• Social Research An Int'l Quarterly

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

Updated: Aug 3

Arien Mack, Journal Editor

Oz Frankel, Guest Editor


Dolunay Bulut

Endangered Scholars Worldwide


Michal Bilewicz and Roland Imhoff

Hoax across the board: Conspiracy theories on the left-right political spectrum

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 most prevalent on both extremes of political spectrum and relatively rare in its center. This article attempts to examine the specific aspects of conspiracy theories and conspiracy mentality that make them appealing to people who hold extreme political views. We propose that Manichean worldview (dualism of good and evil in politics), anti-modern sentiments (rejection of science, medicine and the idea of progress) and political control deprivation (a sense of helplessness in the domain of politics) are key psychological underpinnings of conspiracy beliefs among the left and right. Antisemitic beliefs are presented as an example of conspiracy theories appearing on different sides of political spectrum across history.


Mia Bloom and Sophia Moskalenko

Gendered Aspects of QAnon

During 2019-2020 Presidential campaign, a wide-ranging conspiracy theory known as QAnon entered the American public’s collective consciousness. Despite its emergence in October 2017, QAnon became ubiquitous following the January 6th insurrection in Washington, DC, where the QAnon logo was spotted on clothes and posters of individuals storming Capitol Hill. The movement was embodied by a tattooed shirtless man, Jacob Chansley from Arizona, known as the QAnon Shaman who entered the Capitol and occupied the main legislative chamber as he bellowed like a caged animal. Two women were killed that day, one shot by the Capitol Hill police, another trampled by the crowd. In the weeks that ensued, over a hundred followers of the Conspiracy were arrested, and many believe that QAnon beliefs comprise a radical ideology. In this paper, using original research, Bloom and Moskalenko will explore to what extent QAnon beliefs constitute an ideology and whether it is as dangerous as some in the US government or think tanks believe?


Eliot Borenstein

Everybody Hates Russia: On the Uses of Conspiracy Theory under Putin

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.


Michael Butter

Conspiracy Theory after Trump

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


Nicolas Guilhot

Conspiracies and the Liberal Imagination

Conspiracy theories are widely considered a threat to liberal democracy and a characteristic feature of populism, which makes them inherently illiberal. Yet, these are recent assumptions that congealed only after 1945 to become key principles of Cold War liberalism. Before, the idea of conspiracy was very much part of the liberal imagination. For much of the 19th century, liberals have traded in conspiracy theories. While Cold War liberals such as Karl Popper or Edward Shils later dismissed the “conspiracy theory of society,” they nonetheless subscribed to such a theory in the case of totalitarian societies. The result was a schizophrenic attitude that used the idea of conspiracy to discredit liberalism’s critics while at the same time making a specific form of conspiracy theory central to Cold War liberalism and its successor ideologies.


Jennifer Hochschild and David Beavers

Learning from Experience? COVID-19 Conspiracy Theories and Their Implications for Democratic Discourse

While most Americans ascribe to at least one conspiracy theory, some endorse narratives whose content might harm democratic practice and whose adherence undermines democratic discourse. Our question is: do Americans relinquish these false theories when faced with high COVID-19 incidence in their communities? In short, do facts matter? We address this question by analyzing conspiracies theories in fifteen public opinion surveys of American citizens conducted throughout 2020, with levels of agreement compared to actual COVID incidence in congressional districts. We find that Americans who live in heavily affected communities – especially Independents, then Republicans, but not Democrats—do tend to reject conspiracy narratives, compared with those who do not. We consider the characteristics of these groups, the messages they receive from media news, and the implications for democracy of the fact that citizens who are least politically engaged are most responsive to their local COVID conditions.


Peter Knight and Clare Birchall

“Do Your Own Research!”: Conspiracy Theories and the Internet

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


Timothy Melley

The Conspiracy Imaginary

Conspiratorial suspicion is widely understood as a result of disordered reasoning, but its pervasiveness suggests it also reflects the 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 in a wide variety of forms. This “conspiracy imaginary” powerfully influences popular thinking. It helps to sustain cynical assumptions about the deceptive and harmful practices of powerful social institutions; and it regularly circulates fictions of institutional plotting. These representations provide some of the “evidence” and explanation that seems missing from populist “conspiracy theories.” Donald Trump’s remarkably successful conspiracy politics reflects his mastery of the tropes of popular conspiracy melodrama.


Russel Muirhead and Nancy Rosenblum

The Path from Conspiracy to Ungoverning

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, anti-democratic politics. Conspiracy charges operate as the rationale for hijacking, circumventing, and degrading the departments and the 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.


Jan-Werner Müller

What, if Anything, Do Populism and Conspiracy Theories Have to Do with Each Other?

This essay elucidates the relationship between populism and conspiracy theories. It calls into question an automatic association of populism with demagoguery, or outright lying, in politics. A better way to understand the relationship between populism and conspiracy theories is provided by the Weberian notion of an elective affinity. More specifically, the essays argues, conspiracy theories can have two functions for populists: one when they are in opposition and need to explain why, despite populists 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 (the “explanation” being that enemies of the people are undermining the populists). None of this is to say that all populists must necessarily propound conspiracy theories—this is not a hard-and-fast prediction of conduct in politics—but that there are particular, comprehensible reasons they do so when they do.


Fabian Muniesa

Paranoid Finance

Do your own research! Type ‘OPPT UCC’ and see what you learn. Or try ‘NESARA GESARA’ instead. And then find out about other keywords, perhaps even more cryptic. You will access ideals of sovereignty, emancipation, life, personhood, money and wealth. Tutorials about the codes, languages and procedures that are needed in order to subvert the dominant order and proceed to financial salvation. And lessons on the various standards of spiritual menace and economic enmity that justify this newly found path. Mixtures of millennialism, esotericism, conspiratorialism, populism, antisemitism, libertarianism and nationalism can indeed be observed in a number of contemporary movements of economic redemption. These can sometimes afford some troubling expression: cult perhaps, or violence, as in the case of ‘sovereign citizen’ extremism. Some other times they translate into innocuous pastimes, mundane skepticism or dodgy investment schemes. Documenting these practices can certainly contribute to a better understanding of the political culture of contemporary ‘conspiracy theory’, and of ‘conspiracy finance theory’ within it. But it also opens a promising lead for the anthropology of finance, as it exposes the delirious potentials of ordinary concepts of money.


David Robertson

Conspiracy, Religion, and Knowledge

That religion is a social rather than natural kind is well-established, even if this has yet to trickle down into popular discourse; less well accepted is that conspiracy theories is a similarly social, relational and nebulous. Drawing from recent media reports and academic research, this paper argues that conspiracy theory and its other—religion—are relational terms by which knowledge claims are managed and mystified in the broader capitalist-colonial-Protestant-patriarchal episteme of late Capitalism. The distinction between “belief” and “knowledge”, inherited from colonial anthropology, demarks “irrational” and “illegitimate” knowledge, with “faith” functioning as domesticated “irrational” knowledge, serves to lionize epistemologies of the established elites while demonizing subaltern critiques. Analyzing the relationship between “religion” and “conspiracy theory” is a revealing case-study in how the boundaries of different forms of knowledge are regulated as the dominant “truth regime” begins to flounder in the Post-truth era.


Erol Saglam

Subjectivity, Mobilization, and Everyday Politics: Insights from Reconfigurations of Conspiracy Theories in the 21st Turkey

Drawing on a juxtaposition of conspiracy theories circulated in the 20th century with those circulated in the 2000s, this article explores how conspiracy theories have been transformed by wider socio-political changes in contemporary Turkey. It examines the difference between these two periods through attending to the ways in which the circulation of conspiracy theories fashion the political subjectivity of narrators, situate them in a particular position to power, and generate concrete socio-political effects. The article does not focus on the truthfulness of those accounts circulated by addresses the socio-political ramifications their circulation generates.


Nadia Urbinati

Conspiracy: Systemic and Pragmatic

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


Joseph E. Uscinski

Getting QAnon Wrong and Right

The group known as QAnon continues to concern journalists, scholars, and lawmakers. QAnon has been difficult to fully understand 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 the mainstream coverage of the group got wrong about QAnon can lead to a new understanding not just of QAnon, but also of mainstream institutions who castigate QAnon while also perpetuating it.

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