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Conspiracy Theories, Extremism and Violence: Why and When do Conspiracy Beliefs Lead to Violence?

Conspiracy Theories, Extremism and Violence: Why and When do Conspiracy Beliefs Lead to Violence?
4th September 2023 Jakob Guhl
In Insights

Across this Insights miniseries, ISD experts explore the complex intersection of conspiracy theories, violence and extremism. In the first article in the series, ISD Senior Policy & Research Manager Jakob Guhl outlines key conceptual debates and what the existing research base can tell us about the relationship between these phenomena.  

You can also read the other articles in the series, on the varied manifestations of violence associated with conspiracy movements; the key conspiratorial narratives accompanying violent radicalisation; and the shifting platform and policy landscape around these issues.


In the latest refresh of the CONTEST counter-terrorism strategy, the UK government states that “conspiracy theories can act as gateways to radicalised thinking and sometimes violence” when addressing changing threat landscape facing the country. But, only a small minority of those who believe conspiracy myths go on to commit acts of violence. So, how can we understand the complex relationship between violence, extremism and conspiracy theories, and what are the implications for research, policymaking and platform responses? 

Over the past decade, conspiracy theories have become the glue that binds together different elements of illiberal and anti-democratic movements. The COVID-19 pandemic was crucial for this proliferation of conspiracy networks across international contexts, allowing extremist movements to enlarge their sphere of influence to expanded audiences. Protest movements that often originated online commonly connected once disparate groups including QAnon-supporters, anti-vaccine conspiracy theorists, anti-government actors, and extremist movements, and brought their audiences (including communities interested in alternative lifestyles, medicine, wellness and spirituality that would traditionally not be associated with the far-right) closer together.

While most supporters of such movements rely on peaceful means of activism, threats of violence now come from across this broad ideological spectrum, and often from beyond the ‘usual suspects’ associated with extremist mobilisation. When the German police began investigating the 2022 Reichsbürger coup attempt, they quickly noticed that very few of the suspects had been on their radar as potential extremist threats. Recent data from both Prevent referrals in the UK and investigations into perpetrators of politically motivated crimes in Germany have revealed a trend of individuals whose where ideological affiliation could not be clearly determined. These individuals, many of whom are at risk of radicalisation, appear to be either mixing elements from different ideologies or adhering to a patchy if not incoherent set of beliefs.   

It has become a crucial challenge for researchers, policymakers and social media platforms to better understand how conspiracy theories and violence do and do not intersect. Across this series of Insights, the authors, therefore, seek to outline the nature of this complex relationship and provide a nuanced assessment of the threat. This introductory Insight starts out by providing an overview of what is empirically known about the interplay between a belief in conspiracy theories and violence. 

Key Elements of Conspiracy Theories

Conspiracy theories attempt to explain a phenomenon by invoking a sinister plot orchestrated by powerful actors. Adherents of such claims see themselves as the initiated few who have access to hidden knowledge, usually in direct opposition to the powers orchestrating the plot (typically governments or figures of authority). Many conspiracy theories have antisemitic undertones, drawing on long-established tropes about a powerful international cabal of Jewish people controlling political and financial institutions. Conspiracy theories are best conceptualised as a belief in certain claims or a set of claims, or an underlying mindset or worldview. Unless there is clear evidence to the contrary, there is no reason to doubt that such beliefs are held sincerely.

Conspiracy theories are not necessarily false but may be based on a grain of truth, contain plausible elements or, in rare cases, turn out to be true. Conspiracy theories are therefore distinct from but may overlap with dis- or misinformation. While conspiracy theories may rely on false, misleading or manipulated content, this is not a defining feature of them (similarly, content promoting dis- or misinformation does not need to imply there is a conspiracy). 

However, conspiracy theories often make claims that are almost impossible to verify. Rather than being inherently false, they are unfalsifiable. As Uscinski put it, “It is difficult to prove that a secret plot is not taking place behind the scenes.” That such unfalsifiable claims are believed by the adherents of conspiracy theories points towards a mindset or an underlying worldview that, according to Michael Barkun, is based on three key premises. First, that ‘nothing happens by accident’. Second, that ‘nothing is as it seems’. And third, that ‘everything is connected.’ Individuals who base their interpretation of social phenomena on these three premises will be prone to what is called illusory pattern perception – believing unconnected events are connected and are controlled by hidden forces with selfish intentions. 

Conspiracy theories have an ambivalent relationship with violence and extremism. Conspiracy theories play an important role in extremist movements across the ideological spectrum. For some movements like QAnon or many of the Covid-19 conspiracy groups that emerged internationally during the pandemic, conspiracy theories are situated at the very core of their belief system and group identity, almost constituting an ideological framework. However, conspiracy movements tend to lack the supremacist thinking inherent within extremist ideologies that creates a hierarchy between ‘superior’ in-groups and ‘inferior’ out-groups alongside racial, national or religious identity. Despite these overlaps, it does not appear accurate to define violent conspiracy movements as inherently extremist. 

When do Conspiratorial Beliefs Lead to Violence?

The relationship between belief and action is complicated, and this applies to the under-explored relationship between conspiracy theories and violence in particular. 

As research into radicalisation pathways shows, the most ideologically committed may never take action, and those who take action may not be the most ideologically driven or sophisticated. In addition, the rate of individuals who claim to adhere to violent extremist beliefs compared to those who engage in acts of violent extremism is very low

In extremism studies, many scholars have argued that violent extremist beliefs are neither necessary nor sufficient to explain involvement in terrorism or violent extremism. Solely understanding someone’s beliefs, even if feasible, would offer limited insight into predicting their behaviour. Instead, a comprehensive examination of various factors is essential,  such as personal connections with extremists, dynamics within or between extremist groups, triggering life events, political grievances, personal history with crime or violence, unemployment, lower socio-economic status, history of child abuse and social isolation.

There is undoubtedly a wealth of examples where conspiracy theories have seemingly directly inspired, or at least played a role in motivating groups or individuals to engage in violent action. Additionally, research has shown links between conspiracy theories and the intent to commit violence, especially in people with low self-control, who do not believe themselves to be bound by legal norms and who are confident in their ability to attain certain outcomes through their actions. Other factors that may make conspiracy theorists prone to violence include distrust in institutions; a strong ‘us vs. them’ mindset; identity fusion with the in-group; approval of violent rhetoric and increased threat perception. The risk seems especially high among believers in conspiracy theories who can identify a clear target for their anger. An interview-based study by Jigsaw found that even seemingly benign conspiracy theories can provoke violent urges amongst extreme believers if the outgroup is narrowly defined; a committed Flat Earther who could name specific purported ‘puppetmasters’ expressed a willingness to murder them. 

Nevertheless, there remains a gap in our understanding of why a small number of conspiracy theorists take violent action while the majority do not, as well as which types of conspiracy theories are more likely to lead to violence. Even though it is plausible to assume that certain types of conspiracy theories are more likely to inspire violence, drawing a firm causal link between the two is difficult. For example, followers of the QAnon conspiracy theory have engaged in violence, including terrorism, the January 6th insurrection and interpersonal violence. However, compared with the relatively high share of Americans that adhere to some subset of QAnon theories, the number of individuals who engaged in violent action is extremely low.

Implications for Responses

While there are many examples of conspiracy theories inspiring violence, there remains a major gap in our empirical understanding of why only a small minority of believers commit acts of violence. Understanding how specific violent harms are associated with conspiracy theories is crucial for informing efforts by law enforcement, tech platforms and prevention practitioners, all of whom require guidance on what manifestations of conspiracy theories are more likely to lead to different types of violence. 

To help answer these questions, the next Insight in this series outlines the broad spectrum of violent outcomes associated with conspiracy movements, including terrorism, insurrectional and interpersonal violence. The third piece in this series will analyse key elements of specific conspiratorial narratives associated with violence, as well as the importance of specific online subcultures in normalising violent rhetoric. The final Insight will explore the emerging policy landscape at the intersection of violence and conspiracy theories, as international policymakers and platforms alike struggle to develop frameworks for responses to this set of challenges that are effective, proportionate and targeted.