In the contemporary world we inhabit, apart from the usual human beings and tall buildings that we pass by on an everyday basis, we also, consciously or unconsciously, wade through a traffic of news. A chunk of the news that catches our fancy is honest, but much of the other is pure conjecture. Because we live in an age of the Internet and cellphones, TV and radio, which literally cover every inch of the earth, bringing to us any kind of information and answers at the touch of a button, people can no longer stand not knowing. So in a situation where the authorities delivered a part of the news but not the whole thing, what happens when there is a communication gap between the one giving information and the one receiving? Such a situation provides perfect conditions for conspiracy theories to germinate. Dr. Preeti Singh, a senior consultant, clinical psychologist says that “it all begins at the idea level. People make their own hypothesis, and on that basis they start filtering in whatever information that builds their theory. Sometimes the idea is shakable and sometimes, not.”
You’ve heard them and you’ve probably believed a lot of them as well. And why not? They seem rational and a possibility. The most recent conspiracy theories have been regarding the missing Malaysian MH 370 plane that, from what it seems like, vanished out of thin air. Even though no hard evidence has been presented as to what actually happened to the plane but people began forming their own explanations a mere couple days later the plane went missing. Siddharth, a final year student at Delhi University, believes that aliens abducted the plane mid air, while Sanskriti, a working 25 year old, thinks it was a terrorist attack that caused the plane to go astray. Some think it to be a covert CIA operation, while others claim it was the pilots who deliberately crashed the plane. The Internet is also rife with all kinds of imaginative speculations. In fact, in a survey conducted by an American website, a solid five percent of the people who participated in the survey do believe that MH 370 was abducted by aliens. Back home, the entire nation was and still does toot whenever the cases of Pramod Mahajan’s and Aarushi Talwar’s death comes up. Because a conclusion on the real cause of their death was never reached up, there is a lot of wonderment concerning those two.
So what exactly are conspiracy theories, your thick brain must be wondering? Daniel Jolley, who is a PhD exploring the social psychological consequences of conspiracy theories and projects his views on conspiracypsychology.com, defines it as a proposed plot by powerful people or organizations working together in secret to accomplish some (usually sinister) goal. Conspiracies are usually passed around when the relevant authorities remain mum about the event, which is precisely what happened in the MH 370 case. None of the countries spoke up about their course of action and findings. So when people begin to bubble with the need to decipher an unexplained cause, theories are thrown about. Dr. Bristi Barkataki says there are two parties to a conspiracy-one who plots the conspiracy and the others who believe in it. She goes on to say that some theorists feel that conspiracy theories give people a sense of control. People are uncomfortable with instability and prefer to imagine living in a predictable and safe world. Most conspiracy theories offer high quality information that is often presented after manipulation to the public leading to fear, insecurity and mistrust.
When Princess Diana died in 1997, it would not be an exaggeration to point out that the entire world was in shock, as if it had been electrocuted. What seemed to be a simple car crash, perhaps because of wrong judgment on part of the driver or the paparazzi that were chasing her car, was blown out of proportion and confetti of conspiracies were dispersed everywhere. It does seem odd that hearsay assumptions were roaming the streets when the entire scene of her death was made crystal clear to her male and female lovers alike. Maybe the world could not grapple with the fact that a huge social figure like the Princess herself could disintegrate like other commoners who die in car crashes everyday. At the time, it was speculated that The Royal Family had her killed because of her controversial relationship with Dodi Fayed. Then there are others, which state that Henri Paul, the driver, was paid by national services to complete the deed. Till date, there are investigations going on to find out the ‘actual’ cause of her death. The Maxim staffers decided to get their hands dirty and so asked a couple of people what they think about Princess Diana’s death.
So the big question here is, why do people believe conspiracy theories? Why do people find it easier to believe that the pilots were behind the crash of MH 370 than the plane crashed due to malfunctions in midair? Or why do they believe that 9/11 was a massive USA government ploy than it was a terrorist attack? Or why do people think global warming is a concept that was started by the more developed countries to slow down the progress of the less developed ones? It seems more viable for the world to not accept opinions without concrete evidence in an age where there is much influx of information. But, more often than not, the reverse seems to happen. After some poking around, Dr. Mirchandani, who is a practicing psychiatrist in Mumbai, says, “People like certainty. They need explanations to make life less complicated. With all the menial complications that wrap people, they don’t want any more of it and so believe conspiracies when they hear them. Conspiracies emerge when there is uncertainty. Also, some people are paranoid. They believe that there is a force behind everything. When something goes wrong, they immediately think it’s a plot and it is because of their own paranoia, that rumours are created.”
It’s assumed that conspiracy theories are harmless fun. Someone bored on a sunny day came up with a concoction of conjectures to spread. Yeah, that sounds about right, but it’s also true that that’s more closely related to gossip than hardcore conspiracies. In our chat with Dr. Preeti, she also explained that people enjoy gossip for the break in monotony it brings to their daily run of the mill lives. And sometimes, let’s face it, hearing about a breakup, your single soul does feel good about itself. On a more serious note, though, conspiracy theories do affect society. According to Dr. Mirchandani, if people hear theories regarding issues that are sensitive to them, they might take matters into their own hands.”
Rumours, conjectures and conspiracy theories are an ongoing and an everyday thing. It’s cool if you endorse them. No one’s delivering a fart bomb to your house. Well, maybe, but probably for different reasons. The truth is in some cases we’ll never know the truth. Some conspiracy theories might hold some substance and be closer to the truth than you think. Maybe the aliens are coming to get us…
By Shreya Kalra