On January 6th, hundreds of Stop the Steal protesters, who believe in the Big Lie that the election was “stolen” due to massive voter fraud, led an insurrection on the US Capitol building, seeking to do harm to US lawmakers and overturn the November 2020 election results. A lesser known, yet just as harmful, event occurred a few months earlier when a group of far right Reichsbürger protesters broke off from a larger demonstration against health measures, organized by the conspiracist-oriented Querdenken movement, and nearly stormed the Reichstag building in Berlin. This tendency to commit acts of political violence of this kind has led the FBI to label certain “fringe political conspiracy theories,” such as QAnon, as motivators of domestic extremist activity.
Movements organized around conspiratorial narratives are by no means a new phenomenon. During the early American Republic, the anti-Masons formed an entire political party based on their anti-elitist conspiratorial beliefs. The People’s Party of the late 19th century strategically spread conspiratorial narratives about continued British dominance and the demonetization of silver to bring their message to regions where farmers were less prominent. In the current day, political movements based on conspiratorial narratives have seen an explosion of activity over the past year, due in part to the pandemic and the ‘populist moment’ that continues to be felt in certain parts of the world. Throughout the pandemic, groups in the United States and abroad took to the streets to protest what they saw as not simply infringements of their rights, but also what they perceive to be the apocalyptic end to political liberty in its entirety, often leading to political violence. These beliefs have gained widespread prominence and formed the basis for protest movements that increasingly prove to be both a security threat and a danger to liberal democracy. What are the factors that drive these movements and lead them to disruptive and violent behavior, and how can they be effectively countered?
This analytical report investigates the rising prominence of these conspiracist movements in the current day, focusing on two specific cases, the “Stop the Steal” protests in the United States and the Querdenken demonstrations in Germany. While both mobilized based on different grievances, these two movements are of interest for several reasons. First, both movements were driven primarily by conspiratorial visions of politics; the Stop the Steal demonstrators all coalesced around the “Big Lie” that the election had been “stolen”, while the Querdenken see apocalyptic visions of tyranny from COVID-19 health measures. Secondly, while both movements have attracted far-right groups on the fringes of political society to their protests, the core base of protesters did not necessarily come from radical backgrounds, testifying to the potential for these conspiratorial narratives to radicalize believers. As this report will show, contemporary research demonstrates that conspiracy theories of this kind can have a harmful effect on the effective operations of democracy in three primary ways: widespread belief in conspiracy theories targeting knowledge authorities, such as scientists, journalists, and other experts, can render solving important issues that require collective action, such as navigating a pandemic, more difficult. Secondly, the Manichean division of society and demonization of the “Other” within conspiratorial narratives promotes political environments characterized by mass polarization, which justify actions that break with the “spirit” of democracy. Finally, conspiracy theory beliefs that promote a sense of victimization and urgency can serve as a path to radicalization and political violence. This report concludes with a number of non-intrusive reforms that can be taken to tackle the spread of conspiracy theories in the current day.
 Federal Bureau of Investigation. (30 May, 2019). Anti-Government, Identity Based, and Fringe Political Conspiracy Theories Very Likely Motivate Some Domestic Extremists to Commit Criminal, Sometimes Violent Activity; Zachary Cohen and Whitney Wild (14 June, 2021). First on CNN: FBI warns lawmakers that QAnon ‘digital soldiers’ may become more violent. CNN.
Read the full report HERE.
Patrick Sawyer is a lecturer and PhD candidate in the Doctoral School of Political Science at HSE University.