Future research: exploring the affective and playful dimensions of conspiracy theories

Research on conspiracy theories is mostly rather serious business. It features the causes and consequences of a cultural phenomenon that is generally regarded a societal problem and hence focuses (too) much on its dangers (Harambam 2020b, 216). This obscures the affective and playful dimensions that are just as much part of conspiracy theories. To close this chapter, some suggestions are offered for future research in this direction. First, scholars can explore how conspiracy theorising and the practical search for truth offers effects such as excitement and satisfaction. Fenster made an important point years ago about how ‘the rush and vertiginous feelings associated with discovering conspiracy’ induce ‘a sense of pleasure’ (2008, 14). Future research can substantiate this claim further in all empirical details: how do different people take pleasure in the sifting of clues and the ferreting out of hidden truths, and how does this affective dimension of conspiracy theorising empirically manifest itself in different ways? Second, scholars can investigate how people engage with conspiracy theories in playful or ironic ways.

Pointing to the ludic online hype of the Area 51 raid that quickly gathered millions of interested people on Facebook, Sobo argues for looking at conspiracy theories through the lens of play as another way to understand their contemporary popularity (2019). When playing, people feel free to experiment with wild thinking, imagine ‘what if?’ possibilities, and oppose opaque power without serious ramifications (Harambam et al. 2011). Humour, irony, and play are similarly important ways to show cultural capital to peers and build social networks. Conspiracy culture is full of playful references to popular culture, and conspiracy memes are a staple ingredient of today’s memetic culture online. It is about time that academics take seriously the playful sides of conspiracy theories as well.


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