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Culture, Community and Narratives: Key Elements of Violent Conspiracy Theories 

Culture, Community and Narratives: Key Elements of Violent Conspiracy Theories 
6th September 2023 Elise Thomas
In Insights

Across this GNET Insights miniseries, ISD experts explore the complex intersection of conspiracy theories, violence and extremism. In the third article in the series, ISD Senior Analyst Elise Thomas outlines the key conspiratorial narratives accompanying violent radicalisation, as well as the importance of conspiratorial online subcultures in promoting violence.   

You can also read the other articles in the series, on the complex conceptual relationship between these phenomena, the varied manifestations of violence associated with conspiracy movements, and the shifting platform and policy landscape around these issues.


The vast majority of people who are influenced by conspiracy theories and disinformation, even those who adhere to extreme and violent worldviews, will never go on to commit physical violence as a result of those views. When a conspiracy theorist does escalate to violence, however, that action emerges partly due to individual circumstances, and partly due to the confluence of conspiratorial narratives and social dynamics within conspiracy communities to which that person belongs. While analysis of any particular individual’s motives is beyond the scope of this Insight, there are some commonalities which are observable in both the narratives and social structures of conspiracy theory communities where escalation to violence occurs. 

Narratives and social dynamics exist in constant dialogue with one another within online conspiracy communities. While key themes and characters persist over time, the details of narratives are constantly in flux and can change (sometimes rapidly) because of shifts in power and influence within communities. This, in turn, can heighten or lessen the risk of escalation to violence from members of those communities.   

Indeed, in many cases, the narratives appear to be much more malleable than the social dynamics within a given community; where a discrepancy between the two emerges, it appears to be more often the case that the narrative is changed to fit the social dynamics than the other way around. This includes cases when communities and individuals begin to become more permissive of violent action and edge closer to escalation.  

Narrative Trends

There are at least five common narrative elements present in many of the conspiracy theory narratives linked to violent escalation. 

These are: 

  • Loss, grievance and resentment
  • Dualism (‘us and them’, ‘good and evil’)
  • Secrets, lies and power
  • Threat to innocent victims (often children)
  • Apocalypticism

Evoking grievance and resentment

A near-universal feature of conspiracy theories is that they evoke profoundly negative emotions. They centre feelings of grievance, resentment and loss.

An obvious example of this is the ‘Make America Great Again’ (MAGA) narrative. While not a conspiracy narrative in itself, it plays into a range of disinformation and conspiracy narratives precisely because it evokes an amorphous, conveniently flexible sense of aggrieved loss and resentment. In particular, the MAGA movement and narrative played a central role in the early development of QAnon and, alongside disinformation about claims of widespread election fraud, helped to fuel the violent attack on the US Capitol. 

The key factor that makes MAGA so effective is that it puts a negative framing around an essentially positive message. It could have been ‘Make America Great’ – an optimistic and forward-looking narrative. Instead, by adding ‘Again’, it turns to look backwards and draws in that compelling sense of grievance and loss alongside a promise to regain lost glory. In context, this has been widely interpreted as harking back to a time when power in America was whiter, straighter, more male,     conservative and Christian.  

For those inclined to a conspiratorial worldview, MAGA also poses an implicit question: whose fault is it that America is, supposedly, no longer great? What shadowy cabal of secret string-pullers stole American greatness, and for what dark purposes? Inevitably, conspiracy theories which rely on loss aversion and evoke feelings of loss and grievance hinge on the character of a villain. 

In other words, you’re not just losing something; rather, someone is trying to take it from you. 


Conspiracy theories almost always involve an ‘Us’ and a ‘Them’. For there to be a conspiracy, there have to be people – Them – who are conspiring with one another. There also have to be people on the outside – Us – who are not part of the conspiracy, and who They are conspiring against. 

There is often a strong moral frame overlaid onto these categories. They are bad, perhaps even evil or demonic; We are good. They are the villains and We, the heroes, must fight against them. 

For example, during the pandemic, through the (il)logic of dualism, anti-vaccine and COVID conspiracy theorists sorted medical professionals (as those administering vaccines and caring for COVID-19 patients) into the Them category: villains who acted out of malice and needed to be confronted with violence.

Around the world, medical professionals were and continue to be assaulted, harassed, verbally abused and doxxed. In the early months of the pandemic, as they fought to save the lives of critically ill patients from a disease they knew little about, they had to deal with aggressive conspiracy theorists blocking hospital access roads and stalking their hospital grounds with cameras trying to prove that the pandemic wasn’t real and the vaccines were killing people. 

Secrecy, lies and power

There are two crucial ingredients in casting a conspiracy theory villain: They have to be powerful (even if only in secret) and They have to be lying to Us. 

The villain needs to be powerful to justify why conspiracy believers should put in time and effort to combat them. Where the villain is clearly not powerful, narratives spin elaborate justifications to explain why they are secretly powerful, or how they are a pawn in the game of an even greater villain who holds the true power. 

The themes of secrecy and deception are crucial to conspiracy theory narratives primarily because they provide a way to dismiss any need for actual proof. If there is no evidence of the conspiracy theory, that’s because They are very good at covering their tracks (this in itself may be presented as evidence of how powerful They are). 

For example, the white supremacist Great Replacement narrative positions migrants – and especially irregular migrants and refugees from developing nations – as villains seeking to replace white populations. This narrative hits a stumbling block in the form of the obvious disempowerment of desperate, impoverished people seeking safety and better lives. 

The narrative solution is to claim that it is all a secret plot by the true, powerful villains. In many versions of the conspiracy theory, the true villains are a network of powerful Jewish people who have, supposedly, coordinated mass migrations from Africa, South America and Asia to ‘white’ nations as part of a deliberate scheme to steal land, money and power. 

Threat to innocent victims

Conspiracy narratives linked to violent attacks also incorporate an element of threat to innocent victims, most commonly children. Like loss and grievance, the urge to protect children is a universally powerful emotional drive. It provides the narrative with a sense of urgency and offers a way for believers to justify their actions, including violent actions and actions which cause real harm to real children.

This theme of threat to children is strongly present in many contemporary conspiracy theory groupings. Much of this links to the influence of QAnon, which itself draws influences from the      Satanic Panic in the US in the 1980s and early 90s, and antisemitic disinformation and conspiracy theories dating back centuries. The narrative of Jewish people abusing Christian children, stealing their blood and committing ritual murders has been documented in texts since at least 1144 AD. 

For example, 2020 saw a transformation of parts of the QAnon community into the ‘Save The Children’ movement, which placed the main focus on supposed child trafficking (as opposed to QAnon’s primary focus on the battle between Trump and the Deep State). More recently, the focus has shifted from trafficking and ‘adrenochrome’ harvesting to protecting children from the pernicious influences of liberalism, ‘Critical Race Theory’ ‘Cultural Marxism’  and ‘LGBTQ ideology’. 

The ‘Groomer’ narrative, which baselessly connects LGBTQ+ people and drag performers to paedophilia, exemplifies the way in which preventing the imagined victimisation of children is used to justify physical and non-physical violent actions against real communities and individuals (including children) who face real victimisation. This has included the doxxing and harassment of trans children and their families. Children’s hospitals have also become the target of protests and threats. Both the ‘Save the Children’ movement and the Groomer panic have reportedly hampered efforts to prevent real child trafficking and sexual abuse, for example by clogging up hotlines with spurious reports. 


Apocalyptic thinking within conspiracy communities plays a pivotal role in the escalation to violence. Apocalypticism in a conspiracy context can be defined as “the expectation that dramatic events are about to unfold during which a confrontation between good and evil will change the world forever and reveal hidden truths.”

For the far right, it is a looming battle with the forces of liberalism; for white supremacists, it is turning the 14 Words into action. ‘Preppers’ await widespread societal collapse into anarchy and violence. Accelerationist groups and individuals actively seek to bring a cataclysmic race war on sooner through acts of deadly violence, for example, the Christchurch and Buffalo shootings. QAnon followers await ‘the Storm’ or ‘the Great Awakening.’

For conspiracy believers, apocalyptic narratives create a sense of impending but preventable disaster – a feeling that they are in an extraordinary, extreme moment, in which extraordinary, extreme action might be not only necessary but justified and righteous. It is important to note, however, that in some circumstances, a belief in a coming cataclysm can also work against immediate escalation to violence. 

For example, until late 2020, QAnon followers had been promised by Q that ‘the Storm’ or the ‘Great Awakening’ was coming. They were urged over and over again by Q and by fellow QAnon followers to ‘trust the plan’ and to sit back and ‘watch the show’ rather than take matters into their own hands. This weighed against mass escalation to violence, at least to some degree. When faced with disappointments and frustrations, QAnon followers would urge each other to have faith in Q and Trump’s plan rather than escalate to action on their own. 

It is worth noting that the riot at the Capitol building on January 6th 2021, occurred roughly a month after Q had gone silent and after a widespread crisis of faith in ‘the plan’ following Trump’s electoral defeat. It was after that narrative handbrake was removed that members of the QAnon community (among others) escalated to their most significant act of mass violence. 

Conspiracies, Communities and Culture

Any analysis of conspiracy theory communities which focuses only on the ‘conspiracy theory’ and overlooks the ‘community’ would offer an incomplete and potentially misleading view of how groups and individuals escalate to violence. 

Social dynamics play an integral role within communities and sub-cultures of people who fall into conspiracy theory circles online. At this level, community culture appears to influence not only the conspiracy narrative but also the propensity to escalate to physical violence and the form and targets of that violence. 

It is no coincidence that the toxic culture of the chan boards has spawned multiple mass shooters who choose to follow a very specific rubric, for example. The narratives and beliefs which these shooters espouse in their manifestos (which, broadly speaking, have been a blend of white supremacist, antisemitic, homophobic and anti-liberal conspiracy theories) are often not so different from many other groups which are active online, but which do not produce the same level of deadly violence. There is something particular about how chan culture permits, incentivises and rewards acts of lone gun violence, especially those which follow the blueprint laid out by the Christchurch attack. 

The role of social incentives as a motivation for violence in chan communities was powerfully illustrated in the 2022 shooting in Bratislava when the perpetrator – after murdering two people and before killing himself – logged onto 4chan and started conversing with other posters about his own attack. It is telling that seeking the approval of posters on 4chan, who he considered his peers and fellow community members, was his priority in the final moments of his life. 

By contrast, communities which form around other kinds of disinformation produce other forms of violence. As another example, Sovereign Citizen-style communities have independently launched coup plots which are strikingly similar to one another in Germany, France and Australia. It does not appear that these networks were in communication with each other, yet their significant similarities underscore the point that certain types of communities formed around specific narratives tend to produce similar forms of violence.       

Many conspiracy theory communities have a complex relationship to physical violence committed by their compatriots. Somewhat in contrast to chan culture, escalating to physical violence is not generally rewarded by QAnon or QAnon-influenced conspiracy theory communities. While violent rhetoric is commonplace in these groups, when someone puts those words into action and commits an act of physical violence, it is often disavowed by the community as a ‘false flag’ attack intended to discredit their cause. Instead, other forms of violence like harassment or doxxing of perceived enemies, aggressively disrupting public meetings or protesting events are incentivised and seen as a virtuous and heroic contribution to the cause. 

This is partially driven by demographic factors; the kind of people in a community shape the kind of community it becomes. Chan boards full of angry, isolated young men are more inclined to physical, lone-actor violence; conspiracy communities on Facebook and Telegram of mostly middle-aged and older people are more inclined towards extreme versions of ‘demanding to speak to the manager’


For all of their unusual qualities, conspiracy communities are driven by social dynamics in much the same way that other sub-cultures and online communities are. Community norms and values shape behaviour both on and offline; community influencers wield power over the conspiracy narratives and wage messy, internecine struggles against their rivals for attention and relevance, while members seek the approval of their peers. 

Any analysis of conspiracy theory communities which focuses only on the ‘conspiracy theory’ and overlooks the ‘community’ would offer only an incomplete and potentially misleading view of how groups and individuals escalate to violence. Instead, the relationship between conspiracy theories and violent escalation must be studied in its context, as the result of a series of social processes as well as individual factors.