The underlying harms that originate from conspiracy theories

“I was captaining the fire department. I had to go downtown. For my first assignment, I was assigned to a fire boat. I had people who worked for and alongside me. I didn’t know what was going on. Everything was dirty and dusty. I worked on ground zero. I had to organize people and find out what was going on. I had to find missing family members. It was horrifying. The aftermath of 9/11 left buildings still on fire, with rubble everywhere. I had to make sure there was enough water being supplied. There were piles of rubble 20 feet high and people picking at it with buckets. You couldn’t get around because of all the people. It was total chaos. People were crawling through rubble and popping out of the dirt. There were more and more survivors. But the everyday citizens of New York City became true heroes that day. There were bands of small people, ordinary people, digging away with buckets at the rubble.” 

This was the true experience of local firefighter and first responder, Adam Simms, who speaks of his experience witnessing the terrifying events of that day, September 11th. 

“They brought us into Auschwitz. I could see the chimneys burning, smell the smoke. I did not think about it. They gave us tattoos: 33076. I did not have a name anymore; just a number,” Sara Polonski Zuchowicki recalls. 

Auschwitz was a concentration camp during the Holocaust, where millions of Jews faced torture, brutal working conditions, and even death. Sara is just one of so many who has faced the traumatizing and horrific environment of a concentration camp. 

According to the New York Times, “Yuanyuan Zhu was walking to her gym in San Francisco on March 9, thinking the workout could be her last for a while, when she noticed that a man was shouting at her. He was yelling an expletive about China. Then a bus passed, she recalled, and he screamed after it, ‘Run them over.’ She tried to keep her distance, but when the light changed, she was stuck waiting with him at the crosswalk. She could feel him staring at her. And then, suddenly, she felt it: his saliva hitting her face and her favorite sweater.”

This quote recalls Yuanyuan’s experience encountering a terrible act of racism during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Multiple people have had their own unique experiences with major events through history, and conspiracy theories have degraded them to such a severe level, that it is extremely disrespectful to the victims. This is especially prominent with conspiracy theories regarding the topics of 9/11, which belittles people’s personal stories of that day, such as Adam Simms, a true hero from that day. Also, conspiracy theories targeted towards the Holocaust are a true tragedy, with there being so much evidence to refute any claims made of what actually happened during this time, just like Sara retelling what she witnessed in concentration camp Auschwitz. Furthermore, conspiracy theories surfacing COVID are very harmful, especially when used as a way to spread hatred towards Chinese people.

Conspiracy theories are systemically discriminatory and promote a disbelieving ideology that relies on fiction rather than fact. Conspiracy theories are harmful for the education of historical information, and can be prejudice towards a variety of minorities. 

PART 1: The effect of conspiracy theories on the Holocaust, and how it truly impacts Jews

Conspiracy theories primarily tied to the Holocaust have become even more apparent overtime, with people conjuring ridiculous ideas and theories related to the topics of disbelief as a cover for their anti semitic tendencies. People may pretend these ideas are connected to their religious belief or their political opinions when in actuality, they are made as a form of pure discrimination and disrespect for victims. These people have usually called themselves “a Nazi continuity group”, following white supremacist opinions they invoke into modern society.

So what is anti semitism? Well, Jonathen Eluken, a Jewish studies professor at Trinity college, has a certain historical definition of it. “People who are classified as antisemitic and work in these antisemitic parties have an attitude towards the Jews that is not necessarily what we would consider antisemitism today. Instead, throughout history, antisemitism was considered the political opposition towards Jews integration into European society. The Jewish community expanded that definition to include more of what we consider anti semitic now.” 

Furthermore, antisemitism has become especially apparent as of lately with multiple horrifying acts against Jews, this is shown in an ADL report with an alarming statistic: “significant surges in incidents include high volume increases in organized white supremacist propaganda activity (102% increase to 852 incidents), K-12 schools (49% increase to 494 incidents) and college campuses (41% increase to 219 incidents), as well as deeply troubling percentage increases in attacks on Orthodox Jews (69% increase to 59 Incidents) and bomb threats toward Jewish institutions (an increase from eight to 91 incidents).” 

This statistic proves the dramatic rise in anti-semitic attacks, and how it can all be linked back to white supremacists ideology. This type of ideology originates with Nazi party groups, specifically around the time of the Holocaust. There are groups of Holocaust deniers who claim that it did not happen when this has proven to be nothing but bogus lies. Holocaust deniers completely underestimate the devastating events of the Holocaust. For instance, they say Jews were not marched to their death through concentration camps, but instead resettled. They say Jewish ghettos were an act of quarantine for the safety and perseveration of Jews. They ignore the facts and focus on the fiction and cloudy delusions they conjure up, ignoring the millions of lives taken, and calling it a hoax. This in itself is an act of extreme antisemitism. While these groups may not bomb synagogues or physically attack Orthodox-Jews, they instead use their words to spread these lies and ideas, promoting this negative and dangerous stigma onto other Nazi idealists. 

Elukin also says, “Conspiracy theories are quite seductive because at their core what they offer is a way of making sense of the world in the same way religion does. They provide answers to things that are mysterious. Why did these things happen? Why is a particular group not getting rewarded? Why is a particular group suffering? So if you’re part of a group that feels aggrieved or feels confused about what’s happening in history, a conspiracy theory that says, oh well, I’ll explain it to you can reel someone in. They might say that the Jews are at the root of all evil and you are economically or professionally or personally less successful because the Jews have taken precedence. They have manipulated the media or finance or the government. They’ve created this whole story about a Holocaust so that the world will treat them differently and feel sorry for them. That’s a very seductive message about how to make sense of the world. That’s why combating conspiracy theories with accurate historical research and writing is so important.”

Conspiracy theories are especially harmful for people who are easily swayed by these types of opinions. It is very dangerous for them to hear something that is new or interesting, and then immediately believe whatever idea it is, no matter how far-fetched.

Furthermore, Alan Goldschlager, a professor at University of Western Ontario, says “the premise of these conspiracy theories is that the Jews want to control the world, this can be traced back to the Holocaust when the Nazi’s believed Jews were trying to claim power over them. These conspiracy theorists needed a target to pin the blame of all problems of the world to, and this target was Jews.”

In the Atlantic, it explains, “ The more conspiratorial discourse your society has, the more likely people will become anti-Semites. You might start out as a freelance, equal-opportunity conspiracy theorist, but you’re just one Google search away from somebody telling you that the people behind the problems that you perceive are Jewish people.” This quote goes along with Elukin’s argument about the seductive nature of conspiracy theories. They are able to pull someone in so easily, that it is extremely frightening, and make it so anyone can be caught in the trap of it.

Ms. Barber, a history teacher at NYC iSchool gives her take: “Conspiracy theories are when groups of people think certain things are true, but there isn’t evidence to back it up. One that specifically comes to mind are conspiracy theories about the Holocaust and 9/11 and that the government overstated it or lied about it, but there is never any evidence of historical truth backing it up. There’s something appealing about it, so many people choose to believe a conspiracy theory instead of the truth. It’s too possible for people to trust themselves and trust feelings instead of looking into evidence. And while this might be interesting or even fun to be able to trust their feelings, it is crucial to study the facts. As a history teacher, I am all about finding good sources and backing up claims with knowledge and research. Hutches and instincts are definitely not as valid as the real work that goes into being a historian. People who make conspiracy theories for a living are not true histories, they are cult leaders or hoaxers. I do not believe in these people nor do I believe anyone should. They are just trying to make money or get fame and I think it’s really disingenuous and it undermines people who do real historical work or real detective work. It’s not good for people who actually have the credentials to do the work. It’s not right for someone who has a more appealing theory to just get all the fame and money for it, especially when it is most likely never true.”

This quote from Ms. Barber raises the question of whether or not conspiracy theorists are even true historians. When someone makes these harmful theories about the Holocaust or 9/11, people can question their resources and credentials for making such claims. 

PART 2: The effects of conspiracy theories on 9/11, and how it is disrespectful to victims

Conspiracy theories circulating 9/11 heightened in popularity right after the tragic event occurred. People had their own unique experiences, from several New Yorkers who were just pedestrians to first responders who stormed into the burning buildings to save people’s lives. 

Simms says, “Conspiracy theories are made to get attention, especially the ones related to 9/11. These have become very popular, and people would make up all kinds of stories, even blaming Muslim people who had no affiliation to anything related to the events of 9/11.” 

Here, Simms proves how conspiracy theories made on the topic of 9/11 promote Islamophobia. According to SPLC, “But also arising from the ashes of 9/11 was a far-right anti-Muslim movement fueled by bigotry and the supercharged nativist rhetoric that followed the attacks. This movement was led by activists who portrayed Muslims in general as potential terrorists and trafficked in dark conspiracy theories about Islamist extremists secretly infiltrating the government and the U.S. legal system under assault by Sharia law.” 

This article talks specifically about conspiracy theories related to Islamophobia that have been surfacing again in recent times. People would blame Muslim people, and call them terrorists after 9/11, promoting a negative stigma. People received violent threats, physically and mentally. These kinds of conspiracy theories are just made with malicious intentions, not as a way to keep a peaceful society. These far right extremists have taken conspiracy theories to the next level, by suggesting innocent Muslim citizens are to blame when they have nothing to do with any terrorism attacks. It is a hateful, spiteful message being spread, and this can all be linked back to conspiracy theories. 

Ms. Perez, a history teacher at NYC iSchool, says, “Conspiracy theories made about tragic moments are not made by historians. We have to be careful because there is an agenda. And some of these conspiracy theories, they do have an agenda. It is harmful for all types of groups of people. We as a society can very easily be swayed, so we have to be careful. Especially with the younger generation. They’re minds are moldable. You have to be careful with what you promote. Images are very persuasive and phones are scary, because everyone uses this as a primary form of technology now, and while people may think it does not hold an impact, it definitely does. If we keep seeing a negative image, then when we see that thing, we associate it with conspiracy theories, and what they are saying. I was working at a retail store during 9/11 actually, and if I hadn’t experienced it, I can see why someone from a different environment or generation who didn;t personally experienced it might say I don’t know how true this is because they see it on TV right? And when you watch things on TV, it is easy to be like oh that was orchestrated for the cameras or blown out of proportion or whatnot.”

Ms. Perez suggests how technology plays a crucial role behind conspiracy theories becoming promoted, especially those circulating 9/11. 

Natasha Trinidad, a junior from NYC iSchool, says, “Conspiracy theories about 9/11 are very harmful. After it happened, a lot of people would give threats to Muslim people and it was a huge thing where people kept getting attacked in the street.”

Natasha reiterates the earlier quote from the SPLC article, about how islamophobia was even more apparent after 9/11, with people facing physical attacks and threats. 

Furthermore, in an article from abcnews, it says, “As years passed, the number of hate crimes dropped (and then rose again in recent years), according to the FBI, but the damage was done. For years, Muslims in the United States felt unsure about their place in American society, according to the research initiative by the University of California, Berkeley called Islamophobia Research and Documentation Project.” 

This demonstrates how these kinds of affiliated attacks on innocent people in the US makes society feel like an unaccepting and dangerous place for certain groups of individuals. 

PART 3: The effect of conspiracy theories on Covid-19, and how it impacts Asian hate crimes

People have created ideas that Covid-19, the global pandemic, was carried by Asian people into the US from China. This is extremely xenophobic, and raises Asian hate crimes in the US.

For example, BBCnews mentions, “An elderly Thai immigrant dies after being shoved to the ground. A Filipino-American is slashed in the face with a box cutter. A Chinese woman is slapped and then set on fire. Eight people are killed in a shooting rampage across three Asian spas in one night.These are just examples of recent violent attacks on Asian Americans, part of a surge in abuse since the start of the pandemic a year ago.From being spat on and verbally harassed to incidents of physical assault, there have been thousands of reported cases in recent months. Advocates and activists say these are hate crimes, and often linked to rhetoric that blames Asian people for the spread of Covid-19.”

Nikki Hatzopoulos, a junior at NYC iSchool, says, “Conspiracy theories are really common. I see a lot of it on social media and it’s a lot of people making their own assumptions of popular situations or controversial topics. People can go too far sometimes and start reaching for things that aren’t even here. A false theory can take away from what’s really going on, and delay research that goes toward finding a proper verdict. With tragic historical events like the Holocaust and 9/11, false conspiracy theories can take away from the importance of the event. I’ve seen people make a lot of theories joking about these events, and it really is just disrespectful. A lot of discrimination can come from these theories too, which is really just uncalled for and undeserved by everyone involved and impacted.” 

Nikki explains her viewpoints on  conspiracy theories and what they truly are, also highlighting how it impacts victims and takes away from the importance  of major events. People going too far as Nikki explains can be linked back to people insinuating attacks on Muslim or Asian people because they believe in certain stereotypes. 

Stefanie Efrati, a lawyer, says, “Covid conspiracy theories are something especially troubling to me, because I have so often seen in the media Chinese people being blamed for situations that do not even intertwine with their lives whatsoever.”

These conspiracy theories are all extremely damaging to innocent people and victims of situations. They take away the significance of an event, and shed light away from people  who actually experienced it. People should work to start promoting historical thinking and reliable sources instead of relying on terrible theories which have nothing to back them up.