What conspiracy theories have in common with fiction – and why it makes them gripping stories

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In an era dominated by ‘fake news’ and disinformation, conspiracy theories come into play an increasingly influential role in modern politics. In recent impeachment hearings in the United States, for example, former National Security Council official Fiona Hill warned that the “fictitious narratives” pushed by Russia were undermining American security.

But what exactly is the difference between a conspiracy theory and a legitimate news story? Does “fictitious” in this sense simply mean fabricated? My currently researching suggests there’s more to it – something that may explain why conspiracy theories can acquire such a powerful hold on the public imagination.

The story Hill was referring to in his impeachment testimony is something called “Crowdstrike”, a conspiracy theory who claims that it is Ukraine rather than Russia that pirate the Democratic National Committee’s email server in 2016, and that Ukraine, along with Democrats, later accused Russia of interference in the election.

A day after Hill’s testimony, US President Donald Trump again repeated precisely those same allegations in a interview with the Fox & Friends TV show. In doing so, he made a series of claims that are patently false. The reports of the two US intelligence community and special adviser Robert Mueller have, after all, concluded that it was Russia that actively interfered in the 2016 elections, while there is no evidence that Ukraine participated.

Like Hill noted, the whole “Crowdstrike” theory appears to be a “clear effort to legitimize an alternative narrative that the Ukrainian government is an American adversary and that Ukraine – not Russia – attacked us in 2016”.

Powerful narrative forms

Conspiracy theories are used in disinformation campaigns in two main ways. On the one hand, simply citing them can be a way to legitimize views you don’t like. For example, the British journalist Investigations by Carole Cadwalladr in various shady tactics used by the Leave campaign during the 2016 EU referendum are routinely dismissed as nothing more than conspiracies by his enemies.

But conspiracy theories are also used as counter-narratives to confuse the real nature of events and, in doing so, push a particular ideological view of the world.



Read more: Conspiracy theories: how belief is rooted in evolution – not ignorance


It should be noted that all explanations work as a type of narrative. A basic dramatic narrative has three stages: (1) a person embarks on a (2) journey through a hostile environment which (3) ultimately leads to self-knowledge.

This same basic structure applies to explanations: (1) you want to discover information; (2) you find a way to find out; and (3) your world is changed accordingly.

But as recent search I’ve done shows, there are many ways that conspiracy theories build directly on storytelling elements found in fiction rather than factual accounts.

Storytelling: The power of good storytelling can be persuasive.
One Billion Photos/Shutterstock

As in fictional stories, all the elements of a conspiracy theory are linked by clear lines of cause and effect. There’s a reason for everything, and if that reason doesn’t immediately appear, it’s because it’s deliberately hidden as part of the plot. This of course differs from real life, where events often include large amounts of randomness, unexplainable phenomena, and general bewilderment and bewilderment.

same story

Then there’s the way conspiracy theories are all underpinned by the same basic archetype: what the writer Christopher Booker calls the story “defeating the monster”. In this, a single or small group of rebels takes on the overwhelming forces of a corrupt and malevolent establishment that threatens the well-being of society.

The “Crowdstrike” conspiracy theory fits perfectly into this formula. Corrupt forces within the political establishment (in this case the Democratic Party) are portrayed as betraying the will of the people – represented by the election of Trump in 2016. The ongoing impeachment process against the President therefore threatens the well-being of the United States as an independent state. democratic nation. As a political theorist Jan Werner Muller As noted, this type of conspiracy theory is structurally embedded in the logic of all populist movements in the way their leaders regularly argue that the will of the people can only be negated by underhanded and corrupt means.

Conspiracy theories always fixate on a very simple story that acts as a fable for their overall view of the world. They usually take on an issue of real importance – such as foreign influence in national elections – but, to explain it, they cling to a succinct story that sidesteps the complexities and messiness of real-life phenomena and rather satisfies the logic of their overall ideological narrative.

For Trump supporters, the “Crowdstrike” story seems true because it’s another example of the establishment’s great witch hunt against him. As a story, it also has a coherent logic that the breadth and mess of facts lacks. So, in both of these ways, our familiarity with how the world is mediated in fiction helps cast doubt on how the world really is.


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