The world of conspiracy theories

The moon landing never happened, the coronavirus was caused by 5G and the CIA killed Kennedy. These are only some of the many strange stories that circulate on the internet. Conspiracy theories are far from a marginal phenomenon these days. Your neighbour, your best friend, and even you yourself could be a conspiracy theorist. How do you avoid becoming one? And how can you counteract conspiracy theories? Here you’ll discover all there is to learn about conspiracy theories.

Questions? Contact our experts Bert Pieters and Zara Mommerency.

Also take a look at our dossiers on propaganda and fake news.

What is a conspiracy theory?

A conspiracy theory is the conviction that a certain event was caused by a secret plan. Conspiracy theorists believe that there is an alternative explanation to what scientists, the government, or other authorities want us to think. A conspiracy theory wants to unmask the invisible puppeteers who are secretly in charge, in order to reveal the supposed ‘truth’ behind the matter.

  • What is a conspiracy?

Every conspiracy theory begins with a supposed conspiracy. What do we mean by that?

What is a conspiracy?

  • How to recognise a conspiracy theory

Conspiracy theories often have similar characteristics and structures. Discover how you can spot them.

How to recognise one

3 common questions about conspiracy theories

Conspiracy theories: only for weirdos?

What kinds of people believe in conspiracy theories? Are they by definition paranoid or weird? Discover whether the stereotypical image of a conspiracy theorist rings true.

How conspiracy theories spread

Conspiracy theories typically arise when the world is going through profound changes. It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that conspiracy theories were already rife in the Middle Ages. There just wasn’t any social media to help them spread - and that’s exactly why conspiracy theories today can make the rounds so easily.

  • How and why do conspiracy theories arise?

Conspiracy theories don’t arise in a vacuum. There is always a context that provokes them. Learn more about the context around conspiracy theories.

How conspiracy theories arise

  • How conspiracy theories spread

Did you know that you can encounter conspiracy theories in various forms? And that you are even fairly likely to encounter them, thanks to social media? Discover why.

How conspiracy theories spread

Dealing with conspiracy theories

You might think: if I encounter a conspiracy theory, surely I can just ignore it? But that might not be as simple as it sounds. Sometimes you might not even realise that you are dealing with a conspiracy theory. You can also wonder whether ignoring them is the best strategy. Discover what the best approach is when you encounter a strange story on the internet, and whether you’re better off responding to it or not.

Have you seen or read something on the internet that makes you go: ‘hold on…’? There are several things you can do, and a few things you better avoid. Asking yourself the right questions is the first step. Discover what you can do when you think a story isn’t quite right.

Respond and debunk: that’s often our first reflex when we encounter a conspiracy theory. Even though you may have the best of intentions, it’s worth asking yourself whether that’s a good idea. The answer is simple: sometimes yes, sometimes no.

Talking to a conspiracy theorist

Many conspiracy theorists are 100% convinced that their story is the only truth. It’s not easy to convince them otherwise. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t have a constructive conversation with them. A positive and open approach is important in that case.

Keep these five tips in mind.

Conspiracy theories and ‘experts’

Sometimes conspiracy theories proffer so-called experts to prove their point. For example, in certain conspiracy theory documentaries about 9/11 you’ll hear from engineers who posit that the WTC towers could only have collapsed like they did if there were explosives inside. This makes conspiracy theories sound more plausible, but just be aware that not everyone who calls themselves an expert really is one.

Teaching about conspiracy theories

Young people can be vulnerable to conspiracy theories - because they are exciting, but also because it’s a way for them to shape their identities. The job of the teacher is to make youngsters aware of the attraction of conspiracy theories, and to help them develop a critical outlook.

What does the YouTube homepage of a conspiracy theorist look like?

On TheirTube you can discover which videos the YouTube algorithm would present to conspiracy theorists or climate deniers. The website also shows you the difference between the YouTube homepages of left-wing and right-wing thinkers.

Videos about conspiracy theories

Learn more

  • Factcheck.Vlaanderen

Read something on the internet? Discover whether it’s true on Factcheck.Vlaanderen.

  • Fact Check (VRT NWS)

VRT NWS also has its own fact checking rubric.

  • Kazerne Dossin

Kazerne Dossin offers tools, exhibitions, seminars and workshops on topics like polarisation and radicalisation.

  • Hannah Arendt Instituut

The Hannah Arendt Instituut offers workshops, seminars and other tools on various societal topics.

  • StampMedia

StampMedia is an organisation aimed at making youngsters ‘media-wise’ through various projects.