CORDIS - EU research results

Populism and Conspiracy Theory

Project description

Conspiracist rhetoric and populist rise

Populist movements and parties in Europe and beyond have been on the rise over the past 20 years. The same holds true for conspiracy theories. This is not a coincidence. Populist leaders resort to conspiracist rhetoric while a considerable part of their electoral base demonstrates its agreement. However, there are still several questions surrounding conspiracy theories, namely regarding their timing, ways of and reasons for manifesting as well as their consequences. Are conspiracist audiences right-wing or left-wing? Does anything change when populists come to power? How do people against these theories react? The EU-funded PACT project will analyse the role conspiracy theories play in the rise of populist movements in the US, Brazil, Austria, Hungary, Italy and Poland. The project will consider the significance of these theories for both leaders and party followers.


The last two decades have seen the rise of populist movements and parties in Europe, the Americas, Asia, and Africa. Over the same period, conspiracy theories have also significantly gained in visibility and impact. As any casual observer of contemporary politics knows, the two phenomena are connected. Populist leaders often use conspiracist rhetoric, and many of their followers are receptive to it. Previous research has highlighted parallels between the two phenomena (such as Manicheanism and simplification) but left important questions unanswered. When, how, why, and to what effects do populists articulate conspiracy theories? Are they more prominent on the right than on the left? Does their significance change when parties move from the opposition into power? How do populist movements deal with the fact that some of their members believe in conspiracy theories, but others do not?
To answer these and related questions, this interdisciplinary project will analyze the role of conspiracy theories for currently successful populist movements in the United States, Brazil, Austria, Hungary, Italy, and Poland. Paying close attention to national, media, and other contexts, it will examine the significance of conspiracy theories for party leaders as well as for ordinary members. Methodologically, the project will combine Critical Discourse Analysis (of speeches, party manifestos, social media etc.) with ethnographic fieldwork (participant observation and semi-structured interviews) to provide a holistic and comprehensive account. Conceptually, the project will combine the ideational and discursive-stylistic approaches to populism. A similar investigation has never been undertaken. The project’s results have potential implications beyond the academic realm. They will not solve the problems that populism and conspiracy theory pose. But there is a fair chance that they will help to meet better the challenges that they currently pose to liberal representational democracy.

Host institution

Net EU contribution
€ 1 998 375,00
72074 Tuebingen

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Baden-Württemberg Tübingen Tübingen, Landkreis
Activity type
Higher or Secondary Education Establishments
Total cost
€ 1 998 375,00

Beneficiaries (1)