The thing about conspiracy theories is that so many of them are plausible, or begin so. The anti-Vaxx movement, for example, began with the revelation that some vaccines contained thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative. Since signs of mercury-poisoning can resemble the behavior issues parents were seeing in their children who had been diagnosed with autism, worried parents concluded that the thimerosal may have been involved with their children’s autism.
And parents had very real reasons to be worried: pharmaceutical companies have not exactly comported themselves well over the past few decades: from ghost-writing research papers to create an evidence base for their products to misleading direct-to-consumer marketing practices to their role in the opiate-epidemic, which was emerging at the time. Then there is the case of Risperdal, a so-called “atypical antipsychotic,” which was being prescribed to young boys, causing them to grow breasts. Had Johnson & Johnson admitted to the problem to begin with, confidence may have been restored, but their decision to deny was just one of many confidence-sapping actions Big Pharma has taken over recent years. Add in the denial that Paxil can cause suicidal behavior in children in Study 329, and it’s no surprise parents would not believe the pharmaceutical companies’ denials that vaccines cause autism.
Quickly, fueled by social media, the concern turned into panic, which turned into a movement, which turned against vaccines on the whole, somehow forgetting the original, narrow, and understandable, if inaccurate, worry.
There was no clear link between thimerosal and autism, and, in order to address the concern, pharmaceutical companies stopped using it or reduced its use. But the anti-Vaxx movement has other problems: vaccines have been around for centuries, and there has not been a proportionate uptick in autism diagnoses until fairly recently. The way vaccines work is now well understood, consistent, and widely, if not universally, replicable for a host of viruses. Further, drug companies tend not to make much on vaccines: the process of developing them and manufacturing them is time consuming, complex, and costly. This isn’t an example, then, of following the money since there is precious little of it to follow, in this case.
And then there’s the far more likely reason autism seems to be on the rise: it is more likely to be diagnosed. Doctors, parents, and school psychologists have become more attuned to autism as a diagnosis as activist groups such as Autism Speaks have sought publicity for their cause. The IDEA act and the Olmstead case have increased focus on special education programs in schools. And the DSM-5, psychiatry’s “bible,’ has steadily broadened the autism diagnosis into a “spectrum.” Briefly, there are many more ways to be autistic now than there were in the past, and there is more awareness that you might be.
The ability of anti-Vaxxers to organize and internally radicalize, though, the way it morphed from a somewhat plausible theory into a movement, has made it all but impossible to debunk.
Understanding conspiracy theories becomes even more complicated when we take into account conspiracies that seem entirely implausible but that turn out to have been true. A prime example is a secret US government program that became known as MK-Ultra. It is, on the surface, almost impossible to believe that the federal government could secretly fund a program involving LSD, sensory deprivation, and electroshock in order to attempt to create mind-control techniques. Still crazier is the idea that the money behind it would be funneled to well-regarded universities and psychiatrists, that those subject to it would leak LSD out, helping to form and flavor an entire counterculture.
Yet this is actually what happened. Less surprising, perhaps, is that the techniques developed in ML-Ultra went on to become “enhanced interrogation” in the War on Terror and as torture techniques in CIA-trained militaries the world over, as Naomi Klein recounts in her groundbreaking book The Shock Doctrine.
But what distinguished MK-Ultra as different is that the truth, when it came out, helped defuse the conspiracy’s mystique: we may not have wanted to believe it, but the same government that held it secret was now admitting to it. It may also be that MK-Ultra just seems so weird that it could only be believed or disbelieved, and when it was revealed, we had no option but to believe it. At any rate, it was revealed before the Web allowed communities devoted to it to develop. Additionally, as a society, we did something different with what it wrought: we created a counterculture, the vestiges of which are still with us, often aligned with the forces of progressive and positive change.
This brings us to conspiracy theories that are entirely implausible but that are self-perpetuating. The QAnon theory (or set of theories—it continues to morph and develop), which contends that there is a vast, international, left-wing network or child pornography, child-murder, and child blood-harvest (!). Those implicated run the gamut from Tom Hanks to Hillary Clinton to George Soros, but those engaged with the theory will throw in anyone they deem not sufficiently devoted to the cause, including Mike Pence. Even more astonishing, they posit that Donald Trump’s mission as president was to rid the US of these pedophiles, who are, conveniently, part of a so-called “deep state” shadow government that really controls the levers of power.
Unlike the anti-Vaxx conspiracy theory, there is no indication that QAnon arises from even a kernel of truth, unless we include Jeffery Epstein, who, it should be noted, buddied up to monied elites across the political spectrum, including one Donald J. Trump.
Even weirder is that it’s unclear what the conspirators QAnon accuses would have to gain: even if it’s not the case with vaccines, pharmaceutical companies do have a profit motive overall, and the US had a Cold War it aimed to win using psy-ops, among other means. What would Hillary Clinton or George Soros possibly have to gain from pedophilia and child trafficking? They are already financially successful, secure, and well-connected. To engage in such risky behavior they would have to be pathological, evil, insane.
And that is, perhaps, exactly why this conspiracy theory has proliferated: these figures are widely reviled by the radical right; therefore there is a population primed to believe anything negative about prominent liberals. Even more compelling for those who believe it, QAnon is fueled by a mysterious person (or people) who goes by the handle “Q” and who posts on anonymized internet chat platforms. This keeps the mystique of the conspiracy going, with adherents eagerly awaiting the next “Q-drop,” and then feverishly working to decipher its meaning. For those who like a good mystery, it would be possible to be a Q fan without actually buying the conspiracy itself, but even one’s status as “Q-adjacent” would help expand the conspiracy’s popularity.
That many do believe it indicates that conspiracy theories meet some need: that people who believe them need to belong or are desperate to have their worldview validated. Conspiracy theories that, like QAnon and anti-Vaxx, form into distinct social movements and self-reinforcing communities, perpetuate themselves and end up doing real damage, as the resurgence of measles and the events of January 6th, 2021 demonstrate.
The Web, while it has enabled and expanded these communities, is not the whole reason for their existence: the “blood libel” conspiracy theory, that all Jews are implicated in the murder of Jesus, has existed for millennia, and helped touch off pogroms and eventually the Holocaust.
We may not be able to prevent conspiracy theories, and they may always be with us in one form or another, but we would do well to listen to why they develop so that we can create societies less prone to believe them.