Conspiracy: In Doubt Against Democracy

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Conspiratorial thinking between fantasy, world view or theory and how it affects democracy.


During 2020/2021, the exceptional character of the global COVID-19 pandemic with its accompanying symptoms of reduction of social contacts, restriction of free movement, personal overload in family and professional life, decision makers navigating on sight and the general uncertainty of when life will return to normal, released many fears.

Exceptional Situations

The described situation is an exception and these show us our social needs at the moment when it is difficult to satisfy them in the usual way. Because for a significant part this situation also threatens the existence, this also releases very elementary fears for many.

One of our needs as citizens is to be able to make use of basic democratic rights at any time, such as the right to free association, freedom of assembly, freedom of movement or freedom of expression. Because freedom of assembly or freedom of movement are restricted, but this may not be said out loud, there would also be no freedom of opinion, so an increasingly large number of people suspect. Moreover, many long for a policy characterised by decisiveness and consistency, replacing uncertainty with certainty.

Others point out that such a policy, bypassing plural discourse, is likely to be at the expense of the fundamental rights mentioned above, a fact that many demonstrators at the "anti-Covid-19 manifestations" in Europe ignore.

Toward Certainity

How to cope with life under these many question marks? One possible answer is to flee into believable explanations. The more question marks surround us, the more attractive become answers that do not address the real questions at all but provide an alternative worldview.

First of all, it should be made clear that intransparency is not problematic in itself. After all, everyone regularly learns that the world is opaque. A "harmless untruth" is perhaps the most harmless variant of this intransparency. Or children try to play their parents off against each other to achieve something, a game with hidden or half-open cards. Or perhaps we help a person save face by maneuvering them around a faux pas without explicitly addressing their inappropriate behavior in the situation.

"Aren't there also real conspiracies?"

"Actual conspiracies do exist but they are rarely discovered through the methods of conspiracy theorists. Rather, real conspiracies get discovered through conventional thinking—healthy skepticism of official accounts while carefully considering available evidence and being committed to internal consistency.

In contrast, conspiratorial thinking is characterized by being hyperskeptical of all information that does not fit the theory, over-interpreting evidence that supports a preferred theory, and inconsistency."

Conventional Thinking

  • Healthy skepticism
  • Responsive to Evidence
  • Strives for Coherence

Actual conspiracy

Conspiratorial Thinking

  • Overriding suspicion
  • Over-interpreting evidence
  • Contradictory

Imagined conspiracy

Source: Lewandowsky & Cook(2020). The Conspiracy Theory Handbook.


The term conspiracy refers to non-transparent behavior in connection with the interest-driven exercise of power. Until 1968, the Penal Code in Germany defined the term "secret confederacy" as a "connection whose existence, constitution, or purpose is to be kept secret from the state government, or in which obedience is promised against unknown superiors or unconditional obedience against known superiors." The English "conspiracy" also describes an unlawful action, which includes the aspect of conspiring to do something illegal. Socially, a conspiracy is an invisible and powerful association acting harmfully or criminally.


An invisible and powerful association acting harmfully or criminally.

Concpiracy theory

A conspiracy theory purports to explain conspirational processes, decisions, or effects on a larger social scale in an evidence-based style.

Thus, it is concerned with broader social impact. However, since these are not valid theories, the term narrative may be more appropriate. At the core of the narrative is a belief in the harmful intentions of the conspirators*. The fictionary content of conspiracy thinking is expressed in the word conspiracy fantasy. It is not the same as pure speculative thinking, which can be seen as calculating with different unknown variables. Where there is a lack of transparency or critical publicity, for example in undemocratic societies or in exceptional circumstances where everyday routines are disrupted, speculation is, after all, often the only way to form a picture of causes and effects, actions and their effects that are visible to us. Reality is not always built on data, but a mixture of visible facts and invisible probabilities.

Conspiracy fantasy, on the other hand, negates the fact that speculation often contains analytical components.

Toward a Worldview

In an atmosphere of uneasiness, in which critical thinking decreases, fears or worries prevail, and information is not possible, conspiracy belief and legends flourish. Thus, a possibility of explaining something initially becomes a fantasy, and if people cannot regularly critically question their assumptions, a worldview eventually forms.

In this sense, one problem is that people replace their pursuit of sound knowledge with belief. But belief can also mean faith in the good. Thus, too little critical thinking is only part of the problem. More worrisome is that formed conspiracy worldviews negate the possibility of prosocial and democratic forms of behavior and ultimately can or will justify breaking with them.

Antidemocratic Attitude

Conspiracy worldviews negate the possibility of prosocial and democratic forms of behavior and ultimately can or will justify breaking with them.

Impact of Algorithms Used in Social Media on Individual Perceptions

In particular on the digital platforms, which are tending to present users the things and worldviews they are searching for or which are tiening them to the platform, the users might soon experience a self-consistent set of narratives. Automatised fabricated content is sent by bots responding to specific key words. These bots make people think their opinion is marginal and that of their opponents outnumbered.

Participating in fragmented discourses makes it more dificult for individuals to gain overview about the other persons' facts and arguments and also to find out, how relevant the personal perspective is in the whole society.

The algorithms of the platforms may also prefer and amplify emotional and polarising content (which conspiracy content usually is).

In other words - the construction of the current algorithms hinders the platform users to take a reflexive position and critical thinking. A climate in which conspirational thinking can grow.

Amplified by social media

"Not only does social media allow the unfettered spread of misinformation, but also research shows that fact-checked false information spreads faster and farther online than information that turns out to be accurate. The social effects of sharing conspiracy theories are also an important factor. Studies have revealed that people are more inclined to share false conspiracy theories than accurate information, because of the higher social engagement (e.g. comments, likes) that they can generate."

Source: UNESCO (2022). Addressing conspiracy theories: what teachers need to know.

Narrative, Worldview, Ideology, Myth, Narrative, or Fantasy?

Depending on what one wants to look at, many composites with conspiracy also make sense in each case, but mostly they do not describe a substantial "theory." Rather than bandying about the one "right" term, pedagogical engagement with conspiracy can sharpen one's use of deliberate language, language that most accurately describes the essence of the phenomenon with which a group is specifically concerned.

Building Blocks for Conspiracy Narratives

Social context

Base it on something that matters to many people. Outline a troubling situation that many can relate to (e.g., a pandemic, a social crisis,injustice).

Blame somebody

Designate a minority as the acting group. You must define a commonality:

  • Members of a particular religion or civil religion (such as Christians, Muslims, Jews, Communists),
  • a common profession (politicians, priests, doctors),
  • a common social status (such as elites, travelers, workers),
  • physical characteristics (e.g. female, skin color, reptilian, noble blood...),
  • other subcultures (yoga practitioners, vegetarians, gamblers...).

Also feel free to play with the idea that taken individually, harmless individuals can add up to a large threat picture

  • flood, army, army of millions....

Explain their reason or interest

Describe how the need for power is satisfied in its various transactional forms:

  • Gaining money,
  • spreading ideals,
  • social prestige,
  • social domination...

Uncover their discrete action

The invisible conspiracy agreement and its circumstances.

  • A secret meeting, for example (e.g. Bilderberg conference, the telephone conversation between Nixon and Kissinger, highway rest stop).

Find or fabricate evidence

The extraordinary circumstance by which the discreet action was unmasked

  • the Protocols of the Elders of Zion,
  • a blurry Youtube video,
  • Paul McCartney's walk on the Abbey Road cover...

Or explain where actors have already acted accordingly

  • Muslims in Vienna in 1683,
  • Christians in Jerusalem in 1099,
  • Politicians in conferences...

... and let your story go viral.


Conspirational Thinking, Fake, Hate

Further Reading

  • Barkun, Michael (2003). A Culture of Conspiracy, University of California Press 2003
  • Council of Europe (2020). Digital Resistance - Handbook for Teachers. An empowering handbook for teachers on how to support their students to recognise fake news and false information found in the online environment. Council of Europe/European Union joint programme Democratic and Inclusive School Culture in Operation (DISCO), Strasbourg.


This text was published in German language at under a Creative Commons CC-BY_SA 4.0 license: Nils-Eyk Zimmermann: Im Zweifel gegen die Demokratie.

Nils-Eyk Zimmermann

Nils-Eyk Zimmermann

Editor of Competendo. He writes and works on the topics: active citizenship, civil society, digital transformation, non-formal and lifelong learning, capacity building. Coordinator of European projects, in example DIGIT-AL Digital Transformation in Adult Learning for Active Citizenship, DARE network.

Blogs here: Blog: Civil Resilience.