Conspiracy theories are certainly nothing new. However, in times of crisis or uncertainty, they seem to experience a surge in popularity. Perhaps the attraction is because they make very complex situations seem ultimately very simple. Behind every crisis must be an actor with wicked intentions. That’s certainly easier to reckon with than a confusing mixture of random chance and mundane incompetence.
Conspiracy theories about diseases are nothing new either; witches and Jews were blamed for plagues in the Middle Ages; there were conspiracy theories about Ebola being a weapon from a lab; and the coronavirus pandemic has been variously blamed on 5G networks, the pharmaceutical industry, and Bill Gates.
What do our readers think? We had a comment sent in from Piotr, who wonders why there are so many conspiracy theories floating around today, especially since there is no scientific evidence to back them up. Are they particularly popular in times of crisis?
To get a response, we spoke to Professor Michael Butter from the University of Tübingen. As the project leader of “Populism and Conspiracy Theory (PACT)” his research focuses on the importance of conspiracy theories for populist movements. How would he answer Piotr’s question?
On the one hand, we have conspiracy theories because they explain a broad range of events, because they are ‘voracious’, which means that you can always add something new to conspiracy theories. There is actually no significant event in the last few decades – be it the coronavirus, the financial crisis, or plane crashes – that was not immediately added to existing conspiracy theories. You have to think of it as a construction kit. The next chapter of each conspiracy theory is simply written with an old structural pattern.
But I’m not so sure that conspiracy theories are only popular in times of crisis; I think it’s just that we are more aware of them during a crisis. Above all, they are an answer to uncertainty, and sometimes crises bring with them a lot of fundamental uncertainty. We are seeing that right now, in the coronavirus pandemic. Especially in March and April, but even now, nobody really knows what our lives will be like in two or four weeks. Conspiracy theories can offer answers: This villain is behind it, this is where it will lead, and this is what will happen. This offers an apparent security that is easier to accept than chaos and coincidences.
Crisis and conspiracy theories often go together, but not always. The best example is the September 11th attacks. You knew who was to blame, who was behind it, so there were hardly any conspiracy theories. They did not flourish until years later, when the US operation in Iraq was followed by an identity crisis in the USA and with it great uncertainty.
Next up, we had a comment sent in from HJo, who argues there is no excuse to believe conspiracy theories when we have access to so much quality information on the Internet from reputable sources. But hasn’t the Internet made things worse when you can now find all kinds of “evidence” backing up your theories online?
To get a response, we spoke to Dr. Daniel Jolley, who studies the psychological consequences of conspiracy theories at Northumbria University. How does he rate the influence of the Internet on the profluence of conspiracy theories?
Why do conspiracy theories thrive during times of crisis? Has social media allowed conspiracy theories to flourish? Or has the Internet made fact-checking easier? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!