Over the past five years, conspiracy theories have found their way into mainstream cultural discourse. From anti-vaccination or politically motivated theories to pop-cultural artefacts, conspiracies once regarded as the domain of largely harmless eccentrics are now having material effects.
Sociology lecturer Dr Naomi Smith has edited a special issue on conspiracy theories in M/C Journal, highlighting their rise into the mainstream, as digital spaces and growing communities have made them more accessible and transmissible than ever before. Dr Smith's interest in conspiracies began as an off-shoot from research into the anti-vaccination movement.
"Over the last few years, particularly during the pandemic and in the lead up to the 2020 US election, we saw a lot of mainstreaming of conspiracy sentiment, including the rise of QAnon and the storming of the US Capitol," Dr Smith said.
"It was becoming very clear that conspiracy wasn't just something that people thought about on the internet in their spare time, but it was something that was driving real-world action in a very profound way. I thought that made it very sociologically and socially important."
The special issue features contributions from international researchers of conspiracy theories and features case studies with a global perspective. Dr Smith said despite many conspiracies having their own local aspects, including many confined to Australia, they all share certain common elements because of how the internet has globalised communities.
"We often respond to conspiracy theories by treating them as an information problem, so if we give people the right information, they'll change their beliefs. But the problem is, the way we understand conspiracy at the moment is very much based on a deficit model, where these people are crazy or unhinged, that they've lost touch with reality," Dr Smith said.
"We have these two conflicting approaches, one where conspiracy theorists are crazy and two, we also think that if we give them the right information, they'll change their mind. And those two positions are not particularly compatible.
"To reach these people, we have to understand why people like conspiracy theories. So why do people engage with them, why are they so compelling, and what keeps people in conspiracy communities? Our answers in the past have been that these people have a cognitive deficit in their reasoning, and that's not really helping us reach people who get sucked into these things.
"Understanding the perspective of conspiracy theories in a bit more of a nuanced way and thinking about how we can use that information to reach people and communicate with people more effectively has the potential to give a lot of social good back into the world."
Conspiracy theories have also become easier to distribute, making it easier for people to get hooked on them, Dr Smith said, especially when many seemed benign on the surface. Many people find themselves following information down increasingly dark paths that are no longer reflective of what is happening in the real world but still feels very real to them.
Dr Smith said the internet made it easy for people to find evidence of whatever they wanted to be true, and there was a strong community aspect to conspiracy theorising as well.
"It's not people sitting alone in their dark room thinking away to themselves, they're engaging with a community of like-minded people who affirm what they're doing and what they're seeing. They're not isolated weirdo loners, which is how sometimes we think about them, they're actually part of a very vibrant community." Dr Naomi Smith
"And there are degrees to belief as well. Not everyone is deeply committed, but many people have varying degrees of belief in conspiracy theory, and it just makes it difficult to establish grounds for collective social action.
"When we have conspiracy theories, consensus building is very difficult to achieve, so it creates this really fractured environment as we've seen in the pandemic, where some people don't want to get vaccinated, and some people don't want to wear masks. And that makes it very difficult for us to make progress and get things like a pandemic under control."
Dr Smith said the pandemic also demonstrated how these kinds of conspiracy narratives had muddied the intellectual water.
"They've just made everything a bit murky and made it harder to achieve certain types of social action. Many people who are not conspiracy theorists, or opposed to vaccinations generally, do not want to get a third shot, saying, 'I don't know what they're putting in those things'. And these are people who don't subscribe to any kind of conspiracy theory but are still repeating conspiracy talking points," she said.
Dr Smith's research had found that personal relationships and trust were important in reaching out to people who are embedded or heavily swayed by conspiracy theory beliefs, as many didn't trust institutions but might trust their friends and family.
"It's important to keep lines of communication open and not alienate people by telling them that they're crazy or laughing at them. That will often make them dig in further because it's evidence of persecution. We need to sit with people and have conversations that are based on a shared understanding and a shared trust," Dr Smith said.
"Unfortunately, it's not a quick solution, and it can be really difficult to engage with people who are maybe fearful or paranoid or very convinced that they're right. But we found that it's those personal conversations, having them time and time again is what can reach people and connect with people."