How do conspiracy theories take hold, and why are these "alternative facts" so hard to counter? American cultural historian Michael Butter explains that conspiracies also reflect deeper societal insecurities.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel is Adolf Hitler's daughter; airplane vapor trails in the sky contain chemical substances designed to sedate people and control their minds; and the CIA is behind the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the US. These are among some well-worn conspiracy theories that many throughout the world take as gospel. Michael Butter, who teaches American literary and cultural history at Tübingen University, told DW why such theories are so popular; and why it's so difficult to debunk them.
DW: Conspiracy theories can be amusing — Elvis is alive and well on some out-of-the-way island; or ridiculous, like saying Angela Merkel is an alien. When are they concerning?
Michael Butter: Even a conspiracy theory that seems harmless at first sight can be problematic — for instance, if someone believes that Angela Merkel is an alien and thinks they must do something about it. In general, they are not harmless when they are target minorities like refugees, or historically, Jews. Conspiracy theories can endanger our democratic coexistence.
Is that because people increasingly mistrust politicians?
If people assume our politicians are all in cahoots and that it makes no difference whatsoever who they vote for because politicians are all puppets of a conspiracy anyway, they will either turn their backs on politics and refuse to participate at all — or they will vote for parties that present themselves as alternatives to the established parties. In recent years, in the West and beyond, that would have been for the most part right-wing populist parties. In the end, they don't really contribute to solving the problems, either.
Though scientists have concluded that so-called "chemtrails" are simply condensation trails created routinely by high flying planes, conspiracy theorists — including these protesters in Berlin — are convinced that they are harming our health and controlling our minds.
If you look at the growing gap between poor and rich, you could get the impression that something is wrong with our political system. Does that boost conspiracy theories?
Most certainly. Conspiracy theories are not only the domain of paranoid nutcases. Many rational people believe in conspiracy theories because they seek explanations for real problems. In the vast majority of cases, they have to be taken seriously because they are a symptom and point out issues people are concerned about.
While conspiracy theories are often discredited today, they were once mainstream, especially during the age of the Enlightenment?
During that era in particular, people sought out non-religious patterns to explain the world. The logic of the Enlightenment says that cause and effect must be clear. The outcome is a worldview that supports the belief in conspiracy theories, even among the educated people of that era.
Why are conspiracy theorists so resistant to facts?
US studies show that convinced conspiracy theorists believe even more strongly in their conspiracy theories after they are confronted with conclusive counterevidence. Conspiracy theories are extremely important for the identity of people who believe in them — everything follows hand in hand, there's no coincidence. Belief in and spreading conspiracy theories makes people feel they stand out from the crowd.
'New World Order': This Latin slogan is coupled with the date 1776, the year the Illuminati was founded in Bavaria. The conspiracy about the origins of a totalitarian 'one world government' is a favorite of today's anti-globalist far-right — and some supporters of Donald Trump.
Even developments most people would rate as self-evident, like gender equality, are an issue for conspiracy theorists. Is reality too liberal for these people?
Conspiracy theories often have a strong conservative impetus in the sense that they are should preserve a threatened order or return an order abolished by the alleged conspirators. Populism along the lines of "Make America Great Again" is similar. Conspiracy theorists as well as populists are driven by a nostalgia for the past.
Are conspiracies ultimately a function of ambiguity and political complexity?
For some people, it is easier to accept that the bad guys pull the strings in the background than to accept that there is no one pulling the strings in the background. Conspiracy theories often simplify by reducing the political field to the conspirators and the others.
Michael Butter is Professor of American Literature and Cultural History at the University of Tübingen. He researches conspiracy theories, leads an EU research project on their analysis and is the author of the book "Nothing Is As It Seems: About Conspiracy Theories."