Q&A

Is Conspiracy Fiction Harmful?

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Hello mythcreants.

Putting mysteries, secret organizations, cabals, betrayal… are all good ways to make engaging stories and glorious plot twists.

But sometimes I have the feeling those works of fiction tend to fuel all the conspiracy-nuts and encourage harmful behavior and thinking (rejecting all medias because deemed untrustworthy, constant suspicion about people’s intentions, paranoia…).

Is it just an unfounded worry, or should we take steps when writing such fictions to at least prevent looking like we’re encouraging such toxic behaviors?

-Thomas

Hey Thomas, thanks for writing in!

I’ve been asked this question before, and to be honest, I’m not entirely sure of the answer. I’d like to think there’s still a place for stories like Delta Green, The Southern Reach, and X-Files, but when I see how people treat conspiracy theories in real life, I’m not so sure.

One thing I know for certain is that we should definitely avoid conspiracy theories that cause direct harm in real life. Some of these are obvious, like the 2020 election being faked, vaccines causing autism, and Jews controlling the world. These conspiracy theories encourage actual violence and shouldn’t be given even the slightest bit of credibility in fiction.

Below that are the conspiracy theories that don’t have as obvious a link to real-world violence, at least that I know of, but still just gross me out by how obviously wrong they are. To me, the idea that 9/11 was an inside job or that the moon landings were fake fall into this category. At the very least, these conspiracy theories encourage people to ignore credible information and promote anti-science thinking. I strongly recommend leaving this kind of theory out of your story.

Of course, a similar criticism could be made of more benign seeming conspiracy theories, like the idea that the government is hiding UFOs. A basic understanding of the facts shows that can’t be true: everyone has a camera in their pocket now, and why are these aliens only ever showing up in places where the government is strong enough to cover them up? Do we really want to be encouraging this kind of thinking with our fiction, even if it seems like harmless eccentricity?

Totally fictional conspiracy stories have elements of the same problem. I love the Southern Reach, but accepting that the government both could and would cover up the existence of a reality warping zone in Florida requires a similar logic to more obviously harmful ideas. Heck, even urban fantasy might have this problem, as it requires accepting that magic could somehow be all around us without anyone noticing.

All of this is a very long way of saying that I don’t have a firm answer for you. I can only say that conspiracy theories come in different grades of grossness, and that you’ll have to use your judgement on what to include. I’m not writing off conspiracy fiction yet, and I hope that one day, I’ll be able to say for sure what’s harmless fun and what’s an actual problem. Unfortunately, it is not this day.

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Comments

  1. Cay Reet

    That really is a tough question to answer.

    Personally, I’d stay away from real and known conspiracy theories (although there might be theories floating around that I’m not aware of). I do like secret organisations (but then, I’m writing espionage – what would espionage be without secret organisations?), but I like the make clear they’re just from my brain, just written so my spy has someone to work against. That they’re not ‘real.’ I don’t inlcude real-life underprivileged groups in them and I do like to make them a little over the top, so that it should be clear to people that this is just my imagination running wild.

    I think the more fantastic your setting is, the less it is connected to the world as we know it, the less of a chance there is that someone takes your conspiracy for real. There always may be someone (there’s strange people out there), but people can make a conspiracy theory out of their grocer not saying ‘good morning’ to them. You’ll never be 100% sure that nobody takes your fictional conspiracy seriously.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Yeah that’s a good point. Someone is a lot less likely to take the Southern Reach seriously than they would a story about the CIA assassinating Kennedy.

  2. Jeppsson

    Big kudos to Oren for admitting he doesn’t have all the answers. (I don’t know either.)

    I haven’t really written about grand conspiracies, but I had a little fun throwing in conspiracy theorists as passing side characters in my stories. For instance, I had a guy insisting that there’s a method for stopping demons from attacking humans once and for all, and he explains how to do that. Other characters go “no, that’s impossible, because [conclusive reasons based on how magic and the different realities work in this world]”. Conspiracy guy goes “no, that’s just what your professors at university want you to believe, but they ultimately work for the government, and the government WANT to have demons around attacking people, because a fearful population is easier to control!”

    I think that in the world I’ve created, this kind of guy would be bound to pop up.

  3. GeniusLemur

    I think it would help if fictional conspiracies were treated realistically. I’ve seen far too many fictional conspiracies that can just wave their magic wands and make anything they want happen on a dime. It both feeds absurd conspiracy theories and makes for a terrible, contrived story, as a conspiracy that can just snap their fingers and retroactively make the national news headline whatever they want somehow can’t deal with one stinking reporter. And is a conspiracy still a conspiracy if it includes practically everyone in the world who isn’t our hero?
    If a fictional conspiracy has a realistically limited budget, power, membership, and aims, it implicitly points out the absurdity of conspiracy theories that claim that a group constituting about 0.25% of the overall population rules the world with absolute power without anyone knowing.

    • Lorenzo Gatti

      I think secrecy is one of the main limited resources in real-world and fantasy conspiracies. It’s difficult to use a great power covertly if you are specifically suspected of running a conspiracy, or a conspiracy is the most plausible explanation of the strange events you would cause, or the public suspects there’s a conspiracy and motivated people actively look for evidence, or the conspiracy would have to involve someone who doesn’t share the same goals. For example, “accidents” happening to the enemies of someone aggressive (several countries come to mind) tend to be perceived as a pointed finger.

      A “good” conspiracy that doesn’t want to be discovered should act very subtly and proactively, for example with assassinations that really look like accidents, because they were done before the victim had obvious enemies and with enough time to arrange high quality coincidences rather than in haste with simple and reliable methods: it would require clever direction, not exceptional power and resources.

      On the other hand an unsubtle powerful conspiracy can transition to open conflict and cease to be a conspiracy. It is, for example, the typical pattern of successful and unsuccessful political coups and many terrorist groups.

  4. Mrs. Obed Marsh

    Another complicating factor is that some things that sound like conspiracy theories are actually conspiracy facts. For example, the CIA really did dose thousands of people with LSD without their consent to see if they could be mind-controlled. It was called Project MKULTRA! Look it up!

    In fact, I think everyone believes something to be true that others believe to be a conspiracy theory. Most American liberals, including many “respectable” people, take it as a matter of fact that Russian electoral tampering cost Hilary Clinton the 2016 US presidential election, but many conservatives and leftists will roll their eyes at you if you say that. OTOH, a lot of leftists believe Bernie Sanders lost the 2020 Democratic primary because the Democratic National Committee conspired to stop people from voting for him, and to hide the votes he did get! And the conservative belief that the Dems stole the 2020 election for Biden has been EXTREMELY well-documented.

    None of this is to say that conspiracy theories are all correct and shouldn’t be debunked! A lot of them are, in fact, BS! I just want to make a point that conspiratorial thinking is natural, and people fall into it for understandable reasons. Conspiracy theorists may be frustrating to deal with, but they deserve our compassion – and, as my first paragraph suggests, sometimes they’re right about how The Man is out to get you.

  5. Adam Reynolds

    There is a trend of conspiratorial thinking in recent times, and I think it all has its roots in the same problem, that it serves as a comforting lie to avoid the phenomenon of future shock. Future shock can be defined as the idea that people are inherently troubled by the nature of the rapidly changing modern world, both in terms of technology and society. It was first proposed in the 1960s, and seems to be ever more true with each passing year.

    There is also an ego boost associated with believing in a conspiracy. If you know the truth and everyone else is wrong, you must be special. There is obviously an overlap with the chosen one in the way this trope is used in fiction. The hero is the main character because they are at the center of a conspiracy yet did nothing to earn their status.

    The flip side of this is that some conspiracies are actually true. All The President’s Men told the true story of Watergate and largely popularized the conspiracy thriller in film. The trouble is that it is very hard to tell the difference between the true events of Watergate and fake conspiracies about the 2020 election, and this is made even worse by entirely fictionalized events in which whatever the author says is true regardless of what happened. Media polarization also means that simply revealing the truth a la Watergate doesn’t really solve anything for a modern story.

    As a side note, as this is something amusing, Deep Throat(actually Mark Felt) was the archetypal insider who is revealing information to the heroes, and most conspiracy thrillers this character is framed in shadows with an identity hidden to the heroes. While the film All The President’s Men portrayed him this way, Bob Woodward knew exactly who he was talking to in real life, it is just that he never revealed the identity to the public and so the movie portrayed him this way. A journalist who simply trusted a source like this without knowing who they were would not be very good at their job.

    • SunlessNick

      Whistleblowers are risking their careers, possibly their freedom, and even in the real world sometimes their lives. When they want information to get out, they’re rarely cryptic.

    • AlgaeNymph

      Your mention of future shock in the context of conspiracy fiction reminds me of Mage: the Ascension. For those who don’t know, the premise is that reality is based on belief, various systems of which are the basis of magic. Belief in science and technology, however, was considered a tool of oppression by the Technocracy to stifle creativity. Yes, really. The “bad guys” developed a following that persists to this day. Turns out people don’t like being told to forsake civilization and return to nature by a sanctimonious mystic elite.

      The writing’s thankfully gotten a lot more mature as of last decade, with the metaplot instead focusing more on social injustice. Much of which is fought by the Technocracy. : )

    • Prince Infidel

      I wholeheartedly agree with your point about the way media dramatizing true events to make them near indistinguishable from fiction. Though I disagree that makes it hard to tell the difference between things like Watergate & the 2020 election conspiracy theories.

      The conspiracy theories around the 2020 election were laughably convoluted & involved numerous easily falsifiable claims. Watergate by contrast had actual testimony, witnesses, & tangible evidence. There were those that doubted the truth of it, but that often had more to do with political leanings than the evidence.

      I also don’t know if we’re more prone to conspiratorial thinking now than in times past. We’re certainly more likely to hear of a conspiracy theory now without being part of the community that spawned it (thanks internet). That may give the impression that there are more than ever.

    • Pteryx

      Concerning the idea of being in on a secret making one seem special, that relates to an aspect of urban fantasy that eventually came to bug me — the glorification of secrecy. Somehow, it’s perceived as cooler to be on the inside of a supernatural conspiracy than it is to… oh, I don’t know, help humanity as a whole understand how the world really works, prove it, and save them from being exploited and manipulated? And then there are the stories where you (meta)physically *can’t* do that, which tend to imply one way or another than ordinary humans are inferior… which, to me, carries problems of its own.

  6. Esq

    As a member of a group that is a big favorite target of harmful conspiracy theories, I’m going to lean towards conspiratorial fiction being potentially harmful. You could always protests that conspiratorial fiction is not real and most of the conspiracies on the show aren’t based on real life conspiracy theories but I think that conspiratorial fiction can lead to people jumping into real conspiracy theories. This can lead to problems if our intrepid investigators read the conspiracy theories directly and get taken into them.

    • Tony

      By “a group that is a big favorite target of harmful conspiracy theories,” do you mean you’re Jewish? ‘Cause yeah, that makes sense.

      On that note, some of the conspiracy thrillers mentioned in the comments (All The President’s Men, ASoUE, and MiB) came from Jewish creators (Carl Bernstein, Daniel “Lemony Snicket” Handler, and Barry Sonnenfeld, respectively). One way to avoid potentially harmful implications in conspiracy fiction might be to try to emulate stories like those, instead of stories like They Live (which wasn’t intended to be antisemitic, but one can understand why it gets misconstrued as such) or The Witches (whose author, Roald Dahl, WAS rabidly antisemitic, and it shows).

      • Esq

        Yes, I’m a Jew and this doesn’t lead me to have a high opinion of any conspiracy regardless of whether it comes from the Right or the Left.

  7. Tony

    Could making the story comedic, like in A Series Of Unfortunate Events or Men In Black, potentially reduce the chance of encouraging harmful conspiracist mindsets IRL?

  8. Jenn H

    Real life conspiracies tend to involve a small number of powerful and privileged people doing something illegal and/or immoral and then trying to cover their tracks. Trying to keep the conspiracy “realistic” may reduce the harm.

    There is also the twist of having those spreading the conspiracy be part of the *true* conspiracy. For example there is a certain internet cult that is attempting to destroy American democracy that uses conspiracy theories to recruit members.

    • Cay Reet

      I’d say keeping a conspiracy realistic might actually make it more harmful – it’s easier for people to think that you’re secretly telling them the truth when it sound plausible to them that the conspiracy might exist.

      You need to be very far out there with your belief to follow a conspiracy theory about how the government is hiding dragons from the populace (given the size and necessary sustenance for a huge, flying, fire-breathing lizard). If you just suggest that the upper crust elongate their lives by drinking blood, far more people might find the theory plausible.

      • Bellis

        I’m sure that depends on a lot of context, because it could be even a tool for learning how to think critically and fact-check if the story was about, say, a group of generals plotting to assassinate the king of your second-world fantasy or similar. That’s realistic but not harmful. Of course people also can’t really transfer this directly into the real world.
        I guess the important question is, what aspects are realistic and what differ from the real world and can that be harmful? Because yeah, your example is a different category that what I first thought of.

  9. Sam Victors

    I prefer reading or watching conspiracy fiction that involve magic and the fantastic, and maybe a bit of sci-fi.

    Like with Roald Dahl’s The Witches, of a secret society of toeless, hairless, clawed witches conspiring for child genocide.

    But then again, Dahl may have based his Witches on antisemitic stereotypes, and that is discomforting.

    • Tony

      Yeah, the specific stereotypes I’ve heard mentioned are the big noses (which have shown up in antisemitic caricatures from time to time), the conspiracy to kill kids (which shows up in medieval blood libel, and how they get turned into mice and killed by hotel cooks at the end (which echoes Nazi propaganda depicting Jews as vermin). Doesn’t know that Dahl was known for antisemitic comments that’d make Eric Cartman proud.

      • Sam Victors

        And you know the sad thing? I actually some influence from Roald Dahl, particularly The Witches. Only I rooted all the antisemitic bs.

        You see, in my fantasy stories, I created a fictional species that are part of the Unseelie (dark or malevolent fairies of Celtic lore).

        The Beldams are fay hags, only with upturned noses, dark-purple brittle hair, bronze fingernails, ruddy/sallow/greenish complexion, and other ugly bits. Like Dahl’s Witches, they glamour themselves as normal (albeit plain-looking) women with the help of wigs or headcoverings, gloves or fake nails, perfumes, makeup, and fake teeth. Unlike Dahl’s witches, they are equal-opportunists when it comes to harming mortals, though children are an easy target because of how young and naive they are. But the Beldams are not interested in world domination or genocide, but rather, all most of the Unseelie Fair Folk, love to cause much suffering and trouble as it tickles their fancy. They feed off of human misery and misfortune.

        The Beldams also enjoy having monthly parties, that do involve child cannibalism (even done in a ritual murder to add some ‘spice’ in to the child’s flesh and blood. The same way Pennywise loves eating his child victims as they are scared). They also hypnotize an attractive mortal to dance and strip for them. During these parties, Beldams would do a dance and gossip and brag of whom they’ve harmed and how they did it, and they would laugh it (example, one Beldam cursed a man by granting his wish of being lusted by every woman he meets, but that wish also included his own family members, such as his mother and grandmother).

        My aim was to make the Beldams less “stereotypical evil Jews/Group X dominating the world” and more traditional fairy lore of “Fair Folk causing malicious mischief and mayhem as much as they can to see humans suffer”

        • Tony

          That sounds like a potentially cool idea. If I were writing it, though, I’d make the Unseelie conspiracy unisex (like the aliens in They Live) to avoid potential sexism, which has a long history of association with stories about witches’ covens and which has also been criticized in The Witches.

      • Tony

        Note: “from time to time” is an effing understatement, but I meant to say “from era to era,” as in “throughout history.”

        • Tony

          And I meant to say “Doesn’t help,” not “Doesn’t know.” Sorry, I wasn’t entirely sober when I made that comment.

          • Sam Victors

            That’s okay.

            And I have that covered. The Unseelie is unisex, and even non-binary (same with the Seelie, the nicer Fair Folk, albeit still mischievous tricksters).

            They are diverse in looks, appearances, sizes, and species. Some species can be unisex, single-gendered, or intersex/non-binary.

            The Beldams have a male counterpart in the Warlocks, a class of wealthy, sorcerous bluebeards, kingpins, playboys, chauvinists, and eugenicists who can only procreate with human women, siring only sons, detesting children apart from their own. They can glamour themselves into charming men, but mask themselves to conceal their blue or green beards, tiger fangs, silver noses, webbed feet, and fox-red hair.

            I created a whole list of Unseelie and Seelie creatures for my fictional universe, covering up to 25 pages, each.

            I have a habit of creating/writing down characters and creatures before I have the story for them. I must have at least over a hundred files of these stored in my storage.

            I’ve been working on this for over 10 years, and I’m still working on my first book (barely finished with chapter 2).

            I guess its no easy being a writer when you’re on the spectrum and have ADD.

  10. K.J.

    I think one of the reasons people fall in for conspiracy theories in real life is the fantastical need for a bigger truer reason, where in the conspirators, enemies, or out group, must have bigger eviler intentions then are really necessary for the benal cruelty that it’s usually meant to explain.
    That and a good big reason for random cruelty on the part of friends and allies in your perceived ingroup.

    The chemicals in our water supply don’t need to have anything to do with mind control in order for a majority of them to be of pretty questionable use.

    That’s not to say that an acknowledgement of cultural inertia is bad, the smaller reasons in real life don’t look tiny in most cases, it really isn’t smaller on a lived scale, it’s just that bigger badder reason isn’t necessary in most cases, even if the conspiracy becomes the reason for a person’s bad actions.

    Blaming uninvolved parties for the chemicals in the water isn’t helpful, unless you want an excuse to hurt them.

    In that way it doesn’t matter if it’s really true, if the people who believe it do things because of it. Which is something to explore, the consequences of belief are in behavior.
    But if it isn’t it might be useful to acknowledge conspiracy theories as propaganda, it’s secretly lizards makes much more sense if you don’t want anyone to look at or think about actual proofs of powers, like money, and the actual people who have it.
    Just make it mind controlling alien lizards instead of anything people experience on a normalized scale.

  11. SilverScales

    Think about every time an editor has told you that the things in your story have to happen for a reason, it can’t just come out of nowhere, it has to have motivation, it has to feed the plot.

    That’s what feeds conspiracy thinking. Books, movies, TV – they aren’t usually allowed to show people examples of things ‘just happening’, there has to be some reason behind it. And it educates people to think that there is a plan behind everything that happens.

    That’s one of the things that made the Buffy episode “The Body” so powerful. The unexpected death wasn’t part of a plot, there wasn’t a reason or bad guy behind it, it wasn’t even a ‘very special episode’ with a lesson to learn. It just happened. It was the most human thing that had been on TV in a long time.

    • Cay Reet

      The difference between real life and any kind of story is that real life doesn’t make sense. I mean, it does in terms of natural laws and suchlike, but it doesn’t make any narrative things. A lot of things don’t happen to people for a reason other than randomness.

      If you create a story, on the other hand, you set up certain things to work together in the end, because that is how storytelling works.

      Yes, people who follow conspiracy theories seek for the order and reason in an unordered and unreasonable world – which is pretty much the same as being religious and knowing that the deity of your choice is behind what happens.

  12. StyxD

    This question hits close to home for me.

    By which I mean, I wish I could play Deus Ex again with childhood innocence. It’s a great game, but some of its aspects get really uncomfortable nowadays.

    I think one problem that may be inescapable with conspiracy fiction is that it makes conspiracy mongers, those shouting that sheeple need to wake up, into heroes. Even if they’re wrong in details, they’re made right in principle.

    And it’s honestly a bit too much for me nowadays, with the pandemic and whatnot.

    I don’t think there’s a way to preserve the thrill of protagonists fighting against a conspiracy and not to fall into the general tropes that normalize real, harmful conspiratorial thinking. Even if we take care to make the conspiracy purely fantastic, there are still probably going to be stuff like secret societies, massive government organizations in charge of cover ups, and so on.

  13. Gwen

    I think Wakanda might be one of the best secret societies I have seen in fiction to the point they never feel like one. I don’t know if there are any answers there but that surely was a good secret society in fiction that doesn’t seem to promote any existing conspiracy or harmful thinking so I feel like not all secret societies have to be bad.

  14. Bellis

    It’s a pet peeve of mine that in most cases, “conspiracy theory” is a blatant misnomer: They’re actually ideologies and not theories. A theory in the scientific sense of the word is based in facts and observations and is actively tested and ADJUSTED when facts contradict it, instead of trying to ignore the facts or explain them away. It also needs to be the most simple way to explain the known facts and it needs to be disprovable.

    Ok, of course in casual language we don’t always mean science when we say “theory” but I whish more theories were actually based in facts. Maybe that’s something more stories can stand to promote? Logical thinking based on facts?

    On the other hand it irks me to think stories should have to be realistic or scientific. I love science but I also love fantasy and fantastical stories. Although I guess it’s possible to show your protagonists using a modicum of reason and fact-checking even if magic and aliens and superpowers are real in your setting. They don’t have to be scientists or cool dispassionate thinkers, but they could earn failure by leaping to wild conclusions (“wild” in the context of your setting).

    Idk idk, not sure if I have much to contribute apart from my nitpicking about the word “theory” which I really wish conspiracy ideologists hadn’t coopted

    I also think this distinction is important because it’s not actually the “conspiracy” part that is harmful (as mentioned in other comments, some conspiracies were/are real and in those cases talking about them and uncovering them is important), it’s that they’re NOT “theories” but ideologies based on alternative facts. They end up promoting harmful and bigoted views and propping up existing power structures even though they pretend to fight authorities. It’s pretty insidious and not always easy to see through (I’ve been caught up in some conspiracy thinking myself in my youth and a big factor at the time was that I hadn’t yet learned how to spot untrustworthy sources and that not everything written and printed in non-fiction books is true…)

    • Cay Reet

      I agree with you that conspiracy theories these days rarely are theories. Theories are adjusted as new facts come up or even dropped when it becomes obvious that they’re not built on facts at all (like a lot of modern conspiracy ‘theories’).

      I wouldn’t necessarily say that they are ideologies per se – they are based on facts, but on false ones (‘alternative facts’ suggests they’re viable, just different, which they are not in most cases). The problem is that those who believe in those conspiracies (which is where they become something like an ideology) will reject all fact that don’t fit with their own. They will cite facts (unlike followers of a religion or other ideologies who will just say ‘you have to believe this, there are no facts’), but those facts are often proven to be false already. They are, I would say, something between theory and ideology (an ideory, perhaps?).

      Conspiracies and intrigues do exist, but usually not on a large scale – they rely on secrecy and secrecy gets less and less possible the more people know about it.
      So having a conspiracy of five politicians who manipulate an election would be perfectly possible, but having a conspiracy where several hundred rich people secretly take a drug made from the blood of children to lengthen their lives is rather unlikely, because too many people know about it and a leak would happen sooner or later.

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