People: suspicious minds or are we all conspiracy theorists now?
Traditionally, conspiracy theorists were seen as people on the extremist margins of society, those radical paranoids Hofstadter spoke about, but given the contemporary popularity of conspiracy theories, this assumption is hard to maintain. Different scholars and disciplines say something about what kind of people believing in conspiracy theories. Social psychological research maps key personality characteristics of people scoring high on a ‘conspiracist scale’ (Brotherton et al. 2013), who would display certain personality traits (e.g. authoritarian, narcissistic), cognitive biases (e.g. confirmation bias and illusory pattern recognition), and more general psychological afflictions (anxiety, stress, uncertainty, exclusion, victimisation, anomie, cynicism, distrust, etc.) (Prooijen and Douglas 2018). Coupled together, such scholars highlight epistemic
(understanding one’s environment), existential (being safe and in control of one’s environment), and social (maintaining a positive image of the self and the social group) factors as core identity traits of conspiracy theorists (Douglas et al. 2017, 2019).
Quantitative studies in political science measure the distribution of conspiracy theory beliefs across societal groups (Uscinski 2018). While many agree on the percentage of people endorsing one or more conspiracy theories (from 20 percent to almost a half the population, depending on the framing of the questions), their findings are less conclusive regarding the social and demographic factors correlating with conspiracy theory beliefs. Some argue that they cuts across age, gender, ideological conviction, religion, income, education, and ethnicity, whereas others found that conspiracy theorists were more likely to be male, unmarried, less educated, in a lower-income household, outside the labour force, from an ethnic minority group, not attending religious services, and perceiving themselves as of lower social standing than others (Douglas et al. 2019). Not surprisingly, conspiracy theorists showed higher alienation from established politics and lower levels of political engagement and are found on the more extreme, often populist, end of the political spectrum (Uscinski 2018; van Prooijen et al. 2015).
Qualitative scholars take a different approach to understand who conspiracy theorists are. In contrast to the aforementioned deductive-quantitative research favouring etic categories, qualitative studies focus on the emic, or self-perceptions of conspiracy theorists. Inspired by symbolic-interactionism and social identity theory (Jenkins 2014), they focus not just on how conspiracy theorists’ construct their own identities as ‘reflexive projects’, but also how they deal with their ‘stigmatized identity’ in everyday life (Harambam 2020b). For example, people actively resist their stigmatisation as ‘conspiracy theorists’ by distinguishing themselves from the gullible mainstream as ‘critical freethinkers’ (Harambam and Aupers 2017). Their ideas of self and other make three subcultural conspiracy groups apparent: activists, retreaters, and mediators. Harambam further distinguishes between conspiracy theory entrepreneurs, social movements, and individuals (Harambam 2020a). Other scholars follow marginalised or disenfranchised groups in society, such as African Americans, who deploy conspiracy theories to critique power, explain their marginal position, and garner momentum for resistance and uprising (Dean 1998; Fenster 2008; Knight 2000). Since conspiracy theorists cannot be seen as one of a kind, it is imperative to differentiate.
Mitigations: debunking, or what else to do with conspiracy theories?
Conspiracy theories are generally seen as a societal problem much in line with misinformation, fake news, and other forms of (allegedly) false information in our public domain (Waisbord 2018). This is because access to quality information regarding various aspects of life, from politics to health, is of utmost importance for people in liberal democracies to form opinions and participate in public debates (Fuchs 2014). However, conspiracy theories are said to have more adverse individual and societal effects. Scholars argue that they can erode trust in governments and mainstream institutions, deny and discard scientific evidence, increase depression and alienation, inform dangerous (public) health decisions, incite or stimulate hatred and prejudice, create a climate of distrust towards experts and truth, increase radical and extremists behaviour, and decrease political participation (Douglas et al. 2019; Lewandowsky et al. 2017). While (some) conspiracy theories can be productive challenges to dominant societal hierarchies, may hold powerful authorities accountable, and can be an impetus for institutional change (Den-tith 2018; Harambam 2020b), the list of negative consequences is long and serious. It is thus imperative to be more specific about which conspiracy theories pose such dangers, when, and how (Hagen 2020).
Academics, NGO’s, governments, and various other organisations initiate campaigns to combat conspiracy theories. Just as in the fight against misinformation, the most dominant mitigation strategy is debunking or fact-checking: showing the public that conspiracy theories are flawed understandings of reality would result in their no longer believing and trafficking in them (Kreko 2020). While it is obviously important to trace, highlight, and correct false information in our public sphere, the practical reality is more complex. First, it’s not always clear which (parts of) conspiracy theories are actually false, and proving them wrong involves much interpretative and investigative work (Dentith 2018; Graves 2016). Second, conspiracy theories are said to be have a ‘self-sealing quality’: counterevidence is construed as part of the conspiracy (Barkun 2006; Sunstein and Vermeule 2009). Third, debunking strategies are rarely effective: people generally do not accept fact-checking corrections that go against their ideology or worldview or when they come from ideologically opposed societal groups (Harambam
2017) . Paradoxically, debunking information may then even be counterproductive, strengthening original beliefs and increasing their reach (Lewandowsky et al. 2017). Other strategies, such as ‘inoculating’ or exposing the flawed rhetorical arguments and tropes of conspiracy theories, may be more effective (Kreko 2020).
An even bigger problem than the (un)truthfulness of conspiracy theories is perhaps their presence in today’s technologically saturated (social) media ecosystem (Bennett and Livingston 2018; Wardle and Derakhshan 2017). Spurred by troll factories, bot(net)s, and recommendation algorithms alike, conspiracy theories rapidly spread over the internet, reaching great audiences (Boune-gru et al. 2018). Of particular concern are the (business models of) Big Tech companies: these have created an opaque information landscape, in which they exploit and expand information asymmetries to target (and sell) specific audiences based on inferred psychometric profiles (Gary and Soltani 2019). Given the powerful role these allegedly neutral platforms play in the proliferation of contentious contents online (Dijck et al. 2018), they are called to take action (Harambam et al.
2018) . While resisting external regulations, they have committed in Europe to a ‘Code of Practice on Disinformation’ and increased their efforts to limit the spread of conspiracy theories via content moderation and adjusting recommendation algorithms. However, given unchanged platform business models and the aforementioned paradoxes and complexities that only aggravate when automated at scale, it is to be seen what these efforts will achieve (Gillespie 2018; Graves 2018). The broader question of how not to throw the baby (free speech and legitimate societal critique) out with the bathwater (disinformation) will continue to haunt platforms, academics, and legislators.