Conspiracy Theories2022-04-22T21:53:52+00:00

How It Works > The Power of Conspiracy Theories

The Power of Conspiracy Theories

The crisis narrative white nationalism promotes is a conspiracy theory. A conspiracy theory is a shared belief that some major event or trend has been intentionally caused by a network of powerful people operating in secret. Real conspiracies do occur; businesses fix prices, sports figures throw games, governments form secret alliances, and so on. However, the term “conspiracy theory” refers to theories that are baseless or founded on gross exaggerations. So why do people believe in conspiracy theories like White Genocide? Why are young people drawn to this crisis narrative?

Conspiracy theories appeal to normal desires for meaning

Conspiracy theories appeal to the powerful human tendency to seek meaning. Our brains naturally look for patterns, even where no patterns exist. We feel rewarded when we find—or create—connections. We’re satisfied when events have causes, even superstitious ones like spilling salt, breaking a mirror, or seeing a black cat. Conspiracy theories satisfy these basic drives to make meaning, and under the right circumstances, anyone can become engaged with one.

Conspiracy theories offer simple answers for complex problems

A conspiracy theory promises leverage over problems that feel overwhelming and restores a sense of certainty about the world. It identifies a cause and proposes an action plan. The narrative of a conspiracy theory divides the world into evil powers conspiring to create bad outcomes, those who know the truth and are committed to resisting, and unwitting masses whom the good people need to awaken and mobilize. Believers feel empowered by their role in the story.

Conspiracy theories bind a group together

All of us like to be “in the know,” possessing information others do not. Those who know the “truth” revealed by a conspiracy theory form a mutually affirming in-group. As friends and family who reject the theory weaken their ties with believers, the believers turn to each other even more, strengthening the social cohesion of the group and their commitment to the theory. Believers look for more and more pieces of “evidence” to support the theory. Whatever doesn’t fit is rejected as irrelevant or false.

Conspiracy theories are self-confirming

A conspiracy theory predisposes believers to reject any counterargument. Conspiracy theories warn believers that others will argue the theory is completely wrong—and that those others are conspirators or dupes. Thus, when met with argument, believers are more likely to deepen rather than question their commitment. This allows them to retain the sense of certainty, insider status, social bonding, and purpose they gain from the group.

However, this self-confirming power ultimately relies on trust in and commitment to the people or movement that spread the theory. If other circumstances diminish the social bonding and purpose that drive these commitments—for example, personal tensions with others in the movement or alternative rewards, such as a growing family or a good job—an individual’s perspective may change and the conspiracy theory may lose its grip.

An enduring theme

The white nationalist crisis narrative of “White Genocide” rests on an anti-Semitic theme that has inspired conspiracy theories for centuries. Since the Medieval times in Europe, Jews have repeatedly been pictured as powerful conspirators seeking to rule the world. In modern times, Jews have been pictured by capitalists as the secret moving force behind socialist and communist movements, and by socialists and communists as the secret force behind capitalist systems. Both American white nationalists and black nationalists, such as the Nation of Islam, make anti-Semitism central to their conspiracy narratives, using codewords for Jews such as “globalists,” “bankers,” or “Zionists.” White nationalist conspiracists in the US refer to the state as the “ZOG,” or “Zionist Occupied Government.”

See, The Key Role of Anti-Semitism in White Nationalism

Sources & Discussion2022-04-22T21:52:52+00:00

There are numerous discussions of the structure and power of conspiracy theories. J.M. Berger has a succinct explanation of how these theories function in the context of extremist ideologies in his Extremism (84-89), and that was our starting point. Berger also includes an examination of the specific role of anti-Semitism in a range of conspiracy theories, focusing on the enduring role played over the past century by the early 20th century forgery, Protocols of the Elders of Zion (96-98), which continues to be cited as a genuine document by American white nationalists.

A recent overview of the way conspiracy theories function more generally is laid out in detail in Joseph Uscinski’s Conspiracy Theories: A Primer.

For discussion of the role of these theories more specific to American white nationalism, we drew from Cynthia Miller-Idriss, Hate in the Homeland (especially, 55-62). Many discussions of conspiracy theories in the contemporary US cite Richard Hofstadter’s 1964 article, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, which briefly surveys the role that conspiracy theories have played in the US since the country’s inception. On the central role that narratives can play, with particular reference to The Turner Diaries, we consulted Kurt Braddock’s Weaponized Words (71-74) and J.M. Berger, Alt History: How a Self-published, Racist Novel Changed White Nationalism and Inspired Decades of Violence.

Theories about conspiracy theories can become almost as absorbing as the theories themselves. And many online sources discuss ways in which conspiracy theories from all ends of the political spectrum proliferate because of features of contemporary culture, especially video games, and are amplified by the Internet. An example is Molly Sauter’s, The Apophenic Machine (apophenia is a normal psychological function that conspiracy theories appeal to). More recently, the QAnon phenomenon has sparked a wealth of articles on conspiracy theories, many of which are referenced in Reed Berkowitz, A Game Designer’s Analysis of QAnon.

“Conspiracy theories are the only theories for which evidence against them is actually construed as evidence in favor of them. The more evidence piled up by the authorities in favor of a given theory, the more the conspiracy theorist points to how badly ‘They’ must want us to believe the official story.”

“When you discuss with conspiracy theorists the veracity of their pet theories, an immediate question regarding falsifiability is: What evidence could I show you that would convince you that you are wrong? If their answer is, ‘Nothing,’ then I advise you to exit the conversation.”

Updated, October 2021

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