What Conspiracy Theories Are, and Why They’re in Decline

he late daredevil and flat-earther, Mad Mike Hughes once told me “most people believe and know that Lee Harvey Oswald is not the guy who shot Kennedy, ok? There are several ways to prove it, it’s been proven and whatever. But see, collectively that’s not been decided.”

It took me some time to realize it, but this was the most important part of my interview with him.

Hughes was explaining to me the importance of blasting himself up in a rocket to the edge of space to prove the shape of the Earth conclusively, after I had asked if safer methods, such as an unmanned balloon with a camera might be enough to reveal the shape of the Earth.

He needed to demonstrate to a global audience that the Earth is flat and not a sphere, because majority opinion is not sufficient to promote a conspiracy theory to what might be called a “public fact” or an “official fact”. The spectacular nature of this stunt, which never took place, since he was killed in a smaller rocket launch earlier this year, was supposed to promote Flat Earth from conspiracy theory to “official fact”, by making what might be called the “social evidence” overwhelming.

is true that most Americans tell pollsters that they doubt the official one-shooter narrative when asked about the assassination of JFK. Then why does it remain a conspiracy theory? What even is a conspiracy theory if a majority opinion can be described as one?

Admittedly, this is more a cluster of conspiracy theories rather than a unified one.

Anna Merlan, the author of Republic of Lies defines conspiracy theories as “a belief that a small group of people are working in secret against the common good, to create harm, to effect some negative change in society, to seize power for themselves, or to hide some deadly or consequential secret”.

If you focus on the subjective quality of words and phrases such as “common good”, “negative”, or even “consequential”, more examples of political action could be included than I think Merlan intends to include. Fossil fuel industry coordination to deny climate change and lobby against useful climate policy would satisfy this definition. But noting that the fossil fuel industry funds dubious research and hires lobbyists doesn’t seem like a conspiracy theory to me.

Joseph Uscinski and Joseph Parent define conspiracy theories similarly as “an explanation of historical, ongoing, or future events that cites as a main causal factor a group of powerful persons, the conspirators, acting in secret for their own benefit against the common good.”

Again, this definition would seem to capture many theories which are not normally labeled “conspiracy theory”. A lot of ordinary politicking could be captured by this definition.

he element that these definitions are missing is that conspiracy theories are low-status beliefs. Individuals who hold them are ridiculed on this basis, and the beliefs themselves stigmatized. The phrase “conspiracy theory” isn’t a claim about truth necessarily, or popularity, although in practice it often is. It is an accusation of low-status, often coterminous with “unofficial” (though not necessarily), and outside the boundaries of acceptable debate. Even a majority opinion can be dismissed as a low-status belief if it is not endorsed by relevant authorities (in the case of JFK’s assassination, the American government, and specialized historians).

David Coady makes the “official” point explicit in his definition: “A conspiracy theory is a proposed explanation of an historical event, in which conspiracy (i.e., agents acting secretly in concert) has a significant causal role. Furthermore, the conspiracy postulated by the proposed explanation must be a conspiracy to bring about the historical event which it purports to explain. Finally, the proposed explanation must conflict with an ‘official’ explanation of the same historical event.”

Neil Levy concurs in part, but adds that conspiracy theories must be rejected by “properly constituted epistemic authorities”. He cites as an example residents of totalitarian countries that have learned to distrust information from their government, though this may be the only source of “official” information. He adds that given the socialized nature of knowledge, it would be generally unwise to reject information from proper epistemic authorities.

Uscinski and Parent respond to Levy explicitly (and Coady implicitly) that often there is no official account, at least at the time the conspiracy theory is made. Also, sometimes governments create their own conspiracy theories. He could have added that we may need a more explicit and testable theory of “officialness” before relying on it so heavily.

I would respond that a conspiracy theory that arises before an official narrative might still rely on unofficial assumptions, or try to pre-empt what the conspiracy theorist thinks the official theory will or would be. As for governments inventing conspiracy theories, this can be resolved by looking at how “officialness” varies across space. A story in Russia Today might have currency in Russia, but not the United States, and therefore be a conspiracy theory here, but not there.

This invites the question if any belief can be said to be objectively a conspiracy theory. I don’t think so. And I don’t think we are losing much if it turns out there is no way to test if something is truly a conspiracy theory.

he idea of “low-status” in a belief is a necessary, and subjective, quality to conspiracy theories. Whether or not a belief is considered low-status would vary from person to person, as would the criteria for that determination. This addition would wipe the condensation from the debate over whether or not Jeffrey Epstein “conspiracy theories” are actually conspiracy theories. Is speculation that he was murdered really “crazy”, or carry other linguistic markers of being low-status? Do you feel comfortable saying he didn’t commit suicide in front of people whose respect you care about?

To call a belief a conspiracy theory is at its core a power claim, a political claim, and less of a truth claim. The belief is not just wrong, and not just unsubstantiated, it is outside the boundaries of legitimate debate, and can be dismissed without the courtesy of debate that other false beliefs might be entitled to by reason of their status (take a debate over marginal tax rates for example). A conspiracy theory is more than merely false, or rather worse than false, in the mind of the accuser.

You can claim any number of beliefs to be false, or at least unproven, but to be a conspiracy theory is to have the subjective quality of low-status, similar to how a person might have low social status, or some clothing or other status symbols might cue low-status. Ideas have status, as separate from their objective truth, and even separate from the subjective feeling of truth (also called belief).

Conspiracy theories do have repetitive substantive qualities besides the social quality of being low-status that influence the phrase’s use in English. Conspiracy theories are conspiratorial (duh), typically sinister, and comment on the nature of mass politics.

Other sorts of political beliefs might be ridiculed or stigmatized on non-conspiratorial grounds for resisting the arrest of other norms, such as those that advocate violence or contain supernatural elements (none of these are mutually exclusive). In other words, though conspiracy theories are low-status beliefs, not all low-status beliefs are conspiracy theories.

Sources of the perception of low-status vary between people. Common reasons why a belief might be considered to hold low-status can be its unpopularity, its contradicting of facts or other assumptions considered well established by the speaker, or if the belief contains a level of tangible evidence that is disproportionally low to the impact of the claim if assumed true (this last source can be used to overcome the first two if the speaker believes that an official and popular narrative is still a conspiracy theory). These are only common bases by which someone might consider a political belief to hold low enough status to be a conspiracy theory, but theoretically they are not necessary.

Conspiracy theories are also normally false, but this is a result of conspiracy theories being an un-random sample of beliefs. Low-status beliefs are often shoved to low-status due to their lack of evidence and the strength of rival theories. Though this correlation is very strong, it is not necessary. A low-status, conspiratorial, and political view can be true, whether or not many, or even any, people recognize its truthfulness.

ames Rankin says that the label “conspiracy theory” is a tool of “cultural hegemony”. The label is used against challenges to hegemonic control of political opinion. I think this is a useful lens to see conspiracy theories through.

To help explain how this works, I draw on Myra Marx Ferree’s framework for understanding ridicule and stigma. Though she applies her framework to gender movements, I think it can be applied to conspiracy theories.

Ridicule is used in direct interpersonal interactions, and can include behavior such as mockery, and name-calling (conspiracy theorist, tin-foil hat, crazy, insane, etc.) and is intended to police an acceptable range of behavior through emotional pain, and the fear of losing social status. Stigma is an impaired collective identity, and is intended to obstruct collective action by imposing a cost on identifying with a certain group (conspiracy theorist, flat-earther, science denier, etc.)

Anti-conspiracy theory beliefs and belief-systems are typically enforced with ridicule and stigma (as are many other beliefs, belief-systems, and social identities). This strategy has some practical limits: shame escalation can quickly reach diminishing returns, and shame can also be countered with community building exercises and imitation. The Flat-Earth community for example regularly has meetups around the country, and hosts several podcasts and call-in radio shows where the validity (both scientific and moral) of their claims are reinforced. Some conspiracy theorists proudly accept the title, and mock others as “coincidence theorists”.

How much stigma precisely is required for an idea to be a conspiracy theory? This seems like a question that is better directed at the person calling you a conspiracy theorist than me. The phrase is used to describe a vague quantity of status that is considered by the speaker to be small enough to dismiss it without further comment. If it refers to a vague quantity, than I can hardly be faulted for failing to clearly quantify it. I doubt that it is very important to have an objective test of whether or not something is a conspiracy theory. I doubt even more that it is possible.

Uscinski and Parent write, “Just the term conspiracy theory is loaded. To label a theory as a conspiracy theory or someone as a conspiracy theorist may place him or her on uneven terrain. He or she may meet with greater skepticism or appear beyond the bounds of reason”. I think we need to see this as the purpose of the phrase, even to the point of making it definitional.

we accept this framework (and I do), then properly speaking, a conspiracy theory cannot be “mainstream”. If it is mainstream in its acceptance, then it should cease to be a conspiracy theory, even if it is both false and conspiratorial. It has been promoted from low-status, to something higher.

This suggests conspiracy theories today are actually in decline, since the authority and status required to label a belief as such is in decline.

Our “time” isn’t so much marked by conspiracy theory as it is by the death of conspiracy theories. Which information institutions now have the power to summarily dismiss an idea? If the answer is “none”, or even “few”, then this reduces the range of ideas that can be successfully stigmatized as being a conspiracy theory. If you answered “Facebook” or “Twitter” or “the Media” to that last question, ask yourself if their stigmatization efforts have actually been effective on their targets. The answer may be mixed, but I suspect it is generally “no”.

Unfortunately, if the President and major opinion-makers in political media assert the truth of something, it will difficult, if not impossible, to use the label “conspiracy theory” effectively. There is a fight over the “officialness” and social-status of Trump’s claims of voter fraud, which is separate from the debate over their truthfulness.

We know that judges that have closely examined Trump’s claims of voter fraud have dismissed them, but merely being false does not make a belief a conspiracy theory. Widely believed misinformation wouldn’t be labeled as such, nor would a belief believed to be false by an individual though perceived to be “reasonably” false, such as a disagreement over the infrastructure budget.

Some of the frustration with the prevalence of “conspiracy theories” from liberal political media is that the range of beliefs they can chase away with the tools of ridicule and stigma has narrowed. Properly understood, this signals the death of conspiracy theories, and not their golden age.

We may need a new vocabulary to categorize false assertions from authority. Or more likely, new methods of persuasion beyond ridicule and stigma. I wouldn’t abandon these tool altogether, since they can be useful in preventing ideas from being adopted in the first place, but their utility plunges once a stigmatized idea is sincerely adopted.

There are no shortcuts to changing someone’s mind.

Trying my best since 1996.

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