Large flows of information, especially in the digital space during quarantine, provide access not only to relevant but also to unreliable information, which is often related to conspiracy theories. It is sometimes extremely difficult to identify and distinguish them from science-based theories because not all the facts presented can be verified. However, there are several aspects that help recognize conspiracy theories. Mantas Martišius, an expert in information wars and an associate professor at the Faculty of Communication of Vilnius University, discussed them on the Vilnius University (VU) podcast Mokslas Be Pamokslų.
Conspiracy theories are based on the hierarchical structure of the world
According to Associate Professor M. Martišius, the concept of conspiracy theory could be described as a certain set of facts or positions that explains a certain phenomenon. However, unlike, for example, economic theory, which explains the growth or fall of the economy, criminal theory, which explains changes in crime and is based on certain statistics or data, conspiracy theories are often based on assumptions that are extremely difficult to verify.
“Some theories show certain correlation, for example, that lowering taxes will increase productivity, making people earn more and ultimately live better, while conspiracy theories manipulate a combination of hard-to-verify facts and positions. For example, that foreign special services are carrying out certain processes, that people in high positions are engaged in corruption agreements, and some facts may seem logical, as conspiracy theorists claim they base their statements on some kind of leaked data, however, we cannot verify them and determine whether these theories are true or false,” the information wars expert said.
According to the researcher, the most popular way to interpret phenomena in conspiracy theories is based on the principle of implementing a certain scenario. In this case, all events are not interpreted as overlapping circumstances but as a well-thought-out plan developed by higher institutions. Conspiracy theories raise the idea of a hierarchical structure where everything is ruled by certain powerful forces, special services, Freemasonry, national minorities, aliens, and so on.
“Conspiracy theories even explain the pandemic as a plan organized by the secret services, say, from the US or China. It’s unlikely that there is a more powerful organization than these institutions, but it is impossible to prove or disprove that something doesn’t exist. After all, it is impossible to deny the existence of aliens but there are no specific facts, which is very favorable to the conspiracy theorists who claim otherwise,” Associate Professor M. Martišius said.
Reasons for origin
According to Associate Professor M. Martišius, conspiracy theories come to be for several reasons. One of them is that political groups benefit from interpretations of political processes in persuading and attracting as many people as possible. Conspiracy theories have been developed for decades to this end.
“Back in tsarist Russia, there was great dissatisfaction with the reforms in the Russian Empire: the abolition of slavery was protracted, the issue of land laws was unresolved, urban culture was developing, and the proletariat opposed the tsarist regime. Therefore, the theory was developed at the time that anyone who wanted to overthrow the tsarist government was anti-Russian and ruled by Jews who were trying to take over the world,” said the researcher at VU Faculty of Communication.
Another reason explaining the emergence and spread of conspiracy theories is the lack or absence of information. According to Associate Professor M. Martišius, people are always looking for an answer to the question why?, and if they don’t get an answer from reliable sources, there are always those who provide their versions of the events: “Studies show that the explanation for why is crucial. There was an experiment where one person asked if he could jump the queue at a copier. Each time an explanation was given as to why the person was asking for this favor, for example, because he was very late in completing a particular task, people would let him go first.”
Associate Professor M. Martišius compares this interpretation of phenomena chosen by the proponents of conspiracy theories with religions, which also seek to answer questions of concern but it is impossible to empirically verify the veracity of many answers: “Why do people go to church even though they don’t know what happens after death? Because it is a matter based on belief. Religion is not a conspiracy theory but it nicely illustrates how we find an explanation based on unverifiable facts acceptable because it gives the sense of meaningfulness.”
Aim to evoke emotions
Since there is no one theory that all people would believe in, and the diversity of religious, political, economic theories prevails, each person chooses a more acceptable interpretation of reality. Therefore, according to Associate Professor M. Martišius, conspiracy theories are more convincing if they come from close, acceptable, and familiar sources.
“The principle of precedence also applies here. Say, reliable television provides the correct information about a phenomenon but only 2 out of 10 families watch it, so it is already statistically clear what opinion on the issue will prevail. And if those remaining 8 families are first persuaded by a proponent of conspiracy theory, the television programme will no longer be able to change their minds, the information war expert said.
However, according to Associate Professor M. Martišius, the main fuel for the spread of conspiracy theories and propaganda is emotions. The researcher gives an example of the current pandemic situation: “There are two teams: you’re either on my side or against me, depending on the approach to vaccinations. There is no middle ground and no rational conversation, so there is no communication. We are all irritated and the main emotion influencing our decision is fear: some are vaccinated because they are afraid of getting sick, some are not vaccinated because they are afraid of side effects. The two positions are largely based on the same fears, but the situation has reached the level where it’s no longer possible to find a consensus.”
Emotions are also greatly fueled by the increased time spent on social media during quarantine. According to the expert, the social networking space, which initially helped to find hobbies and favorite content, eventually got boring, especially during the quarantine, and media algorithms began to offer access to intriguing information, often without any context, that eventually led to different perspectives.
“With just one type of information, you start living in your own bubble. Eventually, you start to think that a different-minded representative of another bubble is your enemy, you start wishing him the worst things. This confrontation is a major challenge in the modern world,” the researcher said.
Theories with consequences
While some conspiracy theories exist only in the digital space and do not cause rallies, protests, or such exceptional phenomena as the Capitol attack in the US, they can have other consequences and sometimes reveal fundamental flaws in credible theories. According to Associate Professor M. Martišius, the pandemic situation showed that the Lithuanian government struggles to communicate with larger groups of people.
“They manage to communicate with a group of voters, their party members, small groups of people, but they struggle to reach the masses. We don’t have the channels to effectively target and model messages to reach and persuade certain groups, so we can’t solve the pandemic management issue together. And conspiracy theories certainly don’t help the situation as their main purpose is to prevent finding common ground,” Associate Professor M. Martišius said.
However, the researcher is convinced that conspiracy theories are sometimes given more weight than they should be by merely emphasizing the existence of a theory and strongly denying its credibility. According to the expert, a more efficient way to combat conspiracy theories is distancing oneself from emotions, creating an open space for reasoned discussion, and fighting not with each other but with those who are interested in preventing the establishment of common ground.
Conspiracy theories can be recognized
According to Associate Professor M. Martišius, conspiracy theories often stand out because they explain phenomena in a very simple and comprehensible way as they expect to reach the largest possible audience, bring it together in a certain space and thus earn money or achieve other goals. In addition, conspiracy theories, by shifting responsibility to higher institutions, allow ignoring certain issues and avoid solving them.
“An example could be the previously mentioned US Capitol attack. There are two ways to explain what happened. The first one: the US economy did not grow after the collapse of the Soviet Union, inequality increased, many jobs left the US, compatriots became dissatisfied, and voted for extreme change. The second one: Trump is a good propagandist and enticed people to vote. The second scenario gives more weight to propaganda, as you no longer have to address all the issues mentioned in the first option. So one can move on with the theory of rigged, undemocratic elections,” the information war expert said.
However, conspiracy theories have other, more easily verifiable aspects that allow them to be distinguished from reliable information. According to Associate Professor M. Martišius, the first step is to check the facts: if figures or data are quoted, they should be available and verifiable. Unavailable sources and extreme difficulty finding them can immediately signal unreliability. Equally important is the source itself - trusted channels such as Reuters and the BBC inspire confidence. The visual appearance can also help identify it.
“It’s equally important to ask yourself why this information came out right now, but no one has talked about it before. Finally, one should pay attention to the flaws in the theory. A traditional scientific theory often clarifies that while one thing is stated, certain shortcomings and possible inaccuracies are perceived and considered. Conspiracy theories, meanwhile, often say that there is only one, undeniable truth. That radical aspect could be a very clear indicator, but all aspects should be taken into account,” Associate Professor M. Martišius says.