We have to grasp how conspiracy theories work

Like viruses, conspiracy theories are socially contagious and hard to stop once set in motion. We must understand what they do to us.

Erol Saglam
19 May 2020, 12.08pm
Matter of fact.
Flickr/H. Michael Karshis. Some rights reserved.

Conspiracy theories have been running rampant for centuries. And yet, their prevalence, visibility, and potential effects on our well-being have increased with the emergence of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, affecting virtually all countries across the globe and bringing life in cities to a complete halt on an unprecedented scale.

Speculations around the origins have circulated not on the fringes of the social media but found support even at the top of administrations. Many of us have heard these questions more than once: Has the ongoing pandemic been caused by “the planned 5G technology” or was it simply a “bioweapon” to rule the world through medico-bureaucratic measures? Was the pandemic being used as “a trojan horse by the powerful elite to dismantle democratic processes and oversight” at the expense of the masses? Or, “was there ever a ‘crisis’ to begin with?” Has “the invention of an epidemic”, as Giorgio Agamben speculated in February, been successfully used by “the media and authorities […] to spread a state of panic” and to instigate “an authentic militarization” of our everyday lives? If it were real, how are we to respond? Were widely-sanctioned social distancing measures merely a medico-scientific imperative or deep down they were actually a “pretext… [to normalize] the limitations of freedom” of movement or assembly, as we all witness today? Has all this been politically or economically motivated?

Amid the deafening clamour, researchers have urged us to develop epistemological strategies to better differentiate what is true from fake or adhere solely, and sometimes selectively, to the information provided by the authorities, bar Trump. And yet, given the growing mistrust toward establishments across the world—somehow correlated with the rise of populist figures who promise to dissect corrupt elites and institutions—how likely is it to be expected that various social groups will “believe” in the data released by these “corrupt” institutions? What are we to do – moreover – with competing narratives which seemingly explain the same phenomenon from two different angles that appear mutually exclusive and incompatible?

Many commentators have offered their explanations regarding their prevalence, and how to cope with them. Yet, most of these accounts seem rather eager to banish them to the domain of psychological pathologies and attempt to remedy their socio-political effects through a “corrective” intervention, i.e., exposure to the truth.

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For this reason, fact-checking platforms have emerged virtually simultaneously across the world as a response, albeit to no avail. Their efficiency has been demonstrably limited as those circulating conspiracy theories seem to already harbour distrust toward such conventional press initiatives. When many far-right organizations in Germany denounce the mainstream media outlets as Lügenpresse [Lying Press] (“Crimes and rapes by immigrants were hushed up by the liberal-leftist journalists”), for instance, why would they now be expected to believe the rebuttals from fact-checking initiatives designed by the very same organizations? Given the limited efficacy of initiatives that continue to uphold a singular truth, it is imperative to understand the everyday dynamics of conspiracy theories and their circulation across social groups, if we want to reverse their sometimes disastrous impact. How, despite all these attempts to re-assert the supremacy of scientific-moral truth, do conspiracy theories continue to permeate our socio-political eco-systems?


Conspiracy theories are accounts that claim to reveal the secret machinations beyond (readily) visible forms, aimed at realizing malign objectives. Because of their pursuit of “what is done in secret”, they rarely depend on evidence and, in fact, are strengthened by its absence. Anti-Semites, for instance, have long been convinced by the existence of a Jewish conspiracy (aka. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion) because they could not find it. Researching men who circulate conspiracy theories, any rebuttal one might offer further entrenches their stance.

That primary characteristic of conspiracy theories also reveals a flaw in the ways we have used to counter them. We—including not only researchers but also any member of the public who distances themselves from conspiracy theories—almost unanimously assume that the “revelation” of the truth will make conspiracy theories wither away. As we have seen again and again, in the persistent and thriving conspiracies in the world of the Internet, this assumption has unfortunately been confuted.

Conspiracy theories are circulated among individuals to offer shortcut answers to rather lengthy and complicated social phenomena. In the case of economic downturns and currency fluctuations in Turkey since 2015, for instance, it has been a rather useful and somehow effective—strategy of the government to rely on conspiracy theories to depict these bitter experiences as “sinister manipulations” of “foreign powers” trying to undermine “Turkish might.” Through delegating the problem to the actions of a number of external actors, the structural reasons generating such economic problems were easily overridden by a rather lucid explanation. Given a widespread backlash against refugees in Hungary in 2016, it was similarly easier to blame philanthropist-billionaire G. Soros rather than attending to the socio-political background (and bearing the ethical responsibility) of people fleeing war, deprivation, and discrimination.

Moreover, conspiracy theories operate through manichean divisions and position the self as a “benign us” in the face of a “sinister them”. The Hungarian Premier’s formulation of refugees as “a Muslim invasion source” invites the listeners to join the fight alongside the “Europeans”. Whether it is the case of narratives around the “imminent invasion of Greek islands by Erdogan’s Turkey” or Erdogan’s “revelations of secret machinations by foreign powers to undermine the ascendance of Turkey”, these accounts generate incessant binaries between the narrator’s social group and the “malicious others.”


My research underlines the fact that the circulation of conspiracy theories is implicated in the generation of a sense of power through their performative aspects. Conspiracies allow those circulating them to assume the stance of a ‘knowing subject’– generally a man who knows. Through pinpointing the “exact laboratory in Wuhan where the latest coronavirus was ‘artificially harvested’” or through “revealing the Soros-financed subversion”, conspiracy theories open up spaces for everyday actors to re-claim social status through a mimicry of knowing, like states do.

Closely connected to their impermeability to proof, a key pillar of the appeal of conspiracy theories is precisely this social function, through which they approximate positions of power, knowledge, and social status. As the truth-quality of the narrative remains secondary to the very performance of “passing on”, any epistemological intervention to prove their factual falsity (through providing evidential refutation or demonstrating their logical inconsistency) falls short of being effective.

Closely connected to their impermeability to proof, a key pillar of the appeal of conspiracy theories is precisely this social function, through which they approximate positions of power, knowledge, and social status.

Lastly, conspiracy theories do not complete their lifespans solely as narratives circulated among individuals and across social groups. They often make what they prophesy come to life. Similar to the physical emergence of a trail where we walk everyday, the social divisions conspiracy theories imagine are reiterated over and over to create the feeling that anticipated enmities, social divisions, and malicious intents are actually real.

This feature makes their circulation useful in political mobilization as well as in the formation of vigilante and paramilitary formations against perceived threats. Paramilitary groups on the US-Mexico border, for instance, have been organized because of an apparently “imminent threat” looming from the south of the border. The permeating paranoid outlook in Turkey turned many citizens into vigilante agents of the state who would detect Israeli surveillance technology even in birds. The circulation of conspiracy theories generate concrete socio-political reverberations through which everyday actors act on these “invisible threats created by the machinations of malicious others.” Once set in motion, their circulation both augments the limits of the social group and calls for direct action to counter the imagined threat.

Attending to these socio-political implications of the circulation of conspiracy theories reveals why conventional strategies against them do not yield the desired impact, since these narratives are not operating on an epistemological matrix (true vs. false).

If we are to effectively tackle conspiracies, experience with nationalist conspiracies in Turkey suggests that we urgently need to address their affective and social appeal and how they move particular individuals and social groups with their promise of potency, knowledge and social status. Rather than dismissing conspiracies as epistemological shortcomings in need of “correction”, we must view them as social practices through which men and women from all walks of life weave together their political subjectivities and reconfigure their relations to the social groups they belong to. Only through such a radical overhaul of the way we think of them, can we start to contain their adverse effects on politics and society across the globe.

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