Conspiracy theories matter, but not all are meaningful: A guide for analyzing risks to audiences

7 May 2024

By Jared Holt and Lucy Cooper 

It can be difficult to predict which individual conspiracy theories will have lasting impacts on broad audiences, even when a theory appears to gain major attention on social media platforms. Those analyzing the emergence and spread of misinformation should be able understand and explain which theories pose actual risks to audiences. This article offers a series of considerations for assessing theories through the lens of potential impacts. 

The popularization of conspiratorial thinking has dealt significant damage to social health, public safety and democratic stability, both in the United States and around the globe. But this does not mean that every single conspiracy theory is inherently consequential or that each one deserves our full focus. 

It is impractical, if not impossible, to detect and analyze every single conspiracy theory that crops up online, if not for any other reason than there are enormous numbers of them in circulation at any point in time. The rivers of outlandish misinformation that roll through social media platforms are made of countless droplets that appear trivial in isolation. It is rare that any individual claim is profound enough to wreak havoc, but broader currents have dramatically transformed the information landscape. 

The ability to judge whether an emerging conspiracy theory is more or less likely to result in lasting harm is an imperfect science developed by experienced analysts who learn to recognize patterns over time. There is no magic formula to reliably calculate potential harm and no comprehensive way to automate threat detection and analysis. Some tools can speed up the collection of information, but proper analysis demands informed human judgement of the evidence. 

A well-rounded analysis of a conspiracy theory demands the consideration of contextual significance beyond simply factual accuracy or the often questionable engagement statistics that platforms self-report. Content espousing conspiracy theories offers audiences the same intangible draws as the traditional media it parallels including entertainment, identity and meaning. Conspiracy theories regularly surge in popularity for reasons wholly unrelated to the substance of their allegations and fade into obscurity as soon as the next sensational claim presents itself. Considerations of what constituencies a theory is reaching and whether a theory is supported by sources of material power, like political leaders, can sometimes reveal more clues about its potential impacts. 

Poor triage of which theories merit further attention can waste resources and, in some cases, embolden bad actors in generating impacts greater than they might have achieved organically. It can also fuel hysteria and misunderstandings of broader issues related to online information. The social disorders encouraging more people to embrace conspiratorial thinking are the forest or the bigger picture; misplaced fixation on the individual theories are the trees that can cause us to miss it. 

What follows is a set of questions that seasoned analysts might consider when analyzing potential risks related to any given conspiracy theory. Though non-exhaustive, ISD hopes these considerations may provide cursory guidelines for others to also assess corrosive narratives in the broader political landscape. Additionally, it seeks to promote better news media coverage, more effective civil society responses, and smarter legal and law enforcement responses when they are warranted. 

Considerations for better reporting and analysis 

Is the conspiracy theory gaining a foothold among unusual or especially harmful audience bases? 

A high level of online viewership or engagement with a conspiracy theory is not sufficient to predict its potential for harm; a stronger contextual consideration for analysis is the audiences which the theory reaches and an examination of how they react. 

Though conspiracy theories about topics like shipwrecks, pop stars and astrological events might receive large amounts of attention online, that does not necessarily indicate strong, latent social sentiments. For some audiences they are a source of entertainment rather than ideological inspiration or a spur to action. However, the wider spread of a theory can expose readers who are less equipped or prepared to confront misinformation, confusing them or corroding their trust. 

Inversely, conspiracy theories popular in hyperactive fringe spaces, but otherwise invisible to mainstream news audiences, can wreak serious harm. Explicitly stated “Great Replacement” conspiracy theories were, until relatively recently, the fodder of white supremacist forums and social media cliques. Despite their relative obscurity, some adherents have killed hundreds of people.   

It is critical therefore to assess which constituencies are engaging with a theory. Considering past behaviors— including propensity for violence— of a receiving audience can better inform analysis of a theory’s risk. 

Does the conspiracy theory risk interfering with broader public responses to consequential events? 

Conspiracy theories can pose special risks if they are able to create confusion amongst audiences about high-stakes decisions. Subjects including public safety, personal health, digital security and democratic processes are particularly ripe for conspiracy theorizing, and confusion on these topics can have severe impacts. This is true even where the theories do not achieve broad appeal among mainstream audiences. 

This dynamic was evident in misinformation and conspiracy theories relating to public health surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. The situation was worsened by ‘official’ information regarding prevention and treatment of the virus being sometimes confusing, contradictory or inaccessible. Bad actors exploited gaps in reliable information at a pace that left many newsrooms and fact-checkers scrambling. 

The noise of conspiracy theories can also prevent meaningful reporting. Over-saturation of conspiracy theories and misinformation around critical events and decisions can monopolize discussion by forcing good-faith actors into defensive positions. If media organizations and others have to spend substantial time countering those who seek to “flood the zone with sh**”, they are less able to deliver substantive information to audiences who need it. 

This consideration seeks to answer whether a conspiracy theory can be assessed as a significant obstacle to productive public conversation. The bar for judging when obstacles are significant enough to merit a response is context-dependent and can borrow assessments made from other considerations in this list. Poor quality information generally promotes a misinformed and distrustful public that is more vulnerable in its future encounters with conspiracy theories. 

Are powerful social and political forces giving the conspiracy theory significant attention or resources? 

When powerful forces such as social media platforms, financial backers and politicians provide direct or indirect support to a conspiracy theory, they give it weight it may not have attained on its own merits. Additionally, a blessing from social and political elites can increase the likelihood a conspiracy theory has impacts outside already conspiratorial audiences. 

Today, hyper-partisan conspiracy theorists are empowered to unprecedented degrees by both social media companies and mainstream political forces. Establishment powerbrokers have courted conspiracy theorists in their quests for influence over political discourse, rewarding some of them with access to serious political power and resources. The ostensible lines that historically separated earnest and monied political enterprises from flamboyant and extreme grassroots personalities have blurred, sometimes entirely dissolving.  

Today’s media landscape increasingly rewards conspiratorial content; creators who want to make a name for themselves may promote provocative narratives to stand out, including with influential audiences. This quest for influence and its corresponding feedback loop has placed narratives in front of decision-makers that might otherwise be too far-fetched to enter mainstream conversation. 

The perceived legitimacy granted by politicians or other social leaders amplifying a conspiracy theory can catapult it into a position where it can influence public behavior or government policy. The latter can affect a diverse set of constituents, including those completely ignorant to the theory’s existence. Financial backing for those who peddle such falsehoods can empower them to push their messages more frequently and for extra actions to be taken to further them. 

Even obscure conspiracy theories may warrant further attention if fanned by influential individuals and organizations. Popular conspiracy theories that remain gate-kept out of halls of power may still merit response, but those reactions should be proportionate and properly targeted. 

Is a conspiracy theory particularly likely to elicit violence or result in material offline harm? 

Inflammatory conspiracy theories that allege severe moral transgressions (like the sexual abuse of children) inherently carry greater potential to inflame their audiences into extreme reactions. By appealing to audiences’ sense of justice, they may compel a disregard for common social boundaries or laws related to their potential actions.  

Conspiracy theories can pose heightened risks when they target specific individuals and groups rather than abstractions of what they represent, such as ‘elites’, ‘governments’, or ‘authorities.’ Additionally, theories paired with specific calls for action may be more successful in provoking audiences to harm targets of the narrative; this can be heightened by conspiratorial frameworks that incorporate religious or quasi-religious overtones, or which feature assertions that inaction will result in devastating social, political or personal consequences. 

Some theories, like those that allege the US federal government is seeking to entrap supporters of former President Donald Trump and charge them with severe crimes, may inadvertently act as deterrents against potential harmful behaviors and undermine potential organizing.  

Considerations of the stakes that conspiracy theory hawks convey when discussing a narrative can provide insight into the spectrum of plausible audience reactions. There is always a possibility that conspiracy theories could motivate smaller numbers of individuals to act in harmful ways, but this consideration can be helpful in assessing broader risks that may be present. 

Do the people and institutions targeted by a conspiracy theory have the appropriate means to insulate themselves from risks? 

While conspiracy theories about elected officials and major public figures shouldn’t be dismissed outright, they don’t all necessitate breathless national news coverage or excessive responses from law enforcement and government. Higher-profile individuals and organizations are likely to have more adequate resources to address risks and deter serious harms to their safety and wellbeing. Lower-profile individuals, such as schoolteachers or grassroots activists, may not have the appropriate resources, leaving them more vulnerable to the damage a conspiracy theory can inspire. 

Theories targeting teachers for supposedly “indoctrinating” their students with LGBTQ+ content have elicited online harassment. In some cases, this has escalated to violent threats against them and their workplaces. These individuals are often unprepared for barrages of threats and are less likely to have a means of insulating themselves. Conspiracy theories about the President of the United States may warrant less concern, considering his access to institutions such as the US Secret Service, which can address and deter potential threats.  

High-profile figures and organizations have a baseline expectation that they will face some degree of public hostility that less-notable figures and institutions do not. The threshold for gauging potential harms to public figures demands a higher bar, as the negative byproducts of a theory’s spread are less likely to have devastating and irreversible effects on their lives. 


A conspiracy theory does not need to meet every consideration to be significant, and how individual analysts or reporters weigh each consideration may vary depending on context. However, the offered points of reflection can serve as a guide to responsible reporting and response around conspiracy theories that do not needlessly amplify harmful content. Analysis should consider the types of audiences a conspiracy theory is gaining traction with, whether they have access to political or social power, and the likelihood of the narrative resulting in offline harm. Analysts might also examine the potential consequences for the targets of conspiracy theories and their ability to protect themselves from harm. Doing so can help determine how to cover an emerging narrative, if at all.