It is tempting to dismiss conspiracy theorists as harmless eccentrics, gathering in dingy pubs and online forums to discuss peculiar, but ultimately ineffective, ideas. However, the tendency to mock and to minimise the threat posed by conspiracy beliefs gives them the space to spread, despite the fact that this dangerous mode of propaganda can be used to scapegoat and to justify attacks on particular target groups. In an age in which conspiracy theories continue to flourish, it is only by understanding both the allure and the threats posed by this widespread and persistent form of false belief that we can begin to tackle it in a meaningful way.
As Michael Barkun outlines in his work A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America, a “conspiracy belief is the belief that an organisation made up of individuals or groups was or is acting covertly to achieve some malevolent end”. Believers in conspiracy theories tend to reject official versions of the truth, to read intention into seemingly random events, and to view unrelated events as interconnected.
As such, conspiracy theories provide a framework for interpreting unpredictable and bewildering events across the world, tending to spike in popularity during times of turmoil, crisis and upheaval. In the 21st century, the UK has experienced unpopular wars, terror attacks, a financial crash, a decade of austerity and years of divisive and painful Brexit proceedings. In relation to the surge of conspiracy thinking in the US, Anna Merlan, author of Republic of Lies: American Conspiracy Theorists and Their Surprising Rise to Power, points to the hardening class structure, increasing disenfranchisement, disappearing social safety net and complex healthcare system as contributing factors. Circumstances on both sides of the Atlantic have led many people to feel that they lack agency in their own lives, and some have sought a strange form of solace in conspiracy theories. This way of thinking personifies the hardship and danger in people’s day- to-day experience, and therefore enables blame.
There is a frisson that accompanies uncovering supposedly forbidden information, and the sense that one is unravelling some hidden scheme can be addictive. David Aaronovitch, author of Voodoo Histories: The Role of Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History, also highlights a narcissistic element, as conspiracy theories enable believers to inhabit the role of selfless “truth-seekers”, heroically struggling against shadowy forces, and superior to supposedly sheep-like, brainwashed public that accept the false official versions of events. In our era of “fake news”, where hostility to authorities and traditional gatekeepers is widespread, the feeling of empowerment arising from the belief that one possesses the “real” truth can be highly attractive.
The automatic mistrust of information provided by governments, the media, universities and other institutions means that conspiracy beliefs can be exceedingly difficult to tackle. As Barkun notes, conspiracy theorists can accuse mainstream accounts of being fabricated false reports, rendering their beliefs impervious to contrary evidence. Moreover, the messianic self-stylings of conspiracy theorists such as David Icke mean that efforts to limit the spread of their ideas, be it through negative press coverage or other forms of perceived “censorship”, often simply reaffirm the belief that they are the victims of a conspiracy to silence them. This in turn can nourish martyr complexes, and further entrench the beliefs of their followers.
This is a cause for genuine concern in light of the negative impact conspiracy beliefs can have in society. For example, misdiagnosing the root cause of genuine social injustices can mean that the energy of dedicated, potentially progressive activists are directed into worthless causes, derailing opportunities for manifesting real change. Additionally, in the social media age, key events, debates and votes are reliably accompanied by a swirl of misinformation and conjecture which obscures truth. This can mislead or even paralyse action through sheer confusion.
Most worrying, however, is the use of conspiracy theories as a tool to attack minority groups. Of course, belief in a conspiracy theory naturally entails belief in sinister conspirators, often portrayed as possessing an almost superhuman degree of cunning. While the identity of these alleged conspirators varies according to the theorist, there is one group in particular that has, for centuries, faced blame for an enormous variety of upheavals, tragedies and calamities, both historical and mythic. Jew-hatred has deep roots within the tradition of alternative conspiracy thinking, and while the so- called “Jewish Question” is hotly debated among conspiracy theory communities, antisemitic tropes are rarely far removed from a diverse array of conspiratorial notions, concerning, for example, 9/11, the refugee crisis or even climate change.
The persistence of antisemitism within the 21st century conspiracy scene partly stems from its status as a “taboo”. As Barkun writes, for many conspiracy theorists “the greater the stigma, the more attractive the source becomes, for the intensity of rejection is its truthfulness”.
Therefore, if speaking about a notion carries threats of social ostracization, media condemnation or even legal penalties, this only reaffirms its truth, as these consequences are interpreted as elite attempts to suppress forbidden knowledge. As such, susceptibility to conspiracy thinking can be a gateway into darker territories, and the path from ostensibly non- antisemitic conspiracy theories to flirtation with, or open endorsement of, conspiratorial antisemitism and even Holocaust denial, is well trodden.