From the end of the 19th century until his death in 1929, the schoolteacher and folklorist, Evald Tang Kristensen, collected thousands of accounts from the common Danish people. It grew to no less than 24,500 pages from 6,500 contributors, making it a unique material in the world, and it now plays a central role in a research project “Conspiracies in the Time of the Corona” at Berkeley University in California.
The researchers use the narratives of the Danish Folklore Collection to map how rumors, gossip, superstition, and urban legends developed in the culture of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. It was a time when modern enlightenment did not yet exist, where goblins were not just for children and where the insights of wise women turned into witchcraft.
Using modern technology, the researchers have created a program that, based on among other things the many accounts can decode the basic narrative structures of the old days. Which actors appear in the stories? And who is made into villains and why? The Danish collection contained many witch stories, in which the priest played an important role on the good side.
The researchers have set up similar models for how the conspiracy theories (for example about corona and vaccine) that prevail on social media in 2021 are spreading and building up.
The structure is about the same for the witch stories in the old Danish culture and the contemporary conspiracy theories. In contrast, today’s conspiracies have a completely different narrative pattern. In the old days, stories were passed between people who knew each other and those who were gossiped about. On social media on the internet, rumors do not have this limitation but can develop unhindered between people who do not know each other or what interests the others have to tell the assembly a tale.