(Level B2 and above: Conspiracy theories: examples and explanations – with related vocabulary and videos)
Written and compiled by Benedicte Gravrand, English trainer at The Language House in Geneva
The fall of conspiracy theorist Alex Jones
In 2012, 20-year-old Adam Lanza shot and killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut in the U.S. Before driving to the school, Lanza shot and killed his mother. After the school shooting, he shot himself in the head and died.
The incident is reportedly the deadliest mass shooting at an elementary school in U.S. history, and the fourth-deadliest mass shooting overall.
Alex Jones, an aggressive far-right American radio show host and infamous conspiracy theorist (he does not believe in the moon landing), has since spread conspiracy theories about the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. He said it was a false flag operation by gun control advocates. He stated “no one died” in Sandy Hook, and the incident was “staged“, “synthetic”, “manufactured”, “a giant hoax” and “completely fake with actors.”
In 2018, several families of the victims and an FBI agent filed a defamation suit against Jones.
Last week, after many legal battles, a jury in Texas ruled the radio host must pay $45.2m in punitive damages, in addition to $4.1m in compensatory damages they awarded a day earlier.
- Spread: if information spreads, it becomes known by more people than before. News of the attack has already spread to the islands.
- Landing: the process of moving a plane down onto the ground at the end of a journey. Keep your seat-belt fastened during take-off and landing.
- Mass: a large quantity or number.
- Overall: considering something as a whole, not in detail. The senior police officer with overall responsibility for the case.
- False flag (or false colours): an assumed or misleading name or guise
- Advocate: someone who strongly and publicly supports someone or something. An advocate for women’s sports
- Stage: to organise an event. The protest was a well-planned and carefully staged affair.
- Hoax: a trick in which someone deliberately tells people that something bad is going to happen or that something is true when it is not
- Rule: to make and announce a decision, usually about a legal matter. Romania’s Supreme Court ruled that the strike was illegal.
What are conspiracy theories?
Conspiracy theories reject the standard explanation for an event. Instead, they explain an event or set of circumstances as the result of a secret plot by usually powerful and sinister conspirators.
Conspiracy theories are good material to poke fun at – unless you are serious about them. Serious conspiracy theorists see a hidden agenda behind everything; and that’s no fun. No, sir. An evil elite is running the world, and carrying a gun at all time is the answer.
Apparently, conspiracy theories are on the rise because of social media. Let’s have a look at a few famous theories.
- Poke fun at (or make fun of): to make jokes about someone or something in an unkind way. The other children made fun of her because she was always so serious.
- Hidden agenda: a secret reason for doing something, because you will get an advantage from it.
- Evil: an evil person does very bad or cruel things. A dangerous and evil dictator.
- On the rise: increasing.
Some famous conspiracy theories
The true conspiracy behind the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001 came from the Saudi terrorists who organised them. However, conspiracy theorists think this explanation is too simple. Some believe President Bush and his entourage knew about it in advance, or that the attacks were orchestrated by Israel, or that the Twin Towers were brought down by controlled demolition from bombs.
The death of Princess Diana
Princess Diana and Dodi Al-Fayed were killed on August 31, 1997, in a car accident in Paris because they were pursued by paparazzi and their own driver was drunk and was driving too fast. But this did not fit in with the way royalty should die. This has led to theories such as an assassination by MI5 at the request of the Royal Family, or that Diana faked her own death and is having a great time on a tropical island.
- Lead to (v.): to begin a process that causes something to happen. There is no doubt that stress can lead to physical illness.
- Fake: made to look like something real in order to trick people. A fake passport.
Many have claimed that subliminal (subconscious) messages are widespread, for example on TV or in the movies or in music, and that they are influencing people. This has however been debunked as subliminal messages, if they are indeed used, do not have the power they are given by conspiracy theorists. Seeing an image for a split-second does not make you want to buy a car or commit suicide.
- Widespread: happening or existing in many places, or affecting many people. The widespread use of antibiotics
- Debunk: to prove that something such as an idea or belief is false and silly
NASA landed astronauts on the moon in 1969. Many claim that this never happened. There has been plenty of debunking of the various moon hoax claims by many scientists involved in the operation, and some very angry astronauts and then there are the hundreds of pounds of moon rocks.
- Claim: to say that something is true, even though there is no definite proof. He claims he is innocent.
Covid… and G5
There are many theories about the origin of the virus, governments’ reactions, doctors lying about COVID-related deaths, and vaccines changing human DNA. There’s even a theory that mixes fears of 5G wireless technology with fears of the virus, saying that electromagnetic frequencies from cell phone towers damage the immune system, making people sick with Covid. Another claims that the vaccines contain tracking chips that connect to 5G networks so that the government or Bill Gates can surveil everyone’s movements.
- Wireless: wireless technology, systems, or equipment such as mobile phones does not use wires, but communicates using electronic signals
- Tracking chip: a chip (puce) used to follow or find someone or something
- Network: connection between computers, systems or people. A mobile phone network.
Read about other conspiracy theories on Livescience.com here.
QAnon – the mother of conspiracies
You can also find many theories from QAnon, an American political conspiracy theory and pro-Trump political movement that recently became mainstream. In 2020, QAnon supporters flooded social media with false information about Covid-19, the Black Lives Matter protests and the presidential election, and recruited legions of new believers. A December 20 poll by NPR and Ipsos found that 17% of Americans believed that the central falsehood of QAnon — that “a group of Satan-worshiping elites who run a child sex ring are trying to control our politics and media” — was true. Several QAnon supporters won seats in Congress late last year.
- Mainstream: considered ordinary or normal and accepted or used by most people. The show wanted to attract a mainstream audience.
- Flood (v.): arrive there in large numbers. The TV station was flooded with complaints.
- Protest (n.): a meeting or public statement by people who strongly disagree with a policy, law etc. Peaceful protests against the war.
- Recruit: to get someone to work in a company or join an organization. We won’t be recruiting again until next year.
- Poll: an occasion when a lot of people are asked what they feel about something. A recent poll indicated that most people opposed the changes.
- Falsehood: a statement that is not true.
- Worship: the activity of showing respect and love for a god, for example by singing or praying.
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Video: UNESCO: #ThinkBeforeSharing – Stop the spread of conspiracy theories (1’36”)
So why do we create conspiracy theories?
Karen Douglas, PhD, a professor of social psychology at the University of Kent in the UK, defines conspiracy theories as a proposed plot carried out in secret, usually by a powerful group of people who have some kind of sinister goal. She believes such theories have always been around, especially in times of crisis, because we don’t want to trust everybody. It is difficult to prove that conspiracy theories are increasing but people’s attitudes have become stronger as a result of interacting and sharing and consuming this information on social media and on the internet generally.
- Plot: (in this context) a secret plan to do something bad, made by two or more people. An assassination plot.
- Carry out: to do a particular piece of work, etc. The building work was carried out by a local contractor.
People are drawn to conspiracy theories to satisfy three important psychological motives, she explains:
- Epistemic motives: the need for knowledge and certainty. Some people might not look for information in the right places.
- Existential motives: the need to be or to feel safe and secure in the world that we live in, and to feel that we have some kind of power or autonomy over the things that happen. It especially affects people who feel powerless and disillusioned. Sometimes people may have deep-seated, valid reasons to distrust authority.
- Social motives: Need for high self-esteem, a sense of superiority over others. One way of doing that is to feel that you have access to information that other people don’t necessarily have.
- Drawn to: attracted to
- Safe: protected from being hurt, damaged, lost, stolen etc. Will my car be safe if I park it in the street?
- Powerless: not able to control or prevent something. She was powerless to stop him.
- Deep-seated: A deep-seated problem, feeling, or belief is difficult to change because its causes have been there for a long time. The country is still suffering from deep-seated economic problems.
- Self-esteem: the feeling that you are as important as other people and that you deserve to be treated well. Patients suffering from depression and low self-esteem.
In her research, she has found that older people believe in conspiracy theories less than younger people do; that if people believe in one conspiracy theory, then they’re likely to believe in other theories, even when the theories contradict each other.
In many cases, it is very difficult to effectively debunk theories with actual facts because people hold on to them obstinately. A good solution is to warn people in advance they might be exposed to misinformation. You can listen to (or read) the interview here.
- Actual: used for emphasizing what is really true or exact compared with a general idea. We don’t know her actual date of birth.
- Pattern: a series of actions or events that together show how things normally happen or are done. We examined patterns of behaviour in young children.
Vocabulary: MacmillanDictionary.com and CollinsDictionary.com
Some conspiracy theories might also come from noticing patterns. This TED video describes the Ramsey theory, which says that given enough elements in a set or structure, some interesting pattern is guaranteed to appear.
Ted video: The origin of countless conspiracy theories (4’21”)
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