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Blog

How to Use Conspiracy Theories for Good

Apr 16 2018

On a road trip up the coast of California, I ended up stuck at an auto repair shop with a man who had some interesting ideas. “The government has a zero-point energy machine that could end our reliance on fossil fuels,” he told me.

I had some time to kill so I asked a few questions. He neatly tied his theory to aliens, a league of physicists, and a deal with China. Crazy, you might say, but research suggests that the majority of us believe in at least one conspiracy theory.

We’re living in a tornado of misinformation, conspiracies, and fake news. But instead of simply lamenting that fact as you continue scrolling through your feed, let’s learn from it.

As a designer who works to help school systems become more innovative, it’s my job to help spread good ideas. Why not borrow from the sticky, sharable methods behind conspiracy theories to get some good ideas out into the world?

After chatting with my friend at the auto shop, I took a long look at what makes conspiracy theories so compelling and came up with a list of five practices we can nab to spread good. (Know Rogers’ Attributes of Innovations that spread? Conspiracies fit right in!)

1. Start with something recognizable

Memorable conspiracies begin with something familiar—an entrenched belief or a curious phenomena.

The “chemtrails” conspiracy, for example, says that planes leave behind biological agents with lasting effects on the population. People saw white lines in the wake of airplanes in the sky and wondered about it. From this, a new belief was formed.

There’s a lesson here for getting new ideas to take off! Try introducing new concepts through existing beliefs, habits or built-in systems. When we talk about design thinking with educators, for example, we often note that prototyping is just like doing a lesson twice in the same day, but differently. This helps educators reconcile a new practice with an old one.

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2. Address a common pain point

Most conspiracies offer up a scapegoat.

It’s common to blame Big Pharma, for example, for withholding cures to diseases for profit.

Blaming large groups of people for complex problems isn’t a good habit. But, when sharing good ideas, we can change the script on scapegoats by proposing a partner to help solve a problem. Leaders in the civil rights movement, for example, helped to spur a broader conversation about women’s liberation—both movements were helped by the other.

3. Let people dream

Some of my favorite conspiracies allow farfetched wishes to come true. Tupac and Elvis, they’re still alive! These conspiracies are rooted in desire. To help new ideas take off, connect them with people’s wildest dreams.

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4. Create iconography to build identity

When we see alien iconography out in the world, it gives us a sense—true or not—of how widespread belief in alien life may be. In Roswell, New Mexico, you can pick up all kinds of little green man kitsch—T-shirts with slogans like ALIENS ARE ALIVE and bug-eyed masks at the International UFO Museum. We’re much more likely to believe something when we think lots of other people do, too.

5. Keep it simple

Lasting conspiracies are easily explained in a sentence or less.

The Moon landing hoax, for example, makes a clear and simple argument: Americans wanted to outpace the Russians in space exploration, so they faked the landing on the Moon. The details of how and why may be a wormhole, but the thesis is simple.

Likewise, when you want to share a new idea, make sure that its value is explained simply and unambiguously. The #neveragain movement managed to powerfully convey its message with a simple hashtag.

Conspiracy theories and fake news teach us a lot about how information spreads—and that can be useful as we try to spread good in the world. Here’s one last lesson: All of us believe in something that’s not entirely true. Our shared habit of believing things we want to be true—regardless of what they are—unites us.

  • Emma Scripps

    Senior Design Lead, The Teachers Guild, IDEO San Francisco
    Emma is a Senior Design Lead for The Teachers Guild, a digital startup focusing on K12 innovation through teacher-led movements of change within IDEO's Design for Learning studio. In her free time, she likes to play piano - often poorly. She's somewhat afraid of her InstantPot, which she uses regularly.
  • Brooke Thyng

    Communication Designer, IDEO Palo Alto
    Brooke is a communication designer with a background in anthropology and human biology. Her favorite pastimes include word play, batting cages, sending odd scans to the email addresses in the copy machine, and laughing her head off.

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