Conspiracy theories can take bewildering forms, as has become especially clear in the current era, when a recently deposed U.S. president became instrumental in spreading and popularizing an entire interlocking universe of demonstrably false conspiratorial narratives. But the historical development of conspiracy theories is becoming clearer, thanks to research across multiple disciplines, synthesized for a broad audience in German scholar Michael Butter's recent book, "The Nature of Conspiracy Theories."
None of that work in any of those disciplines — from psychology and sociology to philosophy, literature and cultural studies — gives us any reason to believe that conspiracy theories are going away anytime soon, simply because Donald Trump has left office. But they can help us make sense out of their persistence, which is why Salon reached out to Butter for an extended conversation.
In the first part of this interview, published two weeks ago, Butter — who teaches the history of American literature and culture at the University of Tübingen — discussed how conspiracy theories were long taken for granted. Winston Churchill, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln offer just a few entirely typical examples of major historical figures who believed in them. But conspiracy theories aren't universal throughout human history, Butter explained: They depend on the existence of a public sphere and the right sort of media environment.
Centuries before the internet, the printing press was responsible for the birth of conspiracy theories in their modern form. Butter also described the ways conspiracy theories can be categorized — they describe conspiracies from above or from below, from outside a society or from within — as well as the social and psychological needs they meet, and how they underwent a three-phase process of stigmatization that pushed them out of the mainstream after the 1950s.
In part two of the interview, Butter describes the three-phase process that brought conspiracy theories back into the public sphere as we know them today, their structural similarities with populism, the important case study of Donald Trump as a case study, what can be done to counter them and more. This transcript has been edited, as usual, for clarity and length.
In describing the comeback of conspiracy theory — which perhaps culminated with Donald Trump and QAnon — you outline what might be called a three-phase process of evangelism, in whose final stage we reach online conspiracy theories, which you characterize as "more rumors than fully fledged theories." How did this evangelical revival begin, and what defined it?
Conspiracy theories never really became unpopular. They were just flying under the radar for a while, in Europe far more so than in the United States. In the United States, conspiracy theories were always more part of popular discourse because of the [John F.] Kennedy assassination, because of Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King and also Watergate, than they were part of public discourse in Europe. Still, you could make the argument that full-blown conspiracy theories in the U.S. as well in Germany during the '70s and 80s and '90s were part of rather hermetic subcultures that are difficult to enter and whose members have problems articulating their ideas and finding a broader audience.
In the United States, of course, the emergence of talk radio and other venues, even before the internet, helps these people voice their ideas, but if you look at the Western world in general, I think it's really the emergence of the internet that turns these subcultures into what we could now call counter-publics, publics that are more easily found and whose members have far less trouble now finding a public for their ideas.
This again happens in different steps, in that during the late '90s we have these precursors of the internet like USENET, where people are writing in forums. Of course this is not yet happening in life on any large scale, because people are not online all the time. You need a modem, you need to connect through your landline telephone and you can't do that all the time. So you might download comments and then contribute to the discussion and people might look it up later. But on the other hand, it's very close to what's happening in social media these days — just a little slower.
Then, of course, a couple of years later we get platforms like YouTube where you can upload your own conspiracy film, something that before the advent of digital technology was really only possible for professional filmmakers and people who were very rich and who could afford all this equipment. Now you can just do these things on your laptop. The first version of the "Loose Change" films, which had tens of millions of viewers, was allegedly produced for just $1,200 on a laptop. Suddenly you can do that and put it online and you will find an increasingly big audience.
Then the third step would be what's happening to conspiracy theories because of social media — the echo chamber they increasingly generate and the specific conditions that they impose on how messages can be framed. If you have only 140 or 280 characters at your disposal, you can't really develop the conspiracy theory in the way a 90-minute YouTube video can do it. You have to restrict yourself to certain bold claims, and you don't provide any evidence.
I think in American culture the first case we can observe is what is called the "birther" conspiracy theory, which claims that Barack Obama was never eligible to become president because he allegedly was not born in the United States. I tried very very hard, with students of mine, to find anything on the internet where this conspiracy theory is developed in detail in the way older conspiracy theories were developed. But it's not really there. You only find the rumors, you find little bits and pieces of evidence. People taking apart the birth certificate and arguing that it's a forgery. You don't find a full-blown, completely developed conspiracy narrative about that.
At the same time, it's not the case that one of these online forums entirely replaces the others. Even now, in 2021, we still find fully fledged conspiracy theories. It's not all about conspiracy rumors these days, and it seems to me that these longer documentaries are even making a comeback. So there is this film "Plandemic" that you probably have heard about, which is really returning to a form that was popular 10 years ago with the "Loose Change" films, and there's a second part that's up now which is called "Indoctrination," which I think runs nearly two hours. So these older forms don't disappear and they're coexisting with the newer ones now.
You talk about how conspiracy theories today have a lot in common with populism, even though historically that's not usually the case. What do they have in common, and what distinguishes them?
There are a couple of structural analogies between populism and conspiracy. For example, both of them clearly divide the world into good and evil. For conspiracy theories, it's always the conspirators and the victims of the conspiracy and for populism is always the elite and the common people, and the elite is always acting against the interests of the common people.
This is coming back to what we talked about earlier, that contemporary conspiracy theories usually target an alleged conspiracy from above, and it's usually elites that are imagined as conspiring from above. So we could say that both populism and contemporary Western conspiracy theories have a common enemy and that is the elite.
Now, of course not all populist discourse accuses the elite of conspiring actively against the people. But usually accusations of conspiracy are one way of explaining why the elite is acting against the interests of the people that tends to coexist with other explanations within a populist movement.
For example, very often the elite is being accused of having lost touch with reality, of neglecting the common people — they're so caught up in other things, so detached from reality, that they no longer know what people need. Sometimes the elite is also accused of being corrupt, meaning that everybody that wants to just enrich themselves — which is why they act against the interests of the people — but they're not following one common systematic plan. And then there are those people who say, "Wait a minute, it's not that they are detached from reality. It's not that they're all corrupt. They are all part of a devious plot."
To a certain degree these explanations can overlap and the accusation of conspiracy grows naturally out of the other explanations. So we could say that accusations of conspiracy are one specific way in which members of the populist movement make sense of the fact that the elite is allegedly acting against the interests of the people.
Another analogy is that both populism and conspiracy theory are stigmatized in similar terms, aren't they?
Yes. Both populism and conspiracy theory are stigmatizing terms. If you call somebody a conspiracy theorist, you imply that you don't need to take them seriously, that this person is making baseless claims. If you call somebody a populist — I would suspect even more so in Europe than in the United States — you are also accusing them of being a fraud, of being somebody who is offering simplistic solutions to complex problems and is trying to rile up the masses.
Something we've observed again and again is that populists and members of populist movements accept people who believe in conspiracy theories, even though they themselves do not believe in these conspiracy theories. They say, "Well, you know, the elites are looking down on these people and think they are idiots because they believe in conspiracy theories. But they also think that we are idiots and should not be taken seriously, so there should be a space for these people within our movement." That's another parallel between populism and conspiracy theory.
You deal with Donald Trump as a case study, illustrating where conspiratorial thinking has most recently come to fruition. How did he rely on conspiracy rumors at first, rather than full-blown theories?
Trump is an interesting case, in that I think that he has been using conspiracy theories and conspiracy rumors very smartly from basically 2011 or 2012 onward, though most recent developments may have changed this. But initially he uses conspiracy rumors — those about Barack Obama's alleged birth outside of the country — to turn himself into a political figure. And this works — he's quite popular with Republican voters, suddenly, early in 2012 — and then he shuts up again, because he doesn't want to run against Obama just yet.
But he resuscitated these accusations against Obama and against conspiring elites in 2015, when he decided to run for the presidency. The interesting thing about Trump is that he usually does not articulate conspiracy theories. He doesn't really commit to anything; he restricts himself to conspiracy rumors. He just makes very short accusations, and usually leaves a safety net for himself. So he will always use phrases like "A lot of people are saying," or "I hear all the time," or "I've been told," or "Think about that." I would argue this is a strategy, because he does not want to alienate traditional Republican voters who have very little sympathy for conspiracy theories, and also people who might be receptive to his increasing populist stances, but who also favor other explanations of why elites are neglectful or corrupt over explanations of conspiracy.
But then, as you describe, that changed. When did that happen, and why?
It's only a couple of weeks before the 2016 election that he really makes this move from conspiracy rumors to conspiracy theories. In October 2016, the TV debates are over and he is behind in the polls to Hillary Clinton, and this tape has just been leaked to the press where he talks about sexually harassing women. I think this is the moment where Trump realizes that there is no chance that he's going to win over undecided voters or moderate voters. He knows that a lot of Republican voters will vote for him because they always vote for the Republican candidate and they really hate Hillary Clinton, but he now can reach out to people who are really receptive to his populist and conspiracist rhetoric.
So in his first public appearance after his tape goes public, he steps in front of his audience in Florida and talks for 45 minutes about a huge global conspiracy led by international banks and Hillary Clinton in order to destroy the American people. So here he really becomes a full-blown conspiracy theorist, because he knows he needs those people to vote for him now. This works and he wins the election, because, of course, of a couple of other factors interfere in his favor — James Comey's letter and also other things — and after the election he goes back to conspiracy rumors, at least usually.
This is the phase of the process I describe in the book. But since then things have developed further, and my impression is that what happened to Trump is something that has happened to other political leaders who initially use conspiracy theories strategically as well, for example, Viktor Orbán in Hungary. It seems to me that Trump at some point starts believing some of his own conspiracy theories that so far he has only spread strategically.
That seems to apply both to the accusations against Hunter Biden that are connected to Ukraine — because otherwise there would be no point in sending Rudy Giuliani to Ukraine to investigate all of this, and to expose himself in a manner that led to the first impeachment — and secondly, Trump had been talking about election fraud for many years, even before the 2016 election. Then, after that election, he said there had been illegal votes cast, and this is how he explains that he lost the popular vote.
He systematically picks up on this again from June 2020 onward, in order to cast doubt on the outcome of the 2020 election. It seems to me that this is something that by now he genuinely believes in himself, because there is no longer any discernible strategy in maintaining these conspiracy theories. Even now, at the moment that we're speaking, with the second impeachment going on, he first ordered his lawyers to focus on the election fraud, not on arguing that impeaching him while he was no longer in office is unconstitutional. So he seems to have fallen victim to some of his own conspiracy theories.
You have some prescriptions for what to do about conspiracy theories. Regarding specific ones you recommend "pre-debunking." How does that work?
We know that debunking is very problematic. It's very difficult to convince people who already believe in conspiracy theories, or are drawn to conspiracy theories, that they are wrong. But we know from a couple of studies — and I know from conversations with teachers, for example — that something that what works much better is the so-called pre-debunking, which means you teach people about the arguments of specific conspiracy theories, but also about the way in which conspiracy theories generally work, before they are exposed to them. Of course schools would be the place to do that. If you equip people with the right education and the right knowledge, then the likelihood that they will come to believe in conspiracy theories significantly decreases.
This is something that we can explain historically, if we return to the stigmatization of conspiracy theories during the 1950s and 60s, which was also partly motivated by explaining to people why conspiracy theories are bad explanations, how they overemphasize intentions and why this is problematic. We know that educating people is a good means against belief in conspiracy theories, because education seems to be negatively linked to belief in conspiracy theories. While there are, of course, highly educated and intelligent people who believe in conspiracy theories, the likelihood that you will believe in them decreases with your level of education. So I think that education and pre-debunking really are key to fighting conspiracy theories.
You also speak more generally about social literacy, media literacy and historical literacy. Explain briefly why those are important in combatting conspiracy theories.
Media literacy is of course extremely important. People need to know which sources, especially on the internet, they can trust and which sources they cannot trust. Why does it make more sense to trust an article by the Washington Post or the New York Times than to trust something that somebody just writes in social media? People need to know about how the media work, how the internet works. They need to understand the search algorithms of something like the Google engine, that this is not an objective window on reality, but the results you get are predetermined by your earlier searches, for example, so that there is a certain subjectivity there right from the start. This is something people need to understand.
Right. Then explain what you mean by social literacy?
It's important to teach people about how politics works, how society works and why it is impossible to plan all of these things years or sometimes even decades in advance. These processes are extremely complex, which basically means that a large-scale conspiracies are virtually impossible. And this is basically what people realized in the '50s and '60s, when the stigmatization occurred.
Finally, historical literacy: What's most important here?
Historical literacy for me would mean that you study both historical conspiracies and historical conspiracy theories. Of course there have always been conspiracies, and there will always be conspiracies in the future. But if you look at historical conspiracies, you realize that in scope and reach they are much different from what conspiracy theories imagine. Far fewer people are involved than conspiracy theories claim. In the assassination of Julius Caesar it's just a couple of dozen people. Even in the toppling of Iranian Prime Minister Mossadegh, back in the 1950s, by MI6 and the CIA, it's just a couple of dozen people, as opposed to faking the moon landing or orchestrating the 9/11 attack as an inside job, which would have required tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of people.
And then real conspiracies usually revolve around singular events like a coup-d'état or an assassination. Conspiracy theories might begin with a single event but then we move on very quickly to all of history being a plot and people being deceived for years and decades.
Finally, if you study historical conspiracies, you also realize that usually something happens that the conspirators have not foreseen. Karl Popper writes in 1949 in "The Open Society and Its Enemies," when he coined the term "conspiracy theory" in its modern meaning, that the conspirators rarely enjoy the fruits of their labor. What he means by that is that something usually goes wrong. Think again of Julius Caesar. Roman senators killed Caesar because they saw him as a danger to the republic. They succeed in killing Caesar, but of course what ensues is a civil war and at the end of the civil war the republic ends. The time of the empire and the emperors begins, and the republic is history forever.
Or think of the recent Russian efforts to assassinate the opposition leader Alexei Navalny, to poison him. This didn't work in the end. He was brought to Germany and he was cured and now he's back in Russia and he's just been sentenced to two and a half years in prison, but he remains a real danger to the regime there. This was a conspiracy, but it didn't succeed the way it was imagined, and this failure is something for which there is no place in conspiracy theories. So studying historical conspiracies, I think, can alert us to seeing where conspiracy theories go wrong.
What's the most important question I didn't ask, and what's the answer to that question?
Not all conspiracy theories are dangerous, and not all conspiracy theorists are dangerous. It is important to contextualize. But generally speaking, there are three ways in which conspiracy theories can be dangerous.
First, they can be a catalyst for radicalization and thus ultimately lead to violence. People who believe in conspiracy theories can feel justified or even obliged to take up arms to interfere in the struggle between good and evil that is allegedly going on in front of them.
Second, medical conspiracy theories can be dangerous because people who deny established medical knowledge and dismiss it as part of a devious plot can endanger themselves and others because they do not take the necessary precautions.
Third, conspiracy theories can be a danger to democracy if they undermine people's trust in democratic processes and institutions. This danger is particularly high if a lot of people believe in these conspiracy theories and if they are articulated by people in power who stir up the masses.
All three dimensions can be observed in the storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6. People who do not wear masks or socially distance, because they think that the coronavirus is harmless, violently attack the heart of American democracy because they have been stirred up by a populist leader.