Sociologist Laurent Cordonier, researcher at Fondation Descartes, reveals the main factors behind the modern success of conspiracy theories.
Fifty years after Apollo 11's spectacular achievement, 9% of French people think that the Americans never actually went to the moon and that NASA fabricated fake photos of the mission. According to them, the American government faked this space mission and its success, probably in order to impress its Soviet rival.
This moon hoax theory took shape in the first half of the 1970s in the United States, against the backdrop of the American population's growing mistrust of its government (Vietnam War, Watergate, etc.).
At the start of the 2000s, the development of the internet gave new life to the moon landing conspiracy. Internet users started analysing thousands of images of the event, in the hope of finding an anomaly to prove that it was faked. Others researched and compiled arguments contesting the technical feasibility of the mission, going so far as to distort scientific information to assert that it was impossible for humans to land on the moon.
The moon landing hoax, like any conspiracy theory, is based on a collection of different arguments, more or less outlandish, that may well contradict each other without that posing a problem. The sole objective of this “argumentative mille-feuille”, as sociologist Gerald Bronner named it, is to seed doubt in the “official” version of a given event.
All kinds of conspiracy theories have existed for a long time. However, these theories are finding unprecedented public resonance today. How can we explain that surprising numbers of educated and informed citizens believe in theories that state that, for example, our political leaders are conspiring with aliens to the detriment of the rest of humanity, or that they are lying to us about having gone to the moon?
Of course, not all conspiracy theories seem as far-fetched at first glance as these two examples. The fact remains that conspiracy theories are always based on an excessive simplification of the logic that rules our societies’ functioning and our history.
Promoters of conspiracy theories explain phenomena by studying them in black-and-white, monocausal ways - which gives rise to feeling as if you have discovered a disturbing yet unequivocal reality that has been hidden from us.
To give just one example, certain conspiracy theorists think that all of humanity's problems come from a single source - the Illuminati, who are the ones really pulling the strings behind the scenes of the international political and media spheres, acting in their own interest and causing harm to people. Similar theories cast the Freemasons, the Jews, or else humanoid reptilian aliens as the Machiavellian actors.
Isn't it completely irrational to fall into the trap of such caricaturally black-and-white, simplistic theories? In reality, believing conspiracy theories relies, at least in part, on reasons to believe in them. As previously mentioned, most conspiracy theories are based on significant arguments.
An image of Saturn V projected on the Washington Monument. On 16 July 1969, this rocket took off for the Apollo 11 lunar mission. Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP.
The assertions of conspiracy theorists obviously do not stand up to serious analysis. However, they enjoy a certain power of persuasion, notably because they exploit a wide range of human cognitive biases, such as wanting to believe that there is a reason behind every event, or seeing a causal link between two concurrent phenomena - hence the conspiracy theorists’ call to “wake up - it's not a coincidence!”.
Furthermore, researchers have underlined the fact that certain conspiracy theories work like real political discourse from “conspiracy entrepreneurs”, some of which are extremist politicians. By designating an enemy and legitimising any means of fighting them, these conspiracy theories serve as tools to mobilise agents who see themselves as “politically disadvantaged actors”.
Political conspiracy discourse is particularly susceptible to attracting individuals who feel socially cast out or threatened. In this discourse, they can find a structure to interpret the world that makes sense of their situation and provides a single cause of the injustices that they feel - rightly or wrongly - victims of.
A 2012 study illustrated this point - many young immigrants or children of immigrants from Morocco and Sub-Saharan Africa living in the disadvantaged areas of Brussels have a conspiracy-laden view of the world, according to which “the powerful” work in the shadows to stigmatise immigrants in Western countries, even organising attacks on their own territory to blame on them.
With this perception of the world, “[...] these youths make sense of the past (silences surrounding colonial history and stories of migration) as well as of their experiences of xenophobia and modern discrimination.”
Another way of approaching conspiracy theories is to see them as “stigmatised knowledge”. Conspiracy theories provide discourse on the world that aims to make it intelligible. However, this discourse is not recognised as conforming to reality by the "validating institutions", that is, the media, universities, and the scientific community. This means they are stigmatised, and even mocked. Rather than abandoning this discourse, believers assert that these validating institutions are, in reality, participating in the conspiracy.
Until recently, most conspiracy theories hardly managed to spread beyond certain margins of society. Without institutional validation, they did not have access to traditional media channels. However, according to Michael Barkun, things changed radically with the arrival of the internet in most people's homes.
The American political scientist gives two additional factors that have contributed to make conspiracy theories less and less stigmatised knowledge from the 90s on: the development of a general feeling of distrust towards the political, scientific and media elite, and the growing presence of conspiracy theory themes in popular culture.
Many other researchers also underline the importance of the modern lack of trust in the elite to explain the current success of conspiracy theories. Such chronic distrust causes a state of concern within the population, a part of which seeks to reassure itself by using various strategies to reduce the complexity of the world. One of these strategies is turning to conspiracy theories, which, as previously mentioned, by nature provide simple and unequivocal explanations to complex events.
As for the emergence of works in popular culture that draw on the codes of conspiracy theories (TV series, films, novels), this has contributed to the “erosion of what was previously a clear and solid line between marginal and dominant discourse” (Barkun).
This hypothesis is corroborated by a field study of French high school students, showing that the students “draw on references from contemporary works of fiction [...] to respond to the doubt created by things that seem “illogical”, “weird” or “untrue” in the news that they were confronted with after the [2015 and 2016] attacks”.
Although research is making advances on possible reasons behind the success of conspiracy theories, the same cannot be said for the profile of conspiracy theorists. In fact, surprisingly, the social characteristics of conspiracy theorists remain unclear - other than that they are often young people, as well as people who vote for extremists.
This probably comes from the fact that the various conspiracy theories are generally studied as if they formed a homogeneous set of beliefs that anyone with a conspiracy theory mentality may indiscriminately believe. However, this supposed homogeneity of conspiracy theories seems incorrect.
My colleagues and I will show in a forthcoming study that there are distinct groups of conspiracy theories that clearly do not interest the same people. So, it is hardly surprising that no-one has managed to uncover the typical sociological profile of conspiracy theorists, because a single profile does not exist, but rather several different ones, each one corresponding to a specific group of conspiracy theories.
It is important to better understand the reasons behind the success of conspiracy theories and determine which populations are more susceptible to succumb to them. Although certain conspiracy theories (like the moon landing hoax) may seem inoffensive, others can be a source of danger.
For example, 17% of French people surveyed in late 2018 by IFOP stated that they “agree strongly” (and 26% “agree somewhat”) with the statement that “the Minister of Health is in league with the pharmaceutical industry to hide the reality of the harm of vaccines from the general public”.
Such a belief is probably not free of consequences on the anti-vax movement observed in the country and the subsequent public health problems.
Link to the original article: The Conversation.