From alien lizard rulers to shark attacks instigated by spies and elaborate multi-billion-dollar hoaxes, the menagerie of conspiracy theories in existence is so bizarre, the reasons some take off – and others vanish without a trace – may seem almost random. There’s even a conspiracy theory about how conspiracy theories were invented (in keeping with the standard conspiracy formula, the CIA were allegedly involved).
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But there are patterns hidden in their strangeness. The latest thinking suggests that conspiracy theories are filtered by a kind of natural selection, which allows those that fit certain requirements to spread rapidly through our societies – while others are confined to the darkest corners of the internet.
What makes a conspiracy appealing to the masses? And is there anything they can teach us about the problems we face – and how to fix them?
First up – successful conspiracies always have the right villain. Throughout history, many widely accepted conspiracy theories have conveniently placed the blame for distressing incidents or trends on the population’s favourite baddies.
According to an analysis by Victoria Pagan, a classical historian at the University of Chicago, the success of the Roman poisonings conspiracy is likely to be partly down to the way it portrayed upper-class women and slaves, who powerful male elites found threatening.
Though the civilisation relied heavily on the exploitation of both these groups, men were constantly worried that their subordinates would turn on them. High-status women were generally viewed with suspicion, and often portrayed as secretive and dangerous. Slaves, on the other hand, had been known to murder their masters from time to time – and there was a long-standing paranoia that they sometimes acted as spies, and so couldn’t be trusted.
In short, a conspiracy involving a gang of murderous women being betrayed by their slaves was ideal – it was always going to be more appealing than the truth.
Meanwhile, in the modern world, it’s no accident that popular conspiracies tend to concern themes such as alien life, religious minorities, powerful elites, rival nations, mysterious technologies and the destruction of the environment. “Across the world, people generally believe in theories that are related to the cultural and historical events that have happened in particular places,” says Karen Douglas, a social psychologist at the University of Kent.
Each society has its own anxieties and obsessions – and successful conspiracy theories generally tap into them. Take Romania, where many women decline to have their daughters vaccinated against HPV, the virus responsible for 99% of cervical cancers.