How to recognise a conspiracy theory

This article is part of Conspiracy theories

Want to avoid getting caught up in a conspiracy theory? Make sure to read these tips on how you can easily recognise a conspiracy theory.

A set structure

All conspiracy theories tend to have more or less the same structure:

  • There is a small but powerful group of people
  • They have a secret plan
  • The plan would benefit this in-group
  • The plan is detrimental to many others

Let’s apply this to an example. Opponents of the coronavirus vaccine believe that the vaccine contains microchips that the government can use to track us with. If we apply the structure above, we find the following:

  • The government is the small, powerful group
  • The plan is to secretly implant chips through a vaccine
  • The benefit for the government is that they have more information about us
  • The detriment to citizens is the loss of privacy
“If it sounds too good to be true, it often is.”
Piaa Varis
Prof. dr. Piia Varis
Tilburg University

Other signs

Beside this set structure, there are other signs to recognise conspiracy theories by:

  • The story starts off believably, with clear facts, but becomes progressively more unlikely.
  • The story is presented as the ultimate revelation of the only truth.
  • The powerful group of people wants to hide the ‘real’ truth.
  • Everything is part of a bigger plan. The story exposes the plan.
  • The story elicits strong emotions.
  • There is far-reaching distrust of scientists, the media or the government.
  • Discussions don’t take place on public forums but in private chats.
  • The story is often deleted from social media.
  • Fact checkers and journalists debunk the story as untrue.
  • People who contradict the story are painted as naive and uncritical.

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Published on 18 October 2023