Conspiracy Theories – The state of the nation


During the course of

this presentation.

The first lecture looked at the history of conspiracy theories and how they’re defined.

Last week in the second lecture would looked at reasons explaining their rise.

This week we’re looking at how you might go about discussing their impact.

In the seminars we’ll be looking at example essays.

Conspiracy Theories

‘We define the term conspiracy as a secret arrangement between two or more powerful actors to usurp political or economic power, violate established rights or agreements, hoard vital secrets, or unlawfully alter government or other institutions’ (Keeley 1999; Pigden, 1995; Uscinski & Parent, 2014).

Some points from the seminars

Someone in one of the seminars pointed out that conspiracy theories often seem to arise out of crisis e.g. periods of uncertainty and danger.

E.g. Kennedy assassination, series of crises during the Cold War, 911 etc.

Peaceful calm societies tend not to produce as many conspiracy theories.

Also, linked to the USA having very very poor education and mental healthcare.

Some points from the seminars

Someone in another seminar asked how belief in conspiracy theories differed from regular delusions (good question).

Both involve people believing things that are 100% untrue yet we treat people with delusions with therapy and sometimes medication.

A conspiracy theorist lives in the cracks between genuine scepticism and delusions (and can very easily slip from one to the other).

It could also be argued that conspiracy theorists up until recently have been either harmless, relatively small in number, or members of the socio-economic underclass

Now they’re everywhere.

There’s a good argument to reclassify some conspiracy theories as a mental illness.


Conspiracy theories can:

Lead people to cause violence to others (Qanon, terrorism)

Lead people to harm themselves or their loved ones (rejecting conventional medicine e.g. vaccines)

Lead people to loose faith in important processes (voting and elections, legitimacy to govern)

Lead to increases in polarization and hatred (anti-Semitism etc)

All of these can be measured empirically

Some recent studies

The social consequences of conspiracism: Exposure to conspiracy theories decreases intentions to engage in politics and to reduce one's carbon footprint (2014)

The Effects of Anti-Vaccine Conspiracy Theories on Vaccination Intentions (2014)

Exposure to intergroup conspiracy theories promotes prejudice which spreads across groups (2020)

Belief in conspiracy theories and intentions to engage in everyday crime (2019)

The Elite Is Up to Something: Exploring the Relation Between Populism and Belief in Conspiracy Theories (2017)

The Hidden Impact of Conspiracy Theories: Perceived and Actual Influence of Theories Surrounding the Death of Princess Diana (2010)

COVID-19–Related Infodemic and Its Impact on Public Health: A Global Social Media Analysis (2020)

A further trend

What’s interesting is the trend towards all of these conspiracy theories intersecting and crossing over.

For instance, people might have believed Elvis was still alive, others might have believed in JFK conspiracies.

However, its very unlikely that they’d believe that Elvis actually assassinated JFK.

Now people are capable of believing in many conspiracy theories at once and they increasingly cross over.

Also, willingness to believe contradictory conspiracy theories e.g. Osama bin Laden is still alive, but he was also killed before the raid.

Conspiracy theorist to Conspiracy mindset

There is the argument that people have gone from believing in specific conspiracy theories to viewing the world from a conspiracy mindset (conspiracist ideation, conspiracy ideology, and conspiracy worldview).

As a result there first reaction to any event is to look for the conspiracy theory behind it rather than the stated reason (or most rational reason).

The conspiracy mindset is a continuum but more and more people seem to have started appearing it and moving further and further along.

Further trends

Last week we explored the idea that many had a vested interest in encouraging citizens to believe in conspiracy theories.

The idea is that once your trust is undermined in one area you start questioning everything.

You’re therefore more susceptible to narratives that challenge the official version of events.

The 2020 US election

According to YouGov/Economist poll:

Among registered voters, 82% of Republicans said they didn’t believe that Biden had won fairly

79% of voters believe some sort of electoral fraud had occurred impacting who had won.

Before the election only 35% of GOP voters thought the election might be rigged in someway.

Bad faith actors

This is exactly what several groups had been fearing

They argued that trust was being deliberately undermined by a mixture of domestic and foreign actors

This included attempts to encourage people not to vote (photos on social media of long voting lines, warnings about Covid etc)

Exploiting the fact that the result was not known on election night


Priming is the theory that people can be manipulated in the run up to an event to view it a certain way.

To a degree that has always happened. We view most political events through the lens of whatever political party or ideology we support.

As a result two separate people can view the same event in two completely different ways.

As a result we then make an effort to find information that supports our perspective (confirmation bias)

The pandemic

We spoke last week about how anxiety, stress, and depression (combined with lack of sleep and poor diet) left people more open to manipulation and accepting conspiracy theories.

Anxious, stressed people are more likely to take unfavourable news badly. Also potentially to believe that it must be due to a agency as opposed to bad luck

Good targets for those intent on priming the audience

Pre-election priming

Trump claimed fraud at the last election (even though he won).

He continued to talk about fraud for the next four years (despite being in a position to uncover or prevent it).

A lot of members of the GOP have a vested interest in keeping Trump happy so have either refused to contradict him or actively encouraged and spread these beliefs.

Others (Alex Jones etc) believe that fraud is what their audience want to hear so have been talking about it for the last four years.

Foreign governments have vested interest in undermining American democracy by using troll farms and disinformation.

Experts and dissenting voices are not invited onto certain media sites advocating fraud leading to a lack of balance.

Priming Echo chambers are created in certain media and on social media.

Priming in action

In the run up to the election Trump pushed two narratives at the same time.

1 – He would win by a landslide.

2 – There would be massive electoral fraud.

Because the audience had absolute faith in Trump’s victory but also had been primed to believe that electoral fraud was a real thing when the result came in they were willing to fully embrace the fraud ‘conspiracy theory’.

Had Trump won by a landslide they would have taken this as absolute evidence that there was no fraud.

Of course, some had already bought into the conspiracy theory years ago and took the result as confirmation that they were right.

Challenging the truth

‘Ah Matt, but you have a well known bias against Trump and therefore of course you’re going to believe the election was fair’.

This is true (up to a point).

The Brennan Centre produced a very good summary of every reputable study showing that electoral fraud was very rare (including reports by the media, academics, and branches of government itself).

(There are also several studies by Republican groups and politicians here)

There is though a lot of reports/evidence of voter suppression on the basis of ethnicity that many refuse to believe

Conspiracy theories spread by Trump

That asbestos was perfectly safe

Ted Cruz’s father was involved in the assassination of JFK

Marco Rubio wasn’t eligible to be President

The Birther Conspiracy

The Clinton ‘bodycount’ conspiracy (also they killed Epstein)

Wind farms cause cancer

Former Republican politician Joe Scarborough murdered his intern

Retweeting anti-Muslim conspiracy theory videos

That Justice Antonin Scalia was murdered

Thousands of Muslims cheered 911 in New Jersey

Questing climate change

Often these are presented as merely asking questions

Vaccines cause autism

Reasons behind conspiracy theories

The report divides it down into three areas:

Psychological factors

Sociological factors

Political factors

Although doesn’t mention some of the more mechanical factors I mentioned last week which are still very important

You can pretty much base a huge chunk of your essay on it


The impacts of conspiracy theories are complex, global, and often difficult to measure.

However, there is a growing literature attempting to do this.

There is a general consensus that the effects of conspiracy theories are growing and becoming more dangerous.

For your essays you need to be able to both critically account for the rise in conspiracy theories as well as discuss their impact.