In the past few years, the popularity of YouTube channels like Buzzfeed Unsolved, who look into cold cases and conspiracy theories (such as The Illuminati) have skyrocketed, with their views over the last 30 days going up by almost 30%, totalling over 98 million views across their channel in the nine months since it launched. In October of last year, a podcast was released where NBA player Kyrie Irving said the earth was flat. It was listened to by so many people that the numbers of people who believed the ‘flat earth theory’ more than doubled within the month. The massive rise in the popularity of this type of content has us wondering, what exactly is the reason that conspiracy theories are becoming so popular in mainstream media?
While it is extremely common, and actually expected, for conspiracy theories to gain popularity in the months after an American election, there has been something different about the period since Trump came to power. Since 2016, the number of people consuming this type of content has risen, through podcasts, YouTube videos, TV series and more. In fact, it is now believed that over half the global population believe in some sort of conspiracy theory. On top of that, it is often claimed that if you believe in one conspiracy theory, you are more inclined to believe in others. The number of celebrities in popular media stating their beliefs in these theories, like Irving, rapper B.O.B and even President Trump, is one of the possible reasons that the consumption of media discussing conspiracy theories has risen, although there are several other suggested reasons for this phenomenon.
The most prevalent explanation that I have come across is that people like to find a scenario that is more palatable than the truth, which is often how these theories are formed. For instance, it is easier for some people to think that the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School was staged by the government, than it is to believe that a 20 year old man walked into an elementary school and killed 20 children. People want to believe that the world is a better place than it is, and so they find ways to change the information presented into a less tragic story. This would explain the sudden rise in the popularity of conspiracies after 2016; Trump was elected as US President , Britain voted ‘Yes’ to Brexit, and there was a spike in terrorist attacks. The world was becoming a darker place to be in, and people were compensating by coming up with more personally tolerable reasons for the atrocities that were, and still are, occurring.
Not all of the people who are consuming this type of media actually believe in the theories that they hear about. There are certainly some people staring at green ink sites like educate-yourself.org, with tinfoil hats on, trying to encourage anti-vaxxers because they are afraid of autism. Some of us, like myself, have fallen down the rabbit hole that is YouTube. It’s not hard to find yourself watching conspiracy theory videos about child abductions, and reading those twitter threads about the FBI agent in our phones, when the information is just so accessible. It’s not that we necessarily believe them, but still they manage to capture our attention too. Why is this?
I think that the answer is simple really; it’s like reading sci-fi novels, or watching dystopian dramas. To those of us who don’t believe, these are just stories. We compartmentalise them from reality, and take them on as works of fiction. It gives us something to think about and debate with our friends over what may have happened. Literature and media that aim to debunk these sorts of theories is just as popular, with books like Escaping the Rabbit Hole, and Just Stop gaining five star ratings.
We like mysteries and puzzles, which is why murder mysteries and games such as Cluedo are popular regardless of age or gender. So when we hear about a real-world example of someone trying to prove or disprove an outlandish theory, it piques our interest. We want to know their thought process, how someone seemingly normal could jump to such conclusions with the evidence at hand. With a growing number of people believing more and more outlandish theories, it’s only natural that we would seek it out in our media. As Jerry Fletcher said, “a good conspiracy is an unprovable one…If you can prove it, it means they must’ve screwed up somewhere along the line.”