How do conspiracy theories arise?

A scientist explains This is how conspiracy theories work

Michael Butter has been in demand since the outbreak of the corona pandemic. When it comes to conspiracy theories, there is almost no getting around the Tübingen professor, as he is considered the expert in the field. And as an Americanist. If you study American studies, you don't necessarily have to deal with conspiracy theories and conspiracies if you want to understand American literature, but you can't get around it, says Butter on the phone. And so the 43-year-old familiarized himself with the topic for his doctorate - and never got away from it.

Professor Butter, why are you researching conspiracy theories? How did that happen?

I wrote my doctoral thesis on depictions of Adolf Hitler in American literature. There are a lot of novels about Hitler's clones, daughter, Hitler's son - as part of conspiracy scenarios. Most of the time it's about sneaking into the White House and becoming president. And when you get there, you have to deal with conspiracies and conspiracy theories. And then somehow I never got away from it.

What is a conspiracy theory for you?

First, conspiracy theories assume that everything was planned, so nothing happens by chance. Second, they assume that nothing is what it seems, so you have to look behind the scenes to see what is really going on. And thirdly, when you do that, you realize that everything is connected. That there are connections between people, events and institutions that one would never have thought possible.

What is so dangerous about such theories?

Not all conspiracy theories are dangerous, nor are all conspiracy theorists. But we now know that they can be problematic in several ways. First: Conspiracy theories can lead to radicalization and thus also to people who take up arms, like in Christchurch or Halle. Second, medical conspiracy theories are often problematic. Anyone who thinks that the AIDS virus does not exist, that the corona virus is completely harmless or that vaccination causes autism, will often not have themselves and their relatives vaccinated and thereby endanger themselves and others.

And thirdly?

Third, conspiracy theories can disrupt the democratic process. Especially when they assume that all political parties are under one roof, that it doesn't matter who you vote for, because people only serve the same masters anyway. Then people either withdraw and become disenchanted with politics. Or they vote for those who generate themselves as the real alternative, but normally have nothing to contribute to solving the problems.

How do the theories differ from real conspiracies?

A real conspiracy can be proven beyond doubt. As a rule, far fewer people are involved in it than in what conspiracy theorists imagine. And real conspiracies often achieve their goals very quickly. But then things happen that you didn't foresee and can't control. Think of the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC. Several dozen Roman senators have conspired against him. The short-term goal - to kill Caesar - is achieved. But the real goal of preserving the Roman Republic is not achieved at all. The death of Caesar was followed by a civil war, at the end of which the Roman Republic is history.

How long have conspiracy theories existed?

Research suggests that there were precursors in ancient times, in ancient Greece and ancient Rome. Modern conspiracy theories only emerged in the early modern period, in the course of the religious crisis around 1580, because only then did the conditions exist that are needed for conspiracy theories: a reading public in which texts can circulate. And letterpress printing, so that the texts can even exist.

How do conspiracy theories arise?

Conspiracy theories are attempts to explain the world. There is often the idea that conspiracy theories are particularly popular in times of crisis, so I'm not sure if that's true. I think conspiracy theories have almost always had a boom over the past three hundred years. In the past few years mainly through the Internet. You make a strong offer of meaning and explanation. They rule out chaos and chance. You create a story in which everything comes together, in which everything makes sense. This is very attractive to many people.

Due to the corona pandemic, these theories are booming again. Are there differences between the classic conspiracy theories and the theories about corona?

As long as they were fully accepted and anchored in the middle of society, conspiracy theories were directed primarily against outsiders and minorities and enemies from outside. Mostly it was the elites who spread these conspiracy theories and accused the weaker of conspiracies. Today it's completely different: Today, conspiracy theories have tended to wander to the margins of society. In this respect, they are a means for people to target the powerful and to accuse them of conspiring.

Donald Trump also often emphasizes that the consequences of the corona virus are being exaggerated. Is he a conspiracy theorist?

If you define it as saying that a conspiracy theorist is someone who believes in these theories, then I'm not sure Trump is one. If a conspiracy theorist is someone who promotes conspiracy theories, then Trump is definitely one. It is true that he often only spreads rumors, but also veritable conspiracy theories at crucial moments.

Who is particularly susceptible to conspiracy theories?

People who feel powerless or who have trouble dealing with uncertainty. Demographic factors, on the other hand, are more difficult to identify. However, men tend to be more receptive than women. At the same time, the higher the level of education, the lower the likelihood of believing in conspiracy theories.

Why do more men believe in such theories?

Because conspiracy theories presumably provide an answer to a crisis of traditional masculinity that has prevailed in the western world for several decades. Masculinity is still very much defined in terms of a protective and caring role. Conspiracy theories often respond to processes such as globalization, through which the role of protector and provider is called into question.

How big is the risk of falling for conspiracy theories without realizing it?

That depends on how much you know about conspiracy theories. They often disguise themselves by operating with the gesture of asking. But in doing so they are all the time implying the answer they are trying to give. So that can happen at some point. That is why it is important to educate about conspiracy theories.

How?

It is important that the education takes place at school. That is where it can be conveyed most systematically.

At many demos, citizens are currently complaining that democracy is supposedly being undermined.

It makes a difference whether I find it problematic how political decisions are made in the Corona crisis or whether I claim that there is a systematic plan to abolish democracy behind it.

How should politics deal with it?

In the vast majority of cases, legitimate criticism is easy to distinguish from conspiracy theories. In this respect, one should take legitimate criticism seriously and clearly identify conspiracy theories as such.

How many people in Germany believe in it?

One can only appreciate that. On the one hand, there are surveys that ask about specific conspiracy theories - 17 percent believe in theories about the attacks of September 11, 17 percent believe in those about the moon landing, says a study by the University of Mainz. The Mitte study from Leipzig asked about conspiracy theories for the first time in 2019. Almost half of the German population agrees with certain statements there. I think the truth is in between. Then perhaps a quarter to a third of the German population is susceptible to conspiracy theories.

You will often receive mail from or meet with conspiracy theorists
Lectures. How do you deal with that?

When people are polite, I also speak politely to them or reply to their emails. If they abuse me, I'll ignore it or delete the email.

How should you meet conspiracy theorists in your private sphere?

If these are people who are completely convinced of their conspiracy theories, then you normally have no chance with arguments. We know from studies that staunch conspiracy theorists believe their theories even more after being confronted with conclusive counter-evidence. If you are close to family or friends, you should try to ask questions, to be open, to try to ask for details.

And what about people who are not completely convinced?

Facts help a lot. Then it is very important to point out that this is a conspiracy theory, a problematic reasoning, that it may also be very problematic sources that it relies on.

What do you think is the most incredible conspiracy theory?

I still find the reptilian conspiracy theory somewhat incredible - that we are ruled by a race of alien reptiles that came to Earth many thousands of years ago and feed on our negative energy. I am always surprised how many people in the Anglo-American region believe in it.
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About Michael Butter


After graduating from high school at Hellenstein-Gymnasium in Heidenheim, Michael Butter (43) studied English, German and history to become a teacher in Freiburg. From 2004 to 2007 he did his doctorate in American studies in Bonn. In 2012 he received his habilitation in Freiburg. A year later he became a professor of American studies in Wuppertal before moving to the University of Tübingen in 2014. There he researches, among other things, conspiracy theories and heroic tales. Butter is the author of several books. In his book "Nothing is as It Seems", published in 2018, he deals with the structure and dissemination of conspiracy theories.