September 6, 2023 | GNET

GNET’s conspiracy theories series: The role of culture, community behind conspiracy-linked violence

ISD Senior Analyst Elise Thomas wrote an article for GNET as part of their Insights miniseries on conspiracy theories, extremism and violence. In the third of four articles by ISD staff, Elise outlines the key elements of violent conspiracy theories – culture, community and narratives.

Elise underlines how in order to get a complete understanding of the relationship between conspiracy theories and violent escalation, it is essential to look both at the narrative behind the conspiracy, as well as the community and culture within those movements.

“The vast majority of people who are influenced by conspiracy theories and disinformation, even those who adhere to extreme and violent worldviews, will never go on to commit physical violence as a result of those views. When a conspiracy theorist does escalate to violence, however, that action emerges partly due to individual circumstances, and partly due to the confluence of conspiratorial narratives and social dynamics within conspiracy communities to which that person belongs.”

She outlines five common narrative elements present in many of the conspiracy theory narratives linked to violent outcomes:

  1. Loss, grievance, and resentment
  2. Dualism (‘us vs. them’, ‘good and evil’)
  3. Secrets, lies and power
  4. Threats to innocent victims (often children)
  5. Apocalypticism

Elise goes on to focus on the role community and culture, and how it affects conspiracy believers: “Social dynamics play an integral role within communities and sub-cultures of people who fall into conspiracy theory circles online. At this level, community culture appears to influence not only the conspiracy narrative but also the propensity to escalate to physical violence and the form and targets of that violence.”

A clear example of culture and community motivation toward violence being the multiple mass shooters that have resulted from online conspiratorial circles in chan communities.

“The narratives and beliefs which these shooters espouse in their manifestos are often not so different from many other groups which are active online, but which do not produce the same level of deadly violence. There is something particular about how chan culture permits, incentivises and rewards acts of lone gun violence, especially those which follow the blueprint laid out by the Christchurch attack.”

Elise also refers to the role of demographic factors: “[…] the kind of people in a community shape the kind of community it becomes. Chan boards full of angry, isolated young men are more inclined to physical, lone-actor violence; conspiracy communities on Facebook and Telegram of mostly middle-aged and older people are more inclined towards extreme versions of ‘demanding to speak to the manager.’”

“Any analysis of conspiracy theory communities which focuses only on the ‘conspiracy theory’ and overlooks the ‘community’ would offer only an incomplete and potentially misleading view of how groups and individuals escalate to violence. Instead, the relationship between conspiracy theories and violent escalation must be studied in its context, as the result of a series of social processes as well as individual factors,” she concludes.

You can read the other articles in the series from ISD analysts on when conspiracies lead to violence, the violent outcomes of conspiracy beliefs, and the policy landscape around these issues