Conspiracy theories might be entertaining but they can also be dangerous. Sadly, what often starts off as a bit of fun can turn sour quite quickly – even if it’s laughing about the idea that Rihanna or Katy Perry are part of the Illuminati. We find out how in our latest episode of the Expert guide to conspiracy theories, a series from The Conversation’s Anthill podcast.
This episode delves into some of the psychology behind what makes conspiracy theories dangerous. It also explores the relationship between conspiracy theories and the radicalisation of extremists. And we find out the best ways to talk to people who believe in conspiracy theories.
Psychologist Steve Lewandowsky tells us there is a strong link between people who endorse conspiracy theories and reject climate science. What makes this dangerous is the way that conspiracy theories are used by climate change deniers to justify not acting to reduce carbon emissions:
When you ask climate change deniers: “Well, if you don’t think this is happening, why do you think all the scientists are agreeing?” Then they will deploy this conspiratorial rhetoric as a way of justifying to themselves why they don’t believe it.
Psychologist Daniel Jolley has also found that conspiracy theories that climate change is made up can influence how people respond to the issue. He says:
It makes you less likely to want to reduce your carbon footprint because you feel disillusioned. You feel powerless. If it’s all a conspiracy, why would I bother trying to reduce my carbon footprint?
We also find out more about the links between conspiracy theories and extremism. Political scientist Eirikur Bergmann tells us how populist politicians use conspiracy theories to their advantage, particularly one called the Great Replacement theory. This is the idea that white people in the west are at threat of invasion and being replaced by non-white immigrants.
Politicians don’t need to believe in a conspiracy theory themselves, or to convince others to fully believe the conspiracy theory they invoke. Bergmann says their main aim is to spread fear – and this is effective in rallying support. The problem is, politicians can’t always control how people interpret their rhetoric. We hear how attacks by white supremacists in Norway, the UK and New Zealand were all committed by people who took a threat of invasion literally.
We also learn how to engage with conspiracy theorists and how difficult it is to convince hardline believers that they are wrong. Psychologist Karen Douglas tells us that it’s easier to inoculate people against believing in conspiracy theories in the first place:
If you present people with the scientific correct information before they’re exposed to the conspiracy theory, then that theory doesn’t have as much impact on people’s attitudes. Whereas if you do it the other way around, and you present people with the conspiracy theory and then the correct information, the conspiracy belief tends to stay there.
Anthropologist Ela Drazkiewicz also shares insights from her research into attitudes toward HPV vaccination in Ireland. She explains how mistrust of the health authorities led to a dramatic 30% fall in vaccination uptake between 2014 and 2017. But she also offers hope, describing how the Irish health service managed to turn this around and restore trust in the vaccine.
The Anthill podcast is produced by Annabel Bligh and Gemma Ware. Sound design is by Eloise Stevens, with original music from Neeta Sarl and audio from Epidemic Sound. A big thanks to City, University of London, for letting us use their studios.