Mainstream news outlets in the United States don’t tend to take conspiracy theories seriously. But perhaps they should.
Classic examples of conspiracy theories include extraterrestrial visitors, secret government experiments, or alternate explanations for events like the JFK assassination or the 1969 moon landing.
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, but also beginning 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.
Some conspiracy theories 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 cases of measles. Another (termed “Pizzagate” in the press) linked to Washington, DC restaurant Comet Ping Pong has prompted multiple attacks on the establishment.
Some analysts conclude that conspiracy theories are more prevalent today, while others disagree. Those who reject that assessment 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, New York University 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.
Here are his responses to key questions: