True statements often get labeled a “conspiracy theory” because of how they are presented.
In this article, I’m going to show you how to make sure your truthful beliefs aren’t dismissed, because they seem too vague or conspiracy theory-ish.
What Makes A Conspiracy Theory
The biggest tell for a conspiracy theory is “they.”
“They want us dumb, just look at the schools.”
“They’re lying to us about UFOs.”
“They want us medicated and sick”
“They want us to go to war.”
“They faked it, and made a false flag.”
Who is “they?” Why do “they” want to do this?
By definition, a conspiracy theory must include a “they.” After all, in order for it to be a conspiracy, someone has to be conspiring.
However, these statements disempower. By keeping the opposition nebulous and vague, these statements prevent any real political organizing and action. How do you fight a “they?”
With vague opposition, comes vague goals. No one accomplishes anything. Then conspiracy theorists blame their lack of change on another vague conspiracy – “they” are stopping us.
If you want to write a better conspiracy theory – define the “they” and get specific.
Let’s take one of the most famous conspiracy theory statements:
“I don’t like them putting chemicals in the water that turn the freaking frogs gay!”
First – who is them? Why do they want to turn the frogs gay? What are these chemicals? How do they get in the water? How exactly do frogs “turn gay?”
On the surface, this seems like an absurd statement. However, it was inspired by a real study.
Atrazine, one of the world’s most widely used pesticides, wreaks havoc with the sex lives of adult male frogs, emasculating three-quarters of them and turning one in 10 into females, according to a new study by University of California, Berkeley, biologists.
The 75 percent that are chemically castrated are essentially “dead” because of their inability to reproduce in the wild, reports UC Berkeley’s Tyrone B. Hayes, professor of integrative biology.
Hayes was first hired in 1997 by a company, which later became agribusiness giant Syngenta, to study their product, atrazine, a pesticide that is applied to more than half the corn crops in the United States, and widely used on golf courses and Christmas tree farms. When Hayes found results Syngenta did not expect — that atrazine causes sexual abnormalities in frogs, and could cause the same problems for humans — it refused to allow him to publish his findings.
In other words – there is indeed a commonly used chemical that caused frogs to change their gender.
However, this statement was better designed for memes than credibility.
Here is how you’d write the same statement without the “they” and get specific.
Atrazine, a commonly used herbicide, has been found to chemically castrate male frogs – turning testosterone to estrogen and making one in ten frogs turn from male to female. While, there are no studies on this chemicals effect in humans, it would be reasonable to assume the effects are similar. When a scientist working for Syngenta, the company responsible for Atrazine, discovered this, the company refused to allow him to publish his findings.
Does that sound like a conspiracy theory? Or does it read more like news?
This message is actually more grave. It implies that the majority of corn products (and keep in mind – most soft drinks and candy bars are made from corn) in the United States include a chemical that regularly induces sex change in frogs and chemically castrates them. Testosterone levels have been decreasing in Western nations. Could chemical products like this be related?
You’ll note – the majority of this statement is factual claims that can be empirically proven or disproven. Either Atrazine has been found to change hormone levels in frogs, or it hasn’t. The few statements that are speculation and noted as such.
For example, there are indeed no studies (that I know of) on Atrazine in humans. While it’s not a huge leap to assume the effects are similar, if you jump to that conclusion, you give opposition the chance to say “that’s not true, you can’t prove that.” And if you go full-meme and jump to the emotional conclusion of that speculation – “we’re being chemically castrated by CORN!” – you sound like a raving loon.
Acknowledging that the effects of Atrazine in humans hasn’t been studied also puts the burden of proof on the opposition. Shouldn’t they study the effects of a chemical on humans before putting it into the majority of the nation’s corn supply? What studies do they have to show that it isn’t harmful in humans the way it is in frogs?
Specifics Create Action
Of course, this factual statement suggests that big chemical businesses are the “they” and gives an environmental message. The solution here would be environmental regulation, which is do-able through existing political means. It’s less popular with conspiracy audiences, and requires the hard unglamorous work of political organizing.
It’s also less memetic than shouting wild statements with high energy. How far will the above factual statement travel compared to memes that have been made about frogs turning gay? The most popular conspiracy theorists make a dozen memetic statements in rapid succession, without explaining the source behind the claims. It’s great entertainment, but leads nowhere.
This vague “they”-style disempowers the audience. Without a clear “they,” the audience has no way of taking meaningful action against the forces behind these conspiracies besides consuming more conspiracy content.
Most conspiracy theorists have a business model built around media consumption. The “call-to-action” of their content isn’t political organizing – it’s buying products from them. They offer their media, health supplements, water filters, and bug-out bags as the solution. (“Problem, reaction, solution” to put it in conspiracy theory terms.)
If popular conspiracy theorists gave their audience a clear “they,” the response would be different. On Atrazine, it might be political organizing, avoiding processed foods, or growing your own garden. Right-wing conspiracy theorists might even find common ground with the left around certain issues like environmental regulation, reducing corporate power, or organic non-gmo food.
The biggest problem with bad conspiracy theories is that they disempower you. Behind every “they” is a real group. These organizations have boards of directors. Power structures. People who can be pressured. Do you really think Syngenta, a company you didn’t know about till you read this article, is all-powerful?
When you get specific, change is possible, and the power is back with the people.
Read more: The End of Neutrality