Conspiracy theories begin with a simple question, breed suspicion and create chaos.

Callie Hawkins, Charlotte Tomlin, Elliot Lovitt


Fifty-three years ago, Neil Armstrong opened the hatch of Apollo 11 and stepped into unprecedented territory. He announced to the world, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” and then planted the stars and stripes into the rocky surface of the moon. With no wind to blow them away, his footsteps would remain on the surface for eternity. Photos commemorated the moment, immortalizing the image of the American flag undulating in the breeze on the newest frontier — but how could the flag wave if there’s no wind?

Area 51, the moon landing, Bigfoot, the Illuminati, flat Earth — all phenomena that have witnessed theorization and discourse. The creation of these theories simply starts with a question and a little bit of skepticism.

“Humans are wired to acknowledge patterns,” AP physics and astronomy teacher Matthew Varvir said. “We’re really good at it. That’s honestly one of the things that humans are so much better at than even modern-day AI is that we can look at data and [ask], ‘Why is that? When? Where?’…I think that is the vast majority of [creating these theories]; we search for explanations, and we search for meaning. And if that’s not provided, in other ways, we will create them for ourselves.”

There is even a conspiracy theory behind the coining of the term ‘conspiracy theory’ that the CIA came up with the phrase after John F. Kennedy’s assassination to discredit all of those who were questioning the government’s involvement in it. And there is proof that the term was used as early as 1863 in a letter published in the New York Times regarding why England supported the Confederacy in the Civil War.

“I’m inherently a really skeptical person [which] I think comes to the territory of being a science teacher,” Varvir said. “And so I require, in most of my beliefs, a fair amount of evidence. So with that in mind, I’m way more likely to not believe in a conspiracy theory than believe in it.”

While some people find it entertaining to delve into the whirlpool of these conspiracies, many, like Varvir, are skeptical and stick to the science.

“I usually need heavy evidence to believe in any theories that would completely change the way I think about something,” senior Lyles Etcheverry said. “I like to entertain conspiracy theories, but it takes a lot to truly convince me of any of them.”

Some choose to engage and entertain all kinds of conspiracies, but many have one they stick to and dive deep into.

“[My favorite conspiracy theory] is the moon landing because it is one of the most contradictory, and every person has differing opinions about it,” senior Katye Dullye said. “I used to watch Shane Dawson…and I would listen to his video on [conspiracy theories], which were like an hour long. Whenever I see or hear about a conspiracy theory on TikTok or somewhere else, I usually go to Safari to look into it more.”

A lot of conspiracy theories are harmless and fun to entertain, such as Area 51 housing extraterrestrial life, Bigfoot  and those conjured up around movies or celebrities. However, when it comes to conspiracies dealing with science and history, they can become much more serious and dangerous.

“When you do a little digging, the vast majority of, particularly [the] ones that have to do with science, the evidence against them is so strong,” Varvir said. “If I [were to entertain] any, I guess the closest would be [regarding], historically, a lot of things [about] various governments, particularly colonial governments, or governments who acted in other parts of the world. There’s so much evidence that a lot of that stuff was definitely not above board and was oftentimes incredibly harmful. But to me, I would even argue that those aren’t conspiracy theories because so much of that has come out [and] so much evidence that’s come up that it’s basically now kind of the established historical narrative.”

The Merriam-Webster definition of a conspiracy theory as “a theory that explains an event or set of circumstances as the result of a secret plot by usually powerful conspirators” and also “a theory asserting that a secret of great importance is being kept from the public,” encompasses all kinds of suppositions, whether they be regarding reasons behind certain movies and TV shows or even personal experiences, the small and silly ones, all the way                           to the ones that can get you in trouble when questioning government decisions.

“I watch a lot of YouTube videos on different conspiracy theories because they interest me,” Etcheverry said. “I have a lot of fun with some of them like ‘The Simpsons’ predicting the future, but many of them can be very convincing and, if I dig my hole deep enough, I can get paranoid about the government watching me through my phone and having secret cameras.”

As harmless as they may be, conspiracy theories can snowball and become consuming to those who decide to entertain even the smallest of them. Once you start to believe one of the more simple ones with loads of evidence against it, what is going to stop you from believing the more complicated, possibly even darker ones?

“I think that some are less harmful than some other ones,” Varvir said. “But still, I always am concerned to a little degree about conspiracy theories, just because, if there’s a lot of evidence and if you start really consuming them, really going down the rabbit hole, that you’re more likely to kind of give in to the next one, and the next one, the next one, the next one… When it comes to [theories] like Area 51, I’m more concerned less about what’s happening there and more about people who get too into that, then what do they get into beyond that point?”


After a crisis occurs, whether on a national or local scale, many feel the need to explain the unexplainable through conspiracy theories. Though some conspiracy theories at first glance may seem outlandish and bizarre, many psychologists have determined the root cause of these theories.

“I think people ‘come up’ with these ‘theories’ either just for fun or because they’ve genuinely seen something or heard someone,” junior Austin Stibbens, an avid conspiracy theory believer, said. “Or found something that they believe needs sharing that might shine light on the truth about something. Then when another event occurs, they start to question its legitimacy as well. Humans are curious creatures and tend to stick their noses in places and investigate. Sometimes it doesn’t end well for them, and it makes the rest of us wonder.”

A study from Louisiana State University showed that 50 percent of Americans believe in at least one conspiracy theory. The belief in conspiracy theories stems from a variety of motives, including epistemic, existential and social. An epistemic motive is defined as the desire to have information and an understanding of a situation. Someone with an existential motive wants to have autonomy over the things that happen to them and crave safety and security. Lastly, social motivation is someone’s inclination to feel good about themselves.  

“When something major happens, when a big event happens, people naturally want to know why that happened,” Karen Douglas, Ph.D., professor of social psychology at the University of Kent, said in an interview with the American Psychology Association. “They want an explanation, and they want to know the truth. But they also want to feel certain of that truth. And some psychological evidence suggests that people are drawn to conspiracy theories when they do feel uncertain either in specific situations or more generally.”

In addition to the three main motives, Douglas argues that narcissism factors into the psychology behind conspiracy theories. Both individual theorists and groups of theorists oftentimes have an overinflated sense of importance that gives them an intellectual superiority complex.

“So people with lower levels of education tend to be drawn to conspiracy theories,” Douglas said. “And we don’t argue that’s because people are not intelligent. It’s simply that they haven’t been allowed to have, or haven’t been given access to the tools to allow them to differentiate between good sources and bad sources or credible sources and non-credible sources.”

Not only do education levels play a role in the demographic of theorists, but also age. Douglas found that older generations are less likely to believe in conspiracy theories than younger generations. Research published in British Journal of Developmental Psychology in 2021 suggests that 14 years old is the peak age for belief in conspiracy theories.

“Just like all things, of course, [conspiracy theories] can be considered harmful, and I can see how misinformation might affect someone, but if there’s evidence to prove it wrong then there’s no harm done,” Stibbens said. “It all just depends on what you yourself deem harmful.”

With the rise of social media in the last decade, conspiracy theorists, such as Shane Dawson, have grown their platforms with lengthy videos of various theories. Dawson has achieved almost 20 million subscribers on YouTube with over 4 billion total video views. In 2019, he released a 104-minute documentary on YouTube with theories; one theory speculated that Chuck E. Cheese, a popular pizza franchise with children’s entertainment, recycled their pizza because of the oddly shaped, mismatched slices. The video, now deleted, gained over 30 million views and started a feud between Dawson and the pizza franchise.  

“I was totally convinced when Shane Dawson pulled up a picture of one of the pizzas,” junior Ava Loftus said. “It was enlightening, and it was so obvious that it wasn’t just one pizza. Saying that it’s due to the pizza cutter doesn’t make sense because half of the pizza is like twice the size of the other half.”

Chuck E. Cheese denied all of Dawson’s claims and assured that though the pizzas are not always perfectly shaped, they make their dough fresh in-house and their pizzas are made to order. Dawson is not the only theorist that uses YouTube as a platform, however; during the pandemic, the platform was a hotspot for information about the virus and treatments. According to the Harvard Kennedy School, YouTube lacks the social moderation infrastructure to prevent the spread of misinformation.

Joe Rogan, a commentator and podcaster, has created many YouTube videos featuring theories about the origin of Covid-19.

“The appeal of someone like Joe Rogan is not that he’s a genius, because he’s obviously not, but that he’s willing to discuss anything with anyone, so his episodes range from fun stupidity to exposure to completely new ideas,” former ESD student Miles Wooldridge ’24 said. “I think people would benefit by approaching all information that they receive from the government, mainstream media and conspiracy theorists themselves with a healthy amount of skepticism.”

According to the Washington Post, Rogan’s podcasts average about 11 million listeners. He came under fire for his claim that the mRNA Covid-19 vaccine was actually gene therapy funded by Bill Gates and that a microchip was injected with the vaccine.

“I don’t agree with everything he says, but unlike nearly all other figures in mass media, he invites healthy criticism and dissent,” Wooldridge said. “If you start believing in one conspiracy the problem is that you’re more likely to believe others so it’s all a balance. If you believe every conspiracy theory that’s just as naive as believing all conspiracy theories are hoaxes. You just have to try your best to look at things objectively.”


While many conspiracy theories can be harmless and exist only for entertainment, some can take it one step further, resulting in dangerous misinformation being spread. The prevalence of conspiracy theories, especially revolving around political or social topics, can lead to the perpetuation of harmful beliefs.

“[I’ve heard of] theories about JFK’s assassination, 9/11, Covid-19 and that January 6 is Antifa,” Claire Mrozek, upper school Race In America and AP U.S. History teacher, and junior class dean . “If you look at the American Historical Record, you could probably find a conspiracy theory about everything.”

Conspiracy theories, like those revolving around the 2020 election or Covid-19, undermine the public’s belief on topics like vaccination or raise their mistrust in the government.

“The conspiracy theories that exist today are kind of weaponized, anti-institutional,” Mrozek said. “Again if you look at Covid-19 as a really great example, I think there was a conscious effort by some people to undermine people’s confidence in government and to the healthcare leadership in this country, and that I find very disturbing.”

For example, at the height of the pandemic, the weekly Covid-19 Snapshot Monitoring in Denmark conducted a study that evaluated the effects of conspiracy theories on a random sample of the Danish adult population. When presented with a political Covid-19 conspiracy theory, those in the study ended with decreased institutional trust, decreased support of government regulations and decreased adoption of social distancing measures — thus suggesting that the media sharing conspiracy theories could undermine the government’s attempts to regulate the spread of the virus.

“Personally, I’ve pretty much heard and looked into just about any ‘conspiracy’ that anyone can think of,” Stibbens said. “[I’ve read a lot about] the ones about the majority of public figures, including government officials, [that] are involved in a ‘new world order,’ and they run human trafficking rings, drug smuggling and implement satanism in our everyday lives. The list goes on, but you name it and I’ve probably looked into it.”

Some conspiracy theories take it upon themselves to change beliefs about sensitive topics, including Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting and 9/11. Popular conspiracy theorists, like Alex Jones— a far-right radio show host and owner of the fake news website InfoWars— have claimed that the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting was a hoax. People who believed the conspiracy showed up in Newtown, Connecticut and began to harass those involved with the shooting, accusing family members of victims, survivors of the shooting, religious leaders, neighbors and first responders of being a part of a government plot. Jones’ accusations eventually led him to lose a $1 billion lawsuit, forcing him to declare bankruptcy.

“I think it’s important to always ask questions, but there’s this really significant line,” Mrozek said. “You need to ask questions about what is accepted as truth, but the first thing you should go to isn’t this extreme assumption that somebody’s behind this and somebody’s doing this to hurt me.”

Before Sandy Hook, conspiracy theorists were usually vague, targeting forces within the government. Even with 9/11 conspiracies, theorists usually left the victims’ families alone. However, after Sandy Hook and the harassment in Newtown, conspiracy theorists and their believers have taken it upon themselves to investigate conspiracy theories. For example, with the Pizzagate conspiracy theory — in which Alex Jones theorized that the owners and employees of a Washington D.C. pizza restaurant were a part of a pedophile ring, a ring that also included politicians — one of Jones’ followers drove hundreds of miles to the pizza restaurant and fired his assault rifle, all in the name of investigating conspiracy theories. The Pizzagate conspiracy surfaced during the 2016 presidential election and targeted high-ranking members of the Democratic Party, including presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, accusing them of being a part of a pedophile ring centered in a pizzeria in Washington D.C., hence the name “Pizzagate.”

“The first amendment grants us the right to freedom of speech whether that may be deemed harmful or not,” Stibbens said. “There might be a touchy subject that has foul play and evidence of foul play, and that information needs to be shared so that people can connect the dots and know the truth.”

Before Sandy Hook, the tragedy of 9/11 was subject to conspiracy theories. People theorized that the Bush administration was involved in plotting the 9/11 terrorist attacks, convinced that high-level government officials had knowledge in advance of the attacks.

 “The U.S. economy was at a low point [before 9/11], and when that happens we go to war because people make money off of war,” Stibbens said. “Also, there’s oil in the Middle East, and oil means money. What’s a better way to start a war than to stage an attack on a country that kills thousands of innocent people? Our government knew that.”

Yet another example of conspiracy theories culminating from dangerous events is the insurrection of Jan. 6, 2022, leading to theories that pinned the blame for the riot on members of Antifa — the anti-fascist movement — or even FBI agents. The theories, perpetuated by talk show hosts like Tucker Carlson, paint a fraudulent picture of the events of Jan. 6. Carlson’s claim that the FBI was behind the attack on the Capitol gained traction after he released a documentary series about the insurrection.

“We have to get back to responsible journalism,” Mrozek said. “The good news about social media is the tremendously powerful democratic nature of it. Literally anybody can get on Twitter and put something out there. But that’s not enough. There was a law, called the Fairness Doctrine, where if you got an FCC license, then you had a responsibility to address all sides of an issue. They basically just let that law go into oblivion by the 1980s. You can talk about standards in journalism, but it’s hard because you don’t want to squelch the ability of people to have opinions.”

In order to combat the misinformation constantly being pushed on various forms of media, Mrozek believes that schools could help teach media literacy, but ultimately it’s up to the individual to decide what is true and what is not.

“I do think schools have a very important responsibility to try to teach media literacy,” Mrozek said. “But it’s one more thing to teach in my classroom, it’s one more thing to do in advisory, that’s really hard. The only real answer [to combat misinformation] is critical thinking, for people to be taught to ask really significant questions about everything they encounter.”

No Comments Yet

Comments are closed

%d bloggers like this: