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Beyond Terrorism: Understanding the Diverse Violent Outcomes of Conspiracy Beliefs

Beyond Terrorism: Understanding the Diverse Violent Outcomes of Conspiracy Beliefs
5th September 2023 Milo Comerford
In Insights

Across this GNET Insights miniseries, ISD experts explore the complex intersection of conspiracy theories, violence and extremism. In the second article in the series, ISD Head of Policy & Research Milo Comerford outlines the varied manifestations of violence associated with conspiracy movements, stretching beyond extremism and terrorism.  

You can also read the other articles in the series, on the complex conceptual relationship between these phenomena; the key conspiratorial narratives accompanying violent radicalisation; and the shifting platform and policy landscape around these issues.


Recent years have seen a growing focus on terrorist and extremist violence motivated by – or otherwise associated with – conspiracy theories. However, beyond the specific phenomena of violent extremism and terrorism, there are various other manifestations of violence associated with conspiracy movements that might be less obvious due to their more subtle, systemic or even domestic manifestations. These include interpersonal violence, inter-communal violence, attacks on critical infrastructure and even denial of (historical) mass violence. 

Such examples are important in understanding the ‘longer tail’ of violence associated with conspiracy movements. However, it is also important to note that conspiracy theories can also result in a range of harms beyond violence. This can include disengagement from the state and reduced cooperation with government bodies (e.g. homeschooling, refusal to pay taxes or lower vaccine uptake), as well as longer-term threats to democratic institutions and civic culture. As is explored in a later Insight in this series focused on policy responses to violent conspiracy movements, this ‘threat to democracy’ framing is increasingly being adopted by governments in their conceptualisation of these threats.

Manifestations of Conspiracy-linked Violence

In this section, we outline a taxonomy of the diverse manifestations of violence that have emanated from conspiracy theories, especially in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic which helped to mainstream such movements across societies.  

Extremist or terrorist violence associated with conspiracy theories – that is to say ideologically motivated, supremacist violent activity – has certainly been one of the greatest concerns for policymakers and platforms grappling with this relationship. There has been considerable recent focus on the perceived security threat posed by conspiracy movements, with the FBI identifying QAnon as a potential domestic terrorism threat as early as 2019. Prominent examples of this focus include the conspiracy fuelled attack on Paul Pelosi, husband of then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, and the killing of a gas station attendant in Germany by an adherent of the anti-lockdown Querdenken (lateral thinker) movement.

On the other end of the scale of private and public manifestations of violence, interpersonal violence – including misogynistic violence and domestic abuse – has been consistently associated with conspiracism. As is explained in an accompanying article in this series, and outlined in the case study below, concerns about the exploitation of children often lead to particularly damaging familial violence. Indeed, 2021 data from the University of Maryland on QAnon sympathisers who have committed crimes in the US found that rather than being associated with terrorist violence, adherents to this conspiracy movement have been primarily motivated to commit acts of interpersonal violence, often targeting those around them, including kidnapping their own children.  

Coordinated and targeted violence has also been highly associated with conspiracy movements, including the online abuse of individuals on the basis of identity. ISD research has shown how the online activities of QAnon supporters have served to legitimise gender-based violence in particular. Coordinated harassment and targeted hate (including violent misogynistic, racist and anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric) was a particular concern for prominent female figures on social media who often found themselves on the receiving end of disinformation campaigns, often with graphic language attached. 

Insurrectional violence has seen conspiracy theories at the core of attempts to overthrow democratically elected governments​ and overturn the results of free and fair elections. This has been an area of particular focus since the January 6th Capitol Hill insurrection of 2021, demonstrating the potentially existential threat that mainstreamed conspiracy theories like the Big Lie (which incorrectly claims that the 2020 US Presidential Election was ‘stolen’) could pose to democratic institutions. Equally concerning is the speed at which online disinformation – such as the Facebook-based ‘Stop the Steal’ campaign – can translate into real-world violence. Although Jan 6th commanded unique attention and response, examples of such political violence have been seen across the world including in Brazil and Germany, showing the transnational resonance of violent conspiracy narratives. 

Communal violence represents another example of how inter-group violence can spread through conspiracy theories. In the UK city of Leicester in 2022, false information spread on social media led to major tensions and outbreaks of violence between young people from the city’s Muslim and Hindu communities. According to the Network Contagion Research Institute, social media campaigns framing Hindus as genocidal nationalists “motivated where and when attacks took place through the recruitment of online reinforcements to real-world engagements”. This was further fomented by coordinated activity from outside influencers and international news sources, serving to further inflame communal tensions. A dense network of India-based accounts disseminated coordinated conspiracy theories, caricaturing Muslims as violent actors in a global Islamist plot, amplifying distrust against Muslim communities among Hindus. 

Attacks on critical infrastructure represent another manifestation of violence associated with mis- and disinformation, with police warning that such violence is growing as a means of “fomenting a general trust in government” which is often adjacent to accelerationist attempts to hasten the collapse of society to bring about political change. While attacks on critical infrastructure have been associated with a range of far left and far right ideological perspectives, specific examples of conspiracy-related violence include the targeting of 5G masts, based on conspiracy theories linking the towers to the spread of coronavirus. As with other forms of violence outlined above, perpetrators are often inspired by a blend of conspiratorial and extremist ideological perspectives in their attack planning. 

Finally, the denial or distortion of historic violence – in particular the Holocaust and other genocides – has been core to many prominent conspiracy theories, and represents a more nuanced example of the relationship between conspiracy theories and violence.  Despite being illegal in a number of contexts, Holocaust denialist narratives were particularly prominent online during the COVID-19 pandemic, which also saw the widespread trivialisation of the Holocaust through false comparisons to the vaccine programmes. The harms inherent to such theories have only been recently acknowledged by a number of social media companies who had previously framed such content as legitimate historical debate. This is in direct contrast to internationally recognised definitions of antisemitism established by institutions such as IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance). 

Case Study: A Conspiracy Theory-Fuelled Kidnapping 

An example of the ‘longer tail’ of violence associated with conspiracy movements can be seen in a kidnap case in France in 2021. This involved the abduction of an eight-year-old girl from her grandmother’s home by her mother, Lola Montemaggi, in a ‘military-style’ operation involving the use of faked child welfare credentials. 

The kidnap plot was allegedly concocted by Rémy Daillet-Wiedemann, a former regional official for France’s centrist Democratic Movement political party, who had fallen into far-right politics and conspiracy theories. He ran a Telegram channel where he advocated for the overthrow of the French government and published a manifesto calling for a coup. Among the cocktail of conspiracy theories he subscribed to were the white supremacist Great Replacement theory, anti-vaccine, anti-5G, and antisemitic and QAnon-inspired beliefs about elite global paedophile networks. 

Lola Montemaggi, 28, participated in the Gilets Jaunes protests in 2018, and over the course of 2020, fell deep into conspiracy theories, including the belief that the French government was illegitimate. Some of these beliefs appear to be inspired by Sovereign Citizen and QAnon movements, which she seems to have encountered on Facebook and Telegram. Montemaggi lost custody of her daughter due to concerns from French child protection authorities (who became involved when Montemaggi pulled her daughter out of school due to her conspiratorial beliefs) that she was becoming unstable. Users on Telegram recommended she contact Daillet-Weidemann to help get her daughter back. Daillet-Weidemann concocted an elaborate plot to persuade the girl’s grandmother that they were child protection officials. Montemaggi and her daughter travelled across the border into Switzerland, where they were discovered squatting in an abandoned factory five days later after French authorities connected the kidnapping with plotters they already had under surveillance.  

Later in 2021, 14 people, including Daillet-Weidemann (who was by then in French custody) and at least four others who had already been charged over the kidnapping, were indicted on charges of terrorist conspiracy for allegedly planning a coup d’état (a plan known as ‘Opération Azur’)Such episodes show how a grand conspiratorial lens can intersect with domestic examples of intrafamilial violence, beyond more clear-cut instances of terrorism or violent extremism.  


This taxonomy seeks to provide an overview of the complex linkages between conspiracy theories, extremism and violence. Rather than adopting conceptualisations framing QAnon as ‘the new ISIS’, and falling into the same traps of broad securitisation that have challenged counter-extremism policies to date, it is crucial to understand the more nuanced violent outcomes emerging from such movements, ranging from self-harm to abuse and harassment. 

Furthermore, it is also important that we ensure frameworks and responses represent the global contexts in which conspiracies and violence manifest, and are not just skewed towards Western contexts. Beyond focusing on the North American and European manifestations of conspiracy movements such as QAnon and prominent episodes like January 6th, there is much less understanding of the international harms picture, especially the role of online conspiracies in fomenting communal violence in contexts like Myanmar and India. The next piece in this series reflects on these challenges surrounding the emerging set of platform and policy responses to this set of threats, and how ‘borderline’ content can challenge enforcement approaches.