In recent days, we’ve seen two parallel trends taking place in American discourse—both troubling in their own ways: First, a growing pattern of intense suspicion and dark foreboding about what’s happening right now (pandemic and economic-wise) in our country and around the world. Second, an increasing tendency to label anyone raising serious questions or strong concerns about our response to what’s taking place as a “conspiracy theorist.”
In the political lexicon of our day, “conspiracist” takes its place next to “fanatic” and “extremist” as largely pejorative words that function to discredit anyone who happens to get labeled—standing in for “crazy” or “crackpot” or “cookoo” or “so ridiculous that it’s better to just ignore.”
Perhaps we could consider a more difficult question: how exactly to best discern true from false conspiracy?
There’s a flurry of journalism around conspiracy theorizing in recent years – almost all of which paint such commentary as categorically silly, and/or dangerous, with titles such as “The Coronavirus Conspiracy Boom,” “The Normalization of Conspiracy Culture” and “How America Lost Its Mind.” Such articles take conspiracy commentary as a public pathology to at times giggle about, and other times to raise alarm and analyze (“a rare chance for social scientists to examine just how many Americans will adopt conspiracy theories given the right set of circumstances”).
It’s worth pointing out, however, that many truth-tellers—prophetic or otherwise—have been written off with similar epithets over human history, largely because they were speaking about things people couldn’t see. And central to the narrative of the Book of Mormon itself is the influence of what are variously called “secret combinations” and their “secret works of darkness” in the ultimate downfall of these ancient people(s).
If similar “secret combinations” exist in our day, and if they are a threat to our nation—as the prophet Mormon himself warned—they would be, by definition, not operating in the public eye. So against the prevailing tendency to write off any strong critique of existing events or systems as silly “conspiracy,” perhaps we could consider a more difficult question: how exactly to best discern true from false conspiracy?
In raising the question, let’s first acknowledge the real danger that wildly false and darkly speculative conspiracy theorizing can engender—especially if unstable individuals attempt to act on such theories, as occurred in the strange Pizzagate affair and as also plays a role in many mass shootings.
In an article following the suicide of Jeffrey Epstein (speculated by many to be a homicide), Ross Douthat of the New York Times suggested that in our haste to declare all such theories as reflecting mere paranoia, however, “this dismissiveness can itself become an intellectual mistake, a way to sneer at speculation while ignoring an underlying reality that deserves attention or investigation.” In this case, “an admirable desire to reject bad or wicked theories can lead to a blindness about something important” he suggests—including various kinds of surreptitious activities that do, in fact, take place—concealed from public view.
In this way, thoughtful public discourse around important, although ambiguous and unclear phenomena can be sideswiped by over-the-top rhetoric that discourages people from engaging, while generating knee-jerk rejection of any further conversation. Thus, the awful truth about sex trafficking in America morphs into Tom Hanks, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton holding sex-slave children hostage underneath Central Park or ruminations over “satanic pedophiles controlling the “deep state.” Likewise, thoughtful questions about COVID-19 policy morph into insinuations that health officials are “deep-state operatives and might not even be health experts” or that “all of the pandemics and epidemics are perpetrated fraud to control, to drive our healthcare system.”
Such rhetoric can generate distrust of anyone raising questions – even legitimate ones. Douthat goes on to highlight conspiracy tales around government investigations into UFO’s, Russian hacking attempts on the U.S. and the healthcare system’s relationship with pharmaceutical companies—in each case, attempting to parse out the exaggerated, dark version of reality from what appears to be factual and yet largely concealed from the public (e.g., yes, the U.S. military has conducted secret studies of reported unidentified-flying-objects that continue defying simple explanation).
In most cases, it doesn’t seem so easy to discern the difference. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible, though. In the case of health care, for instance, it’s common to hear dark rhetoric in some quarters about the whole system being “designed” to keep people sick—with diagnostic labels created strategically, consciously, and primarily to sell drugs, and virtually everyone (from doctors to pharma reps) in on the ploy . . . yes, with Darth Vader at the top.
After acknowledging the need to push back on such rhetoric, however, Douthat goes on to point out the other part of the picture: “If you aren’t somewhat paranoid about how often corporations cover up the dangers of their products, and somewhat paranoid about how drug companies in particular influence the medical consensus and encourage overprescription— well, then I have an opioid crisis you might be interested in reading about.”
Christians in recent decades have been wont to tell similarly dark stories about “the media” as an entity actively and consciously conspiring to tear down Christian tradition and values. Although there can be no doubt about the iconoclastic and nihilistic motives of some producers, directors and actors, such rhetoric overlooks cost incentives of the industry as a whole that profoundly shape so much of what happens. So, in other words, media systems that over-emphasize violence, conflict and sexuality may often do so because they’re chasing the Almighty Dollar by doing whatever it takes to catch people’s attention far more than intentionally seeking the overthrow of all goodness in the world.
That there is a being who consciously, actively seeks to overthrow all goodness in the world—the adversary known as “Lucifer”—is undoubtedly a vital part of what sets apart Christians from the many who write off any speculation about diabolical schemes as ridiculous. The devil is not just a funny cartoon or Halloween costume for believers—but one who, as the ancient apostle Peter wrote, is “prowling around like a roaring lion, looking for anyone he can devour” (CSB).
And he doesn’t act alone. As the Bible itself hints in John’s final prophesy, Latter-day Saints believe that a third of the host of heaven followed Lucifer in rebelling against the Father’s plan of happiness before we came here to this earth. Those spirits work to influence human agents who—yes—can subject themselves to evil influence.
Thus, temptation and sin in a thousand varieties—including the most horrific of acts perpetrated by one human being on another. In witnessing some of what human beings have been willing to do to each other—especially to the most vulnerable among them—it’s very difficult to satisfactorily explain that through psychological theories alone.
So, in other words, Christian believers are primed to see evil lurking around corners—and in the background. That’s our theology and ontology and philosophy as a whole.
But—and here’s the crucial point—that doesn’t mean evil is lurking around every corner, and motivating all that we don’t happen to like or agree with in the world. When all is said, and done, and “proclaimed from the housetops,” it will almost certainly leave us all surprised, as the full scope of what actually happened turns out to often be more complex (and sometimes maybe even simpler) than what any of us imagined, believer and nonbeliever alike.
It can be extremely difficult for any of us to tell what’s happening when competing news outlets proffer fundamentally different portrayals of the “facts.”
No matter the larger truth in the end, there’s something morbidly satisfying in the present about believing large groups of people are actively out to get you—something that has become bread and butter to both political parties in America today. Rather than disagreeing over policies, it’s far too easy to presume malevolence and insist the other side is trying to hurt America (and lying through their teeth while they’re at it).
Do leaders in this nation lie too often? Unfortunately yes—and on both sides.
Are they trying to bring down American democracy or small businesses—or actively, consciously working to destroy Christianity?
That’s precisely the story that many people live with as reality—waking up to consume news that confirms it, and lying down at night with more news that does the same.
In fairness, it can be extremely difficult for any of us to tell what’s happening when competing news outlets proffer fundamentally different portrayals of the “facts” at hand. A 2019 report found that between 1987 and 2017 news media saw, “ a shift from a more academic, straightforward, event-based reporting to reporting based on personal perspective.” This “personal perspective” makes it harder to trust the news. When in the wake of a school shooting, the news media focuses almost exclusively on guns, the rhetoric is perhaps partly responsible for conspiracies that insist school shootings are “orchestrated” by shadowy actors trying to take away second amendment rights.
And counterintuitively, when misinformation is removed from public platforms, the censorship itself can take on a life of its own, feeding the popularity of the material, and becoming exhibit A for those pointing to widespread conspiracy in the matter. There appears to be no shortcuts in the difficult work of discernment and persuasion.
When public discourse is shut down or imbalanced like this, the larger, more complex truths can easily get lost—for instance, how school shootings can emerge from the sad outcome of a configuration of factors (not just one) and which no human agents are consciously blending together at all.
Given the difficulties of seeing this larger picture (and recognizing truth amidst deeply contested narratives), it’s worth asking: Are there ways to help people—all of us—and know what’s actually true?
Scripture speaks of the “discerning of spirits” as a spiritual gift bestowed on some by the Holy Spirit. Elder David Bednar has taught this gift can help us (1) “detect hidden error and evil in others”; (2) “detect hidden errors and evil in ourselves”; (3) “find and bring forth the good that may be concealed in others”; and (4) “find and bring forth the good that may be concealed in us.”
In place of condemnation, then, this calls for conversation and even attempts to persuade or teach each other.
As a way to assist the development of this gift more collectively, we propose several potential criteria that might help clarify the lines and differentiate between true and exaggerated conspiracy:
1. Does the particular commentary annihilate public trust? One potential criteria is to notice how the narrative being propounded functions – both in ourselves individually and in the lives of others who come to embrace it: Does the theory evaporate trust in anything being said through official channels? Does it increase our desire to stay engaged in our communities and continue trying to improve society? Does it generate despair and extreme fear?
Of course, sometimes even truth generates fear, despair and distrust. Yet sometimes even legitimate questions can be so framed in dark suspicion that the result is almost inescapable fear and such toxic despair and distrust that people want to disengage from public life. As University of Miami political scientist Joseph Uscinski summarized the contours of trust-corroding commentaries: “Our lives are controlled by plots hatched in secret places. Although we ostensibly live in a democracy, a small group of people run everything, but we don’t know who they are. When big events occur—pandemics, recessions, wars, terrorist attacks—it is because that secretive group is working against the rest of us.”
As author Rob Brotherton added, such a portrayal “assumes nothing is as it seems; it portrays the conspirators as preternaturally competent; and as unusually evil.”
Who wouldn’t disengage out of fear and disgust with this kind of a conviction? Brotherson writes about a 1995 Stanford study that found people exposed to especially dark conspiracy theories were less likely to vote in an upcoming election and less likely to volunteer or donate to a political campaign. Simply watching a compelling portrayal of the suspicion “eroded, at least temporarily, a little of the viewer’s sense of civic engagement.”
2. Does the rhetoric justify ourselves – while demonizing those we disagree with? It’s true that we’re more likely to believe conspiracies when we’re scared and feeling helpless – which makes a time like this especially ripe for such commentary, as many are pointing out. It’s also the case that we’re also much more likely to believe them when they paint those we don’t like or disagree with in a bad light (and confirm our own goodness). As one political science professor puts it: “To be believable, [the theory] must affirm the political worldview of a person …You aren’t going to believe in theories that denigrate your own side.”
That explains why partisan conspiracy theories—deliberately accusing members of one party of conspiring—have higher support than other theories.
3. Does the specific messaging feel truthful – in terms of the typical ways truth is discerned by Christians?
To followers no doubt holding this same question about discerning truth, Jesus Christ famously encouraged them to focus on the “fruits” of those sharing the message. Although we often take that to refer to objective and practical consequences of a message (or a messenger), the Apostle Paul elaborated another sense of fruit when he taught the Galatians to watch for “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith” as a litmus test for the Spirit of God (and truth itself).
Does a message increase these things in our lives? Or the opposite?
Even truthful messages can be shared with so much fear or aggression or arrogance, that they lose something of their truth value – coming to function in our lives more like untruth.
Joseph Smith once summarized simply, “truth tastes good.” That doesn’t mean truth must give us “warm fuzzies.” But if it fills us with dread, fear, anger, rage, accusation and hardness…if those are its fruits, maybe we should pay attention? In that case, whether in the message – or the way the message is being shared – something may be off.
4. How likely is the commentary pointing towards something that ends up being fully true? One thing that should keep us humble is the fact that in many cases, things that seemed outlandish and ridiculous turn out, in the end, to be true. For instance, Douthat reminds readers that rumors about pedophilia among Catholic priests and exploitation among Hollywood producers were largely dismissed as “conspiracy theories” in the past. To that, he suggests: “So to worry too much about online paranoia outracing reality is to miss the most important journalistic task, which is the further unraveling of scandals that would have seemed, until now, too implausible to be believed.”
That’s probably something we should all let ourselves do on occasion—think critically about what we’re being told, including by official, trusted sources. We can do that without throwing out our equally essential bonds of trust and confidence as a public together. It’s possible to walk and chew gum at the same time—and it’s possible to nurture trust and ask meaningful questions together.
5. How much intentionality is presumed to be involved? Are people being accused of intentionally causing harm—vs. just doing harm by wrong, foolish or short-sighted decisions?
Douthat goes on to note the tendency of people drawing attention to potential conspiracies to posit “ideologically convenient villains and assume the absolute worst about their motives, and to imagine an omnicompetence among the corrupt and conniving that doesn’t actually exist”—while also frequently “trying to deflect blame for their own failings, by blaming a malign enemy within or an evil-genius rival for problems that their own blunders helped create.”
However much true villains and awful motives clearly exist, the devil is so often in the details— with a tendency for many people who are angry or scared to insinuate conscious malevolence in a place that a soft heart would see ignorance, lack of awareness, or even perhaps honest disagreement.
6. How broad is the scope of an accusation? Are large swaths of people being accused of dastardly things? (they’re all lying. They’re all trying to keep us sick. They’re all trying to bring down American democracy or economic prosperity . . .
Although once again, it’s painfully clear throughout history that large swaths of people can be led to do terrible things—and that people can very much intentionally cause harm—we can be too quick to paint whole groups of people as wanting to cause harm: “those liberals . . . those Republicans . . . those religious folks . . . those gay activists.”
Every time Jacob was told on trips home to Utah during graduate school that “Obama is trying to hurt America,” he would say something like, “I go to school with many people who think a lot like Obama—and I’ve never met any of them conspiring to overthrow the Republic. Even though I disagree deeply with many of them, they all sincerely believe their policies are what’s best for the country.”
So, in other words—people may be dead wrong, even about really important questions—and hold beliefs with even dangerous consequences. But they may not know it!
In many cases, things that seemed outlandish and ridiculous turn out, in the end, to be true.
In place of condemnation, this calls for conversation and even attempts to persuade or teach each other, in a spirit of respect and love.
How much less painful this would all be right now in America if we could do just that: giving people the benefit of the doubt. And trusting that everyone (well, most everyone—apart from those conscious of causing harm) is doing the best they can.
Is that really so hard? Yes it is—in America today it is.
But what a difference this could make! In practice, this would be the difference between saying “Most people in the healthcare system actually want people to stay sick, because that will keep their revenue flowing. Professionals know there are better ways, but willfully ignore—and lie to people about them.” Versus proposing this instead: “However much pharmaceutical monies have shaped our healthcare approaches, that is something largely outside the awareness of most medical professionals—who are doing their best based on what they know, to help relieve suffering and illness.”
It takes humility to be self-critical and push ourselves beyond the oversimplified, dopamine-spiking horror stories – in a way that helps us discern the full picture of what’s happening: a picture where those we disagree with might be making major mistakes, but not consciously, and where honest differences in perspectives exist about the best course forward.
But it would invite a different kind of conversation, a bigger-hearted kind of conversation: with less incentive to write off All Those People as both wicked and intentionally malevolent, and much more space for mutual persuasion, learning and expansion of understanding together.
It’s in that kind of conversation that surely we have the best chance of discerning the full truth of a matter – including about aspects not fully clear to public view. (As a little training-wheels to a conversation with much bigger doses of generosity, curiosity and openness, we commend Arthur Peña’s delightful conversation guide developed for what he calls “Truth Seeking Together” – with one particular guide directing people in a small group conversation around the question: “What’s YOUR conspiracy theory? What do you think is ‘really going on’…?”)
One thing is clear. If we want to know the full truth, a public conversation full of dark suspicion and hot animosity is the last place we’re going to find it. That’s why so much depends on continuing to fight for a discourse where space for disagreement continues to coexist with trust, giving the benefit of the doubt, and generosity all around…especially when tricky, sensitive and consequential questions are before us, like “how many people are dying from COVID-19, and what should we do about it?”
Disagreeing on that question and others like it doesn’t make something ridiculous conspiracy – not unless we insist on injecting dark overtones into every last explanation. It’s possible to disagree deeply – including about life-and-death matters – without slicing away the crucial bonds of trust that preserve the precious union of our society.
We forget that at our peril.