Conspiracy theories: craving imaginative stories in a perplexing world

By Joe Manock

The Truman Show’s promotional tagline, “How’s it going to end?”, plays on the looming possibility of Truman realising his life is false. Seahaven, the idyllic island Truman inhabits, is not an island, but an illusory dome-like studio. 

Truman’s entire life is captured by five thousand concealed cameras and continually broadcasted to a global audience of two billion people. The premise of the show is simple, that Truman is oblivious to the fact he was ‘legally adopted by a corporation’ to become the subject of a bizarre real-life soap opera. 

The film is a gradual unravelling of realisation, kicked into motion when a studio spotlight plummets to earth and shatters before Truman. From this moment, Truman’s suspicion grows, and he is dragged out of his slumber of naivety. Slippages in reality occur more frequently as his behaviour becomes increasingly unpredictable and determined. 

Although not entirely privy to his situation, Truman shows an unconscious awareness of his circumstance and thus feels compelled to perform. Before any slippages in reality occur, Truman has his doubts about the world surrounding him. We are told exactly how the film will end within seconds.

A desire to understand chaos 

Truman’s initial suspicion is relevant to today’s climate of conspiratorial thinking; research suggests that 60% of British people believe at least one conspiracy theory. Popular culture is awash with conspiracy theories, look no further than Jason Bourne or Stranger Things for stories of malevolent global plots. The History Channel has decidedly ditched history for its television show, Ancient Aliens, which glorifies anti-scientific conspiracy narratives. 

Conspiracy theories thrive in times of unrest, which explains their popularity during the height of the pandemic. Fears spread regarding the possibility of Covid-19 being bioengineered in labs or regarding the role of 5G telecoms in coronavirus fatalities. 

The psychologist Dr Daniel Jolley notes how conspiracy theories “arise in moments of crisis when we have the need to feel in control, to feel certain”. Conspiracies provide security because having a tangible entity to blame simplifies a complex reality. A point of mutual union between Truman Burbank and conspiracy theorists is the desire to understand a chaotic world.

The erosion of trust and impending doom 

While the pandemic added fuel to the fire, the very fabric of our society harbours ammunition for conspiracies to flourish. People are aware of the sense of impending doom and the unprecedented nature of the present. 

This feeling is reflected by declining levels of trust in politics across Britain and America: the latest Trust Barometer found that three in five have lost faith in democracy in the UK. At the back of people’s minds there lies a precariousness. A sense of looming crisis characterises our times.

One theory which explains this jangly feeling is Adam Curtis’ documentary, HyperNormalisation. The title stems from a Russian historian explaining what it was like to live during the last years of the Soviet Union. Everybody within Soviet society knew that it wasn’t working, that it was corrupt and that politicians lacked any alternative vision. Curtis links this feeling to the present. Currently, everybody knows the system isn’t working as it should, that corruption is widespread, and that everything feels slightly unreal. This feeling has created an appetite for conspiracies.

Nationalism and conspiracy theories unite 

The Trump and Brexit campaigns recognised the value of chaos to political success. Trump ensured his object of derision was in constant flux, to blur the line between truth and falsity. The 2016 presidential campaign was fuelled by conspiracy theories: Trump accused Senator Ted Cruz’s father of taking part in JFK’s assassination, framed Syrian refugees as ISIS operatives and claimed that Mexico was sending murderers and rapists to attack American citizens

Trump’s dazzling array of conspiracism can be boiled down to a singular narrative: political elites prioritise foreign interests over the interests of the average American. 

Most recently, Trump has fuelled conspiratorial paranoia, to warn that an increase in postal voting will lead to vast fraud: “Because of mail-in ballots, 2020 will be the most rigged election in our nation’s history”, he tweeted. Trump has made sixty false claims regarding postal ballots since April, according to The New York Times. Danger lies ahead as militias across America promise a backlash of revenge violence if they catch a whiff of voting skulduggery. 

This strategy of power feeds off confusion and therefore has no interest in fact. Nationalism has resonated in recent years because it provides a story that connects with people’s frustrations and explains misfortune. Alarming developments within world politics, (populism, nationalism, xenophobia, and racism), are interwoven with conspiracy theories. 

The conspiracies of Brexit 

The danger of conspiracies is all too clear. On 16 June 2016, when the majority of us were gearing up for the Euro football clash between England and Wales, Labour MP Jo Cox was murdered by Thomas Mair on route to her constituency surgery. Mair believed that left-wing liberals were responsible for the world’s ills. When asked for his name in court, Mair replied, ‘My name is death to traitors, freedom for Britain’. 

Occurring just a week before the Brexit referendum, the murder was clearly influenced by the campaign rhetoric of the nationalist right. The Brexit campaign cannot take full blame for an individual’s actions, but it’s clear that political messages are received in many different ways. 

The Brexit vote thrived off conspiracy theories, such as, that the EU was building an army, that further plans for integration were deliberately concealed and that the vote would be rigged. On the day of the referendum, leave voters were urged to vote in pen over pencil so that their votes could not be altered. A whopping 47% of leave voters believe the government deliberately conceals the truth regarding how many immigrants live in the UK. 

What can be done?

Conspiracy theories will continue to thrive so long as the feeling of suspicion towards a chaotic world persists. Nationalisms appropriation of conspiracy resonated with pissed off people for whom the system wasn’t working. Such a feeling stems from disenchantment with democracy and a sense of exclusion from power. The best antidote is, therefore, to be found on a structural level: policies which address inequality, political participation, and education. 

However, we need more than this, conspiracy theories emerge when people cannot process the world around them. As a collective, we crave imaginative stories to make sense of a perplexing world. This feeling will be hijacked by conspiracies until an enticing alternative exists.

The importance of conspiracy theories

It would be a great mistake to wish for conspiracies to be entirely eradicated, even if such a feat was possible. Christopher Hitchens has spoken of conspiracy theories as the “exhaust fumes” of democracy. By this, he means that although they are often wrong, the sceptical mindset they embody is essential to a critical public sphere. Conspiracy theories are timeless, there is no point in recorded history without a trace of them. 

Much like Truman, people feel that things are slightly unreal and continue to anxiously wonder: “How’s it going to end?”. Yet the desire for a greater understanding of the world doesn’t always have to go wrong. In the closing moments of the Truman Show, Truman’s decision to walk through the ‘Exit’ door shows a yearning for truth and rewards his suspicion. 

When conspiracy theories investigate a theory that turns out to be true, it no longer can be labelled a conspiracy. If a person told us, as Truman does, that rain poured only on him, or that traffic jams were designed to keep him prisoner, or that his father was drowned to induce a phobia of water, would you believe him?

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