The New Age of Conspiracies

Last week, the most famous monster in the world has finally been discovered: Nessie, the Loch Ness monster, has been found. It is nine meters long, with a long and truly monstrous neck. The abomination currently resides some 200 meters below the surface of the water, where it is waiting for no one in particular. Because, you see, it’s a film prop.

The prop was built for a Sherlock Holmes movie back in 1969, and unfortunately sunk below the surface and never came back up. It has now been discovered by an underwater drone equipped with sonar imaging, operated by Norwegian company Kongsberg Maritime.

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Nessie, underwater. Source: Kongsberg Maritime

This is an amusing story, of course, but it holds tantalizing hints to the future of conspiracies in a world that is rapidly becoming transparent. In a not-so-distant future, we are going to have drones and satellites mapping out every piece of land on Earth, whether it be at the North Pole, in the deepest Amazonian jungles, or on the bottom of the ocean. We are going to be better acquainted with the Earth than ever before.

Robotic drones will not be the only ones to watch over the Earth. We will take part in that venture, too.

In the past, if you would’ve observed a UFO in the sky, or an Abominable Snowman with big feet, or a vampire draining its victim’s blood, you would’ve needed to run away swiftly to get your bulky camera and obtain a proof for the thing you saw. Today, everyone has a smartphone with a high-quality camera in their pockets. Citizens document police brutality, gang wars, and random acts of kindness using these devices. And yet, despite the fact that suddenly everyone can record anything they see, no reliable evidence for the existence of UFOs, yetis or (living) Loch Ness monsters has come up.

The lack of evidence, in an age when everything becomes known, does not seem to bother the general public. A 2012 survey revealed that 36 percent of the American population believe that UFOs are real, which is approximately the same number as uncovered in a Canadian 2008 survey. This is hardly surprising: we’ve only had smartphones for nine years now, and society has not yet reshaped its myths around the idea that anything that happens in the corporeal world is bound to be recorded and analyzed.

In the long term, however, cryptozoology – the search for mythical creatures – will become obsolete and subject to ridicule, even more than it is today.

But conspiracy theories will live on. In fact, they may even become more powerful than they currently are.

 

The Future of Conspiracies

Conspiracy theories have no formal definition accepted by all, but for the purpose of this post we can accept Sunstein and Vermeule’s definition that they are –

“…an effort to explain some event or practice by reference to the machinations of powerful people, who have also managed to conceal their role.”

Conspiracies are often used by human beings to explain why bad things happen. We are, after all, rational animals, and we look for reasons for everything that happens around us. We search for patterns and for stories that fit those patterns. For example, we have a tendency towards proportionality bias – our automatic belief that big events, like the JFK assassination, must be related to big causes and can’t be the result of a work of a single madman.

Conspiracy theorists also rely on cherry picking – taking a large volume of information and picking out of it the pieces which support a certain pattern while ignoring the rest.

In the future, we will have an abundance of data. However, data does not lead automatically to insights, knowledge and understanding. These rely on careful analysis of the data, usually performed by experts who understand how to suggest and falsify hypotheses and how to differentiate between authentic readings and noise. The plethora in data, therefore, will lead to plenty of ‘evidence’ which conspiracy theorists will use to support their ideas.

 

Why Should You Be Concerned?

Why should this development concern you? Because conspiracy theories can proliferate rapidly in the online world and on social networks. If you’re a business or a government agency that releases data to the public, you should be aware that some conspiracy theorists will mine that data someday. When they do – they will find some correlations there that they could use to support their ideas. And when they find those and post them online, you can expect twitstorm, a Facebook massively shared post, or a viral Youtube clip – all of which will severely damage the reputation of your organization.

To counter that threat, businesses and government agencies should start developing a new role: an anti-conspiracy officer. It is not enough to rely on the new-media experts to calm a twitstorm – they know how to use the medium, but they don’t have the necessary understanding of the content. Anti-conspiracy officers will need to work together with the new-media experts to counter new conspiracy theories by providing correct analyses of the existing data, and presenting them in a way that everyone can understand.

Today, we have public intellectuals – calling themselves Skeptics – as such anti-conspiracy officers acting on behalf of the public. These include Steven Novella, Neil deGrasse Tyson, PZ Myers, and many others. As far as I’m aware, they do not receive compensation for companies or from governments for their time and effort handling conspiracy theories on social networks in real-time.

Maybe it’s time to start funding these skeptical exercises in a more organized way.

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The Skeptic Trumps. Source: The Reason Stick

Conclusions

We gain better and more powerful tools to record and document everything that’s going on in the world, but most of humanity still does not have the necessary thinking tools and methods to derive valuable and truthful insights out of the collected data. Conspiracies will likely thrive in this environment, but we can hinder their proliferation and growth on the internet by educating the public.

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