• on May 27, 2020

What lessons haven’t we learned since 2016? Lesson 4: Why conspiracy theories work.

Since the realization that foreign and domestic disinformation played a central role in driving certain narratives during the 2016 elections, many Americans have tried to grapple with what this means, how it affects us and our communities, and what we can do about it. 

This series explores those lessons we haven’t learned well enough since 2016, and what we should learn from them to be better information citizens and break patterns of how disinformation works. 


Lesson 4: Why conspiracy theories work. As complex conspiracy narratives like QAnon gain popularity, we too often dismiss their importance and broad appeal — and misunderstand why they resonate. Rather than evaluate them through the “true or not” perspective, it is important to understand that conspiracy theories have structural, motivational, and permission-granting characteristics that explain how they work so effectively.

These days, the term “conspiracy theory” seems to be everywhere. It’s used in reference to misinformation about coronavirus, about 5G technology, about vaccines, about Bill Gates, about the now ever-present QAnon craziness, about the supposed “Obamagate” investigation, about Ukraine/Burisma/Biden, about Mueller, about Russia— about just about everything. Some of these are actual conspiracy theories — but the easiest way for someone to discount or discredit an idea or a story can simply be to label it a conspiracy, and this practice has become common in pretty much all parts of the political spectrum. 

In the most casual, dismissive usage, “conspiracy theory” is now used to essentially mean “something crazy that is not true.” But this is not, however, what a conspiracy theory really is. All of this serves to dilute the fact that conspiracies and conspiracy theories have a very specific purpose when applied as tools in disinformation and information warfare campaigns.

I think it is less useful to debate a specific definition of what a conspiracy theory is, and more important to understand that conspiracy theories have structural, motivational, and permission-granting characteristics that are essential aspects of their functionality. 

So — let’s talk about how conspiracy theories work, and why they are so effective, using this framework. 

A few years ago, I wrote about how conspiracies are used to build narrative architecture that, over time, becomes an activated, cascading system for transmitting information to target groups on social media. It’s a kind of conditioning. In that article, this is how I described the functionality of conspiracy theories: 

When it comes to the psychology that shapes mass movements, there are two fundamental rules: Everybody wants to be a part of something bigger than themselves, and everybody wants someone to tell them what to do so that things will turn out OK. With that in mind, our understanding of what conspiracy theories are and why they work comes into focus. Conspiracy theories aren’t something that stupid or uneducated people fall for—they are something that people who want to believe in something latch on to.Maybe it’s religion, family, national identity, ethnic identity, community, or government that used to be this structure—the system of belief, the answers to who you are and where you fit within the system. But when those break down, conspiracies can take their place, particularly in times of rapid change or upheaval. They become the framework for making things that don’t make any sense somehow understandable.

This remains my touchstone definition of the functionality of conspiracy theories (though many of my colleagues think it is too generous an evaluation of many conspiracy believers, I believe it is best not to dismiss them as “low information” or “dumb,” because in my experience, particularly in the trumpworld narrative networks, this is frequently not the case). In this description, aspects of the structural, motivational, and permission-granting characteristics begin to become more distinct. What do these mean?

Structural aspects: 

There are two elements to the structural characteristics of conspiracies that are important. One is physical, in terms of building networks — conspiracies establish narrative architecture, a framework for how the parts of a complex narrative fit together,  which reinforces networks within social media (and offline communities) among which information can move quickly and with little resistance since the group shares common beliefs and has seen similar information/arguments in the past. 

The second aspect is predictive, premonitory — the narrative architecture of a conspiracy theory establishes a framework through which to interpret future information or preemptively answer new questions that confront us. 

Both the physical and predictive characteristics exploit our psychological tendency to look for structure, a tendency toward what is known as “pattern recognition” — we want to see patterns in the world around us, because it helps us understand what is happening and predict situations which may be better or worse for our survival or wellbeing. In narrative networks, we see familiar people saying familiar things, and we believe them without much review, especially if they confirm our own bias on a subject. We force new information to make sense within our established beliefs, because this is what our brains are kind of wired to do.

Motivational aspects:

Conspiracy theories provide purpose for believers and a directionality of action, both in terms of group engagement and in the pursuit of “research” and information that reinforces core beliefs of the group. Members of the community want to find the next ‘clue’ or ‘revelation,’ and the network rewards them as they spiral deeper into the system of belief. This sense of purpose is a powerful factor, helping create a sense of control when events around us are disruptive and we are seeking new ways of defining where we belong.

Permission-granting aspects:

Conspiracy theories exploit our innate belief that what is “authentic” is more powerful than what is objectively true. If influencers spreading conspiracies seem authentic — seem like us — this conveys a sense of permission to believe what they are saying. Conspiracy theories also grant us permission to believe in fringe views or theories, the public display of which was previously suppressed by a societal sense of shame or disgust. “It’s ok to think this — other people think it, too, and there is a reason to believe it,” the conspiracy impulse tells us. Over time, this evolves into defining us vs not-us, and can evolve into labeling heroes and villains. 


Now, this is a conceptual framework, but what does it actually mean? To help explore these ideas further, I did an informal survey of experts, analysts, and writers who I think have a lot of first-hand insight on these issues, and asked them to describe how/why conspiracy theories work so well in disinformation and in the modern information environment. They all come at it from different angles, and add nuance to the short descriptions above.

Their responses are below:

Conspiracy theories are so pernicious because they hit both our psychology and the very design of social networks. A conspiracy theory always has you as the hero at the center of the story. You know “the truth” and are nobly sharing it against the powers that be. Online, you get to show off your faux bravery, but now scale it outwards by your building a community around it that tells each other how brave you each are, connects to other communities that have the same perceived shared enemy, all the while being stoked further on by those who seem a ripe market of willing targets for clicks and shares and even more disinformation. 

P. W. Singer, Strategist & Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation, author of LikeWar and Burn-In: A Novel of the Real Robotic Revolution

Conspiracy theories are a way to create order from the chaos… They attribute responsibility externally and also place a nefarious will at fault for why things aren’t happening the way we want them to.

Graham Shellenberger, former Army psychological operations officer

I think belief in conspiracies stems from ignorance. The world is a complex and often unknowable place, and we all tend to create patterns from what we see and hear to make sense of the world. Some people have more experience and education than others and are more comfortable with the randomness of the world. For others, they need to simplify for themselves and create meaning even when it doesn’t exist. That way they can feel in control, assume that there is a purpose to things they don’t otherwise understand, and in today’s political environment, assign blame elsewhere.

John Sipher, former CIA officer

Conspiracy theories help people feel more in control of a world in which they, or their tribe, are no longer in control. Both reality and perception here, a feeling out of place in a changing world. The conspiracy says, “It’s not your fault. There are mysterious and malign forces working against you!” Combine that with access to social media that feeds it like a psychotropic heroin and allows communities to rapidly form and ally. Add the bad actors on top of it all to push and pull in the most sensitive places to cause maximum chaos and damage. They aren’t just stories, those don’t qualify, really. They have to be made to fit a narrative that has influence on the real world and is influenced by it, even if in an entirely contrived or imaginary way.

And much of the cognitive theory around lies and theories fits as well. False things are intrinsically more interesting because they are new and unique. They make you feel special, in-the-know, exactly the sort of feeling to have a strong impact on someone who feels out of control, passed by, looked down on. Fits the grievance mentality perfectly.

And in the US in particular, but elsewhere as well, the anti-intellectual “you all think you’re so smart, well I know the REAL truth” is a related but separate piece of the grievance theme. Smart people fall down the rabbit hole too, but there it’s usually out of contrarian self-flattery. Too smart for the obvious.

Mig Greengard, long-time advisor and co-author to Garry Kasparov

There are, of course, several reasons [conspiracy theories work]. But I think most of them have to do with human nature. To believe in a conspiracy theory makes you feel better about yourself in some way. It gives you an excuse to feel, behave or act in a way that you know is not right. Like be a racist because “the blacks spread AIDS” — not because you are a racist idiot… Social media etc just amplifies it… But this too is an excuse. I don’t have any data on it but I’m convinced people actually know that they are eating up lies. They just like it.

Eerik Kross, former head of Estonian intelligence 

Conspiracy works so well online because, well, everything is connected on the internet. So it’s incredibly easy to see conspiratorial connections, or to imagine them from the linked data. It worked, but it didn’t work as well or as easily, in the days of print and broadcast.

Chris Zappone, The Age (Australia)

With regard to COVID-19, we are seeing conspiracy theories emerge from grassroots activity, with some coming from longs-tanding conspiracy-theory communities, others from groups that are new and specific to COVID-19; this is relatively typical behavior. We are also seeing a top-down style of conspiracy, though, with narratives emerging, taking on new forms, or being significantly amplified by prominent authority figures and state media, across a range of countries and government styles. This is a significant challenge because the figures involved tend to have large followings, significant reach, and a high degree of trust within society. 

Renee DiResta, Stanford Internet Observatory, who has also written about how online conspiracy theory networks operate and resemble the structure of cults

[Conspiracy theories] work so well because they play to a strength of the internet, which is eliminating gatekeepers…and powering individual pursuit of information. I think a lot about the behaviors that online searching created…a sort of vigilante investigation mindset. It became easier than ever to check people’s work, so people started only trusting what they themselves could find. To corroborate. But I think that’s expanded…to a deep rejection and suspicion of gatekeepers…a real desire to want to find the answers themselves. And that’s continued to evolve…into communities dedicated to pursuing the narrative they want to believe and retrofitting information to that worldview. And that’s an environment ripe for conspiracy theorizing.

Charlie Warzel, opinion writer for The New York Times

Looking at it from the angle of Russian disinformation, the Russians have always had the advantage. First, Russians (and Soviets) come from a society that more readily engages in conspiracy theory than most of the West. They understand organically how the power of propaganda and disinformation works on a society, whereas (until recently at least), in the US we were raised to “take people at their word” … and other Western-style values. And again, until recently, Americans generally viewed the press as an unbiased source of facts. This was never the case in Russia.

Second, the Soviet/now-Russian intelligence services always valued active measures, propaganda, and disinformation much more than we did in the US. The CIA has the charter for covert action (what Russia would call active measures), but there have been few times in the Agency’s history where the covert action mission was viewed as cutting edge, a place where officers wanted to serve. The Russians, on the other hand, have always put active measures at least on a par with, and often more important than, the classical intelligence collection mission.

Russia has been able to capitalize on American/Western social and political divisions. They have not had to construct narrative out of whole cloth — we’ve done that ourselves, and the Russians have simply taken advantage. Again, they’ve always been good at it, and the Internet has been a great boon for Russia in getting their disinformation out there. 

Steve Hall, former CIA chief of Russian Operations

First, the idea that experts cannot be trusted or know less than “me.” Second, “I read it on the Internet” is alive and well. Once it was a derogatory label, now it’s a mark of authenticity — the “feelz,” but this ties into [the expertise issue]: “I feel it could be true.” The failure to test ideas and info for validity, inconsistency, etc is also part of this. Third, time to deliberate is less. Or rather, desire to deliberate. This in fact ties into “expertise” and “feelz” and feeds the failure to test, authenticate, etc. 

Matt Armstrong, former governor on the Broadcasting Board of Governors, writer on public diplomacy and political warfare

White noise. Like in EW (electronic warfare). The importance of conspiracy theories is to hide real conspiracies.

Oleksandr Danylyuk, Centre for Defence Reforms (Ukraine)

[Conspiracy theories] are bait for simple minded or uneducated folks that need the existence of a “larger power” to explain complex situations or take blame for unfortunate things that happen to them. The only difference between a good conspiracy theory and religion writ large (from my POV) is the carefully planned inclusion of random facts or connections to current events… The bottom line is it brings people in on “the inside – real scoop” of a larger power at work. “OPEN YOUR EYES, SHEEPLE!” Etc. With modern information/internet/Wikipedia, a good influencer understands the “rabbit hole” effect of Wikipedia/reddit/4&8chan and the other more focused forums, and scatters bits of “facts” and connection points throughout. That work input makes the target audience feel like they’ve “dug up” the actual truth through their own dedicated sleuthing. Then set up an actual internet forum as a collection pool for those people so they have their echo chamber to blow the theory out of proportion, build it into something mainstream-able, then bring it out into the light and show it off to the un-woke members of the info tunnel.

I also think as tech expands, the negative (or positive, depending on your role) aspect of is twofold: 

1) Info overload = intentional ignorance

2) Platform overload = easier to spread your shit theory throughout all aspects of digital life

Current Army psychological operations officer

There is a repetition of themes throughout these responses that relate to the structural, motivational, and permission-granting aspects of conspiracy theories. The idea that conspiracy theories exploit the problems with architecture in social media and the rapid movement of the information around the internet. That they seek to impose order in chaos. The idea that they reflect the rejection of “establishment”-thinking and expertise that defines this era, building instead a movement to pursue “one’s own truths.” The idea that they exploit some of the most vulnerable aspects of our psychology as individuals and as a society. The idea that they play to our desire to find heroes and villains within stories. The idea that they are fundamentally linked to a desire to belong and have meaning. 

But IO practitioners and intelligence officers add another important consideration: the idea that conspiracy theories are used as diversion, as a tool of capture — deliberately used to exploit psychology and build like-minded target groups on- and offline. And I think it is in this that we find the loudest warning about why allowing conspiracy-think to propagate unchallenged across the internet creates national security vulnerabilities for us in a number of dimensions.  

Domestically, the merger of malign information actors with foreign disinformation initiatives, and by the use of conspiracies by politicians, news networks, bad actors/grifters, and the President himself erodes the kind of cognitive security we need as a nation to withstand information attacks from foreign adversaries and evade the passive intelligence collection that is being conducted constantly across social media. 

There are a lot of sensible people who still do not want to believe how important it is to monitor, respond to, and try to recover ground in this space. But it is absolutely essential and vital that we do. We still want to believe that these are fringe ideas believed by crazy people who don’t understand all of the things that we do. But that is simply not true. And accepting that there is a much more complex explanation for why conspiracies are believed by so many informs how we seek to intervene and pull them back.

This line from a recent article about the abject insanity of the QAnon conspiracy morphing into a coronavirus conspiracy summarizes well what happens if we don’t:

“Multiple new QAnon converts told The Daily Beast the onset of the coronavirus sent them looking for answers—and that they felt like they might have found them.”

So, what can you do about it?

  • When engaging a family member or friend who is amplifying conspiracies, actively believes them, or refers to them off-hand, the best thing you can do is understand why they believe this and how they came to this information, and try to approach it through that lens while presenting better information. What is their logic? Can that inform how you talk to them?Try explaining what this conspiracy exploits to make them believe it (they may dismiss this at first, but it may stick with them over time). Depending on the situation, you can be more firm about the danger of what they are doing or not.
  • If trying to counter conspiracy narratives online, be very clear in what you are arguing and/or why the conspiracy narrative is meant to be deliberately damaging for corrosive. (Ex: It seems particularly twisted to convince people that Bill Gates, who has personally funded billions of dollars of medical research and programs that nobody else wanted to support because they benefit the poorest people in the world, is trying to kill or poison people instead of continuing to provide leadership on solutions to coronavirus.)
  • Do not unintentionally amplify conspiracy content when trying to point out it is bonkers.  
  • Be cautious about sharing and engaging connect-the-dots, rabbithole research on social media, especially when it relies on screenshots or sources you can’t see/access. Conspiracies target left and right alike.
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