How to spot a conspiracy theory

Seven things all conspiracy theories have in common

“Last year a woman from NSW told me that her church had split when some elders in the church had come to believe that NASA, cosmologists, governments of all kinds around the world were lying to us, and the earth was, in fact, flat,” said writer and broadcaster Sheridan Voysey, at the recent Christian Media and Arts Australia (CMAA) Connect conference.

“A few weeks ago,” Voysey continued, “a friend told me that their relationship with their parents had broken down because the parents had started to believe that a global elite was secretly running the world and it was trying to bring in a global totalitarian regime through the COVID pandemic.”

Voysey – author of several books including Resurrection YearThe Making of Us and Reflect with Sheridan – has spent the last few months “battling conspiracy theorists on Facebook”. He is now making it his mission to inform people about common conspiracy theories in order to prevent them from falling prey to their lies. And, at last week’s online Connect conference, he urged the Christian media to do the same.

“Conspiracy theories thrive in times of crisis and uncertainty.” – Sheridan Voysey

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Voysey noted the prevalence of conspiracy theories now more than ever, as people – feeling scared and vulnerable during the pandemic – latch on to these ideas in an attempt to explain current events.

“[Conspiracy theories] thrive in times of crisis and uncertainty, are adopted by people who feel disempowered and under threat, and offer a false sense of control by giving simple explanations to confusing events,” Voysey explained.

“Like you, most days I get viral videos sent to me on Messenger and WhatsApp and everywhere else telling me all sorts of crazy things about the COVID vaccines, about how they are ultimately a plot by Bill Gates to populate the world. Or that secret cures for [the disease] already exist but they’re being suppressed by the World Health Organisation and the global media,” said Voysey.

“… Right now, there is some really misfired meaning-making going on, with people joining dots that were never meant to be joined. And the result is churches splitting, families splitting apart, and people being left vulnerable to what is a deadly virus all through conspiracy theories.”

So what is a conspiracy theory? In giving a definition, Voysey turned to The Conspiracy Theory Handbook by Stephan Lewandowsky and John Cook, which describes a conspiracy theory as: “an attempt to explain events as the secretive plots of powerful people.”

Unlike real conspiracies or simple misinformation, Voysey noted that conspiracy theories deliberately mislead their audience.

“The problem with a conspiracy theory is that it turns the theory into fact before it’s been proven before there’s any evidence,” said Voysey.

These theories – like QAnon – have “found quite a bit of fertile ground in Australia”, according to Voysey. The narrative of “enlightenment” – about Covid-19 being a government plot for control – has surfaced on placards at recent freedom rallies around our country, he noted, including in Perth, Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.

In order to prevent the further spread of conspiracy theories, Voysey said it is crucial for people to be able to recognise them. He identified seven traits that are common to all conspiracy theories, based on research by Lewandowsky and Cook. (Helpfully, the first letters of each of the following identifiers form the acrostic ‘conspir’).

Seven traits of a conspiracy theory

1. Contradictory beliefs

“The person who holds to a conspiracy theory is so committed to disbelieving the official narrative – what they’re hearing through the ‘mainstream media’ and all of the rest – that they will willingly hold beliefs that are in contradiction to each other,” Voysey explained.

“There are lots of examples,” he continued. “Last year, a video spread quite virulently through a number of communities called ‘Plandemic’. It had a well-known anti-vax proponent who said two things in relation to this conversation.

“One was that COVID-19, she believed, originated from a Wuhan lab. The other [theory] was that COVID-19 was something that all of us had naturally, but it was triggered by wearing a mask, of which there is no scientific evidence …Which one is it? Those things can’t be both true.”

2. Overriding suspicion of the official account

Conspiracy theorists reject any information that contradicts the theory they hold to, Voysey noted.

“There is an extreme suspicion preventing them from believing in anything that doesn’t fit with the conspiracy theory,”  he said.

“So I was talking to somebody on Facebook who told me that the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) proved that there were hundreds of deaths from the vaccines. When I went to the TGA website, I found that was exactly the opposite, that she was misreading the numbers.

“I went back to her and she said, ‘Oh, well, they’re obviously covering it up.'”

3. Nefarious intent

“No conspiracy theory ever postulates that the conspirators are out to do as good. They are always out to do us harm. And this is a key trait of all conspiracy theories,” Voysey explained.

He gives an example of such theories: “Lockdowns aren’t about reducing the spread of COVID; they are about government control. Vaccines aren’t about protecting us from a deadly virus; they’re about controlling us through chips that are kind of connected to the 5G [network] or something like that.”

4. Something must be wrong

“Hard-line conspiracy theory believers almost never change their mind,” said Voysey. “I don’t want to get too spiritual about it, but it’s almost like there is a stronghold that starts to take effect.”

He continued: “When a belief sometimes is let go of, because in the end, it just really is untenable, what Lewandowsky and Cook found was that even when they do let go of one little belief related to the big conspiracy, they still believe that something is wrong. And therefore, they still won’t believe the official account of things coming through from the government or the official channels.

“This … makes it very difficult for people to move on.”

5. Persecuted victims

“[People] who believe these conspiracy theories, and particularly the people who propagate them, believe that they are persecuted. They believe that Facebook, Twitter, big tech are out to censor them. They believe that they’re about to lose their jobs, all of those kinds of things,” Voysey explained.

6. Immune to evidence

“People become immune to evidence,” Voysey lamented about those who believe in conspiracy theories. “In the end, truth and facts are not the prime drivers of communication, politics and ideology are.”

He gave the example of theories circulating around two drugs promoted as COVID-19 treatments: hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin.

“Oxford University did an independent study into hydroxychloroquine and found that it really did not have very much effect as a treatment for COVID-19. [Regarding] Ivermectin, recently a key study related to it – that was a foundational stage to a whole bunch of other papers written on it – was found to not just be inaccurate, but actually fraudulent …

“The problem is the people that keep on saying that this is an alternative to a vaccine, and no credible medical authorities would say that.”

7. Reinterpreting randomness

“For the conspiracy theorist, nothing happens by chance,” explained Voysey. “Everything has a clear cause and effect, there’s somebody behind something.

He gives an example: “Why didn’t all the windows of the Pentagon smash if a plane really did crash into it on September 11? Why didn’t they all smash? Only a few of them cracked.”

In addressing such reinterpretations of random events by conspiracy theorists, Voysey concluded: “Well actually, sometimes things do happen by chance … pure, random, beautiful chance.”