Except for the fact that they are now so widely and irresponsibly disseminated throughout social media, there’s nothing new about conspiracy theories.
What is new is that our kids, once shielded by parents, teachers and librarians and other grown-ups from the incorrigible stupidity and malevolence of most conspiracy theories, now have their own virtually unimpeded access to the fetid ocean of nonsense which washes up with the tide of misinformation contaminating their electronic devices.
For that reason alone, today, it is possible to gin up conspiracies so much more easily than it was in 1788, when Swedish king Gustav 111 needed an excuse to start a war with Russia.
Gustav had the head tailor at the Royal Swedish sew a number of Russian military uniforms which were then used by the disguised Swedes to stage an attack on Puumala, a Swedish outpost on the Russo-Swedish border on June 27, 1788.
That little charade launched the Russo-Swedish War of 1788-90, in which 5,640 were killed or wounded.
The story is worth retelling because, as they say, the more things change, the more they stay the same — except that now every kid with an iPad can be exposed to the same kind of politically malevolent irresponsible duplicity.
Granted, much of what shows up these days is relatively harmless: Chemtrails drugging us, global warming a hoax, John Lennon, Elvis and Princess Diana all alive and well and living under aliases, Justin Trudeau as Fidel Castro’s love child.
Then we move up to the baseless theories that actually had sobering consequences for those not directly involved: Weapons of mass destruction stockpiled in Iraq, the involvement of the U.S. government in the attack on the twin towers, the “deep state” which seeks to control U.S. national policy, the theory that the Clintons were running a child sex-trafficking ring out of a pizza restaurant in Washington, D.C.
Beyond simple conspiracy posts, there is the online stuff with lethal potential: How to convert a semi-legal semi-automatic weapon (one trigger pull at a time) into an illegal fully automatic weapon (one pull empties the magazine).
At the top of the online conspiracy “idiculist” is stuff like a recent White House retweet, the kind that would get a Grade 3 teacher or a school principal fired immediately with cause: That the Clintons had a hand in the death of Jeffrey Epstein.
Conspiracy theories aren’t fuelled by facts. They are, more often, fuelled by the originator’s need for attention or the attempt to seek out like-minded individuals who also need to be part of a faction.
British psychologist Karen Douglas and her colleagues in a recent article in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science suggested that reasons for initiating or believing in conspiracy theories could be grouped into three categories:
• The desire for understanding and certainty about events beyond the individual’s understanding or control,
• The desire for power and security which is based in the need to first among “those in the know,” and
• The desire to maintain a self-image of superiority to others.
Child psychologist Brian D. Johnson, who wrote the book Warning Signs: How to Protect Your Kids from Becoming Victims or Perpetrators of Violence and Aggression, suggests that: “Conspiracy theories are based on exaggerations, rumours, and lies, which are sociopathic behaviours we don’t want our children to learn and emulate.
“These behaviours appeal to emotions like fear, anger and look to focus on scapegoated persons or groups: women, Mexicans, Muslims, media, government.”
In extreme situations, this kind of histrionic paranoia, especially among young folks with borderline personality disorders, has inevitably resulted in motivation to imagine, if not actually enact, mass violence.
Johnson suggests that parents should begin early to watch for and consistently challenge even relatively innocent childish conspiracy beliefs.
When a child complains that “the teacher doesn’t like me,” a parent should, gently, ask about some evidence for that statement. “Did the teacher say those actual words? Could there be another explanation for what the teacher said or did?”
“Ask what they’ve heard and believe,” Johnson suggests. “Don’t criticize, discount or tease them for their beliefs, but say, how can we find out together whether this is true or not?”
But here’s the bigger problem with the increased propagation of wild conspiracy theories — and this is a problem for adults and even more so for kids.
Children look to adults for an understanding of the world and their place in it. When adults are “loose with the facts,” these developmental needs are destabilized.
Both the child’s world, and the adult’s world are disordered.
But then maybe that’s what the conspiracy theorist is seeking to achieve.
Geoff Johnson is a former superintendent of schools.