The Value of Conspiracy Theories? Reviewing Two Popular Theories From Shane Dawson

Back in high school, my friend and I used to mess around with a Facebook group called “Flat Earth Society.” Before gym class, we’d scroll through the endless diagrams, articles, and especially the comment section. We liked their posts and replied in agreement, but our affiliation was just tongue and cheek. Even though we thought it was funny, some people in the group actually believed in the conspiracy theory. To me, that ruins some of the humor, to think people have seriously deluded themselves into these off-color ideas.

The majority of people know about conspiracy theories, or at least have heard a conspiracy theory, but I turned to the Encyclopedia Britannica for a legitimate definition. According to the site, a conspiracy theory is “an attempt to explain harmful or tragic events as the result of the actions of a small, powerful group.” This definition lends itself to the Illuminati, a small secret society who supposedly runs the government and media.

For example, a recent article from ComicBook.com says Marvel fans claim the new Spiderman movie poster references the Illuminati. However, this explanation only references the triangle, and fans on Twitter are having fun joking about what the triangle “symbolizes.” Whether about flat earth, Illuminati, or if Avril Lavigne died and was replaced with a look-alike, all these theories reject the standard and deviate into a convoluted explanation. And whether expanded upon or taken with a grain of salt, all conspiracy theories are met with ridicule and sarcasm. That being said, is it even possible to have a serious discussion surrounding conspiracy theories?

When considering the memes of Keanu Reeves, Alex Jones, and the X-Files theme song, it’s hard to answer yes. But whereas these memes are intended to be humorous, there seems to be one exception in the midst of conspiracy absurdity: Shane Dawson.

Shane Dawson is a popular YouTuber, currently boasting 8 million subscribers and over 1 billion video views (SocialBlade). In his early days, he mostly created sketch comedy, but his channel has taken a mature turn. In 2015, he uploaded “SCARY CONSPIRACY THEORIES,” which garnered 7 million views. In January 2019, he launched a two-part web documentary called “Conspiracy Series with Shane Dawson.” Together, these videos have 69 million views, and according to Dexerto.com, the second video received 10 million views within the first 24 hours online. One can also consider his eight-part series, “The Mind of Jake Paul,” a conspiracy. Despite YouTuber Jake Paul’s history and criminal record, there is no medical evidence that he is a sociopath. Aside from his collaborations with other YouTubers, the majority of his current content deals with conspiracies.

Although Shane has produced lots of content dealing with conspiracy theories, this article will focus on two theories alone. These theories are not only more recent, but they have attracted some interesting attention and reactions from his audience. One will be the California Wildfire theory, and the other will be the Chuck E. Cheese pizza theory. 

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the effects of belief are linked to affiliated media exposure, or in other words, consuming media that endorses conspiracy theories increases belief. For example, the entry states someone who watches the movie JFK (1991) is more likely to believe in a conspiracy to assassinate Kennedy as opposed to the standard account that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. Additionally, the entry states conspiracy belief decreased political participation, for “it may be that distrust of those in power predicts and is caused by belief in government conspiracies.” This distrust has potential danger, because those who consume conspiracies may begin to question scientific fact. Such a possibility ties into Shane’s theories about California wildfires.

The Woosley Fire Conspiracy Theory

In “Conspiracy Theories with Shane Dawson,” Shane talks about the Woolsey fire from November 2018. This incident hit him personally since he and his family live near the area. Two weeks after the Woolsey fire, Shane and his boyfriend visited the devastated areas. He sees a damaged home, reduced to almost nothing, and notices it’s across the street from a house perfectly intact. This is where his suspicion arises.

His boyfriend, Ryland Adams, mentions the fire occurred at a power plant, where a machine sparked and the winds picked it up. The cause is still up in the air. According to Cal Fire, the Woolsey Fire began on November 8, around 2:24 PM near E Street and Alfa Road, on the Rocketdyne facility in Simi Valley, California. A website dedicated to the Woolsey Fire Lawsuit claims Southern California Edison, the main supplier of electricity in Southern California reports a wire may have come into contact with a jumper, sparking the first ignition. Then a power surge occurred in their power lines, sparking the second ignition nearby. Camera footage shows these two incidents, but Ryland is not completely wrong—the fire happened somewhat close to the Santa Susana Field Laboratory.

And by mentioning the wind and weather, Ryland might have indirectly pointed to an underlying, yet monumental factor: climate change.

According to TIME magazine, wildfires are common in California, but the environment has also become more flammable. Laignee Barron and Mahita Gajanan write: “As the state grows hotter and increasingly subject to prolonged droughts, and as more people live in high-risk areas, the fires simply get bigger, more severe and more costly to put out.” This increase in heat is significant, and directly speaks to the issue of climate change. In 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency stated Southern California has warmed by at least three degrees in the last century, and the state is becoming warmer as a whole. Their report from May 2018 said long-term warming trends, such as the increase in average temperatures and the number of hot days and nights, have grown in recent decades. Most importantly, these conditions are indeed the underlying causes of weather-related incidents like wildfires.

These concerns are genuine and very much real. The Union of Concerned Scientists says the increase in temperatures will increase the size and duration of wildfires in California. Global warming means hotter temperatures, which are predicted to burn more land. The Union predicts the range of projected temperature increases in the Western U.S. by mid-century (2040–2070) represents a choice of two possible futures—from one in which we drastically reduce heat-trapping emissions (the projected low end of a lower emissions pathway) to a future in which we continue with “business as usual” (the projected high end of a higher emissions pathway). You can see their full infographic here.

Not only are scientists speaking out about climate change’s relationship with wildfires, but so are politicians. Governor Gavin Newsom (CA) points to climate change as the main reason for these wildfires. The summary of his report “Wildfires and Climate Change: California’s Energy Future,” opens with: “Climate change has created a new wildfire reality for California. The state’s fire season is now almost year round. More than 25 million acres of California wildlands are classified as under very high or extreme fire threat.” Of course climate change has been brought to political attention, and it’s a refreshing relief to see a governor take it seriously, especially in such a state where it had such devastating effects.

It was one thing to investigate the destruction and debris from the aftermath of the Woolsey fire, but then Shane mentions the conspiracy theories. He mentions on Twitter people pointed to direct energy weapons, or basically lasers bouncing off of satellites. The theory states the lasers are from military aircrafts, and the government are setting certain areas on fire for a reason. Shane also theorizes the fires started from inside the house from electrical companies overpowering microwaves. As for the cause of the fire, Shane points to the Santa Susana Field Laboratory. In short, the theory is the government placed explosives in the laboratory (and on—gasp—Test Area Road) to rid the area of nuclear waste. Other causes include: distraction from the Camp Fire, another California wildfire, arson, and home insurance reimbursement.

It’s almost ironic he prefaces his discussion with “this was a real event; many people lost their homes and their lives.” I’m not trying to insult Shane by saying this, but it seems like a weird statement in light of mentioning a conspiracy theory, which by definition states: “such explanations reject the accepted narrative surrounding those events; indeed, the official version may be seen as further proof of the conspiracy.” By saying that, he addresses its reality, but then delivers theories that suggest it was an inside job, controlled by the government (lasers, nuclear waste solution) or purposely done by others (arson, home reimbursement).

There is a danger in the implications of this contradiction. The official, scientifically proven reality of climate change in conjunction with the causes of the fire, may be seen as more conspiracy, and can lead viewers to reject those concepts. It’s already bad enough our current administration denies climate change and its effects. And you can see scientists aren’t playing around anymore, i.e. Bill Nye the Science Guy’s segment on John Oliver. So how can we have a serious discussion about this conspiracy theory when it pretty much rejects scientific evidence stating global warming plays a role in environmental disasters?

The Chuck E. Cheese Conspiracy Theory

The second theory is not as extreme. In his second conspiracy video, Shane believes Chuck E. Cheese “recycles” their pizzas. More simply put, if a customer does not finish their pizza, an employee reform and reheat it into a new pizza and serve it to another customer. His proof lies within the different sizes of the slices, and how the toppings don’t match up (take the above image, for instance). He mentions he had a friend in high school who said this used to be their practice, but they stopped, though Shane dismisses this by saying she could’ve been dishonest. He actually makes a legal disclaimer for this one, and for fair reason, since it is aimed at a large company. Yet this disclaimer did not prevent him from testing out the theory in real life—and his viewers shortly followed suit.

The conspiracy went viral. Famous YouTubers including Jack Doherty, Maddison Bush, and even Buzzfeed themselves tested this conspiracy theory. Some YouTubers even got jobs at Chuck E. Cheese in an attempt to prove it. Most of these videos involve sketchy camerawork, lots of concealing the camera and blurring out faces of employees and children. Buzzfeed actually interviewed the manager of the nearest Chuck E.Cheese location. The comments sections for these videos are flooded with doubters who still claim Chuck E. Cheese is lying, or they stopped “recycling” once Shane exposed them. While this theory is much less involved, it baffles me as to why this theory got so much attention.

Why were people so keen to speculate and take action about this theory as opposed to others? How serious can we make a discussion about conspiracy theories if the most popular one is about pizza in a children’s arcade? 

To answer my question, it seems one can have a serious discussion of conspiracy theories if they are in the mainstream, and if they are particularly relevant to modern day life. When one of the most popular YouTubers discuss these theories, often concerning relevant and well known subject matter, such as iPhones, people become interested. Most of Shane’s viewers own smartphones or iPhones, so the theory becomes almost universally applicable. 

Interest and engagement are also garnered through a sense of do-it-yourself, like with the Chuck E. Cheese conspiracy. Anyone can go to a Chuck E. Cheese nearby and test out the theory. However, this lends itself to confirmation bias, because as stated before, those who are exposed to these theories are more inclined to believe it. When applied to the scenario, Shane’s viewers will scrutinize the cuts and toppings of the pizza, in an attempt to crack the code, figure out the mystery. His content is designed to entertain his viewers, and these “challenges” prolong the entertainment.

I don’t want to say his channel is entirely fiction, but he relies too much on speculation and appeal to his audience (in case of format, subject matter, comedy, etc) to label it as entirely factually accurate. Perhaps a better use of the word is genuine—Shane seems genuinely interested in these theories, but it’s clear he has not garnered one hundred percent proof. Maybe then, it is his dedication to solving these theories that make him more entertaining, and what makes his audience more inclined to believe in them. The appeal here is not simply the questioning of a first-world norm, but the sense that you can be a part of the investigation. It makes the series more entertaining and exciting in that way.

 I want to note the opening of the Chuck E. Cheese segment, where a girl is filming at 4:30 AM, stressed over this theory. She states: “Is this what we’re teaching our kids?” Most of Shane’s viewers are pre-teens and young teenagers, who are essentially children. Considering the aforementioned effects of exposure to conspiracy theories, one can ask Shane the same question: If you have a young audience, is this what you want to teach them? Is this what you want to show them and have them believe? It is no doubt these YouTubers have the power to shape these children’s minds, and some might not be so inclined to think these are just theories.

I’m no expert, and maybe I’m a conspiracy theorist for writing this whole article, but here’s my advice: take it with a grain of salt. For trivial matters, like pizza? It’s really not worth harassing employees and getting into legal trouble over. For more important matters, like environmental disasters? Look at the facts before anything, look at science for goodness sake. It’s one thing to laugh over flat earthers during gym class, and another to abandon all sense and immerse yourself into what they’re saying. Shane may not be convinced of all these theories, but his documentary puts in an obscene amount of effort into uncertainty. And I’m worried kids will begin to follow in his footsteps, preventing them from becoming independent thinkers, rejecting logic, science, and above all else, reason.

I currently attend Ramapo College for my B.A in Literature and Concentration in Creative Writing.

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ENGAGE IN THE CONVERSATION

The Value of Conspiracy Theories? Reviewing Two Popular Theories From Shane Dawson

Back in high school, my friend and I used to mess around with a Facebook group called “Flat Earth Society.” Before gym class, we’d scroll through the endless diagrams, articles, and especially the comment section. We liked their posts and replied in agreement, but our affiliation was just tongue and cheek. Even though we thought it was funny, some people in the group actually believed in the conspiracy theory. To me, that ruins some of the humor, to think people have seriously deluded themselves into these off-color ideas.

The majority of people know about conspiracy theories, or at least have heard a conspiracy theory, but I turned to the Encyclopedia Britannica for a legitimate definition. According to the site, a conspiracy theory is “an attempt to explain harmful or tragic events as the result of the actions of a small, powerful group.” This definition lends itself to the Illuminati, a small secret society who supposedly runs the government and media.

For example, a recent article from ComicBook.com says Marvel fans claim the new Spiderman movie poster references the Illuminati. However, this explanation only references the triangle, and fans on Twitter are having fun joking about what the triangle “symbolizes.” Whether about flat earth, Illuminati, or if Avril Lavigne died and was replaced with a look-alike, all these theories reject the standard and deviate into a convoluted explanation. And whether expanded upon or taken with a grain of salt, all conspiracy theories are met with ridicule and sarcasm. That being said, is it even possible to have a serious discussion surrounding conspiracy theories?

When considering the memes of Keanu Reeves, Alex Jones, and the X-Files theme song, it’s hard to answer yes. But whereas these memes are intended to be humorous, there seems to be one exception in the midst of conspiracy absurdity: Shane Dawson.

Shane Dawson is a popular YouTuber, currently boasting 8 million subscribers and over 1 billion video views (SocialBlade). In his early days, he mostly created sketch comedy, but his channel has taken a mature turn. In 2015, he uploaded “SCARY CONSPIRACY THEORIES,” which garnered 7 million views. In January 2019, he launched a two-part web documentary called “Conspiracy Series with Shane Dawson.” Together, these videos have 69 million views, and according to Dexerto.com, the second video received 10 million views within the first 24 hours online. One can also consider his eight-part series, “The Mind of Jake Paul,” a conspiracy. Despite YouTuber Jake Paul’s history and criminal record, there is no medical evidence that he is a sociopath. Aside from his collaborations with other YouTubers, the majority of his current content deals with conspiracies.

Although Shane has produced lots of content dealing with conspiracy theories, this article will focus on two theories alone. These theories are not only more recent, but they have attracted some interesting attention and reactions from his audience. One will be the California Wildfire theory, and the other will be the Chuck E. Cheese pizza theory. 

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the effects of belief are linked to affiliated media exposure, or in other words, consuming media that endorses conspiracy theories increases belief. For example, the entry states someone who watches the movie JFK (1991) is more likely to believe in a conspiracy to assassinate Kennedy as opposed to the standard account that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. Additionally, the entry states conspiracy belief decreased political participation, for “it may be that distrust of those in power predicts and is caused by belief in government conspiracies.” This distrust has potential danger, because those who consume conspiracies may begin to question scientific fact. Such a possibility ties into Shane’s theories about California wildfires.

The Woosley Fire Conspiracy Theory

In “Conspiracy Theories with Shane Dawson,” Shane talks about the Woolsey fire from November 2018. This incident hit him personally since he and his family live near the area. Two weeks after the Woolsey fire, Shane and his boyfriend visited the devastated areas. He sees a damaged home, reduced to almost nothing, and notices it’s across the street from a house perfectly intact. This is where his suspicion arises.

His boyfriend, Ryland Adams, mentions the fire occurred at a power plant, where a machine sparked and the winds picked it up. The cause is still up in the air. According to Cal Fire, the Woolsey Fire began on November 8, around 2:24 PM near E Street and Alfa Road, on the Rocketdyne facility in Simi Valley, California. A website dedicated to the Woolsey Fire Lawsuit claims Southern California Edison, the main supplier of electricity in Southern California reports a wire may have come into contact with a jumper, sparking the first ignition. Then a power surge occurred in their power lines, sparking the second ignition nearby. Camera footage shows these two incidents, but Ryland is not completely wrong—the fire happened somewhat close to the Santa Susana Field Laboratory.

And by mentioning the wind and weather, Ryland might have indirectly pointed to an underlying, yet monumental factor: climate change.

According to TIME magazine, wildfires are common in California, but the environment has also become more flammable. Laignee Barron and Mahita Gajanan write: “As the state grows hotter and increasingly subject to prolonged droughts, and as more people live in high-risk areas, the fires simply get bigger, more severe and more costly to put out.” This increase in heat is significant, and directly speaks to the issue of climate change. In 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency stated Southern California has warmed by at least three degrees in the last century, and the state is becoming warmer as a whole. Their report from May 2018 said long-term warming trends, such as the increase in average temperatures and the number of hot days and nights, have grown in recent decades. Most importantly, these conditions are indeed the underlying causes of weather-related incidents like wildfires.

These concerns are genuine and very much real. The Union of Concerned Scientists says the increase in temperatures will increase the size and duration of wildfires in California. Global warming means hotter temperatures, which are predicted to burn more land. The Union predicts the range of projected temperature increases in the Western U.S. by mid-century (2040–2070) represents a choice of two possible futures—from one in which we drastically reduce heat-trapping emissions (the projected low end of a lower emissions pathway) to a future in which we continue with “business as usual” (the projected high end of a higher emissions pathway). You can see their full infographic here.

Not only are scientists speaking out about climate change’s relationship with wildfires, but so are politicians. Governor Gavin Newsom (CA) points to climate change as the main reason for these wildfires. The summary of his report “Wildfires and Climate Change: California’s Energy Future,” opens with: “Climate change has created a new wildfire reality for California. The state’s fire season is now almost year round. More than 25 million acres of California wildlands are classified as under very high or extreme fire threat.” Of course climate change has been brought to political attention, and it’s a refreshing relief to see a governor take it seriously, especially in such a state where it had such devastating effects.

It was one thing to investigate the destruction and debris from the aftermath of the Woolsey fire, but then Shane mentions the conspiracy theories. He mentions on Twitter people pointed to direct energy weapons, or basically lasers bouncing off of satellites. The theory states the lasers are from military aircrafts, and the government are setting certain areas on fire for a reason. Shane also theorizes the fires started from inside the house from electrical companies overpowering microwaves. As for the cause of the fire, Shane points to the Santa Susana Field Laboratory. In short, the theory is the government placed explosives in the laboratory (and on—gasp—Test Area Road) to rid the area of nuclear waste. Other causes include: distraction from the Camp Fire, another California wildfire, arson, and home insurance reimbursement.

It’s almost ironic he prefaces his discussion with “this was a real event; many people lost their homes and their lives.” I’m not trying to insult Shane by saying this, but it seems like a weird statement in light of mentioning a conspiracy theory, which by definition states: “such explanations reject the accepted narrative surrounding those events; indeed, the official version may be seen as further proof of the conspiracy.” By saying that, he addresses its reality, but then delivers theories that suggest it was an inside job, controlled by the government (lasers, nuclear waste solution) or purposely done by others (arson, home reimbursement).

There is a danger in the implications of this contradiction. The official, scientifically proven reality of climate change in conjunction with the causes of the fire, may be seen as more conspiracy, and can lead viewers to reject those concepts. It’s already bad enough our current administration denies climate change and its effects. And you can see scientists aren’t playing around anymore, i.e. Bill Nye the Science Guy’s segment on John Oliver. So how can we have a serious discussion about this conspiracy theory when it pretty much rejects scientific evidence stating global warming plays a role in environmental disasters?

The Chuck E. Cheese Conspiracy Theory

The second theory is not as extreme. In his second conspiracy video, Shane believes Chuck E. Cheese “recycles” their pizzas. More simply put, if a customer does not finish their pizza, an employee reform and reheat it into a new pizza and serve it to another customer. His proof lies within the different sizes of the slices, and how the toppings don’t match up (take the above image, for instance). He mentions he had a friend in high school who said this used to be their practice, but they stopped, though Shane dismisses this by saying she could’ve been dishonest. He actually makes a legal disclaimer for this one, and for fair reason, since it is aimed at a large company. Yet this disclaimer did not prevent him from testing out the theory in real life—and his viewers shortly followed suit.

The conspiracy went viral. Famous YouTubers including Jack Doherty, Maddison Bush, and even Buzzfeed themselves tested this conspiracy theory. Some YouTubers even got jobs at Chuck E. Cheese in an attempt to prove it. Most of these videos involve sketchy camerawork, lots of concealing the camera and blurring out faces of employees and children. Buzzfeed actually interviewed the manager of the nearest Chuck E.Cheese location. The comments sections for these videos are flooded with doubters who still claim Chuck E. Cheese is lying, or they stopped “recycling” once Shane exposed them. While this theory is much less involved, it baffles me as to why this theory got so much attention.

Why were people so keen to speculate and take action about this theory as opposed to others? How serious can we make a discussion about conspiracy theories if the most popular one is about pizza in a children’s arcade? 

To answer my question, it seems one can have a serious discussion of conspiracy theories if they are in the mainstream, and if they are particularly relevant to modern day life. When one of the most popular YouTubers discuss these theories, often concerning relevant and well known subject matter, such as iPhones, people become interested. Most of Shane’s viewers own smartphones or iPhones, so the theory becomes almost universally applicable. 

Interest and engagement are also garnered through a sense of do-it-yourself, like with the Chuck E. Cheese conspiracy. Anyone can go to a Chuck E. Cheese nearby and test out the theory. However, this lends itself to confirmation bias, because as stated before, those who are exposed to these theories are more inclined to believe it. When applied to the scenario, Shane’s viewers will scrutinize the cuts and toppings of the pizza, in an attempt to crack the code, figure out the mystery. His content is designed to entertain his viewers, and these “challenges” prolong the entertainment.

I don’t want to say his channel is entirely fiction, but he relies too much on speculation and appeal to his audience (in case of format, subject matter, comedy, etc) to label it as entirely factually accurate. Perhaps a better use of the word is genuine—Shane seems genuinely interested in these theories, but it’s clear he has not garnered one hundred percent proof. Maybe then, it is his dedication to solving these theories that make him more entertaining, and what makes his audience more inclined to believe in them. The appeal here is not simply the questioning of a first-world norm, but the sense that you can be a part of the investigation. It makes the series more entertaining and exciting in that way.

 I want to note the opening of the Chuck E. Cheese segment, where a girl is filming at 4:30 AM, stressed over this theory. She states: “Is this what we’re teaching our kids?” Most of Shane’s viewers are pre-teens and young teenagers, who are essentially children. Considering the aforementioned effects of exposure to conspiracy theories, one can ask Shane the same question: If you have a young audience, is this what you want to teach them? Is this what you want to show them and have them believe? It is no doubt these YouTubers have the power to shape these children’s minds, and some might not be so inclined to think these are just theories.

I’m no expert, and maybe I’m a conspiracy theorist for writing this whole article, but here’s my advice: take it with a grain of salt. For trivial matters, like pizza? It’s really not worth harassing employees and getting into legal trouble over. For more important matters, like environmental disasters? Look at the facts before anything, look at science for goodness sake. It’s one thing to laugh over flat earthers during gym class, and another to abandon all sense and immerse yourself into what they’re saying. Shane may not be convinced of all these theories, but his documentary puts in an obscene amount of effort into uncertainty. And I’m worried kids will begin to follow in his footsteps, preventing them from becoming independent thinkers, rejecting logic, science, and above all else, reason.

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