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Gustavo Moreno

June 30, 2021


"Facts don't cease to exist just because they are ignored."

- Aldous Huxley

Why are conspiracy theories so appealing?


Before trying to answer this question, and even before explaining what a conspiracy theory is, let's begin this deepening, conceptualizing critical thinking.



In one of its many definitions, critical thinking "has seven critical characteristics: being inquisitive and curious, being open-minded to different sides, being able to think systematically, being analytical, being persistent for the truth, having confidence in one's critical thinking and, lastly, be mature." (Facione PA, Falcione NC, 1993).  



Critical thinking is a powerful ally in both the process of innovation and the process of avoiding "falling into" conspiracies.  



From 1993 to 2021, concepts such as creativity, discovery, reflection, empathy, knowledge connection, ambiguity and inclusion were added to the definition of critical thinking.



Speaking of critical thinking, if the question we have here is "why do conspiracy theories appeal so much?", the question we're really looking for an answer to should be "why do people believe anything?"  



The answer to this question, of course, goes for different and different reasons. There is not just one reason that makes a person believe in something. It would be very easy if we could put this responsibility on one factor account, like, whatsapp's family group is all to blame. Either Globo is to blame, or the main culprit is that particular party.  



An article entitled "Conspiracy theories: how are they adopted, communicated and what are their risks?", sought to answer the question that gives the title of this edition of Passeio, from a political, sociological and psychological point of view.  



In summary, the authors tell us that a variety of psychological factors predict the extent to which individuals will endorse conspiracy theories. Specifically, existential needs (eg, need for power and control), personality traits (eg, narcissism and Machiavellianism), cognitive factors (eg, cognitive biases and intelligence), and an underlying tendency to distrust and perceive conspiracies, all predict conspiracy belief.  

Some demographic factors such as education level (lower education level is linked to higher belief conspiracy) also predict belief in the conspiracy. Another aspect is identification with the group itself, which can bring suspicion about the actions of other groups.  


Last but not least, political extremism (and in particular right-wing ideology) is consistently associated with conspiracy belief. People tend to believe in new conspiracy theories that align with their pre-existing political leanings. Other variables​​ ideological, such as authoritarianism, orientation of social domination and justification of the system, are traits that predict the belief in conspiracy theories.


This same article, published by the Center for Research and Evidence on Security Threats, defines conspiracy theories as the attempt to describe socially and politically relevant events through the covert actions of powerful groups. Conspiracy theories can be measured using surveys through different methods, such as surveys (polls) or also through the analysis and programming of archived data, such as online comments, for example.

Have conspiracies always been part of humanity?

Believing in conspiracy theories and being suspicious of the actions of others is, in a way, a very adaptive trait to do for survival. Human beings do not necessarily want to trust everyone and everything that is happening around us. Therefore, conspiracies have always been with us and, to some extent, people are all, without exception, bound to be considered conspiracyists, depending on how that term is used.  


Cutting to the chase, yes, conspiracies have always been - and always will be - among us. In humanity, there have always been people who believed in some (or a few) conspiracy theories. Since the world is the world, people share these conspiratorial beliefs and have these suspicions about certain collective actions taken by individuals that are considered threatening. This is our way of being.


I believe that at this point in the championship, each and every one on the planet - given the limitations of their own context - has already realized, in one way or another, that society is becoming more complex every day. New services, products, content and  information is generated and shared between us. The objective here is not to go deeper into how we got here, Leozito (Leonardo Chiodi) has already done this in the second edition of Passeio.


This time, we will explore the complexity of social relationships focusing on the trust we have about information (and data) and especially the distrust we have about some.  

Are there real conspiracies?


According to the "Conspiracy Theories Handbook" for audiences outside the scientific community, published by researchers Stephan Lewandowsky of the University of Bristol School of Experimental Psychology and John Cook of the University's Center for Climate Change Communication George Mason helps us understand why these theories are so popular and explains how to identify the signs of  conspiratorial thinking, in addition to presenting a list of effective strategies  of demystification.


Real conspiracies do exist. Today we know, for example, that Volkswagen spoofed the emission tests of its diesel engines, that the US National Security Agency secretly spied on internet users, that the tobacco industry deceived the public about the harmful effects from cigarettes to health.  


We are currently aware of these conspiracies from internal industry documents, government investigations, and whistleblowers. Conspiracy theories, on the other hand, tend to persist for a long period, even when they lack conclusive evidence. These theories are based on a series of thought patterns known to be unreliable tools for tracking reality. Typically, conspiracy theories are not based on evidence that will stand up to scrutiny, but that doesn't stop them from gaining prominence. For example, the widespread belief that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were an “inside job” persisted for many years.

Conventional Thinking vs. conspiratorial thinking


According to this same manual, real conspiracies not only exist, but they are rarely discovered through the methods used by conspiracy theorists. Instead, real conspiracies are uncovered through conventional thinking—healthy skepticism of official versions, carefully considering the available evidence, and committing to consistency of information. Conspiracy thinking, on the other hand, is characterized by being hyperskeptical of all information that does not favor the theory, by overinterpreting evidence in support of a preferred theory, and by inconsistency.

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The published guide was translated into Portuguese by researchers Dayane Machado and Minéya Fantim, from the Advanced Study Laboratory at Unicamp (Labjor) and can be read in full here.


In addition to illustrating the differences between conventional (or critical) thinking and conspiracy thinking, the document also presents seven signs of conspiracy thinking that have been abbreviated in the acronym CONSPIR:

  • Contradictory: Conspiracy theorists can simultaneously believe in ideas that are mutually contradictory. To believe, for example, in the theory that Princess Diana was murdered, while accepting that she faked her own death. This is because the theorists' commitment to disbelief in the “official” narrative is so absolute that it does not matter if the belief system is incoherent.

  • Overriding suspicion Conspiracy thinking involves a nihilistic degree of skepticism about the official narrative. This extreme level of mistrust prevents you from believing anything that doesn't fit the conspiracy theory.

  • Nefarious Intent The motivations behind any alleged conspiracy are invariably considered nefarious. Conspiracy theories never assume that the alleged conspirators have good intentions.

  • Something Must Be Wrong (Something Must Be Wrong) Although conspiracy theorists occasionally abandon specific ideas when they become untenable, these revisions do not change the general conclusions that “something must be wrong” and that the official narrative is based on a fraud.

  • Persecuted Victim Conspiracy theorists present themselves and see themselves as victims of organized persecution. At the same time, they see themselves as courageous adversaries facing villainous conspirators. Conspiracy thinking involves self-perception of victim and hero simultaneously.

  • Immune to Evidence Conspiracy theories are inherently self-adjusting. Evidence that contradicts a theory is reinterpreted as if it were part of the conspiracy. This reflects the belief that the stronger the evidence against a conspiracy (eg, the FBI acquitting a politician of allegations about the misuse of a personal email server), the more conspirators will strive to get people to believe their version of events (eg, the FBI was part of the conspiracy to protect the politician).

  • Re-interpreting Randomness The absolute suspicion found in conspiratorial thinking often results in the belief that nothing happens by chance. Small random events, such as the Pentagon windows intact after the 9/11 attacks, are reinterpreted as part of the conspiracy (if a plane had hit the Pentagon, all the windows would have broken) and are added to a larger narrative and interconnected.


conspiracy begets conspiracy  

"Objective truth has less relevance than familiarity: we tend to believe lies when they are often repeated."



A 2019 Verge article investigated the routine of those who work with content moderation on Facebook. Yes, there are people being paid by Mark Zuckeberg to watch and then delete the most toxic and unimaginable content from the social network.  



Stranger than there are about 1,000 people in the Facebook office in Phoenix (USA) moderating content and another 15,000 people who are content reviewers around the world, is the fact that what happens to these time they start to believe in some hateful conspiracies that they themselves would have rejected under other circumstances. If they weren't paid to literally watch (and moderate) the heaviest videos and content on the internet.


Any resemblance to the 1984 universe, where in Oceania everyone hates the enemy, Eurasia, and is forced to remember this daily during the 'Two minutes of hate' program, in which images of the Eurasian army, as well as the figure of its leader, were displayed so that the population could channel their anger, learn to instinctively hate their enemy.  


Some of the moderators' accounts, captured by the report, tell that the work environment - a place infested with conspiracy videos and memes seen daily - gradually lead them to embrace marginal views. Stories of an auditor walking around the room promoting the idea that the Earth is flat, or of a former employee saying he started to question certain aspects of the Holocaust, and even another former employee who confessed to having mapped all the escape routes out of his house and sleeping with a gun at his side: "I no longer believe that September 11 was a terrorist attack."

The Origin of Numerous Conspiracy Theories

"Although disorder is generally more likely, total disorder is impossible"

TS Motzkin


If you play Xuxa's CD backwards, will you hear a satanic message? The answer is no, and we know this thanks to a mathematical principle called "Ramsey theory".


So what does Ramsey's theory say? In short, she says that with enough elements in a group or structure, some specific interesting pattern is bound to appear among them.  


As a simple example, the so-called "party problem", a classic illustration of Ramsey's theory tells us that if there are at least six people at a party (or on a social network), we can say that in a group with three or all of them. know or have never seen each other before, knowing absolutely nothing about them.  


To facilitate understanding, let's look at this example given by Walner Mendonça, whose doctoral thesis at the Institute of Pure and Applied Mathematics (IMPA) addressed Ramsey's theory and the relations of common interests in user groups in social networks (alternative to the 'problem' from the party').


“Suppose that, on a social network, all users are friends. But there are two types of friendships, which we will distinguish by the colors blue and red. Also, every two users share a red or blue friendship, but not both friendship types at the same time. This illustration describes what in combinatorics we call a complete 2-colored graph.”

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"The interesting thing is that it is not difficult to prove that the social network must be entirely connected necessarily in one of these colors. For any of these two colors, let's say blue, it is possible to connect any two users of the social network by a group of users forming a chain of blue friendships. Although Letícia and Pedro share a red friendship, we can connect them in blue using, for example, the blue friendship shared between them and Luiz.”


As much as Ramsey's theory gives us the guarantee that there is a minimum number of patterns in a given system, this does not mean that it is easy to discover, and above all, to interpret these pattern(s).  


In this case, as the number of people analyzed on the social network increases, the combinations get out of control. For example, let's say we're trying to figure out the minimum number of profiles where there's a group of five people who all know each other or don't. While five is a small number, it's virtually impossible to find the answer through an exhaustive search like this. This is simply due to the sheer volume of possibilities. A group of 48 guests has 2^(1128) possible configurations, which is more than the number of atoms in the entire universe.  


Even with the help of computers, the best we know is that the answer to that question is somewhere between 43 and 49 guests. What this shows us is that specific patterns with seemingly astronomical probabilities can emerge from a relatively small set. With a very large set, the possibilities are almost endless.


So, what are the chances that Xuxa's CD played backwards actually contain a secret message? Well, when you take into account the number of letters, the variety of possible related words, and all of their pitch variations, the chances are pretty high. You can try. Choose a favorite song, listen to it backwards and see what message you can hear. As we evolve to perceive patterns and signals amidst noise, we are often tempted to find meaning where it might not exist. Although we may be impressed by messages hidden in children's songs, their true origin is often our own mind.

We have a provocation to do  on the next Peak.

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