Marko Ampuja (University of Helsinki)
Conspiracy theories and the organic crisis of Western liberal democracies
Conspiracy theories refer to claims and beliefs, according to which large-scale social and political developments are guided by a secretive elite alliance for its own benefit. They are significant and interesting today, as they are no longer tied to fringe political elements, but have, instead, become a key ingredient of Western representative democracies, disseminated by right-wing populist parties, in particular.
I will first examine conspiracy theories as right-wing populist communication strategies that have intensified in conjunction with the “organic crisis” (Antonio Gramsci) of Western liberal democracies since the early 2010s. In an organic crisis, the consensus held by traditional parties and elites begins to crumble: Their capacity to upheld the social order in ways in which their interest appears as the common interest is seriously weakened, and this opens the door for authoritarian political forces and claims, among them conspiracy theories that describe the world as a battleground between corrupt elites and the pure and benign people.
Second, I will argue that these developments can be understood through critical ideology theory. According to it, the rise of right-wing conspiracy theories is a symptom of the current crisis of liberal democracy. While conspiracy theories are not supported by established epistemic authorities, they are not false in any straightforward way: To be effective, they have to contain elements that “make sense”. That is, as thought forms that are able to mobilize large populations, they focus on certain elements of reality that they then generalize one-sidedly into broader, twisted explanations of that reality.
Michael Butter (University of Tübingen – Keynote)
Conspiracy Theories, Populism, Democracy
The success of populist movements around the world in the past two decades has sparked an intensive debate about their relationship to democracy. The same is true for conspiracy theories, not least because they are often quite prominent within these movements. Drawing mainly on examples from Germany, Hungary and the United States, this talk will attempt a systematic exploration of the relationship between conspiracy theory, populism, and democracy, with a focus on the links between the first two. I will argue that conspiracy theories are best seen as a non-necessary element of populist discourse. How many members of a populist party or movement believe in conspiracy theories depends on how accepted they are in a specific political culture, on whether they can only function as counter-narratives or can constitute the official version of events. I will also argue that there is no automatic link between conspiracism and extremism, antisemitism, racism, or anti-democratic attitudes. However, due to their status as stigmatized knowledge in most western democracies, conspiracy theories are more often than not tied to such problematic convictions there.
Cora Alexa Døving (University of Oslo)
How conspiracy theories make sense in Norwegian Facebook groups: An introduction to ‘conspiracy talk’ as an analytical concept
What makes it appealing to join online communities obsessed with images of enemies and threatening narratives? This talk is based on analyses of the content of various websites and Facebook pages in the far-right landscape in Norway, and I will seek to explore what role conspiracy claims play in these viral communities and how they are used to construct enemy images. My main aim is to identify patterns of communication that is, the ways of talking that make conspiracy ideas seem reasonable and relevant in the local context of those who participate in the Internet-based communities. During our research process, it became clear that the sources rarely presented conspiracy theories in a comprehensive and detailed way. There were, however, many conversations centered on conspiracy themes. I will argue that the term ‘conspiracy talk’ is a fruitful analytical concept when trying to understand the character and function of these kinds of dialogues. “Conspiracy talk” reveals how the ideology behind enemy images is made meaningful, especially by linking them to the local contexts of the participants. I argue that radical right and right-wing populist ideas are made relevant and gain a sense of immediacy precisely through such conspiracy talk.
Olli Herranen (University of Helsinki)
Climate denialism and the delicate balance between freedom and control
The most common denominator explaining climate denialism is vested interests which divide between i) cultural, ii) economic, and iii) political. They refer, respectively, to i) privileged cultural positions, such as ‘whiteness’ and ‘maleness’; ii) economic profits, free market ideology, or performance of the national economy; and iii) conservative politics that usually also seeks to protect the other interests. In sum, denialism follows when people in privileged positions are losing control of things that they take for granted, their vested interests. However, according to my preliminary findings on Finnish data, the climate denialism does not only follow from fear of losing control, but also from sense of being subject to control whether by some administrative body or ideological movement, such as feminism.
Following this hypothesis, I suggest that what realizes as vested interests is actually a result of absence of social regulation making different privileges appear as natural individual freedoms. It follows that their implementations, like consumption and private motoring, are seen as the expressions of these freedoms whereas subjection to normative and governmental regulation is interpreted as a violation of these freedoms. Thus, I find the resentment against climate mitigation and/or activism being a result of this control-freedom dialectics rather than just fears of losing control. As individual freedoms are usually understood in terms of economic freedom, freedom of speech, or even human rights, I suggest that this extension to existing denialism and scepticism frameworks may help to explain how seemingly contradictory ideological positions and interests may find consensus in climate denialism.
Martin Hultman (Chalmers University – Keynote)
Climate Obstruction: How Propaganda, Conspiracies and Apathy are Heating the Planet
Why don’t we act when the existential danger of climate emergency has been communicated by scientists et.al. for over thirty years and we experience it on a yearly basis? Presenting research results from the interdisciplinary Centre for Studies of Climate Change Denial (CEFORCED) and the new book Climate Obstruction. How Denial, Delay and Inaction are Heating the Planet associate professor Martin Hultman introduces the scholarly knowledge in the field.
Annastiina Kallius (University of Helsinki)
Conspiracies and Illiberal Infrastructure of Knowledge in Hungary
This paper explores how conspiratorial knowledge has become a hegemonic landscape of knowledge in 2010s Hungary. In the last 12 years, Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz party have established an illiberal regime of institutional, economic and cultural control. Building on anthropological and sociological research on the co-constitution of political understandings and institutions, I argue that conspiratorial knowledge has become a hegemonic epistemic modality both for the regime as well as those opposing it. First, I briefly introduce the illiberal infrastructure of knowledge, which consists of media outlets, scientific institutions, aesthetic projects in public space and large-scale conspiratorial propaganda campaigns. Through these, conspiracies appear as official knowledge propagated by state institutions. I then continue to discuss how also subversive knowledge is necessarily conspiratorial in nature. Conspiracies among those who oppose the regime, I argue, appear as an epistemic strategy from the political margins. Finally, I outline how this omnipresence of conspiratorial knowledge shows the place of conspiracies at the crux of power and knowledge. Because they appear in politically co-existing spheres, as a category of knowledge in itself conspiracies do not appear as morally or politically charged.
Kimi Kärki (University of the Arts Helsinki & University of Turku)
The Eternal Return of Nazis: Popular Culture, Nazi Conspiracies, and Underground Entryism
Nazis have been one of the most recycled pack of villains in the post-war era, to the extent that they have become the ultimate meme material, and a source of real and imagined conspiracy theories, among the wealth of many other hybrid cultural formations. Relatively many of these conspiracy theories and alternative histories circulate material related to the occult and esoteric practices, UFO sightings, and even fantasies of Nazi retreats in remote places, such as Antarctica, the centre of the Earth, or, indeed, the dark side of the Moon. The mixture of technology and myths is a powerful combination, and the digital era entertainment culture has seemingly become obsessed with Nazis.
The nostalgic longing for mythical past is obviously something that resonates with right wing populists, who also circulate similar materials. In my presentation I will analyse some examples of this phenomenon, and claim that there is at least a possibility of fascist entryism – a form of infiltration. I will analyse the strategic, sometimes also ironic, use of popular culture as a form of propaganda and pseudo-historical escapist fantasy.
Elżbieta Korolczuk (Södertörn University and University of Warsaw – Keynote)
Gender denialism in contemporary Europe: the anti-gender campaigns in the populist moment
In recent decades we have witnessed the rise of global anti-gender campaigns, which include opposition to anti-discriminatory education, abortion, LGBTQ rights and legislation aimed to counteract gender-based violence. Anti-genderism, however, is more than just a desire to stop social change in the sphere of sexuality, gender and reproduction. It is a coherent worldview and a body of knowledge whose proponents aspire to legitimacy in academia and transnational institutions. The set of ideas that come under the name of anti-genderism is marked by internal coherence and remarkable flexibility, but at its core lies the view that gender roles and ideals are embedded in biology or God-given rather than socially constructed. “Gender” is associated with collapsing natural differences; it is presented as a danger to children, family and reproduction; and as an imposition of global elites on local people.
The anti-gender movement seeks not only political influence but also epistemic power (Korolczuk 2020, Paternotte and Verloo 2021, Peto 2022). The ultraconservative actors challenge the validity of gender studies and non-discriminatory education, attack scholars who focus on gender and sexuality, and aim to change the curricula that are not in line with ultraconservative worldview. The goal is not only to dismantle existing academic institutions and limit academic freedom in the sphere of gender studies, but to establish new bodies and practices of knowledge production, and form a new intellectual elite, effectively opposing the existing liberal and left-leaning one. The anti-gender movement promotes its own intellectual authorities, produces conservative knowledge – a counterknowledge – on gender and sexuality, and aims to gain visibility in existing institutions of higher learning as well as to establish new ones. The electoral successes of right-wing populist parties provide an excellent discursive and political opportunity to pursue both political and discursive hegemony by the ultraconservative actors. This presentation will analyze how counterknowledge on gender and sexuality is being produced and legitimized in contemporary Europe by ultraconservative actors in tandem with right-wing populists.
Maria Lasonen-Aarnio (University of Helsinki)
Mari-Liis Madisson (University of Tartu)
Strategic conspiracy narratives in political communication: Case study of EKRE’s transmedial anti-Soros messages
Strategic conspiracy narratives are effective means of information influence activities. They are often used for grabbing attention, triggering memory-associations, delegitimizing political opponents, creating community cohesion and shaping the meanings of contemporary conflicts. My presentation is based on a conceptual framework, elaborated in a monograph “Strategic Conspiracy Narratives A Semiotic Approach” (2021, co-authored with Andreas Ventsel). The goal of this paper is to introduce our approach and apply it in a qualitative analysis of anti-Soros conspiracy narratives published in Uued Uudised, the main organ of the extreme right-wing Conservative People’s Party of Estonia (EKRE). The focus is set on strategic transmedia storytelling that embraces several modalities and platforms. I explain which techniques are used to evoke curiosity and the immersive experience of the conspiracy narrative, and how cohesion between different story entries is created.
Alfred Moore (York University)
Deliberative Traps and the Problem of Distrust: Controversies over expertise in the Covid pandemic
What is the relationship between practices of distrust and the trustworthiness of expert authorities? On one view common view, critical practices premised on distrust are thought to be an important condition for the production of trustworthy expertise. Denialism and conspiracism, by contrast, are often taken to be destructive of the basis for expert authority altogether. In this paper I will frame the democratic value and risks of scepticism, denialism, and conspiracism in terms of the concepts of trust and distrust. I introduce the concept of ‘deliberative traps’ to describe the problem productive disagreement being undermined because critics are not trusted to observe basic deliberative constraints or act in good faith. I will do this with reference to controversies over expertise during the Covid pandemic, focusing in particular on the UK. I thus give particular emphasis to trust as a condition for disagreement, the importance of trustworthy critique, and the conditions under which critics can be trusted to be acting in good faith. This focus reverses the usual direction of argument about trust in expertise, which asks about when lay people can trust experts. I focus instead on the problem of when expert can trust lay people (including politicians and ordinary citizens).
Anita Pluwak (Tallinn University)
Female conspiracy fiction from postsocialist Poland
The connection between conspiracy theories and gender is one of the central if controversial issues in conspiracy theory research, both in terms of production / proliferation and on the level of content. Much of the research done on this important topic so far has focused on masculinity and narratives produced by men, and has identified a perceived crisis of masculinity as a key factor fueling post-WWII conspiracism (Melley, Christ, Butter, among others). Research focus has mainly been on the U.S. and, as far as literary studies are concerned, the preference has been for complex postmodern prose.
In this presentation, I will shift the perspective and look at an example of female conspiracy fiction from postsocialist Poland. Maryna Miklaszewska’s Spotkałam kiedyś prawdziwego hipstera (“I once met a true hipster”) from 2012 is a popular thriller written by a woman writer and featuring a female protagonist. The novel revolves around the conspiracy narrative(s) surrounding the 2010 Smolensk crash, in which a Polish Air Force Tu-154 airplane crashed near the city of Smolensk, Russia, killing all 96 people on board, among them the Polish president and his wife. My analysis will consider the emplotment of conspiracy in the novel (tropes, style, function etc.), the political implications of this particular conspiracy scenario, and the role played therein by gender and sexuality.
Niko Pyrhönen (University of Helsinki)
Contrarian epistemologies as political fandom?
One of the most common questions asked from researchers of conspiracy theories is: “How can so many people believe something like this, which clearly cannot be true?” The question is particularly difficult to answer in brief because it is built upon a significant misconception about the epistemic basis of the most well-known conspiracy theories. While the more esoteric narratives on the fringes of public debate are commonly advanced by true believers who are serious about contrarian epistemologies regardless what these beliefs can achieve in the public space, the most popular theories are often linked to, and dependent on specific types of political mobilization.
The narrative of ubiquitous voter fraud in the US elections, or the Convoy demonstration in Finland are two examples in which distinct political aims lead people to lend their support to mobilizations where conspiratory claims and rhetoric plays a major role. The increasing support for – or the explosive media attention to – these types of claims-making should not be taken as an indicator of conspiratory beliefs among the supporters. Rather, the mechanisms and rationales of support resemble those revolving around sports teams and public figures, who are supported because of the identities they validate and oppose. Developing a less critical and highly emotive relationship with the audience is a lucrative goal for both social media influencers and political entrepreneurs, sometimes even for news outlets. Conspiracy theory, particularly new conspiracism, is an invaluable tool that can be harnessed in different ways for the purpose of mobilizing audiences as fans, who behave predictably and increase political and economic fortunes for a range of actors.
Toni Saarinen (University of Helsinki)
Old Made New: Constructing Stigmatized Knowledge in the QAnon Myth
There is little new in the conspiracist content of QAnon, although the obscured narrative and the methods of transmission reflect the tendencies of communication in contemporary social media. Employing traditional narrative structures and borrowing well-known tropes, themes, and elements from the conspiracy activists of (especially) the 20th century, the QAnon experts craft combinations that suit many alternative worldviews. Furthermore, as QAnon was born in an environment that is technologically savvy and popular culture centred, it exploits the latest memes, fictions, and trends more than the older conspiracist myths.
But if there is little new content-wise, how have the prophets and influencers of QAnon been able to market it in the conspiracy milieu as relevant and revolutionary? I argue that in addition to the strategic vagueness and participatory nature of this hybrid mythology, the institutional ’mainstream’ has contributed just as much as the subculture to its construction as a ’valuable’. The significance of counterknowledge stems from its status as historically unwanted and ever endangered. The revelatory nature of conspiracist epistemology is always reinvented and depicted as threatening the status quo, and the stigmatization is then proven by a multitude of debunkers, politicians, and media institutions who attack conspiracist knowledge as dangerous and idiotic.
In this paper, I discuss how QAnon activists, including ’Q’ themselves, strategically reuse older content and depict it as novel. I also describe how the following media reactions lead to a feedback loop where conspiracist knowledge emerges as valuable and popular, reinforcing its traditional nature.
Oula Silvennoinen (University of Helsinki)
“Everywhere it was the Jews”: Antisemitism, Conspiracism and the Origins of Interwar Finnish Far Right
My presentation looks into the intellectual and experiential roots of the interwar Finnish far right during a period when it was still taking shape, in an atmosphere moulded by Finland’s peculiar political and social circumstances and the contemporary European intellectual atmosphere. I will discuss the features and ingredients of end-of-19th-century right-wing pre-fascist intellectual mobilisation through some of its most visible Finnish representatives. Two major strands of experience are discernible: a heightened sense of community decline among the cohort born around 1890, which often found expression through nationalist rhetoric and yearnings for an ideal, purified, exalted nation and community, and first-hand experience of organized violence, typically through participation in the Great War and related conflicts like the Finnish and Russian Civil Wars.
These background features are clearly predictive, in that they were widely shared among later interwar far right activists. They were often, but not always, accompanied by a more specific strand of thought, a general conspiracism and, more particularly, antisemitism. Both are nevertheless apparent in the thinking and rhetoric of the most radicalized and ideologically self-conscious layer of interwar far right activists. I will discuss some of the most influential ones in detail, and look for the origins of the Finnish interwar far right activism in the broad common denominators of the activists themselves: age group, socioeconomic background, the typical, shared European formative experiences and the common ideational background of the era.
Niki Sopanen (University of Helsinki)
In terms of theory and methodology, the dissertation derives from poststructuralist philosophies. The study frames conspiracy theories as conspiratorial discourses. Conspiratorial discourse denotes a logic of meaning-making; a way of telling stories (narration) with an aim of identification-providing and activity-inducing persuasion (rhetoric), and its root causes hinge upon the underlying socio-political and cultural framework (beliefs and practices). Conspiratoriality is thus understood as a context-bound form of expression, a genre, rather than a counter-narrative discernible by its epistemic status or its politico-ideological contents.
The leitmotif of the dissertation is to challenge the “Hofstadterian bias”, implying a metanarrative within conspiracy theory studies and liberal democracies at large. The said narrative associates conspiracy theories with political extremism, pseudo-scientific denialism and authoritarianism, while it disregards the ideological question of the “authoritarian other” or “populist other” in liberal social imagination.
Katja Valaskivi (University of Helsinki)
Epistemic Contestations in the Attention Factory
This talk examines the various ways in which the contemporary hybrid media environment contributes to “the contemporary epistemological crisis”. Working through the historical and social scientific contexts of our present media landscape it discusses the logic governing the content confusion that permeates this landscape in relation to the construction of world views and social reality. Through the concept of an attention factory it discusses how epistemic contestations gain visibility and attention in circulation. By way of an example of how the attention factory works, the QAnon phenomenon is presented. Finally, the aim is to discuss to what extent and through which aspects the contemporary media environment can be considered a contributory factor to the high public exposure and visibility of conspiracy theories.
Mariëlle Wijermars (Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies)
The Memory Politics of Ultranationalism in Russia
Kinga Polynczuk-Alenius (Polish Academy of Sciences & University of Helsinki) & Tero Toivanen (University of Helsinki): Mapping contrarian responses to the Russia’s war on Ukraine on the far-right in Finland and Poland
This paper maps the responses on the Finnish and Polish far-right to Russia’s war on Ukraine as a dramatic change in the geopolitical order. It then uses these responses tentatively to illustrate the relationships between ‘contrarian epistemologies’ and the mainstream ways of knowing. Theoretically, the paper starts from the understanding of contrarian epistemologies as relational, that is, incapable of existing in isolation from the established knowledge production.
Empirically, we zoom in on two far-right parliamentary parties, the Finns party in Finland and Confederation in Poland. Although they carry a considerably different political weight (the former is the second biggest party in the country; the latter a relatively minor extreme right actor), they share the core far-right standpoints and form the far-right opposition to the existing governments as well as to the established knowledge production. Our analysis shows how far-right actors harness the war to further their own long-standing, anti-democratic agendas.
For the Finns party, the energy crisis is the key facet of the war; however, the reason behind it is seen not to be the war itself but the ambitious climate politics promoted by the mainstream parties and climate scientists. Thus, the Finns party exploits the war on Ukraine, and the ensuing energy crisis, to spread scepticism about the climate measures and demand the cancellation of the national carbon neutrality targets and most of the EU’s climate regulations. Confederation, in turn, reads the war through the anti-immigration prism and deploys primarily a conspiracist discourse that views it as a decoy for ‘Ukrainisation’ of Poland–through an influx of refugees–and is couched in a way that mimics a scientific method by using facts and figures that, however, support the a priori conclusions.