For Love of Conspiracy Theories

Jun 29 , 2019
By Tibebu Bekele

John F. Kennedy, the then president of the US, was assassinated on November 22, 1963. The how and why of it has sparked one of the most enduring conspiracy theories of all time. A 2013 poll found that 62pc of Americans believe there was a broader conspiracy than the official version. According to The Washington Post, conspiracy theorists have accused “42 groups, 82 assassins and 214 people by name, of being involved in the assassination.”

In 2017, President Trump released to the public 2,800 secret files regarding the assassination from the National Archives. Even after all that, and 56 years after the event, the conspiracy theory lives on.

Wikipedia has a page where it has listed what it termed ‘List of Notable Conspiracy Theories’. There are close to 60 of them! From Illuminati to vaccines to flat earth, humans love conspiracy theories, and no amount of research or logic will persuade them once they have made up their mind.

This human propensity for conspiracy theories is so prevalent and so intense that it has spawned its own field of research as a social and psychological phenomenon. Yes. You read that right. Social scientists are dedicating their career to study just that.

Two such scientists, Prooijen and Douglas, published a paper “Belief in Conspiracy Theories: Basic principles of an emerging research domain” in which they summarised the findings of this emerging domain of research.

According to their findings, conspiracy theories are universal. They transcend times, cultures and social settings. They are also consequential. There is a real impact on the health, relationships and safety of people.

Negative emotions, not rational deliberations, cause belief in conspiracy theories; therefore, they are emotional affairs. They are also social phenomena. They reflect the fundamental structures of intergroup conflict.

Closer to home, following the killings of five high-ranking officials last week, it is open season for the conspiracy theorists of Ethiopia. Speculation that defies all logic and has no basis in reality is peddled about by people that should know better.

That is what got me curious about human being’s love of conspiracy theories. Sometimes, the straightforward, reality-based explanation may be too dull for some people. They like to create a more exciting world of their own making. And if you don’t step into their spacecraft and fly along for the ride, you are in trouble. God forbid you ask questions or point out contradictions in their theories.

That may be a light matter under normal circumstances. But in times of trouble like last week, a little more sober reflection is called for. Because, as the research findings concluded above, conspiracy theories are consequential. They impact the lives of people. We should think twice before we spread unfounded rumours about people.

Even more importantly, we should make sure that the social and political groups we belong to do not spread unfounded conspiracies that may instigate inter-communal conflict. In such a time as this, it does not take much to kindle a fire that will be so hard to stop.

The most potent antidote to conspiracy theories is the truth. Telling the truth quickly, clearly and repeatedly is the proven treatment. The government should be commended for communicating about what was going on very quickly and calmly. There is room for improvement when it comes to clarity. Since the information given out was neither clear nor complete, it gave a lot of room for speculation and guesswork.

Prooijen and Douglas’s findings suggest that initiatives by policymakers trying to curb conspiracy theories by refuting implausible conspiracy theories, and informing the public what actual experts and witnesses have to say does make a difference. The other recommendation “is to instil feelings of security among the public, and provide them with a sense of hope and empowerment.”

Such interventions will undoubtedly help a large number of the population. Others may simply say something like “I have made up my mind. Don’t confuse me with the facts.” I guess their love affair with conspiracy is beyond reason.

PUBLISHED ON Jun 29,2019 [ VOL 20 , NO 1000]

Tibebu Bekele (, who is interested in constructive dialogue and civil engagement.

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