The project and its working groups » WORKING GROUP 3: CAUSES AND CONSEQUENCES


Chair Nebojša Blanuša (University of Zagreb, Croatia)
VC Alejandro Romero Reche (University of Granada, Spain)

This working group studies the psychological and cultural causes and political consequences of belief in conspiracy theories.

Project Questions for WG3

(a) Why do people believe in conspiracy theories?

WG 3 will examine existing explanations in different disciplines of the nature of conspiracy belief, and seek to develop a synthetic model that combines empirical psychological data with attention to the specifics of cultural and historical variation. If we resist the temptation to ascribe the turn to conspiracy explanations to immutable personality types or essential cultural differences, then we are obliged to examine how identifiable psychological dispositions are enabled or hindered by different political systems, media traditions and regimes of transparency. Do conspiracy theories tend to thrive more in authoritarian political systems (such as Russia and parts of the Middle East) in which the flow of information is tightly controlled, producing a corresponding distrust of official narratives? Or, conversely, do they flourish in more democratic and transparent contexts such as the EU in which the political reality fails to live up to an unrealistic utopian faith in transparency, egalitarianism and the rights of sovereign individualism? WG 3 will also explore the status of conspiracy theories as forms of vernacular epistemology in relation to other forms of popular belief

(such as New Age mysticism), and more generally the relationship between the rise of conspiracy theory and secularisation: are conspiracy theories a form of neo-Providentialism?

(b) What are the consequences of popular belief in conspiracy theories?

WG 3 will advance research on the question of when belief in conspiracy theories is beneficial or harmful, and the reasons for the variation in effects over time and in different contexts. Are there contexts in which conspiracy theories are vital to the functioning of a healthy democracy, or do they always undermine it? How have conspiracy theories helped forge national identity in positive ways, and how have they contributed to hate-mongering and scapegoating? When, where and in what forms do they lead to violence, criminal behaviour and the radicalisation of terrorists, and when, where and in what forms are they mainly harmless entertainment and/or delegitimised forms of knowledge? What difference does it make if conspiracy theories are directed from below at governments, or when those in power use conspiracy rhetoric to target minorities? What difference does it make when elite opinion makers and politicians use conspiracist rhetoric? This WG will analyse the effects of popular conspiracism on: political participation – especially in the EU itself;

trust in the media; social movements and cooperation; extremist groups and xenophobia; elite opinion formation; international relations and security; scientific and medical authority; and damage to corporate reputation. Policy makers are beginning to ask how conspiracy theories spread, and which methods of tackling them are most likely to be effective, but to date there has been little research on these vital questions. The WG will conduct a systematic analysis of possible solutions such as greater government and corporate transparency, improved secondary and tertiary education on the nature of conspiracy theories, and confronting misinformation head on.