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    It's a conspiracy! You want to believe

    The truth may not be out there -- it may be all in your head.

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    "This video was originally posted on February 20, 2008 by YouTube user NibiruShock2012. The original producer of this video was compromised and his account stolen by an impostor. This has been fully documented in multiple YouTube videos by YouTube director yowbooks. This impostor was subsequently forced to close the account and to remove the hoax videos created by the impostor, along with the authentic videos created by the original, anonymous author."

    The above disclaimer is attached to a YouTube video about Nibiru, a celestial body whose orbit intersects with our solar system. The mysterious, inhabited planet passes close by the Earth every 3,600 years. And even though it's headed straight for us, NASA is covering it up.

    Of course, there is no Nibiru, or at least there's no evidence to support its existence. But conspiracy theories such as this are so ingrained in modern culture that you'll have no doubt heard someone arguing their truth. You've probably heard that "the Illuminati are pulling the strings" or that "9/11 was an inside job." You've almost certainly heard that "the government is hiding aliens inside Area 51." Some of the most popular theories -- such as the Illuminati controlling the world -- can be traced back to the birth of the US itself, and the internet has both expedited their spread and helped ensure they survive. But why do so many believe? Turns out, there's no single answer to that question.

    To start, let's head back to Nibiru. The furore over NASA's cover-up reached a climax as the prophesied end of the world approached in 2012. So much so that one of the agency's scientists, David Morrison, took to YouTube to reassure the public. "For the last two years I've been answering hundreds of questions for the public about 2012," the astrobiologist said. "There's been a lot of talk about Planet X, or Nibiru, as a giant planet that's going to hit the earth or come very close. The simple fact is Nibiru does not exist." Over four years on, and the official NASA video has 40,000 views. That's less than a third of the views of the NibiruShock2012 video, which is hosted by the official Time2FeedTheKitty account. And it's just one of hundreds of thousands of Nibiru videos on YouTube, some of which have millions of views. It seems that many people simply want to believe.

    A 2015 paper titled The Influence of Control on Belief in Conspiracy Theories suggests it's all about control. In their study, social psychologists Jan-Willem van Prooijen and Michele Acker took 119 Amsterdam-based students and ran an old-fashioned psych experiment. The test manipulated the subjects' perception of control, with the idea being to create three distinct and measurable groups: high control, low control and neutral. High-control participants were told to recall when "something happened and they were in complete control of the situation"; low-controls were asked to note when "something happened and they had completely no control over the situation"; and the neutral group were asked what they ate the night before.

    The experiment worked. Following the grouping, respondents were asked to respond to nine statements about the expansion of the metro system in Amsterdam, as the construction project had accidentally damaged the foundations of nearby houses shortly before the test. Included were loaded, conspiracy-laden statements like: "The city council knew that the safety of residents would be jeopardized, but moved forward with this plan nevertheless." Subjects were asked to respond on a scale of 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree). Those with a high level of control gave a mean answer of 3.58; those with a low level of control gave 4.14; and the neutral group fell in-between the two. Over nine questions, that's a significant deviation.

    A second experiment in the same paper builds on the first by examining the beliefs of 1,256 Americans during the widespread panic over the Y2K bug in 1999. It first established a "control threat," by asking a number of questions such as to what extent respondents felt they could "personally control negative consequences due to the Y2K situation." It then correlated those responses to beliefs in other, completely unconnected theories. It found that those who felt a lack of control over Y2K were more likely to believe the government was hiding UFOs, was involved in the Kennedy assassination or had introduced drugs into inner cities.

    The "control" theory has been argued since the '60s and has been the subject of several papers in recent years. Acker and van Prooijen's work adds another layer of evidence to support it. The obvious interpretation of their results is that people who genuinely feel a lack of control over their lives -- as opposed to those who were briefly messed with by a psych experiment -- are far more likely to believe allegations with no evidence to support them. Moreover, it suggests that the psychological process behind this is our desire to make sense of our social environment. If you can pin a random event like the Kennedy assassination on something larger than a gunman (or two), for example, then it's no longer a random event. You have control.

    Some conspiracy theories -- the 9/11 truth movement being one -- are born immediately. With the "control" argument, that's entirely explainable. If you witness such a catastrophic event, the need to claw back control is overwhelming. That desire leads some to create conspiracy theories, and others to invade Afghanistan. There's also an element of confirmation bias in play: If you go looking for an answer beyond the official explanation, you'll undoubtedly find one.

    Not all conspiracy theories are born in a day, though. Many of the most pervasive -- including Nibiru -- come from strange places. Quite coincidentally, while this article was being researched Vox posted a wonderful video explaining the Illuminati myth, which is embedded above. As you may know already, the Illuminati was a very real secret society. Established during Europe's Renaissance, it concerned itself with talking the ruling elite around to its "enlightened" way of thinking. It had many avenues through which to spread its influence, one of which was simply infiltrating the ruling elite. While parts of that may seem familiar, a lot of the modern-day Illuminati tropes you see in insane videos on YouTube and inane books from Dan Brown come from a far less authoritative source: a satirical sci-fi book series called The Illuminatus! Trilogy.

    Nibiru's origin story is also born, in part, from fact. The root of the fiction lies in the numerous discoveries of "Planet X," a ninth planet orbiting the Sun. Often, these are reasonably observed and theorized but later disproved -- such is the nature of science. The name Nibiru, however, comes from Zecharia Sitchin, a Russian pseudoscientist who theorized based on his translation of Sumerian (an ancient civilization from what is now Iraq) texts. He believed the planet Nibiru was on an elliptical orbit around the sun, and that the Earth, the asteroid belt and the comets were created when Nibiru and its moons struck a planet between Mars and Jupiter.

    If you can pin an event like the Kennedy assassination on something larger than a gunman then it's no longer random. You have control.

    A large portion of the narrative comes from Wisconsinite Nancy Lieder, who claims she was contacted by aliens as a child. The exact details of her story have shifted many times, but the basic gist is that Planet X (she never calls it Nibiru) will pass extremely close to the Earth some time soon. The giant planet will cause the Earth to be destroyed. She's predicted this would happen in 2003, then that world leaders would reveal the existence of Nibiru in 2012. Obviously, those dates came and went with no cataclysm. Since her last prediction in 2012, she's refused to give a precise date for the planet's arrival.

    These two tales serve as the base for all Nibiru videos and essays. Of course, there are occasionally fresh details added -- modern theories revolve around the South Pole Telescope, and until recently were tied to the end of the Mayan cyclical calendar. Thanks to the internet, and the rife reposting of dated information, these theories reappear again and again. Copy and paste a sentence from any Nibiru article on the popular conspiracy theory website Before It's News into Google, for example, and you often find it in articles from years before. But it doesn't matter to those reading. They want to believe, and so they do.

    Unlike Nibiru's tangential relationship to Planet X observations, some conspiracies have their roots in horrifying reality. The notions that the US government created AIDS might sound absurd, but just last century an Alabama university denied treatment to a group of African-American men with syphilis. It did not tell them they were suffering from the illness, or treat them, even after antibiotics were proved as a cure. The experiment only ended in 1972, just 44 years ago. Of course, there's no evidence to suggest US officials had anything to do with AIDS, but it's not such a giant leap to imagine that they might have. And there's no way to prove otherwise.

    Not without irony, days before The X-Files is due to return to our screens, news broke of a potential ninth planet in our solar system. The Nibiru machine went into overdrive to fit the discovery into its narrative. More than 12,000 videos related to Nibiru have been uploaded to YouTube. The pattern repeats itself: More conspiracy theory videos will get more views, while NASA's straightforward rejection will continue to be ignored. Truth is, very few of us feel completely in control of our own destinies. That lack of control makes us leap to conclusions that require only belief, rather than evidence. And belief is a hard thing to squash.

    Image credit: NASA (The star V838 Monocerotis, taken by the Hubble Telescope. Or the planet Nibiru. It depends who you ask).

    In this article: culture, science, space
    Aaron writes about design, technology, video games, and whatever 'culture' is supposed to be. After cutting his teeth at The Verge, he joined Engadget as a Senior Editor in 2014. In his spare time he enjoys scouring the world for beautiful furniture, taking long walks on the beach, training orphaned dolphins, and making up facts about himself.

    Ethics: Aaron's partner is an employee of Ysbryd Games. As such he has no input into articles about Ysbryd or its games. His partner has also had fiction published by Abaddon Books, which is in the same group of companies as the game developer Rebellion. As the two companies remain distinct, this does not compromise his ability to cover video games created by Rebellion.
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