In the “hygiene demos”, a wide variety of people meet who share the belief in a conspiracy. Pia Lamberty explains why.
Many people with Germany flags can be seen, plus the infamous hat Photo: Jens Gyarmaty
taz: On Saturday there were so-called “hygiene demos” nationwide. All sorts of people meet there. How contagious are conspiracy stories?
Pia Lamberty: There are hardly any studies on this. But laboratory experiments have shown that people confronted with a conspiracy narrative were subsequently more suspicious, felt more distant from society, less willing to engage in it. I suspect that other conspiracy stories are also taken up and internalized in such demonstrations.
Which people are particularly at risk?
There is no particular type of conspiracy. It is also not a mental illness. The belief in conspiracy is universal and widespread. Almost every fifth German believes in conspiracy stories about vaccination. A third thinks that politicians are just puppets from the powers behind them.
But conspiracy believers surely have similar characteristics?
Classic personality dimensions in psychology, such as openness to new situations, are irrelevant. East-west differences, age or a migration background are also irrelevant. However, the Friedrich Ebert Foundation’s Mitte study found that men believe in conspiracies more than women.
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, anti-Western conspiracy stories quickly spread during the 2014 Ebola outbreak. Can collective experiences like suffering under colonialism influence the spread of certain conspiracy stories?
You always have to ask yourself where such generalized distrust comes from and clearly, in some cases this has a real basis. In the United States, for example, black Americans believe more strongly in HIV conspiracies and a genocide attempt behind them. If a person with a biography that has been characterized by white oppression since birth believes in such a narrative, it has a different basis than a white, heterosexual person.
Many conspiracy stories are known primarily from right-wing circles. Are rights particularly vulnerable?
Conspiracy belief is actually particularly widespread among groups on the right. But it can also be found in left-wing, anti-capitalist scenes. One of the dangers of conspiracy telling is that it connects people from different spectra. The vaccination topic, for example, brings together vaccine-critical, left-alternative parents, esoterics and people from the extreme right.
How seriously do we have to take the current security agency conspiracy story warnings?
We know that the abstract belief in conspiracies goes hand in hand with an increased affinity for violence. These are people who use fewer opportunities for political participation and instead turn to violent alternatives. In the context of Corona, one also realizes that belief in conspiracies is related to certain behaviors. Anyone who thinks that Corona only came up with the federal government to introduce the gold system and abolish cash is wearing fewer protective masks, washing hands less often and doing less physical distancing. But who thinks Corona is a biological weapon from a laboratory that – this data comes mainly from the USA and Great Britain – is more likely to buy weapons and shows prepper behavior.
36, is a social psychologist and doctoral student at the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz. She has been researching conspiracy ideologies for six years. Together with digital expert Katharina Nocun, she wrote the book “Fake Facts”. The authors do not use the term “conspiracy theory” in the book because the “stories” lack the theoretical basis.
The extreme right terrorist attacks of the past two years have all been legitimized by conspiracy stories. For example, the “Umvolkung”, which around 20 percent of the population in Germany agree with. That is every fifth. It’s scary. In the past, conspiracy believers were often said to simply have a whim. There was no social awareness, no sensitivity to the topic. But we need it. We have to be extremely careful here.
Why do people follow conspiracy stories?
There are two aspects to why people believe in conspiracy stories.
One is an increased need for uniqueness that can be satisfied through conspiracy stories. You think that you have some kind of secret knowledge that you have found the truth. If you don’t recognize them, be naive, blind to the system, or even the enemy yourself. This offers the opportunity to exalt yourself above others and thus increase your self-esteem.
The second reason is the loss of control. For example, through drastic life events or structural circumstances such as insecure employment. Conspiracy stories provide a clear picture of the enemy, a simple worldview based on black and white, “we down there” and “those up there”. This offers a simple structure in uncertain times.
Can’t we give these people uniqueness on a different, more personal level, strengthening them against conspiracy beliefs?
It takes a lot of patience and the right circumstances. And it depends on the motivation of the person. When we researched the book, we often heard stories like this: someone lives in a small town in the east, the relationship breaks up, the person has no job and no perspective and suddenly he needs an enemy. The powerful are very suitable because fewer people are listening. In left circles, for example, the lines between criticism and conspiracy belief are often blurred. People then get further and further into their conspiracy story. You can try to understand this need – but it won’t always work.
And where are the boundaries between critical awareness and a conspiracy narrative?
Critical thinking is critical in different directions: with regard to sources or a system, but also with oneself. In conspiracy thinking, on the other hand, the enemy is clear beforehand – these are “those up there” – and the enemy image is personalized.
What role do individualism and loneliness play in spreading conspiracy stories?
On the one hand, it seems plausible that in an individualistic society people have an increasing need to stand out from the crowd. On the other hand, conspiracy belief also occurs in collectivist societies. It is difficult to divide the proportions by which historical, cultural, evolutionary biological or psychological aspects influence conspiracy beliefs.
In psychology there are the so-called “WEIRD samples”. WEIRD stands for white, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic. The majority of all studies work with samples from this population group. Cultural differences are hardly examined. Research is just beginning.
Are there also evolutionary psychological explanatory models?
Conspiracy belief has always existed all over the world. This suggests an evolutionary connection. The idea is that people who believe in conspiracy work like a hypersensitive warning system: they recognize actual conspiracies, but they also suspect conspiracies where there are none. Like a pregnancy test that works too often: You don’t miss a pregnancy, but the test also shows false positive results. The metaphor shows how much stress this hypersensitivity has to trigger.
Why do conspiracy stories get such a boost, especially when it comes to major collective events?
People exchange more about major events than about individual strokes of fate because they are all affected. The background to such events is complex, the uncertainty is great. People think this is no accident and are looking for a simple explanation. This makes the situation more controllable for them. It alleviates the feeling of fainting from ‘something is happening here that I cannot influence’. Corona is a particularly good example of this, the virus is practically the prototype of a collective loss of control.
How can we best deal with this loss of control?
You can try to remain able to act, for example by engaging in neighborhood help or sewing masks.
How can we deal with people who believe in conspiracy stories?
It depends on who I want to reach. If I meet someone on the social media that I don’t know, who has already gone underground, I will not convince them otherwise with a link to the fact finder. But our reaction is important for those who read along.
And how do I react to conspiracy believers in a narrow environment?
It is important to intervene early. One should ask: what is the function of these conspiracy narratives for the person concerned? If it becomes misanthropic, one should draw clear boundaries. There are now also advice centers for relatives.
What to do when people are so deep in conspiracy belief that they can resolve any contradiction simply by denying the truth of scientific facts?
That’s the big problem: conspiracy stories immunize against criticism. If you try to deconstruct them, you either get vague answers, the person jumps to another topic or it is said that studies and facts are fake. How do you just prove that a study is not fake? But refuting something that does not exist at all, that is, the content of a conspiracy story, is impossible per se. The challenge is not to get tangled up in the smallest detail in order not to get to this point in the first place, but to remain on an abstract level. There are very narrow limits to such a discussion.
Katharina Nocun and Pia Lamberty: “Fake facts. How conspiracy theories shape our thinking ”. Quadriga-Verlag, Cologne 2020, 348 pages, 19.90 euros
What can you accuse the press of dealing with corona conspiracy stories?
What bothers me is that the topic is being discussed as occasionally as it was previously negated or pushed into the crazy corner for years. Reporting is now focused on the demonstrations and a party that has just started. You have to be careful not to make it bigger than it is.
It would be important to provide structural analyzes and historical classifications in the media so that people can see that this is not new, it has historical forerunners. Where do certain analogies come from, how can I classify and understand them? So that we talk about the topic in the long term and communicate socially about how we deal with it. These are complex questions for which we need long-term reporting that classifies and goes into depth.
What does the pathologization of the evil “mainstream media” do to people who are currently on the cliff?
Overall, I find it difficult to speak of madmen, stupid or #covidians. The phenomenon of conspiracy is so widespread in society that it cannot be called pathological. Unless you say that all of society is sick. The social debate throws around wrong terms and this pathologization is dangerous: it depoliticises, it pulls out of context and in the end it sometimes stigmatizes people with actual mental illnesses. That doesn’t help.
We are also talking about an ideological component. The point is not that these people are unable to understand facts, but that facts want to be understood in a certain way. It is a process of motivation. I can imagine that some form of reporting drives people even deeper into conspiracy stories.
Pop culture has been using elements from conspiracy stories for decades: chemtrails, laboratory accidents, secret societies. Does that affect how quickly we believe in conspiracies?
Studies on file X have found no effect. People who watched an episode of File X did not believe in conspiracy narratives afterwards more than before. But the data on this is thin.
People are fascinated by this hunt for secret knowledge; then you are the person who has this knowledge. It’s fun in a twisted way.
And there is this ambivalent relationship between the victim role and the hero or heroine who is in resistance. One has “found out about those up there, those who are rich, who have it so easy in life, who hold the strings in their hands”. Suddenly you are the misunderstood, omniscient resistance fighter.
A myth that some celebrities are currently building.
The staging of people who have a certain reach is currently very relevant. If they are censored on Facebook or YouTube, they go to another channel or say: “I can’t tell the truth on YouTube.” The scene creates such a resistance myth. On the one hand, they are the oppressed, on the other, the heroes, the liberators. It is about enlightenment, the “fight against cleansing”. Then we are very quickly in trivialized Nazi analogies. At the same time, their relationship with the media is extremely ambivalent. They shout lies press, but quote the press if it underpins their own worldview.
Are parts of our society radicalizing faster through the corona conspiracy narratives?
Yes, I think the corona crisis has an increased potential for radicalization. Suddenly, celebrities gather a very heterogeneous group behind them. People who would otherwise not go out on the streets are now following this revival fantasy. Attila Hildmann posts pictures in which he poses with guns and evokes the end-time mood. In his video “The Fall of the Cabal” he writes that we have been persecuted for millennia, that “they” want to kill us all, that “we” have to fight back. We are quickly in anti-Semitism.
His followers, whom I direct in his life decisions, for example in terms of nutrition, and who take him as his role model, constantly see this staging. That can have consequences. These consequences can show up at demonstrations and discharge there, but they can also radicalize individuals.
Can people find their way back to a world without a conspiracy?
Every now and then one reads of people who tell in retrospect that they believed in conspiracy stories. But once you’re in this rabbit hole, it’s hard to find out. Many isolate themselves from their surroundings and at some point there is no longer anyone who is critical and who opposes it. This can break families and relationships. But I do believe that under certain circumstances, with the right motivation, people can find out again.