The fascination of conspiracies: history and effects

The organizer of the terrorist attacks of 9/11 was not Osama Bin Laden — it was the U.S. itself. The Federal Republic of Germany is not a country but a commercial company, and the population of Europe is purposely being “islamized” as part of a “Great Exchange.”

The world is ruled by reptiles from outer space, and the “chemtrails” we see in the sky are chemicals sprayed by airplanes into the troposphere in order to make it easier to subjugate the human race.

Many people try to ascribe various events or developments to conspiracies. But what exactly is, or isn’t, a conspiracy theory? Why do people believe in such claims, and are more conspiracy theories circulating today than in the past? What role does the Internet play in conspiracy theories? And what is the relationship between conspiracy theories and populism?

On June 19, Professor Michael Butter gave a talk about the history, effect, and dangers of conspiracy theories as part of the event series “Dialogue in the Museum,” which is organized jointly by the Daimler and Benz Foundation, the Mercedes-Benz Museum, and Daimler AG. Michael Butter holds the Chair of American Literary and Cultural History at the University of Tübingen.

You can find an audio-video podcast of Professor Butter’s talk at:

Foundation: Professor Butter, if we click around in social networks today or look at videos on online platforms, we get the impression that conspiracy theories are gaining ground. Is this impression justified?

Butter: Conspiracy theories have once again become more popular in recent years, especially through the influence of the Internet and in particular the social media. But they’re far from being as popular and influential as they were 100 or 200 years ago, for example. However, they have once again become more visible because of the Internet.

Because conspiracy theories are of course so readily available — they’re just a Google search away — they are being found by people who are looking for alternative explanations of events, and they convince some of these people. As a result, more conspiracy theories are circulating today than ten or twenty years ago. Their influence is also increasing, but by comparison to earlier eras it is still relatively slight.

How do conspiracy theories arise? Who propagates them, and what kinds of individuals are most likely to latch on to them?

It’s very hard to answer this question in a general way. Conspiracy theories are always a reaction to real-life problems and worries. However, they tend to address these problems and worries in a symbolic and indirect way. For example, conspiracy theories related to the New World Order are obviously reactions to fears connected with the issue of globalization. Believers in conspiracy theories come from all segments of society: men as well as women, old people and young ones, educated people as well as those with less education.

However, there are certain tendencies regarding who is particularly receptive, and especially regarding who is most likely to propagate conspiracy theories. It’s very obvious that more men than women propagate conspiracy theories. Generally it’s middle-aged men, starting at about the age of 40. That’s also true of the people who write to me and protest against the things I say. Most of them fall into this category. And ultimately they are also the ones who are especially likely to believe in conspiracy theories, because conspiracy theories have a great deal in common with the populist movements we’re seeing today.

From your perspective, what does a conspiracy theory consist of? What are its most important characteristics?

In general terms, you can reduce conspiracy theories to three characteristics. First of all, they assume that everything has been planned and that nothing happens by accident. Secondly, they assume that nothing is the way it seems and that you always have to look behind the scenes in order to find out what’s really going on. And thirdly, they assume that everything is connected with everything else — in other words, that events that others would not connect together are in fact very closely related.

Can you tell us about some of the most widely circulating conspiracy theories of recent years and briefly explain what they all have in common?

A conspiracy theory that is circulating very widely in Germany at the moment is that of the Great Exchange, according to which Europe, and Germany in particular, are deliberately being “islamized” in line with the plan of a small international financial elite. In some cases, the idea of this elite has anti-Semitic connotations. One advocate of this theory is the former Tagesschau news presenter Eva Hermann, who has published an essay on the Internet that claims that the Schengen Agreement, 9/11, the Syria crisis, and Germany’s gender-related policies over the past 30 years are all components of this plan.

It’s a perfect example of the theory that all of these things were planned long in advance, all of them are interconnected, and nothing is really the way it seems. Another conspiracy theory that is widely circulating in Germany is the Reichsbürger (Reich citizens) conspiracy theory, which assumes that Germany did not become independent after World War II, but in fact is a commercial company operated by the Allies in order to achieve certain sinister aims.

In an interview with the magazine Wirtschaftswoche, you pointed out that the propagation of conspiracy theories is today a business worth billions of euros. How does this business work?

At the moment there’s a really big audience for conspiracy theories. Accordingly, there are producers who create products specifically for this audience. The town of Rottenburg am Neckar, not far from Stuttgart, is the home of the publishing company Kopp-Verlag, which primarily publishes books about conspiracy theories and now sells several million euros worth of these books annually. In the library of the state of Baden-Württemberg here in Stuttgart, books published by the Kopp-Verlag are the ones most frequently asked for and reserved for future readers.

Alex Jones in the U.S. has a radio show that is now also available on the Internet because it reaches an audience of millions. He has built an empire worth millions of dollars on the basis of his conspiracy theories. He not only propagates these theories but also sells people the corresponding remedies. Finally, today there’s a whole category of Internet users who produce short videos specifically for YouTube and other platforms, in which they address a whole series of conspiracy theories and rumors. Most of these videos are offered as breaking news in order to generate clicks and thus earn money via advertising revenue.

What’s your favorite conspiracy theory, and why?

It’s still the conspiracy theory about the moon landing. First of all, it’s the first conspiracy theory I consciously came into contact with back in 1999. At that time I was studying in England, and the student magazine at my university published a long article in honor of the 30th anniversary of the moon landing. Secondly, at first glance this conspiracy theory is incredibly convincing. The article was structured in such a way that the first page presented all of the “evidence” that the moon landing had been staged in a TV studio. I was completely convinced, and I wondered why nobody had ever explained it to me before.

Next, I turned the page and saw all of the counterevidence — for example, regarding the flag which seems to be fluttering in the wind, even though that can’t happen on the moon. Of course the flag is not really fluttering — it was crumpled and folded by hand. And there were lots of other details like that. The conspiracy theory about the moon landing is actually a relatively harmless one, at least because of the historical perspective we have on it today.

Together with Peter Knight from the University of Manchester, you are heading a research project that involves comparative research on conspiracy theories. More than 150 scientists from 39 countries are participating. Is there really such a great need for research in this area?

This research is needed, and above all there is a need to connect our efforts. Research on conspiracy theories has grown explosively, right across many disciplines, in the past 20 years. This network is striving to consolidate the findings that have been made so far and to use them to generate new questions, because researchers very rarely talk to one another across disciplines and language barriers. At least until recently, in the field of research on conspiracy theories there was a strong tendency to reinvent the wheel again and again. The goal of this network is to prevent that from happening in the future.

Instead, we want to bring people together so that we can develop a comparative and even holistic perspective on this phenomenon — by not working exclusively on how it is occurring in Serbia, Macedonia, England, or Germany. The researchers who are specialists for all of these regions — and also represent the perspectives of various different disciplines — should get together and determine what’s different about Serbian conspiracy theories, what the special features of English conspiracy theories are, and so on.

In conclusion, Mr. Butter, I’d like to ask you a very personal question. The Daimler and Benz Foundation has asked you to talk to our audience about conspiracy theories as part of the event series “Dialogue in the Museum.” We’re conducting this interview for the Daimler Blog. Be honest with us: Who is really behind this invitation? Who is actually pulling the strings behind the scenes?

I have my suspicions about that, but I can’t talk about them. If I did, I think neither of us would stay alive very long.

Johannes Schnurr is responsible for the external communication of the Daimler and Benz Foundation.