When do you think that someone can be considered a conspiracy theorist?

“This is already a difficult point. These kinds of labels are often stuck on people by someone else. The word conspiracy theorist isn’t a term that people use for themselves. And I’m the type of researcher who is curious about how people see themselves. So one of the questions I ask in interviews is: how do you see yourself, what do you think of that term yourself? Would you apply it to yourself?”

And what do they say?

“Well, sometimes they come up with alternatives. People call themselves ‘complete thinkers’, ‘critical’ or ‘autonomous’ thinkers. And others use the Dutch term ‘wappie’ to describe themselves. I also find ‘conspiracy theorist’ a problematic term. After all, it’s an assertion and assumes that the truth is clear. An alternative truth is therefore wrong, it is incorrect. But it certainly isn’t always clear what is true. All the same, I do include the term in my research as it is a social construct that people use.”

Criminologist Fiore Geelhoed is an assistant professor at the Erasmus School of Law. She conducted research into radicalisation and extremism in Islam, including converts, IS and Dutch emigrants to Syria. Recently, her research has started to focus on conspiracy thinking.

So what is your definition of a conspiracy theorist? How do you decide who you will interview and who you won’t?

“My definition is that it involves people who say: there is an elite with malicious motives who are conspiring against other people, and ordinary citizens are the victims. This is the common denominator.”

Can you see a significant difference between a ‘conspiracy theorist’ and ‘other’ people? Or is it more of a spectrum on which we all find ourselves somewhere?

“According to research, one in five people tend to believe in conspiracies. The development of these kinds of ideas is based on very normal human needs. But not everyone becomes a conspiracy theorist. And certain conspiracies have turned out to be true in the past – take how the United States lied about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, for example – so it’s not always wrong to believe in a conspiracy. I don’t think you can say that conspiracy theorists are all that different from other people.”

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There were plenty of conspiracy theories about Covid and Trump. Which stories are you encountering now that these two topics have pretty much disappeared from the scene?

“Covid is still in the picture, to be honest, this is clear in the Telegram groups that I monitor and in interviews. There are people who think there will be a new wave, or a new pandemic. Others are seizing upon the war in Ukraine, inflation, the energy crisis and digital money.”

Can you give us an example of a conspiracy theory around one of these topics?

“The digitalisation of money transactions, for example. They claim this is a way for the elite to suppress ordinary citizens. Because the moment all the money is digital, the reasoning goes, the elite can keep an eye on people’s spending patterns. If you don’t ‘toe the line’, the banks can simply freeze all your bank balances. And then you won’t have any money, because cash will no longer exist. Digital money isn’t a fabrication, of course, but the fact that there is an underlying plan to keep citizens down is a conspiracy theory. This kind of story then gains a place in a larger narrative of conspiracies, as if it were all part of that one big plan to suppress citizens. The Great Reset is an example of this.”

It sometimes seems that people who believe in one of these theories immediately tend to believe in the whole package. Is that right?

“Actually, that’s not always the case. There are people who combine the idea of The Great Reset with the idea of a flat earth, while others don’t go along with it at all. And some believe that the elite are guilty of ritual child abuse, while others think that’s complete nonsense. It’s also connected with the beliefs that you already have. For example, someone who is very religious is more likely to add evil elements to a story.”

Are there more conspiracies than before? There have been all kinds of theories going around for quite some time, for example surrounding 9/11, John F. Kennedy or Paul McCartney.

“In the long term, conspiracy thinking has been a constant in history. Surges make it more visible, especially in times of uncertainty. A pandemic is certainly an example of this. There is an immediately apparent reason, there are lockdowns and people take to the streets. Not just because of a conspiracy: people also took to the streets because they were against the coronavirus measures without actually believing in a conspiracy theory. Coronavirus also affects many people here more personally than the attacks in New York, for example. That also explains why I heard about the conspiracy theories around 9/11 through Muslims, because they were being called to account for those attacks.”

Is this belief in the Great Reset actually dangerous for society?

“I think it would be naive to say that it could never form a danger. At the same time, I think that believing in these kinds of things isn’t dangerous in itself. It’s only when conspiracy theorists feel the need to add actions to words that it becomes dangerous. But a lot of people are not in favour of violence at all. And perhaps their activism might take the form of going to a demonstration, for example. The perpetrators of violence are exceptions to the norm at present, so I think it’s important not to suspect every conspiracy theorist of planning to use violence. Because I think that’s just pouring oil on the fire, and then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Another risk is that people will withdraw into their own bubble.

“I don’t necessarily see that as a risk. You could regard it as undesirable for society. If so, it would be more constructive for the government not to regard this isolation as a problem, but to investigate why this group thinks it needs to isolate itself. At the time of the Islamic State, it was also felt that the relatively isolated position of Dutch-Turkish communities could lead to radicalisation. In fact, our research showed that they actually served as a buffer against extremism. Although the young people in these groups felt a sense of exclusion from society, they still had their own group to fall back on for work, for a positive identity, for a feeling of togetherness. Among those who emigrated to Syria, young Dutch-Turkish people were therefore underrepresented in comparison to converts, for example.”

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Image credit: Bas van der Schot

So how should ‘we’ deal with conspiracy theorists?

“I think that the debate is currently too polarised and that conspiracy theorists are perceived too much as a big danger. And even if they were a big danger, I think you should still keep looking for what connects people. Once you stop talking to each other in a constructive way, things only get worse. I don’t mean you should try to convince someone else, because there’s no point doing that, but you can look for where we still see eye to eye. For example, we might agree that democracy is shaping up well.”

What do you think about the fact that debates at universities are regularly cancelled because people are not willing or not brave enough to talk to another party, as happened recently in Groningen and now in Amsterdam?

“Personally, I think it’s a shame. However, the way in which you enter into conversation is very important. I’m currently organising a study afternoon for which I have also invited all kinds of people that I don’t personally agree with. You don’t have to agree on everything in advance.”

Among other things, you invited Willem Engel to that study afternoon. Why?

“He is someone who has caused a lot of commotion, of course. He’s been convicted of incitement, which he is still appealing against. All the same, I still think, and perhaps precisely because of this controversy, that we should continue to engage in this conversation. Even if it all goes wrong. But it also depends on the goal you have in mind. In our case, we want to ask questions about where we can still find common ground.”

Not long after the interview, Willem Engel’s visit was cancelled by the Executive Board. The Executive Board informed Engel by email that ‘employees of our university have been intimidated and threatened by you or a close circle of your supporters’. “This is where the scope for free academic debate stops, as far as we are concerned.” When asked for a response to the cancellation, Geelhoed referred to the Executive Board’s statement.

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