Circulations: how conspiracy theories exist and travel in today’s media ecosystem

Conspiracy theories have been around for many centuries. They were transmitted orally, in written and visual forms, and later also in various printed documents (flyers, newspapers, and books) as new technologies emerged (Butter 2014; Byford 2011; Pipes 1997; Thalmann 2019). While hard to precisely quantify, the internet proved a major game-changer in the form, quantity, speed of circulation, and general reach of conspiracy theories. The decline of traditional information gatekeepers accompanied a rise of various types of bulletin boards, independent and alternative news sites, and personal websites and blogs that published conspiracy theories online (Birchall 2006; Dean 1998; Knight 2000). This enormous démocratisation of information was a key spearhead of the early internet Utopians and similarly proved for many conspiracy theorists a great emancipatory force. For many people in the field, the internet was the information sanctuary to learn about facets of life that, in their eyes, had been hidden or obscured before but were now open for everybody to see (Harambam 2020b). In a typical ‘prosumer culture’ fashion, conspiracy theorists were producing, reading, sharing, editing, and bricolaging all kinds of textual and audiovisual information and (re)publishing it on their own websites. Much variety existed: from small individual do-it-yourself-style websites with simple text to professionally produced and sometimes cooperatively managed conspiracy theory websites boasting news articles and visually stunning documentaries attracting thousands of visitors per day (Harambam 2020b, 39—47).

The rise of social media and internet 2.0 radically changed again the way conspiracy theories are produced, transmitted, and consumed. Whereas older websites were rather static and unidirectional and people had to ‘go’ to conspiracy websites for information, the online mediaecosystem of today highlights hyper-connectivity, interactivity, and virality (Dijck et al. 2018). In addition to consulting articles and videos on conspiracy theory websites, people find such contents in their social media feeds and/or share them in closed messenger groups (Mortimer 2017). Conspiracy theories as such travel easily across different platforms, reaching different audiences. Given the different affordances of each platform, conspiracy theories take different forms now as well; next to mere text and video, we find today conspiratorial Twitter messages and playful memes as new conspiracy theory genres. At every step, people can frame, adjust, and contextualise conspiracy theory texts and visuals into new forms with which they change and recreate original meanings (Aupers 2020). However, powerful conspiracy theory actors remain influential, be they conspiracy theory entrepreneurs or social movements: for example, in the form of popular YouTube channels to which people subscribe or Twitter accounts they follow (Harambam 2020a; Starbird 2017).

In recent years it has become clear that the contemporary information landscape looks more like a complex war zone where various strategic actors fight for the minds and hearts of people with misinformation, troll factories, and invisible technological weapons such as bot(net)s and curating algorithms (Bennett and Livingston 2018; Wardle and Derakhshan 2017). Without actually knowing so, people would end up in ‘echo chambers’ of like-minded people due to the effects of ‘filter bubbles’ and ‘recommendation algorithms’ funneling people into extremist conspiracy theories (Flaxman et al. 2016; Sunstein 2018). While such understandings of people as gullible and passive recipients of misinformation are naïve and have been critiqued (Bruns 2019), much of the complex entanglement of human behavior, technology, platform business models, and (geo)politics that spurs the spread of conspiracy theories and misinformation online is still to be explored.

Motivations: paranoid militants, cultural dupes, or witting activists?

A central topic in studies on conspiracy theories and misinformation is the question of why people ‘believe’ them. One strand of scholars regards conspiracy theories as irrational behavior and thought and often discards them as such (Barkun 2006; Byford 2011; Pipes 1997; Sunstein and Vermeule 2009). They build on Hofstadter, who saw it as unreasonable paranoia, overheated suspicion, and dangerous militancy (2012), and to Popper, who saw it as secularised remnants of an outdated religious worldview prioritising intent above chance (2013, 306). These two qualities of conspiracy theorists performing ‘paranoid politics’ and ‘bad science’ (Harambam 2020b, 12—17) live on in many contemporary discussions of contemporary populist leaders (Trump, Orban, Bolsonaro) and movements (Tea Party, 5 stars, AfD) that (allegedly) manipulate the public with inciting polarisations and false or alternative facts (Norris and Inglehart 2019).

A second group of scholars argue that it is neither fruitful nor possible to insist on the irrationality and falsity of conspiracy theories, especially if we want to understand their broad contemporary appeal and cultural significance. Such scholars take a more neutral stance to exploring the meaning conspiracy theories have for those engaging with them without condemning them as ludicrous and dangerous. Some argue that conspiracy theories bring back a sense of control as they explain inexplicable events and give meaning to complex, increasingly opaque and globalised systems (e.g. bureaucracies, capitalist systems, mass-communication technologies) (Aupers 2012; Dean 1998; Knight 2000; Melley 2000). From that perspective, conspiracy theories — half soothing, half unsettling — are a cultural coping mechanism to deal with a complex and uncertain world. Social psychologists make similar arguments by pointing to how conspiracy theories give back feelings of agency and control in disturbing or confusing situations in time (Douglas et al. 2017).

Others highlight the contested nature of truth and knowledge in post-modern societies and show how this ‘epistemic instability’ opens up a cultural space for conspiracy theories to thrive (Birchall 2006; Fenster 2008; Harambam 2020b). Mainstream societal institutions (media, religion, politics, and science) and the knowledge they produce are distrusted for they are (supposedly) corrupted by both dogma and material interests (Harambam and Aupers 2015) or because they don’t allow for ‘soft’ epistemologies (emotions, feelings, experiences, testimonies, traditions) (Harambam and Aupers 2019). Various new religious movements deploy conspiracy theories in their teachings as they do provide existential meaning in contrast to ‘cold’ rational institutions by explaining societal injustices along larger spiritual narratives of good and evil (Dyrendal et al. 2018). Social relations are important drivers of conspiracy theories too: people may express them to foreground their ideological group affiliation (Lewandowsky et al. 2017), or they are cultivated and enforced in social contexts such as ‘alternative’ schools or community centers (Sobo 2015). But conspiracy theories also channel discontent with mainstream institutions and represent populist challenges to the existing order (Fenster 2008; Harambam 2020b). While conspiracy theories thus operate in a cultural climate where various societal groups contest the epistemic authority of mainstream authorities (Fuller 2018), the reasons and motivations they do so greatly differ.

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