Carnivals and conspiracies
The motivation for engaging in conspiracy theories can be surprising
We tend to think of conspiracy theories as something that are the preserve of a small number of isolated individuals alone in their rooms distributing their beliefs online. Recent (soon to be released) work we have been doing at Ipsos, challenges that notion: instead we see the way that the general population tend to get involved in discussion of conspiracy theories. Academics Uscinski and Parent pointed out in 2014, that most people hold different degrees of Conspiracy Theory beliefs. “Conspiracy theories permeate all parts of American society,” they wrote, “and cut across gender, age, race, income, political affiliation, educational level, and occupational status.” But why is this?
The engaging nature of conspiracy theories
Part of the reason for the widespread engagement is that conspiracy theories are often engaging and provoke emotions - part of the fabric of our conversational lives. There is conversational value in discussing whether the Earth is flat, if Prince Charles is a vampire, the possibility that Princess Diana faked her own death, and that notion that world is run by a cabal of lizards that have taken human form.
Engaging in activities together is something that humans have always done: Barbara Ehrenreich’s book, ‘Dancing in the Street’ examines the nature of the sort of group interaction that we can at times see conspiracy theories inspiring, when she talks about carnival and the way group dancing levels and bonds human society. As we move synchronously to music or chanting voices, the rivalries and differences that might divide us either transform into innocuous competition over our prowess as a dancer or forgotten altogether.
Taking that theme, Ehrenreich sets out the way that medieval carnivals were not only rambunctious affairs of people dancing in unison, but they also readily mocked the authorities with ‘rituals of inversion”. There may for example, by a king of fools or dancers costumed as priests and nuns. There is a rich history of subordinate groups temporarily taking the roles of their social superiors. During Saturnalia, a Roman pagan festival, masters had to wait on their slaves; carnival allowed peasants to impersonate kings.
A carnival side to conspiracy theories?
We can perhaps see something similar with conspiracy theories – as commentators and theorists we necessarily tend to talk about conspiracy theories in quite sober terms, commenting on the way the promulgate often dangerous ideas such as discouraging people to get vaccinated. However, we are also seeing the way in which conspiracy theories are often ‘carnivalesque’ in character, perhaps appropriating the very same ‘rituals of inversion’ that we saw in the carnivals of medieval Europe. Take this meme of Bill Gates: it is clearly of poor taste on a number of levels but nevertheless we can observe that humour is being used to poke fun at the recently divorced Gates while at the same time referencing a popular conspiracy theory that COVID vaccination is a cover for injecting the population with microchips.
Ehrenreich suggests that the rude mockery of carnival highlights their political ambiguity. On the one hand it might service as a fundamental challenge to the status quo but could also be seen as a simple safety valve for discontent. The maypole, around which so many traditional French and English festivities were based, was often a signal of defiance and a call to action. In England, football could provide an excuse for assembling and a cover for challenges to authority – in each case, social clashes ‘coincided’ with carnival. And we surely see this play out in the Bill Gates meme –referencing conspiratorial, subversive beliefs but at the same time poking fun by intertwining and inverting a number of shared meanings and cultural references.
It is this tension that Ehrenreich suggests is the basis for centuries of repression of carnival, being replaced instead with what she calls ‘spectacles’, festivities organised by authorities in which the masses are no longer active participants but merely spectators. Nevertheless, carnival style activities keep bubbling up: whether rock rebellion of the 60’s, sporting events (as we saw in the UK engagement of their relative success in Euro2020) and raves.
There is a case to add engagement with conspiracy theories to these mass participation activities - our research shows that people do not necessarily take the claims that are made entirely seriously, but instead see them as something that is often engaging and interesting while at the same time representing a reasonable question or a fair challenge to authority.
Conspiracy theories as carnival might seem to understate the potentially problematic nature of many conspiracy theories - but only if we ignore the way in which carnival has always had under-currents that challenge more widely accepted knowledge and other power structures. To effectively engage and counter the more problematic aspect of some conspiracy theories, we need to recognise and understand their often carnival-style content and delivery, to which many are drawn.