In general, one might like to distinguish between real conspiracies and conspiracy theories. In a real conspiracy, a few conspirators get together to carry out an evil plan. About two thousand years ago, a group of Romans delivered the enduring master example of a real conspiracy.
On 15th of March 44 (B.C.E.), Roman dictator Julius Caesar was stabbed to death by dozens of senators. The conspiracy involved a group of as many as 60 conspirators who had decided to assassinate Caesar at the meeting of the Senate – where the Roman leader was stabbed 23 times.
This was a real conspiracy. Meanwhile, conspiracy theories are very different. Worse, they are not even theories in the scientific understanding of the word. While lacking scientific rigor, conspiracy theories, for one, have no predictive value – a hallmark of scientific theories. Yet, conspiracy fantasies have some form of semi-plausibility.
While Conspiracy theories might be better called conspiracy fantasies, when one types “conspiracy theory” into an artificial intelligence image-generating website and out comes – to nobody’s surprise – a disfigured picture of Donald Trump.
During Trump’s reign and during the COVID-19 pandemic, online platforms such as social (read: corporate) media were overflowing with conspiracy theories about the origins and spread of the virus, about government responses (read: the deep state), medical treatments, vaccinations, and so much more. One conspiracy theory even asserted that the virus was intentionally made in a Chinese lab to rage war on the West.
Several other conspiracy fantasies even suggested that the COVID-19 pandemic was a hoax. Others claimed that it came from a US weapons’ laboratory – and here it comes – in the Ukraine. This is not unusual. Particularly during a time of crisis, some people have strong inclinations to give credits to conspiracy statements.
All too often there is an observable correlation with predictors of the beliefs in conspiracy fantasies such as, paranoia and magical thinking, mysticism, mistrust, occultism, New Age, and feelings of isolation, loneliness, defeatism, and powerlessness.
In general, people turn to conspiracy fantasies when challenged by a sheer overflow of complicated information – and this is without even considering the molecular biology of Corona. The utter volume of information feels too much or – alternatively – too little. Some information appears incomplete and, at times, contradictory, and ambiguous.
A second set of motive for the belief in conspiracy fantasies is the very human need to feel safe and to be in control. This is when people are looking for ways to cope with challenging information and circumstances that are beyond their control.
Thirdly, the belief in conspiracy fantasies is often driven by the longing to maintain a positive self-image inside a peer group. This is particularly important when that group is filled with people believing in “alternative” medical treatments, mistrusts of governments, and are suspicious of science. There is a need to fit in. It is a version of Group Thinking where group members self-reinforce certain beliefs – almost automatically.
Inside such a group – whether online or not – it might be important to maintain a positive esteem and to remain optimistic toward their own social groups. Much of this is prevalent among members of so-called low-status groups.
Beyond all this, there are also demographic factors associated with conspiracy fantasies. Believers of conspiracy fantasies have a handful of common signifiers, such as, for example:
- having lower levels of education;
- low levels of income;
- being male, unmarried, and unemployed;
- having weaker social networks; and,
- having lower media literacy.
Yet, conspiracy fantasies also attract people for political and ideological reasons. Interestingly, people are more likely to endorse conspiracy fantasies when they accuse a political rival – rather than their own side of politics.
Furthermore, people are more likely to believe in conspiracy fantasies when they perceive themselves to be the losers in political contexts. Very soon, the Republican Party will have continuously lost the popular vote for many years, if not decades. This, too, tends to encourage a belief in conspiracy fantasies.
Not just because of the use of conspiracy theories by the Republican Party, such conspiracy fantasies are also very common on the extreme right of the political spectrum. One reason for the prevalence of conspiracy fantasies on the political right might be that the political right-wing feels to have little agency in the current political circumstances.
Yet in all this, conspiracy fantasies are not helpful, largely because the impact of conspiracy fantasies is basically negative. Conspiracy fantasies worsen – rather than relieve – psychological and political frustrations. To make matters even worse, conspiracy fantasies tend to discourage people from engaging with the political processes.
In a seemingly never-ending downward spiral, people feel more and more powerless and disenchanted. In turn, they become less and less inclined to vote in elections and participate in the political process.
In the end, believers in conspiracy fantasies start to convince themselves that the political system is unresponsive to their demands and therefore, they tend to engage even less in institutional forms of political participation.
Beyond this downward spiral, conspiracy fantasies are associated with bias, stereotyping, prejudice, and aversion against out-groups. Within those, anti-Semitic conspiracy fantasies remain one of the prime examples. Worse, the belief in anti-Semitic conspiracy fantasies can even predict anti-Israeli attitudes, for example, as well as racism toward other groups.
Meanwhile, exposure to anti-Semitic conspiracy fantasies may also predict prejudice and discrimination not only against Jewish people, but also against other groups who are not implicated by the anti-Semitic conspiracy fantasy.
Not just in anti-Semitic conspiracy fantasies, but in other conspiracy fantasies too, there also is an assigning of (super)powers and agency to those who do not typically have it, like Jewish people, immigrants, feminists, and virtually any other minority group suitable for the conspiracy fantasy.
While many conspiracy fantasies particularly those on global warming strongly correlate with conspiracy fantasies about science, plenty – if not all – also overlap with misinformation and disinformation.
And, while most people trust official information and science, the acceptance of conspiracy fantasies is not distributed normally within the society. In other words, believers in conspiracy fantasies comprise of a specific cluster of people who might be different from the rest of the population.
Within such a cocoon, conspiracy fantasies thrive particularly inside online information silos and echo-chambers. Yet, virtually all conspiracy fantasies have about five common denominators, such as, for example:
- they are oppositional – they are in opposite to a state, a government, and an official policy;
- they often engage in malicious and even forbidden acts;
- they ascribe (super)powers – never to an institution or system – but always to an historical actor, an individual, or small groups;
- they are what social science calls “epistemically risky” – there is no science, and they are on shaky grounds when it comes to the “knowledge” they claim to have produced; and finally,
- they are widely shared, and socially, as well as ideologically constructed.
With this we arrive at the most current definition of conspiracy fantasies: it is a belief that two or more evil actors have colluded in (always) great secrecy to carry out an evil plan. Conspiracy fantasies are always about a public interest, but they are never part of public knowledge. Finally, conspiracy fantasies always oppose publicly accepted understandings of events.
One of the key factors in the construction of conspiracy fantasies is the assumption that there is something that can be labeled as “the people”. The rather simplistic “the people” versus “the elite” seems to exist in many right-wing populists setting. Yet in the right-wing’s use of both, “the people” as well as “the elite” remain simply as illusive ideas that are almost never specified nor supported by actual evidence.
Conspiracy fantasies present “the people” as easy to manipulate. This explains why the belief in conspiracy fantasies is associated with Machiavellian beliefs that the public are easily fooled.
Beyond all that, conspiracy fantasies seem to be reinforced – and, worse, even strengthened – through misanthropic views of human nature, pessimism, and anxiety. As a consequence, one also finds a small group of evil conspirators. This occurs undeterred from the fact that conspiracy fantasies are inherently prone to being false.
While they often mobilize hatred against a social group, conspiracy fantasies can serve interests beyond that. This hatred is further exploited by what became known as “conspiracy entrepreneurs”. Under this, they generate and spread conspiracy theories for a financial reward. A near perfect example is Alex Jones, a well-known conspiracy theorist who also sells products such as food supplements, toothpaste, and bulletproof vests.
In the end, we can now identify the most likely believers in conspiracy fantasies. These are those people of low education and income. Believers tend to be male, unmarried, and even unemployed. Crucially, they have weak social networks – not many friends, – and this is significant in the age of online platforms, they have lower media literacy which, in turn, turbo-charges the belief in conspiracy fantasies.
Finally, we also have a workable definition of conspiracy fantasies. They are always in opposition to official policies and the state. Conspiracy fantasies always include malevolent and even forbidden activities. Worse, they attribute superior powers – to people and never to institutions or systems like, for example, capitalism.
Instead, conspiracy fantasies nearly always includes what might be called “an historical actor” (e.g. Georg Soros, Bill Gates, etc.) or a small group (e.g. the elite). It has no science to back them up and their (un)theories are groundless. Yet, conspiracy fantasies, by definition, need to be widely shared. And this explains the prevalence of conspiracy fantasies.
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