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Belief in conspiracy theories is far more common than you think

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Until March 15, New Zealand was not a hotbed of conspiracy theorists. Sure, the All Blacks were poisoned before the 1995 Rugby World Cup final, the real Tiriti o Waitangi is kept hidden in the Beehive basement and the Rainbow Warrior was bombed by agents of a foreign power*. The March 15 atrocity has kicked things up a notch.

The days following saw claims including that the whole thing was staged and that grieving whānau were, in fact, “crisis actors” – an imported American phrase that originated shortly after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. Incidentally, repeating this particular claim has recently resulted in litigation for US conspiracy demagogue Alex Jones.

Or what about the one that Christchurch’s Al Noor and Linwood mosques hid a stockpile of guns? Or that the attacker fled because of the heroic actions of an armed bystander? Or that it was real, but orchestrated to make gun owners, or Israel, or white supremacists, or Australians look bad? Um, no.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

Why do we (in the broad sense) believe in conspiracies?

For a start, let’s remember that one reason is that some conspiracies are real. Worried that Big Business is out to inflate prices and sell you things you don’t need? You don’t have to look far to find examples that live up to this. The US did have foreknowledge of the attack on Pearl Harbour, although it might just have been incompetence that meant it wasn’t acted on. African-American men were experimented on without their knowledge for 40 years in Tuskegee, Alabama.

For that reason, it’s not a big jump to wonder if powerful chief executives gather regularly to rub their hands together in evil glee and swim in their money vaults. It doesn’t seem too outlandish to speculate that President George W Bush’s administration had an inkling of 9/11. And it doesn’t seem too silly any more when African Americans worry that the HIV drugs they’re being given are, in fact, part of organised genocide.

Because I am a nosy parker, I’ve been interested in understanding conspiracy theories for a decade – long before it became academically trendy. When I started looking at this, there were a handful of similar research projects. Among other things, they show that we have a preference for grand explanations for particularly large and tragic acts. March 15 was certainly that.

Alex Jones: feeling the heat. Photo/Getty Images

They suggest that status and power minorities are more likely to endorse conspiracies. New Zealand First voters, for example, were the most conspiratorial in the 2008 general election. And conspiracy belief is more common among people who are less trusting and experience more anomie – they worry that the world is losing it, and that we shouldn’t look to society for moral guidance.

These two have in common that people who are the most socially and economically precarious are more likely to endorse conspiracies. It’s been suggested that this serves a palliative function: some people feel better about having a crappy life if they think there’s a reason for it other than just dumb luck.

This makes sense, but it also explains a finger-full of the variation in people’s conspiracy belief – belief in conspiracies is not as uncommon as people may think, depending on what you think constitutes a conspiracy.

Forty per cent of us agree that “despite what the authorities say, large businesses and/or the government routinely engage in sinister, secret activities in the name of profit”. A quarter agree that “one needs to be on guard for the various groups secretly aiming to achieve their dark goals”. And 10% agree that “people who say conspiracies don’t happen are probably part of the conspiracy”.

So, conspiracies sometimes happen, believing in them can serve a purpose, but the Christchurch mosque killings are a false flag.

*The Rainbow Warrior was bombed by agents of a foreign power – the French. They owned up to it, eventually.

This article was first published in the May 4, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.