The coronavirus is said to be a ‘plandemic’ instead of a pandemic, and the war in Ukraine is said to be a diversion, both organised by an evil elite trying to dominate the world. For some people, such conspiracy theories provide comfort during uncertain times. The recently published annual report of the General Intelligence and Security Service (in Dutch: AIVD) labels contemporary conspiracies as “a serious threat” to the democratic rule of law. But is this label justified? This is one of the questions stressed in the theme issue ‘Conspiracy’ in Boom Criminology’s Journal of Culture & Crime. Recently, a study session ‘Conspiracy thinking’ was organised to reflect and discuss this issue. Fiore Geelhoed, Associate Professor of Criminology at Erasmus School of Law, studies so-called conspiracy thinkers and collaborated on the theme issue and the study session. Together with her, we reflect on the session and the insights.
Besides Geelhoed, who started the study session with an introduction on ‘conspiracy thinking’, speakers Dina Siegel, Marc Cools and Jaron Harambam were present to share their knowledge on and research into conspiracy thinking. Their presentations were followed by a panel discussion in which scientists, professionals, a former police officer, a scientific journalist and a student interacted to discuss conspiracies and the societal reactions and implications of conspiracy thinking. In front of the panel was a diverse and actively participating audience: from researchers to police officers and from students to policymakers.
There is no such thing as ‘the conspiracy thinker’
First, the study session clarified that the term ‘conspiracy thinker’ is not a concept that exists in and of itself. Instead, it is a label applied to a diffuse group of alternative thinkers. According to Geelhoed, simply assigning the term conspiracy thinker is problematic because the term insinuates a certain dualism of truth and untruth and is accompanied by a normative judgement. So-called conspiracy thinkers, therefore, do not label themselves as such. According to Geelhoed, they rather see themselves as “socially critical” or “autonomous”.
In addition, there is no such thing as ‘the conspiracy thinker’: it is a mixed group in which different people hold different ‘truths’. The wide range of people who believe in conspiracies became evident in the presentation by Jaron Harambam, Associate Professor of Media, Truth Politics and Digitalisation at the University of Amsterdam. Harambam’s research includes the phenomenon of ‘conspirituality’ in which conspiracy theories and spiritual beliefs converge or merge. Whereas right-wing sympathisers, conspiracy theorists and spiritualists usually differ radically, shared affinities can unite them in their ideology, especially if this ideology has anti-institutional traits. Nevertheless, Harambam emphasised that the confluence of these different groups is not perfect and that there are still substantial differences between them.
“Conspiracy thinking is of all times”
While the term conspiracy thinking is relatively new, the phenomenon has a long history. “Conspiracy thinking is of all times”, Geelhoed explains. During the study session, this statement was clarified by the presentation of Dina Siegel, Professor of Criminology at Utrecht University, and Marc Cools, Professor of Criminology at Ghent University. Siegel and Cools took the audience back to the late nineteenth century, where the so-called ‘Protocols of the Wise Men of Zion’ were first revealed. These protocols entail a notorious scripture claiming to uncover a secret Jewish conspiracy and are to this day known as one of the most widespread conspiracy theories. Conspiracies, therefore, existed before they were labelled as such.
A mirror of society
Moreover, the session revealed that conspiracy theories are inextricably linked to their social context. The ideas are, in a way, a mirror of attitudes, power relations and tensions in society. As mentioned earlier, the yearning for truth and grip awakens in times of anxiety or discontent. Some conspiracy theories have also turned out to be true in retrospect. “So, it is not always unjustified to believe in a conspiracy either”, Geelhoed explains. Moreover, not everyone who believes in a conspiracy – and the modest group that legitimises violence – decides to act accordingly. According to Geelhoed, it is unjustified and even dangerous to automatically link conspiracy thinking to violence.
Bring people closer together
The session concluded with a panel discussion, in which an open conversation ensued about the implications of conspiracy thinking and how to respond to it as a society. With the points above in mind, this debate emphasised the importance of the social frameworks in which these people live and the reactions they receive from society instead of pushing them into a corner. Stigmatisation and problematisation can be counterproductive. Instead, according to Geelhoed, it is important to engage with those who adhere to conspiracies and take similarities as a starting point is. “We don’t all have to agree with each other. At the core, most of us want to be part of a well-functioning democracy”, she concludes.