The Truth is Out There: The Dangerous World of Conspiracy Theories
The Truth is Out There: The Dangerous World of Conspiracy Theories
With fake news spreading as fast as memes and post-truth being chosen by the Oxford Dictionaries as 2016’s Word of the Year, conspiracy theories have never been more likely to influence the mainstream. Once the preserve of paranoid theorists invested in exposing the “truth” behind 9/11 and the moon landings, we now see far fetched claims going viral on Twitter and playing a central role in global politics. Believing politicians to be entirely trustworthy is ill-advised, but if we dismiss everything that is reported in the media, ‘we leave ourselves vulnerable to manipulation, misinformation, and rumour.’ It’s one thing to question bodies of authority in times of distress, but it’s quite another to turn speculation into beliefs. So much so that they evidently affect who people vote for and why, if at all.
In the aftermath of last week’s attack in Manchester, the comedian Rufus Hound retweeted a post suggesting that it was ‘fortunate timing’ for Theresa May since “Labour are making progress”. Unsurprisingly, the claims sparked public outrage and Hound quickly deleted it before apologising and attempting to explain his reasons for posting it in the first place: “I struggle believing our establishment is incapable of great evil.” He may very well be struggling, but certainly not as much as the families and friends of those affected. Aside from his comments being insensitive and misplaced, they have highlighted the dangers of spreading conspiracy theories on social media and the lack of evidence to support such claims. Guardian journalist Gaby Hinsliff wrote about these dangers with particular reference to Hound’s tweets. Hinsliff draws attention to Hound’s 1.2 million followers and how irresponsible it is to publicise these kinds of theories; ‘if you’re thinking that it doesn’t matter much because nobody believes this nonsense, don’t bank on it.’ Indeed, there are plenty who do believe these stories shared across social media and the depths of the internet.
Pop stars like Avril Lavigne have also fallen prey to it. The singer was recently at the centre of a rediscovered conspiracy theory suggesting she had died in 2003 and been replaced by a lookalike ever since. The premise of this theory can be found on a Brazilian blog created in 2011, which argues that Lavigne committed suicide in 2003, following the death of her grandfather. Instead of addressing her death, Lavigne’s record company hired Melissa Vandella – Lavigne’s double – to step in. As ridiculous as it all sounds (something you find yourself repeatedly thinking when looking into such conspiracy theories), the initial tweet which revived these claims garnered over 120,000 retweets and 200,000 likes. Despite the Twitter user @givenchyass tweeting, ‘I’m not sitting here being like “this is 100% facts” it’s literally just a theory so calm down and miss me w that headass shit :)’, the irony of the theory and its notoriety in South America is that it had already begun as a self-aware hoax. The opening line of the original blog post translates to: “This blog was created to show how conspiracy theories can look true.” The fact that it recently captured enough attention for people to re-examine Avril Lavigne’s career as well as the absurdity of viral content is certainly a sign of the times. Perhaps this wasn’t quite what Harry Styles meant in his debut solo single, but it’s only a matter of time before a theory emerges suggesting he too has been replaced by an imposter.
Streaming services such as YouTube, Netflix and Amazon Prime are also serving as a gateway to those who may have otherwise snubbed conspiracy theories. From Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret to Loose Change 9/11: An American Coup, there are documentaries investigating conspiracy theories of all types. Some seem to sympathise with the theorists and elucidate their beliefs, whereas others focus less on the theories themselves and instead follow the cults which form around these ideas. In a whole league of his own, Adam Curtis has been creating documentary work since the late 1980s. While I’m hesitant to associate his work with documentaries that look explicitly at conspiracy theories, his style is distinguished for its analysis of the ideologies that have evolved to shape current affairs. In a Guardian article about Adam Curtis’s most recent documentary HyperNormalisation, the journalist Tim Adams writes that:
You could argue that all historians and journalists are conspiracy theorists of one sort or another, collecting their collages of facts and imposing some narrative sense on them. Curtis’s style makes this process abundantly clear – but he still invites you to be seduced by the brilliant visual craft of his argument.
Curtis’s work is often long, disorientating and verging on the bizarre. Bitter Lake, also available on BBC iPlayer, most recently invited viewers into Curtis’s idiosyncratic use of archive footage, hypnotic ambient soundtrack and droll voiceover.
Despite their length, they are purposefully created in a way that mirrors our own curiosities and willingness to jump from one piece of information to the next without questioning their legitimacy. Unlike other documentaries that examine figures of authority and create narratives around actions that have previously gone unquestioned, he is very clear that he is telling a story. Curtis juxtaposes popular culture with footage of warfare in a manner that we are used to from scrolling through news feeds, yet he dramatises it in a way that seeks to expose the forces that remain concealed.
It’s important to remain sceptical, but also sensible, particularly at a time when Donald Trump is POTUS and Brexit threatens to irreparably change the course of European relations. These theories have the potential to be very dangerous when lives are at risk and the future of the planet is ignored. They may appear reassuring and provide answers to some, but they can also persuade people to act recklessly and harm countless others. Parents of infants who died in the Sandy Hook school shooting are repeatedly harassed by those who believe it to have been faked, the attorney for one of the San Bernardino gunmen cited hoax theories and the death of MP Jo Cox was carried out by a neo-Nazi who shouted “Britain first.” I understand that fear drives people to believe in conspiracy theories, but the cult-like organisation of “truthers” who congregate around alternative facts and act upon them is worrying. Especially how easily this delusional behaviour is shared and blindly accepted across social media. Conspiracy theorists and their beliefs aren’t going to dissipate any time soon, so perhaps we should take a leaf out of Adam Curtis’s book and question the myth-making within politics alongside the ones we make for ourselves.
Written by Victoria Rodrigues
Visuals not owned by XXY Magazine