In Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories, Brotherton investigates conspiracy theories, explaining how they work, how they gain traction, and why we find them so appealing.
How can I be sure I’m talking to the real Rob Brotherton?
You’ll just have to take my word for it.
Have conspiracy theories been around as long as humans have?
Conspiracy theories have been around since antiquity. That surprises a lot of people. It’s widely believed that they’re on the increase, particularly with the advent of the Internet. But if anything, they seem to have decreased over the last century or so.
Have you found any to be true?
Loads of claims are true. That’s an important message in the book. I’m not saying that anything that sounds like a conspiracy theory is necessarily false. People get up to no good; MK-Ultra and the Tuskegee experiments actually happened.
Where did the tinfoil hat idea come from?
The tinfoil hat appeared in a short story by Julian Huxley about a scientist who went to Africa and was captured. He was experimenting with mind control and used it to escape. But he realized that sending mind control messages would also affect him. Then he discovered that a tinfoil hat would protect him from psychic mind control. I don’t know why it caught on or why it’s been passed along. Maybe because it resonates with these stereotypes about people who believe in conspiracy theories—that they’re paranoid.
Is a sense of pride part of the appeal of believing conspiracy theories?
Absolutely: “I’ve discovered this thing. Most people don’t know it. I’m ahead of the curve.” Richard Hofstadter, one of the first scholars who looked at conspiracy theories, called it being a member of the intellectual avant-garde. You’re at the forefront of this thing, as opposed to the uninformed masses. But at the same time, we all want to be part of it. We don’t want to be duped.
Why have some theories, such as the Illuminati or the Elders of Zion, stuck around so long?
Anti-Semitic theories have been around since the advent of Christianity. The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, which I talk about in the book, was a forgery created by the Russian secret police at the start of the 20th century. It was an inflammatory text that brought together a lot of anti-Semitic ideas that had been around for centuries and it caught on. It contributed to the rise of the Nazis and the Holocaust. While it was proven to be a fraud and completely debunked, it still hangs around today because it resonates. As for the Illuminati, the interesting thing is how much they’ve fallen in the eyes of conspiracy theorists. When the Illuminati theory first took off, it was credited with orchestrating the French Revolution; they had all these lofty ideals. Those theories are still around today, but you’re more likely to hear about them managing the careers of pop stars. Their aspirations have lowered.