September 11, 2001, the murder of John F. Kennedy or now the Corona crisis: Some people react to incisive or threatening events by insinuating a conspiracy. In a compact handbook, the two Australian researchers John Cook and Stephan Lewandowsky shed light on the phenomenon - and provide concrete tips
"Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you." With this sentence in his song Territorial Pissings, US rock legend Kurt Cobain once made an ironic comment about the power of conspiracy myths. And indeed, "conspiracies do exist."
With this powerful opening sentence, John Cook and Stephan Lewandowsky open their now published Handbook on Conspiracy Myths (original title: The Conspiracy Theory Handbook. (The handbook can be downloaded in German and in English.) - and they remind us that in the diesel fraud scandal, for example, representatives of the Volkswagen Group apparently conspired to deliberately deceive the public. However, conspiracy theories - or better: conspiracy myths (see text box below for definitions) - also have a real impact. They persist over long periods of time even when there is no evidence whatsoever to support them: whether it is the conviction that government agencies are behind the murder of John F. Kennedy, that the manned moon landing was a big hoax or that climate researchers "invented" the heating of the earth to make money on corresponding research projects.
It is true that such myths offer an unsuitable tool to recognize reality for what it is. But the social consequences of their dissemination are real: social science studies show that conspiracy myths diminish social trust and undermine the willingness to engage in social and political activities.
These toxic effects of the mass distribution of conspiracy myths are what prompted the social psychologist Stephan Lewandowsky and the cognitive scientist John Cook to publish their compact handbook: "It should help to understand why conspiracy theories are so popular, it should explain how to recognise characteristics of conspiracy theory thinking and what effective strategies of disempowerment look like," say the two Australian-born scientists. (Similar guidance is already available on how best to communicate scientific uncertainty and, more generally, on how to effectively refute scientific disinformation.)
What actually makes conspiracy myths attractive?
The popularity of these theories is mainly explained by psychological factors. For example, people who feel vulnerable or powerless are more likely to believe conspiracy myths. In this case, the myths serve in particular to protect their own values and beliefs. For example, people who fear that climate protection will lead to a restriction of certain economic activities tend to claim that climate change was invented to restrict these activities.
The limitations of the cognitive apparatus also play a role: for many people it is hard to bear the fact that "major" disasters often have no "major" causes but rather quite banal ones - or that there is sometimes no conclusive explanation at all for certain events and things just happen.
The increase in conspiracy myths in connection with social crises is anything but coincidental, the authors argue - this applies to acute crises such as the corona pandemic as well as to the climate crisis: On the one hand, the countermeasures taken lead to a considerable impairment of normal everyday routines, are so drastic that practically everyone has to deal with them. On the other hand, the mass dissemination of conspiracy myths has never been easier than today - instead of having to overcome the classic gatekeepers in the media, modern conspiracy theorists today consider Internet access and social media accounts sufficient to potentially reach the entire world.
Seven features characterize the classic conspiracy theory
So if conspiracy myths are inspired by psychological needs in crisis situations, but at the same time cause real damage - how can they be recognized? The two authors name seven characteristics and summarize them in a handy acronym: C-O-N-S-P-I-R
A typical characteristic of V. is for example her lack of conclusiveness (C), according to Cook and Lewandowsky . For example, in relation to climate change, it is also claimed that it is impossible to measure global temperature changes accurately - and that such temperature changes do not exist. Secondly, there is a downright "nihilistic level" of overriding suspicion (O): everything that contradicts the myth is doubted or denied. A third criterion for recognition is the assumption of nefarious intent (N): Never does such a myth start from the assumption that the alleged conspirators acted in good faith or with sincere motives - instead, infamy is always assumed.
Further characteristics are that followers of conspiracy myths are never dissuaded from their belief (English: "something must be wrong" - S) and perceive themselves as persecuted victims. Public criticism of their statements strengthens their role as victims - and if they are even held responsible for their false statements, this serves as the ultimate proof that "uncomfortable admonishers should be silenced" (P). Finally, characteristics six and seven are to be immune to all objections (I) and to always re-interpret randomness (R).
Epidemiology provides important approaches for counter strategies
The twelve-page handbook also contains practical advice on how to deal with conspiracy myths - firstly with a view to communicating with a broad public accessible to facts, and secondly on dealing with the conspiracists themselves.
Thus, an important strategy for equipping people to deal with such myths (or with supposed evidence) is to provide them with some guiding questions for a kind of "conspiracy virological quick test", for example Do I know the source of information? And does the style of the statements disseminated in the source correspond to what I know from other, serious news sources?
Another counter-strategy uses borrowings from the language of epidemiology: the vaccination strategy, for example, involves preparing people specifically with small doses of possible conspiracy myths for the fact that they will probably have to deal with them in the future. It is important not only to reproduce the contents of the myths, but also to explain their mechanisms.
"drop-outs" are best reached by those who believe in conspiracy theories...
Not only are people who perceive themselves as vulnerable and powerless more susceptible to conspiracy myths - conversely, people who have confidence in political decisions based, for example, on fair rules of procedure and democratic participation opportunities are also less susceptible.
"Conspiracy myths are an inevitable part of political extremism," the handbook says. Strategies that are also used, for example, in drop-out programmes for extremists have therefore proven to be effective in dealing with this. These include communication that values the critical basic attitude of the supporters of these theories and approaches them with empathy. In particular, drop-outs who have renounced their former extremist positions meet with greater resonance and credibility.