2019 is an election year in South Africa so along with the usual political hot-air we can expect a flood of fake news supported by some wild conspiracy theories.  Science journalist, Rob Brotherton says in his book Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories that the threat of a New World Order (NWO) – so characteristic of conspiracy theories – isn’t new at all but such fables sometimes seem plausible because they tap into quirks in our human brain that help us navigate the world.

Facts First

The so-called NWO is, in fact, a quarter of a millennium old.  It was dreamt up in 1776 by Andrew Weishaupt – a Bavarian philosopher with a taste for intrigue – who tried to clone the Masonic Movement.  He called his cabal … (wait for it) … ‘The Illuminati’.  It was a fleeting failure.  Decades later, The Illuminati was revived in name only to explain the French Revolution as part of a sinister plot to create global anarchy, the fashionable fear of the time.

Then in 1903 a ‘confession’ emerged – supposedly authored by the Elders of Zion – outlining a conspiracy of apocalyptic scale dating back aeons but coming close to fruition … any day now.  (Sound familiar?)

Called The Protocols, it turned fear of the many into fear of the few as the once agnostic Illuminati morphed into a myth about a small, powerful Jewish cabal.  This reflected disturbing antisemitic views of the time. The Protocols plan for world domination included controlling the media to foster antagonism among races, classes and nations and undermine religion by replacing it with materialism.  (Any of this sound familiar too?)

Almost 150 years after Weishaupt resigned himself to the failure of his mock-Masons, the imaginary Illuminati was riding a wave of notoriety when the Russian Revolution and World War I were credited to the ‘evil’ workings of this clandestine cabal.

There was just one problem; The Protocols was an elaborate hoax – one with menacing consequences. Adolph Hitler drew heavily on this fabricated text when he penned Mein Kampf; the blueprint for the Holocaust.

Even though The Protocols is a proven fake, its sentiments persist; tin-foil hats believe Barack Obama was created by The Illuminati and consider enfant terrible, Donald Trump, to be their political saviour.  These notions are the tip of a conspiracy iceberg littered with elaborate assassination plots (JFK, Princess Diana), wild explanations for extremist activities (9/11) and mass shootings (Sandy Hooks) all of which are organised by shape-shifting reptilians (Queen Liz included).  But curiously, it is not only kooks who believe them.

Brain stuff

The defining feature of a conspiracy theory is that one gigantic orchestrated plot exists as a motive to explain events but, this is not just about keeping us in the dark, it is there to actively fool us.  Why do many people fall for them?  Our brains are predisposed to recognise patterns and these fake plots are seductive because they tap the brain’s inclination for mental shortcuts and resonate with our assumptions and fears.

Plausible:  Inequalities exist and some powerful people do conspire to protect their privilege.  Jim Crow laws and Apartheid structures were horribly cruel conspiracies and lobby groups like the National Rifle Association (NRA) in the US are evidence of conspiracy too.  As Brotherton says “sometimes it’s prudent to be paranoid”.

Openness:  It is not only the ignorant who are convinced by fake news and conspiracies, surprisingly it is often those who have a more open mind.  Such people entertain a melange of beliefs in quirky mysterious forces and conspiracy theories fit quite snugly.

Control:  Realising the world is chaotic can be unnerving so keeping eyes wide open to thwart a known ‘enemy’ can provide a reassuring illusion of control.

Trust:  All of us are prone to a degree of paranoia in some areas but those who grapple with trust gain comfort from plots and schemes that confirm inbuilt biases.

Dot connecting: Fabricated conspiracies can explain things that investigations often can’t.  Curious anomalies can be imbued with such profound significance that they cast doubt on any official explanation.  So our inbuilt biases can turn evidence against conspiracy into evidence of conspiracy.

Intellectual Blind spots:  We all have blind-spots and to compensate for a lack of knowledge our mind simply fills in the blanks.   We don’t know our brain is doing this so it is our blind-spot about our blind-spots that makes critical evaluation less likely.

Imagination: Stories bypass our critical faculties and fake news tells a far better story than real life so it can easily lure us in.

As Brotherton concludes, conspiracy theories may ask some good questions but they don’t provide good answers. And to this I would add, especially if that answer is Donald Trump.