Conspiracy theories seem to be on the rise, and many observers have claimed that they are becoming ever more popular and influential. With a conspiracy theorist in the White House and a party drawn to such ideas in the German Bundestag, this sounds very convincing. However, the situation is more complicated. As the talk will show, conspiracy theories remain stigmatized in large parts of the public in both Germany and the United States. However, the rise of the internet and other developments have led to a fragmentation of the public sphere in both countries. Counter-publics with their own media systems and experts have emerged, and in some of them conspiracy theories are the kind of legitimate knowledge again that they were in past centuries. As a result, some parts of the public are now worried about the harmful effects of conspiracies whereas others are still concerned with the harmful effects of conspiracy theories. The clash of these different publics helps us understand the heated debate we are currently witnessing–not only about conspiracy theories, but about what is true more generally.
Michael Butter is Professor of American Literary and Cultural History at the University of Tübingen. He received his PhD from the University of Bonn in 2007 and his Habilitation from the University of Freiburg in 2012. He is the author of four monographs: The Epitome of Evil: Hitler in American Fiction, 1939–2002 (2009); Plots, Designs, and Schemes: American Conspiracy Theories from the Puritans to the Present (2014); Der »Washington-Code«: Zur Heroisierung amerikanischer Präsidenten, 1775 –1865 (2016); and “Nichts ist, wie es scheint”: Über Verschwörungstheorien (2018), a German introduction to conspiracy theories aimed at a general audience. An English translation will be published in 2019. Michael Butter’s research interests include the colonial period and the Early Republic, the construction of heroes and their cultural functions, the poetics of contemporary TV shows, conspiracy theories, and populism. He is Vice Chair of the EU COST Action “Comparative Analysis of Conspiracy Theories”, which aims at synthesizing and moving forward the European research on conspiracy theories. The network currently comprises more than 150 scholars from 39 countries and over a dozen disciplines.