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CONSPIRACY THINKING / Vol. 89, No. 3 (Fall 2022)

Oz Frankel, Guest Editor
Arien Mack, Journal Editor

The following articles address diverse aspects of the conspiracist phenomena offered from different disciplinary and political vantage points. Accordingly, they betray several disagreements about the scope, danger, and politics of conspiratorial thought. Also noticeable are divergent approaches regarding how to best categorize—or explain—the appeal of conspiracy theories, whether as a manifestation of a particular ideology, cultural environments, social position, political marginality, individual mentality, or other—presumably measurable—“conspiracist ideation.” And several articles are dedicated to critically exploring the “conspiracy theory” critique itself…. Read together, they raise questions about addressing such a diverse and complex phenomena, touching upon so many aspects of our public concerns and private fears—under a single categorical rubric, “conspiracy theory”—and suggest the need for a more nuanced, and less judgmental, analytical framework and nomenclature.

Ungoverning is an unfamiliar name for an unfamiliar phenomenon: the attack on the capacity and legitimacy of the part of government called “the administrative state.” Ungoverning is a comparatively unstudied part of the constellation of actions that make up illiberal, antidemocratic politics. Conspiracy charges operate as the rationale for hijacking, circumventing, and degrading the departments and personnel that make government work. Deconstruction of the administrative state is a sort of willful “backward evolution,” crippling the work of governing and removing constraints on presidential power. The malignant effect of conspiracy charges like “rigged” and “deep state” are particularly potent in fueling ungoverning.

In the summer of 2020, as support for President Donald Trump lagged among a key demographic, suburban White women, QAnon targeted female voters on social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook. This article addresses how and why QAnon was able to successfully appeal to and boost Trump’s flailing support among this demographic. QAnon understood that one of the best ways to appeal to women was by exploiting their “softer” side. Far-right narratives to “save the White race” connected to conspiracy theories and neo-Nazi claims about defending White children resonated with their target demographic. Women’s identity and sense of belonging play an essential role in QAnon’s success.

The group known as QAnon continues to concern journalists, scholars, and lawmakers. QAnon has been difficult to understand fully because it combines elements of cults, role-playing games, and conspiracy theories. Further, its size, scope, and growth have been the subject of conflicting estimates, and there remains significant confusion about its causes and consequences. Taking stock of what mainstream coverage got wrong about QAnon can lead to a new understanding of not just QAnon, but also mainstream institutions that castigate QAnon while also perpetuating it.

What impact has the internet had on conspiracy theories? The default assumption is that the internet has created an unprecedented spread of conspiracy theories. It seems commonsense that the internet in general and social media in particular have created an explosion of conspiracy theories, which threaten to undermine trust in impartial media, objective science, and democracy itself. In contrast, some commentators have suggested that belief in conspiracy theories is no more prevalent than in previous decades. This article examines 10 common claims made about the relationship between conspiracy theories and the internet, showing that in most cases these claims are overblown.

This essay elucidates the relationship between populism and conspiracy theories. It calls into question an automatic association of populism with demagoguery in politics. A better way to understand the relationship between populism and conspiracy theories is provided by the Weberian notion of an elective affinity. This essays argues that conspiracy theories have two functions for populists: one when they are in opposition and need to explain why, despite supposedly being the only authentic representatives of the “silent majority,” they fail to win at the polls; the other when they are in power and need to explain why their promise to govern for the people is not being fulfilled. This is not to say that all populists must necessarily propound conspiracy theories but that there are particular, comprehensible reasons they may do so.

Conspiracy theories are widely considered a threat to liberal democracy and a characteristic of populism, making them inherently illiberal. Yet, these recent assumptions congealed only after 1945 to become key principles of Cold War liberalism. Earlier, the idea of conspiracy was very much part of the liberal imagination. For much of the nineteenth century, liberals traded in conspiracy theories. While Cold War liberals such as Popper and Shils later dismissed the “conspiracy theory of society,” they nonetheless subscribed to such a theory in their analyses of totalitarian societies. The result was a schizophrenic attitude that used the idea of conspiracy to discredit liberalism’s critics while making a specific form of conspiracy theory central to Cold War liberalism and its successor ideologies.

That religion is a socially constructed category is well established; less widely accepted is that conspiracy theories are a similarly social, relational, and nebulous phenomenon. Drawing from recent media reports and academic research, this paper argues that conspiracy theory—like religion—is a term by which knowledge claims are managed and mystified in the broader capitalist-colonial-Protestant-patriarchal system of the modern West. The distinction between “belief” and “knowledge,” inherited from colonial anthropology, demarks “irrational” and “illegitimate” knowledge, and serves to lionize epistemologies of the established elites while demonizing subaltern critiques. Analyzing the relationship between “religion” and “conspiracy theory” provides a revealing case study of how the boundaries of different forms of knowledge are regulated as the dominant truth regime begins to fracture in the post-truth era.

Although there is a clear tendency to associate conspiracy theories with conservatism, nationalism, and other right-wing political ideologies, most current empirical evidence suggests that conspiracy beliefs are prevalent on both extremes of the political spectrum and relatively rare in its center. This article attempts to identify the aspects of conspiracy theories that make them appealing to people who hold extreme political views. We propose that a Manichean worldview, anti-modern sentiments, and a sense of helplessness in the domain of politics are key psychological underpinnings of conspiracy beliefs among the left and the right.

This article argues that conspiracy is a component of democratic politics, not a disease; that it can be so intense and pervasive as to occupy the entire political discourse; and that its pervasiveness is proportional to political parties’ weak influence on the political opinions and views of citizens. It proposes a distinction between systemic and pragmatic conspiracies, defining the latter as the field of political opinion inhabited by political parties (which may want to make use of it for their electoral plans) and the former as a widespread mentality whose impact looms large on the public discourse well beyond the pragmatic usage of it by a party and that can be difficult to contain if successful.

Do your own research! Type “NESARA GESARA” and see what you learn. Or try “OPPT UCC” instead. You will access ideals of sovereignty, emancipation, and wealth, and tutorials about how to restore the foundations of true value and proceed to financial salvation. Mixtures of millennialism, esotericism, conspiratorialism, populism, antisemitism, libertarianism, and nationalism can be observed in a number of contemporary movements of economic redemption. These can sometimes afford some troubling expression, as in the case of “sovereign citizen” extremism. Documenting these practices furthers understanding of the financial element at work in the culture of contemporary conspiratorial, millennialist discourse. But it also opens a promising lead for the anthropology of finance, as it exposes the delirious potentials of ordinary conceptions of money, finance, wealth, and value. The case of OPPT (One People’s Public Trust) provides a testbed for a critical inquiry into the demons inherent in financial imagination.

Conspiratorial suspicion is widely understood as a result of disordered reasoning, but its pervasiveness suggests that it also reflects conditions of knowledge in contemporary society. In the postwar United States, these conditions include state and corporate secrecy and a florid cultural imaginary that relentlessly represents institutional deception and malfeasance. This “conspiracy imaginary” powerfully influences popular thinking. It helps sustain cynical assumptions about the deceptive and harmful practices of powerful social institutions and regularly circulates fictions of institutional plotting. These representations provide some of the “evidence” and explanation that seem missing from populist “conspiracy theories.” Donald Trump’s remarkably successful conspiracy politics reflects his mastery of the tropes of popular conspiracy melodrama.

This article discusses the impact of Trump on the role of conspiracy theories in American political culture. When Trump began his political career, conspiracy theories were still stigmatized in the public sphere. Trump exploited elites’ derision of conspiracy theories and forged a coalition of traditional Republican voters and those open to conspiracism and populism, accelerating partial legitimization of conspiracy theories that had begun after the election of Obama. While Trump failed to shed the stigma surrounding conspiracy theories completely and make courts legitimize his conspiracist allegations about the “stolen” presidential election, this particular conspiracy theory has become foundational for the Republican Party, which is exploiting the specter of future election fraud to impose voting restrictions that work to the party’s advantage.

For more than a decade, Russian political discourse has been dominated by conspiracy theories. Their content varies, and, indeed, they often contradict each other. What unites these theories is the invocation of Russophobia. Late Putinism is predicated on the idea that the West (particularly the United States and NATO) is determined to bring Russia to its knees, or simply to wipe it out altogether. Russophobia has proven to be a remarkably elastic concept and has been particularly valuable as part of the propaganda in support of Russia’s latest invasion of Ukraine.

By comparing conspiracy theories circulated in the twentieth century with those circulated in the 2000s, this article explores how conspiracy theories have been transformed by wider sociopolitical changes in contemporary Turkey. The article examines the differences between these two periods by attending to the ways in which the circulation of conspiracy theories fashions the political subjectivity of narrators, situates them in a particular position to power, and generates concrete sociopolitical effects. The article does not focus on the truthfulness of the accounts circulated but rather addresses the sociopolitical ramifications of their circulation.

While studies show that most Americans subscribe to at least one conspiracy theory, our question is: Do Americans relinquish false theories when faced with high COVID-19 incidence in their communities? Do facts matter? We address this by comparing 15 public opinion surveys regarding COVID-19 with actual COVID rates in the polled citizens’ congressional districts. We find that Americans who live in heavily affected communities (especially independents and to a lesser degree Republicans, but not Democrats) tend to reject conspiracy narratives more than those who do not live in heavily affected communities. We consider characteristics of these groups, the messages they receive from the media, and the implications of our findings for democracy, especially the fact that citizens who are least politically engaged are most responsive to their local COVID conditions.


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