A psychological perspective on ‚Conspiracy narratives fostering anti-government sentiment‘. (Page 11)
Alexander Ritzmann is a senior adviser with the Counter Extremism Project (CEP) and the RAN
People who believe in conspiracy narratives are often trying to fix a problem. In many cases, they are in some kind of personal crisis (e.g. financial debt, reputation loss, job loss, partner loss) when they subscribe to stories claiming for example that a small “hidden (Jewish) elite” is running the world, that “white people” are being systematically replaced or that Bill Gates is using the COVID 19 pandemic to put microchips in peoples´ bodies to control them. Most conspiracy narratives also promise a caring community, belonging, safety, a status upgrade, adventure and often even heroism. Simply put: People believe in conspiracy narratives to feel better. They promise an essential upgrade to the (subjective) status quo to the “believer”. And they put the blame of what went wrong in one´s lives on someone else, which can be quite liberating.
Conspiracy narratives that are of particular relevance for P/CVE practitioners and policy makers are those that call for the degrading of others or are proclaiming an existential, apocalyptic threat that justifies or even mandates violence. The “Great Replacement”, “QAnon”, the “War against Islam” and “protect the children/vaccines kill children” fall in this category.
Possible Indicators for potential violence are:
“Upgrading by downgrading”: The promised status upgrade of the “believer” is based on the degradation or dehumanization of “the others” (out-group)
“The end is near”: The “believers” are facing supposedly existential, apocalyptic threats by out-groups
-“Moral outrage”: Unbearable crimes are supposedly being committed by out-groups, e.g. the abuse or killing of children.
Conspiracy narratives are mostly not about IQ´s or information deficits. Many “believers” claim to be well informed critical thinkers who spend a lot of time investigating “the truth”. Research suggests that the more intelligent “believers” are, the better they are at defending their narrative. Why? Because believing their truth makes them feel better than the realistic alternative. This indicates that the main issue here is not “the truth” as an end point of scientific research (which is more of process than an end point anyway), but the lack of “trust” in established mainstream governments, universities and civil society organizations. In that sense, we are not in a post- truth, but a post-trust era.
Conspiracy narratives are probably as old as human language since they promise the above mentioned feel-better functionality. Having said this, pervious “gatekeepers” of information, like established newspapers and TV stations, have partially been replaced as moral and factual universal authorities. Partisan cable TV stations since the 1990s, and algorithmically amplified polarization as part of the business models of social media companies since 2014, have been triggering basic human instincts like fear, outrage and moral grandstanding in a suggestive 24 hours-7 days a week on-demand way.
It is difficult, if not near impossible, to change someone´s mind if their current belief and in-group makes them feel safe and relevant. Some Anthropologists suggest that historically, homo sapiens who stayed in tight groups to fight threats spread their DNA more successfully than those who wandered into the forest by themselves, leading to a widely shared biological „need“ for community. Until today, this can make humans pick the “truth” of their in-group over otherwise available information, especially if the “out-group” information challenges sacred values or the group identity. Neuroscientific research suggests that the „threat perception-centre“ of the human brain, the amygdala, which reacts when we encounter a physical threat like a bear in the forest, also takes charge of our behaviours when our most valued/sacred beliefs are challenged. This indicates that confrontational approaches when addressing conspiracy narratives will not work or even backfire, particularly if the “believer” is in a state of “fused identity”, meaning the individual and the group identity have merged.
The good news is that conspiracy believers at some point will have doubts about their life choices again. Maybe the hopes and projections of the promised life-upgrade did not realise. Maybe the leadership of the new community is corrupt, unjust or even dangerous. This can make people reevaluate their choice and then they might be looking for support to leave. This is the opportunity for a successful P/CVE intervention, very similar to deradicalization/exit work. In a private context, when family or friends are conspiracy believers, staying in contact, avoiding dividing topics and looking for common ground can help facilitating an exit from the world of “hidden elites” and conspiracies.