Conspiracy theories have been around for a long time. In times of the internet they seem to be more present than ever. What do we know about this phenomenon? An overview.
What is a conspiracy theory (and what is not)?
There is a common explanation for many situations in life – for example, that the earth is round. Conspiracies contradict such common explanations and assume that certain powerful people or groups are secretly trying to harm society. Supporters of the Flat Earth Conspiracy, for example, continue to propagate that the earth is flat. They also believe that scientists want to replace religion with science.
A note: We deliberately repeat only a few specific examples of conspiracies in this text. This is because the repetition of a narrative alone can have an effect.
Many researchers do not speak of conspiracy theories, but of conspiracy narratives. The reason: Theories are based on facts that can be scientifically tested. If the facts contradict the theory, the theory can be adjusted or rejected. Conspiracy narratives, on the other hand, may contain individual correct facts, but the associations between them and the conclusions drawn are fabricated. Conspiracy followers do not want to check or correct the narrative if there is evidence to the contrary.
Although boundaries can be fluid, hoax or fake news is not the same as conspiracies. The main difference is that fake news does not necessarily involve a secret plot and the authors know that it is false. This applies, for example, to an election campaign team that deliberately disseminates false information about the opposing candidate. In contrast, the majority of conspiracy believers really believe in what they are spreading. This is the case, for example, with many people who refuse certain life-saving medical procedures.
Why do people believe in conspiracies?
Conspiracy theories fulfill different personal and social functions for their followers. One of the most important seems to be that conspiracies provide people with an explanation for threatening and improbable situations. This was shown by various studies. In one experiment, for example, some test subjects were deliberately induced to feel that they were losing control. In contrast to the control group, the insecure subjects were more inclined to suspect a conspiracy. Conspiracy theories are thus seen as a strategy against insecurity, fear and powerlessness.
However, researchers have identified other functions of conspiracy theories that are less obvious at first glance. Since conspiracies always have a clear enemy image, they can create a strong sense of community among like-minded people. Belief in conspiracies can also relieve people of responsibility. Anyone who believes that COVID-19 pandemic is not real, does not have to deal with complex countermeasures.
Some people also use conspiratorial thinking to satisfy their need for uniqueness and a desire to stand out from the crowd. In this way, psychologists suspect, belief in conspiracies can increase people’s self-esteem.
For some people, conspiratorial thinking can also be a means of expressing criticism and dissatisfaction to authorities. We recently experienced similar effects with the Corona crisis.
Who believes in conspiracy narratives?
Typical conspiracy believers do not exist. Basically almost all people are susceptible to conspiracy narratives to some extent. Various studies have shown that this tendency has nothing to do with psychological problems or certain personality traits. Age, intelligence, gender, religion and level of education hardly play a role either. What is more important is whether people feel powerless or have difficulties dealing with insecurity.
According to a recent study, people with certain personality traits and cognitive styles are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories than others. These are more suspicious, untrusting, and eccentric people, who need to feel special. People who are more reluctant to believe in conspiracies tend to have the opposite qualities.
The tendency to believe in conspiracy narratives is what researchers call a conspiracy mentality. To evaluate whether a person has this kind of mentality, they use questionnaires that contain different statements. For example, how much one agrees with a statement such as “politicians and other leaders are only puppets of the powers behind them”.
People with a pronounced conspiracy mentality show a general mistrust of “those up there”. That is, of people or groups with high social status. This can include politicians, bankers, but also scientists. A higher score on the conspiracy mentality scale, is associated with an increased likelihood of advocating violence or even becoming violent yourself.
What characterizes conspiratorial thinking?
Researchers have identified seven characteristics of conspiratorial thinking and summarized them with the acronym CONSPIR.
- Contradictory: conspiracy followers can believe in ideas that contradict one another. According to a survey by the University of Erfurt, 10% of those questioned believe contradictory ideas. In this case, they believed that the coronavirus does not exist and that it is a biological weapon created in the laboratory.
- Overriding suspicion: the belief in conspiracies goes beyond healthy skepticism. Extreme distrust creates a principled rejection of official statements.
- Nefarious intent: Supporters of conspiracies always assume that someone with bad intentions will harm society. There is no conspiracy narrative that assumes positive motives.
- Something must be wrong: Conspiracy theorists are certain that the current explanation is definitely wrong. Even if they reevaluate the details of their narrative, they will stick to the notion that someone is up to something bad.
- Persecuted Victim: Believers in conspiracies perceive themselves as victims of society and as courageous heroes in the fight against the mainstream.
- Immune to Evidence: Counter- evidence or refutations usually ricochet off conspiracy narratives. Criticism can even make followers believe their theory even more strongly.
- Re-interpreting randomness: Coincidental, unimportant and irrelevant events are always interpreted in such a way that they fit the conspiracy narrative.
How did the internet affect conspiracy theories?
If you take a look at the past, it becomes clear that conspiracy theories were widespread from the 16th to late 20th century. For example, there was a rumor that Mozart was murdered by Freemasons. Conspiracy narratives have long been considered an accepted form of knowledge and have influenced political decisions. We only started to look down at conspiracies since the second half of the 20th century. So, they existed long before the internet.
Nevertheless, researchers assume that certain conspiracy theories spread more easily and quickly through the Internet. In one study, a team of researchers asked 30 supporters of the flat earth conspiracy how they learned about the theory. The great majority of them (29 subjects) said that they came across the topic on YouTube. However, there is still no data on how much exactly the Internet has increased belief in conspiracy narratives. However, it is known that rumors (for example about the Zika virus) spread much faster and more extensively online.
But there also seems to be a way in which the rapid spread of false reports online can be prevented. One study showed that people are less likely to disseminate climate change conspiracies if they asked themselves four questions before sharing on social networks:
- Do I know the news agency that published the report?
- Does the information in the report appear credible?
- Is the post written in a style that I would expect from a professional news agency?
- Is the contribution politically motivated?
Are conspiracy theories dangerous?
Not all conspiracy narratives are dangerous, but in the worst case scenario, they can wreak havoc. Belief in antisemitic conspiracies, for example, cost millions of lives. Conspiracy thinking can radicalize and lead to violence and racism. Conspiracy theories can lead people to become less politically active or less willing to reduce damaging behaviors. Some believers in conspiracies question medical knowledge such as cancer therapy or vaccinations and thereby harm not only themselves but also others.
How do conspiracy theorists argue?
There are different rhetorical strategies conspiracy theorists use to make their narrative attractive. One is the so-called “cherry-picking”. Only the arguments that supposedly prove a story are presented here. Counter – evidence or contradictions are blatantly ignored. Another rhetorical strategy, which researchers say has become widespread in recent decades, particularly in the western world, is “just asking questions”. In this way, doubts about recognized declarations and distrust of official institutions can be raised. At the same time, the disseminates are more difficult to attack because it is difficult to argue against questions.
How can you deal with conspiracies?
Even a single mention of a conspiracy tale can have negative consequences. This is also true for people who don’t believe the story. For example, the myth that unemployment figures are politically manipulated, can lead to a decline of trust in state institutions. Even in institutions that actually have nothing to do with the false narrative – such as schools or health authorities.
Studies have shown that people are less likely to believe in conspiracy narratives if they are expecting it to be false. If people think that they are likely to be misled, they then preventively refute the misinformation. That is more effective than the subsequent refutation.
Fact-based refutations and corrections can also be effective for people who are not staunch conspirators. This can apply, for example, to the quiet readers of social media discussions.
Mocking staunch conspiracy believers or aggressively dismantling their theory can, in turn, strengthen their position. Experts therefore recommend showing empathy and asking questions (for example: What makes a reputable source for you?). In short, to deal with conspiracy theories you should reinforce critical thinking.