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{ in·deed·a·bly }

adverb: to competently express interest, surprise, disbelief, or contempt

Conspiracy theory

“Australia doesn’t exist!”

“Australia doesn’t exist!” hissed the helmet-haired American lady.

Her husband raised a sceptical eyebrow, then burst into a booming chuckle.

You almost had me there. Seriously, where are you from?” drawled her towering husband in a strong mid-western accent.

I had just fought my off the overcrowded train. On the platform, this bewildered looking middle-aged couple plaintively asked the crowd if anyone knew the way to the university graduation ceremony.

The grey-suited masses sombrely flowed around them, but no one stopped to help. Nobody even made eye contact. Welcome to London!

I too was heading to the graduation, so paused to point them in the right direction.

As we walked down the platform together, the man had commented that I talked different to the locals, and asked where I was from.

Australia, originally” I had replied.

Now they looked at me expectantly, waiting for me to confess that I had made the whole thing up, spoke with an affected accent, and was really from Wembley.   

At first I thought they were playing a joke on me.

I made a comment to the effect that meant my whole childhood must have been a lie, some big conspiracy.

They solemnly nodded in unison.

I asked where they had heard that Australia wasn’t real?

Facebook.

According to the couple, during British colonial times “being sent to Australia” was a euphemism for convicts who had been secretly executed.

The unique wildlife, like the kangaroos, platypus, and cassowary?

Invented by toy manufacturers to get around patents on teddy bears.

All the people claiming to be Australian citizens?

All actors. Just look at Hollywood, it is full of talented actors who have won Oscars, many claiming to be “Australian”: Cate Blanchett, Russell Crowe, Nicole Kidman, Geoffrey Rush, and Heath Ledger.

Where do people holidaying to Australia actually go?

South America. Unscrupulous airlines and tour companies just change twice as much, then fly around in circles, to make the flight seem longer before landing.

At this point I started to realise they weren’t having fun at my expense.

They genuinely believed what they were saying, with a level of certainly usually associated with people who hear voices: the very religious and the mentally ill.

When they spoke, they had the unquestioning earnestness only possessed by the young, or the most recent converts to a movement.

With a shake of my head, I joined the teeming hordes of suits marching to the exit. The American man called out:

“Open your eyes son, you have been taken in by a conspiracy!”

Australia doesn’t exist

While I waited for the ceremony to begin, I did a quick Google on this “Australia doesn’t exist” conspiracy. It turns out to be quite a thing!

For what it is worth, Buzzfeed reported that the Facebook post below was shared more than 20,000 times.

Australia doesn't exist. Image credit: Shelley Floryd.

Australia doesn’t exist. Image credit: Shelley Floryd.

Graduation

Graduation. Image credit: bluefieldphotos bp.

Graduation. Image credit: bluefieldphotos bp.

At the graduation ceremony a room full of excited, otherwise intelligent, people dressed up in costumes left over from the Harry Potter movies.

The more academically accomplished the individual, the sillier the hat and the more outlandish the robes.

Self-indulgent speakers delivering poorly written yet enthusiastically delivered speeches. There was a demonstrable inverse correlation between the value of the content and duration of the delivery.

Each speaker began their talk in that very British tradition of dissing the assembled crowd in an subtle and understated way:

“Chancellor, Vice-chancellor, Board of Governors, dignitaries, distinguished guests, graduands, and… ladies and gentlemen”

The chancellor greeted the first award presentation with a grin and a hearty handshake. ~800 awards later, the final graduate was met with a grimace and a quick left-handed squeeze, reminiscent of Bob Dole.

Hopefully he receives danger pay and an ice pack, as there was another graduation ceremony scheduled that afternoon!

An honorary doctorate was conferred to the CEO of mega-corp, who (coincidentally) also happened to be a significant corporate sponsor of the university.

The CEO then delivered the commencement speech. History contains some truly memorable and inspiring commencement speeches, for example those delivered by Will Ferrell or Steve Jobs. This was not one of them!

The ceremony did feature a few things I hadn’t experienced before.

Selfie. Image credit: VideoPlasty via WikiCommons.

Selfie. Image credit: VideoPlasty via WikiCommons.

There was a handful of narcissistic graduates who held up the ceremony while taking selfies in front of the auditorium crowd, or with the Chancellor. That was new.

Distinguished professors, seated in prime positions on the stage, who spent the whole ceremony reading paperback novels and playing on phones. That was surprising, and very rude.

The highlight for me was when a blind student received a Masters. That was inspiring!

Reading through vast reams of turgid academic prose is a challenging experience, I shudder to think what it must be like to consume via a Stephen Hawking-style text-to-speech voice.

I can’t begin to imagine how hard dictating the contents of a dissertation must be, not to mention all the subsequent rounds of editing.

The cheer they received when receiving their award could have been heard in the next borough!

Learning from the learned

After the ceremony I went out for a late lunch with several of the freshly minted graduates.

The conversation turned to the dissertation topics the students had chosen.

One of the graduates had studied the propensity for people to believe in conspiracy theories, based upon their: gender, age, nationality, education level, religious beliefs, and how they kept themselves informed of news.

Some of the findings were fascinating.

  • Younger people were more likely to believe in conspiracies than older people
  • The more secular a person’s worldview, the more accepting they were of conspiracy theories
  • Education levels did not impact a person’s propensity to believe in conspiracies
  • Education levels did tend to influence the nature of the conspiracies they believed
  • Social media was not the primary source of news for the majority of people
  • However social media was easily the most popular secondary source of news

I found that last point troubling.

Manipulation makes the world go around

Social media has made it easy for each of us to create our own comforting bubbles, seeking out voices that reinforce and support our own world views.

There exists a vast market of self-proclaimed “influencers” and “thought leaders” who sell into this eager and unquestioning audience.

Everyone from Tony Robbins to Robert Kiyosaki, Pete Adeney to Tim Ferriss… even the Kardashians!

Each has a discrete target audience, and a carefully crafted message designed to elicit a set of behaviours.

Spend less than you earn, and invest the remainder with Vanguard…

The power of positive thinking…

Your house is not an investment…

What is your morning routine…

Are these conspiracies? Or marketing techniques? Is there really a difference?

Conspiracy theory

What constitutes a conspiracy theory anyway?

Popular culture “conspiracies” include:

  • Elvis is alive?
  • The world is flat?
  • Vaccinations harm children?
  • The Apollo moon landings were faked?
  • A secret society of rich evil businessmen, stroking white cats, run the world?

How about some things that intuitively are plausible, yet we (mostly) choose not to accept:

  • Lobbying is legalised corruption?
  • Most professional sporting outcomes are scripted by bookies?
  • Bad actors” influence elections and referendum outcomes?
  • Performance enhancing drugs are mandatory for athletes seeking to be competitive?
  • It may be possible to save enough during a high paying working career to fund an extended retirement?

Or what about sponsored outcomes, where marketing spend seeks to triumph over scientific merit:

  • Climate change?
  • Saving money during a “Black Friday” sale?
  • Smoking, vaping, drinking, and getting sugared up?
  • Bloggers can actually make money from blogging (as opposed to selling into their audience)?

Believers view them as inalienable truths.

Sceptics view them as ridiculous fantasies, the stuff of myth, legend and fairy tales.

Who is correct?

How could something be proved or disproved?

Would the believers ever accept that proof?

Does it really matter?

Perspective is a wonderful thing!

Once you start thinking about the acceptance of conspiracy theories, a skim through a newspaper or news website becomes troubling.

For the vast majority of stories we have no viable way of independently validating the narrative that a news story contains, let alone whether the event actually happened at all.

Head in the sand. Image credit: Dawn Hudson.

Head in the sand. Image credit: Dawn Hudson.

A second troubling aspect is the curation effect.

What about the things that news outlets choose not to report? The real events that we never hear about because the topic isn’t entertaining, politick, titillating, anger-inducing, or otherwise unlikely to trigger a response from the audience.

An interesting trend is the number of people who conclude that current affairs is all manipulated, mostly bad news, and doesn’t make them happy. They tune out, disconnect, and figure that if something important happens then somebody will most likely tell them.

This is similar to folks who are eligible to vote, yet don’t bother. They’ll complain about the outcome just as loudly as the next person however!

Is it all one big conspiracy theory?

Speaking of elections, a strong argument could be made that our electoral system perpetuates one big conspiracy.

We know politicians lie for a living.

The popularity contest required to win a democratic election demands telling people what they want to hear.

The candidate with the most compelling pitch wins.

Yet time and again we get disheartened and angry when those same politicians fail to deliver on the unrealistic promises they made to get elected.

This is despite the fact that intellectually we knew they had to be lying in the first place, to the point where nobody really believes in election “promises”.

We then blame those same politicians for the failings of the government, rather than accepting our own accountability for electing those politicians who sold the best pipe dream in the first place!

Rinse, and repeat.

Choose your own conspiracy theory

On the train ride home I reflected on the day.

Witnessing so many accomplished graduates receive their awards was heartwarming.

Talking to some of those graduates during lunch was educational.

Discovering that, according to the wisdom of the internet, I had unwittingly fallen for a conspiracy theory regarding my origins was amusing.

Thinking about how society is so relentlessly influenced, marketed, and lied to was troubling.

When you think about it, successful people are those best able to influence others, manipulating them to sharing a common worldview. By definition, to be a “leader” one must have followers. Successful leaders are able to direct the efforts of those followers to “get things done”.

Winning at social media isn’t determined by the value of your content, rather by the number of people you influenced into liking or following your message.

Viewing something as a conspiracy is driven by perspective rather than fact.

I concluded that, consciously or not, we select our own world views. Therefore we need to be very careful about whom we opt to be influenced by and what we choose to believe.

Your truth is my conspiracy, an unreconcilable difference that invariably leads to conflict.

Once cognisant that we are constantly being manipulated, it becomes easier to identify the motivations of those doing the manipulation.

As a survivalist hermit is rumoured to have once said:

it isn’t paranoia if they really are out to get you!

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16 Comments

  1. Caveman 24 November 2018

    So firstly. WHAT?!?!?!? There are people that genuinely believe that Australia doesn’t exist? I don’t even know where we go with that.

    More substantively I think you’re right that there is a thin line between truth and conspiracy. In fact the world is explicitly based on beliefs (or conspiracy if you will). The rule of law only works because we all agree that we should follow the laws. If there is mass disobedience then it fails – or at least it makes it clear that it is only enforceable through greater force of arms or physical strength.

    Similarly money has no intrinsic value, it only works because we all agree to trust those bits of paper or those numbers on a screen.

    I would also slightly challenge if we all *choose* our world views. I think that there is an awful lot of unquestioningly absorbing world views from our environment from birth. Some things we choose, but some views we hold without even realising that there could be an alternative. For me those are the most dangerous.

    Fascinating post.

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 24 November 2018

      Your observations about the rule of law and the value of money being based on faith are quite correct Caveman.

      I think that is something the likes of Trump, Russia, and the Brexiteers have ably demonstrated recently: the game only works when everyone plays by the rules. If there is no penalty for failure to do so, then there is no reason to be confined by those rules.

      Management consultants would call their approach “thinking outside of the box”!

      I agree we subconsciously absorb the perspectives of our surroundings, particularly as children. It defines our baseline of what we consider “normal”.

      However I disagree we have to blindly accept them. For example, if we did then the only people eligible to vote today would still be rich white men. The fact this isn’t the case shows we can, and do, choose what we believe is right.

      Different” is an implicit criticism of the way someone has previously things, and that is threatening.

      Threatened folks tend to come out swinging, defending their truth so that they aren’t shown up as having been wrong or suboptimal.

      That is one of the reasons change is hard, with the “people and process” element of change proving far harder than any technological element.

      • Caveman 24 November 2018

        I definitely agree that you don’t have to blindly accept views. I think part of the issues is that many people don’t even realise that what they believe is an opinion rather than a fact.

        As you point out, when that is pointed out to them it pushed at things that people see as core beliefs so they feel threatened.

        Fully agree that it’s that which makes change hard (and not just in workplace change programmes).

  2. PendleWitch 24 November 2018

    😀 I’d not heard of the Australia doesn’t exist one before! Your entire existence is a fabrication! But hey, even Elon Musk thinks we may be living in a computer simulation, so…..

    Regarding Caveman’s rules, etc, it becomes easy to see over time that people gain advantages by not playing by the rules. I used to think (long ago), that politicians were honorable. Then I see them doing things, with no shame, never resigning yet still seeking to lecture others and assume control over others’ lives. I think they believe people have no memories. Quite bizarre.

    Weak and slippery national politicians end up heading respected international bodies. Hm, well, maybe not so respected anymore then! (With age, comes cynicism.)

    We can also think of evolution, and the people that don’t ‘believe’ in it. Similarly climate change. If things are true, they’re true, belief doesn’t really come into it?

    All too deep for me now – I need a cup of tea!

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 24 November 2018

      If things are true, they’re true, belief doesn’t really come into it

      Pretty much ever religious war ever fought probably started with this very assertion!

      The question is who’s truth will the observer accept?

  3. OthalaFehu 24 November 2018

    Just because you are crazy, doesn’t mean they aren’t following you.

    I think there is one context, at least, in which to praise conspiracy theories. Sometimes, walking away from the script of orthodoxy turns out to be correct. Sometimes you have to be brave enough to find the truth.

    There are harmful ones, but boy are there some entertaining ones. I even started one;
    I declared that the big 3 (Ford, GM, and Chrysler) had crazy people on the payroll that were paid to ride public transportation around all day long, so that normal people said to themselves, “I need to get a car, I’m sick of all the crazy people on the bus/train.”

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 24 November 2018

      Challenging the conventional view can certainly be a good thing OthalaFehu.

      After some critical assessment that view with either be reinforced to the satisfaction of the observer… or found wanting like so many urban myths eventually are.

  4. Nick @ TotalBalance.blog 26 November 2018

    This is indeed(ably) another interesting observation from you 😉

    When I was young (<20), everything was so black and white. Nowadays, I mostly see greyish colors. There's always two sides to every story, and as you become increasingly aware that you're being manipulated, no matter where you look – making the right call becomes harder and harder. Is Trump really an idiot? Are the elite out to enslave the world? DOES vaccines hurt children? I JUST DON’T KNOW ANYMORE! AARRRGH.

    I truly believe that our forfathers – who had to go to the library and read the encyclopedia to learn anything new – and actually believe whatever they read to be THE TRUTH had it alot easier than we do today. Everything we read and hear today, we have to ask ourselves “Is this fact, or someones opinion?”. I find that most of the stuff we “know” today to be true, is actually someones opinion. Unless you were there to witness what actually happened, you can’t trust anything you read. – You can choose to trust the most reliable sources – but really, what sources today can be considered truly reliable?

    More than half of the worlds population are (still) religious. To me, religion is really the ultimate conspiracy. But who am I to judge? I wasn’t there, so I can’t be sure that jesus didn’t in fact rise from the dead! AAAAAAAARGH!

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 26 November 2018

      Thanks Nick.

      Accepting what you read and are told at face value remains an option, you could certainly emulate the approach adopted by your forefathers. Life would certainly be simpler that way!

      When you think about it the scientific method involves coming up with a plausible narrative to try and explain the results of trial and error, based upon the observer’s interpretation and understanding of the best information available at the time. Over time that knowledge and understanding evolves, and consequently the narrative changes: Pluto was a planet, DDT was good for you, the Earth was the centre of the universe, and so on.

      The judicial system arrives at a verdict in the form of a judgement… essentially an opinion as to which of two competing representations of the “facts” was the most compelling. The consequences of those opinions can be life or death for the accused.

      I think manipulation has always been rife. However there were gatekeepers who controlled the narrative, so there weren’t as many conflicting perspectives, and a finite number of platforms via which an opinion could be shared with the world. Newspaper editors and publishers decided what information was made available for us to read, by definition a form of censorship.

      For good or ill the internet has provided everyone with a voice, removing those traditional barriers and gatekeepers. The job of sifting through all the noise to determine which narrative to believe has shifted from those gatekeepers to the individual. Unfortunately common sense is a super power, and the “wisdom of crowds” is more than a little dubious.

  5. thefirestartercouk 27 November 2018

    You are full of great stories indeedably!

    Incredible that someone could actually believe a stinker like the Australia one. It’s surprising that they didn’t accuse you of being one of the “Actors”?!?

    One of your examples made me laugh:
    “Most professional sporting outcomes are scripted by bookies”

    Seriously!?!? Imagine how much work that would be and how many people would have to be paid off (especially given the amount top footballers make nowadays). Bookies have pretty tight margins nowadays, they’d be bankrupt within a month.

    It’s kind of like when people just say a good magician simply hires stooges, for example Derren Brown. I mean it’s the simplest explanation in one way I suppose but imagine the sort of network, or conspiracy if you will 🙂 , that would have to be built so that no one would blab to the media. It just wouldn’t work. Obviously his acts are just elaborate tricks, but I am 99.9% certain there are no actors involved.

    Cheers!

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 27 November 2018

      Thanks for the kind words TFS.

      On the sporting conspiracy, this one is actually (probably) real! There have been plenty of examples of players getting paid not to win in cricket, tennis, and horse racing to name just a few sports. These days it appears to be more spot fixing than outcome determining: e.g. punters betting on a no ball being bowled in the 6th over or a golfer needing a couple of extra putts on the 3rd hole.

      • thefirestartercouk 29 November 2018

        Aha I see what you mean. Obviously there will always be certain cases of match fixing, but (being the pedant that I am) I will have to point out….

        “MOST professional sporting outcomes are scripted by BOOKIES”

        Clearly it’s not most, and a very small fraction that are actually getting fixed.

        Also it’s not by the bookies but generally by gangster types who are actually betting against the bookies (on their fixed outcome) and making loads of money OFF of the bookies.

        See the text on your cricket fixing link:

        “Our undercover investigation reveals how criminal gangs bribe players and officials to fix matches and parts of matches – and make millions from betting on guaranteed outcomes.”

        Cheers 🙂

        • {in·deed·a·bly} 29 November 2018

          Lol!

          The title of the post is “Conspiracy theoryTFS, real or imagined some people will believe anything!

          I would love to believe all sport is played for the love of the game, with the best team/player winning on the day. Personally I choose to believe that most games really are, suspending disbelief in favour of enjoying the spectacle. That the romance of a Leicester City premiership or a Steven Bradbury gold medal really is just a rare case of the stars aligning and the gods smiling.

          I’ve watched enough cricket over the years to realise that sometimes this is sadly not the case (though there was this one hilarious game in a recent T20 tournament where it appeared that both teams had been paid to lose… talk about some shambolic fielding!).

          I may not be the best judge of such things however, as I confess that I didn’t realise smackdown wrestling was scripted until I was a teenager!

  6. weenie 2 December 2018

    Despite having never been to Australia, I believe it exists – not in the sense that I believe aliens exist but in that I intend to travel there at some point in the future, haha!

What say you?

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