Different levels of conspiracy thinking and how to tackle them

Conspiracy theories have been getting more common due to the Internet, as anyone can see. If you thought that president Reagan was a lizard in disguise, you had to find like-minded people and spread your pamphlets to them or rely on minor radio stations or “ads” in the form of notes pasted to bus stations and lampposts. Today, if you are equally convinced that President Obama is plotting for a Chinese/Masonic/Reptilian takeover of the Republic, you are one google search away from people who are more than willing to confirm your beliefs and act as your personal megaphone.

But let’s play Devil’s Advocate for a minute. Is there a silver lining to the spread of conspiracy theories? While negative consequences such as reduced trust in society at large, covert agendas pushed through deception and the psychological impact believing that the world is ruled through malice and deceit brings surely outweigh any positive consequences of conspiracy narratives, there might be some positive effects as well.

After all, the opposite of conspiracy thinking, the belief that nothing is ever the result of conspiracy, is perhaps worse. If good people would have listened to Hitler’s rantings about Jews more closely, perhaps the worst conspiracy of all times, that of the Nazis against the Jews, might have been averted. A healthy distrust in authority is a good thing but an unhealthy distrust in authority at least provides us with a last line of defense, should all other societal checks and balances fail.

For this hypothetical system of “wisdom through ignorance” to work, those of us who disbelieve most if not all conspiracy narratives and who reject the notion that world affairs are always staged by nefarious forces need to pick our battles. There are clear cases where we had better refrain from feeding the trolls and then there are cases where adequate debunking is needed.

While is may be hard to get when to engage conspiracy theorists and when not to might be difficult to have down to a science, I think we could try to classify conspiracy theories, broadly into four different categories

TINFOIL 0 – conspiracy parodies
While we need to keep Poe’s Law in mind, there are lots of good parody conspiracies out there. Examples include the Taxil hoax and the Landover Baptist Church. These are simply to be enjoyed and spread. While ridicule is not a very strong communicative tool when it comes to converting conspiracy thinkers, many of these parodies can provide an insight into how flawed conspiracy narratives are.

TINFOIL 1 – Benign conspiracies
In this category we encounter actual conspiracy thinking. What I mean by benign conspiracies is that they exist solely for their own purpose, without either a hidden agenda or malicious intent towards others (though of course many believers in more serious conspiracies believe in these conspiracies as well). Examples include the belief that Elvis is still alive or that the moon landing was a hoax. These are good for straight up debunking, as their proponents aren’t very likely to assume that you’re one of THEM and might listen to reason.

TINFOIL 2 – Inflammatory conspiracies
These are the meat and potatoes of the conspiracy community. The assumption here is that TPTB are manipulating things behind the scenes and that most if not all that happens, happens for a reason, most often a very dark and secret one at that. Examples of such conspiracies are belief in the NWO and/or the Illuminati, 9/11 “truth” and chemtrails. Most “upcoming false flag attacks” fall in this category. In order to tackle these ideas, simple debunking is not enough, since you will be assumed to be either a sheeple, too blind to see the obvious truth or a shill or sympathizer. The important thing to keep in mind here is that you are not directly trying to convince the conspiracy thinker but rather to keep the memes behind the theory from spreading.

TINFOIL 3 – Toxic conspiracies
Finally there are conspiracies that are both thoroughly debunked, not very wide spread and at that often highly offensive. The obvious example is Holocaust denial, but conspiracy narratives concerning the shootings of Sandy Hook, where some people claim that the victims were either imaginative or paid actors. These ideas are not very likely to spread to people who are not already very heavily invested in conspiracy thinking. It is also quite impossible to convince believers that they are fake and due to their offensive nature, are likely to cause much more harm than good if you pay attention to them.