AFTERMATH: Police move floral tributes near the Al Noor Mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand where a gunman killed 50 worshipers at the Al Noor Masjid on Tuesday, March 19.
AFTERMATH: Police move floral tributes near the Al Noor Mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand where a gunman killed 50 worshipers at the Al Noor Masjid on Tuesday, March 19. DAVID ALEXANDER

UQ academic talks the danger of conspiracy theories

A UNIVERSITY of Queensland academic has given insight into the potential dangers of reading too far into conspiracy theories - and rejecting conflicting information as a result.

Dr Peter Ellerton, a lecturer in philosophy at UQ who has contributed to publications such as The Conversation, The Best Australian Science Writing 2017 and The Australian Book of atheism, said conspirators risked closing themselves off to "other alternatives or options” in favour of their personal beliefs.

One recent local example came when controversial Gympie gun advocate Ron Owen claimed the graphic murder video livestreamed and published on social media by the Christchurch mosque massacre gunman was a "farce”.

University of Queensland Lecturer in Philosophy Dr Peter Ellerton.
University of Queensland lecturer in Philosophy Dr Peter Ellerton. Anjanette Webb

Mr Owen stressed he was not questioning whether people died in the attack, but specifically the related information communicated in its aftermath.

He had previously backed censured Senator Fraser Anning's comments blaming New Zealand's immigration policy for the atrocity as "truth” in his online newsletter The Bulletin.

"One of the ways (conspiracies can be detrimental) is that we just get closed off to other alternatives or options, all we do is bang on about the same thing in the same way,” Dr Ellerton said.

"We become convinced of the reality of what we're talking about, and any information that might go against that is simply seen in a funny kind of way as a confirming instance because 'they're out to get us' or 'they're out to change our perceptions' or 'they would say that because that's how they manipulate us.' It stops you from being able to see other positions because you ... get locked into that particular way of thinking.”

Dr Ellerton said everyone had a right to free speech and thought, but conspiracy theorists would have to be prepared for "pushback”.

"You can think what you want and by and large you can say what you want, but don't expect that you won't get pushback, particularly if what you say is damaging to other people,” he said.

"You've got to say things with certain sensitivities. If you don't care ... by all means off you go.

"If it seems like it would be harmful to those victims, you're making a choice when you say that, you don't care what they went through and you don't care what they think, you've got to own that choice. If you want to propagate your conspiracies then you should be aware that you'll be perceived that way and others may respond to you using their own free speech.

"We should be careful with what we say because we're human beings and we should take care of each other, but if you don't care about that you should be prepared to cop a bit of pushback from people.”

Dr Ellerton said conspiracies did not come without their positives, at least from a social standpoint.

"Some of the effects can be positive at least in the short term in that you can feel like you belong to a particular group. Not only do you have a sense of belonging, you surround yourself with people who think like you.

"Everything seems coherent.

"You're not getting any information that disagrees with your world view, or if you are, the members of your group can give you reasons for discounting it and not taking it seriously. You can have a nice kind of happy relationship there with other people who think the same things. You reinforce each other's thinkings - it's a way of belonging.

"In a world where so much is known and so little of it by us, it gives you a way of negating all of that hard difficult stuff that you're not a part of and restoring you to the centre of the picture as one of the few who know the truth. It's a way of feeling important.”