Conspiracy theorist displaying JFK sign on Denver street corner © Alamy

What makes a conspiracy theory?

Despite their diversity, there are certain ingredients that many conspiracy theories share.

Suspicion

Often there’s an official story, and conspiracy theories explicitly push back against it, such as with 9/11. The official story is that this was a terrorist attack, but the conspiracy theory is that it was the government, or someone else. However, conspiracy theories can also emerge as an event unfolds, before the official story becomes clear, in the guise of “there is more to this than we are being told”.

Advertisement

Deception

Conspiracy theorists tend to believe that everyone else is being deceived, apart from themselves. The methods of deception, they believe, are elaborate, complex, ongoing and executed almost perfectly – pulling the wool over the eyes of those who haven’t yet ‘seen the light’.

C4FTEY 9-11 was an inside job conspiracy theory on T-shirt, London, UK © Alamy

Wickedness

When real-life scandals are uncovered, we usually find petty self-interest is at the root of it. But in many conspiracy theories, the motivation is apocalyptic and wicked – such as in the case of the ‘Pizzagate’ conspiracy theory that went viral during the 2016 US presidential election campaign, in which Democrats were accused of running a paedophile ring through pizza restaurants.

Selective proof

According to some experts, a key characteristic of conspiracy theories is that they have not yet been shown conclusively to be true, but are simultaneously impossible to disprove, as any contradicting evidence is discounted. Take the Flat Earth theory: adherents are still seeking evidence to prove they are right, but no amount of proof showing that we live on a globe can convince them that they are wrong.

Anomaly hunting

Conspiracy theories are often based not on hard evidence, but on picking holes in the mainstream narrative, pointing out what does not fit or does not seem to have an explanation, and using this as evidence that the conspiracy theory must be true.

This is an extract from issue 326 of BBC Focus magazine.

Subscribe and get the full article delivered to your door, or download the BBC Focus app to read it on your smartphone or tablet. Find out more

326-cover square2

Advertisement

Follow Science Focus on TwitterFacebook, Instagram and Flipboard