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What today’s conspiracy theories have in common with ancient ones

From the Knights Templar to the moon landings and QAnon, conspiracy theories are nothing new. Two USC Dornsife experts offer a look at what’s behind the original “fake news.”

Lamb of the Knights Templar
The lamb was a symbol of the Knights Templar, a group that was destroyed by rumors and conspiracy theories. (Photo/Ben Sutherland)

They’ve garnered considerable media coverage of late, but conspiracy theories are nothing new: they’ve grabbed people’s attention throughout history.

Residents of ancient Rome spread conspiracy theories by scratching graffiti on the city walls. In 1307, medieval French King Philip the Fair used them to sink the powerful Knights Templar by unleashing a storm of salacious — and untrue — rumors.

In the 20th century, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the Apollo moon landings gave rise to numerous conspiracy theories.

Today we grapple with ones such as QAnon, the conspiracy theory spreading on social media that many fear is undermining democracy.

Two USC scholars see many parallels between medieval conspiracy theories and those that flourish online today. Professor Jay Rubenstein, the director of the Center for the Premodern World at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts And Sciences, and Professor Bob Shrum, director of USC Dornsife’s Center for the Political Future, note that some recent conspiracists have adopted concepts from the Middle Ages to advance their agenda.

For example, medieval prophets believed that a Jewish-born Antichrist would seize control of world events through nefarious means, much like QAnon believers today imagine Hungarian-born American billionaire investor and philanthropist George Soros is manipulating world events.

Below, the two experts answer five questions about conspiracy theories.

What do people find so attractive about conspiracy theories?

SHRUM: Conspiracy theories salve people’s hurt, they reinforce preconceived biases and, in some cases, they serve either their economic interests or their ideologies.

RUBENSTEIN: It’s a way of making sense of the world, suggesting that — for better or worse — someone is in control and if we could only pull back the curtain and see what’s going on, then we can get a handle on the world. That’s an appealing idea to many people.

How did conspiracy theories spread before the advent of the internet, social media and cable television?

RUBENSTEIN: Much of it was spread by word of mouth. I think there’s an interesting comparison to be made between the way bad ideas travel on social media and the internet and the way they did in the Middle Ages, when editing processes and information filters were also not that strong. You would pull a book off the monastic shelf and the very fact that something was written down in a book invested it with authority.

Are the Middle Ages and the current era particularly important periods for conspiracy theories? Or are there other periods in history when they were also prevalent?

RUBENSTEIN: The 13th century was the golden age for medieval conspiracies. The Crusading movement is in disarray; the church is failing to live up to its ideals; Frederick II, the Holy Roman Emperor, is widely suspected of being the Antichrist; Italian prophet Joachim of Fiore is predicting the world will end in 1260 — there’s lots of fertile ground here for conspiratorial thought. But there are other periods, too, the French Revolution, for instance. I think conspiracy theories tend to flourish during times when massive social change occurs simultaneously with a revolution in the means of producing and recording knowledge.

Why have conspiracy theories spread in recent times?

SHRUM: The rise of social media means that the capacity to spread conspiracy theories has now become hyper-charged. We’ve lost a lot of the filters that gave us a common knowledge base. John Kennedy and Richard Nixon could disagree about whether or not we should have a program called Medicare, but they disagreed on the basis of the same set of facts. The problem is that now people don’t feel any need to pay attention to any media outlet — or indeed any source of facts — that tells them something they don’t want to hear.

How dangerous do you think conspiracy theories are? And how should we combat them?

RUBENSTEIN: Never underestimate the power of a bad idea. Conspiracies are dangerous because their failure seems ultimately to confirm their existence. Combating them will be a long process.

SHRUM: They can be very dangerous. For a Templar in the Middle Ages, they meant you would lose everything, including your life. Today, conspiracy theories are threatening to undermine democracy. As to how to combat them, I’m not sure I have the answer to that, and that’s why we’re holding this conference.

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What today’s conspiracy theories have in common with ancient ones

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