Forty-nine years ago Friday, the Apollo 11 spacecraft delivered the first astronauts to the surface of the moon.
The footprints Buzz Aldrin left in lunar soil are still around — and so are the throngs of conspiracy theorists who claim the entire landing was faked.
For one thing, they argue, the flag the crew planted seemed to flutter in videos, which shouldn’t happen since there’s no wind on the moon. Besides, wouldn’t mini-meteors have killed the astronauts the moment they ventured outside?
The “moon landing hoax” was among the first conspiracy theories to gain traction with the American public. In the years since, the theories have multiplied like jack rabbits, swarming all corners of the cultural landscape.
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, some fringe activists insisted the U.S. government, rather than al-Qaeda, had planned the attacks.
Conspiracies about President Trump’s ties to Russia compete with all the real news on the topic.
“Pizzagate” conspiracists claimed Hillary Clinton was operating a pedophile ring in a D.C. pizza parlor, leading one true believer to fire a gun in the restaurant.
It’s tempting to dismiss conspiracy theorists as wearers of tinfoil hats. But the theories should be taken seriously for their effects on political and social discourse — and research suggests that, under the right circumstances, many people are susceptible to their allure.
While people’s attraction to conspiracy theories might seem illogical, it stems from a very logical desire to make sense of the world.
Assigning meaning to what happens has helped humans to thrive as a species, and conspiracy theories are internally cohesive stories that “help us to understand the unknown whenever things happen that are fearful or unexpected,” said Jan-Willem van Prooijen, a social psychologist at Vrije University in Amsterdam.
For some believers, the sense of comfort and clarity such stories bring can override the question of their truth value.
Conspiracy theorists often have a high degree of tolerance for contradiction that allows them to ignore evidence against their theories.
Conspiracy theories also supply a seductive ego boost. Believers often consider themselves part of a select in-group that — unlike the deluded masses — has figured out what’s really going on.
Rejection and hardship can intensify people’s need to believe a story that empowers them or justifies their situation, whether the story is true.
People who are dissatisfied with the state of the world — such as the unemployed or those who support extreme ideologies — are highly vulnerable to conspiracy theories, van Prooijen said: “If people are satisfied, they are less likely to pursue this sort of theory.”
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