The Conspiracy Theory Game

Conspiracy theories are taking the country by storm. They are all the rage. Hunter Biden’s laptop. Obamagate. A “rigged” election. The killing of Navy SEAL Team 6 by President Obama and Vice President Biden to conceal that the team murdered Osama bin Laden’s body double and that bin Laden is, in fact, alive. Before these, there was birtherism, in which then-citizen Trump claimed that then-President Obama had not been born in the United States and was, therefore, ineligible to be president. All without evidence.

The latest politically-inspired conspiracy theory sweeping the nation might be among the most wacky and most incredible if it was not so scary: QAnon. This theory alleges that the Deep State of Satan-worshiping pedophiles is running a global child sex-trafficking ring and plotting against the president, our hero. As conspiracy theories go, this one is rich. It has already proven to be diabolically effective. Two facts demonstrate its power:

1. In a recent poll of likely voters for the president, only 17% did not believe the theory;¹ and

2. At this very moment, Amazon is selling QAnon children’s costumes for Halloween.² Really.

By any yardstick of success, very few not believing an outlandish, depraved story about pedophiles and having children’s Halloween costumes marketed in support of it makes QAnon a top contender for the Conspiracy Theory Hall of Fame. Which, you will not be surprised, is housed in a corner-less five-story structure built by mutant cyborgs created by Amazon using a mysterious unstable element — Zelon, found only in the rings of Saturn — in its walls and foundation that create vibrations and near-imperceptible harmonics on odd-numbered days, with a roof structure that serves as a radio beacon to receive messages from the home planet of the aliens who designed the damn thing. All financed by Facebook. I hear the gift shop is awesome.

So what is a conspiracy theory, why are they created, and what purpose do they serve?

These answers can be gleaned from arguably the most insidious, heinous, horrifying and, sadly, truly effective conspiracy theory of all time. It became known as the Blood Libel.³ In 1144, the Jews of Norwich, England were accused of the ritual murder of a young boy found in the woods dead with stab wounds. A member of a nearby town claimed that an international council of Jews chose a country each year in which to murder a child during Easter, due to a Jewish prophecy stating that the killing of a Christian child will ensure that the Jews will be restored to the Holy Land. Over time, an even more insidious, emotionally-laden element was added: that Jews were killing Christian children because their blood was needed to make matzah, the unleavened bread eaten during Passover (which occurs annually near Easter). The introduction of the use of a Christian child’s blood was, arguably, what made the story so very compelling and, shockingly, so believable to many.

The Blood Libel had and continues to have a profound impact on Jews worldwide. Thousands of Jews were murdered in Europe by those who bought the fictitious tale. Hundreds of years later, the Nazis used imagery of the Blood Libel widely in its anti-Semitic propaganda to demonize Jews and to promote and facilitate their annihilation.⁴ Lastly, to this day Jews globally open the front door of their home during the Passover Seder to prove to anyone interested that a young Christian child is not being used in the making of their matzah. This nearly 900 years later.

An entire wing of the Conspiracy Theory Hall of Fame is dedicated to the Blood Libel. It is that powerful.

A conspiracy theory is an explanation of an event or situation created and/or perpetuated by a sinister and powerful group, often when other explanations are more probable. The more robust conspiracy theories are based on prejudice. Their purpose: to demean, slander, and vilify a person or group and, ultimately, to increase hatred.⁵ Should it cause persecution and death, all the better.

Conspiracy theories are remarkably economical. No facts are necessary. No expensive, coordinated marketing campaign is required. A communication platform with the opportunity to repeat the lies often is usually all that’s needed. In the old days, the town square was that platform. Now we have television and social media, two incredibly efficient ways to disseminate conspiracy theories. If the story is sufficiently compelling and captures people’s attention, word of mouth takes over and what was once a wild, far-fetched fictitious story — implausible, even impossible as it may seem — becomes truth. Worse, it becomes faith, since supporting evidence does not exist, nor is it even desired. Of course Obama was not born in the United States. Of course there is a cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles running a global child sex-trafficking ring and plotting against the president. Of course Jews use the blood of young children to make their Passover matzah. Because, as we all know, that’s what Jews do.

Conspiracy theories targeted at an individual or a specific group of people are designed to cause irreparable harm. Those who espouse conspiracy theories are attempting to spread hate. They seek to destroy for selfish, self-serving reasons. Conspiracy theorists are driven by malice, interested in maligning or even destroying an individual or group, all for personal gain. They are predators who prey on the innocent. Usually, quite effectively.

Beware the spreaders of conspiracy theories, especially those focused on a person or group, for they are malevolent. Their motives are anything but pure. Their intent is to create and spread a malignancy. And it is not that they are ignorant or uninformed. It is that they are hell-bent to hurt, to inflict pain, to destroy the reputation of an individual or group of people they despise.

Conspiracy theorists are to be called out and stopped, regardless of their station in life or the power they wield. The president included. Because for them, for the president, the truth, the fact-based truth, just won’t do.

¹ https://www.newsweek.com/only-17-trump-supporters-dont-believe-qanon-conspiracy-theory-poll-1540782

² https://www.newsweek.com/amazon-qanon-halloween-costumes-children-1540193

³ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blood_libel

https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/blood-libel

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conspiracy_theory

Alan is a consulting psychologist with a long and storied history of helping organizations of all sizes become more enriching, empowering places to work.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store