Conspiracy stories pose a challenge to society
Right from the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, conspiracy stories and conspiracy theories have proliferated across our society. It seems that some people find a sort of guidance or strength in the idea that the pandemic is not a natural phenomenon or natural disaster but was in fact planned by (allegedly) powerful elites.Demonstrations that have been – and continue to be – held in many parts of the republic are linked to this type of thinking. Since April 2020, organizations like "Querdenken 711" ("Lateral thinking 711"), "Nicht ohne uns" ("Not without us") or "Corona Rebellen" ("Corona rebels") have been assembling such spontaneous and authorized rallies. They not only propagate the myth that the coronavirus is harmless; they also disseminate conspiracy narratives about how the pandemic started, and about its consequences. Empirical studies show that such demonstrations have definitely made their mark on public opinion. It is true that during the course of the pandemic a significant majority of people expressed support for government measures to tackle the Covid-19 outbreak, yet at the same time about a third of the population have been open to considering various conspiracy myths (1). Such findings are problematic, firstly because they are evidence that people can quickly be convinced to hold radical views, and secondly because such views encourage open rebellion against the measures taken to control the virus (e.g. social distancing), all of which can have negative consequences for the numbers and spread of infections.
What can foundations do?Managing catastrophes and crises requires a prudent and sensitive approach on the part of the government, public authorities and society. Social solidarity and mutual trust are needed now more than ever. If these two conditions are met, our society stands a good chance of overcoming the crisis and not suffering any greater damage. They are the two prerequisites for sustaining an effective policy of containment and recovery.
1) Conspiracy myths need us all to pay attentionWhen those peddling conspiracy theories manage to persuade a large number of people that one or other of their conspiracy stories is true, this is not a marginal issue but a real danger for our whole democratic, liberal society. The example of measles vaccination vividly illustrates this. Ever since the 1990s, ideologues and anti-vaxxers have been trying to spread the myth that MMR (measles-mumps-rubeola) vaccination triggers autism. Even though this claim was disproved a long time ago (2), the message is still spreading. What is more, in some countries the number of people contracting measles is rising (3). The issues are similar when it comes to people’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The only way to prevent an uncontrollable outbreak of infection is through responsible compliance with social distancing rules. In this context, a democratic state must be able to rely on people’s sense of personal responsibility. For this reason, it is imperative that people be informed about the impact of conspiracy myths in the real world. If people allow themselves to be swayed by such narratives, directly or indirectly, there can be dire consequences for society, the economy and people’s health. Intervening only at the point when numerous conspiracy myths are already circulating would be leaving it too late. What is therefore needed is programs, concepts and formats that will warn of the dangers posed by conspiracy-theorists and operate effectively outside of pandemic. What is likewise imperative is that those trying to prevent, intervene in and repress such theories coordinate their action.
2) Political education – especially for adults – has to be upgradedConspiracy-theorists are successful not least because not infrequently they find open ears for their stories, people believing them not so much because of the stories’ objective contents, but because the story-teller and the one who is listening have close personal ties. Platforms like YouTube accelerate this trend because here, for example, information reaches the recipient as a video message. YouTubers and other "story-tellers" meet the need for information, education and knowledge particularly for those people who otherwise have little access to different forms of contemporary political education. In the face of this trend that is primarily attributable to the success of social networks, an upgrade of political-education formats, using reputable, science-based contents, must be tackled with hard-headed vigor. We know from the studies currently available that it is especially adults aged 30 and over, who are attracted by conspiracy stories (4). It is almost impossible to reach this group by means of conventional political education. And this is where foundations have to start, by creating new educational options, both on the internet and on the spot in people’s home communities. The insight that sender and recipient have to have a close, trusting relationship for enabling effective learning should trigger some critical scrutiny, putting the quality of teaching, the concepts involved and the teachers themselves under the microscope. We, the society, should not turn our backs on who is trying to provide information with what means. People who have accepted this task out of passion or because they have the requisite professional skills need support, in the shape of advanced training, coaching or access to the relevant materials.
3) Support must be given to people exposed to environments that are open to considering conspiracy mythsWe know from counseling former extremists who have been trying to leave that scene that persons with close ties, who have kept in touch before, during and after their "life as an extremist", play an important role. Frequently, such persons are the father, mother or a good friend. At the same time, we also know that this task constitutes quite a challenge for such closely related persons, a challenge that more often than not results in the end of that relationship. During the Covid-19 pandemic, various counseling centers report they are being swamped by inquiries from such environments (5). People are looking for strategies, possibilities of keeping in touch, or they quite simply want to talk about their encounters with that person close to them, who has completely changed. The structure of the counseling centers available today is overtaxed by the current situation. Some reworking is required here fast. In structurally weak regions, especially, contact facilities that offer counseling and assistance for those affected are needed. People open to considering conspiracy theories will usually only go and seek some sort of counseling when they have realized that the path they are following might be the wrong one. In this case, it is extremely important there are counseling centers that see their role as giving advice on how to retreat. Here, the persons seeking advice are not deterred by being showered with reproaches or moral arguments, but encouraged by a professionally trained counselor who offers them a place they can use to organise their gradual detachment from conspiracy myths.
4) People’s trust in politics, the media and academia must be restoredOne of our modern society’s certainties is the fact that it is a society with divided responsibilities. At quite an early age, people embark on their different career paths and fields of expertise. This is most clearly manifested in science: today, scientists are highly specialized experts in their chosen fields, not more, not less. This sort of differentiation and specialization demands people’s trust in each other, and in the experts of the various specialist fields. Trust does not mean trusting blindly, nor does it replace the expert’s duty to behave transparently. However, when in representative studies around 50 % of the people in Germany say that they have more trust in their own gut feeling than in the advice of so-called experts (6), this seriously undermines the very foundations of our divided-responsibilities society. A large number of people mistrust the politicians, the media and the academic community. Conspiracy myths, such as the idea that these three groupings are only "puppets on a string" manipulated by the powers behind them, exacerbate this trend. To effectively bring about a change here, we very urgently need projects, ideas and measures suitable for restoring the trust in these three central fields. In this context, transparency and participation are just two of the keys. Access to these three fields must likewise be discussed. It is safe to assume that people would be more readily prepared to once more recognize the expertise of these three fields when people from their own environment, their own family, were to work and act in these fields. Therefore, programs aiming at enabling people to embark on the corresponding careers are highly welcome. At the same time, more public events and debates are needed on the local level where scientists, politicians and media professionals meet with the residents. The mistrust with which people view these fields may also be connected to people’s disappointment. Even though the circles disseminating fake news and conspiracy myths do not usually solve people’s problems, they do in fact absorb part of their disappointment. For this reason, some research should be done into what kind of disappointment people have had in connection with politics, the academia and media, and how the causes for such disappointment can be changed. Benjamin Winkler, Amadeu Antonio Foundation
Notes(1) See summary of the study entitled "Sie sind überall" ("They are everywhere") by Jochen Roose, commissioned by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation: Link
(2) Science portals and fact-check sites, such as "mimikama.at", regularly comment on the assertions put forward by the conspiracy-theory scene. In regard to the allegation that measles vaccination were to trigger autism, the portal’s comments include references to the evidenced inaccuracies and errors in the study that was supposed to elucidate this interrelationship, and to current reputable studies that were unable to find any interrelationship between vaccination and autism: Link
(3) See article on "Zeit-Online" dated 13 August 2019: Link(4) The "Autoritarismus-Studie" ("Authoritarianism Study") conducted in Leipzig in 2018 revealed that the group of people aged 30 and over is somewhat more open to considering conspiracy stories. See Link, Page 122ff.
(5) The Mainz-based psychologist Pia Lamberty, for example, draws attention to this situation in her Twitter account where she collects, among other things, inquiries from people affected and publishes these at irregular intervals, in full compliance with anonymity regulations.
(6) See summary of the study entitled "Verlorene Mitte – Feindselige Zustände" (‘The lost middle – Hostile conditions’) of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation 2020: Link