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Three Misconceptions about Conspiracy Theories

By Rudy ReichstadtApril 17, 2024,

Conspiracists may pose as harmless skeptics driven by a thirst for justice but the reality is quite the opposite

Donald Trump speaking at CPAC 2011 in Washington, D.C. (photo credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

Rarely have conspiracy theories and their dangers been so much in the spotlight. From the “stolen election” (coming from Donald Trump and his insurrectionist acolytes who stormed the US Capitol on January 6, 2021), vaccines and COVID-19, QAnon and flat earth theories, to invented claims that prominent women are really men, wild assertions about eclipses, or negationism around the October 7, 2023 Hamas pogrom in Israel, public discussion is increasingly highlighting the harmfulness of conspiracy-mongering.

Yet at a time when science is met with skepticism, the media faces an unprecedented lack of public trust, and factual truths are constantly contested in the name of corrosive relativism, is it any wonder that misconceptions about the conspiracy phenomenon proliferate like fake news?

The first of these misconceptions is that conspiracism – the tendency to wrongfully suspect manipulations where there are none – is merely a "media bubble," an unjustified "moral panic" that, for obscure reasons, the majority of journalists, intellectuals, and researchers deliberately maintain.

Like the skeptics who are convinced that global warming does not exist, some deny the very existence of conspiracism, dismissing the substantial evidence that proves otherwise. And if these “deniers” concede that conspiracy theories have always existed, they continue to bury their heads in the sand. Even when presented with data confirming a growing adherence to the “they hide everything from us” narrative.

The “reassurers” agree that conspiracism is more prevalent than before the internet, yet they immediately add that it is not a serious threat and therefore is probably inconsequential and “overblown”. Never mind that the correlation between political extremism and conspiracism is well-documented.


The “conspiracy-friendly” rejoice that what is called “conspiracism” is growing: to hear them tell it, conspiracism is just another name for a healthy insurrection of the “voiceless” against the elite's hijacking of their speech. They forget that some of the most prominent conspiracists are anything but underdogs, often exploiting, with shameless demagoguery, the grievances of the excluded against the so-called “establishment” of which they are in fact pure products. As Carl Miller, Research Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos, writes: “Conspiracy theories let you claim, imply, or suggest that you’re fighting the establishment even when you are the establishment.”

This brings us to the second major misconception about conspiracism as the messy, volcanic expression of a genuine thirst for justice as much as a thwarted love of freedom. The explanation is appealing at first glance. But how can this be reconciled with the fact that the most active conspiracists are also those most likely to idolize dictators? How is it that these supposed truth-seekers are so fond of Donald Trump, whom the Washington Post showed to have made, on average, twenty false or misleading claims per day during his presidency? And why does attachment to democracy decrease as adherence to conspiracy theories increases?

These champions of doubt question the virtues of democracy, which brings us to the third misconception: that conspiracists are merely skeptics. However, all experience contradicts this working hypothesis. A conspiracist may cloak himself or herself in skepticism, but do not be deceived: the stance is a sham. Far from doubting everything, the conspiracy monger shelters from realities that are inconvenient. Alien to any methodical doubt, his suspicions are selective. The independence of mind that he or she claims to cherish is often nothing more than the gullible bleating of someone who, hidden behind a pseudonym, denounces the entire world as “sheep”... without realizing that he himself is part of the flock of dupes.

For sixteen years, Conspiracy Watch has been diligently spreading awareness about the perils of conspiracy theories through real-time monitoring and insightful analyses. To keep our mission alive, we rely on the critical support of our readers.

Rudy Reichstadt
Rudy Reichstadt
Editorial Director of Conspiracy Watch, Rudy Reichstadt has published widely on conspiracy theories and online hate speech, including “Extending the domain of denial: conspiracism and negationism”. He is the author of two non-fiction books (in French), “L’Opium des imbéciles” (2019) and “Au cœur du complot” (2023). A regular contributor to the French newspaper Franc-Tireur, Rudy also co-hosts “Complorama”, a bi-monthly podcast on public radio France Info. He founded Conspiracy Watch (see the French edition here) in 2007.
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