From gossip to conspiracy thinking


Gossip is designed to ruin an individual’s or group’s reputation; it demonises its victims in private.

“There is no such thing as innocent gossip,” says Pope Francis.

Conspiracy thinking is a public expression of gossip. It is the belief that an organisation made up of individuals or groups was or is acting secretly to achieve some malevolent end.

Conspiracy theories are concerned about the struggle between good and evil, the conflict between villains acting in secret to manipulate the unsuspecting masses, and the few who, having seen through their plot, are doing their utmost to thwart it.

Significant political, economic, and cultural crises have encouraged conspiracy theories to emerge throughout history.

The theories seek to explain that these crises are caused by secretive, evil plots comprising many actors: a mysterious “them” who manipulate life against us.

The theories then give “us” a reason to scapegoat “them.”

Hitler claimed that Jews were poisoning the German Aryan blood and Aryan soul, thus holding back Germany from becoming a dominant nation; they had to be eliminated.

Conspiracy Theories Give False Comfort

Conspiracy beliefs may satisfy people’s needs for certainty, security, and a positive self-image in a world they feel is disintegrating.

When the comforting securities of cultures crumble, paranoia makes sense.

The beliefs offer an artificial simplification of the vast unknowable forces that people feel are manipulating national and global societies.

They respond to a real need for persons and cultures that cannot maintain their self-esteem unless they perceive themselves to be victims of intrigue.

An inability to live with uncertainty and ambiguity draws people to conspiracy theories when they validate their apprehensions.

One story answers all their fears.

Thus, the anarchists who invaded the Capitol in Washington, DC in 2021 stormed the buildings with absolute certitude that the elections had been rigged.

In conspiracies, trust, truth, and objectivity lose out.

As long as the group is protected from the assumed source of evil, nothing else is important, no matter what moral or physical violence the innocent experience.

The preservation or the restoration of the status quo must be achieved at all costs. As conspiracy theories provide their devotees with a much-needed sense of identity and security in the midst of chaos, they are not easily discredited by the rational presentation of facts.

Conspiracy theories cause harm

Conspiracy theories are ubiquitous and can cause immense harm to people, influencing political policy decisions and social behaviours, including medical choices.

People are marginalised because they are assumed to be causing harm to individuals and groups; by transferring the blame for their afflictions onto others, people can distract themselves from the real causes.

In Britain, lockdown restrictions to control the spread of Covid-19 evoked destructive riots.

Many protestors endorsed conspiracy theories that assumed the government had nefarious motives, such as exaggerating the perils of the virus to suppress the people or imposing forced vaccinations with mysterious substances that facilitate mind control.

Anti-vaccine conspiracy theories poison the minds and endanger the bodies of many citizens.

Sociologist Michael Butter lists three foremost ways why conspiracy theories were particularly dangerous during the Covid-19 pandemic: they led to radicalisation and violence; they encouraged people to disregard medical knowledge and, as a consequence, endangered themselves and others; and they helped to undermine trust in elected politicians and the democratic process as such.

Vulnerable peoples, such as migrants, minority groups, and people who are poor, were in constant danger of being wrongfully blamed, stigmatised, and further marginalised for falsely causing the virus and its consequences.

For example, in India, the Muslim minority has become a scapegoat for Covid-19.

In Russia, Vladimir Putin blamed a Western conspiracy to humiliate Russia by propagating “false” statistics about the number of Covid-19 virus victims there.

Pastoral response

Conspiracy theorising is one of the most problematic subjects for researchers and others to expose.

Devotees apply so much intellectual and emotional energy to their conspiracy theories that it is nearly impossible to keep track of what they are saying and argue against them. Although a dialogue is theoretically possible, it will not usually have the desired effect.

However, if people are not entirely convinced of a theory, there is a greater chance that they will accept that the theory lacks objective truth.

A sensitive low-key approach is necessary, and people need to be listened to and invited to give the sources of a conspiracy theory.

In a calm atmosphere, the challenger is then able to show that a theory has no foundation in reality. Though education reduces the susceptibility of people to conspiracy theories, we require educators who are skilled for the task.

Scriptures and conspiracy beliefs

Trust, that conspiracy theories destroy, includes an expectation of honesty, the assumption that others will do their best to meet their commitments because they have the appropriate knowledge, skill, or ability.

Lying is any deliberate deceptive message.

Truthfulness in communication first demands avoiding lies and deceiving people directly and intentionally. Otherwise, communication becomes a violent manipulation of people.

Truthfulness, however, is much more than not telling lies or deceiving; it necessitates disclosing information to those who have a right to it.

Not lying is ethically essential for any human communication; to knowingly create or foster conspiracy beliefs is to falsify truth.

In the Scriptures, truthfulness is listed among the premier values.

History is a battle between divine Truth and Satan and his followers.

In the Old Testament, the commandment, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour” (Exod 20:16) defends God’s people from evil and harmful untruths and infidelities.

Lying violently opposes the covenant that unites the people of God and evokes fidelity and reliability.

The thankful reaction to the gift of the covenant is fidelity and truthfulness before God and towards each other.

St Peter warns his readers against leaders who aim to exploit their fears; he writes to reassure Christians whose faith has been disturbed because the predictions of Christ’s second coming have not been confirmed.

They must carefully assess the credentials of leaders before accepting what they are saying: “But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who secretly bring in destructive opinions” (2 Peter 2:1).

The same wisdom is needed today lest deceitful people twist reality by their conspiracy theories to suit their malicious intentions.


The potential for gossip and conspiracy theorising accompanied by scapegoating of innocent people is within every human heart.

These behaviours are often closely linked with feelings of fear, uncertainty or being out of control; commonly personal and/or cultural crises encourage such reactions.

Scapegoating falsely focuses on an external cause of problems thus negating or lessening the guilt of the agent; it also makes people feel bonded as they unite with others to scapegoat the victims.

Yet the commandment “Neither shall you bear false witness against your neighbour” (Deut 5:20) applies to all forms of scapegoating.

Just as Adam, in the Genesis myth, tries to blame Eve for what has happened rather than admit his own role in the incident, every person has the capacity to blame others for their afflictions and to ignore their own role in causing them.

Jesus condemns this process of shifting the blame onto others: “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbour’s eye” (Matt 7:5).

Gossip, conspiracy thinking, and scapegoating ultimately killed Jesus.

  • Gerald A. Arbuckle, SM, MA(Cam), Ph.D., Cultural Anthropologist, New South Wales, Australia.
  • A summary of an article by the author: “From Gossip to Conspiracy Thinking: Analysis and Scriptural Evaluations,” Australasian Catholic Record, vol. 99, no. 2 (2021).
  • First published in Today’s Marists, 2023 Vol. 7, Issue 3. Republished with permission.
Additional reading

News category: Analysis and Comment.

Tags: , , ,