Both populist movements and conspiracy theories have been on the rise over the past 20 years. Is this a coincidence or is there a link between the two? And how are conspiracy theories used by populists ahead of election campaigns? These are only some of the questions that ERC grantee Michael Butter from the University of Tübingen is trying to answer. In this interview, he talks about his ERC-funded work, conspiracy theories in times of Covid-19, and reveals the best approach when talking to someone who believes in conspiracy theories.
Your ERC-funded PACT project explores the connection between populist movements and conspiracy theories. What are the project’s main goals, and what makes it innovative?
We already know that populist leaders tend to use conspiracy theories more frequently than other politicians do. In addition, there are several studies showing that members of populist movements are more receptive to conspiracy theories in comparison to other people.
However, the exact relationship between populism and conspiracy theories has not been explored so far. We are interested in conducting case studies in order to develop a more general theorisation of this connection.
The project is structured around the general elections in several countries, with my team arriving there ahead of Election Day to do ethnographic fieldwork. They attend party rallies and interview people in order to better understand how conspiracy theories work. This is one aspect that makes the project innovative.
Even if the project is still at an early stage, what are some of its main achievements?
We already made some steps towards a better theorisation of the relationship between populism and conspiracy theories. It has become increasingly clear that the specificities of the political culture are crucial for understanding this connection.
Most studies have so far concentrated on countries such as Germany or France, where conspiracy theories are generally stigmatised and not really accepted in public discourse. Analysis of the populist leaders’ rhetoric in these countries shows that they cater to two different audiences. On the one hand, they need to signal to conspiracy theorists ‘I’m with you. We’re on the same side here’. At the same time, populists try to avoid alienating voters who do not believe in conspiracy theories, by using more indirect language.
In our case studies, we try to take a broader perspective and include countries such as Hungary where conspiracy theories are far less stigmatised. The rhetoric of populist leaders is quite explicit there and conspiracy theories often dominate the populist discourse.
Why have conspiracy theories flourished during the Covid-19 pandemic?
We have to distinguish between conspiracy theories becoming more popular and more visible. Several quantitative studies in Germany show that the number of people receptive to conspiracy theories has not increased.
At the same time, conspiracy theories have become more visible because those who believe in them have often become more extreme in their views and feel mobilised. You can see this right now in Germany where people who believe that the virus is harmless or does not exist take to the streets and protest against governmental measures.
Why are conspiracy theories so dangerous?
First of all, conspiracy theories can be a catalyst for violence and can lead to radicalisation. They can make people feel called upon or even obliged to take up arms in order to interfere in what they perceive as a struggle between ‘good and evil’. Take as an example the attacks in Christchurch (New Zealand) or Halle (Germany).
A second area, more closely related to Covid-19, are medical conspiracy theories that challenge established medical knowledge. Believing in these theories can be dangerous because it could lead people to refuse to wear masks or keep a distance, which could then contribute to the spread of the virus.
Thirdly, and this is what our project is most interested in, conspiracy theories can be a danger to democracy and can undermine trust in democratic processes and institutions. In Germany, people who believe in conspiracy theories are a minority and the democratic system is not really endangered. In the US, another country our study focuses on, the picture is different, as the storming of the US Capitol in January 2021 has shown. This made it quite clear how dangerous conspiracy theories can become.
What is the best approach when talking to someone who believes in conspiracy theories?
Talking to someone who firmly believes in conspiracy theories and convincing them that they are wrong is extremely difficult. It is better not to bombard them with facts because you challenge their identity and a defence mechanism sets in, making them block everything you say or turn it into evidence for their claims. Establishing a common ground is important and this works best if you are friends, family or colleagues. The goal is to trigger a process of self-reflection because this is the only thing that can get people out of their beliefs. It is usually a long and exhausting process and by no means always successful.
It is easier with people who are drawn to conspiracy theories but are not yet firm believers. In these cases, you can tell them that it is most likely a conspiracy theory and that there are great fact-checking websites.
What concrete actions can governments and other stakeholders take to fight conspiracy theories?
Education is key! Debunking is always difficult, which means waiting for a conspiracy theory to spread and then to react to it. In contrast, ‘pre-bunking’ is far more effective. Educating people on conspiracy theories and including political education in school curricula is important. This can immunise them against believing in such theories.
Another reason that drives conspiracy theories is the feeling that people have been left behind. Investing in social security and health insurance to tackle economic inequality can therefore be effective in the long run. It is no coincidence that many white, working-class Americans in the Midwest embraced conspiracy theories in the past years. They were often losers of complex globalisation processes and felt neglected until Donald Trump arrived.
Thirdly, counselling is important. So far there are very few institutions that specialise in dealing with people who believe in conspiracy theories or that could give meaningful advice to their friends and family. Similarly, we need to give support and protect those that are the targets of conspiracy theorists, often minority groups like Sinti and Roma as well as Jews.
Why do populists often use conspiracy theories for their purposes?
Populists often use conspiracy theories because it enables them to present themselves as being against the elites, science and the establishment. The theories offer an explanation for why the elites allegedly neglect the people and populists use them to break with taboos. Populist leaders also know that some people who are receptive to their rhetoric might also be open to conspiracy theories.
Populist leaders often cater to different audiences and then try to unite them. Some believe in conspiracy theories, others don’t, but these differences often vanish in the practice of protest.
To what extent are conspiracy theories fuelled by how we consume information nowadays?
Populists often exploit the new media environment, such as Twitter and Facebook, because they want to establish a direct channel of communication between themselves and their followers. They say that the media is allegedly corrupt and that they do not want these intermediaries. You can observe this phenomenon as well with populist leaders from the past who set up their own TV programs or radio programs.
However, populists are also reaching out to people who are not online the whole time. As an example, the far-right party Alternative for Germany (AfD) often goes from door-to-door before an election. They then talk to potential voters in half-empty villages in Eastern Germany about their concerns and worries.
Last year you worked with the European Commission and UNESCO on the production of a series of infographics on conspiracy theories. Could you tell us more about this collaboration?
The basis for those infographics was a 15-page guide, which I had developed in a previous project together with 160 scholars from 40 different countries. These pages sum up everything that scholars know about conspiracy theories. It can serve as a manual for different stakeholders and gives practical advice on how to deal with people who believe in conspiracy theories.
Since 2014, Prof. Michael Butter has been Professor of American Literary and Cultural History at the University of Tübingen (Germany). He is one of Germany’s leading experts in the field of conspiracy theories. He was also Vice Chair of the Comparative Analysis of Conspiracy Theories (COMPACT) project, in which around 160 scholars from 40 countries combine their knowledge about conspiracy theories.