Conspiracy theories, an increasingly popular dinnertime conversation, are often otherwise dismissed and ignored. At most they are regarded as the amusing yet ultimately harmless hobby of a fringe, irrelevant few. They are neither of these things. They are a powerful social phenomenon. In many contexts they demolish trust between government and communities. In some, they are dangerous.
On Sunday, Demos released a report, The Power of Unreason. In it, we looked at the role that conspiracy theories play in radical and extremist groups. Analysing over 50 such groups, we found conspiracy theories to have a strong functional value that play into the social dynamics of radicalization. Extremist groups use conspiracy theories to recruit, to discredit voices of moderation, and to divide the world into ‘us’ – a small colony of true believers – and ‘them’ – the rest of the world. Most worrying, in these contexts conspiracy theories are used to justify acts of violence as the only way of ‘waking up’ a benighted populace from their acquiescent slumber.
As Hannah Arendt said of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the chief political and historical fact of the matter is that the forgery is being believed (Origins of Totalitarianism, 357). That is more important than whether it is true or not. Although untrue, conspiracy theories, through being believed, are having a very real and often harmful social influence.
Responding to conspiracy theories is difficult. Conspiracy theories are self-sealing; attempts to refute them are seen as evidence of the conspiracy theory itself. Government is especially hobbled in the responses that it can make. Statements on conspiracy theories are not judged on their content, but on the identity of their author. Those that are critical are pre-judged as of course government-sponsored disinformation and disruption campaigns.
The online response to our paper is an interesting micro-study of these processes at work. The paper flew at breakneck speed through conspiricist groups such as 911truth.org, IntelHub and Youtube. The paper appears as a ‘straw-man’ on these online echo-chambers, where users climb over each other to denounce us as a ‘Marxist/neocon/Islamist front group working for a Freemason/Illuminati/Bilderberg backed New World Order’ (delete according to taste). They also notice that the Demos logo resembles the ‘all seeing eye’. Secretly working for the Illuminati, it would be remiss for us not to display their branding on our logo, of course.
What this reception highlights is the difficulty of any group successfully combating conspiracy theories by itself. There are nevertheless important things government can do, too. As conspiracy theories thrive in the dark, it must work hard to shine the light of public scrutiny on its operations and activities, especially those most cast in shadow: the counter-terrorism and intelligence communities. Yet, any ‘top-down’ forms of communication are destined to fail. This is why civic society is the most important agent for combating conspiracy theories. It is down to everyone – individuals, charities, social enterprises, and non-governmental organizations – to confront conspiracy theories as well as the lies, distrust, bigotry, intolerance and ultimately violence that they can spread.
Carl Miller from Demos is the co-author of The Power of Unreason.
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