3 myths about conspiracy theories

Academic discourse usually defines ʻconspiracy theory’ as narrative explanation that sees a group of people acting in secret to vicious end as the driving force behind events.

It has become a trendy buzzword that can be met in tabloids, entertainment portals and social media, as well as on web pages dedicated to monitoring disinformation and refuting fake news. Naturally, these sources treat conspiracy theories and their socio-cultural influence in hugely varying senses that may even contradict one another.

This blog entry highlights three myths related to conspiracy theories, that are essentially neither right nor wrong – as is the case with myths, but that first and foremost serve as reductive modes of thinking on a topic. Myths about conspiracy theories cast light on the contemporary conspiracy theorising culture as if with an electric torch – emphasising certain tendencies, yet leaving much that is important unlit. What is remarkable is that it is possible to believe in several myths at the same time, even though there are logical discrepancies between them.

Myth 1: Only people on the fringe engage in conspiracy theories

Conspiracy theorising is often treated as a marginal cultural phenomenon that spreads in peripheral forums and social media groups and has no place in politicians’ addresses,  officially approved versions of history or texts by professional journalists.

Newspapers’ entertainment portals often publish stories that stereotypically represent conspiracy theorists as out-of-touch characters in tin foil hats who may suffer from idées fixes. It is quite typical that a tabloid story focusing on conspiracy theories starts with the claim that “a crackpot conspiracy theory connected with event X has become viral on social media”, followed by a passage of purple prose about the most shocking details of said theory.

Elu24, one of the most popular Estonian tabloid portals, offers us a plethora of headlines referring to conspiracy theories, accompanied by video links and comments by conspiracy theorists, for instance “How flat-earthers explain solar eclipse” or “Flat-earther leaving for space in self-made rocket to perish on camera”. Naturally, the Illuminati cannot be left out either: “Conspiracy theorists: ʻThe World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, is actually a meeting of the Illuminati’”, and the list goes on.

Such accounts, that are rife with stereotyping, represent conspiracy theories and conspiracy theorists that readers of the newspapers may perceive as a background suggesting that it takes all kinds to make a world, against which they themselves happily emerge as rational and reasonable.

If we think of conspiracy theories in such a key only, the less vivid versions of them – for instance those that involve trust-inspiring narrators, calculations and diagrams – need not be recognisable as such if you come across them. So it may well happen that people consume, or even disseminate, conspiracy theories without being aware of this.

For instance, this spring saw the huge popularity on social media of the film Plandemic that represented the coronavirus as a malicious conspiracy, while the “arguments” to support this were presented by Dr. Judy Mikovits who spoke from the position of a medical researcher and a virology expert.

A screenshot of the hugely popular film Plandemic, which has been removed from social media by now. The title “renowned scientist” and doctoral degree add to the perceived authority of the video.
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The view that sees conspiracy theories as caricatures will not let us notice actual conspiracies. As an example, we may consider the conspiracy of the tobacco industry that systematically and purposefully misled the public, hoping to hide the harmful effects of smoking on health. The tobacco industry would sponsor conferences, workshops and research centres in support of its own agenda (for instance, the Council for Tobacco Research was founded in 1954 and the Centre of Indoor Air Research in 1988). Also, seemingly peer-reviewed journals and proceedings of international symposia organised with the support of the tobacco industry were published that questioned the damage to health caused by tobacco products.

Australian Council on Smoking & Health: parody of the 1953 NYC meeting between the tobacco industry and PR group Hill & Knowlton.
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In addition, such a superior attitude diminishes the dimension of social criticism that conspiracy theories have. Namely, conspiracy theorists will at times justifiably question established positions and authorities, which is a cornerstone of the democratic way of thinking.   

Myth 2: Only people with strong conspiracy beliefs spread conspiracy theories

The culture of digital communication has given rise to an unprecedented growth in conspiracy theories. In addition to spreading conspiracy theories quickly and across geographical boundaries, social media makes it possible to grasp the popularity of any conspiracy theory of interest through likes, shares and comments. In connection with this, a myth has arisen, spurred on by media panic, that suggests that contemporary netizens supposedly suffer from an unprecedentedly strong fear of conspiracies.

Occasionally we meet concerned opinions that fake news and conspiracy theories have had the effect of a mass psychosis, dulling critical thought and alienating media consumers from logical, complex and proof-based explanations. Also, there is the worry of otherwise calm and reasonable people egging one another on so intensely on social media that they are prepared to attack the groups accused of conspiracies either on-line or even physically.

Reliable studies have detected significant ties between conspiracy theories and the polarisation and radicalisation of groups1Prooijen van, Jan-Willem., Krouwel, Andre. P. M., & Pollet, Thomas. V. (2015). Political extremism predicts belief in conspiracy theories. Social Psychology 6/5, 570-578.. Occasionally, conspiracy theories have led to real deeds, such as conspiracy theorist’s notorious attack on the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria in 2016 (so-called Pizzagate2Singer, Peter Warren;  Brooking, Emerson T 2018.  LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media. Boston, New York: Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.), or action taken against 5G masts. Nevertheless, this has to do with a small proportion of people engaged in spreading conspiracy theories.

In words of the social psychologist Karen Douglas from the University of Kent who has studied the psychology of believers in conspiracy theories, “rather than increasing belief in conspiracy theories generally, the internet plays a crucial role in fostering distinct and polarised online communities among conspiracy believers./…/ So with the internet, conspiracy groups become more homogeneous and their beliefs become even stronger over time”3Douglas, Karen 2018. The internet fuels conspiracy theories – but not in the way you might imagine. https://theconversation.com/the-internet-fuels-conspiracy-theories-but-not-in-the-way-you-might-imagine-98037 https://theconversation.com/the-internet-fuels-conspiracy-theories-but-not-in-the-way-you-might-imagine-98037.

At the same time, the belief in conspiracy theories is weak or ambivalent in case of a high proportion of netizens and a considerable number of those who visit conspiracy theory websites entertain half-cynical, half-serious attitudes to them. Thus conspiracy theories are shared to amuse networks of friends or to shock them.

Conspiracy narratives have often been applied in promoting the personal brands of stars of music industry, for instance Madonna, Jay Z, Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Kanye West and others4Stæhr, Andreas 2014. The appropriation of transcultural flows among Copenhagen youth – the case of Illuminati. Discourse, Context & Media, 4/5, 101–115.. Such discourse achieved peak popularity in the mid-2010s, flourishing primarily on social media (Facebook, YouTube) under the umbrella label of Illuminati Gossip.

The music videos, song lyrics, public appearances and social media profiles of those concerned are full of basic symbols connected with the Illuminati and NWO conspiracy theories, such as the all-seeing eye, pyramids and triangles, pentagrams, occasional references to Satan being in league with the conspirators, for instance a goat’s head and horns and numeric symbols connected with Satan such as 666, 13. A similar marketing campaign was used by Denver Airport that consciously tied its trademark to various conspiracy associations in the DENFiles campaign.

Denver Airport has tied its trademark to various conspiracy associations in the DENFiles marketing campaign. Images’ credit: https://www.flydenver.com/great_hall/denfiles

The reverse side of myths that presume strong beliefs in conspiracies is the fact that it draws the attention away from the strategic disseminators of conspiracy theories who are not likely to believe in the conspiracy theories themselves, but who will employ these to catch the audience’s attention and undermine the authority of the so-called official sources.

It has been discovered that the employees of a troll factory in St.Petersburg systematically disseminated anti-vaccine conspiracy theories, yet the aim of their activity was not the weakening of the population’s physical immunity, but rather luring the audience into populists’ information space and gradually introduce them also to other topics, more clearly supportive of the populists’ political agenda5Broniatowski, David A.; Jamison, Amelia M.; Qi, SiHua; Al Kulaib, Lulwah; Chen, Tao; Benton, Adrian; Quinn, Sandra; Dredze, Mark 2018. PhD Weaponized Health Communication: Twitter Bots and Russian Trolls Amplify the Vaccine Debate. AJPH OPEN-THEMED RESEARCH, 108 (10), 1378–1384.

Myth 3: Conspiracy theorists invent their theories from scratch

In connection with the growth of the popularity of the QAnon movement and the extensive coverage given to the poisoning of the Skripals and Navalny, it has become more or commonly accepted knowledge that strategic movers (e.g. states, parties or business ventures) can effectively make use of conspiracy theories to direct the audience’s sense of the situation.

For instance, Russian public diplomacy channels (e.g. RT and Sputnik) spread ambiguous conspiracy theories about the circumstances of the poisonings, among other things also indicating that these might be cases of false flags or media circus with the aim of hiding something else. The conspiracy theories of QAnon show explicit support to President Trump and conjure up horrible tales of the misdeeds of the deep state that in principle represents everything and everybody not supportive of Trump’s actions.

States, political parties, but also businesses, employ conspiracy theories in order to make their strategic messages more entertaining, but also to undermine the authority of their adversaries or to disinform the audience. Conspiracy theories are well-suited to a sharing culture that is based on quick reactions, and the rather limited argumentation of social media which provides simple and intriguing explanations as an opportunity to make strategic narratives become viral and to stick.

The myth that most clearly emerges when we discuss the strategic use of conspiracy theories is based on the idea that strategic actors or teams of their PR-specialists and spin doctors create such theories ex nihilo and successfully plant them in different parts of their information ecosystem.

The fallibility of the myth lies in the fact that in their essence conspiracy theories are a vernacular phenomenon. They are based on the repetition of similar motifs – the texture of society has become infested with malignant forces; there is brainwashing going on and important information is being hidden from the public; the conspirators are using a secret code; the malignant forces are not only selfish, but also thoroughly evil and amoral.

The motif slots are constantly being filled a-new, with new villains and contextual references. In search of trendy villain figures and hot buzzwords, the disseminators of strategic conspiracy theories undoubtedly engage in monitoring the social media. They take up rumor-tracking that gives an idea of the topics and figures to be employed to make their strategic conspiracy messages intriguing and enticing.

Thus, in 2015 Viktor Orbán’s government started a campaign in Hungary. Orbán has spent more than 100 million euros (of public funds) to convince Hungarians that it is George Soros’s aim to bring into Europe more than a million Moslem immigrants from Asia and Africa who would imperil the local culture and way of life. Yet it is wrong to presume that his government created the conspiracy concerning Soros; rather, Orbán hijacked the conspiracy theory and adapted it to attain his own political aims.

The roots of the conspiracy about Soros lead back to the mid-1980s, that is, the period when he started his philanthropic activities in Easter Europe. Then, the KGB began to disseminate conspiracy theories accusing Soros of being a US spy and engaging in subversive activities targeting the USSR. Orbán’s theories, however, saw Soros and the foundations he supported as a means of enforcing Americanisation and globalism and levers of brainwashing6Kaufman, Michael T. 2002. Soros: The Life and Times of a Messianic Billionaire. New York: Knopf.. The Soviet Union has long disappeared from the world’s map, but Soros’s popularity as a scapegoat figuring in conspiracy theories is higher than ever.

The University of Tartu semioticians Mari-Liis Madisson and Andreas Ventsel recently published the monograph Strategic Conspiracy Narratives: A Semiotic Approach (Routledge 2020) that takes a critical look at the myths described above. Conspiracy theories can be used with different strategic aims that should not be measured with the same stick. Conspiracy theories can amplify society’s polarisation, scare or confuse the audience, but can also function as entertainment, for they picque many interpreters’ curiosity and inspire a pleasure in detection and discovery. The authors show in their book that semiotics – a discipline that studies meaning making and transmission – can provide a context-sensitive conceptual framework for studying strategic narration.

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