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Just Because You Don’t Believe in Conspiracy Theories Doesn’t Mean You’re Always Right

From Adrian J. Rivera, writing for The New York Times…

Every so often, something so awful and senseless happens that it’s hard to fully absorb it. An apartment building collapses as residents sleep within. A movie star’s prop gun fires a real bullet on a film set, killing a young mother. A concert crowd morphs into a melee that leaves people dead and injured.

After each such catastrophe, there looms a question: What’s the real story of what happened here? Amid a stream of facts and rumors via breaking news alerts, the loudest answers often come from two camps: Let’s call them the conspiracists and the reformists.

One rants about shadowy schemes, nefarious figures, unseen hands and global cabals. The other preaches the gospel of rationality, a doctrine holding that even if all is not yet known, all is eventually knowable, and that if sensible rules are followed, chaos can be prevented.

Take as an example Travis Scott’s Astroworld Festival, where a crowd surge earlier this month left at least 10 people dead and injured hundreds. “It was like hell,” one attendee said. Some conspiracists were quick to assert another view: The concert wasn’t just “like” hell. It was, rather, an elaborate satanic ritual, perhaps designed to summon a portal to hell.

The signs were all there, they tweeted. There was the stage that looked like an inverted cross. There was the fact that the Church of Satan was founded on April 30, 1966 — 666 months and six days before the night of the concert, Nov. 5, 2021. And that date was also the 66th birthday of Kris Jenner, the mother of Kylie Jenner, Mr. Scott’s girlfriend. These outlandish ideas are not relegated to the fringes of the internet; some videos making such claims have millions of views. A single comment on one of these posts (“The music industry is demonic and collects souls”) garnered tens of thousands of likes on its own.

A conspiracist’s natural habitats are TikTok, Reddit, Facebook and YouTube, fertile ground for planting seeds of paranoia and fear through seconds-long clips and doctored photos. After the Astroworld tragedy, a prominent QAnon figure reportedly articulated the mantra of a conspiracist: “There is NO such thing as ‘coincidence.’ Ever.”

Enter the reformist, for whom a catastrophe comes down to predictable human error. According to the reformist, the cause of the crowd surge at Astroworld was a series of egregious mistakes: inadequate planning, a set of safety measures not properly put in place or a performer who should have stopped the show sooner.

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