The Conspiracy Theory Mindset and its Contribution to the Guardian/CiF World View

A guest post by Mitnaged


I recently attended a conference in London about conspiracy theories, the academic research done into them, the personality characteristics of the type of people who tend to hold them and why they are so impervious to change or amendment even in the light of rigorous evidence which introduces doubt about their veracity.

The conference was run on a shoe string budget but was well attended.  The speakers were acknowledged and in most cases widely published experts in this new and growing field.  All shades of opinion were represented in the audience, including “troofers” – those who believe that 9/11 and 7/7 and other phenomena were put up jobs and conspiracies by our own governments against us.

I attended because I am interested in the psychological functions which conspiracy theories serve for the people who hold them and why they might be so persistent and resistant to change or the new evidence which refutes them.   One psychological definition of these manifestations of rigid thinking would be that the “troofers” hold over-valued ideas about powerful others’ roles in causation and effect of events, to the exclusion of almost every other point of view which contradicts them.  In this they have much in common with the repetitive, perseverative and one-track minded views of many of the commenters about Israel below the line on CiF.

The “troofers” in the audience tended for the most part to be vociferous and extremely single-minded.  Although all but one of the speakers took great care to stay within the parameters of their own research findings and not to personalise them, the “troofers” misconstrued almost everything these speakers said and over-personalised the research findings, opinions and statements invariably negatively, and as being directed deliberately at them. 

Correspondingly, the speakers had to take care, respectfully and often, to remind the audience that they were indeed talking of research findings, rather than about particular people or their views.  

(The “troofers” also set up a stall at the back of the  hall from which they sold copies of DVDs which purported to tell us the real story about the events of 9/11 and 7/7.  I paid £1.00 and got a DVD pack, but had great difficulty taking seriously anything on the 7/7 disc, from the time it started with a message from Muad’Dib (a fictional character from Frank Herbert’s Dune), until it told its viewer, with great seriousness that the Muslim suicide bombers had been duped, and were given their final instructions from the offices of an Israeli-owned company in Luton; that Bibi Netanyahu had said that 9/11 was a good thing, and implied that the London training exercise in case of terror attack, held a year previously, was a rehearsal for the attack itself.  None of these was triangulated with other, disinterested material which could be from sources reliable enough to constitute hard and fast proof, all of it was a mix of conjecture, mixed with a hefty dollop of self-serving bias).

However, two of the speakers (Jamie Bartlett and Carl Miller, the authors of a pamphlet about conspiracy theories for Demos)  whilst being respectful and professional, said that they would not be unduly careful about not giving offence since as a result of their own research, offence would be taken no matter what they said.  Although almost all the speakers were very good these two were like a breath of fresh air.

I say “almost all” the speakers. The only one who left me feeling distinctly uncomfortable/exasperated, because he expected us to believe everything he said unquestioningly, was one Ian R Crane, a self-styled “geopolitical researcher” a late stand-in for David Aaronovitch, who was ill. The organisers admitted that they did not know what he was going to talk about, but believed it to be fair to invite a nominated person who held an opposing point of view to address us.

The speakers and what they said

I shall now go on to give a brief outline of what each speaker told us:

Dr Chris French and Robert Brotherton outlined the difficulties of arriving at a universally acceptable definition of what constitutes a conspiracy theory and summarised the components as follows:

Everything is evil – there is invariably an assumption of malign intent (whereas, commonsensically, some conspiracy theories may be benign);

They reach far beyond the everyday – they are invariably over the top.

They evidence indiscriminate distrust – of the government, of other allegedly powerful groups (the audience was told that there were even conspiracy theories about the meeting we were attending!)

Every official explanation is a lie – “That’s what they want us to believe” and theorists do not believe evidence-based consensus. 

Everything is intended – there is the  assumption of hyper-competence on the part of conspirators who are perceived to be all-powerful – and that nothing happens by accident.

Everything is significant – inherent grandiosity of any theory.  (Real conspiracies are, by contrast, limited in scope)

Heroic strivings to seek out evidence – in the absence of positive objective proof

Small anomalies are imbued with crucial significance.

They are self-insulating and therefore very resistant to change, and are sealed off from impartial examination of the evidence, and they arise even before the full facts are known.

French and Brotherton’s research has found that the strongest predictor of belief in conspiracy theories is that the person has previously been inclined to endorse other conspiracy theories.  Another finding was that racial marginalisation had an effect on the inclination towards conspiracy beliefs, as did perceptions of powerlessness and low self-esteem. Also noteable were the over-inclination toward belief in the paranormal, superstitiousness and religiosity.   Conspiracy theorists tended towards emotional reasoning, they tended to possess an external locus of evaluation/control, and to be victims of post-hoc (inverted) cause/effect reasoning.

Dr Karen Douglas spoke about why conspiracy theories were so popular.  Her own research indicated that people who held them had little interpersonal trust even in some cases towards their own families,  that they often felt that they had little control and that the world was in chaos; that the world is unjust.  They were also inclined to believe that “big” events necessitated “big” explanations rather than simple ones.

Many lacked information to evaluate conflicting explanations for phenomena and, rather than sit with the discomfort of “not knowing”, filled in the missing pieces themselves, often by paranoid projection and confirmation bias.  Douglas, surprisingly, found that people believed conflicting conspiracy theories and endorsed both as true.  Her findings echoed those of French and Brotheron – that “Authority” is generally involved in the cover up, that “Authority” is “hiding something”, that they feel mistrustful and uncertain and powerless (and are less likely to vote in order to change things, so they are in fact less powerful), have a heightened sense of injustice, feel under threat.

Conspiracy theories undermine people’s autonomy and they are often unaware that this is happening.   The resulting sense of powerlessness can lead to despair and insularity and the tendency only to interact with like-minded others (“echo chamber” effect).

Next came Dr Carl Miller, whose research into the role of the internet in conspiracy theories found that terrorist ideology correlated highly with tendency to believe in conspiracy theories.  His paper, co-authored with Prof Jamie Bartlett, also argued that extremism tends to demolish trust between the community and the state.  The paper caused considerable discussion when it was published online.  Among its findings:

In-group v out-groups dominated in web-based discussion, with very few dissenting voices.

Ad hominem insult levels were very high where these were in evidence.

Hardened received wisdoms went unquestioned.

Evidence of overvalued/delusional ideas* among conspiracy theorist groups on-line

Self-aggrandisement of members and lack of reality-testing of points of view

Entrenched rigid world views and extremely tight construing

*(overvalued ideas – false or exaggerated beliefs sustained beyond reason or logic but with less rigidity than a delusion, also often being less patently unbelievable. Source: Dorland’s Medical Dictionary for Health Consumers, 2007;

Delusional ideas: Beliefs held in the face of evidence to the contrary, that are resistant to all reason Source: Collins English Dictionary)

Prof Jamie Bartlett was next and argued for the careful, thoughtful and sceptical evaluation of the evidence presented by conspiracy theories and indeed of everything on-line.  He suggested that there is a “foul-smelling legacy” of conspiracy theories on-line, of thoughts presented as facts which the uninformed take as true.  In this respect, and from the behaviour of the “troofers” in the audience, which I have deliberately not addressed here, I remember thinking of the dialectical behaviour therapy theory that rigid thinkers tend to make lemons out of lemonade (ie attribute cause and effect in reverse order and often see correlations between random events as being cause/effect).

Bartlett also argued for the inclusion of the teaching of critical thinking skills in school curricula, so that students could more effectively evaluate the information they are given on-line and, interestingly for our purposes, also suggested that the main stream media had a role in the control and manipulation of narratives which may inform conspiracy theories.

The final speaker was Ian R Crane, a “geopolitical researcher” the quality of whose contribution, when compared with the others was the most disappointing.   He presented many opinions about 7/7, 9/11 and the death of Princess Diana all of which showed, (according to him, and his supporters in the audience judging by their applause), that conspiratorial machinations were afoot in all three, but none of which constituted what could be called rigorous scientific evidence let alone proof.  He presented no research findings, rather he came across more like a preacher than an academic researcher, and almost invariably generalised from the particular without providing his rationale other than he believe what he said and many others did too.  Crane believes many things, apparently.

In the final plenary session all the speakers answered questions from the floor, some interesting, some of which exhibited the woefully restricted, almost paranoid “troofer” mindset when it collides with reasoned argument.  Academics are as capable as anyone else of backbiting in private but there is an unwritten professional rule that they treat each other at least politely when sharing a public platform.  I was sorry but not at all surprised when Ian Crane, put on the spot by one question, referred to Dr Karen Douglas’ research, published in reputable, peer-reviewed journals, as “shallow” because Crane has no equivalent academic publications record.  The reader is invited to refer back to what Carl Miller said about the raised level of ad hominem insult when “troofers” are disagreed with.

Relationship to CiF?

How, then, does any of this relate to CiF?  Regular lookers-on and posters to CiF may well link some of the one-track-minded personality characteristics of regular posters there to the personality traits mentioned above. Conspiracy theories about Zionists, Jews and their power are rife throughout the Middle East and the inclination towards them is also evident above and below the line on CiF.  It is also easy to make connections between the putative mindsets of the posters of some of the “Zionist/Jewish plot” tropes repeated ad nauseam, often by the same posters there too.  This is particularly so in the case of the organ theft libels resurrected once more on CiF and written about on CiFWatch .  

We know that mindless hatred of Israel and/or Jews and/or Zionism itself represents CiF’s own overvalued/delusional idea and that this attracts the disaffected, half-baked and often floridly bizarre views and overvalued/delusional ideas of the regulars below the line in their turn.   There is one important difference between the two parties, however: 

The posters who hold these views find it immensely threatening to climb down from them and cling to them like drowning men to a life raft, perhaps for the reasons given by Dr Karen Douglas set out above.   In this, although they are immensely annoying, they are arguably harmless enough for the most part.

 CiF however seems to deliberately manipulate the challenged who hold such views, by providing a virtually sealed environment (by virtue of its biased moderation policy) whereby these lies, in the relative absence of disagreement, grow and take on a life of their own and are notoriously difficult to undermine.  In order to do this CiF controls and manipulates the narratives which inform those conspiracy theories, as Prof Bartlett said, and adds to them and beds them in.

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