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Conspiracy Theories and What To Do About Them

In this article, Helmut K Anheier and Andrea Roemmele assess the threat that conspiracy theories pose to democratic societies and develop a mechanism to address the problem. This is the first part in a two-part debate on conspiracy theories. An counter-argument from Edward Knudsen will appear next week.

The rise of Q-Anon has brought the issue of conspiracy theories to the forefront. While the Q-sign has become an almost-familiar sight at Trump rallies and among his supporters, it still managed to shock Europeans last August: right-wing activists at a large anti-government demonstrations in Berlin displayed Q-signs and some agitator even claimed that Trump himself had just landed in the city to take control. Several hundred people stormed onto the stairs of the Berlin Reichstag, seat of the federal parliament, waving the old imperial German flag with a “Q” inserted.  Robert F. Kennedy Jr., nephew of the late president and a devout anti-vaxxer, was among those present at the rally.

Among many other unfounded claims, Q-Anon asserts that Donald Trump is engaged in an epic struggle against a liberal global elite of pedophiles who kidnap children and extract from their blood and organs for greater longevity. Its proliferation happens alongside the continuing spread of Russian-sponsored “fake news,” baseless claims about “secret plans” behind COVID-19, and many other insinuations.

At best, such “theories” distract and create confusion.  Ultimately, they erode trust in politics and public institutions, become a danger to democracy and even lead to violence. What to do about such “theories” is becoming a matter of great public concern and growing urgency for policymakers. There are options to combat their current proliferation and reduce the harmful impact of conspiracy theories.  These options require a better understanding of the problem–and new approaches.

While conspiracy theories have been around for millennia, they have assumed new potency today.  They spread on social media platforms at great speed and with virtually no cost to perpetrators and proponents alike.  They find welcoming homes on websites like 4Chan or 8kun, extending into the uncontrolled dark net. They easily reach many millions via social media and they attract the attention of mainstream media and public debate – all the way to the White House. Conspiracy theories like Q-Anon are a serious problem for all, especially when they receive the tacit support of politicians like Trump.

The threat to democracy

In a democracy, political debates need to be based at least to some extent on facts. Without some evidence standards, productive dialogue among political opponents becomes virtually impossible. Of course, lies (intentionally spreading non-truth) and misinformation (unintentionally spreading untruth) have always been an element of politics.  For philosopher Harry Frankfurt [1], there is also “bullshit,” a category that cuts out unwelcome facts: only supporting evidence is true, all other false. Political debates are soon no longer fact-based and instead rest ever more on worldviews, values and, ultimately, passion. It is hard to argue about them, because there is no longer true or false, only opinions. Conspiracy theories are a mélange of the above: they are a form of emotional narrative that make sense to those who believe their assumptions, argumentation and implication. They fortify divisions in society and an “us versus them” view of the world. That is what makes them so harmful.

Expert Joseph E. Uscinski defines [2] conspiracy theories as “unverified explanation of past, present, or future events or circumstances that cites as a main causal factor a small group of powerful people working in secret for their own interests and against the common good.” They are not theories in any scientific sense; they are mostly unfounded, based on misconstrued facts, if at all, and can neither be verified nor rejected. To non-believers, they can seem outlandish, farfetched and nonsensical.  For devotees, they engender a sense of emotions, even passion, that can border on quasi-religious fervor.

Some conspiracy theories are harmless. Many are about aliens and extra-terrestrial invasions combined with allegations of government cover-ups, for example the Roswell, Arizona, UFO incident that continues to attract the imagination of many.  Other theories, however, can have serious consequences and undermine public trust in institutions.  For example, the New World Order theory, which exists in many variants and combinations, accuses the U.S. Federal Reserve, the United Nations, and the European Union, Israel, and others of running a secret world government with George Soros, Bill Gates or some other “villains.”  Such theories are complex and full of contradictions; they achieve their greatest impact of when they are flexible and open enough to attach themselves to more mainstream ideologies and positions. Q-Anon is a current example gaining acceptance among conservative Republicans or the resurgence of antisemitic thinking in populist parties in Europe. Through resilience and by slow infiltration of the public discourse, such theories sow suspicion and become harmful to public trust.

Sometimes conspiracy theories cause physical harm to others (e.g., the anti-vaxxers, COVID-19 denialists), and even lead to massacres (e.g., Norwegian far-right mass murderer Andres Behring Breivik´s belief that Marxists were conspiring). Because some believers interpret the theory as a call to action, they feel justified to commit violent acts. Some theories become recurring accounts (“Jews control everything”) despite being implicated in actions leading to many deaths, past and present.

Conspiracy theories are more frequent in times of change, and even more so during periods of crisis and profound uncertainty.  This is certainly the case these days, but there is something more: conspiracy theories as such have changed.  Whereas in the past, as Muirhead and Rosenblum [3] (2019) suggest, conspiracy theories offered alternative explanations of events and developments, the new conspiracism is mostly about bare assertions with even less regards to either facts or coherence.  At present, we witness a proliferation of insinuations that seem to come out of thin air.  Their ultimate objectives often unclear or diffuse. Rather than being directed at any specific goals, they aim at political destabilization.

Who are the believers? They are a diverse group: a recent Pew study [4] shows that among US adults, conservative whites with lower levels of education are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories, as are Hispanics and African Americans. What they share in common is exposure to high levels of economic uncertainty, a perceived lack of effective political voice, whether justified or not, and the growing belief that some anonymous force or another has control over their lives. Their precarious standing in society makes them the easy prey of those to initiate, propagate and spread conspiracy theories.

How to address the problem?

So, what to do about the proliferation of conspiracy theories, and, in particular the new conspiracism? Should governments do something? Already over a decade ago, Sunstein and Vermeule [5] proposed four measures governments could take against false and harmful conspiracy theories: banning them, taxing their dissemination, counter-speech, and infiltration. None offers a promising option, though.

Banning ultimately means government censorship, i.e., a systematic infringement of free speech, crossing a line most people in liberal democracies would find unacceptable. Taxing to increase the cost of spreading such theories not only raises questions of practicality and efficacy, it could also violate free speech. Moreover, while a government may speak out against a conspiracy theory by providing its own fact-based account, such official counter-speech may backfire and embolden its followers, adding more visibility and even credence to it. Why would a government go to such length of denying the theory unless there is reason for cover-up? Likewise, infiltration of groups and online forums in order to introduce different and diverse views among followers carries great risks. If discovered, conspiracy theorists would believe the conspiracy even more. Why would the government engage in such action if the theory were not true?

From a policy perspective, conspiracy theories present a wicked problem. Democratic governments can do little right, but get much wrong, having to walk a thin line between needed regulation and censorship, chipping away at free speech and allowing conspirators to free-ride, appearing passive towards allegations and over-zealous in engaging challenging views.

In exploring what other options might be available, it is first of all necessary to have better sense of what conspiracy theories regulators should worry about in the first place.  Certainly not the many variants of extraterrestrial invasions. For Muirhead and Rosenblum [3], three characteristics of conspiracy theories require action: theories fueling hatred, dividing societies and sowing the seeds of violence; those equating political opposition with outright treason and thereby undermining the democratic order; and those expressing a general distrust of expertise and thereby eroding public trust.

This is a reasonable set of circumstances, of which the first two are covered by the laws of most democracies, and the third could be addressed through existing regulations on slander and defamation as well as tort law.  If this is the case, why is nothing happening, and harmful conspiracy theories allowed to proliferate and do harm?  Why does the government not act? To answer that question, we have to realize that government is part of the problem.

Coady [6]points out that many anti-conspiracist experts unquestionably assume good intentions on the part of governments. Instead, we have to acknowledge that government, or more precisely, politicians, may well have motives other than guarding public trust when dealing with conspiracy theories. Like the current US president, they may tolerate Q-Anon signs at rallies and retweet insinuations (“birther” claims) simply as a tool to acquire or stay in power.  Uscinski goes even further and argues that politicians, whether in power or in opposition, are among the biggest purveyors of both conspiracy theories and actual conspiracies.

It is hard to substantiate this claim, but Uscinski seems to have a case if we recall Watergate in the 1970s, Iran-Contra in the 1980s, Whitewater in the 1990s, the baseless claims that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in the 2000s, the birthers and “deep-statists” in the 2010s, and the many insinuations coming from Trump against his political opponents currently. Of course, calls for more restraint among political opponents, greater transparency and even open government are useful, but ultimately insufficient. They may help to reduce the production and amplifications of conspiracism old and new. However, the incentives are too strong and the opportunities too frequent as to expect politicians to forego the temptations conspiracism offers once and for all.

In sum, democratic governments are in a difficult position regulating conspiracy theories in the first place, and politicians are a potentially weak link holding a strict anti-conspiratorial line, especially around election times. So, one approach would be to do nothing, and let things go on as they are, assuming that conspiracy theories will continue regardless, fade away at some point, and replaced by new ones.  Another way forward would be to recognize the new potency conspiracy theories have assumed with cyber technologies and social media.

A novel approach

For this, a new approach is needed.  It has three separate components that have to work together to achieve maximum impact:  better monitoring, independent governance, and active enforcement of anti-conspiracy measures.  Together, and perhaps even facilitated by politicians dedicated to truth, there may be a chance to reduce the proliferation and web virality of conspiracy theories, and ultimately neutralize their harmful impact, or even reverse the erosion of public trust.

First, monitoring is needed. We propose a systematic, comprehensive and ongoing vetting of websites, including social media channels and news outlets, to detect and assess conspiracy theories.  Starting in the US and some European countries, it could be a version of Newsguard (https://www.newsguardtech.com), a business firm that reports to cover 95% of news content, and monitors news outlets for transparency and accuracy. The organization–call it Conspiracy Monitor [7] (CM)–would be nonpartisan, highly professional and of a scale and scope adequate to the task.  It should be private entity, either for-profit or non-profit, and in any case a serious organization of high repute, with hundreds of experts monitoring and guarding public media space. It would be funded by dues from social media and Internet corporations (the “clients”) that share an interest in fighting harmful content to avoid litigation and further regulatory action.  Above all, the clients see CM as some sort of insurance protecting their business model.

CM would assess detected conspiracy theories or related insinuations using the latest technology.  It would develop and keep updated a methodologically sound “litmus test” to answer three question: does the theory fuel hatred and could it have the potential to divide societies and entice violence? Does it equate opposition to the theory´s tenants as complicit criminal wrongdoing, even potential treason, thereby destabilizing the democratic order? Does it without evidence encourage general distrust of expertise and fact-based policymaking and administration, thereby eroding public trust?

If a conspiracy theory fails any of these questions, CM would classify it as harmful.  How harmful depends on how many questions it fails. The label would be more than some sort of “parental advisory” but entail action, sanctions, and enforcement.  Sites labelled as harmful would be closed, related sites closely monitored and warned, actors identified and notified, litigation initiated, and the legal authorities informed.

Then there is governance. Given the highly politicized nature of many conspiracy theories and the equally sensitive political as well as legal context, CM has to be “above suspicion” and appear as a neutral organization par excellence. Therefore, it will be governed by an external, independent board of experts, the CM-Trust, organized as a nonprofit. CM-Trust will be one step removed from CM´s operational tasks and entrusted with a strong oversight role. To ensure its independence, the Trust should have its own endowment of sufficient size, initially contributed by the clients, managed separately.

CM-Trust acts as the defendant of public trust: if CM classifies a conspiracy theory as harmful, the board will take action accordingly: inform the respective legal authorities as well as the clients. The latter would be contractually required to block any sites and delete accounts associated with the theory. CM monitors the blocking action and continues to observe the theory´s spread and possible mutations.

The third component is law enforcement. There should be dedicated law enforcement officers specializing in conspiracy theories and capable of assessing if legal action might be needed in any particular case brought to its attention. The actual institutional location of these officers will depend on a country´s legal and political system. CM-Trust would report harmful conspiracy theories and supporting evidence to these officers.  They would assess the case, and if warranted, take action.

In conclusion, conspiracy theories old and new are gaining momentum, and their potential harm to public trust in democracy and its essential institutions are a real threat. Conspiracy theories such as Q-Anon can connect otherwise disparate movements and help create a united front against liberal democracy. Their belief that sinister crimes are being committed by elites justifies their activities–like storming the Reichstag in Berlin, a symbol of democracy and transparent government. It is time to take action, and a new approach is needed.  While there are various options for what such a new approach could look like in terms of responsibilities, the three components of better monitoring, independent governance, and active enforcement are essential.  But it should not be action led by government, it should be the responsibility of the business community and civil society.

This post is based on an article that originally appeared in Project Syndicate [8]