What is a conspiracy theory?

What is a conspiracy theory?

Hello, and welcome to the Folklore & Fiction newsletter. This edition is a departure from my promised two-part discussion of language and verbal lore, which will be condensed and presented in a single edition next month. Instead, I'm answering the call of folklore scholar Phillips Stevens Jr., who argues that folklorists are uniquely qualified to address harmful collective narratives and because of this, they have "a professional and moral responsibility to share their knowledge" (Stevens Jr. 1996, 391). I'm also following the lead of Timothy Tangherlini and his fellow scholars, who write that "people are making real-world, and at times violent or dangerous, decisions based on informal stories that circulate on and across their social networks, and that conspiracy theories are a significant part of that storytelling" (Tangherlini et al. 2020, 34). With these arguments in mind, I'll endeavour to provide you with an accessible introduction to narrative scholarship on the topic of conspiracy theories and summarize my discussion with a list of questions you can use to evaluate the trustworthiness of narratives you encounter online and elsewhere.

Defining the Term "Conspiracy Theory"

Conspiracy theories are narratives with a number of important elements, and in my research of the topic, I discovered that the definitions applied to them by scholars tend to focus on just a few of these at a time. However, I think it's important to provide you with a broad definition here, so I'll begin by contextualizing the partial definitions I found and end with a composite.

Let's start in a place you might not expect; contemporary legends. Diane Goldstein writes that no matter how they are circulated, contemporary legends are "told as true, factual, or plausible and therefore assume a level of authority; they provoke dialogue about the narrative events, their interpretation, and their plausibility; they both articulate and influence beliefs and attitudes toward the subject matter; and they have the capability of affecting the actions and behavior of the listening audience" (Goldstein 2004, 28). Contemporary legends and conspiracy theories are closely related from a narrative perspective, and I would argue that Goldstein's description suits them both. In fact, Gail de Vos discusses several contemporary conspiracy theories in her book on urban legends, where she also condenses David Aaronovich's discussion of the topic, writing that:

Conspiracy theory, defined by Aaronovitch, is “the attribution of deliberate agency to something that is more likely to be accidental or unintended” (Aaronovitch 2010, 6). He claims that this belief in conspiracy theories is harmful, distorting people’s view of history, the present and the possible future (Aaronovitch 2010, 16). The phenomenon of conspiracism, however, cannot be explained entirely by unequal power relations, the abundance or scarcity of information, or disenfranchisement (Aaronovitch 2010, 349). The ongoing attractiveness of conspiracy theory appears to be the human compulsion to create story, particularly story that “either represents the way we think things should happen, or is the best explanation we can get of why they didn’t” (Aaronovitch 2010, 354). Paradoxically, conspiracy theories are reassuring, suggesting “that there is an explanation, that human agencies are powerful, and that there is order rather than chaos” (Aaronovitch 2010, 355)" (de Vos 2012, 105).

This "attribution of agency" is important and needs a bit more nuance. Peter Knight writes that "a conspiracy theory blames the current, undesirable state of affairs on a concerted conspiracy by a secret group. It is in effect an interpretation of history that claims that things aren’t always what they seem, and that things haven’t just tumbled out by coincidence in the normal, more-or-less random fashion, but that they have only got like this because someone with evil intentions planned it this way" (Knight 2003, 16). Véronique Campion-Vincent identifies the people behind these "evil intentions" as "evil elites" like corrupt governments, greedy corporations, self-interested scientific bodies, and others, arguing that while "conspirators with specific agendas" do exist and do use "conspiratorial intelligence and logistics to conceal their actions," this does not explain the existence and adoption of "all-encompassing conspiracy theories" (Campion-Vincent 2005, 105). Rather, conspiracy thinking expresses itself as a hypercritical suspicion that an evil elite is suppressing the truth of events from the public, and in response it creates narratives that replace the unknown or unknowable with threads of information from various sources tied together in a way that looks coherent, but isn't (Campion-Vincent 2005, 103; Kalmre 2017, 8; East Carolina University 2020). This is why conspiracy theories are dangerous; they prey upon the public's sometimes legitimate mistrust of institutional narratives by offering alternatives that turn the accidental, the unintended, the unknown, and the unknowable into straightforward cause-and-effect stories that "reinforce the in-group's cohesion through the designation of enemies" (Campion-Vincent 2005, 107).

Now let's break this scholarship down into a composite definition, however lengthy it might be. Conspiracy theories are straightforward cause-and-effect narratives created with threads of information from various sources tied together in a way that looks coherent, but isn't. However, they are told as truthful or factual and carry the authority of truth or fact. Because of this, they express and influence beliefs about the events they describe, and they provoke conversation about how these events might be interpreted. They also affect the behaviour of those who believe them in negative ways by assigning deliberate agency to things that are accidental, unintended, unknown, or unknowable, by expressing a hypercritical suspicion that an evil elite is suppressing the truth about events from the public, and by reinforcing in-group cohesion through the designation of enemies.

Characterizing Conspiracy Theories

Tangherlini and his colleagues use graphical modeling to discuss the narrative differences between actual conspiracies and conspiracy theories. In brief, they argue that actual conspiracy narratives are slow to develop because it takes time to investigate and uncover evidence about them. As this evidence emerges, the resulting network of people and relationships in the conspiracy narrative grows more dense. Conversely, conspiracy theory narratives tend to form rapidly in bursts of story fragments. These story fragments also stabilize rapidly into small but constant sets of people and relationships. This happens because the only evidence provided in conspiracy theory narratives comes from the storytellers themselves, who negotiate the boundaries of these narratives by telling and retelling them (Tangherlini et al. 2020, 3-4, 33).

Aaronovich tales a similar view, writing that real conspiracies are sometimes plagued by failures, pursued by investigators seeking evidence, and elevated in significance by way of exaggeration. In short, they're imperfect, and the narratives that emerge about them reflect this. However, conspiracy theories describe a better effort to keep the truth from the public. This is reflected in conspiracy theory narratives, which may also possess a combination of the following characteristics:

  1. Historical Precedent: A conspiracy theory about one event may contain references to conspiracy theories about other events and cite similarities between them.
  2. Skeptics and Sheeple: Conspiracy theorists may credit believers with a special aptitude for seeing through the falsehoods perpetrated by the evil elites and accuse non-believers of being robots or sheeple.
  3. Just Asking Questions: A conspiracy theory may not be called a theory at all but rather an effort to ask questions or seek the truth. However, the questions asked may only make sense if the questioner believes the conspiracy is real.
  4. Expert Witnesses: Conspiracy theorists may call upon experts or celebrities to validate their claims, but the reliability of these individuals is often distorted or exaggerated.
  5. Academic Credibility: Conspiracy theorists may create the semblance of scholarship with a wall-of-text or death-by-footnote approach that combines a mass of information with quotes from academic research taken out of context to prove a point. They may also utilize news reports that illustrate inconsistencies in the narratives ascribed to evil elites. Finally, they may use jargon to make their claims sound more plausible.
  6. Convenientinconvenient Truths: Conspiracy theorists may incorporate the arguments of detractors into the conspiracy theory itself, arguing that these are efforts on the part of the evil elite to discredit them.
  7. Under Surveillance: Conspiracy theorists may claim that they are under surveillance, are being pursued, and are in danger (Aaronovitch 2010, 10–14).

Finally, in her efforts to describe the internal logic of conspiracy theories, Campion-Vincent lists five cognitive attributes of these narratives:

  1. A specific agent(s) is named, with a clear motivation.
  2. The agent is evil, the outcome is destructive, which is easy to understand — evil results in evil — and not a complicated and probably more accurate explanation of complex events with unintended consequences of multiple intersecting agents and actions.
  3. The evil agent has the capacity for some big event — controls important resources, acts united or with powerful allies, does it in secret, and thus nobody stops it.
  4. Conspiracies sometimes do happen, and everyone agrees that they have at times.
  5. Some learned, respected, prominent people, not just ignorant marginal people, promote the conspiracy theory (Campion-Vincent 2005, 104-105).

So while narratives about actual conspiracies evolve slowly and become more dense as evidence about them emerges, narratives about conspiracy theories are quickly polished by the storytellers who disseminate them and have several identifiable attributes. I would also expand upon Campion-Vincent's discussion above by adding that complicated events require complicated explanations that do not often address every outstanding concern. Narratives about real conspiracies illustrate that complexity, while conspiracy theory narratives provide simple, complete explanations for complicated events.

Evaluating Narratives

Now that we've looked at some scholarship about conspiracy theories, developed a composite definition of the term, and reviewed some characteristics of the narrative type, let's use these tools to evaluate conspiracy theory narratives. Here are fifteen questions you can ask to do just that:

  1. Is the narrative told as a truthful or factual account?
  2. Is it a straightforward, cause-and effect narrative created with threads of information from various sources tied together in a way that leaves no loose ends?
  3. Does the narrative assign deliberate agency to things that might otherwise be accidental, unintended, unknown, or unknowable?
  4. Does the narrative express a hypercritical suspicion that an evil elite is suppressing the truth about events from the public?
  5. Does the narrative relate the event under discussion to other, similar events in order to make its case?
  6. Does the narrative credit believers with a special aptitude for seeing through falsehood while at the same time painting non-believers as robots or sheeple?
  7. Is the narrative claiming to be a simple effort to ask questions or seek the truth, and are the questions under investigation leading you to the inevitable conclusion that a conspiracy has been perpetrated upon the public?
  8. Are experts or celebrities validating the narrative's claims, and if so, are these individuals qualified to comment upon the issues they are addressing?
  9. Are the narrative's claims supported with a wall-of-text or death-by-footnote approach to information? Are all of the academic quotes properly contextualized? Does the narrative make selective use of news reports to substantiate its claims or detract from the claims of its opponents? Is the narrative filled with jargon?
  10. Does the narrative cite counterarguments as efforts on the part of an enemy to prevent the truth from being revealed?
  11. Have people associated with the narrative claimed that they are under surveillance, are being pursued, and are in danger?
  12. Has a specific evil agent with a clear motivation been named in the narrative?
  13. Has a destructive motivation been ascribed to this evil agent?
  14. According to the narrative, does the evil agent with the destructive motivation control important resources and/or act in secret with powerful allies?
  15. Has the narrative tried to explain complicated events too simply?

Remember that the narratives you evaluate don't have to meet all of these criteria to be conspiracy theories. But the more times you answer "yes" to the questions on this list, the more likely it is that you have a conspiracy theory on your hands and not an actual conspiracy.

Conclusion

My goal here has been to offer a helpful introduction to narrative scholarship of conspiracy theories and to provide some useful tools for evaluating the narratives you encounter online and elsewhere. Of course, there's quite a bit more scholarship on the topic I haven't had time to evaluate or include, so please don't take this newsletter edition as a definitive review of available material.

That's all for now. Thanks so much for your time! I'll be back on track next month with a discussion of language and verbal lore.

Bibliography

  • Aaronovitch, David. 2011. Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History. New York: Riverhead Books.
  • Campion-Vincent, Veronique. 2005. ‘From Evil Others to Evil Elites: A Dominant Pattern in Conspiracy Theories Today’. In Rumor Mills: The Social Impact of Rumor and Legend, edited by Gary Alan Fine, Veronique Campion-Vincent, and Chip Heath. Somerset: Taylor & Francis Group.
  • East Carolina University. 2020. ‘Coronavirus Conspiracy Theories Are Nothing New’. Washington Daily News, 10 March 2020. https://www.thewashingtondailynews.com/2020/03/10/coronavirus-conspiracy-theories-are-nothing-new.
  • Goldstein, Diane E. 2004. Once Upon A Virus. Logan: Utah State University Press.
  • Kalmre, Eda. 2017. ‘Introduction: The Social and Political Dynamic of Conspiracy Theories, Rumours, Fake News, and Belief Narratives’. Folklore 69: 7–14.
  • Knight, Peter. 2003. ‘Defining the Terms “Conspiracy” and “Conspiracy Theory”’. In Conspiracy Theories in American History: An Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO.
  • Stevens Jr., Phillips. 1996. ‘Satanism: Where Are the Folklorists?’ In Contemporary Legend: A Reader, edited by Gillian Bennett and Paul Smith. Garland Reference Library of the Humanities. New York: Garland.
  • Tangherlini, Timothy R., Shadi Shahsavari, Behnam Shahbazi, Ehsan Ebrahimzadeh, and Vwani Roychowdhury. 2020. ‘An Automated Pipeline for the Discovery of Conspiracy and Conspiracy Theory Narrative Frameworks: Bridgegate, Pizzagate and Storytelling on the Web’. PLOS ONE 15 (6): 1–39.
  • Vos, Gail de. 2012. What Happens Next? Contemporary Urban Legends and Popular Culture. Santa Barbara, Oxford: Libraries Unlimited.

My name is Ceallaigh S. MacCath-Moran. I'm a PhD candidate in the Folklore Department at Memorial University of Newfoundland, and I'm also a speculative fiction writer under the pseudonym C.S. MacCath. The Folklore & Fiction newsletter synthesizes these passions with a focus on folkloric scholarship aimed at writers. You'll find the newsletter archive (and the rest of my work) online at csmaccath.com.