Michael Butter is Professor of American Studies at the University of Tübingen. He is the author of The Nature of Conspiracy Theories (Polity, 2020) and Principal Investigator of the ERC-funded project Populism and Conspiracy Theory.
This year you co-edited the Routledge Handbook of Conspiracy Theories along with Peter Knight. Can you talk about some of the insights that stand out or are relevant to the current moment of the infodemic and Covid related disinformation? How are conspiracy theories born?
It’s difficult to say how conspiracy theories are born because in most cases we only see them when they start circulating. What we can say is that as opposed to so-called ‘fake news’, most people who spread conspiracy theories are genuinely convinced they are helping the truth to come to light. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t people who are piggybacking on them or pushing them intentionally for economic or political reasons. For example, Donald Trump certainly does not believe all the conspiracy theories that he has been spreading or alluding to over the past years – he does that very much for strategic reasons.
The other thing that is important to keep in mind is that historically we aren’t living in an age of conspiracy theories. From the emergence of the modern conspiracy theories – probably at some point during the early modern period in the 16th century – until the 1960s it was quite normal to believe in conspiracy theories throughout the western world. If we had polled people back then we would have found 90% of them subscribing to conspiracy beliefs. Today in most European countries that percentage is probably around one-quarter to one-third of the population. That may still be a lot but it is considerably less than what it would have been 100 or 200 years ago.
Something we can add in relation to the present coronavirus context is that there is very little indication that conspiracy theories have really become more popular over the last couple of months. I think what has happened is that people who always believed in conspiracy theories in the context of a pandemic that threatens their wellbeing have become more extreme and their conviction stronger. And it’s important to add that hardly any of the coronavirus related conspiracy theories are really new. Conspiracy theories tend to either revitalize earlier patterns or latch onto existing conspiracy theories. An example of the latter instance is coronavirus conspiracy theories talking about population replacement.
I am interested in what you said about conspiracy theories not being that popular. Do you think the media give the false impression of these conspiracy theories being more prevalent than they are?
In Germany definitely. Journalists have become highly sensitised to conspiracy theories and they regard them, for good reason, as dangerous knowing they can lead to violence or pose a danger to democracy. As a result, from March 2020 onwards there has been a lot of relevant reporting in German media. But I believe the worry that if 20,000 people take to the streets for example, then there must be millions who also believe in these theories is wrong. I think quite often visibility is confused with popularity. There is a fine line between reporting on something that is interesting and relevant on one hand and blowing it out of proportion on the other, giving it more coverage than what it really deserves.
Are there any differences between contemporary and the old conspiracy theories. What about their deployment by political leaders?
It is was perfectly normal to believe in conspiracy theories in the past. It wasn’t frowned upon which is why so many political leaders did so. The most horrible example of a conspiracy theory with devastating consequences is that of the Jewish conspiracy theory which became the ruling ideology of the National Socialists in Germany leading to the Holocaust. But even the US civil war wouldn’t have happened the way it did if it weren’t for conspiracy theories as in the 1850s both warring sides were harboring them. The pro-slavery South thought the abolitionists were secretly controlled by Great Britain and were plotting to destroy the US and the abolitionists were opposing among other things what they called “the Slave Power threat” – the idea that slave owners would want to expand slavery everywhere in the US.
In the greater scheme of things politicians using conspiracy theories has been more the rule than the exception. What is different now is that Trump for example is using them in a time when it is not considered normal to believe in them. But he does that because they are a form of stigmatised knowledge and because this allows him to fashion himself as a populist who is resisting the elites or elite forms of knowledge and promotes the will of the people. It is worth bearing in mind that this process of stigmatisation that conspiracy theories underwent after the 1960s was mostly restricted to the western world. In the Muslim world or in Asian countries this process didn’t take place as far as we know. And it also didn’t take place to the same degree in eastern European countries.
Are conspiracy theories used as a tool of mobilisation?
I think they definitely are and the current US election was an example of that. I think what Trump managed to do is build a coalition between two groups, the traditional Republican voters and people receptive to populist rhetoric. Populist movements are good at uniting people who believe in conspiracy theories but also people who don’t and in the process of common protest form a coalition between them. Also, for most of his 2016 campaign Trump used conspiracy rumours because they allowed him to distance himself. He didn’t say things explicitly but introduced ideas. Conspiracy theories can also allow populists already in power to continue to cast themselves as outsiders and explain why campaigning promises haven’t been delivered. Because for example, there was an imaginary ‘deep state’ that was actively working against them.
How do you think technology has affected the way conspiracy theories propagate across the network or how people engage with them
The internet has brought more visibility but visibility also means availability, which in turn has probably led to a modest increase of people believing in conspiracy theories. After conspiracy theories that were stigmatised around the 1960s didn’t completely disappear but they moved into subcultures that were fairly hermetic. Conspiracy theorists had problems publishing their ideas because professional media would not accept them but the internet changed all that. Also conspiracy theorists are better connected now and they can affirm each other’s beliefs more easily.
Can you talk about the COMPACT [Comparative Analysis of Conspiracy Theories] project you were involved in?
COMPACT was a COST action. It was effectively a networking project featuring more than 150 scholars from 35 countries and the idea was to synthesize the research on conspiracy theories in Europe across disciplines and languages. Our website also includes a lot of educational resources.
Do conspiracy theories ever die? How can we counteract Covid-19 related conspiracy theories?
Conspiracy theories hardly ever die – they just become less important. The one thing we know that helps against them is education. The propensity to believe in conspiracy theories is highly correlated with the level of education. The process of stigmatization that pushed conspiracy theories from the mainstream to the margins from the late 1950s onwards in the US was really triggered by the popularisation of knowledge from social sciences – findings from political science, sociology, psychology, really made into the everyday life of Americans at that time. I really believe the key is education, to teach people that conspiracy theories fundamentally misunderstand the world because they overestimate human intention and underestimate unintended consequences, structural effects and so on. If we manage that then there will be less conspiracy theories I believe.