Violence lurks under conspiracy theories

Violence lurks under conspiracy theories

VUB researcher recommends education to address the problem

There is growing consensus that conspiracy theories play an increasingly important role in influencing the behavior of both individuals and groups committed to violence. Raul Rios of the Institute for European Studies of the Free University of Brussels made an inventory of the most recent studies into the causes of this phenomenon. Based on his findings, he provides authorities with a number of recommandations to curb the danger of radicalization and violence. 

 QAnon, the great replacement, chemtrails and 5G causing Coronavirus, are among some of the recent conspiracy theories which have become increasingly associated with extremist groups (specifically far-right extremist). 

Indeed, within the past decade, researchers and policymakers have come to take such conspiracy theories and the role they play in fuelling violence, far more seriously. All conspiracy theories share at least three major components. The first is the existence of a secret plot at the national or global level. The second component is a group of conspirators who are portrayed as powerful. This group is often identified as belonging to the opposition. The third key component found in conspiracy theories is a particular group that serves as a scapegoat: Jews, Muslims, intellectuals, LGBTQI, etc. Another salient feature of modern conspiracy theories, is that they are extremely resilient to criticism, and are able to adapt and integrate new theories into their milieu. 

A conspiracy thinker does not just renounce violence
People who believe in conspiracy theories do not necessarily turn into extremists or perpetrators of violence. But conspiracy theories have been associated with violent intent. Research among 50 different extremist groups (Bartlett and Miller, 2010) has shown that a conspiracy theories act as a 'radicalizing multiplier' manifesting itself in three different ways: demonization of the 'enemy', denunciation of dissent and, finally, encouragement to violence. Individuals and groups alike justify such violence as a legitimate solution to perceived injustice, threats, or a common enemy. Once supporters of conspiracy theory move on to the path of violence, research shows, the chances of them renouncing violence are slim – especially if they are part of a like-minded group. 

Education and media literacy are the best tools 

Combating conspiracy theories and their violent consequences is a complex challenge. Rios warns policymakers not to fall into the trap of believing a panacea exists. Individuals are unique, as are their behaviors, traumas, experiences, and their perception of reality and the world around them. He concludes his inventory with a dozen strategies that authorities can employ to stem the circulation of conspiracy theories and nip their evil consequences in the bud as much as possible. "But," Rios argues, "education and the development of critical thinking and media literacy in as many citizens as possible are ultimately the best tools against conspiracy theories, disinformation and violence." 

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Raul Rios

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Tel: +32 (0) 471 914 318

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