Despite their fictional nature, conspiracy theories have always been entangled with notions of evidence. These theoretical “conspiracies” – as opposed to actual conspiracies – have been historically driven by the circulation of fabricated evidence and forgeries. From the anti-Semitic pseudo-world-domination-manual The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, to the disinformation campaign which elevated Area 51 to mythical status, it is increasingly evident that popular conspiracy theories are instigated more by fraudulent evidence and deliberate disinformation than by individual psychology and cognitive deficits.
Common experience suggests that individuals are more likely to spread a conspiracy theory than to invent one; and more likely to spread it as “being worthy of consideration” than as “a believed-in fact.” Thus, the frequently asked question of “why people believe” in imaginary conspiracies is less critical than questions of how, and why, false conspiracy theories are spread, independent of belief. In the past decade, the pseudo-conspiracy genre has become gamified, globalized, politicized, monetized, and/or weaponized to the point that collective post-truth movements such as the Flat Earth Society or QAnon, which – possessing traits of collective fanfiction, digital folklore, Alternate Reality Game (ARG), Live Action Role Play (LARP), con game, hoax, and cult – bear so little resemblance to classical conspiracy theories that perhaps they should not even be described in such terms. Conspiracy fantasies may prove a more useful description.
The incoherent smorgasbord of endlessly revised and unfalsifiable theories – united under the broad umbrellas of these popular misinformation movements – calls to mind the cutting assertion attributed to theoretical physicist Wolfgang Pauli: The theories ‘aren’t even wrong.’ Nevertheless, the poster in agent Mulder’s X-Files basement office astutely reminds us that many people do, indeed, ‘WANT TO BELIEVE.’ Contemporary conspiracy fantasy movements, therefore, may be driven less by belief than by desire.