If you ask someone who believes in chemtrails or identifies as a 9/11 truther why they believe conspiracy theories, they will tell you that they aren’t conspiracy theorists at all.
Instead, most who believe in these theories think of themselves as “critical freethinkers,” willing to challenge the conventional wisdom, according to a study recently published in the journal Cultural Sociology.
“[C]onspiracy theorists appropriate the image of the radical freethinker to differentiate themselves from the ‘sheeple’ who simply follow the crowd,” authors Jaron Harambam of Erasmus University in the Netherlands and Stef Aupers of the University of Leuven in Belgium write. (In what has to be among the best footnotes in an academic paper ever, ‘sheeple’ is defined in the notes section: “Sheeple = sheep + people, a common term in the conspiracy milieu to describe the ‘gullible mainstream who do not think for themselves but just go with what everyone else is doing.”)
Harambam and Aupers, who set out to answer the question of how conspiracy theorists view themselves, noted that other researchers have looked at these populations from the exterior to see how their beliefs affect culture. Still, there haven’t been many studies looking at how those in the “conspiracy milieu” define themselves, or at their relationships with others within their ideological circles.
Conspiracy theorists or “critical freethinkers?”
“[W]e aim to find out inductively who they think they are,” the authors write. Over a two year period, they spent time at conspiracy-related gatherings (shows, conferences, political demonstrations, and movie screenings), conducted extensive interviews with 20 Dutch conspiracy theorists, and spent time analysing conspiracy media (movies, websites, and all kinds of YouTube videos).
This research was conducted in the Netherlands, so it’s possible that these findings are most accurate for the Dutch conspiracy theorists in the study. Still, many of the ideas these people describe — a secret world government, the idea that authorities are trying to poison people with vaccines or by releasing gas from aeroplanes, the beliefs of 9/11 truthers or those espoused by people like David Icke or Alex Jones — are popular among conspiracy theorists the world over.
The study’s authors say that people in the conspiracy scene have certain traits in common, mainly an “opposition towards the cultural mainstream.” They don’t trust government, media, or conventional academic institutions.
But there are also major differences among conspiracy believers, according to Harambam and Aupers. Mostly, even though these people reject the label “conspiracy theorist” for themselves, they will use it to describe others in the conspiracy believing world as a way of differentiating themselves both from the mainstream and those they call “the ‘real’ paranoids.”
For example, Tom, a 9/11 truther, tells the authors that the “real conspiracy theorists” threaten his credibility. “David Icke for example, I find him terrible, I also warn people active with 9/11 to not refer to him, please don’t, that man is crazy as a loon, just psychotic, a real demagogue,” he says. (Icke is known for theorizing that secretly, lizard-people run the world).
3 types of conspiracy theorists
Harambam and Aupers say that based on the way people think they should act because of their beliefs, it’s possible to divide conspiracy theorists into three groups.
1. Activists: This group believes they need to confront society to change things. “We need to do something, we need to go protest and go into resistance,” Liam, one activist, tells the authors. “So now I am constantly approaching politics, media, science and all other authorities to tell them, ‘guys, open your eyes, because this is serious, it’s not going well.'”
The militant advocacy among some members of this group can disturb other conspiracy believers. “[T]hese people really go too far, like Alex Jones or so, well, he’s a true fear monger,” Michael, an economics student who wants to help society cast off its shackles, tells the authors.
2. Retreaters: Members of this group think it’s folly to try and convince the mainstream that conspiracies really are happening and that instead, they should just focus on themselves.
“I don’t think resistance is the right way to go, what I do instead is to apply it to myself,” an agricultural entrepreneur named Robert tells the authors. “And if other people notice it, ask about it, feel touched by it, then it will have effect, not by imposing it on people, I think that will have much more effect than pushing. To inspire others instead of terrifying them.”
3. Mediators: Finally, there’s a group that believes you can’t force change on society, but you may be able to convince them of “the truth.”
As Tom tells the authors, “My work [running a 9/11 truther website] is not directed at the people who are already convinced [9/11] is bullshit. I aim explicitly at those who are used to the mainstream … I want to bring down the wall between the mainstream and the critical current in society.”
It’s not enough to identify conspiracy theorists as a monolithic group, the authors say. In order to understand how these ideas circulate, we need to see how individuals create their own identities, separating themselves from both the mainstream and the “real” paranoids.
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