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Conspiracy theories and the culture of ignorance

(911conspiracy/ Flickr)

We all want to feel special, even if we’re not. On some level, most people would like to be able to say that they’ve figured out something that nobody else has. At the very least, that’s the emotional drive behind conspiracy theorist. Conspiracy theories exploit the fact that humans generally enjoy feeling like they’ve ‘figured it out,’ and in this current climate, we’re beginning to see the resurgence of quite a few of them.

In the era of ‘fake news,’ misinformation can spread pretty quickly. It helps when some of the people involved in spreading misinformation are at the highest levels of government and public attention. However, with regard to conspiracy theories, Donald Trump is quite unprecedented in his role as president. With the new John F. Kennedy assassination files coming out soon, Trump likely knows that this can provide a convenient distraction from whatever other national emergencies are going on. This isn’t an accident; if we’ve learned anything from the election, it’s that Trump is a master at publicizing wild conspiracy theories, then letting those outlandish claims dominate the news cycle while he flies under the radar with his actual agenda.

That’s why, when the JFK files are released, we shouldn’t be surprised if Trump attempts to push forward an otherwise controversial law. It’s happened in the past, and the Trump team is no stranger to generating strategic controversies. The Trump-NFL controversy, which I wrote about previously, can be seen as an intentional distraction from the scandal involving Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump’s emails. Nobody seems to know whether these are carefully planned, or whether Trump naturally has a flair for generating controversial statements without premeditation. But make no mistake, consciously or not, Trump is a master at the art of the distraction, and it wouldn’t be a shock for him to use the JFK files as a cover for something else.

This isn’t new. During the Republican primary, Trump peddled tabloid conspiracies linking his rival, Ted Cruz’s father to Lee Harvey Oswald. And while conventional wisdom told us that spreading such blatant falsehoods would sink a normal candidate, Trump was able to leverage the manufactured controversy to gain more media coverage, much to his benefit. On a more systematic level, the Trump administration has an uncomfortable level of coziness with Alex Jones’ Infowars, a media site that peddles conspiracy theories about 9/11, vaccines and ‘chemtrails,’ and which has lately become a large alt-right platform. In other words, we’re living in a golden era for conspiracy theories.

Why are conspiracy theories so popular? I’d hazard a guess that it’s because they make people feel special. With an ‘us versus them’ mentality, someone who believes they’ve found evidence of a conspiracy may consider themselves part of a special group of informed people, in contrast to the ‘ordinary’ masses. This in-group mentality lets people feel like part of an elite privy to information hidden from the rest of the world. I imagine it’s the same sort of appeal that draws people toward academia, only with less rigorous standards for research.

To be clear, this isn’t to say that there are no true conspiracies in the world. The Tuskegee syphilis experiments, the NSA’s PRISM surveillance program and even the emerging cases of rampant sexual abuse within Hollywood all point to the fact that the real world does contain criminal conspiracies. To these, it’s important that the public finds out about them as soon as possible, so that some form of action can be taken. However, the people who focus on these are markedly different from those who believe that the earth is flat, or that the moon landing was staged.

We must still remain vigilant for actual cases of illegal or criminal behavior. However, in keeping with the times, it seems that there is also a fair amount of untrue, unsubstantiated information floating around. Conspiracy theories are abundant, but it seems that the best way to counter it is with empathy. With a better understanding of what draws people toward conspiracy theories, we might be able to better understand how to combat them.

Edridge D’Souza is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at edsouza@umass.edu.

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