ISD Senior Manager for Policy and Research, Jakob Guhl wrote an article for GNET as part of their Insights miniseries on conspiracy theories, extremism and violence. In the first of the four articles, Jakob explains why and when conspiracy beliefs lead to violence. He discusses the complex relationship between violence, extremism and conspiracy theories and outlines the implications for research, policymaking and platform response.
“Over the past decades, conspiracy theories have become the glue that binds together different elements of illiberal and anti-democratic movements. The COVID-19 pandemic was crucial for this proliferation of conspiracy networks across international contexts, allowing extremist movements to enlarge their sphere of influence to expanded audiences,” he wrote.
Jakob begins by explaining what conspiracy theories are and what distinguishes them from dis- and misinformation: “Conspiracy theories are not necessarily false but may be based on a grain of truth, contain plausible elements or, in rare cases, turn out to be true. Conspiracy theories are therefore distinct from, but may overlap with dis- or misinformation. While conspiracy theories may rely on false, misleading or manipulated content, this is not a defining feature of them (similarly, content promoting dis- or misinformation does not need to imply there is a conspiracy). […] However, conspiracy theories often make claims that are almost impossible to verify. Rather than being inherently false, they are unfalsifiable-” meaning they are difficult to prove.
He lists the three key premises of conspiratorial beliefs as ‘nothing happens by accident’, ‘nothing is as it seems’, and ‘everything is connected’. “Those who base their interpretations of social phenomena on these three premises will be prone to what is called illusory pattern perception – believing unconnected events are connected and are controlled by hidden forces with selfish intentions.”
Jakob goes on to explain why and when conspiracy theories may lead to violence. “There is undoubtedly a wealth of examples where conspiracy theories have seemingly directly inspired, or at least played a role in motivating groups or individuals to engage in violent action. […] Research has shown links between conspiracy theories and the intent to commit violence, especially in people with low self-control, who do not believe themselves to be bound by legal norms and who are confident in their ability to attain certain outcomes through their actions.”
He further outlines other factors that may make conspiracy theorists prone to violence, including distrust in institutions, a strong ‘us vs. them’ mindset, identity fusion with the in-group, threat perception, and approval of violent rhetoric. However, he concludes that the highest risk results from conspiracy theorists who can identify a clear target for their anger. “While there are many examples of conspiracy theories inspiring violence, there remains a major gap in our empirical understanding of why only a small minority of believers commit acts of violence. Understanding how specific violent harms are associated with conspiracy theories is crucial for informing efforts by law enforcement, tech platforms and prevention practitioners, all of whom require guidance on what manifestations of conspiracy theories are more likely to lead to different types of violence.”
You can read the other articles in the series from ISD analysts on the violent outcomes of conspiracy beliefs, the relationship between key elements of violent conspiracy theories, and the policy landscape around these issues.