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‘The Conspiracy Room’
‘The Conspiracy Room’ – a room isolated from the outside world with a conspiracy board connecting the dots with red lines is a central visual element of contemporary conspiracy culture.
Photo: Tea Jahrehorn
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Research on Conspiracy Theories in Europe

Research project

Short description

Over the past decade, conspiracy theories have been disseminated in a hitherto unprecedented fashion in societal discourse worldwide. They communicate condensed narratives offering easy explanations to complex and important events. Political leaders can resort to conspiracy theories in order to consolidate their power or to discredit adversaries. On the other hand, conspiracy theories can also serve as expressions of more deep-seated grievances of the current state of affairs or unbalanced power relationships. But what turns a conspiracy theory to what it actually is? What is the difference between theorizing of a conspiracy or believing in a conspiracy theory? My project is concerned with the position of these imaginations in political thought, both their genealogical development, transhistorical comparison and forms of medialization.

Background

From the French revolution to the ongoing COVID19-pandemic, conspiracy theories have contributed to shape our understanding of Europe as a geopolitical entity as much as a socio-cultural space. Conspiracy theories are powerful narratives impacting the way how people perceive the world as structured by secret plots and malign manipulation. These beliefs are frequently mobilized in times of crises, when large and complex world events beg for simplified black-and-white explanations and identification of culprits. During 2020, the planet was gripped by a universal pandemic, the Corona Virus Disease of 2019 (COVID-19), caused by an invisible novel coronavirus which within weeks brought international travel to a standstill, halted the world economy and placed billions of people in lockdown and quarantine with unpredictable social and economic consequences for the future. Almost immediately, conspiracy theories about the origin, (intentional) dissemination, political countermeasures, epidemiological indicators (like incidence, prevalence, mortality etc.), potential treatment (medication) and prevention (vaccines) were constructed which contributed to panic, disinformation and political conflict. One of the earliest theories peddled was that the virus was created artificially in Asia (China) and imported to Europe as a bio-weapon of a sort, for economic domination. It was also claimed that Turkey orchestrated a new wave of Syrian refugees at its border to Greece in order to contaminate the rest of Europe with the novel coronavirus via the ominous ‘Balkan-route’. In addition, 5G-mobile masts were attacked across the continent since people were made to believe that this new standard of information technology either spreads COVID-19 or degrades the human immune system. For some, the virus was released from a lab on purpose in order to secure the Chinese take-over of world economy, for others it was the US who intentionally brought it to China. As usual, George Soros and ‘globalist elites’ were blamed as well. Perhaps the most bizarre (but vastly disseminated) idea is that the pandemic serves as a pretence of forced vaccination with a mind-control chip, turning the world population to passive ‘sheeples’ in the hands of sinister puppet players, including Bill Gates. Some of these conspiracies have been amplified by world leaders (Trump, Bolsonaro and Maduro most notably), but also in Europe by extreme-right politicians like Orbán (Hungary) and Fico (Slovakia), Fedriga from the Italian Lega Nord and the former Greek minister of Defense Kammenos (Independent Greeks). Peddling conspiracies can have serious consequences for people’s health and safety and erodes trust in science and political institutions.

Purpose

But what can conspiracy theories tell us about the fabric of the political space? My project investigates the impact of conspiracy theories upon the understanding of Europe a) as a coherent geo-political entity and b) as an imagined political and cultural space exposed to evil machinations from within and outside. Exploring contested topics such as discourses on migration, EU enlargement- and accession talks, demography and polarization in politics and media narratives, the aim is to demonstrate how conspiracy theories have developed explanatory power related to the essence of Europe in general and the European Union in particular. My overarching aim is to contribute substantially to a reconceptualized political and cultural psychology of European and global affairs in which conspiracy narratives play an increasing role in combination with phenomena like the global rise of populism, fake news and online disinformation campaigns. To date, there is no other project operating from the same conceptual level, which is to explore how a continent in its entirety has turned into the object of conspiracy theorizing. Moreover it is possible to claim that ‘Europe’ is constructed through a wide range of meaning-making mythologies in which narratives of conspiracy play a foundational role not least as reactive responses to sentiments of nostalgia and loss or other existential fears. Imagining conspiracy is intrinsically linked to the imagination of Europe as a continent and European culture as such. In lack of clear-cut definitions of what constitutes its territorial borders as much as its limits of cultural identity, it has over the course of history been easier to define what Europe is not than what it is, self-images are frequently derived from the outside. In such a sorting operation of political psychology, focus has been directed towards internal as much as external enemies and threats channelled through apocalyptic fear. Who is the ‘Other’ against which Europe needs to define and defend itself? Who is threatening its presumed unity and coherence? Who owns the prerogative of interpretation of its meaning? These variables are by no means self-evident and have been contested over time. Over the last decade, these questions have received increased topicality since they have informed political mobilization of populist parties, a third wave of neo-nationalism ,European right-wing movements and global white supremacist ideologies both on the streets and the world wide web. They have fuelled societal polarization in the aftermath of the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ in 2015, weakened trust in the EU as a legitimate supranational actor, turned into key elements of Kremlin disinformation (and Manichaean disintegration) campaigns and inspired lethal terrorism such as in Norway in 2011 or Germany in 2019 and 2020. The terrorist attacks in Christchurch and Halle in 2019 and in Hanau in 2020 (together with their manifestos) demonstrate furthermore vividly that imaginations of Europe have a global outreach when coupled to larger narratives about ‘the West’ in terminal decline. Furthermore, these imaginaries are fuelled by larger sentiments of nostalgia and perceived loss of status and significance.

Goals

It is anticipated that my research project will result in the publication of an edited volume in 2021 and will be continued as a project of outreach and knowledge exchange activities.