New research from our lab shows that believing in the Great Replacement theory elicits hostile intergroup attitudes and violent intentions toward minority groups.
By Silvia Allegretta, Jonas R. Kunst, & Milan Obaidi
What is the Great Replacement conspiracy theory?
The Great Replacement Theory is a far-right conspiracy theory that posits that there is a deliberate plot to replace white European people with non-white immigrants. The theory originated in France in the early 2000s, and was popularized by the French philosopher Renaud Camus in 2011 in his book “Le Grand Replacement” (the great replacement). The theory has since been propagated by a number of far-right figures. It gained particular prominence in the wake of the Brexit vote in 2016, when a number of far-right politicians and commentators in the UK began promoting the theory as a way of explaining why Britain had voted to leave the European Union.
The theory has been roundly debunked by a number of experts, who have pointed out that there is no evidence to support the claim that there is any sort of deliberate plot to replace white European people. Nevertheless, the theory continues to be promoted by a small but vocal minority of far-right activists, and has been linked to a number of violent attacks, including the Christchurch mosque shootings in 2019
The conspiracy theory has clear antisemitic components. It is based on conspiracy theories about Jewish elites attempting to control the world through media and finance systems, as well as a fear that globalist elites want to destroy national identities through mass immigration and multiculturalism. The alleged replacement is oftentimes thought to be initiated and controlled by people with a Jewish background such as George Soros.
Spread of the Great Replacement Theory by terrorists, politicians and media anchors such as Tucker Carlson
The theory was spread especially by the high-profile right-wing extremist Brenton Harrison Tarrant who published a manifesto entitled “Great Replacement” before killing 50 Muslim worshipers in a mosque in New Zealand. Tarrant warned of the Islamisation of Europe and accused liberal politicians of planning a deliberate extinction of the white race through encouraging mass immigration of non-Whites. The following excerpt of his manuscripts sums up his ideas rather well :
“Mass immigration and the higher fertility rates of the immigrants themselves are causing this increase in population. We are experiencing an invasion on a level never seen before in history. Millions of people pouring across our borders, legally. Invited by the state and corporate entities to replace the White people who have failed to reproduce, failed to create the cheap labour, new consumers and tax base that the corporations and states need to thrive. This crisis of mass immigration and sub-replacement fertility is an assault on the European people that, if not combated, will ultimately result in the complete racial and cultural replacement of the European people.”
However, the Great Replacement theory is not confined to the extreme fringes of the political spectrum. It has also become prominent in the mainstream media and politics. In recent years, far-right politicians in Europe (e.g., Pia Kjærsgaard, Viktor Orbán, Matteo Salvini, Marine Le Pen, etc.) have played a central role in propagating the replacement narrative to a broader audience. Also, prominent media anchors such as Fox New’s Tucker Carlson have actively promoted the theory (see video below). As a result, the Great Replacement conspiracy has quickly spread worldwide and is currently used to legitimize terrorist attacks and Islamophobia.
Brenton Harrison Tarrant’s manifesto inspired other terrorists
Many white supremacists and terrorists in the U.S. and Germany have adopted the rhetoric of replacement and claimed that their actions were inspired by Tarrant’s manifesto. Specifically, the Walmart El Paso shooter who killed 20 and wounded 26 others near the Mexican border spoke of a “Hispanic invasion of Texas,” and warned that White people were being replaced by foreigners.
Thus, given its anecdotal potential to elicit extreme forms of violence and its wide spread in societies, understanding whether and how beliefs in the Great Replacement conspiracy theory are propelling violence is of urgent importance.
Belief in the Great Replacement theory incites violence
In a set of two correlational and one experimental studies conducted in Denmark and Norway, we investigated the relationship between the beliefs in the Great Replacement theory and different types of outgroup hostility. The dependent outcomes, we were interested in were islamophobia, the willingness to violently persecute Muslims, and general violent behavioral intentions.
The first study was conducted in Denmark, a country in which the intergroup relations between immigrants and the native population have become increasingly hostile. Indeed, Denmark has been described as having the most restrictive immigration policies in Europe and to be “Europe’s least attractive country for refugees”. Further, Danish right-wing politicians frequently used language that mirrored the rhetoric of replacement. This made Denmark an ideal context to test our hypothesis.
The results showed that the more white Danes believed in the Great replacement conspiracy theory, the more Islamophobia they expressed and the more willing they were to violently persecute Muslims. To replicate these results, we conducted an additional study with another sample of Danes. The study’s results confirmed the results obtained in the first study.
To obtain evidence of causality, we then conducted an experiment in Norway — the country in which Anders Behring Breivik justified his terrorist attacks based on theories suggesting that the white race of Europe is being replaced. In this experiment, participants were assigned to a control or replacement condition. Those in the control condition watched a neutral video, whereas those in the replacement condition watched a video suggesting that the white Norwegian population may become a minority within 50 years because of the increasing immigration influx. Providing causal evidence for our model, the results showed that participants in the replacement condition showed more Islamophobia than those in the control condition.
The role of perceived threats
In addition to showing that beliefs in the Great Replacement theory can lead to violent tendencies, we wanted to know why this is the case. We, therefore, measured the degree to which participants perceived immigrants and particularly Muslims as realistic and symbolic threats. Realistic threat involves the perception that the outgroup (e.g., immigrants, Muslims) poses a risk to the ingroup’s physical and material welfare. By contrast, symbolic threat involves the perception that the outgroup poses a risk to the ingroup’s culture, norms, values, religion, and identity.
In the models that we tested in the three studies described above, we found that the reason why the belief in the Great Replacement theory predicted out-group hostility and violence was that it was related to more symbolic rather than realistic threats. Put differently, beliefs in the theory led to more perceived threat, which in turn led to more hostility. Thus, beliefs in the theory seem to have the potential to elicit violence primarily because they make people believe that their culture is being threatened. You can find more research on the role of perceived threats in our publications.
Why does the Great Replacement Theory concern all of us?
The Great Replacement conspiracy theory is spreading very quickly as it is propagated by various right-wing politicians and news anchors such as Tucker Carlson. Anecdotal observation (e.g., the terror attack by Brenton Harrison Tarrant) suggests that it plays a key role in the radicalization of some people and can motivate extremist violence. Our research provides empirical support for this notion. Understanding the implications of this theory and building awareness about the topic may be the first step toward preventing the kind of violent outcomes we witnessed in recent years.
Reference to research study
The present research was published in the journal Group Processes & Intergroup Relations. It is openly available through the link provided below.
Obaidi, M., Kunst, J., Ozer, S., & Kimel, S. Y. (2021). The “Great Replacement” conspiracy: How the perceived ousting of Whites can evoke violent extremism and Islamophobia. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations.