Benjamin Franklin once said there are two things that are certain in life: death and conspiracy theories. OK, that may be paraphrasing but, when it comes to American society, it’s true. Conspiracy theories have become so deeply ingrained in the history of the United States that the majority of Americans don’t know what to believe. Was JFK’s assassination more than a one-man job? More than half of Americans think so. Did the real Paul McCartney die and get replaced by a fake Paul or “Faul”? Even I believe that one (a little bit). Conspiracy theories are as American as deep-fried Oreos and NASCAR, but, as fun as they are to joke about, they can have dangerous consequences on the American psyche and the people being conspired about.
The talk of conspiracy theories was recently revived with the #FreeBritney trend blowing up on Twitter. If you haven’t been following this roller coaster of information, the story goes that, after the 37-year-old singer checked herself into a mental health facility following the declining health of her father, someone claiming to be a former member of her team went on a fan contest to say Spears’s hospital check-in wasn’t by her own doing. Apparently, all of Spears’s choices were orchestrated by her family and her management team, following a legal device called conservatorship. This led to an outcry among fans, protesting in Los Angeles and sharing stories on Twitter about strange behavior they witnessed from Spears’s team. Spears, of course, has denied that she has no control over her life, but this just ignited the #FreeBritney movement even more.
And that is the exact problem with conspiracy theories — they can never be stopped. Once the idea gains ground, anyone trying to reject the theory is just another part of the conspiracy. Spears went on Instagram to address the rumors, but fans and followers alike claimed this was just another example of her not being in control of her life. Conspiracy theories feed off of their deniers and, when they fester, they can cause real-life consequences.
When Hillary Clinton was running for president, a theory went viral that she was involved in some sort of child sex ring/human-trafficking ordeal that involved a pizzeria in the Washington D.C. area. To most of us, that sounds absolutely absurd. However, right-wing media outlets, including former Trump White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon’s passion project Breitbart News, spread the theory and many far-right-wingers believed it. The theory went so far, in fact, that a young man armed with an AR-15 rifle opened fire in the pizza shop to “investigate” the claims. Fortunately, no one was injured.
So why do these conspiracy theories exist? Studies show that trust in the government has been on a decline since the Nixon Administration. With this lack of trust comes skepticism and cynicism, and with skepticism and cynicism comes the belief that the government or other public officials are hiding something. It’s only natural to want to fill in the blanks.
Conspiracy theories can be fun sometimes. Did The Beatles leave clues about Paul’s death in their music? I don’t know, but it’s entertaining to look for them. Is Madonna a lizard overlord sent to control humankind from the inside? Probably. These theories may be ridiculous but they’re fun — they cause no harm. The danger is when we allow our theorizing nature to seep into our politics, to treat politics as if it comes with the same drama and absurdity that pop culture does.
Trust in our pop culture figures is not vital to the structural foundation of this country. Roseanne Barr is not the one deciding what I can and cannot do with my body — and thank god for that. I don’t need to have faith that Jennifer Aniston won’t start a war in Iraq or that Alec Baldwin won’t cut social security. However, losing trust in the government and living under the notion that the government is constantly hiding something from you damages civic efficacy and in turn damages our democracy. Why would I vote if I think that, no matter who I want in office, there is a mysterious board of people really running the scene? Why even bother to cast a ballot in the primary if all candidates are lizard-people anyway? These sound like silly examples, but up until these past midterms, voter turnout followed the same downwards trend as trust in the government.
I don’t want conspiracy theories to end — I find them fascinating, and what else could I find over 700 words to write about? But we must get to a place where we can separate our friendly, funny theories of quirky celebrities with harmful, chaotic ideas. Politics is not pop culture and vice versa, but the way we treat one has dire effects on the way we see the other. When the CNN website looks like a screenshot from The Onion, it is easy to lose trust in your government, to theorize why things are the way they are. It is important not to get caught up in that, to know that the people who can change the country and control the things that happen aren’t a board of mysterious figures in a back room, but in fact all of us.
Samantha Della Fera can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.