On Conspiracy Theories and Theorizing
We are inundated with both conspiracy theories and warnings to recognize them as such and ignore them. These instructions come from legitimate elites employing legitimate media sources that feel they are being crowded out by “alternative facts” and other phenomena which have gained new (visible) breadth and scope through the rise of social media. Accompanying it is the individual who is not only a consumer but also a producer of media, if only through his ability to retweet or repackage messages for delivery to his own network.
This phenomenon has also been used to justify not only censorship, but also the preemptive censoring of suspect entities and individuals, in a manner that is often arbitrary and not conforming with any sort of due process. Many have sounded an alarm regarding this, either because they are themselves targets or their views and actions make them target adjacent (future targets) in the relentless ideological lurch of the modern (Western) world and its ethos of continuous revolution, disruptive change and social innovation.
But can we develop a unified, non-partisan theory of conspiracy theories that both explains the phenomenon and its implications?
The political animal
I believe that the conspiracy theory is a mode of communication and thought which is permanent, timeless and endemic in any human society. It emerges from incomplete information, from uncertainty and from our nature as social animals, requiring social networks and awareness to survive as much as any characteristic that enables us to survive in the wild of nature. We develop theories or scenarios that explain events and others’ motivations and thereby make sense of the world to comfort us or to allow us to posture for social gain or protection. Taken to the extreme of dissemination, these theories can even form the basis of shared reality including through religious myth, thereby providing a bonding element.
The modern conspiracy theory concept emerges in the 1960s, in American media (mostly print) and, funnily enough, through an actual conspiracy – the very real and documented link between the CIA and American media (or abroad), in an effort to lead in a confrontation in the informational space (with, among others, the Cominform of the Soviet Union) that was as important as any other in the Cold War. This was done not just through coordination, but also through subsidies and other means, both transparent and opaque. The term “conspiracy theory” began life as a device to discredit theories and hypotheses without having to engage with them directly, which could result in too much public attention or inevitable failure, especially since the best conspiracy theories are unfalsifiable, meaning you cannot prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that they are wrong, in the same way that you cannot prove a negative. But the term itself is also part of the modern trend of pathologizing speech and attitudes to inhibit their adoption and use. Possibly the greatest and most enduring conspiracy theories in American culture are those related to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy by Lee Harvey Oswald, which introduced an entire nation to the vicarious thrill of wondering whether the CIA, the Communists, the Mob or the Masons were behind it. Key to the success of the term conspiracy theory was the lumping together of ideas and trends of different levels of plausibility so that attitudes towards one infect attitudes towards the others by association. In this respect, conspiracy theories include NASA hiding that the world is flat, as well as the supposed involvement of X, Y and Z in the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
Once an idea has been marked as a “conspiracy theory”, a sanitary cordon can be erected around it through the indirect collusion of mainstream media and public influencers. They do not necessarily limit its spread, but they do limit its rate of adoption. In Orwell’s 1984, there was a concept called crime-stop, whereby someone could be trained to stop his line of reasoning right before the point where he would have arrived at a conclusion contradicting the Party. Something similar was in play with the concept of the conspiracy theory.
The last few decades have seen the emergence of undisputed American media hegemony over the world and, therefore, the spread of values and concepts, including that of conspiracy theories and proper attitudes towards them. People who have not had the concept for long, such as the Turks, who gave us the term “deep state”, continue to theorize about conspiracies with reckless abandon. Their own Byzantine and complex politics make this inevitable and they do not seem to want to stop very soon; indeed, coming up with the most convoluted theory seems to be a point of pride for many people. The Romanians say that “life always beats the movies” – only in Turkey, could one have a car crash involving the deputy chief of the Istanbul Police Department, a Member of Parliament, a beauty queen and Abdullah Çatlı, the leader of the Grey Wolves paramilitary group (the Susurluk affair). They were coming from a hotel in which the Interior Minister of the time was also staying and Abdullah Çatlı had a passport with the same fake identity used by the Mehmet Ali Ağca, the attempted assassin of Pope John Paul II. How can one avoid conspiracy theories in such a place? Later, in an act of cross-pollination, the Trump Administration introduced the “deep state” into the political vocabulary of the American masses, whose existence in the US as an anti-democratic force was in itself termed a conspiracy theory by the hostile media.
Conspiracy theories as identity politics
The Trump Administration’s four years in power were an extravagant period of conspiracy theorizing on both left and right, to the extent to which reasoned and measured debate became the exception, instead of the norm. It also validated a few key trends, that indicated the direction of conspiracy theorizing in the future.
Firstly, conspiracy theories ebb and flow with the transparency of information and with trust in institutions. Institutions in the West have never been less trusted, whether we are discussing Parliaments, the media or the universities and, while information has never been so accessible, its sheer amount creates its own opacity and the need for intermediaries and gatekeepers like Google whose individual decision to highlight or minimize the visibility of certain information can have a significant impact.
Secondly, in an epoch in which media saturation and concentration allows the dismissal of certain conspiracy theories along with the promotion of others (which are never labeled as conspiracy theories), the act of supporting one publicly, especially of the variety which is looked down upon, becomes a useful check for commitment. An absurd belief or a deeply held one, especially one that imposes social costs, is like a political uniform. And where you have a uniform, you have an Army. This is moreso when one dismisses evidence that would challenge that belief. This is how deplorables, the woke and their allies, and any other group recognize each other in addition to the use of specific language or loaded terms showing bias. The extreme partisanship and polarization of American politics has also led to a severe split in the distribution of belief in certain conspiracy theories, making them a useful marker for political leanings, especially when contradictory messaging only reinforces adherence to group thinking. This is a key characteristic of the partisan mind, which we all possess to a certain extent, especially in the post-truth era. One does not need to recite the litany of conspiracy theories identified every day by the media, but one can give opposite examples as well:
- Thinking that the 2016 elections in the US were stolen by the Russians in collusion with the Trump campaign, but that the 2020 elections were the safest ever organized. This relates to thinking that the spying of the Trump campaign by the intelligence community was a conspiracy theory and then pivoting to supporting it as necessary once confirmed;
- Thinking that the “lab escape scenario” for the coronavirus was a conspiracy theory when espoused by the Trump White House, but a plausible and even likely theory when the Biden White House and mainstream media pivoted into supporting it, after massive censorship of social media accounts supporting the theory;
- And, of course, 2020 saw the explosive and deadly reemergence of the conspiracy theory regarding the hunting of African-Americans by the US police, which is one of the more outlandish contemporary beliefs that is easily debunked yet obstinately and widely held, with important political impact.
Beliefs held in common are a powerful force for distinguishing between friend and foe, which is one of the basic tenets of politics. Being a flat earther, an anti-vaxxer, as the derogatory terms for them go, a Q-Anon adherent or a Pizzagater, signals a commitment that enables people to feel like they belong to a political tribe that eventually creates its own jargon and information space. This can be leveraged for political influence, financial gain, or simple solidarity. This is true both for very small groups, as well as for mass movements, especially when there is little else keeping them unified.
Romania is no stranger to conspiracy theories either, but we seldom label our own musings on who is “owned by the Russians” or who is “keeping Romanian underdeveloped” as conspiracy theories. Rather, we tend to apply the term to imported ideas and we judge them in accordance with other imported ideas and value scales, usually from the prestige foreign/American media.
Back to truth
If one man’s truth is another man’s conspiracy theory in a chaotic and deeply partisan information environment, what does that mean for us? Is there any way back to objective truth? I would think not, since there is too much propaganda value in reinforcing the beliefs of one’s followers and dismissing those of followers of political opponents. When the polarization of society and the subsequent lack of trust in institutions will become more trouble than they are worth, maybe because of the need to unify against an external enemy, then we will probably see three things: a more objective or even-handed style of reporting in the media, as the local divisions become too dangerous or unimportant to continue partisanship as usual; a reemergence of positive modes of discourse, in which arguments are made in good faith and adversaries are not simply dismissed as racists, communists, snowflakes, fascists or conspiracy theorists as a way to avoid engaging with their arguments; a total victory in the information space of one side that drives out all others and establishes a stable hegemonic view of reality. The latter is difficult to envision, given the subversive potential of information technology as a means for “samizdat” communications.
Overall, conspiracy theories are here to stay and I believe everybody has their own favorites.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons