Winter 2020

Recognizing and Meeting the conspiracies Among Us



By: Michael. Butter 

Most at risk of becoming the target of such conspiracist-induced violence are minorities and other already stigmatized groups, followed by representatives of the state and ‘ordinary’ politicians. As far as their personal safety is concerned, there is little danger for leaders such as Barack Obama or Angela Merkel. Conspiracy. Theorists may think that they are reptilians, members of the Illuminati, or complicit in the ‘Great Replacement’, but they are so well protected that assassination attempts on them are unlikely. Politicians like Jo Cox and the members of the Michigan legislature, however, are far more vulnerable, and the same goes for police officers and others who might be perceived as representatives of a thoroughly corrupt state. When the likes of Donald Trump add fuel to the fire via Twitter, the situation becomes particularly toxic.

Conspiracy theories that deny established medical knowledge, such as those surrounding the coronavirus, occasionally have the potential to lead to violence, too,
as the armed protests in Michigan show. But what is far more problematic about them is their ability to make those who believe in them endanger themselves and others involuntarily. This is not the case with conspiracy theories that falsely proclaim a virus to be particularly dangerous because it was allegedly manufactured in a biological weapons laboratory, as some people (still) believe about the HIV virus and now about the coronavirus. But it is a problem in the case of those who foster a false sense of security by claiming that diseases like COVID-19 or AIDS do not exist, and that the public is being deceived by sinister forces pursuing a hidden agenda. Vaccination conspiracy theories also fall into this category, whether they claim that vaccines can cause serious harm yet continue to be used for financial reasons, or maintain that vaccinations are used to implant chips allowing the conspirators to trace and control people.

As Karen Douglas and Daniel Jolley found in a study on the social consequences of conspiracism, someone who believes that all or most politicians are the puppets of hidden evildoers who are using them to pursue their own sinister goals is highly likely to stop voting altogether at some point. Another finding of the study was that the belief that climate change is a lie designed to achieve some dark purpose can lead people to behave in a less environmentally friendly way. Such behaviour does not pose a direct risk to life and limb, but it has the potential to aggravate the crises we are currently witnessing in the democratic systems of Europe and North America. The same is true for the other option open to those who think that politics is just a sham. They may join populist movements or parties that present themselves as the only genuine alternative in a rotten political system or as the true voice of the people. As members of such movements, they may occasionally take their protests to the streets to exert pressure on those they perceive to be acting against the interests of the people.

The term ‘crisis actor’ appears to have been coined in 2012 by James Tracy, then still a tenured professor of communications at Florida Atlantic University. Tracy, who later lost his job, claimed that the Sandy Hooks Elementary School massacre of 14 December 2012, when twenty-six people, among them twenty children, were killed, never took place. Another danger of conspiracy theories is that they can lead to profound distrust in the political system and disrupt the democratic processes necessary to deal with the many challenges humanity faces in the twenty-first century.

Finally, so-called crisis-actor conspiracy theories can do a lot of harm to people who have lost loved ones in tragedies that, according to the conspiracy theorists, never really occurred but were staged for the media and public to further the goals of the conspirators.


Conspiracy theories, then, are dangerous, and belief in them can have grave consequences. The discouraging cliché that hardened conspiracy theorists cannot be reached with arguments is, alas, all too true. Such absurd claims could be dismissed with a shrug if many conspiracy theorists did not harass the families of those who have lost loved ones in the tragedies concerned. Conspiracy theorists like Tracy and Jones have accused the parents of the Sandy Hooks victims of faking their children’s deaths, and at times even claimed that their children never existed. Others have attacked the families of the victims of other shootings. It is not hard to imagine the enormous suffering that this has caused parents, spouses, and other relatives already working through the trauma of losing people dear to them.

As such, studies that highlight the evils of conspiracy theories have fallen on fertile ground in the media, particularly in recent years and never more so than in the COVID-19 crisis. Many journalists and other observers tend to pathologize and demonize them altogether. In some sections of the public, anti-conspiracism has reached panic proportions, sometimes leading to obsessive reporting on topics such as which politician believes in which conspiracy theory and how many theories of this kind Trump bandied about during the election campaign. Not that such scrutiny is without justification, of course – particularly in Germany, where the myth of the global Jewish conspiracy paved the way for the Holocaust. But is it really the case that all conspiracy theories are dangerous?

There are plenty of people who believe in conspiracy theories and interact in virtual and real communities, but who show no inclination to violence, do not endanger others by doubting established medical knowledge, do not support right-wing populists, and do not harass the bereaved. The 9/11 Truth movement or believers in David Icke’s reptilian theory are just two examples.

In fact, many of the academic studies that attest to the dangers of conspiracy theories are more complex than they are sometimes given credit for in the media. After all, just as there are conspiracist groups with no history of violence whatsoever, so there are plenty of examples of violent organizations in which conspiracy theories play no part, such as the IRA, for instance. In his survey of the link between conspiracism and radicalization, Benjamin Lee accordingly concludes that ‘the exact role of conspiracy theory in radicalization remains an open question’. And while there is a lot that we do not know, it seems clear that in all cases it was not just belief in certain conspiracy theories that prompted the crime; there were other factors at play, too. Moreover, tragic though such incidents are for the victims and their families, they are, thankfully, extremely rare. Similarly, some of the psychological studies on the problematic consequences of conspiracism need to be taken with a pinch of salt. Extrapolating from the laboratory to the real world is no easy matter.

It is therefore important not to panic when it comes to conspiracy theories. They need to be taken seriously, as their repercussions can clearly be problematic, but a degree of discrimination is also necessary. Whether conspiracy theories per se are dangerous is the wrong question. Quite apart from the fact that we need to specify what we mean by ‘dangerous’, it also depends on which conspiracy theories we are talking about, whom they are directed at, who believes them, and who voices them since these are not necessarily the same people. Equally important are contextual factors: are conspiracy theories regarded as legitimate or illegitimate knowledge in the given context? How popular are they? Are they spread via official or alternative channels? Do they draw on existing prejudices against minorities or elites? If so, do they put a new spin on them? And what effects do they have in the case in question? In short, it will always depend on the concrete situation.

This resistance to any attempt at falsification is due to the fact that conspiracy theorists generally work on an entirely different set of basic assumptions from those who don’t believe in large-scale plots. Consequently, although a dialogue is possible in theory, it will not normally yield the desired results. In fact, empirical studies have shown that confronting conspiracy theorists with conclusive counterarguments only confirms them in their beliefs. This is because conspiracy theories fulfill a hugely important function in terms of their followers’ identity. To challenge the theory is to shatter the self-image of the person you are attempting to persuade. That may be gratifying for the challenger, but it serves little purpose beyond that of self-affirmation. Any education campaign should therefore be aimed at those who have already encountered the explanations offered by conspiracy theories but are not yet convinced. Provided certain ground rules are observed, this approach has a reasonable chance of success. It is important, for example, not to dwell too much on the assumptions you are attempting to refute, lest these – rather than the non-conspiracist explanation – become fixed in your interlocutor’s mind. Naturally, it is impossible to argue the case without making explicit reference to the conspiracy theory and its supposedly clinching arguments. But this should only be done briefly, after presenting the better explanation and making it clear that you are merely summarizing false information. Another reason for concentrating on the counter-narrative is that it offers the other party a way of making sense of events, this being one of the main attractions of conspiracy theories. Lastly, it is important to restrict yourself to the key arguments, as too many details can produce the opposite effect.

Moreover, research has shown that it makes a lot of sense to ‘inoculate’ people against specific conspiracy theories. This ‘prebunking’, as it is also called, usually consists of two steps. First, the target audience needs to be alerted to the dangers of a specific conspiracy theory; second, and crucially, the logical flaws and contradictions in its arguments need to be exposed. Social literacy would form the cornerstone of a strategy designed to curb the spread of conspiracy theories but would need to be complemented by two other essential elements which I would describe as media literacy and historical literacy. In the current situation, where the watchdog role of the media and the interpretative authority of traditional elites such as the academic community have sharply declined, and the seductive explanations offered by conspiracy theories are accessible at will via real and virtual alternative channels, the importance of media literacy should be only too clear. We have all had to learn – and must go on learning – to discriminate between reliable and unreliable sources of information, and to recognize the difference between someone’s personal YouTube channel or blog and the website of a quality newspaper. We need to realize that the results of our Google searches and Facebook newsfeeds do not reflect reality but, to a large extent, our personal preferences, and that news that spreads fast may be popular but is not necessarily true. There have always been conspiracy theories and always will be but, historically documented cases differ significantly in terms of scope, impact and effectiveness from the assumptions of conspiracy theorists about how plots work and what they can achieve. It would be important to communicate this by way of examples – and this is where historical literacy would overlap with social literacy. Convinced conspiracy theorists will probably groan at the manifesto I am outlining here, and I would therefore like to make it absolutely clear that I am not talking about an uncritical acceptance of established interpretations and submission to traditional authorities, but the empowerment of people to think for themselves and reach their own judgments, based on rational assumptions about human nature and social processes. These are precisely what conspiracy theories lack – yet they are a vital tool if we are to carry conviction when exercising the urgently necessary critique of power structures and those wielding power. A further problem of conspiracy theories – particularly those directed at elites – is that their often legitimate concerns and justified complaints are easily dismissed because of the problematic paradigm through which they are articulated.

Key factors are the nature of the conspiracy theory itself, its impact on the life of the conspiracy theorist and those around them, and their relationship to the challenger. There are good reasons not to talk to people who spread racist, sexist or anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, in the interests of avoiding an erosion of the boundaries of acceptable speech. Even so, it is important not to project such characteristics onto their theories.

Applying stigmatized labels such as ‘paranoid’ or ‘conspiracy theorist’ to the other party will have a similar effect. Rather than attacking the fundamental assumptions of their ideology from the outset, it probably makes more sense to begin with a more low-key approach, such as enquiring after the sources of some of their statements or detailed allegations. From my own experience, I can say that there is often a lot to be gained by simply listening in the first instance, since many conspiracy theorists feel – not always unreasonably – that they are not taken seriously outside their own echo chambers.

Publics in which conspiracy theories are still stigmatized coexist with publics where they have undergone a relegitimization. This fragmentation of society, does not necessarily follow ideological lines, but rather stems from radically differing assumptions about how history and society operate. It is this fragmentation that seems to me to be the real problem we are facing today, and it is particularly apparent in the context of conspiracy theories. As such, the current debate, that sees some sectors of the public panicking over conspiracies and others over conspiracy theories, is symptomatic of a deeper crisis afflicting democratic societies. After all, if societies can no longer agree on what is true, they will not be able to resolve the pressing problems of the twenty-first century.

MICHAEL BUTTER is Professor of American Studies at the University of Tubingen. This work was translated from the German by Sharon Howe. The Nature of Conspiracy Theories is available from

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