Functions of rumours and conspiracy theories in relationships between groups

The concept of this panel is based on the assumption that rumours (and mainly conspiracy theories) largely contribute to the creation and shaping of group identities and relationships between social groups and their members. Rumours are fast-spreading information which can become popular in society for different reasons and without any support in the form of direct proofs. Rumours can not only influence the attitudes and conduct of group members, but also create the conditions for herd behaviour.
This panel will primarily deal with the role of rumours in the shaping of relationship between groups in various forms. Within a wide range of the different forms of rumours, the papers are focusing on the specific area of conspiracy theories either in the form of propaganda texts or information disseminated in an uncontrolled manner by different types of media. Four of the participants (V. Bahna, J. Giry, G. Mesežnikov, Z. Panczová) are members of the COST Action "Comparative Analysis of Conspiracy Theories" (COMPACT CA 15101), their presentations follow up the topics which are solved by the COST Action, so the panel serves also as a platform for dissemination of the activities of this Action. The papers deal with rumours which reflect, escalate or legitimise certain forms of tensions between groups or violence (ethnic, political, religious or within competing currents in the field of medicine, science or specific religion, etc.). The panel is open to different types of approaches of social sciences which study this area from the current and the historical perspective. 

Chaired by

Zuzana Panczová


Key-note speaker

Julien Giry: A Social Function of Rumors and Conspiracy Theories: Strengthening Community’s Ties in Trouble Times. A multiscale analysis
(IDPSP – University of Rennes, France)

It is well-known that rumors and conspiracy theories flourish in periods of war or political destabilization to give a social answer to those situations. Because they are shared in an already cohesive group, rumors and conspiracy must be seen as collective deliberations or narratives. Not only do they reaffirm the dominant and established values of the group but also they are, for better or for worse, a way to strengthen and mobilize a community in danger, whatever this danger is real or not. Rumors or conspiracy theories emerge to explain the “real” or hidden causes behind evil things and they design those who are guilty for them.
The aim of this paper is thus to present and analyze this social function of rumors and conspiracy theories in a multi-scale perspective: macro, meso and micro. I will then demonstrate that if, of course, rumors and conspiracy theories develop in periods of open conflicts such as (civil) wars or revolutions; they also appear in more latent struggles such as the opposition between Established and Outsiders. This is why in this article “trouble times” seems more appropriated than crisis, conflict, war, etc.
Hence, several social situations will be examined through many examples drawn from tree different levels of analysis. First, at the macro level, I will remind how rumors and conspiracy theories play a significant part in periods of open conflicts regarding the whole society like the French Revolution or the ethno-confessional riots between Sikhs and Hindu after the death of Indira Gandhi. Secondly, at the meso level, I will dwell on limited but dramatic cases of violent confrontation with the authorities of dissident groups such as the events in Jonestown (1978) and Waco (1993). Finally, at the micro level of a neighborhood, I will demonstrate that even though there is no open conflict, rumors arise to reaffirm – symbolically at least – the values or the habits of the established group. Two cases will be taken into account: an established and cohesive group challenged by outsiders; an established social leadership challenged by an insider.
To conclude, I will question the paradigm us/them, the self/ the others, in the definition of the enemies, of the scapegoats. The current migrant crisis will be a good way to illuminate it.


Petr Janeček : “Only urban people believed in this... ” Czech Springer narratives between rumours and anecdotes
(Department of Ethnology, Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic)

The paper analyses social context of Czech oral narratives about the Springer/Spring Man, a mysterious urban phantom said to be able to jump to extraordinary heights with the aid of an amazing spring-like mechanism attached to his boots, investigated by Czech ethnology since the classical study by Miloš J. Pulec (1965). This regional version of international Spring-heeled Jack narrative complex became popular during the last months of the Second World War, materializing itself in rumours, contemporary legends and personal experience narratives, but also anecdotes and jokes. Following the classical wartime sociological study by Antonin J. Obrdlik “Gallows Humour – A Sociological Phenomenon” (1942), the paper describes the main characteristics, distribution, variation, but especially social context of these oral narratives, and compares them with other international phantom scares connected with the UK Spring-heeled Jack tradition, like Russian poprigunchykis of the Bolshevik Revolution of the 1917 or German Hippenmännchen of the early 1950’s.

Grigorij Mesežnikov: Politics and conspiracy discourse in Slovakia
(Institute for Public Affairs, Bratislava, Slovakia)

IVO survey, conducted in 2013 as a part of international project on the functioning of conspiracy theories in the public discourse in selected European countries, revealed the depth and spread of conspiracy interpretations of development of society and the world in Slovakia Research data confirmed that the spread of conspiracy ideas and stereotypes among Slovak population is comparable with their spread in other transition countries. Their relevance increases when they become an organic part of the discourse, associated with some social conflicts. In Slovakia, in the recent years the situations related to the different group conflicts (internal or external) emerged in which the holders of conspiracy ideas were engaged on the side of one of the parties of these conflicts (events in Ukraine and the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, the referendum on family, the activities of right-wing extremists, the refugee crisis). Activities of the actors of conspiratorial discourse provided useful empirical material for analysis that confirms that the primary purpose of disseminators of conspiracy ideas is not to solve the problems, but to capitalize them politically.

Vladimír Bahna: Humans, natural-born conspiracists
(Institute of Ethnology, Slovak Academy of Sciences, Bratislava, Slovakia)

This paper provides a cognitive explanation of some aspects of conspiracy theories. Human mental capacities to predict behaviour and thoughts of other individuals in society process and produce information, beliefs and intuition about mental states of others (intentions, motivations etc.). This ability, also called the Theory of Mind, enables humans to produce complex social interactions and effective cooperation but it is also crucial in the creation of coalitions, cheater detection and in prediction of threats from other conspecifics. Previous research shows that socially spread explanations of world phenomena, which trigger these mental mechanisms (i.e. they propose human like intentions as causes of these phenomena), have better inferential potential whereby they become intuitively more relevant as alternative explanations. It is argued here that conspiracy theories, as they postulate a potential threat as a result of hidden intentions of a group of people, represent explanations with higher levels of intentionality than non-conspiracy explanations and thereby are cognitively more attractive and hence more successful in social transmission. 

 Eva Krekovičová: Between Conspiracy Theories, Images and Stereotypes: the Image of the Enemy
(Institute of Ethnology, Slovak Academy of Sciences, Bratislava, Slovakia)

Recent research in social anthropology, ethnology, imagology and historiography have brought preliminary indications of mutual relations not only between images and stereotypes, but also between images and conspiracy theories (Moscovici 1987), and possibly hoaxes. This paper aims to verify this theory. I will deal with the mechanisms which relate to the existence, transfer and function of these phenomena in human society (with their long-term character /“immortality”?/ on one hand and their fast appearance and processuality on the other hand).
Special attention will be placed on the formation and functioning of the image of the enemy and its occurrence or possible absence within the outlined context with an emphasis on the axiological aspects of the image. This paper is based on selected case studies from my past research, complemented by recently recorded conspiratorial interpretations which have been spread by the mass media (from the period 2010–2016).

Zuzana Panczová: Migration crisis 2015 in the light of internet rumours
(Institute of Ethnology, Slovak Academy of Sciences, Bratislava, Slovakia) 

This paper deals with rumours occurring during the migration crisis in 2015. Threatening and even tragic events viewed from behind  “our” borders caused polarization of Slovak society accompanied with excited public debates often based on  rumours and conspiracy theories. This paper works on the assumption, that the dissemination of "black" rumours (- rumours announcing negative phenomena: catastrophes, threats, treachery etc., Kapferer 1990: 115), especially rumours targeted against foreigners, could have significant impact on group identification and social cohesion. Observations of the Internet debates (news and their comments in the discussion forum, debates on the social networks) provided a lot of material where the anti-immigrant topics used older (approved) narrative patterns and entered into local established ideological discursive schemes. The analysis will focus on discursive mechanisms using rumours as devices of 1. legitimization of xenophobic attitudes ; 2. strengthening of social (group) cohesion.