Friday, 5 November 2021

Who doesn’t love a good conspiracy theory?

The Beginning

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WHAT IF I TOLD YOU…

Nowadays, conspiracy theories are more than mere stories. Misinformation seems to be everywhere, and sharing lies with mns of people is now as easy as the click of a button. But where do these stories come from, and why do (some) people have a propensity to believe them? In this month’s issue of Your Wealth, we’ll take a deep dive into the silliest, strangest, and most controversial conspiracy theories throughout history, from politics, to aliens, and everything in between.

OUR SECRET POWERFUL OVERLORDS

The conspiracy theory that birthed them all: A secret cult of powerful overlords known as the Illuminati, who supposedly control everything from pop culture to politics, remains one of the most enduring conspiracy theories of our time and the subject of online shouting matches, Youtube videos and facebook pages to this day. Fascination with the Illuminati can be traced back to the 18th century, when a real secret society of intellectuals started by a German law professor in Europe became the focus of conservative backlash in the aftermath of the French Revolution.

The group was primarily interested in promoting Enlightenment ideals like reason, philanthropy, and self-rule among elite members of society so that they could eventually seep into the political arena when these new individuals came to power. The problem is, the group only lasted about a decade in pursuit of these ideals and grew to about 650 – 2.5k members, at their height before they were ultimately disbanded in 1785. Historians have dismissed the influence they were able to exert on politics in their short tenure as minimal.

But their disbandment is precisely when conspiracy theories about the group started running wild: Accusations that the Illuminati was behind the French Revolution and had fully infiltrated the Freemasons started circulating among conservative thinkers and politicians who were disturbed by the changing political tides in the 18th century. These early ideas, along with public denunciations by US presidents and ironic parodies of the conspiracy over the years have continued to stoke the flames of suspicion and keep the theory alive. Conspiracy theorists point to symbols like the floating eye on the USD bill and hip hop artist Jay-Z’s generous use of the triangle symbol as some of the many hidden messages in politics and pop culture that prove the continued control this secretive group wields over the world.

Then there’s those who believe in the New World Order: This theory follows a similar line of thinking that makes the case that a shadowy group of establishment individuals drawn from governments, central banks and think tanks around the globe are slowly working towards world domination and establishing a single government entity. The theory has also floated the idea that somewhere below the Denver International Airport (which is twice the size of Manhattan) is where the group’s meetings take place. The idea first emerged in 1966 after the publication of a book, The Profound Revolution, which posited the existence of the group. It continued to pick up traction through subsequent publications released by people adjacent to some of these power structures in the US. By the late 90s and early 2000s as globalization kicked into high gear, followers of this idea started to get especially spooked, pointing to the diminishing importance of borders and nations as proof that the New World Order is around the corner.

A long running suspicion adjusted for the internet age: QAnon is the wide reaching internet conspiracy theory that claims a group of cannibalistic devil worshipping elites running a global child [redacted] trafficking ring are in control of American media and politics. People who believe in this conspiracy claim figures like Hillary Clinton, media icons like Oprah Winfrey and bnaire George Soros as some of the members of this group. The conspiracy reached mainstream infamy around the same time as the 2020 US presidential elections, but originates in a 2017 4chan post by a self-proclaimed government insider known as Q, who claimed that then president Donald Trump was waging a war on these elites from within. They also believed that there would be a day of reckoning led by Trump around the time of the elections.

How many people believe this? Some 17 percent of Americans believed in QAnon’s central claim of Satan-worshiping elites running the US, according to a December 2020 NPR poll, with the New York Times estimating the number of people who believe in the conspiracy to number in the mns. Some social media platforms had membership in QAnon linked groups running in the hnds of thnds but Facebook and Twitter have since decided to remove QAnon content from their platforms.

How significant is this theory? People who believed in the QAnon conspiracy theory were so sold on the idea that they spurred many of the rallies claiming that the US presidential election was fraudulently stolen from then incumbent president Donald Trump. The conspiracy theory reached its peak around the time of the US election, online activity from “Q” has since grown way less frequent — offering little explanation for why the fantasy of Trump saving the US from the satanic government ring never fully materialized.

The car crash that led to Princess Diana and her Egyptian boyfriend’s death: On a smaller scale we have conspiracies that allege the car accident in Paris in 1997 that caused the 36 year old British Princess and her boyfriend Dodi El Fayed’s death was in fact orchestrated by the British Royal Family to prevent her from marrying a Muslim. El Fayed’s father, the wealthy businessman Mohamed El Fayed has since vocally accused the Royal Family of organizing the conspiracy alongside prince Philip, prince Charles, former Prime Minister Tony Blair, MI6, the CIA and some London police chiefs. Investigations by French and British authorities have since come up empty handed in terms of evidence of wrongdoing related to the accident, but some lingering curiosities about the absence of surveillance footage from the tunnel, and an allegedly uninvestigated car that may have intercepted their vehicle before the crash, ensure the theory continues to hold sway over public imagination.

THE FBI’S UFO COLLECTION

Welcome, ET. For those with a passion for conspiracy and a palate for the paranormal, alien conspiracies provide the best of both worlds. From sightings, to abductions and government cover ups, the possibility of the existence of technologically advanced aliens has continued to tickle the imagination of conspiracy theorists the world over.

Aliens built the pyramids: It’s true that no one knows definitively how they were built or why they supposedly align with the stars in Orion’s belt, but the conspiracy theory that aliens built the pyramids has stood the test of time. For some conspiracy theorists, attributing the inexplicable to the paranormal or extraterrestrial is more comforting than accepting that we do not know exactly how some of the ancient world’s most impressive monuments were built, with sites like Stonehenge, Teotihuacán, the Pyramids of Giza, and the maoi of Easter Island, to name a few, being labelled (in part) the work of aliens.

The first reported sightings: Although the earliest recorded example of human curiosity about alien life appears in 200 AD, in modern memory, it is the American imagination that has been on the frontier of fascination with extraterrestrial life. Between 1947 and 1954, a wave of “sightings'' of unexplained flying objects (UFOs) were reported across America, and the FBI and US Air Force worked closely to investigate the sightings (the results of the investigation are available online). In fact, so many sightings were reported that FBI agents routinely destroyed reports due to a lack of filing space.

How Hollywood’s abduction stories came to life: While the US Space Program kicked off in 1958, it was aliens in the movies that stoked the public’s imagination (and paranoia) about life beyond earth with sci-fi flicks like The Day the Earth Stood Still and Invaders from Mars. Many of these movies were remade in the 1980s and 1990s when interest in the extraterrestrial surged once again. In 1959, the American anthology television series The Twilight Zone aired for the first time, bringing the paranormal (and occasional extra-terrestrial) into the homes of Americans. Is it any coincidence then that the first publicized account of a couple abducted by aliens took place in 1961? Or that their description of their abductors closely resembled scenes from Invaders from Mars?

UFOs are real, and the US government is covering it up: But alien abductions and UFOs are not just a thing of the 1950s: According to a 2019 Gallup Poll, one-third of American adults believe that UFOs are alien spacecraft visiting Earth. And a series of unidentified aerial sightings by military pilots and the US Navy between 2004 and 2017 led to a serious government enquiry in the United States, the results of which were released in a report in June of this year. The report provided no clear conclusion on whether or not the sightings are connected to extraterrestrial life. Which leads us to another kind of alien conspiracy theorist: those that believe that the US government is hiding the truth about extraterrestrial life from us.

A special shoutout goes to: Ancient Aliens, a History Channel production that put forward some 17 seasons of conspiracy theories purporting that aliens have been visiting earth for millenia, claiming that they were responsible for everything from the extinction of dinosaurs to the outcome of WWII.

THEY’RE POISONING US!

Living through a global pandemic has spawned endless speculation on our health, and proven fertile ground for conspiracy theorists out to disprove everything from the safety of vaccines to the existence of the covid-19 virus itself. But medical conspiracies predate the pandemic, and we’ll take a look at a few below.

Watch out! Big, bad, greedy, pharma is out to get you: Conspiracy theorists claim that big pharmaceutical companies with the likes of Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer seek to treat diseases rather than cure them, meaning that their drugs aim to eliminate the symptoms of a disease instead of straight-up getting rid of it. The incentive: get consumers to buy the drug over the course of their lives and not just once, ultimately bringing in more money. But, as you probably guessed, it’s simply not true: developing treatments instead of cures is a losing strategy. That’s because the pharmaceutical industry is highly competitive, so drugs merely controlling a disease will always get blown out of the water by others that can cure it. Case in point, ribavirin/interferon therapy has been used to treat Hepatitis C for decades now, but when Sovaldi — a drug that cures the disease developed by Gilead Science— made it on the market in 2013, it had the most lucrative drug launch of its time bringing in USD 8.5 bn in the first nine months following its release.

Modifying genes ought to be “bad,” right? Well, conspiracy theories have led the vast majority of people to believe so, claiming that genetically modified crops are harmful to both humans and the environment. It all started when scientists first claimed that GMOs are more susceptible to diseases, thus making us use more pesticides to keep plantations safe. But the theory got out of hand, with some claiming that the modified crops are being used to reduce African men’s fertility and eliminate Africans from the world population. These outlandish claims are all backed up by pseudo-science; it turns out that fertility rates and crops have nothing to do with each other. But the basis of the conspiracy theory itself has been disproven with studies showing that GMOs are no more susceptible to diseases than their non-modified counterparts. On the contrary, crops are genetically modified to make them more resistant to pathogens.

Ummm…. But where did covid-19 come from? It came from the bats, it came from the labs; people everywhere seem to have an opinion on this matter. On the one hand, the bat theory claims that the virus was transmitted from bats to humans when someone ate soup containing an infected bat in a Wuhan market in China. On the other hand, the lab conspiracy argues that the virus was manufactured in a Wuhan laboratory as a bioweapon to help China take over the world. The truth is, we don’t actually know for sure where the virus came from, after a fact finding mission to Wuhan earlier this year came away empty-handed.

A special shout out to anti-vaxxers, the bane of our existence: One of the major obstacles to achieving worldwide vaccination. By putting everyone at risk of contracting the virus, anti-vaxxers are not only harming themselves but are harming society as a whole. So why are they refusing to get vaccinated? There are a variety of reasons: some claim that the vaccine contains 5G-powered-microchips designed to track them, others believe that the vaccine might be unsafe to take and ineffective. Some even go as far as denying the existence of a pandemic. In any case, the theories contradict peer-reviewed studies that have proven that the covid-19 jab doesn’t have long-term adverse effects. Ultimately, a vaccine may be the only way of getting rid of covid-19 once and for all.

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YOUR TOP 5

Your top 5 pieces of business and economic news in October 2021:

  • e-Finance raised USD 370 mn in its IPO on the EGX amid strong demand from foreign investors, making it the bourse’s biggest listing since 2015.
  • Egypt’s current account deficit widened to USD 5.13 bn in 4Q FY 2020-2021, from USD 3.83 bn in the same period the previous fiscal year.
  • Annual urban inflation hit its highest levels in 20 months in September, reaching 6.6% from 5.7% in August on rising food prices.
  • The IMF downgraded its growth projections for the Egyptian economy to 5.2% in the current fiscal year from 5.7% it predicted in April.
  • Hotels can now operate at full capacity for the first time in 18 months after the government lifted covid restrictions put in place in March 2020 to curb the spread of the virus.

WHY DO SOME BUY INTO CONSPIRACY THEORIES?

The people who believe conspiracy theories must be nutjobs, right? It seems like it should be impossible for a sensible human being to acknowledge the validity of some of these wacky propositions, but we’re all probably more susceptible to them than we think. Their appeal lies in their presenting a neatly packaged explanation to distressing, unanswered, or otherwise pressing questions that are perhaps largely ignored by mainstream media. There are a number of other reasons our brains latch on to illogical tales of conspiracy.

Making sense of chaos: We live in a world in which we are constantly bombarded with information: our phones, TVs, and radios are on 24/7, and we’re obsessively refreshing our social media feeds. This sensory and informational overload can lead to a feeling of anxiety, as our brain isn’t capable of processing all the information we’re feeding it. So it sometimes takes a “shortcut,” meaning that instead of thinking things through rationally it just believes what it is told, which helps us satisfy our craving for cognitive closure (i.e. a need to find a simple answer to a complex question).

Covid-19 didn’t help: The more uncertain the times, the more desperate we are for a sense of order, with moments of historical upheaval or social change leaving people particularly susceptible to the effects of conspiracy. The World Health Organization has said we are currently living through what it calls an “infodemic,” a deluge of information, some of it false or misleading, that impedes people’s sound decision-making.

Our egos are out of control: When we feel that we have lost we tend to find a common enemy on whom we can blame our failure, as a way to protect our egos. In other words, we’re willing to believe lies instead of admitting defeat. It’s part of our need for self-preservation and self-esteem; we try to inflate our egos while avoiding loss at all costs. This was especially apparent when Donald Trump lost the US elections last year, resulting in some republicans storming the Capitol building and blaming the democrats for having rigged the election. An investigation by the federal authorities however found no evidence of voter fraud.

Sheep in a herd: When we’re lost, we just do what others are doing even if we think it’s wrong. After all, humans are social creatures: we always want to be part of something bigger. People’s existential motives, the need to feel safe in the world they live in, as well as their social motives — the need to be a part of a group — can motivate a herd mentality when it comes to conspiracy theories.

Stubbornness: When we believe something is true, it’s practically impossible to get us to change our minds. Emily Thorson, professor at Syracuse University, calls this phenomenon: “belief echos.” So misinformation must be prevented, not treated; meaning that stopping lies at their source is a lot more effective than trying to reason with people who are already convinced. The science backs it up: a study found that warning people about the techniques that might be used to spread falsehoods enabled participants to better identify them.

Kicking these cognitive habits may be harder than we expect: Even when presented with hard evidence, people tend to hold onto their original proposition, because nobody likes to be wrong. Promoting the idea that it is good, rational, and natural to change your ideas once presented with new information could help wean some conspiracy theorists off of their misbeliefs.

Which conspiracy theory you buy into depends on where your interests lie: According to a 2021 YouGov survey of 22k people in 21 countries, one in five Americans believes 9/11 to have been an inside job, while 57% of South Africans believe vaccines have secret negative side effects, and 78% of Nigerians believe the world is being run behind the scenes by a secret cabal of powerful rulers.

What do Egyptians think? In Egypt, we scored high on conspiracy theory uptake in multiple categories: 42% of Egyptians think the US government was involved in 9/11, 43% think Trump worked with the Russian government during the 2016 election, 45% believe vaccines have harmful hidden side effects, and 55% believe that the world is run by secret powerful elites. The good news: We seem to believe in climate change, with only 23% of Egyptians surveyed saying they believed climate change was a hoax. We also don’t seem to be interested in extraterrestrial life, with only 25% of those surveyed saying they believed humanity had made secret contact with aliens.

BUT THEN AGAIN…

Some conspiracy theories blur the line between truth and falsehood, and quite a few ridiculous stories once labelled conspiracy theories have, with time, turned out to actually have been true. Here are a few of the most famous and the most shocking we could dig up that will have you questioning the facts you’ve taken for granted.

US Central Intelligence is controlling the media? They allegedly were, with Operation Mockingbird: The CIA did in fact recruit prominent journalists from all over the world, from Pulitzer Prize winners and US reporters, to foreign correspondents and freelance journalists, all of whom gave the CIA access to leading news organizations. The operation allegedly started during the Cold War and was later uncovered after the Watergate scandal. Though no Operation Mockingbird was ever referred to in declassified documents, a Project Mockingbird in which the CIA monitored two journalists in the 1960s did come to light. Nevertheless, the Church Committee congressional investigations into the CIA’s activities found that the agency had cultivated connections with media and civic groups, though the extent of the relationships were hard to ascertain. “The CIA currently maintains a network of several hundred foreign individuals around the world who […] provide the CIA with direct access to a large number of newspapers and periodicals, scores of press services and news agencies, radio and television stations, commercial book publishers, and other foreign media outlets,” the report concluded. So if Operation Mockingbird did not exist in name, it very much did in practice.

The government is developing a mind control weapon? Well, they tried to, with MKUltra: The CIA ran biological experiments on unknowing US citizens in their search for a mind control drug that could be used as a weapon against the Russians in the Cold War. Sounds crazy right? But it very much happened. The unknowing participants in this large-scale experiment were were given hallucinogenic drugs in a bid to investigate whether they could be made more susceptible to hypnosis, more resilient to torture, and a number of other, not so nice things. The subjects of these experiments — which were conducted with the help of over 80 institutions including hospitals, prisons, and universities — were often prisoners, drug addicts, or people otherwise on the margins of society, who were “unable to fight back,” in the words of Sidney Gottlieb, the chemist who introduced LSD to the CIA. At least one participant is known to have taken his own life after being exposed to a high dose of LSD. Journalist Stephen Kinzer, who spent several years investigating, and wrote a book on the program, writes, “We don't know how many people died, but a number did, and many lives were permanently destroyed.”

Doctors are experimenting on the public without their consent? Yes they did, in the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. An unethical 30-year study of Syphilis in 600 African American men started in the 1930s by the US Public Health Service saw doctors recruit participants in exchange for free medical exams and free meals. The men were not told they had syphilis, but that they were being treated for what was at the time vaguely called “bad blood,” a term used to refer to a number of diseases. But did they actually receive any treatment? Nope. For years the participants were given placebos, despite the fact that penicillin was commonly accepted as a treatment for the disease some 15 years into the study. Instead of treating the men, the doctors tracked the slow progression of the disease, and let them suffer and die. After an Associated Press story in the 1970s revealed what had been going on, the study was discontinued, and an out-of-court settlement of USD 10 mn was reached with the participants’ families.

And some run of the mill, everyday conspiracy: Big brother is watching you: Many conspiracy theories stem from the paranoia that someone is constantly watching you. But is there? Remember when wikileaks and Edward Snowden were the biggest revelation of the century? Snowden’s leaks had revealed that politicians and leaders including Germany’s Angela Merkel were being spied on. While shocking at the time, this has become pretty standard fare since then, with our current lives inching towards an Orwellian dystopia with the proliferation of smart devices in our homes and pockets that constantly collect data on what we get up to.

And social Media is telling you what to think: There’s no denying social media’s influence on our opinions and everyday choices, but the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal exposed the inner workings of just how far that can go. The data analytics firm had harvested and misused the data of 50 mn facebook users, and used that data to create individualized psychological profiles that could be used to influence users with specialized political ads that would “target their inner demons,” in the words of Christopher Wylie, who worked on obtaining the data. The firm was closely involved in Trump’s 2016 election campaign, and allegedly had some involvement in the Brexit vote to leave the EU. The operation was possibly the most wide-scale attempt at manipulation of public opinion in history, and resulted in Facebook being slapped with a USD 5 bn fine by the Federal Trade Commission for data misuse.

Still, you shouldn’t trust everything you hear: Though there is an element of truth to some conspiracy theories, most of them are just plain false. The danger lies in when real facts and hard science are labelled conspiracy theories, or “fake news” by detractors. A shining example is former US President Donald Trump’s weaponization of the term to detract from the credibility of media outlets critical of his policies and rhetoric. Disinformation extends beyond the political sphere to all aspects of information, including climate change, entertainment, and health. It threatens to blur our sense of reality and our good judgement, creating a world in which the truth is less relevant than where you fall on the political spectrum.

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