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Corona: How do I recognize conspiracy theories?

We are experiencing a crisis. Not just a health and economic crisis, but also a psychological one. The coronavirus, the resulting lung disease COVID-19 and the measures taken to contain the pandemic have turned the lives of millions of people upside down. Even if the consequences of all this have very different effects on each individual, one thing unites us all: uncertainty.

People don't like uncertainty. They want to know what happens next and why. And whether you don't have to do everything completely differently.

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This is why conspiracy theories find a special boost in every crisis. Because they promise to clear up the chaos with simple explanations. At a time when all certainties are being turned inside out, it seems particularly tempting for many people to follow a narrative that knows the culprit.

When is a theory a conspiracy theory?

In reality, simple questions are often not that easy to answer. There is by no means a scientific consensus on what a conspiracy theory is. This is what social and legal psychologist Roland Imhoff from Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, who researches conspiracy theories, says. "Some assume that a conspiracy theory equates with an erroneous assumption that does not correspond to reality."

Imhoff is convinced that this approach will not help either research or public communication. He advocates removing the evaluation, i.e. whether a conspiracy argument is actually true or false, from the definition. "For me, a conspiracy theory is the assumption that an event of reasonably large scope can be traced back to the secret plot of a few people who want to enrich themselves at the public's expense."

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Sometimes the conspiracy theory is the most plausible explanation for the course of an event. Such as the historically well-documented forgery of the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" from the early 20th century. It was written in the Russian Empire, presumably by the tsarist secret service. This anti-Semitic conspiracy was later used by Adolf Hitler as a justification for the Holocaust.

The message is: I know the truth! Feel good

Check your facts!

In order to be able to recognize the veracity of a conspiracy theory, we have to apply scientific standards. "In science there are seldom absolute truths, only plausibilities and empirical confirmations of varying degrees," says Imhoff. And most of the conspiracy theories are extremely implausible.

The first thing to do is to check the source. Who says what, when and where? Is it the Spiegel, the NDR and the Deutsche Welle? Or is it someone on Youtube, maybe even with a doctorate, but without any scientific publication worth mentioning?

"If every YouTube video is just as trustworthy as a daily newspaper with permanent editors, then we say goodbye as a society to creating a communicative agreement about reality," says Imhoff.

There are no coincidences

In order to be able to recognize a conspiracy narrative, it is also helpful to understand its function: "The function of a conspiracy theory is to rise above chance," says Imhoff. We like that because "people are generally very randomly aversive". Chance robs us of all predictability and control.

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"In a conspiracy theory there are no coincidences, instead everything is related to everything", says Imhoff. Conspiracy theorists often come from stick to stick in their argumentation.

"Jens Spahn was in the leadership program, which is financed by a bank in which an uncle's grand cousin works for a woman who was once employed by Bill Gates," says Imhoff as an example.

Logic? Does not have to be

In this way, there is no causality for a long time, but that doesn't matter. Supporters of conspiracy theories often have no problem with logical contradictions, Imhoff knows from studies.

"The same people who believe that Lady Di was killed by the British secret service also believe that Lady Di lives on a desert island because she wanted to escape the hustle and bustle," says the psychologist. The narrative itself is not so important (and what happened to Lady Di either), the important thing is the belief that the powerful are lying to us.

Cui bono? - Who will benefit?

Imhoff calls it a simple rhetorical trick of a conspiracy theory - and it works like this: When I point out who benefits from a circumstance, I am also providing proof that the profiteer is also causally responsible for the circumstance. "Epistemologically, of course, that's not a good argument. Just because as a farmer I benefit from the rain, I didn't make it."

Conspiracy theories always provide more than the official explanation. More explanation, more references to coincidences, which - because they are so numerous - can no longer be coincidences, more truth.

What does the conspiracy bring me?

However, appending conspiracy narratives has little to do with critical questioning and investigative research - even if the followers are happy to bring it up. "The really critical investigative search and checking of sources would require that you do it symmetrically," says Imhoff. Then not only would the mainstream media be critically examined, but the background of Professor XY and his YouTube channel would also be examined.

It is worth looking to see whether producers of conspiracy narratives who like to portray themselves as courageous underdogs who stand up and (finally!) Tell the truth have a political or economic agenda.

For example, the American Alex Jones with his company Infowars not only spreads conspiracy theories, but sells food supplements as well as safety technology and survival equipment in the affiliated store - thus making the end of the world a profitable business.

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Spreading or attaching conspiracy theories also increases self-confidence. "The feeling of having exclusive knowledge and being able to rise above the naive crowd is another reason for the popularity of conspiracy theories," says Imhoff.

Am I falling for a conspiracy theory?

Research shows that people tend to be more inclined to conspiracy theories when they feel like they are losing control of their lives. In a world that is becoming more and more complex, the feeling of loss of control seems to be decoupling from material possessions and is also taking hold of well-educated, wealthy people. The desire for security unites us all.

This goes hand in hand with the inability to question oneself, which would ultimately mean a loss of security. "People are designed in such a way that they are always looking for confirmation," says Imhoff. Here people could learn something from science: Always question yourself first.

Away from the conspiracy, back to you

But what if the protest against vaccination dictatorship, the abolition of basic rights and lying mainstream media is washed from the Facebook timeline into your own kitchen and suddenly sits at the dining table? What kind of dialogue can there still be when logic no longer counts, causality is not differentiated from correlation and the press, of course, only tells lies?

At this point, Roland Imhoff recalls the function of conspiracy theory: It satisfies the need for control over one's own life, for security and predictability. "In dialogue with close friends or family members, it is important to take these needs, which underlie the desire for explanations, seriously," he says. Without taking the resulting enthusiasm for conspiracy narratives seriously.

Absolute security and control only exist in our dreams of an illusory world made of cotton candy and daisies - even the best conspiracy theory does not change that.

  • Conspiracy theories: when hypotheses become dogmatic

    Core document of anti-Semitism

    Twelve leaders of the Jewish people are said to have outlined their plans for a conspiracy to achieve world domination in the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion". In fact, they are a fictional listing of the religious Russian writer, editor and anti-Semite Sergei Nilus from 1903 - and have become the core document of modern anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.

  • Conspiracy theories: when hypotheses become dogmatic

    Nazi ideology

    The idea of ​​a "conspiracy of world Jewry" with the aim of taking over world domination was also a central component of Nazi ideology. Obviously, they made extensive use of the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" and spread the alleged revelations contained therein in their own propaganda leaflet "Der Stürmer".

  • Conspiracy theories: when hypotheses become dogmatic

    Coded negativity

    Anyone who believes in the barcode conspiracy uses a so-called anti-interference pen for self-protection. The theory says that the scan codes on packaging emit negative energies: with the aim of reducing the world's population. The anti-interference pen is supposed to neutralize the codes. On some products, the barcodes are crossed out as a precaution to reassure customers.

  • Conspiracy theories: when hypotheses become dogmatic

    Event needs explanation

    Political events just as much need a plausible explanation as social changes. This was also the case after the French Revolution in 1789, as a result of which conspiracy theorists targeted the Freemasons and Illuminati as rebels - their exclusive circles make it easy to develop corresponding hypotheses. Here you can see an order of the Minerval class of the Illuminati.

  • Conspiracy theories: when hypotheses become dogmatic

    Theories about terror

    Numerous theories have grown up around the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001: they were approved or even planned by the US government, Jews did not go to work in the World Trade Center that day, the twin towers were blown up in a controlled manner, insider trading . A testimony to that day can be seen here: a demolished elevator motor from one of the towers.

    Author: Torsten Landsberg