Donald Trump’s entry into the world of politics came with a conspiracy theory. Trump believes that Barak Obama has no birth certificate and is a Muslim. Donald Trump may be a victim of illusory pattern perception. Trump see patterns and connections where there are none. And the whole thing might just be an illusion. But perhaps there is more to the story of conspiracy theories. Conceivably, conspiracy theories are a form of political propaganda. And as such, a response to conspiracy theories also needs to be political, and this includes those who spread conspiracy theories – so-called “theorists” like Donald Trump.
A typical conspiracy theorist is more likely to be male (like Trump), unmarried (unlike Trump), less educated (like Trump), has lower household incomes (unlike Donald Trump), and to see himself as being of low social standing (unlike Trump). Besides all this, Trump has lower levels of physical and psychological well-being. And unquestionably, Donald Trump is more likely to meet the criteria for having a psychiatric disorder.
What helps Donald Trump is that many conspiracy theories are somewhat plausible by design – on the surface at least. This is for those who Trump had in mind when he said, “I love the poorly educated”. But conspiracy theories can have dire consequences as there are theories that kill. In 2012, for example, Adam Lanza murdered twenty students and six staff members a Sandy Hook Elementary School. Today, conspiracy theorists believe the whole thing was a hoax. On Pizzagate, they believe the opposite – it is true – even though there was no basement and “cp” actually mean cheese pizza and not child pornography. And at no time did Hilary Clinton run this non-existing child-porno ring. Still, such conspiracy theories are politically relevant.
Conspiracy theories always serve a purpose – a political-ideological purpose. The purpose of Pizzagate was to frame Clinton. The purpose of the Sandy Hook conspiracy theory was political propaganda. It was deliberately designed to divert attention from one of the most serious problems in the USA: the absence of effective gun control. A conspiracy theory that says nobody was killed at Sandy Hook. No harm was done – no need to control guns.
The idea behind many laughable conspiracy theories is rather straight forward. They are purposefully invented and spread even when conspiracy theorists know that they are false. This is done to manipulate public opinion. The l’idée fixe of conspiracy theories is political and ideological, which further ideological objectives. Conspiracy theories are pressed forward with seductive accounts and tales to tell about major events which are extremely unlikely to be true. The idea is to influence public opinion in the preferred direction of the right-wing.
Beyond conspiracy theory’s ability to shape public opinion, there are also conspiracy theories that have little or next to no political content. Conspiracy theories about the death of Elvis are like that. To call them political propaganda would be silly. But Donald Trump hardly ever peddles those. He prefers the more serious ones – the ones that can influence politics into his direction. And he is not alone, e.g. Alex Jones and his conspiracy theories. In politics, the vast majority of conspiracy theories are from the right-wing.
Worst of all was Adolf Hitler with his Jewish World Conspiracy. It was a mixture of Finanzjudentum [money Jews] and Bolshevism that created Judeo-Bolshevism. Utter nonsense but millions of people died. Like many conspiracy theories, Hitler’s madness was speculative, and it may even have been amateurish, but it was lethal. In Germany, this is not finished. A few days ago, a young German Neo-Nazi was put on trial in the East-Germany city of Halle. The Neo-Nazi wanted to murder fifty Jews. His reasoning was a mirror image of Hitler’s. This is Germany in 2020 – not 1920.
Hitler’s conspiracy theories were indeed, propaganda. It makes sense to think of conspiracy theories as forms of propaganda. Hitler was the master aerator of antisemitism, and the young German man in Halle followed it. For Hitler, the point wasn’t truth – it was propaganda. It is just as the former State Secretary Madeleine Albright who once said, it is easier to destroy concentration camps than the conspiracy theory that created them. In the end, any understanding of conspiracy theories boils down to the following point:
once you’ve given up on the idea that
the point of conspiracy theories is to tell the truth,
a different understanding of their function opens up.
This means that it is not much of a point to disprove conspiracy theories. That is easily done. It is also not the point to argue with conspiracy theorists. That is not so easily done. Sadly, it is nearly impossible to convince them of their madness. Instead of all this, one is better off analysing the political, ideological, and foremost the propagandistic function of conspiracy theories. Perhaps the key is not so much political and ideological but propaganda.
While Hitler could speak to many, and his Volksempfänger radio reached millions, his public relations capabilities were still limited compared to the global 24/7 capability of today’s Internet. Facebook alone reaches almost 3 billion. Facebook remains one of the preferred tools to spread right-wing propaganda spiced up with conspiracy theories. Of course, there is WhatsApp, Donald Trump’s favourite Twitter, YouTube, etc. With the rise of all these social media platforms, it is no wonder that some argue that we live in the Golden Age of Conspiracy Theories. Besides, not all conspiracy theorists wear an easily identifiable tin-foil hat.
The more dangerous none-tin-foil hat-wearing type of conspiracy theorist feeds on one of three models: 1) the intentionality model notes the tendency to views things that happen because they were intended to happen; 2) the confirmation model which suggests that conspiracy theories only look for “evidence” that confirms their particular conspiracy theories; and finally, 3) the proportionality model which argues that scale of an event’s cause matches the scale of the event itself. Because of proportionality, conspiracy theorists believe, for example, one man could not have killed JFK. You needed more people to kill a president surrounded by aids and agents.
Anyone challenging such conspiracy theories is immediately suspected to be part of “the authorities”. Fundamental to conspiracy theories and conspiracy theorists is the credence that people in authority are hiding things from the rest of us as part of a conspiracy to achieve their own sinister goals. Such circular arguments protect the conspiracy theorists.
It may even attract newcomers into the world of conspiracy theories. Conspiracy theories are attractive to outsiders because many conspiracy theories fit their broader ideological and political commitment. This means, for example, that people who are ideologically predisposed to neoliberalism’s free-market ideology might be more likely to accept conspiracy theories about global warming.
Seemingly, this occurs because committed free-market ideologues don’t like the regulation that the world needs to combat global warming. Global warming is likely to impact on those at the bottom -the poor – first. While many of those who invent conspiracy theories like Donald Trump are not at the bottom of society, people on the receiving end, conspiracy-minded people are also more likely to see themselves as being at the bottom of the social hierarchy.
Beyond that, is the fact that many conspiracy theories are rather seductive. Some conspiracy theories are a bit like a well-written crime novel. They draw people in. All too often, it is simply good versus bad. Black and white, for simple-minded people. Such conspiracy theories are often constructed as moral tales with all-knowing and all-powerful villains (Mexicans, foreigners, not whites, etc. in Trump case) and naïve victims (white Americans). This is Donald Trump’s conspiratorial mythology. Those unsuspecting white Americans are presented as having no idea what is really going on until the truth is revealed by the conspiracy theorist – Donald Trump. This may sound silly, if not obscene, but it is deadly serious.
When conspiracy theories such as those spun by Donald Trump on the Coronavirus aid the deaths of thousands of people (150,000 by the end of July 2020), we need to give up the idea that these “theories” are harmless and silly. What Donald Trump’s conspiracy theories about the Coronavirus do is they create powerful barriers to knowledge urgently needed to fight the Coronavirus. Like Donald Trump, very few conspiracy theorists are experts in medical knowledge, in virology, public health, or even basic technical knowledge.
That is not the point. The point is the propaganda impact of conspiracy theories. Conspiracy theories have played a useful public relations role in creating an anti-intellectual, ideological, and deeply political climate that led to Brexit in the United Kingdom and the election of Donald Trump – a conspiracy theorist himself. He is also the president of the USA. It is no surprise that conspiracy theories can have very bitter political consequences.
Like Donald Trump, many conspiracy theorists think of themselves as being serious critics of the status quo. And yet, their propagandistic activities divert attention away from the deeper structural issues that ought to concern any serious critic. As a consequence, their actions are propagandistic and not in the interest of challenging the status quo. If anything, conspiracy theories are conservative, but since many seek to turn back the wheel, a good number of conspiracy theories are outright reactionary.
In the end, one is tempted to say that conspiracy theories are not “theories” at all. They have nothing to do with science. They are more like conspiracy myths. But again, this is not the raison d’être for conspiracy theories. They exist for another reason: ideological propaganda. As such, conspiracy theories nearly always express a particular view of how the world works. Most often, this is the view of right-wing extremism.
Any effective strategy against conspiracy theories needs to have an ideological dimension, needs to highlight its political function, and needs to include their propagandists’ purpose. One might like to make the case that many conspiracy theories are forms of political propaganda. They are not serious attempts to tell the truth. Conspiracy theories are unrelated to the truth. Finally, one might make three arguments against conspiracy theories.
Firstly, whenever and wherever possible, one might use rational arguments and evidence against conspiracy theories. Secondly, one might equip children and students at an early age with critical thinking skills and intellectual virtues that will help them to separate truth from lies. And for adults there is always A Short Course in Intellectual Self Defense: Find Your Inner Chomsky. Finally, it remains imperative to highlight the public relations aspect of conspiracy theories. Victims of conspiracy theories need to have an accurate understanding of the propagandistic function of conspiracy theories.
Quassim Cassam’s Don’t Ignore Conspiracy Theories is published by Polity Press.