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Many millions of people hold conspiracy theories; they believe that powerful people have worked together in order to withhold the truth about some important practice or some terrible event. A recent example is the belief, widespread in some partsof the world, that the attacks of 9/11 were carried out not by Al Qaeda, but by Israel or the United States. Those who subscribe to conspiracy theories may create serious risks,including risks of violence, and the existence of such theories raises significant challenges for policy and law
What causes such theories to arise and spread? Are they important and perhaps even threatening, or merely trivial and even amusing? What can and should governmentdo about them? We aim here to sketch some psychological and social mechanisms thatproduce, sustain, and spread these theories; to show that some of them are quite importantand should be taken seriously; and to offer suggestions for governmental responses, bothas a matter of policy and as a matter of law.
Consider, for example, the view that the Central Intelligence Agency was responsible for the assassination of President John F. Kennedy; that doctors deliberately manufactured the AIDS virus; that the 1996 crash of TWA flight 800 was caused by aU.S. military missile; that the theory of global warming is a deliberate fraud; that theTrilateral Commission is responsible for important movements of the international economy; that Martin Luther King, Jr., was killed by federal agents; that the plane crashthat killed Democrat Paul Wellstone was engineeredby Republican politicians; that the moon landing was staged and never actually occurred
Within the set of false conspiracy theories, we also limit our focus to potentially harmful theories. Not all false conspiracy theories are harmful; consider the false conspiracy theory, held by many of the younger members of our society, that a secretgroup of elves, working in a remote location under the leadership of the mysterious“Santa Claus,” make and distribute presents on Christmas Eve. This theory is false, but isitself instilled through a widespread conspiracy of the powerful – parents – who conceal their role in the whole affair. (Consider too the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy.) It is an open question whether most conspiracy theories are equally benign; we will suggest that some are not benign at all.
And indeed, there can be no doubt that some people who accept conspiracy theories are mentally ill and subject to delusions
Those who tend to think that Israel was responsible for the attacks of 9/11, and who speak with one another, will end up with a greater commitment to that belief. Group polarization occurs for reasons that parallel the mechanisms that produce cascades.
Informational influences play a large role. In any group with some initial inclination, the views of most people in the group will inevitably be skewed in the direction of that inclination.
What can government do about conspiracy theories? Among the things it can do,what should it do? We can readily imagine a series of possible responses. (1)Government might ban conspiracy theorizing. (2) Government might impose some kind of tax, financial or otherwise, on those who disseminate such theories. (3) Government might itself engage in counterspeech, marshaling arguments to discredit conspiracytheories. (4) Government might formally hire credible private parties to engage in counterspeech.
Consider the Oklahoma City bombing, whose perpetrators shared a complex of conspiratorial beliefs about the federal government. Many who shared their beliefs did not act on them, but a few actors did, with terrifying consequences. James Fearon and others argue that technological change has driven down the costs of delivering attacks with weapons of mass destruction, to the point where even a smallgroup can pose a significant threat.
If so, and if only a tiny fraction of believers act ontheir beliefs, then as the total population with conspiratorial beliefs grows, it becomesnearly inevitable that action will ensue.