ISD’s Head of Policy and Research, Milo Comerford, wrote an article for GNET as part of their Insights miniseries on conspiracy theories, extremism and violence. In the second of the four articles by ISD analysts, Milo focuses on the diverse violent outcomes of conspiracy beliefs, outlining a taxonomy of the diverse manifestations of violence that have resulted from conspiracies, beyond violent extremism and terrorism. However, he emphasises how these theories cause harm in non-violent ways as well: “This can include disengagement from the state and reduced cooperation with government (e.g. homeschooling, refusal to pay taxes or lower vaccine uptake), as well as longer-term threats to democratic institutions and civic culture.”
Milo outlines seven manifestations of conspiracy-linked violence:
- Extremist or terrorist violence
- Interpersonal violence, including misogynistic violence and domestic abuse
- Coordinated and targeted violence, including online abuse of individuals on the basis of identity
- Insurrectional violence, such as attempts to overthrow democratically elected governments and overturn the results of free and fair elections
- Communal violence
- Attacks on critical infrastructure, often adjacent to accelerationist attempts to promote the collapse of society and bring about political change
- Denial or distortion of historic violence, in particular the Holocaust and other genocides
Milo references the kidnapping of an 8-year-old from her grandmother’s home by the girl’s mother in France in 2021 as a case study into how conspiracy theories can fuel a wide-range of violent behaviours, including domestic and intrafamilial violence.
He goes on to highlight the importance of understanding the linkages between conspiracy theories, extremism and violence: “Rather than adopting conceptualisations framing QAnon as ‘the new ISIS’, and falling into the same traps of broad securitisation that have challenged counter-extremism policies to date, it is crucial to understand the more nuanced violent outcomes emerging from such movements, ranging from self-harm to abuse and harassment.”
Finally, he emphasises the importance of ensuring frameworks and responses to conspiracy theories are not built exclusively around Western contexts: “Beyond focusing on the North American and European manifestations of conspiracy movements such as QAnon and prominent episodes like January 6th, there is much less understanding of the international harms picture, especially the role of online conspiracies in fomenting communal violence in contexts like Myanmar and India.”
You can read the other articles in the series from ISD analysts on when conspiracies lead to violence, the relationship between key elements of violent conspiracy theories, and the policy landscape around these issues.