There was a time, I’ll admit, when I thought that so-called conspiracy theories were quixotic, mildly interesting, and largely benign. Not any more.
It’s one thing poking around the dark shadows of the Internet, and another reaping the consequences of what we sow. Don’t get me wrong, of course, there are nefarious entities that lurk in odd places, official accounts that are questionable, and states and corporations that have sought to conceal truths from the rest of us. That’s how power works. We all know that. The problem now, however, is that conspiracy theories are circulating on such a vast scale that they make any attempt at understanding what’s actually going on out there almost impossible.
But something more alarming is happening. These theories are being adopted holus-bolus, often with not a shred of evidence, across vast swathes of the world’s population. President Trump, Breitbart, QAnon, Newscorp Ltd, and other suspect sources have helped push conspiracy theories front and centre into the world of political discourse. The most concerning thing is that those who believe they are progressive myth busters and truth-tellers now often occupy the same epistemic terrain as demagogues, religious fascists, and violent right-wing militia.
President Trump is the greatest Twitter-obsessed conspiracy theorist of all, evoking his evangelist-inspired historical struggle against the “deep state” while being utterly enmeshed in it. Trump is, in fact, part of the surface state scamming millions of dollars in plain sight. More than 70 million US citizens recently voted for someone whose rise to power turned on serial lying, backslapping the far-right, and peddling countless knee-jerk theories. It’s a deliberate strategy, cooked up by Steve Bannon, designed to confuse, befuddle and distract attention from the fibber-in-chief. It worked – for a while.
Easy access to the Internet has exposed millions to this nonsense. And they’ve lapped it up. The bigger the lie, as Goebbels reminded us, the more likely the powerful will get away with things. So, elections are rigged, news is fake, and there are “alternative facts”. This is postmodernism on steroids, heavily infused with narcissism and political opportunism.
Have I actually delved into any of these conspiracy theories? You bet. From time to time I venture down various rabbit holes with enthusiastic curiosity, only to be disappointed and perplexed at how anyone can take this stuff seriously. I take time to read the fact-checkers who usually upend the latest drivel. I’ve inquired into Pizzagate, assertions that Bill Gates is behind the pandemic, and that Fauci worked with the Chinese to develop a lethal virus in a Wuhan laboratory. I’ve checked this stuff out. It doesn’t stack up. (I can hear the dissenting screams from here!)
The proposition that the COVID-19 is a myth, or that masks are an organised attempt to curtail our freedoms, or that Covid-19 is only a flu has undoubtedly cost tens of thousands of lives. Yet despite not standing up to scrutiny, the folk who peddle this stuff will insist that you are ignorant, complicit, or have somehow missed the glaring truth. You’re a sucker and loser. They do so even though most conspiracy theories are usually based on circumstantial ‘evidence’, unanswerable questions, circular reasoning, and the joining of spurious dots. None of this would ever pass the test of falsifiability, and reason and rationality – those quaint modernist aspirations – don’t get a look in. And science? Well, it’s all corrupt, isn’t it?
I was appalled when in 2016 a gaggle of folk in my local town in NSW cheered the news that Trump had been elected. They said that at least he wouldn’t start wars, that he was taking on the banksters, and wasn’t in the pay of Wall Street. What codswallop! Our Donald has massively expanded ‘defence’ spending (at the same time as gutting social programs), sealed huge ‘defence’ deals with some of the most violent regimes on Earth, and scrapped environmental regulations, and exited the Paris Agreement in a war against the climate. He has also stoked huge divisions in his backyard, cosied up to dictators (none of whom are peaceniks), and alienated many of America’s former allies. And as for Trump taking on the banksters – just take a look at who’s guiding his economic policies, and see his list of donors (although yes, Wall Street gave more money to the Biden campaign).
The other day, many of the same folk in my home town who cheered on Trump four years ago, ran a public event – Politics in the Pub – that was replete with conspiracy theorising (5G, anti-vax, Bill Gates, etc.). That a public platform has been used to peddle such theories is disappointing – although not entirely unexpected – it shows the lengths to which some folk will go to get their views across. Apparently, quite a few of those who attended the event had no idea that the evening was in fact a con fest. Equally concerning, is the fact that the big issues that require the rapid mobilisation of progressive justice movements – inequality, climate change, ecological destruction, the erosion of democracy, the use of cruelty as policy – are being obscured. But worse, conspiracy thinking coheres with some of the most reactionary elements in our society.
These theories may seem like a pitch for freedom and the truth, but end up dazed and confused in the world of smoke and mirrors. It is undoubtedly the case that conspiracy thinking can offer solace to those seeking easy answers to complex problems, or who no longer trust democratic institutions or the press. Yet there are those too who indulge this stuff in a narcissistic appropriation of what is claimed as insider knowledge. To take on conspiracy theorists is like trying to grab soap off the shower floor. Assertions can be disproved, only for new ones to pop up like mushrooms on a dank morning.
Philosophiser Quassim Cassam says that contesting such thinking is an unrewarding business and that one is better simply pointing to the company theorists keep. Alternatively, simply listening to why people believe what they do may take us to the ultimate source of this claimed knowledge. I’ve also heard ii said that conspiracy theorists are seeking some sort of connection in an otherwise fragmented world, and that hooking up with like-minded others may provide that long-desired sense of belonging. This may indeed be the case, although there is also every chance that this may give rise to poisonous solidarities that blame the blameless for one’s problems.
In a “post truth” world we have to remain ever vigilant around such thinking, and we need to identify whose interests are actually being served. We need to apply the most basic evidentiary rules if we are to make sense of this fantasy fetish. As Noam Chomsky points out, we need to engage in “intellectual self-defence” and make plain how aberrant thinking can end up reinforcing rather than dismantling brute power. Yes, we need to doubt what we are told. But as English poet John Dunne urged long ago:
“Doubt wisely; in strange way
To stand inquiring right, is not to stray;
To sleep, or run wrong, is.”