Flat Earth may seem a comical side interest, but does it point to a growing malaise in our society?wikipedia commons

We’ve all heard those conspiracy theories before. The moon landing was a hoax. Climate change isn’t real. The earth is flat. We complacently laugh them off around friends, smugly confident in our own intellectual positions.

However, due to growing public uncertainty amidst the pandemic, conspiracy theories are having a mainstream moment. Dozens of Covid-19 myths have been circulating. Wireless towers across the UK have been set ablaze due to the conspiracy theory that coronavirus is spread by a technology known as “5G”. Many also believe that China has leaked the virus from a lab as a bioweapon, Bill Gates has concocted it to scheme a way of chipping us all with a vaccine, Greta Thunberg has masterminded the affair for her silly hoax climate movement, the Alien Lizard Leaders have been at it again.

But really, you might be thinking, why should I care? Conspiracy theories are for the most part harmless and those who really believe in them have no real effect on my life. I’m tired, can I go back to my lockdown hideout chamber now? But, unfortunately, we do have to care about this one too. Unwrap yourself from your burrito blanket because conspiracy theories are more widespread than you might think. Conspiracy theories hold that some covert but influential organisation is responsible for an unexplained event or set of circumstances. These conclusions are drawn despite the fact that they have not been confirmed by official bodies of knowledge. Who is blamed for that event is a matter that conveniently fits in with how they already view the world. But it’s not just conspiracy theorists who exaggerate facts and blame disasters on whoever suits them.

Lately, conspiracy theory thinking has even gone beyond our harmless cultural side commentary and run amok in our politics, entering into the aggressive commentary, spin and “fake news” of mainstream media.

“Conspiracy theories are having a mainstream moment.”

Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the US. Coming up to the election, dozens of conspiracies have been thought up about Democratic nominee Biden by right wing media. Just last week, Trump claimed that there are “people that are in the dark shadows” that “you haven’t heard of” controlling Biden. Meanwhile, the left wing media fearmongers that, in a dictatorial move, Trump will reject the election results if he loses.

Not only is this taking place in the States, but globally too, albeit more implicitly. Lately, the political landscape has become a culture war of identity politics. The frameworks we use to make sense of the world are now “patriot”, “LGBT+“, “BME” or “white working class”, as much as they are “socialist” or “conservative”. The good thing about these terms is that they can offer vulnerable individuals a sense of security and power. The downside is that they can promote a type of thinking in which only a singular world view is considered; only those in the group are considered to have a legitimate voice. This can lead to a downright refusal to hear the opposing view and, at times, an apathetic dismissal of it. People can even join in the barrage of opinionated commentary without fully understanding the problem, skimming over the ins and outs of who said what.

“...it’s not just conspiracy theorists who exaggerate facts and blame disasters on whoever suits them.”

This is not a conspiracy theory. But in the same way as conspiracy theorists, it instigates jumping to conclusions and skipping facts to make the conclusion drawn fit with a pre-decided judgement of how the world works.

Look no further than the recent Proms fiasco to see such an instance blown out of proportion. The BBC faced terrible backlash for being unpatriotic and overly PC after reports that the songs “Rule, Britannia!” and “Land of Hope and Glory” would be performed by orchestras without singers on stage. The Prime Minister even weighed in to label it ”cringing embarrassment about our history... traditions... culture.” The BBC have since reported that the orchestral version was chosen merely for artistic reasons, despite The Times’ propagation that it was due to the lyrics’ association with colonialism and slavery. We see the right incite fear and retaliation against any remote appearance of a threat (even if turns out not to be a real one) to the nation.


Mountain View

Your conspiracy theory is anti-Semitic

Meanwhile on the liberal left, we see a relentless “Cancel Culture” scaring the mass public from weighing in on liberal politics. From J.K. Rowling to Adele, dozens of individuals have come under target for their problematic actions. Although their criticisms are most often credible and very important to be heard, the collective bombardment of abuse at individuals and “cancelling” of them is to take a disposition of intolerance. This does little in the way of helping others understand or rethink their actions, instead stunting healthy debate and creating a culture of conformism via demonstration of what happens to those who disagree, like a severed head on a spike. They block out anyone who does not fit in with their narrative.

Ultimately, we should care about conspiracy theories because, the truth is, we’re all a bit of a flat-earther somehow. It’s difficult to accept the reality of our confusing, random and absurd world. Just like conspiracy theorists, we don’t want grey areas; from believing that a pandemic could genuinely be caused by a bat, to considering that our favourite politician might be antisemitic. We want straightforward answers to feel in control; for heroes and villains to exist in real life.

So perhaps ask yourself next time your most hated politician (be it Rees-Mogg or Corbyn) does something, says something, or even makes a policy decision, would you have the same reaction if your favourite one did the exact same thing? What are you choosing to believe?