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6. Conspiracy Beliefs about Jews and Muslims in Norway

Asbjørn Dyrendal (b. 1965) is Professor of the History of Religions at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim. His research areas revolve around contemporary religion, conspiracy culture, esotericism, and apocalypticism. His latest books with collaborators include The Invention of Satanism (OUP, 2016), Handbook of Conspiracy Theory and Contemporary Religion (Brill, 2019), and Hva er konspirasjonsteori (Universitetsforlaget, 2019).

Studies of conspiracy beliefs in Scandinavian countries have been few and qualitative in nature. This chapter analyses recent surveys and gives tentative answers as to how international research findings about conspiracy beliefs hold up in a Norwegian setting.

Some of the expected effects were found. Two surveys validate the five-item conspiracy mentality scale for Norway, a measure of the generalised propensity towards believing in conspiracy theories. Scores on conspiracy mentality predicted belief in single-item conspiracy beliefs regarding Jews and Muslims, but the effect size was small. Conspiracy stereotypes of Jews and Muslims were a contributing factor in a more general xenophobia and correlated positively with measures of social distance. The conspiracy stereotypes contributed to explaining differences in views on the legitimacy of violence towards members of outgroups in general.

Contrary to expectations, anti-Muslim conspiracy beliefs were more closely tied to conspiracy mentality than antisemitic ones. With regard to the debate on whether adherents of the political far left and far right believe in conspiracy theories more than those of centrist and mainstream parties, the Norwegian left-wing adherents generally scored lower on conspiracy beliefs about Jews and Muslims. Conspiracy theories were for election winners: the populist right generally scored significantly higher than other political orientations. The differences in scores were particularly strong for anti-Muslim beliefs.

The analyses were run by adopting questions asked for other purposes. With the exception of conspiracy mentality, scales were constructed by using those survey items that were arguably approximate items to those in reliable measures. Further inquiries should adapt established scales for more robust answers and in order to build reliable models.

Keywords: Islamophobia, antisemitism, conspiracy mentality, conspiracy stereotypes, conspiracy theories, conspiracy beliefs, Norway

1. Introduction

There exists, states social psychologist Roland Imhoff boldly, “an intrinsic affinity between conspiratorial thinking and anti-Semitic ideology”.1 He argues that this relation is specific to antisemitic ideology. Prejudicial attitudes towards Roma (anti-Ziganism) and Muslims (“Islamoprejudice”2) do not have the same intrinsic relation to conspiracy thinking. Imhoff’s conclusion is built on research findings in several countries showing that antisemitism and a general propensity towards conspiracy thinking correlate substantially, even when the former is measured without reference to conspiracy beliefs, and the latter without reference to Jews. The relatively strong relation between antisemitism and conspiracy mentality – compared with prejudice against Muslims, for instance – has been confirmed by studies on several regions. Is it also true for Norway?

Before we attempt to answer that question, we should ask why this kind of relation exists at all. There is an extensive literature on antisemitism and its tradition of conspiracy theories. This chapter will draw on the findings of the evolving field of conspiracy theory research, and primarily its social psychological branch. Instead of concentrating on questions about history and tradition, this field has looked at questions such as “what are conspiracy beliefs and how do they relate to prejudice?” Here, the questions are more specifically about Norway. To begin answering, I will first introduce some basic concepts.

2. Conspiracy theories, conspiracy mentality, and conspiracy stereotypes

Humans are narrative creatures. We make up stories about the world as a way of inhabiting it. These stories often serve as entertainment, but more generally, we make stories to understand, communicate, and memorise. This is also true for conspiracy narratives – tales about hidden, intentional threats, and hidden, intention-driven causes behind undesirable events. Narratives commonly dubbed “conspiracy theories” are typically speculative, driven, among other things, by overly sensitive pattern perception and agency detection.3 Moreover, they often express an underlying preference for conspiracy as explanation. Conspiracy belief is, in one important manner, a “unitary” phenomenon. Belief in one conspiracy theory is one of the best predictors of whether a person is likely to believe another, unrelated conspiracy theory.4 Context matters in making conspiracy theories seem plausible or not. It works in two ways: threatening social situations raise levels of suspicion, with attendant focus on hidden agency and patterns; and conspiracy theories directed against groups that are already defined as suspicious form a context that predicts heightened belief.

Even considering context, however, some people are more prone to believe in conspiracy theories than others. This is a robust observation that has led researchers to coin the concepts of “conspiracist mindset” or, more commonly used, “conspiracy mentality”.5 It is usually measured on a scale, asking about the propensity to suspect powerful actors, and to ascribe intentional secrecy and hidden, sinister acts to them. It is a measure of political, not abnormal, psychology. While very high scores on conspiracy mentality are almost certainly associated with some measure of psychological and social problems,6 the scale draws from common cognitive capacities, emotions, and motivations. We all score somewhere along the continuum, some higher than others, and as noted above, more of us will score higher in specific situations that trigger the underlying motivations and capacities.

What kinds of motivation drive conspiracy beliefs? Social psychologists focus on three overarching categories of motivation: epistemic, existential, and social.7 These are related. The epistemic dimension relates to understanding and being able to explain what is going on, especially in chaotic or ambiguous, threatening circumstances. The quest for understanding is both a social venture and an individual one. On the individual as well as the interpersonal level, it is existentially important to feel that we understand and have some sort of explanation for ongoing events. Knowledge gives a feeling of relative control. Telling ourselves a narrative about how things really are may give a relative feeling of safety, or at least of autonomy and agency. Rather than being thrown into chaos and anomie with no way out, the conspiracy narrative tells us that there is some order to the world, and that there are effective ways of acting intentionally within it.8

The social part of motivation to believe in conspiracy theories appears at several levels. Conspiracy theories are “social knowledge”. They are constructed, narrated, and used in social processes. They also typically have an intergroup dimension.9 Conspiracy theories form knowledge-claims as part of the same social processes as rumour and gossip.10 This means that they contribute to constructing, maintaining, and mobilising community. One of their functions is to manage group- and self-image, and one way they do so is by exaggerating differences between ingroup and outgroup. Conspiracy theories then typically present the outgroup as a cause of social ills and a threat to the moral order constructed by the (good) ingroup. It is still an open question as to whether this means that conspiracy beliefs are more common at the far ends of the political left-right spectrum,11 more common only on the political far or populist right,12 or whether the degree of such beliefs are basically related to one’s side being in or out of power.13 But while few data are available, there is good theoretical and empirical reason to expect that higher scores on conspiracy beliefs are associated with increased acceptance of violence as a legitimate tool of politics.14 I will have a closer look at both these questions later in this chapter.

There are both individual and group differences in prevalence of conspiracy beliefs. Both are partially tied to social situations. Conspiracy theories about outgroups are typically tied to situations in which feelings about intergroup threats run higher and ingroup identification is less secure, leading to increased collective narcissism.15 Such situations may lead to an increase in expressions of conspiracy stereotypes.16

Conspiracy stereotypes, as conceptualised by the Polish psychologists Miroslaw Kofta and Grzegor Sedek, have three central elements. The stereotyped outgroup is represented as committed to (1) obsessive, collective striving for domination; as (2) engaging in deceptive, conspiratorial action to achieve these goals; and having (3) a high degree of group egoism. This sort of stereotype ascribes exceptionally high group entitativity to the outgroup. In practice, it presents the outgroup as a single entity, moreover an entity that is “a dangerous, potent, and deceptive enemy”.17 The group level is central to conspiracy stereotypes. While visible individuals and episodes may illustrate the stereotype, it covers the whole; outgroup members are mere “subordinated executors” of the collective will.18

As measured by these three dimensions, conspiracy stereotypes are positively related to both conspiracy mentality, and to series of specific conspiracy beliefs.19 Specific beliefs in conspiracy stereotypes tend to be positively related to conspiracy beliefs against some, but not all, other social groups. Conspiracy stereotype beliefs are mainly related to those groups deemed to be strong or otherwise a threat,20 and less to minorities and other socially devalued groups.21 Belief in these stereotypes also correlate positively to non-conspiratorial prejudices and to measures of social distance against the same groups.22

The concept of conspiracy stereotypes was built on the tradition of antisemitic conspiracy theories where Jews control vast wealth and hidden networks in a search for world domination. Power is central to the concept as it has been used. When Imhoff concluded that there is an “intrinsic affinity between conspirational thinking and anti-Semitic ideology”,23 it was also based on the strength of association between conspiracy mentality and prejudice against outgroups societies consider to be powerful.24 When the same measure was found to be either weakly related or not at all related to prejudice against Muslims or anti-Ziganism, this may be explained by the fact that these groups were not widely seen as powerful, and accordingly a threat, in the same sense. However, outgroup stereotypes vary, and they may include ideas about conspiracy and high group entitativity without necessarily involving vast power, as in conspiracy theories about LGBTQ. Outgroup stereotypes also change, as do social (“folk”) threat assessments.

This potentially calls into question the special relation between conspiracy mentality and antisemitism stated in the opening quote. Conspiracy mentality as measured by the relevant scale centres on suspicions directed upwards towards e.g. authorities and big businesses. It measures suspicion that the powerful are secretly up to no good. The imaginary Jews of Kofta and Sedek’s conspiracy stereotypes are part of this elite. Their elite status is why scores on antisemitism correlate so well with conspiracy mentality. But if we do not take the attribution of elite status and powerful threat for granted, this relation could change. If Jews are regarded as a less powerful threat and Muslims as a more powerful one, it seems reasonable to expect that the relative relations between prejudice and conspiracy mentality changes. If we take threat assessment as the primary driver and conspiracy narratives as consequences, an increase or decrease in feelings of being threatened should influence levels of conspiracy beliefs, but they should also influence the correlation between specific conspiracy beliefs and conspiracy mentality. An increased belief in the conspiracy theory about Muslims “taking over” should correlate with them being seen as more powerful and threatening. As a consequence, the general measure of conspiracy mentality should predict prejudice against Muslims equally well as – perhaps in some cases even better than – it predicts antisemitism.

Some recent results suggest that this may be the case. While using a less power-focused measure of conspiracy mentality than the best established scales, Dyrendal et al. found only weak relations of conspiracy mentality to conspiracy stereotypes about Jews and Muslims among (mostly) American Neopagans.25 Moreover, even though both associations were weak, the correlation was higher for anti-Muslim conspiracy belief.

No such study has been conducted for Norway. As mentioned above, the research on both conspiracy beliefs and the intersection of conspiracy theory and prejudice in Norway has so far been wholly qualitative.26 While there are ongoing projects that attempt to remedy this, no studies have yet been completed. This chapter is therefore exploratory, and I will mostly be making use of data gathered for other purposes and in different research designs. In the following, we will see which, if any, of the theoretically expected patterns hold up. But given that the data were gathered for other purposes, which patterns could we look for?

3. Four surveys, measures and goals

Like the chapters by Bergmann and Hellevik in the current volume, this chapter uses data from the surveys conducted by the Center for Holocaust and Minority Studies (CHM) in 2011 and 2017.27 In addition, it uses data from wave 8 (2017) of the Norwegian Citizen Panel (NCP-8),28 and from a 2016 student survey conducted at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU).29 The student survey draws on a convenience sample of students from most of NTNU’s campuses; the others use representative population samples.

The NCP-8 and NTNU surveys contain items that were expressly designed with the purpose of testing hypotheses about conspiracy beliefs. This was not a topic in itself for the CHM surveys. The first survey, CHM-2011, has only one explicit conspiracy item: “World Jewry is working behind the scenes to promote Jewish interests”. The three other surveys each have one conspiracy theory item about Muslims and one about Jews. In addition, the NCP-8 and the NTNU 2016 surveys also include an internationally validated, five-item measure of conspiracy mentality. The latter also asks about a host of unrelated conspiracy theories. Taken together this allows for taking a closer look at the relation between the antisemitic and anti-Muslim conspiracy items. It will also give an indication about the relation of these beliefs to a general propensity towards conspiracy thinking. The theory of an underlying conspiracy mentality predicts a positive correlation between conspiracy beliefs. We can test both the construct and its prediction of positive correlation between beliefs directly from data in CHM-2017, NCP-8, and NTNU-2016.

Each of the surveys covers political affiliation in some way, mainly through questions about past and planned electoral behaviour. This facilitates comparison on whether political affiliation plays a role, and if so, which political affiliation plays a larger role for which conspiracy belief – if it differs (as expected). As mentioned above, international research also gives us reason to expect the conspiracy items in CHM-2017 to correlate positively with items about the legitimacy of violence against Jews and Muslims.

While the concept of conspiracy stereotypes was not explicitly involved in the design of the CHM-surveys, the surveys nevertheless ask questions relevant to the concept, implicitly or explicitly asking about group egoism and obsession about power as well as conspiratorial behaviour. These are, indeed, part of the scales of prejudice employed by Hellevik and Bergmann.30 Even though it is ad hoc, this theoretically opens the possibility for testing the predictions related above on a “poor man’s version” of conspiracy stereotypes. However, there are some preconditions. The conspiracy items should correlate positively with the other theoretically related prejudices (egoism, power obsession, etc.) at a high enough level so they combine into an internally consistent, acceptable scale.31 If they do, it is possible to get an idea about the degree to which Norwegian findings correspond to those from countries whose societies differ greatly from Norway.

Most of the relevant questions are scored on a Likert-like scale, typically 1–5 for the CHM-surveys and 1–7 for NCP-8 and NTNU-2016. In almost all instances, I have chosen to score “don’t know/impossible to answer” as a midpoint, thereby interpreting the answers along a “probability of truth” continuum. As Bergmann’s analyses show,32 there is no clear tendency of the “impossible to answer” responses going in any particular direction, such as hiding open expressions of antisemitism. They thus seem to be true midpoints.33 I have made one exception: when scoring the items on social distance, I only made use of respondents who chose to state a preference for or against having the outgroups in their neighbourhood or circles of friends. The choice was made pre-analyses, on consideration that this group of questions seems to call even more for respondents’ reflections on the specific qualities of the hypothetical individual (e.g. neighbour) in question.

All scales were computed as mean scores of all the items mentioned.

4. Items and Levels of Conspiracy Beliefs about Jews and Muslims

The first survey, CHM-2011, explored levels of antisemitic attitudes. Among the statements respondents were asked to assess as fitting or not fitting to their own opinion, there was one conspiracy item: “World Jewry is working behind the scenes to promote Jewish interests”. This was repeated in 2017, when items about prejudice against Muslims were added. Again there was one conspiracy item: “Muslims want to take over Europe”. The conspiracy item about Muslims in NCP-8 addressed the same notion in more detail (“Muslims participate in organised, religiously based lies to hide a plan for societal takeover”.). The item about Jews in the same survey was “American politics is controlled by Israel”.34

In the student survey (NTNU-2016), the conspiracy item about Muslims was the same as in NCP-8. The antisemitic conspiracy theory was reverse-phrased and related explicitly to group stereotype: “Jews are not more likely to engage in conspiracy than others”. This item created some problems that need to be discussed briefly.

While pre-tests on students at master level had discovered no problem with the item, in practice it turned out that the phrasing was unclear. Some of it was related to miscalculation of the time needed to complete the full questionnaire. Mean time of completion increased by around 50% when most of the students were in their first year. This item came towards the very end of the survey, when students were pressed for time. I was contacted by several students who said they had first misread the item as asserting the opposite, and two students explicitly stated that because of this misreading they had answered the item in a misleading manner. The first look at the data also showed a disproportionate response of (especially complete) disagreement with the statement. Since there was no pattern to explain the responses otherwise, it was concluded that misreading was the likely explanation. Thus we recalculated responses to fit the response style of the students in the following manner: When responses to the items immediately before and after were fully or almost fully negative to the conspiracy theory and responses to the antisemitic item that were positive, were recalculated to fit the response style (i.e. 7=1, 6=2, etc.), and vice versa. While obviously not optimal, the resulting changes made responses fit the larger pattern better, and as we shall see, makes sense within the larger set of investigations.

So what proportion of Norwegian respondents express belief in the conspiracy theories presented to them? Mean response is on the side of disbelief. This is very clear in the student survey and NCP-8, where the graph is highly left-skewed by the proportion of answers in the category of “disagree”. The surveys conducted by the Center for Holocaust and Minority Studies stand out in that these surveys show a normal distribution, with “impossible to answer” the most popular response for all items. Since the items vary in how they are framed, and two surveys were scored on 1–5 scales and two on 1–7 scales, they are not fully comparable, but if we look at those who score highest, “strongly agree”, we get an impression of those who really want to express belief.

Table 6.1.

Frequency of strongly agree with conspiracy items

SurveyAntisemiticIslamophobic
CHM-20113.9%
CHM-20173.6%12.9%
NCP-84.0%9.5%
NTNU-20161.7%1.8%

We see some notable differences between antisemitic and anti-Muslim conspiracy beliefs. The Muslim conspiracy clearly has more believers than the Jewish conspiracy does, except for in the student survey. This may be partially accounted for by three things: (1) the students in question are the Utøya generation, and the conspiracy item is known as Breivik’s partial motivation (we also had Breivik’s anti-Labour belief covered); (2) anti-Muslim attitudes is a known, partisan issue for the right, and the student sample was highly left-leaning; (3) the students are students, thus both with regard to age and level of education, we would expect a negative effect on belief in conspiracy theories compared to weighted data from representative samples.

There is also a difference in the level of belief between CHM-2017 and NCP-8 which may not be accounted for by the different Likert scales used, and the difference only grows as we calculate the total on the “belief” side. It seems reasonable to suspect that the different, more elaborate framing of conspiracy in NCP-8 made more respondents negative.

5. Conspiracy Theories and Conspiracy Mentality in the Surveys

As noted in the introduction, those who believe in one conspiracy theory tend to believe in more than one, and those who dislike one outgroup also tend to dislike more than one. Both would lead us to expect that conspiracy beliefs about Jews and Muslims should correlate. We also have some reason to expect that it could be otherwise. Political and religious ideologies may select certain groups as allies or as what J. M. Berger calls “eligible in-groups”.35 To the degree such views of the outgroups are partisan issues, it could reduce or remove an expected correlation. For instance, any full-on identification of Jews with Israel could activate political identities strongly invested in the Israel-Palestine conflict as well as religious identities, making one group an ally and the other the enemy. So what do we see in the data?

Briefly put, we find that one conspiracy belief about an outgroup predicts belief in the other. Using weighted data, the conspiracy items about Jews and Muslims in CHM-2017 correlate in the medium range.36 We find exactly the same correlation size for NCP-8, again using weighted data, correcting for gender, age, education, and county of habitation. The student sample gives a correlation size that is effectively the same.37

As predicted by theory and previous research in other countries, we do find a positive correlation between the conspiracy beliefs. While the items vary somewhat between the surveys, the relation between them is stable, suggesting that they tap into similar underlying phenomena. Moreover, the correlation is of a moderate, rather than small size. Considering only these two variables, we have “accounted for” between 11–13% of their shared variance.

I say “accounted for” because the relation between scores on the conspiracy items are obviously not explained merely by pointing to the correlations. The correlations show that there is something here that underlying factors might explain. Previous research says a generalised propensity to conspiracy thinking – conspiracy mentality – should be one such factor. However, we also have competing hypotheses about how well the measures we use for conspiracy mentality should do in explaining conspiracy beliefs about Jews and Muslims. To the degree the relevant respondents just dislike (certain) minorities, including Jews and Muslims, at face value it is not apparent that conspiracy mentality should correspond to any significant degree. Certainly, a general dislike might predispose respondents to also ascribe conspiratorial activity on the part of the outgroup, but then we would expect correlation to other conspiracy beliefs to fall, or even reverse direction.38

No measure of conspiracy mentality has previously been employed in a Norwegian (or Scandinavian) setting. The 5-item measure of conspiracy mentality used in NCP-8 and NTNU-2016 is geared towards shadowy and powerful actors. Both surveys have at least one conspiracy item in addition to the two about Jews and Muslims. This should make it possible to validate the scale for Norway, and in addition test its power to predict conspiracy beliefs about the two groups. The degree of correlation with other conspiracy beliefs may also indicate something about whether the items primarily express correlation with other conspiracy theories and if so, what kind of conspiracy beliefs they are. If our items of interest share more than surface characteristics with unrelated conspiracy items, they should correlate positively. If the measure of conspiracy mentality is valid, the anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim items should correlate well with it if the respective group is seen as powerful, but less if it is seen as less powerful.39

The 5-item scale of conspiracy mentality showed good reliability in both NCP-8 and NTNU-2016,40 and all items loaded on one factor. Both surveys also show a positive correlation between conspiracy mentality and conspiracy beliefs about Jews and Muslims. The correlation size is small, and only at its highest reaches “almost medium” size.41 As mentioned above, this is what we would expect if respondents do not see Jews and Muslims as particularly powerful. An alternative hypothesis is that conspiracy beliefs about Jews and Muslims in the Norwegian setting do not share much with generalised tendencies towards conspiracy thinking of any kind. This was what Dyrendal et al. found earlier for American Neopagans: the items about Jews and Muslims did not correlate with other conspiracy items at the level of other intercorrelations. Only the item about Muslims reached even the level of “low” correlation with conspiracy mentality, and anti-egalitarianism and political position explained more of the variance on conspiracy beliefs about Jews and Muslims than conspiracy mentality did.42 In the NTNU student survey, however, scores on the anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim items correlate highly with mean scores on 14 other conspiracy theories.43 This indicates that the anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim conspiracy items are partially explained by one or more underlying factors of generalised conspiracy belief, including those theories that explicitly address conspiracy from above.44

These survey results also allow for tentatively answering the introductory question: will the relative strength of the relation between antisemitism, Islamophobia and conspiracy mentality be the same in Norway as that found elsewhere? The answer seems to be “no”. In both surveys, the measures of conspiracy mentality correlate higher with the item about Muslims than it does with the one about Jews. To the degree we can trust Imhoff and Bruder’s results,45 this would indicate that Norwegians tend to consider Jews less powerful and threatening than Muslims.

So far, we have looked only at single items of anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim conspiracy beliefs. We do not have full data related to our questions about conspiracy stereotypes, but we do have some data that could speak to our questions: the ones from the two CHM surveys, and particularly CHM-2017.

6. Conspiracy Stereotypes of Jews and Muslims: Measures and Correlations

There is no single Norwegian survey or experiment addressing the topic of conspiracy stereotypes as theorised by Kofta and Sedek explicitly.46 However, in the first survey conducted by the Center for Holocaust and Minority Studies in 2011, six out of the ten statements about Jews are relevant to conspiracy stereotypes. We remember that conspiracy stereotypes typically presented prejudice along three dimensions: striving for domination, conspiracy, and high group egoism. The survey presented the following six propositions for participants to evaluate:

  • Jews consider themselves to be better than others.

  • World Jewry is working behind the scenes to promote Jewish interests.

  • Jews have enriched themselves at the expense of others.

  • Jews have too much influence on the global economy.

  • Jews have too much influence on US foreign policy.

  • Jews have always caused problems in the countries in which they live.

Items one, two and six are tied clearly to group egoism, number two explicitly also to conspiracy. Items three, four, and five are tied to (successful) striving for domination, and they can be implicitly tied to conspiracy. The items do not divide specifically into the three dimensions mentioned by Kofta and Sedek. However, the dimensions blend into each other both explicitly, as in item two above, and more implicitly, by drawing on cultural stereotypes. The listing of the items thus allows for each to prime respondents to react to stereotypes they may already know. Do they scale into a single scale for conspiracy stereotype, with or without our explicit conspiracy item?

The answer is yes, they do. The different items correlate highly; the only item generally falling (just) below r > 0.5 with other components is the one about US foreign policy.47 Using six items, the internal validity shows as Cronbach’s alpha of 0.85, and if we delete the explicit conspiracy item, it only falls to 0.82. Principal component analysis showed only one component with Eigenvalue above one. This was true also for CHM-2017, where Cronbach’s alpha was 0.87 for six items and 0.84 for five.

The items about Muslims that were first included in CHM-2017 are less suited to the theoretical formulations of conspiracy stereotypes based on classical antisemitism. Arguably, and again before looking at the data, there are four items that theoretically fit into a reasonable test of similar conspiracy stereotypes:

  • Muslims consider themselves morally superior to others

  • Muslims pose a threat to Norwegian culture

  • Muslims want to take over Europe

  • Muslims are more violent than others

None of the items are optimal for measuring conspiracy stereotypes after the model of antisemitic conspiracism.48 Item three is the closest to an explicit appeal to conspiracy here. With item three and four, it also addresses “striving for domination”. Arguably, item one addresses group egoism. The four items show remarkable consistency, with Cronbach’s alpha at 0.9. Intercorrelations are high, ranging from r at 0.66 to 0.77. Principal component analysis showed only one component (i.e. with Eigenvalue above one). The correlation between conspiracy stereotypes of Jews and Muslims is medium-sized and positive, just as it was for the single conspiracy items.49

Above, I have operated with the items that seem most directly relevant to the concept of conspiracy stereotypes. However, the scales could equally have taken into account all the negative stereotype-based items for each: factor analysis show that both the seven negative items about Jews and the nine negative items about Muslims (one reverse-phrased) load on a single component. The intercorrelations for the prejudice items about Muslims are so high that it almost seems like one has asked the same question over and over. Cronbach’s alpha for anti-Muslim prejudices was 0.94;50 for antisemitism 0.88. From this observation alone, it seems likely that “conspiracy” is a factor in xenophobic prejudices as just one more negative trait; negatively viewed outgroups are seen as also conspiring. With that caveat, in the following analyses we shall nevertheless continue to use scales based only on items that should theoretically be part of conspiracy stereotypes.

7. Conspiracy Stereotypes, Social Distance, and the Legitimacy of Violence

One of the predictions from previous research was that conspiracy stereotypes should predict social distance not only to the group in question, but also to other outgroups, especially those of a similar social status.51 This holds for the Norwegian data as well. Scores on our measure for conspiracy stereotypes typically correlate positively with social distance to all groups in the questionnaire: Catholics, Americans, Poles, Roma, Jews, Muslims, and Somalis. There was one exception. Conspiracy stereotypes about Muslims did not correlate at a significant level with disliking having American neighbours. All other correlations were significant.52

The correlations were, as expected, highest with the group in question. Conspiracy stereotypes about Jews correlated most strongly with disliking Jews as neighbours or in the circle of friends, and, stereotypes about Muslims social distance towards Muslims. The latter showed a large effect.

Table 6.2.

Pearson Correlation Matrix Conspiracy Stereotypes and Social Distance

1. Antisemitic CS2. Anti-Muslim CS3. Dislike Jews as neighbours4. Dislike Jews among friends 4. Dislike Muslims as neighbours 4. Dislike Muslims among friends
1.35***.39***.42***.21***.22***
2.24***.28***.63***.63***

***p < 0.001

If we look further, conspiracy stereotypes about Muslims predicted social distance to denigrated social groups strongly (i.e. Roma, r = 0.53; Somali, r = 0.58). It predicted social distance to groups of higher status and those of lower socio-cultural difference less well.53 The effect on social distance towards Jews was relatively weak, only just above the distance towards Catholics.

Conspiracy stereotypes about Jews also showed a general effect on social distance, but the effect was weaker and more specific to distance towards Jews. All other correlation sizes were small.54

One of the main reasons for the (almost) consistently significant, positive correlations was the high degree of intercorrelation of scores on social distance. Those who dislike contact with one outgroup were more likely to dislike contact with any other outgroup. Conspiracy stereotypes about Jews and Muslims thus seem to be a contributing factor in a more general xenophobia.55 Especially with regard to the measure we have used for conspiracy stereotypes about Muslims, the relation to xenophobia seems strong.56

Xenophobia is tied to both violent behaviour and attitudes that condone violence. As noted in the introduction, conspiracy beliefs in general also seem to predict views that violence can be a legitimate form of political behaviour.57 That finding was, however, from the United States alone, and it is uncertain how well this transfers over to a very different political culture, such as the Norwegian. The 2017 CHM survey asks Norwegians directly whether violence against Jews or Muslims can be legitimate, considering terrorism/Israeli behaviour against Palestinians. Taken on their own, the single questions show the expected pattern: conspiracy beliefs show a moderate, positive correlation with support for violence. This is a general effect. Belief in the antisemitic conspiracy item correlates positively with support for violence against Jews, but it also correlates with support for violence against Muslims. We see the same general relation for conspiracy belief about Muslims.

Table 6.3.

Pearson Correlation Matrix, Conspiracy Beliefs and Support for Violence

1. Antisemitic CT2. Anti-Muslim CT3. Support for violence against Jews4. Support for violence against Muslims
1.33***.35***.31***
2.28***.46***
3.41***
4

***p < 0.001

If we exchange the single items with the scales for conspiracy stereotypes, some of the “noise” is reduced. This results in a slightly increased correlation with support for violence against the “conspirator” group and a slight decrease in correlation with support for violence against the other group. However, there seems to be a general dimension of finding retributive violence legitimate. Support for violence against one group is the best predictor for support of violence against the other.58

8. Conspiracy Beliefs and Ideology: Party-Political Affiliation

Specific conspiracy beliefs should vary according to party political affiliation. Conspiracy theories do, after all, address different culprits as causes of the world’s (or “our”) ills. Moreover, the trend is that those whose political party are out of power should be more vulnerable in general to conspiracy beliefs than those in power.59 However, theories about outgroups may not be similarly vulnerable to being in or out of power. Specifically, populists and extremists should be less influenced, perhaps even be encouraged in such beliefs by power. What do we see in the Norwegian data?

It is quite clear that the framing of the antisemitic conspiracy items varies enough to appeal somewhat differently between the surveys. There is some consistency: for all the representative samples, those who vote for the Christian Democratic Party score lowest on the explicit conspiracy item, and the mean score for all parties is below the “don’t know” value. At the other end, the Progress Party voters score highest. Although still unbelieving at the mean value, there is a large difference (d ≈ 1) between them and the Christian Democrats in both CHM surveys. This difference is somewhat smaller when we use the broader measure of the conspiracy stereotype. The differences between the parties, which generally are not big, smooth out more. What we do not really see is a left-right difference. The voters of Socialist Left, less a radical-left party than a competing, social democratic party to the left of Labour, scores at about the same level as Christian Democratic Party voters, while voters for Red, a far-left socialist party, built on the ruins of an ex-Maoist communist party, scores at about the same level as the Conservative party. When we use the conspiracy stereotype, the leftists go further into disbelief, as do the Progress Party voters, while those voting for Christian Democrats score slightly higher. Overall, there is something of a consensus of disbelief in Jewish conspiracy in these surveys.

Those who vote for the largely rurally based Centre Party score at about the level of voters of the Conservative party and Labour in the CHM surveys. In NCP-8, they score highest, while Christian Democratic Party voters again score lowest. Again, the difference is large (d ≈ 1), but again, no party’s voters have a mean score on the side of belief. All are on the side of disbelief in the conspiracy. This repeats itself in the student survey. Even though we can observe some middle to large differences between political party preferences, disbelief in the Jewish conspiracy is a consensus position. This is not true for the Muslim conspiracy theory.

In CHM-2017, there is a clear left-right divide with regard to belief in the anti-Muslim conspiracy item. The voters of the Progress Party score highest, and at a mean of 3.89, the score is clearly into the realm of belief. The voters of the two leftist parties score lowest, at 1.67 and 1.52, making for a very large difference between the left and right (d = 2.1 to the Socialist Left, larger for Red). This means that given a random selection from either group, one is all but guaranteed (> 90%) that a Progress Party voter will score higher than one voting for the Socialist Left. Moreover, the relation seems relatively linear, with voters of the Conservative Party (3.02) and two of the old “centre” block following the Progress Party. This time, when we use the conspiracy stereotype scale, the differences become larger, not smaller. Standard deviations become smaller, and scores on the right rise while they fall on the left.

We find similar results in NCP-8, where those who vote for the leftist parties again score lowest. Voters for the Green party, which with the Liberal Party voters also scored very low in CHM-2017, score at the level of the leftist parties with regard to the conspiracy items. The differences are large, but not quite as big as they were in CHM-2017. In the student survey, the tendency is the same, but the effects are smaller and disagreement with the items more universal.

Overall, we see an interesting pattern, where the political left tends to score slightly – but often not significantly – higher on the conspiracy item about Jews than they do on the one for Muslims. The opposite is true for those on the political right, but here the difference is often large. Taken as a whole, the left scores lower on both conspiracy items than the right, and only voters for Red (in NCP-8) come close to scoring at the top on the antisemitic item. Since the item in NCP-8 was formulated with the explicit intention of appealing most to the far left, using a combination of complaints observed earlier among conspiracist segments of the far left, it is perhaps more surprising that other parties still scored higher.

When we move our attention to the views on legitimacy of violence (CHM-2017), we observe something similar. There is a clear consensus in that terrorism, state-sponsored or not, is not seen as a legitimate excuse for violence against innocents by voters of any party. However, the left is least prone to seeing violence as legitimate, with “realist” Conservative and Labour voters closest behind the populist Progress Party at the top of the list. There is a clear difference between social-democratic left and populist right in attitudes about violence against both Muslims (d = 1.09) and against Jews (d = 0.7), even though mean scores are solidly on the side of violence being illegitimate for all parties.

For all the differences between voters, disbelief in a Jewish conspiracy is also the consensus position at the aggregate level for each political party. This is not true for allegations about Muslim conspiracy. This is clearly a divisive, partisan issue.

9. Concluding Remarks

The findings in this chapter should be interpreted with some caution. We have seen that the discussion is based mostly on adapting survey data for purposes to which they were not primarily intended. The conspiracy items about Jews and Muslims suffer from the fact that there is only one of each in the three surveys that include both. As noted by Hellevik,60 a combination of several valid items would reduce noise and give us more solid ground on which to stand when analysing the data.

The survey material we have examined in this chapter goes some way to strengthening a number of previous observations. We have seen that conspiracy beliefs about outgroups generally do predict increased social distance to the outgroup and increased support for violence as a political tool. We have also seen that measures of conspiracy mentality predict conspiracy beliefs about both Jews and Muslims, and that both these conspiracy beliefs predict increased belief in other conspiracy theories.

On the surface, this gives us some strange talking points: the more one believes in conspiracy theories about Jewish world domination, the more likely one is to think that violence against Muslims is legitimate. The more one believes Muslims are trying to take control, the more likely one is to believe Jews are misusing the Holocaust.61 This is, obviously, because conspiracy beliefs predict increased belief in other conspiracy theories of a similar kind. Furthermore, because conspiracy beliefs are tied to other, underlying factors, it is as expected that when turned around, we also note that the more negative people are to refugees, the more they express belief in conspiracy theories. In CHM-2017, those who think we cannot afford to help refugees are moderately more likely to believe in conspiracy theories about Jews (d = 0.55), and much more likely to believe in conspiracy theories about Muslims (d = 1.51), than those who think we can afford to do so. Conspiracy beliefs about outgroups express as well as contribute to a more general xenophobia, and agreeing to conspiracy beliefs is also a way of justifying the xenophobia.

Other results do not fit quite as well into the expected pattern. International research into conspiracy thinking and antisemitism has noted that there is an intrinsic affinity between them that we do not find for prejudice against other social groups. As we have seen, there is also such an affinity in the Norwegian data, but it is not clearly separate from the affinity of the other xenophobic prejudice. Conspiracy beliefs about Jews and Muslims were moderately correlated throughout the surveys, no matter the exact phrasing of the items. They also showed moderate correlation with general measures of conspiracy mentality, but contrary to what we would expect from previous research, conspiracy mentality was more highly correlated with conspiracy beliefs about Muslims than it was with those about Jews.

Following Imhoff and Bruder,62 this could indicate that Muslims were seen as more closely related to other, hidden, powerful actors guiding political developments. When looking at the items we used for conspiracy stereotypes, however, we see that the antisemitic items are clearly in line with the kind of power usually attributed to the hidden world conspiracy, and these items are highly intercorrelated. The anti-Muslim items are of a slightly different kind. While they do attribute power to Muslims, they more clearly present them as a threat. Moreover, the threat indicated is of a kind that is known to activate authoritarian responses, i.e. threats against group values and norms.63 Authoritarianism, when activated, is related to conspiracy beliefs, but most of the beliefs it reliably relates to are thought to be predicted better by measures of right-wing authoritarianism than conspiracy mentality.64 This could indicate that there may at times be less difference between measures of authoritarianism and conspiracy mentality in predicting certain types of conspiracy beliefs than has been shown.

Another pattern that may fit local intuitions better than international research regards the political dimension of beliefs. We have seen that belonging to the edges of the established political landscape in and of itself does not predict conspiracy beliefs all that well. The populist right, as was expected, generally scored higher on conspiracy beliefs than other ideologies. Only when appealing specifically to other dimensions of their political ideology (anti-USA and anti-Israel combined) did the far left rise to a level close to “don’t know”, and even then, it was only voters for the farthest left, i.e., Red. The Socialist Left voters stayed firmly at or near the bottom of the list and with a clear disbelief in conspiracy theories throughout. These attitudes were not visibly affected by the populist right being part of the ruling coalition since 2013. The populist right stayed at the top of conspiracy beliefs, and the far left stayed at the bottom. Turning Uscinski and Parent’s finding that “conspiracy theories are for losers” on its head,65 we might say that for this combination of beliefs and politics, conspiracy theories are, rather, for election winners. This pattern may be specific to conspiracy beliefs about minorities, particularly Muslims, thus mirroring ideological differences, or it may be relevant to other conspiracy beliefs as well. If so, it might be related to political patterns of trust and distrust in a society that are still characterised by a high level of trust.

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1Roland Imhoff, “Beyond (Right-Wing) Authoritarianism: Conspiracy Mentality as an Incremental Predictor of Prejudice”, in The Psychology of Conspiracy, ed. Michal Bilewicz, Aleksandra Cichocka, and Wiktor Soral (New York, NY: Routledge, 2015), 125.
2“Islamoprejudice” is a term minted in an attempt to differentiate between analytically different sides to what is usually termed Islamophobia, underlining the difference between actual fear of Islam and prejudice against Islam and Muslims in general. See Roland Imhoff and Julia Recker, “Differentiating Islamophobia: Introducing a New Scale to Measure Islamoprejudice and Secular Islam Critique”, Political Psychology 23, no. 2 (2012): 811–824.
3Rob Brotherton, Suspicious Minds. Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories (London: Bloomsbury, 2015).
4See for instance Brotherton, Suspicious Minds, 81–98.
5Martin Bruder et al., “Measuring individual differences in generic beliefs in conspiracy theories across cultures: Conspiracy Mentality Questionnaire”, Frontiers in Psychology 4 (2013): 225, https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00225.
6Daniel Freeman and Richard P. Bentall, “The concomitants of conspiracy concerns”, Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology 52 (2017): 592–604.
7Karen M. Douglas, Robbie M. Sutton, and Aleksandra Cichocka, “The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories”, Current Directions in Psychological Science 26, no. 6 (2017): 538–542.
8There is, however, a growing body of evidence that attempts to use conspiracy theories thus tend to fail, and rather lead to the aggravation of the problems they attempt to counter.
9Jan-Willem van Prooijen and Paul A.M. van Lange, “The social dimension of conspiracy theories”, in Power, Politics and Paranoia: Why People are Suspicious of their Leaders, ed. Jan-Willem van Prooijen and Paul A.M. van Lange (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 237–253.
10Nicholas DiFonzo, “Conspiracy Rumor Psychology”, in Conspiracy Theories and the People Who Believe Them, ed. Joseph E. Uscinski (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2019), 257–268.
11Jan-Willem van Prooijen, André P. M. Krouwel, and Thomas V. Pollet, “Political extremism predicts belief in conspiracy theories”, Social Psychological and Personality Science 6 (2015): 570–578.
12J. Eric Oliver and Thomas J. Wood, Enchanted America. How Intuition and Reason Divide Our Politics (Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 2018).
13Joseph E. Uscinski and Joseph. M. Parent, American Conspiracy Theories (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2014).
14J. M. Berger, Extremism (Cambridge, Ma.: MIT Press, 2018); Uscinski and Parent, American Conspiracy Theories.
15Aleksandra Cichocka et al., “Grandiose delusions: Collective narcissism, secure in-group identification, and belief in conspiracies”, in The Psychology of Conspiracy, ed. Michal Bilewicz, Aleksandra Cichocka, and Wiktor Soral (New York, NY: Routledge 2015), 23–41.
16Miroslaw Kofta and Grzegorz Sedek, “Conspiracy Stereotypes of Jews under Systemic Transformation in Poland”, International Journal of Sociology 35, no. 1 (2005): 40–64.
17Kofta and Sedek, “Conspiracy Stereotypes”, 42.
18(Ibid.)
19Monika Grzesiak-Feldman, “The relationship between conspiracy beliefs about events, conspiracy stereotypes and prejudice towards out-groupers” (Conspiracy Theory Conference, University of Miami, 2015).
20Kofta and Sedek’s concept will have us focus on groups deemed powerful. It is a both common and logical assumption that conspiracy beliefs against outgroups target those who are deemed powerful and thus a threat. This is clearly not always the case, as we see in examples of conspiracy beliefs about slaves in the 18th-century British colonies or about LGBTQ in the current era. Often more elaborate conspiracy theories will tie weaker outgroups to a more powerful enemy, such as Jews, in e.g., “gypsy crime” conspiracy narratives and anti-immigration theories, but in less elaborate versions, notions of lesser conspiracy (“fomenting slave rebellion”, “recruiting our youth to homosexuality”, “organised crime syndicate”) are quite common.
21Monika Grzesiak-Feldman and Anna Ejsmont, “Paranoia and conspiracy thinking of Jews, Germans, Arabs, and Russians in a Polish sample”, Psychological Reports 102 (2008): 884–886; Monika Grzesiak-Feldman and Herbert Suszek, “Conspiracy stereotyping and perceptions of group entitativity of Jews, Germans, Arabs, and Homosexuals among Polish students”, Psychological Reports 102 (2008): 755–758.
22Michal Bilewicz et al., “Harmful ideas. The structure and consequences of anti-Semitic beliefs in Poland”, Political Psychology 34 (2013): 821–839; Grzesiak-Feldman, “Relationship between conspiracy beliefs;” Kofta and Sedek, “Conspiracy Stereotypes”.
23Imhoff, “Beyond (Right-Wing) Authoritarianism”, 125.
24See Roland Imhoff and Martin Bruder, “Speaking (Un-)Truth to Power: Conspiracy Mentality as a Generalised Political Attitude”, European Journal of Personality 28 (2014): 25–43.
25Asbjørn Dyrendal, Leif E. O. Kennair, and James R. Lewis, “Conspiracy Mentality and Paranormal Beliefs Predict Conspiracy Beliefs, but not Conspiracy Stereotypes. Results from the Pagan III Survey”, International Journal for the Study of New Religions 8, no. 1 (2017): 73–97.
26Asbjørn Dyrendal, “Conspiracy theory research in and about Norway”, COST Action 15101 internal paper (2017).
27For details on these surveys, see Hellevik’s introductory chapter on survey data, “Antisemitism and Islamophobia in Norway”; Christhard Hoffmann, Øivind Kopperud, and Vibeke Moe, eds., Antisemitism in Norway? The Attitudes of the Norwegian Population towards Jews and other Minorities (Oslo: Center for Studies of the Holocaust and Religious Minorities, 2012); and Christhard Hoffmann and Vibeke Moe eds., Attitudes towards Jews and Muslims in Norway 2017 (Oslo: Center for the Study of Holocaust and Religious Minorities, 2017).
28The Norwegian Citizen Panel conducts web-based surveys “of Norwegians’ opinions toward important societal matters”. It is run by four departments at the University of Bergen and the Rokkan Center. See https://www.uib.no/en/citizen#.
29Participants in NCP-8; N = 2133, NTNU-2016; N = 891.
30See Hellevik’s and Bergmann’s contributions to this volume.
31Rule of thumb says Cronbach’s alpha should be 0.7 or higher.
32Bergmann, “Counting Antisemites versus measuring Antisemitism”, this volume.
33I have also, separately, run most of the analyses with the “don’t know”/“impossible to answer” responses left out. As suspected, this tends only to make the effect of e.g. the conspiracy items stronger, while leaving the direction, etc., intact.
34For the thinking behind this item, see Pierre-André Taguieff, Rising from the Muck. The New Anti-Semitism in Europe (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2004).
35Berger, Extremism.
36r = 0.33; p < 0.001
37r = 0.36, p < 0.001. As explained above, the item about conspiracy belief about Jews in NTNU-2016 is problematic. That the correlation size here is effectively the same as in the other surveys indicates that the item was handled in a manner that does little to distort the underlying relations.
38Cf. Michael J. Wood and Debra Gray, “Right-wing authoritarianism as a predictor of pro-establishment versus antiestablishment conspiracy theories”, Personality and Individual Differences 138 (2019): 163–166.
39Imhoff and Bruder, “Speaking (Un)Truth”; cf. Dyrendal, Kennair, and Lewis, “Conspiracy Mentality and Paranormal Beliefs”.
40Cronbach’s alpha = 0.83 and 0.86, p < 0.001
41R ranges from 0.18–0.29.
42Dyrendal, Kennair, and Lewis, “Conspiracy Mentality and Paranormal Beliefs”.
43R > 0.5, p < 0.001
44Other conspiracy items in these surveys, specifically those implicating governments and big business, correlate more highly with conspiracy mentality. This is as it should be, since these items cover more specific theories along the general lines asked about in the measures of conspiracy mentality.
45Imhoff and Bruder, “Speaking (Un)Truth”.
46Kofta and Sedek, “Conspiracy Mentality”.
47Kaiser-Meyer-Olkin value was 0.87, Bartlett’s test of sphericity was significant (p < 0.001).
48Since stereotypes vary, one may argue that they should not be exactly the same.
49r = 0.35
50Again, several of the items used in CHM-2017 are related to, but not identical with the ones used to construct the scale for “Islamoprejudice” (see Imhoff and Recker, Differentiating Islamophobia). Alone, the items on the cognitive dimension of Islamophobia should not be mistaken for the whole, thus my choice of a different term here.
51Grzesiak-Feldman, “Relationship between conspiracy beliefs”.
52As all correlations mentioned in this article (unless otherwise noted), it was significant at p < 0.001.
53E.g., Polish, but not Americans, and Catholics only at r ≈ 0.2
54R ranged from 0.14 to 0.28
55See Hellevik, “Antisemitism and Islamophobia”, this volume, for more on this.
56This would not be surprising since intergroup conspiracy theories tend to add to prejudice across outgroups; see Daniel Jolley, Rose Meleady, and Karen M. Douglas, “Exposure to intergroup conspiracy theories promotes prejudice which spreads across groups”, British Journal of Psychology (2019).
57Uscinski & Parent, American Conspiracy Theories.
58Regression analysis confirms the impression: a general support for violence seems to lie behind most of the effect. Using only these factors, support for violence against the other contributes most to a combined R2 of 0.23 for violence against Jews, and R2 of 0.3 for violence against Muslims, but conspiracy beliefs contribute separately in both cases. For a broader discussion, see the section on violence in Bergmann, “Counting Antisemites”, this volume.
59Uscinski and Parent, American Conspiracy Theories.
60Hellevik, “Antisemitism and Islamophobia”, this volume.
61r = 0.24, CHM-2017
62Imhoff & Bruder, “Speaking (Un)Truth”.
63Cf. Karen Stenner, The Authoritarian Dynamic (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).
64Imhoff & Bruder, “Speaking (Un)Truth”; cf. Wood & Gray, “Right-Wing Authoritarianism”.
65Uscinski and Parent, American Conspiracy Theories, 130–153.

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