By Alex Fradera
Psychologists have already established that minority groups are particularly likely to endorse conspiracy theories that involve them. For instance, the idea that AIDS was concocted in a lab to plague black people or that birth control is black genocide have been shown to have particular traction within African-American communities. It’s thought this is because members of disadvantaged groups find comfort in explanatory frameworks that appear to account for the various factors that beleaguer them. But new research from VU Amsterdam and published in Applied Cognitive Psychology suggests that belonging to a minority identity, in this case being Muslim in the Netherlands or a member of an ethnic minority in that country, doesn’t merely lead to a belief in conspiracy theories related to that specific minority identity, but stokes an appetite for conspiracies in general.
Jan-Willem van Prooijen and his colleagues explain that there seem to be two reasons why minorities are drawn to conspiracies. First is the unpleasant feeling of not being personally regarded as a full member of society. This motivates people to make sense of their situation, but from a position of discomfort and negative emotion that breeds a suspicious attitude – a perfect pot in which to brew conspiracy. The second is a broader concern about the treatment of their minority group, which explains why, in the US, research has found that affluent African Americans with greater access to participation in society are as likely as their poorer counterparts to believe in conspiracy theories.
Van Prooijen’s team recognised that these two factors, as well as making minorities susceptible to specific conspiracies targeted towards the identity group, could easily generalise. After all, every conspiracy theory needs its perpetrators – powerful figures in the majority group who are pulling the strings. And once you buy in to the idea that such figures exist and are shaping the world in nefarious ways, then you have opened the door to a broader conspiratorial world-view.
To test this, the researchers looked at how conspiratorial beliefs were associated with Muslim and also ethnic minority status. They combined a sample acquired through social media with a group drawn from voters for a Dutch party popular among Muslim minorities, which amounted to 205 Muslim participants, most of whom were also from a minority ethnic group, and 146 non-muslims, of which 44 were from an ethnic minority.
Participants rated their belief in thirteen different conspiracies, which came from four categories. One category involved Muslim victims – for example in this category was the claim that the US carried out 9/11 to make Islam look bad and invade the Middle East. Another category was centred on Jewish antagonists, such as the claim that Jewish bankers are controlling the world economy, which is another common theme in established Muslim conspiratorial beliefs. The two remaining categories were not tied to prototypical Muslim themes, being either economic (the medical industry is hiding the cure for cancer to maximise their revenue) or from the vast roster of unclassifiable conspiracies, such as: there were UFOs at Roswell; Diana was murdered by the royals; and the media are controlled by a left-wing elite.
Van Prooijen’s team found that Muslim participants not only tended to believe more strongly in conspiracies directly related to their identity, but also in the economic and miscellaneous conspiracies too. Moreover, strength of conspiracy belief (of all forms) was driven by the two factors previously associated with endorsement of identity-specific conspiracy belief – levels of personal deprivation (measured through giving a low rating to the item: “To what extent do you feel like a Dutch citizen?”) and group deprivation as measured by strength of agreement with items like “I believe Islam is being suppressed in the West.” Independently of Muslim religion, the same pattern was found for the effect of being a member of an ethnic minority.
When we are prompted to think of prominent conspiracists, for many of us the first names that come to mind are probably white men like Alex Jones or David Icke, making it easy to assume that in the West it is the White majority who are more prone to conspiracy beliefs. But this is likely the “availability bias” at work (these names are simply the easiest to think of), or due to the fact these men have figured out how to monetise conspiracy. The new findings, though preliminary and limited by being based in a single European country, suggest in fact it is minorities who are more likely to endorse conspiracy-based explanations.
If further research supports this assertion, it would make sense of something I read recently about Dylan Avery, the US film-maker behind Loose Change, a film that questioned the official account of 9/11 and which many consider a catalyst for the conspiracy movement. Avery went on to make a film about police brutality in Black communities, and he was initially wary of mentioning his past work, afraid of the reputation it had accrued – but in fact found that he got more interviews with African Americans if he mentioned his prior work on 9/11. This fits with the new findings that suggest majorities in society have less incentive to question the status quo, while it’s those feeling marginalised who are likely to spy something going on behind the scenes.
Image: AMSTERDAM, HOLLAND – AUGUST 21, 2017; iStock Editorial / Getty Images Plus.