Conspiracy or truth?

Tracking down the phenomenon of conspiracy theories.

15 MARCH 2021 · 12:11 CET

Photo: <a target="_blank" href="">Chris Yang</a>, Unsplash, CC0.,
Photo: Chris Yang, Unsplash, CC0.

“Conspiracy theories are growing rapidly!” has been the alarm since the beginning of the Corona crisis. “Germany, land of poets, thinkers and conspiracy theorists” was the headline of the German Focus Magazine in September 2020.

The “dangerous masses” at the Berlin Corona demonstrations were “frightening”, it was said. The demonstrations were initiated by left-wing activists in April and later became a centre of attraction for a colourful scene of: esoterics, Greens, political extremists and conspiracy believers.

The tense atmosphere was politically instrumentalised and sometimes turned violent: left-wing extremist thugs attacked a television crew in Berlin, and in Stuttgart they assaulted three Corona demonstrators, injuring two so severely. One woke up after weeks in a coma with permanent brain damage. Berlin’s State Minister of Interior, Andreas Geisel, wanted to ban the anti-government rallies because “right-wing ideas” were being propagated there. Two courts had to remind him of the Constitution.

When nerves are on edge like this, it is time for a more sober view. Conspiracy theories are on everyone’s lips, but we think that only in the minds of others. This is only partly true, as I will demonstrate.


The phenomenon

A conspiracy theory is an assumption that powerful individuals or organisations communicate in secret to achieve illegal, illegitimate goals by deceiving the public.

Some examples: the American government knowingly allowed the attacks of 11 September 2001 to happen. The “Protocols of the White Men of Zion” show how “World Jewry” holds the strings of political-economic events. The American government has left hundreds of black syphilis sufferers without medical treatment for 40 years in order to study the course of the disease until death. The contrails from aeroplanes are actually “chemtrails”, substances that make our brains suggestible.

Or: Corona was brought into the world by Bill Gates to make profit with vaccinations. Politicians and tycoons are holding children captive to extract a rejuvenating agent from their blood (Q-Anon).

With the above collection of curiosities, do you wonder how anyone could believe such a thing? Then hopefully you have spotted the real conspiracy in this list. In the so-called “Tuskegee Study”, American doctors studied black syphilis patients from 1932-1972 without treatment, even after the discovery of penicillin had made the disease curable.

Distrust is part of democracy, that is why we have separation of powers and audit courts

Conspiracy theories arise from mistrust. And this is sometimes justified, even towards democratic governments. Distrust is even part of democracy. That is why we have separation of powers and audit courts.

The right measure is crucial. The above list of peculiar ideas should not trivialise conspiracy theories. Such theories play a role in many recent anti-Semitic attacks. Who makes up conspiracy theories? The police, for example, when they are on the trail of a child pornography ring. And the journalists who uncovered the Watergate scandal in 1972.

A conspiracy theory is therefore not always completely unreasonable. It can be a theory like any other, waiting to be tested. What is commonly called a “conspiracy theory” is also referred to as a “conspiracy belief” or “conspiracy fantasy”. This refers to beliefs that are held even though they are no longer within the realm of the plausible and rationally justifiable.

Typically, they are structurally irrefutable because every counter-argument is integrated as a strengthening of the theory and as evidence of the conspirators’ skill. When the entire perception of reality consists only of conspiracies, this can be called “conspirationism”: conspiracy thinking as a worldview.


Typology and characteristics

One can distinguish between systemic and single-event conspiracy theories. The first ‘explain’ global connections, financial markets, epidemics, poverty and wealth. The others doubt the “official truth” of concrete events.

Case-by-case theories are the application of systemic theories to everyday life. Typical features are:

  1. Reduction: In systemic conspiracy theories, highly complex social phenomena and structures are interpreted as the result of purposeful action by people (world economy, global crises, social differences). The identity of those responsible remains vague: big business, the pharmaceutical industry, world Jewry, the patriarchy, sometimes also fictitious figures such as Illuminati or extra-terrestrials.
  2. Intention: There are intentions behind all events. The actions of those concerned pursue concrete goals. Cui bono? (for whose benefit?) If you know who benefits, you know who caused it. If goals are unclear, contradictory explanations can be believed simultaneously.
  3. Complication: In single-event conspiracy theories, complexity is not reduced but artificially created. Behind a relatively clear “official” explanation of what happened, a complicated alternative reality is postulated and elaborated in great detail. Every open question of detail becomes evidence against the entire explanation. While systemic conspiracy theories look for order in chaos, single-case conspiracy theories find chaos in order.
  4. No falsification: Typically, a conspiracy theory is not falsifiable. All contradictory facts are taken as evidence of the conspirators’ skill and dangerousness.

A standard flaw in all conspiracy theories is the assumption that complex global processes can be the result of purposeful action, that secret groups of people can succeed in coordinating all their individual interests without contradiction, foresee the effects of action in extraordinarily complex situations and keep all this secret for a long time (no traitors, breakdowns, etc.).

This contradicts everything that is known about complex systems and about group psychology.


Psychology - What makes conspiracy theories attractive?

In the summer of 2020, the Russian dissident Alexei Navalny was poisoned and cared for in the Berlin Charité. The German government  suspected the Russian government, but the latter accused its German counterpart. Whom do you believe?

Conspiracy theories are a symptom rather than the cause of declining social trust

Most Germans suspect that Putin is to blame. But why? Hardly any of us have any detailed  knowledge of the case. The reason lies in the greater trust we place in the German media and politicians. Openness to conspiracy thinking is related to the trust we have in people. However, conspiracy theories are a symptom rather than the cause of declining social trust. Where they spread, they are therefore a signal of serious social crisis. After all, a high level of trust, along with the level of education, is the main source of wealth of our society.


Social factors that promote conspiracy theories

In this day and age, victimhood is in many ways a socially attractive status. The feeling of belonging to a group that has been short-changed is a powerful argument in disputes. The role of victim is identity-forming, relieving and sometimes financially lucrative. Conspiracy thinking offers an easy explanation for one’s personal mishaps and negative experiences and suggests that one is the victim of inscrutable dark forces.

Even more important is a common trivialised form of radical social constructivism, also known as post-modernism. This Marxist philosophical school of the 1960s says: there is no reality, but only interest-driven perceptions of reality, shaped by one's own perspective.

A football match looks different depending on whether you look at it as a spectator, a referee or an Asian betting cartel. Constructivism teaches a critical attitude towards all reality and all authorities. Who claims something, who has an interest in the matter, whose reality is it? Here too: Cui bono? This concern is emancipatory. It wants to make people thoughtful and critical contemporaries by examining apparent certainties of ideological backgrounds. Initially limited to the social world, this thinking is now even applied to biological facts.

The problem is that this generalised critical attitude easily leads to universal suspiciousness and mistrust. These in turn are very fertile ground for conspirationism.

French philosopher Bruno Latour was a leading proponent of constructivism for years until 2007, when he asked himself: Why do some people not accept the scientific fact of climate change and claim that it is an invention of the wind energy lobby? In an influential article (“Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?”) Latour concluded that constructivist thinking had gone too far. He noted worrying parallels with conspiracy thinking. “Nothing is what it seems” – it is no coincidence that this slogan fits both constructivist analysis and conspiracy thinking.


Functions of conspiracy theories

If conspiracy theories only offered the prospect of being perceived as unhinged and socially excluded, they would be unattractive. However, they can fulfil real social and psychological functions for their adherents, even if they are ultimately harmful to coping with life. Conspiracy theories provide understandable answers to complicated questions. Their seemingly coherent logic for explaining the world reduces complexity and provides relief in a world that is perceived as frustratingly opaque. Conspiracy thinking helps to cope with some of the contingencies of life.

Scapegoat theory promotes an orderly worldview and a sense of community with like-minded people on the side of the “good”.

With this “overcoming of contingency”, conspiracy theories take on a para-religious function of reassurance. The naming of culprits (scapegoat theory) promotes an orderly world view of good and evil and a sense of community with like-minded people on the side of the “good”.

Conspiracy theories operate as secret knowledge, which enhances their adherents’ self-esteem. Suddenly one is an insider and can see through where others are being deceived. Personal defeats are explained through externalisation: it is no longer my chaotic life that is to blame for my constant malaise, but the mobile phone network mast next door.


Who believes in conspiracy theories?

Every society has a certain level of conspiracy thinking - we are not always as rational as we think.

In the summer of 2020, many media created the impression that the Corona pandemic let the numbers of conspiracionists explode. This could indeed be indicated by the strong increase in “followers” of relevant websites and conspiracy preachers.

The internet does not create conspiracy theories, but it helps them spread. The nerd who once used to be ridiculed in his village because of some conspiracy idea now finds hundreds of thousands of like-minded people online.

On the other hand, the data is scarce and a distortion of perception through media inflation is obvious. For decades, there have been warnings of a constant increase in conspiracy theories. In reality there is a constant waxing and waning of conspiracy ideas.

They have always attached themselves to major emotional events: Moon landing, September 11, war, terror, epidemics. But these are also the times when the media act emotionally - i.e. they look at conspiracy theories and stir up Corona panic (as a recent study by the University of Passau showed).

There is a lack of sobriety and facts (e.g. before-and-after surveys with identical questions that could quantify an increase). If conspiracy ideas suddenly appear en masse in public at demonstrations, it does not mean that they were not there before.

Many who now believe in the Q-Anon ideas about blood-drinking politicians had previously demonstrated against “chemtrails”. The “growth” is also a regrouping within the scene.

Conspiracy theories can fulfil real social and psychological functions for their adherents, even if they are ultimately harmful to coping with life

Moreover, many surveys differ in what is considered a conspiracy theory, so they are often not comparable. Opposition to vaccination is irrational, but not always linked to a belief in the big pharmaceutical conspiracy. Not every error, gap in knowledge, stupidity or politically offensive attitude is a conspiracy theory. Every conspiracy theory is unreasonable, but not every unreason is a conspiracy theory.

There is a lot of confusion in the debate. Contrary to popular belief, conspiracy theories are not particularly correlated with one political direction, but with the respective extreme fringes. Conspiracy theories seem to be more widespread than average among socially marginalised groups.

On the other hand, elites and entire nations can also be affected: the Nazis really believed in the conspiracy of world Jewry, the German Democratic Republic regime saw the class enemy lurking behind every tree. And even in the democratic USA, for a while during the McCarthy era, no one was safe from the authorities’ hunt for communists.

We also like to suspect evil when a more reasonable explanation is unpleasant. “The exam went badly because the professor does not like me”. An assumption of hidden evil motives. It is ego-strengthening, it gets approval from fellow students, it expresses distrust, and it is a bit of a conspiracy theory.

Conspiracy theories are surprisingly popular in the esoteric milieu. This may be due to certain structural similarities. For example, the esoteric worldview presupposes a cosmos in natural harmony with itself. If the world is obviously in disorder, then people have destroyed this harmony.

Furthermore, there is an esoteric mistrust of the “official teachings”, be it natural science or established religion. And finally, in their “non-conformism”, they tend to resist the “prevailing opinion” on principle.


Accusations of “conspiracy theory!” as a defence against criticism

Many people complain that they are called conspiracy theorists because of a critical opinion. On the one hand, this fits the self-image of conspiracy thinkers, who see themselves as particularly critical spirits and interpret headwind as the reward for their courageous resistance.

On the other hand, the accusation “That is a conspiracy theory!” has been frequently misused for some years. Sometimes it clearly is used to ward off criticism in political disputes, e.g. when people criticise the political influence of lobbyists or billionaires. The undifferentiated and inflationary accusation of “conspiracy theory!” promotes social division and mistrust.

The many journalists who collectively describe 30,000 demonstrators as “covidiots” and see only “Q-anon supporters, corona deniers and right-wing extremists” there (Nabert/Naumann, Die Welt 30.7.2020) do not want to inform, do not want to understand and do not want to answer serious questions. Against this, it must be said: even in a pandemic, dissent is not a disturbance of democracy, but its lifeblood.

Even in a pandemic, dissent is not a disturbance of democracy, but its lifeblood

Sometimes people simply declare those to be “conspiracy theorists” who happen to contradict the currently valid majority opinion and are not able to justify this in a very differentiated way.

In January 2020, the Bavarian state TV mocked the “Corona panic” of some citizens, declaring: “The first ones are already walking through the cities with face masks. And deliberate false reports, conspiracy theories and lurid headlines about the Corona virus are currently dominating the social media” (Bayerischer Rundfunk, 30.1.2020). So back then it was the corona-warners who were the conspiracy theorists, today it is the trivialisers. Those who blankly demonise conspiracy believers only reproduce their opponents’ black-and-white thinking.

We should not forget: nobody likes being put right in a condescending manner. Everybody wants to be understood and listened to respectfully. Understanding and listening to conspiracy believers is sometimes exhausting. But it is the only way to engage people in a conversation and to heal the rifts in our societies.


For further Reading

- Bernd Harder: The virus of conspiracy theory, in: Skeptiker. Zeitschrift für Wissenschaft und kritisches Denken, 33 (2020), special issue, p. 3-26.


Kai Funkschmidt is a scientific advisor at the Evangelical Central Office for Worldview Issues in Berlin (EZW).

This text is the abridged and translated version of the SMD 2020 Autumn Conference paper in Marburg (Germany). It has been published with permission of SMD.

Published in: Evangelical Focus - Features - Conspiracy or truth?