Educational sheet 12


Level : Intermediate

Educational goals

Objective 1: Knowing what makes a conspiracy theory

Objective 2: Making the connection between conspiracy theories and hate speech

Objective 3: Understanding the role of MIL in the fight against conspiracy theories

Conspiracy theories

While they are not actually a new phenomenon, conspiracy theories have been very popular in recent years, particularly because of how they spread on social media and on the internet more broadly.


Definition: A conspiracy theory is a seemingly coherent and ‘logical’ story or theoretical narrative that aims to demonstrate or reveal the existence of a small group of powerful people who secretly plan illegal or harmful acts to change the course of events or who are trying to take over the world.


Conspiracy theories differ from false information in that they come from an aggregation of hypotheses and arguments that are manipulated to support a particular theory. False information is sometimes used in conspiracy theorists’ arguments, but it does not always align with the theory.


The media and false information do play a crucial role in the extent of the phenomenon. Firstly, wariness or even distrust of the media increases conspiracy theories’ credibility and popularity, all the more so in countries where the media are seen as corrupt or under the thumb of the political system. Secondly, false information uses the same mechanisms as conspiracy theories, such as leveraging fear and manipulating facts, and are often about the same topics.


Examples of some of the best-known conspiracy theories:


- The Illuminati are a secret society whose members include the world’s most powerful people

– The world is flat instead of round – No one has ever landed on the moon

– A plot between Germany and the Vatican is responsible for the breakup of Yugoslavia.


There are also more topical conspiracy theories about 5G, coronavirus, and vaccines.



Hate speech and moderating hateful content

Conspiracy theories are a major part of our relationship with information and with society. They straddle the intersection of prejudices, political leanings, and beliefs and can even have close ties to hate speech. As such, they can quickly sow conflict when they spread. This has been the case, for example, of theories about a worldwide Jewish conspiracy.


Definition: When we talk about hate speech, we are referring to expressions of hatred that may take the form of a phrase, text, sound, or image that expresses rejection of others, is hurtful and thus encourages feelings of hatred. When such an expression of hatred is made public, it can also incite witnesses of it to prove their hatred for one or the other – to choose their side – and sometimes to express that hatred again with similar or higher levels of violence as a result of pressure from the group. This what is known as inciting hatred.

When combined with a lack of critical thinking, this type of content, based on stereotypes and misconceptions, leads to divisive and violent speech by turning one group into a scapegoat bearing all responsibility and guilt, which then leads to overgeneralisations and a feeling of paranoia.


Example: The Roma community is often the target of discrimination and prejudices, being portrayed as dishonest or thieves, all of which keeps them from getting skilled work. Roma are twice as likely to be unemployed than other groups and many of them still live in areas where homes do not have running water.


Moderating particularly hateful content on social media, for example, while providing more inclusive education in civics, media, and digital technology can help limit the slippery slope that leads to physical and mental violence.


Definition: Moderation means deleting, penalising, or even punishing creators of hateful content to prevent its spread. This type of content may include a violent comment on a post, sharing an article, video, photo, or infographic that stigmatises a particular group of people, or a private email or instant message exchange.



Fighting conspiracy theories

Definition: Conspiracism is the tendency to incorrectly present events or phenomena as being the result of an organised conspiracy. It is a way of thinking or attitude that denies generally accepted explanations of facts and replaces them with a conspiracy whose shadowy aim is unknown.


The consequences of conspiracism:


  • Generates hate speech
  • Makes people believe in unproven theories
  • Locks people up into a logic of distrust and misconception, which limits the discussion of ideas
  • Makes it more difficult to keep the powerful in check and reveals real political malfeasance or possible conflicts of interest.

Ways to limit conspiracism:


  1. Regulating and limiting hateful content and false information (fact-checking websites, holding social media platforms accountable, etc.)
  2. Developing the public’s critical thinking skills through media and information literacy training in order to:
  • Question the mechanism of the conspiracy: Is this really sufficient proof?
  • Encouraging caution to raise and maintain vigilance among the public (without confusing caution with distrust or doubt with suspicion)
  • Channeling criticism and allowing people to be better informed by using logical and verifiable procedures – and finally looking at the world around us objectively.