6.4.2.7 Conspiracy Theories

People who feel discontented or bitter about their personal circumstances tend to seize eagerly upon suggestions about who to blame; they are likely to believe conspiracy theories which offer an explanation of their problems, however implausible those theories might be. 

Chip Berlet’s paper on conspiracy theories, Toxic to Democracy, points out that “angry allegations can quickly turn into aggression and violence targeting scapegoated groups”.  He writes about “four tools of fear”:

“Dualistic Division: The world is divided into a good “Us” and a bad “Them.”

“Demonizing Rhetoric: Our opponents are evil and subversive…maybe subhuman.

“Targeting of Scapegoats: They are causing all our troubles—we are blameless.

“An Apocalyptic Timetable: Time is running out and we must act immediately to stave off a cataclysmic event.”

Donald Trump used all four “tools of fear”, from the time of the presidential election campaign trail until after he had left office:

At his Sarasota rally in November 2016, he said “My contract with the American voter begins with a plan to end government corruption and take back our country … we are going to drain the swamp”.  He was urging his followers to identify themselves as “good”, in opposition to a “bad” establishment – in which he included President Obama and the Democrats.  He also said that he would “stand up to China” and reduce immigration.

His use of demonization as a conspiracy theory tool can be seen in his description of his Democrat opponent, Hillary Clinton, as “crooked” in the same speech. He demonised Mexicans as ‘Drug dealers, criminals, rapists’.

He targeted Democrats, immigrants and the Chinese as scapegoats: accusing them all of threatening American jobs.  The Democrats’ regulations to protect the environment, immigrants seeking employment and “unfair competition” from the Chinese were all cited.

One of his final acts in office was to argue that time was running out, so he incited his supporters to invade the Capitol building on 6 January 2021.  As the New York Times reported: ‘Be There. Will Be Wild!’: Trump All but Circled the Date“A day to gather in Washington to “save America” and “stop the steal” of the election he had decisively lost, but which he still maintained — often through a toxic brew of conspiracy theories — that he had won by a landslide.”  

Trump’s overarching conspiracy theory provided a framework within which further groups flourished.  A BBC article, Capitol riots: Who broke into the building?, identified “a range of extreme and far-right groups and supporters of fringe online conspiracy theories” including “the baseless conspiracy theory QAnon” – which “is a wide-ranging, completely unfounded theory that says that President Trump is waging a secret war against elite Satan-worshipping paedophiles in government, business and the media.”  Trump’s retweets of QAnon material were seen as a sign of his approval of the group.

Photographs of one QAnon supporter, Jake Angeli, were widely circulated – creating a lot of publicity. The Independent published an article about him, giving some insight into his personality: ‘QAnon Shaman’ who turned on Trump.  (Trump didn’t pardon him.)

Such phenomena are not new.  One example that Berlet mentions, which predates the Internet, is the anti-Semitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion – which “played an important part in the Nazis’ propaganda arsenal” according to the Holocaust Encyclopedia.  Conspiracy theories have become more numerous and influential recently, however, due to two factors:

  1. Many people have lost their jobs due to globalisation, mechanisation, changes in fashion and measures required to combat climate change. Worry, resentment, status anxiety and ‘left behind’ feelings make people particularly vulnerable to conspiracy theories – as noted earlier (4.3.1.3).  Politicians in the major political parties had not paid sufficient attention to the scale of such problems in America, providing a golden opportunity for Trump to exploit.  
  2. As described in the previous sub-section (6.4.2.6), people and politicians influence each other through Internet social media – which use algorithms that create an ‘echo chamber’ effect, helping modern conspiracy theories to spread rapidly.

It is much easier to describe the problem than it is to combat conspiracy theories.  Brian Klaas points out, in his article Why is it so hard to deprogram Trumpian conspiracy theorists?, that adherents are very unlikely to believe evidence showing that they have been deceived.  They are more likely to see criticism as further confirmation that they are facing an enemy – so “correcting misperceptions actually ends up entrenching them” and, “[n]o matter what happens, there’s always another explanation”.

Concerns about freedom of speech make it very difficult to use the law to prevent untrue stories from being spread, particularly on the Internet: messages spread very fast; originators are hard to trace; and some might be in other countries and hard to prosecute (5.4.5.4). 

Perhaps the only remedy, which urgently needs to be implemented for many reasons, is to try to address the problems caused by rapid social change (6.7.8).

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This is a new sub-section, added since publication of Patterns of Power Edition 3a.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/6427a.htm