How do people come up with conspiracy theories?
I was a former koolaid drinker, but I discovered a preexisting conspiracy theory (Oswald was a patsy) and drank it up. I never created my own, I just read about one that was already extremely popular.
But someone had to be the first person to suggest that Oswald didn’t act alone, or didn’t even shoot Kennedy, right? How does that happen?
I like to think I have a pretty good idea of why people begin to believe in conspiracy theories: the overall theory or elements of the theory confirm some of our preexisting beliefs, and we don’t ever both to investigate the theory.
With 17-year-old me, I was starting to get deeply suspicious of people in authority, as nobody in authority could ever present good explanations for why we should do things. I got more and more suspicious of all authority, starting to believe that rules were just there for the powerful to exploit.
And then I read The Plot that Killed Kennedy.
A Phone Call
I got a frantic phone call from a colleague a while ago, about a website we both manage.
He directed me to one of its web pages, which was using a web poll. The web poll had been on this page for years. He told me to vote in the poll. I did. I saw the results of the poll on our web page.
He clicked on a different button in the poll and it sent him to the poll maker website. (This happens when you use free internet polls; they embed a link in their code and steal some of your traffic.)
As far as I could make out, he seemed to be saying that a Google service we had signed up for was funneling traffic off our site for very little compensation. At least I think that’s what he was worried about.
The actual conversation was mostly the two of us talking in parallel lines, as he tried to get me to feel his sense of urgency about the perceived problem and I tried to explain to him that he was linking three unrelated things in his mind, and that they all had literally nothing to do with the others.
He was telling me that he thought something had happened, but nothing remotely like what he theorized had happened was happening or could be happening. This was because he had confused three things, misunderstood them in different ways, and used this misinformation to create an explanation of what he thought he was seeing.
The individual facts were misunderstood or misinterpreted and so the theory he came up with to explain what he thought he saw made literally no sense to me. It was just not anything that was happening or could likely happen.
I was almost shouting by the end of it, as I sometimes lose patience when people say things that make zero sense to me. I was trying to get him to understand that the three things he linked in his mind had nothing to do with each other, and I was doing a very bad job. Eventually he hung up.
And I felt bad for getting mad.
A week before the phone call, my colleague had sent me an email about a website tool he found. He thought it looked interesting and told me I should look into it. Let’s call it “Website Checker.”
My colleague does not have a good memory for things he doesn’t think are important. So it seems he sent this to me, told me to investigate it and promptly forgot about ever seeing Website Checker in the first place.
It took me a few days before I could sign up for Website Checker. Since the tool had been suggested by my colleague, I decided to send him an invite by email. That seemed like a reasonable thing to do.
I just assumed he got the email but I did wonder why he didn’t follow up immediately by phone, as he often does when he gets an email he doesn’t recognize the topic of.
20 minutes before the phone call I described above, Website Checker had emailed both of us a report. The email confusingly used a subject line that made it look like an email from a particular Google product, Search Console.
It just so happens that we’d been trying to get a different Google product, Ad Sense, operational on this website for months. Literally months. Google doesn’t provide telephone or email support for Ad Sense, except in special cases, so we’ve been sitting on our hands waiting for an approval or disapproval for 4 or 5 months.
My colleague and I are both dyslexic. But I have the mildest form of dyslexia, I mis-order letters maybe 5% of the time. My colleague has perhaps the worst dyslexia I’ve personally ever encountered, where it almost feels as if he moves whole syllables around rather than just letters. (It is a testament to his intelligence and hard work that he is able to succeed even though he has suffered from extreme dyslexia his whole life.)
Somehow, he saw this email from Website Checker, which misleadingly suggested it could be from Google’s Search Console, and decided it was from Google Ad Sense. I assume he saw “Search Console,” associated it with Google and his brain somehow filled in the rest.
He then opened up one of the web pages on the site we admin to look to confirm the existence of the Google product on our site. He found the web poll, which I set up years before, and mistook it for a very clever display ad. (It could easily be confused for an ad.) He clicked on the link in the web poll and it took him off the site. When he landed on the poll maker website, his dyslexia made him not understand what the site was for. All he knew was that it wasn’t our site.
That meant that, though we had not been approved for Ad Sense, Ad Sense was running ads on our website anyway, and stealing our traffic without paying us for the privilege. This is what I think he thought was happening.
When I tried to explain the Website Checker and Ad Sense the web poll were all completely unrelated to each other, he couldn’t understand it. They clearly were linked in his mind. And I was just saying “This has nothing to do with that,” which probably wasn’t very convincing to someone who believed they were intimately connected. (And once I raised my voice, presumably I became less convincing.)
But you can see why I got annoyed, right? What he was saying made no sense to me.
And you can see why he was frustrated with me. There was a big problem with the website and I not only refused to see it, I got mad at him for bringing it up in the first place.
What Does This Have To Do With Conspiracy Theory?
My colleague had essentially created his own mini conspiracy theory.
He did this with only a few errors: his poor memory plus his dyslexia plus his tendency to make snap judgments before all the information is in combined to give him what he thought was enough of a theory to give me a call to sound the alarm about Google stealing the site’s traffic.
- He forgot about asking me to sign up for something and that I had then signed him up for it.
- He decided that an email that might be from Google must be from Google without verifying it was from Google (by, you know, opening it, or clicking on the link inside).
- He decided that, if the email was from Google, it must be from Ad Sense since we had been waiting for approval from them for so long, even though
- The email was from Website Checker
- The email referenced Google Search Console, not Ad Sense
- The email from Ad Sense would have gone to my email address and not his, if Google even sent Ad Sense approval emails – and, to the best of my knowledge, they do not.
- When he did open the email, he saw data but didn’t look at the data to see what the data actually was. He decided that it was ad clicks or when it was just clicks on our webpage. And he never clicked on the links inside email.
- When he opened a webpage on our site he managed to pick one of the relatively few pages with a web pool on it. On that page, he saw something on the page he didn’t remember seeing in the past. It looked close enough like an ad to convince him it was an ad. He clicked on it. It took him to a site he’d never seen before.
And that was enough to create a theory. A theory that had no basis in reality because all the facts supporting the theory were not actually facts, but misinterpretations of facts.
Did I mention this colleague of mine believes a lot of conspiracy theories?
When I told him none of this made sense, he got mad because he could see it and couldn’t understand how I couldn’t see it.
It occurred to me, after this conversation, that perhaps this is how conspiracy theory genesis occurs:
- a series of facts are misunderstood because of missing or misleading information, or because of a lack of due diligence
- the facts are arranged in the mind
- the theory takes shape
- the person who came up with the theory convinces someone else of its validity.
The person knows something is wrong but can’t quite figure it out. The human brain is very good at organizing things into theories. The brain is also very good at assigning causation (blame) where none exists.
If the event, or series of events, is significantly disturbing, it’s likely the even easier to jump to conclusions. (I think of how quickly JFK conspiracy theories popped up.) But even if it’s just a minor disruption, the brain can easily confuse fact and fiction, and sequences of facts, to create an explanation that makes sense to the person who thought of it but to few other people.
I know this is the mundanest conspiracy theory you’ve ever heard of. Perhaps it doesn’t qualify as a conspiracy theory because only one person believed it, and perhaps for only a few days. But it felt like I was witnessing the genesis of a new conspiracy theory. And that if you changed the circumstances and changed one of the characters from a minor SEO company to, say, a government agency, we might have something some people on the internet would believe.