Conspiracy theorists and fake news allegedly influenced the elections in the United States. Sociologist Jaron Harambam’s research looks into the origins and purpose of conspiracy theories. “It’s important that citizens are critical of what is served up to them as the truth.”

Jaron HarambamJaron Harambam (1983) studied sociology at the University of Amsterdam and is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Rotterdam Cultural Sociology (CROCUS) of EUR’s Sociology department. He was awarded a Fulbright scholarship in 2014 which enabled him to pursue research at Northwestern University in Chicago for a period of six months. He also won the Prins Bernhard Cultuurfonds Young Talent Award in 2014. He hopes to obtain his doctorate in 2017.

Elections are scheduled for the Netherlands in the
spring. Will conspiracy theories play a role?

“Conspiratorial thinking is closely related to populism, the idea that we, as ordinary people, are being adversely manipulated by elites. In many cases these conspiracy theories are an expression of deeply rooted dissatisfaction with our modern institutions, such as the political establishment, the media, science, and the corporate sector.. The rhetoric of Wilders and DENK corresponds with what many conspiracy theorist think: institutions are corrupt and ‘the media’ portrays people as a threat. But it’s unlikely that conspiracy theories will play a significant role in our elections simply because our political leaders rarely engage in conspiratorial thinking. Even important election issues such as immigration and integration aren’t often associated with conspiracy theories. For example, Eurabia, the theory of a supposed muslim invasion, doesn’t have much traction in the Netherlands.”

During the American elections fake news played
an important role. Is that also a type of conspiracy

“Not really, but it is a concern for conspiracy theorists. Society is increasingly insistent that a distinction needs to be made between real news and fake news. This could be done using computer algorithms or editorial teams. Conspiracy theorists are afraid that unpalatable or unwanted news will be lumped together with fake news. If all their news sites and blogs are framed as fake they will subsequently no longer be findable online.”

This is not something you advocate?

“Of course not! That would be extremely dangerous. Think about the reasons given for the war in Iraq. The weapons of mass destruction were never found. The entire mainstream media was mistaken. So how real is real news? And how fake is fake news? Who decides this and what is that decision based on? I would say don’t prohibit any news, but be transparent about the source of the news: who can verify it, where did it come from? I believe that traceability is more important that the purported truthfulness of the news.”

Inside job

What is a conspiracy theory actually?

“The literal definition is that it’s a theory that explains social phenomena by claiming there is a conspiracy forged in secret by sinister people working behind the scenes. This seems straightforward enough, but in practice it’s more complicated. The official explanation of 9/11 is that a small group of people from Al Qaida secretly prepared and executed a terrorist attack. This is also considered a conspiracy theory, even though it’s not in the ordinary world. That’s why I decided to seek out the social reality: what is labelled a conspiracy theory and what isn’t? I spoke with both conspiracy theorists and criticasters and viewed their most significant websites. In the course of my research I came across many conspiracies on subjects such as 9/11, the pharmaceutical industry, humans evolving from aliens, alternative histories, UFOs, grain circles, the food industry, and NSA-related spying activities.”

How do you explain why people believe in conspiracy

“There are two scientific schools of thought on this matter. Neither explanation involves the experiences of those involved. Psychology labels it popular paranoid delusions, but that explanation is inadequate because it would mean half of our population is crazy. The cultural explanation associates conspiracy theories with a complex, postmodern existence where people no longer understand how the world works. Conspiracy theories make it easier to understand. Once again that is a pathological approach.”

How would you explain it?

“I observed the emergence of four sociological processes why people cross from the ‘normal’ world to the conspiracy theory world. The first is secularisation. People were brought up with religious beliefs only to discover the church is one big, corrupt political institution. The second is mediatisation. We live in a world that is saturated with images, but any of these could be photoshopped. The third, globalisation, provides for other perspectives and insights. One man spoke about his travels behind the iron curtain. He observed that news was presented differently there and people had a different way of looking at the world. Finally, there’s the democratisation of knowledge. We enjoy an increasingly higher level of education and we are taught to look at knowledge with a critical eye. Who created the knowledge and what are the vested interests behind it? All of these processes have undermined the idea of an indisputable truth and created space for other narratives, such as conspiracy theories.”

What about the conspiracy theorists? Who are

“A commonplace perception is that they’re all paranoid people wearing tinfoil hats who believe there can’t be smoke without fire. But there is actually a lot of diversity within this group. There are people from across the political spectrum from left to right, highly educated to less well educated, young and old, men and women. Some of them are extremely sceptical of all forms of knowledge while others have a dogmatic belief that only their own opinion is the correct one. The only connecting theme is that they have all detached themselves from mainstream opinions.”

How do others view conspiracy theorists?

“You often see that journalists, politicians and opinion-makers assume that conspiracy theories are untruths invented by crazy people. People who might even be a threat to society. Thinking in terms of conspiracy theories is framed as a modern religion for atheists. Most scientific studies also share this moralistic stance, and since they proceed from the basic assumption that conspiracy theories are irrational, they can’t properly understand conspiracy theorists.”.”


You don’t feel this is a good approach.

”As a scientist this isn’t the way to conduct research. It’s like an anthropologist saying the rain dance done by a tribe in the Amazon rainforest isn’t how the weather really works. That would be absurd, wouldn’t it? I advocate a more agnostic approach to the phenomena we are studying.”

But rejecting vaccinations because of a conspiracy
theory is dangerous too. What if there are good
reasons to portray conspiracy theorists as irrational?
een complottheorie is toch ook gevaarlijk?

“Personally I think conspiracy theories can be dangerous, but I find that emphasising the danger is very selective. There are issues that may be far more dangerous, such as the lobby industry. Consider how large corporations have more opportunities than ordinary citizens to influence legislation. I think that’s a much more serious problem, while the media sees conspiracy theorists as a serious threat. That is truly a case of moral panic. In the end I would prefer a world with civil disobedience towards truth claims above one where citizens are fully compliant and no longer question the establishment.”

So do conspiracy theorists play a role as a sort of
critical monitoring mechanism in society?

“To a certain extent, yes. It is important to have a critical attitude towards what is served up as the truth. But this could also be taken to extremes, resulting in a situation where no one knows what to believe. This would be a disaster for an open society. What we first need to do is thoroughly research why so many people no longer trust politicians, science and the media. My research is a start to answering this question.”