Hamas leader on a street in Amman, Jordan. I merely laughed, because I heard such outlandish stories all the time, and they never checked out. I didn’t jump on a plane to Amman.

But it was absolutely true, and I missed what would’ve have been my biggest scoop ever.

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