Most of us know someone who has delved deep into the world of conspiracy theories. It usually starts with a seemingly benign question like, "Who really killed JFK?" or "Did we really land on the moon?" At this early conspiratorial phase, it's easy to just dismiss the thoughts as simple anti-conformism. With some people it really is just as basic as this and they will grow out of it, but with others it isn't. When conspiracy theorists cross that line of simplicity, the results can be truly damaging. The theories can begin to consume the theorist's life, causing damage to professional, social, and familial relationships. Soon, everything is a conspiracy and the conspiracy theorist's perceived reality becomes a dramatic, sometimes frightening, fiction.
Broader society tends to dismiss those who are deeply engaged with these particularly "crazy" conspiracy theories as lacking sound mental health. Certainly, mental illness does play a role in many cases. Sometimes therapy is all that is needed to bring the conspiracy theorist back into the real world. Other times, medication may be required. However, saying that those deeply embedded into the conspiratorial world are all "just suffering from an illness" is a way to absolve society from the partial share of responsibility that it holds.
It's difficult to get online or turn on the television or radio and not hear a conspiracy theory being casually promoted as fact. While many of us are able to discern truth from fiction, others can't. Reasons for this can range from simple ignorance to a subconscious refusal to accept the fiction is a fiction due to political or ideological biases. Big name conspiracy peddlers include Glenn Beck and Alex Jones, who constantly preach doom while trying to sell you gold and the latest survival gear. After getting a full helping of fear and conspiracies, their audience then goes to social media or their contact list to promote the fantasy they just heard to trusting friends and family members. Thus, the falsehoods spread like a pandemic.
Media personalities certainly have a large degree of responsibility for the tide of conspiratorial beliefs that is currently sweeping the country. Yes, everyone is ultimately responsible for what they do and what they believe, but it should still be incumbent on individuals who claim to be speaking the truth to actually tell the truth. As active members of society, we shouldn't just sit idly by either. When we see someone on Facebook or Twitter saying something vile like, "The Sandy Hook Shooting was orchestrated by the government!" we should be ready to tell them why that's not the case instead of shrugging our shoulders and passively tolerating the conspiracy. When we hear a media figure say the same thing, we should let their advertisers know. Sure, those who push outrageous conspiracies have freedom of speech and can, for the most part, say what they wish. Fortunately, we have that freedom too, and we need to use it to counter the lies with the truth. Living in this era of inter-connectivity, where everyone's opinions -- outlandish or sensible -- are available with a click, places on us a greater responsibility to safeguard the truth than our parents or grandparents had.
You may be wondering, why take the time at all? It's just a harmless conspiracy theory; it's disturbing, but it won't affect me. In that case, I'd tell you to remember the recent violence caused as a result of conspiratorial beliefs. The militia that perpetrated the Oregon Standoff were avid conspiracy theorists. Robert Dear, the Colorado Planned Parenthood shooter, was known to be a strong believer in anti-government conspiracy theories. And don't forget Dylann Roof who, in his manifesto, said he was inspired by the Council of Conservative Citizens, a conspiratorial organization that promotes racism and Antisemitism. Beyond individual actions, widely believed conspiracies, such as the one that says man-made climate change is a hoax, risk putting our country and planet in jeopardy. Unfortunately, this particular conspiracy has gained enough traction that numerous members of Congress believe in it (or at least claim to).
Those who promote conspiracy theories, especially the ones with serious, real world implications, are doing our country a massive disservice. It is incumbent on us, as citizens, to stop them at their source. Viewing these theories as harmless or pretending those that spread them are simple entertainers will only serve to further the problem, and the sociopolitical consequences will be tremendous. Will shaming the peddlers make the conspiracies stop flowing? Maybe, maybe not, but at the very least it will let them know we've had enough and they need to come up with a new shtick.