Conspiracy Theories

Moon landing, the attacks on the World Trade Center or Corona - there seems to be more behind all this. At least, that is the conviction of people who believe in conspiracies. Via social networks, messenger services and YouTube, conspiracy narratives today reach a great many people within a very short time. Conspiracy theories are particularly successful in times of uncertainty, after disasters or catastrophes. They offer answers and clarity, looking for simple connections in a complex world. At the same time - and this is where the danger lies - they often create stereotypical images of the enemy, as anti-Semitic conspiracy theories show, for example. On this topic page you will find information, videos as well as working materials and further links on the topic.

A modern phenomenon?

Conspiracy theories, myths, ideologies or narratives abound. Some seem harmless, some simply absurd. Yet they can be dangerous. Many conspiracy ideologies are actively directed against governments, science, population groups and can accelerate radicalization processes, for example in the field of right-wing extremism. Even if the impression sometimes arises that conspiracy narratives have become popular especially with the advent of the Internet, they have always been a part of social life. However, in our complex, interconnected and globalized world, the number of conspiracy narratives and their spread is increasing enormously.

While individual false reports tend to disappear from public debates after being refuted, conspiracy narratives are more persistent and spread over longer periods of time. For example, the belief in a Jewish world conspiracy has existed in various forms since the Middle Ages.

What is a conspiracy theory?

Conspiracy theories try to explain particular events in the world with conspiracies. They offer unambiguous answers, which stands in contrast to an official version of the "truth". Thereby conspiracy theories are usually based on a division of the world into "good" and "evil" or also "above" and "below". Conspiracy theories are usually not coherent and contradict proven data or even natural laws.

Origin and distribution

It is usually not clear where conspiracy narratives take their start. This is also due to the fact that new conspiracy narratives are often not new at all, but tie in with already existing narratives.
The beginning for new conspiracy theories is always the doubt that events happened the way politics, science or the media portray them. Along with the doubt comes the question: "Who benefits?", or "Who mightbenefit? ". The search is always for a culprit to expose.

For conspiracy believers, it is clear from the start that there must always be a beneficiary of terrible events and catastrophes. Based on this, evidence is sought to support this assumption. Information and facts are ignored if they do not confirm one's own assumptions. The search is targeted for evidence that supports one's own conspiracy belief. For conspiracy believers it is easier to accept that there is an "evildoer" manipulating from the background than to acknowledge that one does not know what is going on or that events happen by chance.

Why do some conspiracy theories seem credible?

In the successful dissemination of conspiracy narratives, it plays a major role that followers are regularly presented with supposed evidence for the conspiracy. In social networks and messengers in particular, numerous links to allegedly credible sources or videos are shared to reinforce the conspiracy narrative.

Within the so-called QAnon movement, users are also confronted with questions, cryptic short messages and statements (e.g. "Angela Merkel daughter of Hitler") with the call to independently research evidence for the statement. The psychological effect: people find something they have found out for themselves more convincing. The conspiracy belief can thus strengthen and become firmly anchored in one's own world view.

How do online services deal with fake news and conspiracy theories?

The Internet is a breeding ground for fake news and conspiracy narratives. Many are spread via messenger services such as Telegram and WhatsApp as well as social networks such as Facebook and YouTube. Online service providers have long been criticized and admonished to take stronger action against disinformation and hate comments . Partly with success: In the course of the global Corona pandemic, Google, Facebook and YouTube, for example, prominently point to reputable sources on COVID-19 as soon as users search for it. WhatsApp limits how often a post can be forwarded. Facebook has reported posts checked by independent fact-checkers and marks them as false if necessary. It also tries to identify and hide false reports with the help of algorithms. The blocking of profiles, such as the Twitter profile of former U.S. President Donald Trump in 2021, is also part of measures against the spread of disinformation.

Tips for dealing with news from the net

False reports and conspiracy narratives are not always immediately recognizable as such. This makes it all the more important to always check information critically first, not to share it hastily, and thus to prevent the spread of false reports and conspiracy ideologies.

If someone wants to spread false news or conspiracy theories with the widest possible reach, lurid headlines are often used ("700 euros Christmas bonus for refugee!", "Merkel hopes for 12 million refugees", "McDonalds uses human meat!"). The aim of such headlines is to emotionalize the readers. The rule is: If shocking claims in a headline sound improbable, they probably are.

Who is actually behind the news? Does the information given come from a source that you trust and that is known for its credibility? If no source is given at all or if reference is made to unnamed experts, the report should be evaluated very critically.

Note: Beware of "false" experts! Especially in the context of conspiracy theories, claims are often based on the confirmation of supposedly reputable people (professors, doctors, etc.). It is important to take a closer look at these experts and not to trust every doctorate. One can ask: Does the person really have expertise in the area in question? And what is the person currently working on?

Have people from your personal circle shared a hoax or content from conspiracy ideologues? Perhaps they did not know that the content came from a dubious source. Then it is important to respectfully point this out in a private message. But be careful: some topics can greatly inflame tempers in a discussion. Argumentative discussions are not very effective.

There is always also the option of reporting inappropriate content directly to the online services. This should be done in any case if the content is right-wing extremist, glorifies violence, is anti-Semitic, or endangers health.