During the pandemic, QAnon and anti-vax narratives complicated decision-making, but they are not the only conspiracy theories driving a wedge through society.
Those who value science and logical debate feel powerless when conspiracy theorists constantly contradict themselves, repeating claims that are easily debunked. Unsubstantiated rumours and fearmongering messages continue to spread.
Nevertheless, we should avoid adopting a dismissive, condescending attitude towards these people, says Toni Saarinen, a folklorist and cultural studies scholar specializing in myths. Conspiratorial thinking has its own set of rules that we should try to understand.
As Saarinen says about the phenomenon, conspiracy theories are not constructed in the same way as scientific theories, say. They do not seek to be factual or consistent but are based more on the logic of myth and a decidedly mistrustful view of the world.
Conspiracy culture fuels a constantly changing tangle of narratives where scientific knowledge gets bundled up with folklore, supernatural revelation, intuition, pop culture, ufology, pseudoscience, and historical revisionism, among others.
“To my mind, the only parallel to such a mixed bag is experimental art,” says Saarinen.
Your adversary is purposefully malicious
As contradictory claims are not an issue within this culture, fact checkers are powerless to change the opinions of those who believe in conspiracy theories. What is more important is a particular way of seeing the world: we are being duped.
Saarinen sums up the mindset: “The media is lying, the scientific community has been bribed, the elite is corrupt, the authorities are involved in some kind of cover-up and power is in the hands of someone or something which is different than what we have been led to believe.”
Everything is connected and nothing happens by chance.
”Your opponent is seen as malicious and calculative.”
A lack of evidence is not enough to undermine conspiracy thinking. If anything, the lack of evidence only goes to show just how methodical and profound the opponent’s deception is. The people in power cover their tracks with care.
Science is valuable but has lost its way
Saarinen describes how the culture of conspiracy theories thrives on powerful symbols that remain constant even when the narrative surrounding them changes.
History repeats itself and individuals come to embody established roles. Shorthand references to archetypal figures need no explanation:
“Memes spreading in online communities can work wonders,” says Saarinen, wryly.
The supporters of conspiracy culture take advantage of academic sources and historical knowledge to form their own interpretations.
“Active members of conspiracy groups don´t necessarily reject science but in fact want to draw on its authority and prestige. They imply that science is well-meaning and rational at its core, but today’s mainstream science has become corrupted.”
Reducing history to regular patterns provides an insight into what conspiracies mean to their followers. Many just want predictability and order amidst the chaos.
What lies at the heart of the conspiracy mindset?
Saarinen resists the idea that conspiracies are a symptom of an underlying problem or imbalance.
“For the last fifty years, academia has psychologized the issue and tried to find out what’s ‘wrong’ with these people.”
Saarinen compares this separation of “us” and “them” to the way subjugated people under colonial rule were seen in previous centuries.
“In colonialist ideology, ‘we know’ but ‘they believe.’ Different knowledge systems were simply not tolerated. In cultural studies today, however, this is no longer acceptable.”
This is not to suggest, however, that the knowledge of indigenous peoples in any way compares to the claims of conspiracy theorists. The point is that the line between beliefs and knowledge is blurred at best, no matter how much the scientific community would like to believe otherwise.
“I’m trying to figure out what it is at the heart of the conspiracy mindset that we should be paying attention to. How do conspiracy theorists view the world? Why do so many want to challenge authority?”
Yearning for an idealized past and reclaiming “marginalized” values
Conspiracy theories aim to create certainty in a world full of uncertainty. Their advocates critique social and economic injustice, support what they claim are marginalized values and discuss the threats posed by technological development.
Some of their goals are easy to subscribe to even if you do not have the slightest sympathy for conspiracy culture.
“The lack of transparency within multinational organizations and their hidden power are real problems. Nearly all of us imagine that in the course of history and the global economy there have been secret plots and illegal acts,” Saarinen points out.
However, there is a wealth of difference between healthy suspicion and believing in a malicious, scheming adversary.
In the United States, conspiratorial thinking often means a yearning for the mythical idyllic family life of the early twentieth century.
“Conspiracy theorists talk about protecting children and opposing paedophilia as if these goals were not important to the rest of us.”
Conspiracy narratives instead of myths
Fewer people than ever view their setbacks as a matter of divine retribution. And life’s underdogs might no longer believe in a reward in the afterlife.
The fundamental questions that get lost in the humdrum of everyday life still call out for answers. Cause and effect, the origin of everything, the direction of progress, the ultimate destination, and metaphysical problems continue to preoccupy us.
Saarinen is particularly interested in those narratives within conspiracy culture that are doing what myths used to do.
“I am, in fact, talking about the mythical thinking around conspiracies instead of actual conspiracy theories themselves.”
Unfortunately for the members of the community, the worldview they share is very negative, reliant on doom-and-gloom scenarios, and downright obsessive.
Left-leaning New Age thinking meets the Far Right
Although conspiracy myths are supposed to bring order to a chaotic world, they do not make life any easier for their adherents: conspiracy thinking stigmatizes you.
“When people feel that the general public or academia rejects their way of thinking or observing the world, there is a temptation to search for other listeners out there. There is always an audience and a market for stigmatized information.
It is all too human to turn to those who accept your thoughts. Acceptance is so important that sometimes this is all it takes to slip into a subculture. Once within an approving community, your suspicions are reinforced. Your mindset changes.
“Conspiracy thinking is not content with isolated claims of malpractice. Instead, it forms the basis for explaining any number of grievances and even interpreting reality.”
Contrarian thinking also breeds unlikely alliances. For example, representatives of the left-leaning New Age team up with the starkly conservative, at worst violent, far right.
The article was published in Yliopisto magazine 1/2022 in Finnish. It was translated by Mira Engström, Lauri Helin, Elsa Hyttinen, Sonja Hägg, Josefa Ivorra Cardona, Daniela Kaltenborn, Kim Keskiivari, Riku Kuusijärvi, Rurik Kölhi, Sirja Laitinen, Julia Lehtinen, Anniina Levo, Emmi Linnakangas, Neea Mantere, Django Monto, Sante Ngiesi, Tino Nirkkonen, Janica Nurminen, Niko Närvä, Milla Partonen, Heini Petäjistö, Pilvi Pietikäinen, Maria Pääkkönen, Tuukka Rajala, Leena Ravi, Inka Remonen-Niitepöld, Jenna Rönkä, Alexis Staples, Tuuli Suomalainen, Daniel Talv, Pilke Valta, Luukas Viitanen, Sari Vuoni, Camilla Ylikoski, Ella Öhman, and revised under the supervision of John Calton and Nely Keinänen, university lecturers in English.
Some claim Hillary Clinton is running a Satanist paedophile ring from the basement of a pizzeria. Others would like, once again, to bring up how the government is controlled by a Jewish cabal.
It is difficult to respond rationally to the people making these claims. These suspicions seem to belong to some kind of parallel reality. But what drives them?
“Studies don’t seem to support the idea that, for example, intelligence, education, or the capacity to embrace uncertainty would account for conspiracy theories. It’s not a matter of how smart you are,” says Jukka Häkkinen, a psychology researcher.
On the other hand, science confirms that conspiratorial suspicions do mount up. If you subscribe to one clandestine network, chances are you’ll believe in others.
“The conspiracy mindset stems from a human tendency common to us all: speculation. In moderation, its building blocks are our species’ strength,” according to Häkkinen.
“We are constantly making judgements about social relationships. If a colleague some morning greets us brusquely with a grunt, we immediately try to get into their head. What was that grunt about? Are they having problems?”
However, some people get sucked deep into the guesswork. The speculation will spread from a group of individuals to just about anyone. Conspiracy theories come into play when such speculation cannot be refuted by the facts or when the thinking involves omnipotent evil forces pulling strings behind the scenes.
“What are the neurocognitive processes that predispose people to move from social theorizing to conspiracy theories? This is an area that has yet to be studied.”
Another epidemic, the infodemic, has developed in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the researcher Matti Pohjonen. There are plenty of things swimming in the flood of information: studies conducted both well and poorly, better or worse guesswork, misunderstandings, disruption aimed at undermining the social order, and blatant lies.
A common thread of the COVID infodemic is conspiracy thinking, for example the claims that people’s resistance to the virus is weakened by 5G technology or that Bill Gates has been implanting tracking chips together with the vaccine.
Together with his African research partners, Pohjonen has been analysing the spread of claims in South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya and other African countries. There are always differences in the way rumours are spread.
“The particular features of the communication culture, the political circumstances and the social setting all have a bearing on the matter. In each context, we have to consider who stands to benefit from the conspiracy claims and what agenda are they pushing,” says Pohjonen.
In Nigeria, conspiracy thinking has been spread particularly by groups who aim to weaken the governing party, which they believe is corrupt. In South Africa, meanwhile, the charges levelled against Gates relate to a general bitterness towards the West.
“Besides apartheid, there is a whole host of healthcare-related concerns such as the hoarding of HIV medication and COVID vaccines by western countries or the ethical problems associated with the long history of clinical drug trials.”
The rationality behind the claims depends on the aims of the speaker.
“The western academic concept of rational communication is narrow. Around the world, however, there are various ways of speaking out against authority.”
Pohjonen wonders whether information sources previously held to be credible are nowadays starting to crumble. The scapegoat is usually social media or the division of traditional authorities into various factions, with Trump’s America as a prime example.
“In the future, who will manage to produce reasonable-sounding syntheses about such a complex world?”