The year 2020 will be remembered not just for a coronavirus pandemic that has caused close to two million deaths so far, but also as a time when other “pathogens” went viral. Bizarre conspiracy theories have been around for a while: the Illuminati and the New World Order, John F. Kennedy’s assassination, 9/11. But today they have reached epidemic levels in some parts of the world as economic, social and political unrest have increased, giving rise to QAnon and the Deep State conspiracy theory, among others.
You might wonder why some people fall prey to false ideas that are plain nonsense on first hearing. Why do some so readily accept that an anonymous source giving out weird speculations really has a handle on the truth? Is it just another aspect of human nature?
One aspect of our nature clearly plays a role, and that’s the need for some to feel superior or to blame problems—real or perceived—on others. Thus anti-Semitism is sometimes central to conspiracy theories. The classic case is the literary forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Likely fabricated by Russian tsarist operatives and first published in 1903 as a series of articles, the Protocols was plagiarized from several earlier sources. The work, purported to be the outlines of a Jewish plan to rule the world, was translated into multiple languages and quickly spread internationally. But by the early 1920s, the press in England and Germany had uncovered the fraud. Nevertheless the Protocols influenced German education in the subsequent Nazi period and is still in print and accepted as factual on Internet conspiracy sites favored by certain neofascist, fundamentalist and anti-Semitic groups. No surprise, then, that the Rothschilds, George Soros and the international Jewish community are frequent targets of such misinformation.
“For both people on the left and those on the right, classic conspiracism gives order and meaning to occurrences that, in their minds, defy standard or official explanations. . . . [It] is conspiracy with a theory.”
The problem goes far beyond anti-Semitism, of course. Today, for example, we hear equally fictitious claims that the coronavirus pandemic is an invention, a left-wing plot promoted either by the US Democratic Party to make the Republican president look bad before the 2020 election, or by Big Pharma to take over the world by implanting identity markers within humans through vaccination. Cue Bill Gates’s interest in vaccine development and the World Economic Forum’s “Great Reset”—a plan to further global development through multilateral cooperation in the face of the current pandemic. To save humanity from what is portrayed as a colossal deceit, “true believers” are assured that political saviors are already on the scene or waiting in the wings to lead “The Great Awakening.”
If this sounds like a movie script, it’s because it’s got all the characteristics of one: a mixture of some fact and a lot of fiction, good and evil, money and power, heroes and villains.
Why do people believe such fantastical ideas?
In today’s world, riven by differences of opinion held proudly and expressed noisily, it’s understandable that the human desire for unity, for equilibrium, should predispose us to seek unifying ideas, simpler times. Historian Anne Applebaum puts it this way: “The emotional appeal of a conspiracy theory is in its simplicity. It explains away complex phenomena, accounts for chance and accidents, offers the believer the satisfying sense of having special, privileged access to the truth.”
Accordingly, some politicians have promoted phony conspiracies in their efforts to restore national pride and provide security in the face of imagined enemies. In the wake of the First World War, an embittered Adolf Hitler returned to civilian life in a massively dispirited Germany. The conflict had increased his extreme nationalist sentiments, and now he blamed the country’s failure on Jews and Marxists. Imprisoned for his role in a 1923 attempt to gain control of Bavaria, he wrote the first volume of his autobiographical Mein Kampf, in which he endorsed The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. He wrote, “With positively terrifying certainty they reveal the nature and activity of the Jewish people and expose their inner contexts as well as their ultimate final aims.” Thus a forgery about a conspiracy contributed to the most heinous crime of a mad dictator—the extermination of almost 6 million innocent Jewish men, women and children.
Today far-right-extremism experts in Germany are concerned by local interest in the QAnon phenomenon. In some respects it reminds them of the European anti-Semitism of medieval times, where the same ethnic group was singled out for blame for a nation’s ills. As with the 20th-century Protocols, today’s conspiracies are also directed at a supposed global elite out to control all people and things. And they often hark back to familiar themes and symbols. Viral photos of the recent assault on the US Capitol, for example, showed one mob member boldly wearing a sweatshirt that glorified Auschwitz, where more than a million died. Anti-Semitic apparel such as this, or bearing the acronym 6MWE (6 million wasn’t enough), is popular with neo-Nazis and other white supremacists.
“Conspiracism . . . takes the form of bare assertion and innuendo. It dispenses with evidence and argument. It is embellished and spread through social media. And it is validated by sheer repetition.”
Conspiracy theories breed mistrust, encourage division and promote violence. The perpetrators’ stock-in-trade is misinformation, disinformation, rumor and fearmongering in order to gain a loyal following or to stir people to a desired action. The current tendency to resort to these tactics to discredit an opposing party or viewpoint is troubling. Yet increasingly we see this approach being employed by some who have a platform from which to broadcast and endlessly repeat their deceits. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, then, that this “new conspiracism has many adherents—some gullible, some sinister” (in the words of political scientists Russell Muirhead and Nancy Rosenblum).
The world will never be rid of the evils that flourish in conspiracy’s poisonous soil without inoculation of a different kind, one that protects the mind against partiality, inequity, injustice and hatred. To learn more about the antidote, see Vision’s article collection titled “The Path to Change.”