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The role and function of conspiracy narratives in right-wing extremism

By Fabian Wichmann.

With the strengthening of social polarisation and social crises, conspiracy narratives or conspiracy ideologies are also experiencing a boost. Various studies have shown that people who believe in conspiracy narratives do not only believe in one of these narratives, but are receptive to many more diverse narratives. This is one explanation for the perceptible scattering effect that these narratives develop independently of phenomenal areas and milieus…

“These narratives, which are unverified or unproven explanations for social occurrences or developments, can be described as the representation and explanation of events that are defined as the result of deliberate actions by a small powerful elite, without any evidence.”

It is not about facts

These narratives, which are unverified or unproven explanations for social occurrences or developments, can be described as the representation and explanation of events that are defined as the result of deliberate actions by a small powerful elite, without any evidence. They are belief systems that are criticism-resistant and self-contained. Nevertheless, some of these narratives have a strong social anchor. For example, a 2016 study showed that one-in-two Americans believed in at least one conspiracy myth. A more recent survey by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 15 per cent of all US citizens believe in QAnon conspiracy narratives. The development of alternative systems of thought and interpretations, in the case of a perceived or real loss of control, offer their supporters stability and orientation, especially in crises. In the process, conspiracy narratives combine partially unrelated incidents and information into a pattern and reduce complex realities. Conspiracy ideologies thereby have multiple functions for the sender and the receiver. The functions that conspiracy ideologies have in right-wing extremism will be described in the following with examples.

Explaining and legitimising

In addition to explaining these incidents or developments, they often serve to legitimise political or ideological actions. But the phenomenon and the instrumentalisation for a political purpose is not new. During National Socialism, conspiracy narratives served to establish victim and enemy narratives, whilst Anti-Semitic conspiracy narratives played a decisive role in National Socialism. The narrative of a Jewish world conspiracy became the basis of argumentation for their cruel and eliminatory anti-Semitism. The core of this kind of anti-Semitism was, and is, that there is an inferior culture due to resources and framework conditions, which is opposed to an economically and structurally superior power. In the thinking of the right-wing extremism conspiracy ideology, it was, and is, Judaism. In doing so, National Socialism, as well as the current right-wing extremism, ties in with the claim, widespread in the early 20th century, that the Jews were striving for world domination. “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” were used as “proof”. Even this contrived evidence turned out to be false, as it was satire, like Joly’s work “The Dialogue in Hell Between Machiavelli and Montesquieu” and other fictional narratives. This illustrates very clearly how incoherent information is constructed into a system and explanation. Nevertheless, these “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” still serve today as ‘proof’ of a Jewish world conspiracy. Although they have already been proven several times to be a fake, they unfolded a terrible effect. In this way, they use constructions of the concept of the enemy to legitimise violence or, in principle, the struggle of supporters against the declared enemy and deligitimise politics or defined systems and values.

The emerging threat of conspiracy narratives is high on the RAN C&N working group’s agenda. What do the experts suggest and what are the potential countermeasures? Watch the film and find out.

Exoneration, exaggeration and steering

Through the under-complex representation of reality, conspiracy ideologies are able to exonerate their adherents. This means that the supporters in this interpretation are not responsible for certain circumstances or developments. They are victims of circumstances and face an overpowering force. This function of conspiracy ideologies is founded in particular in the denial of the Holocaust. Although it has been meticulously researched, described by surviving contemporary witnesses, and proven in many places by crime scenes and findings, it is constantly denied. According to this narrative, the genocide is a lie, invented by the Allies to harm Germany. However, there are also other narratives that are intended to have a guiding effect in accordance with political ideology and, in addition, establish the victimhood narrative. It is suggested that the Shoa was invented so that “the Jews” can always demand reparations. This example illustrates how conspiracy narratives align the behaviour and perception of their adherents. It is oriented towards a goal or a defined enemy and suggests a “salvation” or solution. In another exampleHitler’s “Mein Kampf” doctrine was a description of problems of the time. Anti-Semitism and the associated knowledge of a suggested conspiracy against the Germans was the solution Hitler offered. We know today what a terrible development this story took. Another central element is the exaggeration of one’s own role or group with reference to society or current events. The individual exaggeration is fed by the belief in conspiracy ideology. It is thus the search for enhancement and the expression of a generalised mistrust of social institutions or groups.

Thinking and acting

Changing social developments have meant that the conspiracy narratives within violent right-wing extremism have also changed, as well as the overall appearance of right-wing extremism. At the centre of these ideologies today are geopolitical or socio- political narratives of “The Great Replacement“, “The Great Reset“, migration as a weapon, anti-modernism or anti-feminism. It is not the modes of operation that have changed or modernised, but rather the narratives and images used. The murderous effect of complexity reduction, deligitimisation, steering, and individual as well as group-related exaggeration is made clear not least by the terrible acts of perpetrators. For the adherents of these narratives, the perception of having recognised the truth and being confronted with an overpowering opponent legitimises self-empowerment. In this perception, self-empowerment also legitimises violence, as it is a logical consequence for the perpetrator in terms of self-defence. As the last few years have shown in a frightening way, they refer to anti-Semitic conspiracy narratives and legitimise their actions with them, with tragic examples seen Utøya, Halle and elsewhere.

For more: The RAN papers consolidate RAN’s expertise and knowledge on radicalisation and violent extremism into an accessible format, providing up-to-date information.

Fabian Wichmann works for Exit Germany in exit consulting and social media management and specialises in the phenomenon of right-wing extremism. He is co- initiator of the multiple award-winning initiatives Right Against Right and #HassHilft, as well as the “Trojan T-Shirt”. Fabian Wichmann is co-chair of the Working Group “Communication and Narratives (RAN C&N)” of the Radicalisation Awareness Network (RAN Practitioners).

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The Article was first published in Spotlight. Spotlight is the publication for the RAN’s network of practitioners, designed to give you, the people on the frontline in communities, in schools, prisons, online and elsewhere, the opportunity to share your insights and your stories about the work that you do to tackle the violent extremism challenges in Europe today.