As we all know, conspiracy theories are a popular topic. Ask anyone, I’m sure they will have some sort of opinion (pro-conspiracy, or anti) on the topic. And, this is exactly the reason why conspiracies need to be studied, and maybe one-day fully understood. With so many millions endorsing conspiracies, does it have an impact on any of their behaviours, or feelings? Or, instead, are they just harmless bits of fun?
This is a question that has fascinated me for several years now, and it appears from my own research, and others, that conspiracies are indeed not just harmless fun. This doesn’t appear to be surprising to me. For example, if individuals are believing that those in power, or at least perceived to be, are involved in significant events, then surely this is going to have an impact on whether, let’s say, they want to engage with these powerful figures.
Indeed, this was further supported when I attended a speakers’ event at LSE on Tuesday 13th November. The event was called “Conspiracy theories and distrust in health programmes in Africa”, and the speakers discussed the rise in conspiracy beliefs in Africa concerning HIV/AIDS, and the decline in uptake for medicines, and also condom use. Indeed, conspiracy beliefs were a central reason in this decline regarding usage of medicines, but also confusion was a big issue. For example, the panel provided some example quotes from local residents, from memory they were as follows:
“We need to pay for water; however, these medicines are given out to us for free from the western people. Why are medicines free, but water is not? It surely must be some type of experiment”.
“We are told that all medicines need to be given to you by a doctor, however, school teachers are giving out tablets to help with a tropical disease. How can teachers give out medicines, it must be something else they are giving us”.
These are interesting statements, and are indeed rational questions to be asking. Coupled with the mistrust in the HIV/AIDS medicines, it can fuel disengagement.
Furthermore, the LSE event made it increasingly clear the difference between conspiracy theories about governments (e.g., 9/11, Princess Diana) and HIV/AIDS. This was highlighted by a trend in all the talks that suggested it was those in power who actually increased endorsement of these conspiracies. Indeed, if the president of the country believes the conspiracy theories that it was western world who had man-made HIV/AIDS to eliminate blacks (and, further, making using the medicines illegal), this, as you can imagine, increases endorsement of the conspiracy. This was a really interesting perspective. Moreover, one scholar is starting to develop ways to tackle this using a variety of interventions. She has been looking into Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, amongst other things. She hasn’t got any data on this yet, but her ideas are going in the right direction, as the idea is to get people to talk about HIV/AIDS, and also provide them with the information about how the medicines work, thus limiting their confusion.
Conspiracy theories, and indeed their consequences, are an important area of research. As shown from the LSE event alone, conspiracy beliefs are widespread, and their popularity is growing. They should be taken seriously, by both people on the street, but those in power too. It is not surprising that HIV/AIDS conspiracies are becoming popular when the President of the country is endorsing them.