On conspiracy theories
“You just have to flood a country’s public square with enough raw sewage. You just have to raise enough questions, spread enough dirt, plant enough conspiracy theorizing that citizens no longer know what to believe. Once they lose trust in their leaders, in mainstream media, in political institutions, in each other, in the possibility of truth, the game’s won.”—Barack Obama at Stanford on April 21, 2022.”You just have to flood a country’s public square with enough raw sewage. You just have to raise enough questions, spread enough dirt, plant enough conspiracy theorizing that citizens no longer know what to believe. Once they lose trust in their leaders, in mainstream media, in political institutions, in each other, in the possibility of truth, the game’s won.”—Barack Obama at Stanford on April 21, 2022.
As the above talk was being given I watched it on live television. It is about how democracies are weakened by disinformation and conspiracy theories. Imagine my surprise then that the quote above ended up in my inbox as proof that the US is up to no good. The sender, a retired officer ferociously committed to the PTI’s cause, did not care to include the line immediately preceding the quote above, which is: “People like Putin and Steve Bannon, for that matter, understand it’s not necessary for people to believe this information in order to weaken democratic institutions.” If care to investigate a little the entire speech is available online both in text (https://techpolicy.press/transcript-barack-obama-speech-on-technology-and-democracy) and video (https://www.youtube.com/live/YrMMiDXspYo). I highly encourage my readers to go through it because the speech identifies some key problems faced by democracy in the digital age and seeks to offer solutions.
That said, let us return to the question of the conspiratorial mind. What leads a sane man with a history of dedicated service to the state to distort facts and pass on misinformation without fact-checking? Expediency, anger, paranoia, tribalism or ignorance? The answer varies from case to case. But in every case, it proves that something has most certainly gone awry in the mind of the sender and society in general.
I would have not brought up this episode at all had it not been for so many contingent factors conspiring to force my hand. After all, I had recently promised someone that I would not try to cram too many ideas into one piece and try to normalise the chaotic place my mind is. Alas, that was not meant to be!
What contingent factors, you ask? Well, to answer that I have to remind you of some of the podcasts that follow closely to keep tabs on the conspiracy world. One is called QAnonAnonymous which originally meant to keep the listeners informed on the developments in the QAnon world but since then has branched out to update us on various conspiracies brewing in the post-Trump world. The second one is a brilliant one called Knowledge Fight which is a play on the name of Alex Jones’ online show InfoWars and covers just that. What intrigued me this time was a QAA episode on an Oxford city project called “15-minute cities”. As the name suggests it is about ensuring that each community has access to all essential services within a fifteen-minute walk. Naturally, there is a tradeoff. Private vehicle use will be discouraged. For more information look up the pod I mentioned. But what intrigued me was how similar was the rhetoric of the conspiracy theorists protesting this project to Alex Jones’ worldview. And the bogeyman. Alex Jones has often attacked Klaus Schwab, the head of the world economic forum as the source of all globalist conspiracies. These people were doing just that. Similarly the talk of a great reset. Evidently, the ‘anti-globalist’ conspiracy theories are globalising rapidly.
The second contingent factor involves the Adani group meltdown and George Soros. Soros, a favourite punching bag of far-right conspiracy theorists, recently made a statement to the effect that the crash of the Adani business empire would mean a death knell for the Modi government. Loyal to the core, the Indian media, punditry and online ecosystem went crazy. To attack this ageing billionaire they laundered every conspiracy theory out there and repackaged it.
The third contingent factor. Our dear Imran Khan came up with another theory about a so-called London conspiracy. I have grown up hearing about various London conspiracies. Disappointingly monotonous. Full marks for consistency, zero for innovation. Why couldn’t there be a Paris conspiracy, Berlin or Moscow conspiracy or ooh Denver airport conspiracy? Mr Khan has been flooding the town square with as many conspiracy theories as you can count since his final days in power. Recently, when an audio leak surfaced pertaining to his personal conduct his key objection was that it would adversely affect the impressionable minds of the young. I don’t disagree but wonder how these conspiracy theories would affect the very same minds especially when he regularly casts away each theory with wild abandon.
Since the Trumpian era witnessed a renaissance of conspiracy theories, fake news and pseudoscience there is no dearth of books on the subject. But I tend to rely on relatively older masters like Umberto Eco.
It was in Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum that I first came across an operationalised example of how conspiracy theories work. Three editors with interest in history come up with a game called ‘The Plan’ to mock conspiracy theories. Soon they start seeing similar patterns in real life and succumb to their own conspiracy. Read it. You will love it.
In his work The Prague Cemetery, Eco presents an elaborate analysis of conspiracy theories. These are the stories we tell to explain away something complicated. These stories have to have some roots in history, are based on partial truths and can be weaponised.
If you want to read further, here are some good books. The Conspiracy Theory Handbook by Stephan Lewandowsky and John Cook. The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe by Steven Novella et al. The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan. Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History by David Aaronovitch. Conspiracy Theories and the People Who Believe Them by Joseph E Uscinski. Don’t Believe a Word: The Surprising Truth About Language by David Shariatmadari.
Together these authors recommend the following remedies for conspiracy theories and people affected by them: (1) Promote critical thinking. (2) Educate people about the scientific method. (3) Be patient and respectful towards the victims. (4) Provide evidence-based arguments. (5) Expose logical fallacies. (6) Use fact-checking tools. (7) Expose the sources of misinformation. (8) Promote media literacy. (9) Emphasise values such as honesty, transparency and accountability. (10) Provide emotional support to the victims. (11) Promote open dialogue. (12) Provide alternative explanations.
Try these methods. As someone who succumbed to conspiracy theories in his youth and had to struggle to find his way back I can testify that they work.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 18th, 2023