A Roundup of Conspiracies and Bad Ideas That Caught on or Gained Momentum in 2023

"I will not eat the bugs" has becme a rallying cry for some on the far-right who believe elites who control the food supply will force us to eat bugs. | Cricket crostini from the Crickets & Champagne tasting menu at Fazer Café in Helsinki, Finnland. Image: Paleokeittiö/Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0 DEED)

In 2023, the landscape of conspiracy theories witnessed a significant evolution, with some older conspiratorial ideas surviving into the new year and others moving from the fringe to become influential narratives shaping public discourse and political agendas. QAnon, the 2020 presidential election “Big Lie,” the resulting court cases for former President Donald Trump, and those conspiracy theories linked to the pandemic and vaccines have been playing out before us for the past few years. 

Before we usher in the new yearan election year bound to give a substantial boost to even more dangerous ideaswe wanted to take a moment to provide an overview of some of the major (and a couple of lesser known) conspiracy theories that have not only captured the public’s imagination but also impacted policy-making and social dynamics.

The Great Replacement Theory

The Great Replacement theory argues that White Europeans across the continent are being actively replaced by communities of color as a result of increased migration and declining White birth rates. It argues that this replacement is a deliberate plot, orchestrated by certain political groups (usually left-leaning political parties) or ethnic and religious groups (usually Jews). The theory rests on the supposition that these ethnic and cultural minorities are fundamentally incompatible with White Europeans. This kind of demographic panic has inspired multiple far-right attacks in recent years, from Buffalo in 2022 to Allen, Texas and Jacksonville in 2023. 

Still, despite the documented connection to violence, media pundits and politicians continue to amplify these ideas without much thought or consideration as to their impact. Just last week, Presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy argued on the GOP debate stage that the great replacement theory isn’t a conspiracy theory, but a “basic statement of the Democratic Party’s platform.” 

Ramaswamy’s assertions resonated with White supremacist and far-right extremist groups. Prominent White nationalist influencers like Nick Fuentes and Irish antisemite Keith O’Brien publicly lauded Ramaswamy’s remarks, signaling a worrying shift towards mainstream acceptance of these dangerous ideologies. Online platforms saw a surge in support for these conspiracy theories, further evidenced by significant online engagement, including likes and shares from Ramaswamy’s official account. Going into the 2024 US election season, these ideas are destined to receive more mainstream play during rallies, debates, and speeches. 

The Groomer Panic

Another conspiracy theory that gained popularity in 2022 and continued to have a worrisome impact this year was the groomer panic targeting the LGBTQ+ community, educators, and institutions like schools and libraries. The central claim of this conspiracy is that these groups are engaging in the “grooming” of children, a term traditionally used to describe the way sexual predators build trust and emotional connections with potential child victims to manipulate, exploit, and abuse them. Because the conspiracy theory has at its core this presumed “abuse” of innocent children and a moral urgency to protect them, it has helped produce countless protests

In the context of this moral panic, the term “grooming” is misused and applied broadly to any efforts to teach children about LGBTQ+ identities, gender diversity, and related topics. It falsely insinuates that such education is a form of predatory behavior aimed at manipulating children’s sexual or gender identities. This conspiracy theory has primarily been used to: 

  1. Attack LGBTQ+ rights, portraying them as a danger to children;
  2. Challenge Educational Programs, leading to efforts to ban books that discuss LGBTQ+ themes or characters, as well as attempts to restrict or remove educational materials and discussions about LGBTQ+ topics in schools;
  3. Influence Legislation limiting discussions of LGBTQ+ topics in schools, often under the guise of protecting children, and;
  4. Fuel Misinformation and Social Division, often inflaming tensions between parents, educators, and LGBTQ+ advocates.

Spurred on by social media influencers such as LibsofTikTok, policies and laws across America have harmed and limited the rights of LGBTQ+ communities. Groups such as Moms for Liberty have called for the banning of books, the end of sex education in school, and the end of critical race theory in schools (despite the fact that CRT is not actually taught in any public schools). Potential violence is also a concern here, as armed groups such as Patriot Front and Proud Boys often stand outside all-ages drag shows (where they’ve begun to be confronted by equally well armed members of the anti-fascist John Brown Club). 

Restriction of Freedom Conspiracy Theories

Conspiracy theories about governments restricting individual freedoms have been prevalent for many years and often gain traction during periods of social and political change or uncertainty. Here are some notable recent examples: 

15-Minute Cities misinterprets the urban planning concept of ‘15-minute cities,‘ in which essential services and amenities are within a 15-minute walk or bike ride for residents. The theory falsely claims that such urban designs are a plot to restrict personal freedom and movement, confining individuals to small areas and controlling their activities. 

Bug Eating Conspiracy Theory emerged in response to discussions about sustainable diets and alternative protein sources, like insects. It suggests that encouraging the consumption of bugs is part of a larger, nefarious plot by elites to control food sources or reduce the quality of life. The theory gained attention when it was brought up in the EU Parliament. 

Agenda 21 and Agenda 2030 conspiracy theorists believe that a non-binding UN action plan for sustainable development, Agenda 21 (and its successor Agenda 2030), is a scheme to depopulate rural areas and force people into densely populated cities, thereby controlling them more easily through restrictive urban policies and surveillance.

There are of course ongoing conspiracy theories related to COVID restrictions, gun control laws, climate change, martial law and FEMA camps, as well as microchipping and digital IDs. These ideas are disparate, but often interwoven and share common themes of distrust in government and the belief in the existence of plans to erode individual freedoms and rights. Some, like the gas stove panic, even possessed a more playful dimension.

Although we cannot foresee the exact nature of new or evolving conspiracy theories that may emerge in 2024, it’s likely that the pervasive conspiracy theories of 2023 will continue to influence the political landscape, particularly in the context of the 2024 election. 

In any event, belief in conspiracy theories, often rooted in fear, perceptions of injustice, distrust in societal institutions, and feelings of disenfranchisement, is unlikely to fade away. Issues like immigration, human rights, religious freedoms, and bodily autonomy, all of which are likely to remain central themes going forward, are all likely to fuel moral panics and policies that not only negatively impact marginalized communities, but also eat away at the heart of democratic discourse.