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?
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.