A new HBO documentary has just been released in the USA called The Truth vs Alex Jones and it doesn’t make for pleasant viewing.

Dan Reed, the documentary’s director, followed Jones for four years after the right-wing radio host claimed that the 2012 shootings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, where Adam Lanza shot and killed 26 people - 20 of whom were children aged six or seven - never actually happened. Within hours of the shootings Jones, a prominent conspiracy theorist, maintained that this was in fact a “false flag” operation by the government to justify new restrictions on the sale of guns and that the people who died, or who were portrayed as grieving, were “crisis actors” and that their children were either imaginary, or in fact alive and well.

The mass shooting at Sandy Hook led to the first major conspiracy theory of our modern, social media age and demonstrated how quickly fringe ideas could take hold and become mainstream. One in four Americans believed that no one died at Sandy Hook and, in the months after the killings, people would turn up in Newtown to harass the grieving families or those who had responded to the shootings, demonstrating how online speculation could have real-World impact. Can you imagine the families in Dunblane being told that their child hadn’t been shot at all and that they were merely making it all up to suit some broader, government agenda? And, of course, things have got even worse since 2012. In under a decade since Sandy Hook a conspiracy theory would spark a violent assault on the US Capitol in January 2021, shaking the American democratic process to its very core.

The Truth vs Alex Jones has yet to be given a British transmission date - I watched it by arrangement but Channel 4’s brilliant The Hampstead Paedophile Hoax, broadcast in early March, about four mothers who were the victims of a conspiracy theory in 2014 that suggested they were part of satanic, baby-eating, paedophile cult at their children’s school covers much of the same contextual ground and again shows how this type of feverish, online misinformation can cause real pain and ruin lives.

What is usually not discussed in documentaries such as these is why people would want to believe in conspiracy theories and how some conspiracies are “sticky” - they linger and sometimes grow - whilst others simply disappear. And, while we might rightly point a finger at social media, it’s also clear that conspiracy theories pre-date the internet as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a fabricated text published in 1903 which purported to detail a Jewish plot for global domination, or the 1960s “Black Helicopters” conspiracy, popularised by The John Birch Society, which suggested that a UN force would arrive in a fleet of helicopters to take over the United States, all too graphically reveal. What are the processes at work that lead you to accept this as truth - as fact - as opposed to nonsense?


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There’s growing academic interest in these questions and, briefly summarising a complicated theoretical field, there would seem to be three drivers that get people to accept a conspiracy theory and which are categorised under the headings “epistemic”, “existential” and “social”.

The first of these drivers is the need for knowledge and certainty, especially in the wake of something unexpected happening that has a major impact on your life. Think of, for example, the various conspiracy theories that circulated in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. When faced with new and potentially catastrophic events people want an explanation and only become drawn to conspiracy theories when they feel uncertain and are unable to access information.

Often, they will also find it difficult to differentiate between good or poor sources of information and this problem bleeds into the “existential” drivers that also push a conspiracy theory. People want to feel safe and secure, rather than powerless and out of control; they want to have agency and so are drawn to conspiracies as they seem to offer certainty, rather than scientific doubt.

Conspiracies offer a black and white conclusion when most of us are still trying to weigh up all of the messy and sometimes contradictory evidence that can be marshalled to explain what has happened. All of this then reinforces the social drivers behind the conspiracy theory taking hold. We all like to feel good about ourselves and the groups that we belong to; we like to have our self-esteem bolstered and what better way to imagine that we are in a privileged position of knowing the “real” truth, whilst everyone else is just a sheep following the herd?

The Herald: Residents place flowers near the Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 15, 2012, the day after the mass shootingResidents place flowers near the Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 15, 2012, the day after the mass shooting (Image: Getty)

It’s no surprise, even if it is ironic, that some people who accept conspiracies describe themselves as “truthers”. This helps to explain something that I’ve never quite understood: why do conspiracy theorists not only seem to lack doubt but are often also incredibly narcissistic? The conspiracy theory seems to give the individual and the group that they belong to an exaggerated sense of their own self-importance.

And why are some conspiracy theories stickier than others? Theories that tap into a more general anxiety that government, government agencies or state institutions are no longer looking out for you or have become corrupt and incompetent tend to linger. Parliament, the police, social services, the criminal justice system, even the royal family are no longer operating - for whatever reason - as they should and therefore, of course, children are going to be sexually abused by cabals of powerful paedophiles, Princess Diana was murdered rather than died in a car accident (or indeed might still be alive) and governments want to take your guns away, or fill you with a vaccine that will make it easier to control you and so do their bidding.

It’s all rather depressing but there is some hope in all of this. Jones and his company Infowars were ordered by juries in Connecticut and Texas to pay nearly $1.5 billion in damages to relatives of victims killed in the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School - a move that demonstrates that even conspiracy theorists can also face their own real-life consequences in court.

Professor David Wilson is an emeritus professor of criminology