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ConspiraciesThe effects of conspiracy theories

Published 1 November 2016

As a global population we are awash with conspiracy theories. They have permeated every major event, across every level of society; from the French Revolution to the War on Terror. They have attracted devotees in their millions — from lone survivalists to presidential nominees such as Donald Trump. But what effects do conspiracy theories really have on the public as we go about our day-to-day lives? Are they merely harmless flights of fancy propagated by those existing on the margins of society, or is their reach altogether more sinister? Do runaway conspiracy theories influence politicians, decision-makers and, by extension, the public at large? And what effect has the advent of the Internet and mass, instant communication across social media platforms had on the spread of conspiracy theories around the world?

Elvis is alive, the Moon landings were faked, and members of the British Royal Family are shapeshifting lizards.

Not only that: 9/11 was an inside job, governments are deliberately concealing evidence of alien contact, and we are all being controlled by a sinister, shadowy cartel of political, financial and media elites who together form a New World Order.

As a global population we are awash with conspiracy theories. They have permeated every major event, across every level of society; from the French Revolution to the War on Terror. In doing so, they have attracted devotees in their millions; from lone survivalists to presidential nominees such as Donald Trump – who claimed Ted Cruz’s father had links to Lee Harvey Oswald and, by inference, to the murder of President John F. Kennedy.

But what effects do conspiracy theories really have on the public as we go about our day-to-day lives? Are they merely harmless flights of fancy propagated by those existing on the margins of society, or is their reach altogether more sinister? Do runaway conspiracy theories influence politicians, decision-makers and, by extension, the public at large? And what effect has the advent of the Internet and mass, instant communication across social media platforms had on the spread of conspiracy theories around the world?

Cambridge University says that since 2013, a team of Cambridge researchers and visiting fellows has been examining the theories and beliefs about conspiracies that have become such an enduring feature of modern society. Conspiracy and Democracy: History, Political Theory. and Internet Research is a five-year, interdisciplinary research project based at CRASSH (Center for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities) and funded by the Leverhulme Trust.

The project brings together historians, political theorists, philosophers, anthropologists, and Internet engineers as it seeks to understand what additional factors must be at work for conspiracy theories to enjoy such prevalence in the twenty-first century.

Professor John Naughton who, along with Professor Sir Richard Evans and Professor David Runciman, is one of the three project directors, explains: “Studying conspiracy theories provides opportunities for understanding how people make sense of the world and how societies function, as well as calling into question our basic trust in democratic societies.

“Our project examines how conspiracies and conspiracy theorizing have changed over the centuries and what, if any, is the relationship between them? Have conspiracy theories appeared at particular moments in history, and why?