From claims that the Earth is flat to the viral rumors that SARS-CoV-2 was designed as a biological weapon, a new wave of conspiracy theories are gaining traction and prominence. Conspiracy theories themselves are nothing new, but these latest theories represent the newest iterations of a pattern of thinking that, as has been demonstrated by examples in history and current events, has the potential to motivate people to violence.
We partnered with a team of anthropologists from ReD Associates to study the common features and beliefs of people who subscribe to conspiracy theories, with a goal of identifying when certain conspiracy theories might lead to people committing acts of violence.
We interviewed 61 people who believe in and actively propagate conspiracy theories. What we learned challenged our assumptions, revealed how conspiracy believers consume and evaluate information online, and raised questions about whether supposedly “innocuous” conspiracy theories can be dismissed as such.
We traveled pre-pandemic to sit down with conspiracy theory advocates from rural Idaho to Manchester, UK, and subsequently met others online. We reached out to a diverse sample of English speakers in the US and UK who had shared conspiracy theory content online. While they typically self-identified as “truthers”, “researchers”, or “theorists”, each was eager to discuss conspiracy theories as we defined them with us. We drew from the study “Understanding Conspiracy Theories” to define a conspiracy theory as “attempts to explain the ultimate causes of significant social and political events and circumstances with claims of secret plots by two or more powerful actors.” We employed ethnographic methods, a non-judgmental form of listening and observation that often lasted whole days. This approach allowed us to contextualize often stigmatized conspiratorial beliefs and behaviors into a broader social context. We observed how people used the internet and conducted mock online “research exercises” to see how they pursued answers to fact-based questions online.
Our interviews and subsequent research revealed seven insights about modern conspiracist thinking and the people who hold these beliefs.
1. Conspiracy believers should not be dismissed as unhinged outliers. Conspiracism can provide community, empowerment, and a coping mechanism in a chaotic world.
Conspiracy theorists are the last true believers in an ordered universe, or so it’s said. Recent polls indicate that between 12–47% of Americans believe in five timely conspiracies. Humans are pattern-seeking primates who use their advanced intellect to make sense of the world around them, to connect the dots to create order amidst uncertainty. People gravitate toward conspiracy belief during crises. The greater the disorder in the world — fires, floods, earthquakes, wars, plagues — the more appealing the revelatory power of conspiratorial ideation may seem.
Conspiracy theories also give rise to online and offline communities of believers, which give people camaraderie and a sense of shared purpose. Conspiracy believers told us how knowledge of “The Hidden Truth” felt empowering, even electrifying. This sense of empowerment is particularly influential given that those who are predisposed to conspiracies often experience isolation, alienation and distrust of institutions.
“It was exciting and addictive. You got a dopamine hit, you were chasing the buzz.” — Female, 40s (Manchester, UK)
“It was really cool. Everything felt like a sign. I went into hyperdrive.” — Male, 50s (Idaho)
2. Conspiracy theories are corrosive on an individual and societal level. Individuals can exploit conspiracies to justify violence.
Recent events and numerous studies show that conspiratorial beliefs lead to real world harm for individuals and society. Individuals who hold conspiratorial beliefs are more likely to suffer health issues, economic hardship, and weaker social ties. Our interviews also reinforced the finding that conspiracy theories are associated with a number of diffuse harms — those that negatively affect society writ large — including the refusal to follow public health guidance, lowered democratic participation, and prejudice towards out-groups.
Conspiracy theories can also motivate targeted harm in the form of extremist violence. Jigsaw’s research on conspiracy theories began as an extension of our work on radicalization into violent extremist movements. A recent report from the Global Network on Extremism and Technology describes the historical role of conspiracy theories in radicalization and political violence. We recognized, as other experts have noted, that conspiracy theories not only motivate one-off extremist attacks, but they are part of the core ideology of every major extremist movement active today, from ISIS to violent white supremacy. Many of these conspiracy theories are anti-semitic in nature, like the “Jewish Question” belief that is a prerequisite for many modern white supremacist groups. According to research from the think tank Demos, violent extremist groups use conspiracy theories across ideologies for at least four reasons, including to (i) demonize out-groups, (ii) victimize an in-group, (iii) delegitimize voices of dissent and moderation, and (iv) encourage a group to turn to violence for self-defense.
3. The common architecture of conspiracy theories makes it easy for a believer of one conspiracy to subsequently believe in others. None of the 61 conspiracists Jigsaw interviewed believed only one conspiracy theory.
Conspiracy theories follow a common architecture across ideologies and topics. Theories feature a “they” who orchestrates the conspiracy (often elites), a hidden agenda, a cover story, and a proxy outgroup that is often perceived as perpetrating the actual conspiracy. This universal structure makes it easier for a believer of one conspiracy to gradually believe a wide range of other conspiracies. In other words, conspiracism is less of an instance of credulity and more of a holistic worldview.
Of the 61 individuals interviewed during this study, none of them believed only one conspiracy. Each began with one “gateway” conspiracy theory and soon came to believe more that had the same architecture.
4. Even seemingly innocuous conspiracy theories can support violent radicalization.
Our initial assumption about conspiracy theories was that more innocuous or historical theories (e.g. the assassination of John F. Kennedy, or the Moon landing) would measure low on a harm spectrum, where more explicitly violent theories would be more likely to lead to violent extremist beliefs. Our interviews, however, suggested that even seemingly “harmless” conspiracy theories could support radicalization.
Many adherents of the White Genocide conspiracy, an inherently violent belief that advocates subjugation of non-whites and Jews, did not indicate any intention to take action on their beliefs. On the other hand, we interviewed “Flat Earthers” who claimed a willingness to commit acts of violence to, in their words, thwart the efforts of a Satanic cabal at NASA intent on propagating a spherical worldview. They considered this an injustice so grave that it demanded a violent response. One ardent Flat Earth theorist claimed that she would be willing to “fire the kill shot” if a member of the aforementioned cabal was in the next room. In any case where researchers heard commitments to enact violence, we considered reporting to appropriate law enforcement authorities.
“If someone could convince me that there was a way to take this [cabal] down, I would. I would consider it self-defense, the level of atrocity is so massive.” — Female, 30s (Montana)
5. The extremeness of a person’s conspiratorial worldview is correlated with the perceived number of elites in control — the smaller the cabal, the more extreme the view, and the more likely believers are to commit violence.
Most conspiracy theory believers we met referenced the “illuminati” or “deep state” in describing the drivers of their conspiracy beliefs. The illuminati is a reference to an Enlightenment-era series of groups that have since become a popular fictional group in popular culture. Conspiracy theory adherents describe the illuminati as a shadowy organization working to control world affairs in order to gain political power, corporate influence, and to establish a so-called New World Order. However, when asked to estimate how many people belong to this conspiring group, many responded with a shrug. There was a clear distinction in response though between the moderate and extreme conspiracists, with the latter having a much more precise, concrete perception of a smaller group controlling the world — the most extreme conspiracy adherents could name the exact families and individuals perceived to be pulling the strings.
When a conspiracist’s worldview becomes more extreme, we found that they focus on the small, specific group of people they deem responsible. Extreme conspiracists described the perceived injustices by a handful of elites (“Satanic pedophiles with child trafficking rings”) as justification to target elites for violence. Intensifying extremism is correlated with a desire to find a more accessible proxy target for the imagined elite perpetrator. Jews are often identified as a proxy for global elites. This observation came from our ethnographic interviews with 61 respondents, but this finding deserves further exploration with additional research.
“It’s the Bilderbergs. They do all this virtue-signaling, but meanwhile they set up trusts for tax avoidance. That’s the Satanic philosophy–selfishness. Meanwhile I pay so much in tax every year I struggle to get by.” — Male, 30s (London)
“It’s the Ashkenazi Talmudist Jew that we need to focus on. The Talmud says it’s okay to rape 3-year-olds. They think we are cattle. They have stood behind every war that has happened. They control the media…it’s self-defense against them.” — Female, 60s (New Jersey)
6. The credibility cues that ardent conspiracy believers use to evaluate trustworthiness online are often the opposite of mainstream internet users, highlighting an opportunity for innovative UX strategies to serve high quality information in ways that resonate with all online.
Many conspiracy theory believers described low-production value online information as having a feeling of “authenticity,” even when the source contained objective falsehoods. Popular online conspiracy sources often display this aesthetic, using design elements that suggest a “homemade” quality. For conspiracists, reputable mainstream sources are often perceived as being influenced by corporate and elite interests, and therefore less reliable. There is a significant amount of well-produced, polished online video content peddling conspiracy theories, but we hypothesize that these are often targeting newer conspiracy theory adherents or skeptics because the more deeply invested believers had moved on to sources with lower production value and more “accessible” creators.
This distrust for reputable, polished information sources poses a challenge for anyone hoping to promote “authoritative sources” for information, since the trust signals used by conspiracists are in many cases the opposite of most internet users.
7. Longstanding conspiracy beliefs are deeply felt and are more resistant to traditional debunking efforts.
The more deeply a person holds a conspiracy belief, the more difficult it can be to dispel or debunk belief in that conspiracy theory. Therefore, fact-based debunking efforts are more likely to be effective for people who are encountering a conspiracy theory for the first time. This contrast is depicted in case studies published by Jigsaw, where one woman who believed in the conspiracy theory about “Chemtrails” had her beliefs dislodged by fact-based Google searches, while another woman with viscerally held beliefs rejected all forms of rational information.
From speaking with ardent conspiracy theory adherents, we learned that the theories have mutually reinforcing arguments that interlock and reuse a common architecture (see: finding #3), making each successive conspiracy theory more believable and defensible. As people begin to adopt this holistic conspiratorial worldview, they often build social connections with others who are gaining a similar set of beliefs. Once friendships and relationships begin to form, the conspiracy beliefs rapidly solidify — they can become part of the person’s social identity. At this stage, fact and logic-based debunking messages have little purchase as they are perceived to directly threaten not only the conspiracy believer’s social circle, but their own identity within it.
We’ll continue to share our progress and highlight promising research in this important area.
By Beth Goldberg, Research Program Manager at Jigsaw