Contents: from scapegoating an exotic Other to popular critiques of societal institutions
The previously mentioned politics of defining notwithstanding, there are important themes and topics to discern in the vast and diverse world of what are labelled conspiracy theories (Harambam 2020b, 58—101). Barkun highlights three central characteristics: ‘nothing happens by accident’, ‘nothing is as it seems’, and ‘everything is connected’ (2006, 3—4). He continues to distinguish conspiracy theories by scope: singular dramatic events, systemic ones of structural deceit, and ‘superconspiracy theories’ (Barkun 2006, 6). The first detail murders of key political figures (JFK) and pop-star celebrities (John Lennon, Tupac Shakur, or Michael Jackson), terrorist attacks (9/11, Charlie Hebdo), or various societal catastrophes (financial crises, wars, epidemics). The second category is about structural mechanisms of deceit: conspiracy theories about the way the pharmaceutical industries (inventing diseases and medications to keep people hooked on them instead of curing people) or monetary fiat systems (making money out thin air to enslave humanity with debt) work. The third are perhaps the most marvellous ones as they unite various singular conspiracy theories into one grand master narrative of deception. One popular propagator of such all-encompassing superconspiracies is flamboyant David Icke (Harambam and Aupers 2019). He is best known for his controversial reptilian thesis, in which our global elites are actually shapeshifting reptilian human-alien hybrids who secretly rule the world and combines New Age teachings with apocalyptic narratives about a coming totalitarian new world order (Barkun 2006; Ward and Voas 2011).
But what can we say about the substantive contents of conspiracy theories? Historically, conspiracy theories entailed allegations of societal subversion by three types of cabals that were seen as enemies of the dominant social order: secret societies (like the Illuminati or the Freemasons), powerful factions or interest groups (like the communists or the abolitionists), and the Jews (Harambam 2020b, 59—60). Such conspiracy theories advanced the notion that these societal outsiders were secretly plotting the demise of mainstream society and became objects of blame for societal misfortune (Pipes 1997). By scapegoating a concrete and identifiable enemy, this allegedly dangerous Other, such conspiracy theories bolstered collective in-group identities. This is what Knight calls ‘secure paranoia’ (2000, 3—4). They may engender a sense of peril, but as the cabal is made known and their sinister objectives made clear, such conspiracy theories paradoxically generate a state of reassurance, stability, and order. This type of conspiracy discourse has often been deployed by those in power in various countries and of various political affiliations to unite a troubled people through the construction of a dangerous enemy (Pipes 1997; Robins and Post 1997).
While such conspiracy theories live on in the rhetoric of Islamophobic Eurabia theories and in Russian and Eastern European conspiratorial fears of a progressive West endangering traditional values (Yablokov 2018), many contemporary conspiracy theories focus on the workings of our own societal institutions (Harambam 2020b, 66—81). Various scholars (Fenster 2008; Knight 2000; Melley 2000; Olmsted 2009) argue that conspiracy theories today are no longer about a demonised Other threatening a stable us, but rather, the enemy now comes from within. Indeed, most contemporary conspiracy theories advance radical suspicions about the workings of mainstream societal institutions (Aupers 2012). Based on a content analysis of popular conspiracy websites, Harambam distinguishes six main categories of conspiracy narratives: finance, media, corporatism, science, government, and the supernatural (2020b, 66—81). Besides the last one, most conspiracy theories thus have a strong institutional focus: they do not so much assume the conspiracy of a malign and manipulative cabal as articulate suspicions and discontent about the very way mainstream operations, routines, procedures, and formal legislations are institutionalised. More specifically, conspiracy theorists distrust, critique, and contest mainstream epistemic institutions and the knowledge they produce (Harambam and Aupers, 2015). As a result, conspiracy theories embody, par excellence, the unstable and contested nature of truth and knowledge in post-modern societies (Fuller 2018; Harambam 2020b).