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While conspiracy theories—concerning extraterrestrial visitors, secret government experiments, or alternate explanations for events like the JFK assassination or the 1969 moon landing—have long been whispered (or even shouted) in certain company, they have rarely been taken seriously by mainstream American news outlets. But with the rise of platforms from Info Wars to the message board 4chan to Twitter, these beliefs are not only thriving among the communities where they started—they’ve also begun to drive the broader news cycle. Questions about the death of Jeffrey Epstein, the climate activism of Greta Thunberg, and the ongoing developments in Ukraine are recent examples.

While it may be tempting to dismiss conspiracy theories as harmless, though troubling, diversions, some have had dangerous real-world consequences in recent years. One theory positing a connection between vaccines and autism, for example, has led to a decline in vaccinations and a rise in measles’ cases. Another (termed “Pizzagate” in the press) linked to Washington, D.C. restaurant Comet Ping Pong has prompted multiple attacks on the establishment.

All of this has led some analysts to conclude that conspiracy theories are more prevalent today—an assessment rejected by others, who nonetheless acknowledge that we are talking about them more. There’s also some recent research suggesting that conspiracy theories aren’t necessarily detrimental, given that belief in them can enhance political engagement.

To get a longer view of their history, NYU News spoke to Eliot Borenstein, a professor in the Department of Russian and Slavic Studies and author of Plots Against Russia: Conspiracy and Fantasy After Socialism (Cornell University Press, 2019), who has traced how conspiracy theories, and their attendant sentiment and paranoia, are ingrained in Russian political and cultural life today. In the book, Borenstein, an affiliated faculty member at NYU’s Jordan Center for the Advanced Study of Russia, also compares this phenomenon under President Vladimir Putin with that occurring in the United States during the Trump administration—a juxtaposition that offers insights that transcend borders, ideologies, and historical circumstances.

Generally speaking, under what historic and political conditions have conspiracy theories thrived?

Conspiracy theories adapt easily to virtually any political environment, but social unrest, polarization, and a recognized history of state secrecy are part of their natural habitat. In my view, however, conspiracy is less a function of politics than of information. It’s probably easy to understand how conspiracy theories could thrive under a restrictive media regime: in the absence of reliable information, people fill in the blank spots with speculation. This was certainly the case in the Soviet Union, for instance, when people took for granted that they were being lied to. But conspiracy is also quite at home in informational systems based on surplus rather than shortage. The media environment in the United States, with its multiple private television channels offering radically different worldviews, allows viewers of Fox News and readers of Breitbart to live in a world that routinely excludes facts that might contradict it.

Eliot Borenstein's "Plots Against Russia: Conspiracy and Fantasy After Socialism"

Do conspiracy theories typically have traits in common?

They do, but the answer to that question is more complicated than you might think. When we think of conspiracy theories, we usually have in mind grand explanatory narratives, such as the anti-Semitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion or the stories about the lizard people who control the world from inside the hollow earth. All of these theories have a melodramatic structure: a group of bad actors are manipulating events behind the scenes, and only a select few who know the truth can struggle against them. This is all actually quite comforting and optimistic, because it means that, when something bad happens, it’s not simply random—there is someone to blame and someone to fight.

In my book, I argue that we also have to think of conspiracy theory on the small scale, and that all of us are part-time conspiracy theorists. The conventions of storytelling encourage us to find connections among events, to assume coherence, and to be suspicious. Adherence to a conspiratorial world view does not have to be lifelong; it can be momentary, or it can last as long as it takes to watch an episode of The X-Files. The ability to believe in a conspiracy as fiction is the prerequisite for believing in it as “fact.”

You write that Vladimir Putin “has brought…conspiratorial thought” from “the margins to the mainstream.” How does this serve those in power?

There’s a common assumption that conspiracy theories are oppositional, since they seem tailor-made for undermining faith in existing power structures. But it’s really all a matter of choosing your heroes and villains. Putinism leverages conspiracy theory by positing that Russia is always the victim of plots by hostile forces, both internal and external. So the conflict here is not between the people and the state, but the state and the forces that want to destroy it. The state is the hero.

Do these theories also serve Russia’s forces of opposition?

Certainly, because conspiracy as a habit of thought is not restricted to any political party. In the case of contemporary Russia, if you know that the state has framed people for crimes they didn’t commit, and shown callous disregard for the people’s welfare, then it’s easy to believe any assertion that it is happening again. 

Putin came to power in the wake of a series of apartment bombings in 1999, which the state blamed on Islamist terrorism. Many in the opposition believe that the bombings were the work of state security as a pretext for the second Chechen War. It’s a credible theory, but it could also be wrong.

What role has Russia’s state news media played?

They’re like a highly efficient machine for minting new theories on the fly. This was particularly obvious when the Malaysian airliner was shot down over Ukraine in 2014. Nearly all the investigations of this event conducted outside of Russia point to the Russian Federation as the source of the weapon used by pro-Russian Ukrainian separatists. But Russian television kept pushing one absurd story after another—including the idea that the plane was full of corpses rather than live passengers, and that the West arranged the whole thing to make Russia look bad.

There are now countless films, books, websites, and talk radio stations devoted to conspiracy theories. What explains our fascination with them—even if we doubt their veracity?

Conspiracy theories are great stories, in every sense of the word. If you’re a skeptic, then they’re hilarious. If you’re willing to suspend your disbelief, which is the main prerequisite for enjoying fantasy, then you have a compelling story that actually explains the world you live in. If you’re angry, conspiracy theories tell you why your anger is justified. If you feel like a victim, they tell you whom to blame. What could be better than that?