Conspiracy theories: misinformed publics or wittingly believing false information?

Jaron Harambam


The question ot Truth — with a capital T — takes center stage today. Ever since the tumultuous year of 2016, when Trump rose to power in the US and the Brits decided to leave the European Union, academics and public commenters seriously started to worry about the rise of various forms of‘untruths’ in our (online) public domain. In addition to fake news and mis/disinfor-mation, much attention in such discussion is paid to the popularity of conspiracy theories in this so-called post-truth era. The idea that the world is not as it seems and that official explanations provided by mainstream epistemic institutions (media, politics, science) are untrustworthy has great resonance today. Both political elites and ordinary people in various countries in the world interpret current and historical affairs along conspiratorial schema and play with the tropes of collusion, deceit, and manipulation. But who are these people? What do they actually believe? Why are these ideas so popular nowadays? How do they circulate in todays complex information landscape? And should we do something about them? This chapter goes into more detail about all these questions by discussing the various ways conspiracy theories play a role in contemporary societies. Moving away from persistent stereotypifications, it draws on empirically grounded social-scientific analyses and aims to offer better insight into a politically contested and highly moralised cultural phenomenon. Conspiracy theories exist in various times and places, and such differences are relevant for their understanding (Butter and Knight 2020: Section V). The focus of this chapter is therefore on the contemporary situation in (Western) Europe and the United States.

Definitions: slippery concepts and rhetorical weapons

Misinformation and conspiracy theories are often mentioned in one breath, signifying the false or dubious content post-truth is all about, but what do these two concepts actually share? Misinformation is usually defined as ‘false or inaccurate information’, which seems pretty straightforward and often is: blatant lies and clear falsehoods are easily spotted. However, the history and sociology of fact-checking, societies’ most established effort to identify misinformation, shows the complexity and the interpretative work involved in this business (Graves 2016). It is often not that easy and unequivocal to separate true from false information; truth knows many shades of grey, after all. Although institutionalised fact-checkers generally abide by professional standards and clear procedures to identify misinformation, their work remains human and is thus subject to social, cultural, and ideological influences. On a more abstract level, then, it can be argued that truth and its opposites are products of societal power (Fuller 2018). What misinformation is becomes what is defined as such, and this perspective highlights definitional power: who is capable of coining certain forms of information as false (Becker 1967; Schiappa 2003)?

This necessary move from an essentialist to a relational definition rings even more true for conspiracy theories (Harambam 2020b, 34—35). Again, at first glance, it may seem obvious what they mean: explanations of events that involve the nefarious covert actions of some people. Such literal definitions, however, do not adequately cover what is commonly meant by conspiracy theories. After all, the official explanation of what happened on 9/11 — the plot of 19 angry Arab men hijacking planes to attack the US — would then qualify, but that is generally not seen as a conspiracy theory. Instead, doubts about this official narrative and accusations that the CIA, Mossad, or high officials in the US government are behind the attacks are seen as conspiracy theories. It thus makes more sense to define conspiracy theories as those ideas challenging official narratives (Coady 2006, 2—3). Moreover, because ‘a view becomes a conspiracy theory only because it has been dismissed as such’ (Knight 2000, 11) and is thus defined ‘by [its] discursive position in relation to a “regime of truth’” (Bratich 2008, 3), it is imperative to foreground the definitional practices, and their socio-political context, that discard certain forms of knowledge/thought as conspiracy theory (Harambam 2020b, 18). Obviously, there are some substantive qualities that most conspiracy theories share (Barkun 2006; Byford 2011; Douglas et al. 2019; Sunstein and Vermeule 2009), but these alone cannot account for what is commonly meant by them: delusional, irrational, paranoid, militant, dangerous, and mostly untrue explanations of reality (Dentith 2018; Thalmann 2019).

Both misinformation and conspiracy theories are slippery concepts and never neutral but intimately tied to cultural interpretations and societal power relations. What we regard as misinformation or conspiracy theories is thus never merely descriptive, but historically situated and performative. Because of the stigma associated with both terms, defining or calling something or someone that way has clear rhetorical effects. As Husting and Orr brilliantly show, using the conspiracy theory label allows the interlocutor to ‘go meta’, sidestepping the content and gaslighting the opponent, and works as a routinised strategy of exclusion (2007). Misinformation and conspiracy theories are thus powerful rhetorical weapons in public battles for truth and authority as they sweepingly discard both content and author from legitimate political debate (Bjerg and Presskorn-Thygesen 2017; Harambam and Aupers 2015). But these terms also have longer-lasting political consequences, since what becomes tainted with the conspiracy theory stigma will be off limits and subject to self-censorship by journalists and academic scholars alike (Hagen 2020; Hughes 2020; Pelkmans and Machold 2011).

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