Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, originally published on the Twitter feed of the White House

To combat conspiracy theories, fight social decay and inequality

In this blog post, Edward Knudsen argues that the true way to fight conspiracies is not to monitor and regulate them, but to address widespread inequality and corruption. This piece is a response to an article that Helmut K Anheier and Andrea Römmele published earlier on the Dahrendorf Forum website.

With conspiracy theories attracting more attention worldwide, many policymakers and academics have developed proposals to combat them and limit their spread. Ideas include banning them, taxing their transmission, or labelling and monitoring misleading stories and statements. Recently, many prominent social media platforms removed content and accounts related to the wildly popular “Q-Anon” theory. While these proposals rightfully try to stop the production, slow the spread, and reduce the political purchase of dangerous theories, they fail to attack the root causes. Worse, their efforts can distract from actual conspiracy on the part of elites, and can prompt further disillusionment with the political process.

Although conspiracy theories are often baseless and harmful—even with the potential to incite violence—efforts to monitor or ban them carry risks that outweigh the benefits. Regulation can amplify conspiracies as they become “forbidden fruit,” embolden conspiracists who feel further excluded from mainstream discourse, and risks a crackdown on honest truth-tellers who wish to uncover actual misdeeds.

In many cases, conspiracies reflect social alienation. People are justifiably angry at the state of the world, but don’t fully grasp how economic and political systems operate, so they latch on to easy-to-understand theories, as Skip Willman has argued. Therefore, the best way to combat conspiracy theories is to attack them at the source—by addressing social inequality and the countless incidents of actual conspiracy and corruption that plague our society, politics, and economy.

Which conspiracy?

The term “conspiracy theory” has morphed into a catchall for anything untrue and politically incendiary. This definition is itself misleading and dangerous. Rather, as conspiracy expert Joseph E. Uscinski defines it, such theories are “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.” Importantly, “not all conspiracies are crackpot theories: some have ultimately been verified,” as Douglas and Sutton point out.

Indeed, many conspiracies turn out to be true. At various points in time, anyone arguing that the US government was using the proceeds from drug sales to fund right-wing military groups in Latin America, had lied about the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to justify a military invasion, or that many members of the global elite were implicated in an paedophilia ring on a Caribbean island would have been labelled as a crank or a lunatic. As we know now, all of those stories actually happened.

These particularly notable examples ignore the more banal schemes that surround us. Financial crime has become so commonplace that years of financing terrorism and billions of dollars of tax avoidance can be reduced to a breezy explainer piece. Other corrupt misdeeds —from the UK’s fraught COVID-19 test-and-trace programme to Germany’s Wirecard scandal to the (now seemingly thwarted) coup attempt in Bolivia—come to light routinely. Far from being the exception, cases of a “small group of powerful people working in secret for their own interests and against the common good” seem to be all too common.

Although actual conspiracy is undeniably a part of modern political and economic life, there are certainly many unfounded and harmful theories. These are hardly a monolith. Often, conspiracies are a way for people to try to understand a complex world, including why some suffer from economic stagnation and decline while others prosper. For example, the “New World Order” theory is an outlandish and anti-Semitic attempt to characterize the emergence of a coming world totalitarian government.

The specifics of the theory are clearly false, and are based on many despicable tropes. Still, not all fears about anti-democratic control of the global economy are baseless. There has been a concerted, multi-decade effort to de-nationalise global economic governance and create an overarching framework for trade and investment worldwide. The rising globalisation and financialisation of the world economy harmed many workers, to the benefit of a narrow elite. Related conspiracy theories that involve George Soros and Bill Gates plotting for world dominion are similarly dangerous, yet still speak to an important truth: billionaires do have too much wealth and political power in today’s system.

Other theories are propagated by elites in order to distract from their misdeeds and failures. On the American right, Q-Anon is the clearest example of this trend. Supporters (including some in the Trump administration) advocate a narrative that President Trump is fighting a global cabal of paedophiles, when in fact he is implicated in an actual paedophilia ring with his many contacts with Jeffrey Epstein. On the other side of the partisan line, American centrists dismayed at the outcome of the 2016 election attempted to shun responsibility by placing all the blame on external forces, notably Vladimir Putin’s Russia. This pattern is nothing new. As far back as the 19th century, French Liberal François Guizot noted that unstable governments and politicians will propagate conspiracy theories in order to hold on to power.

The problem with monitoring 

In a recent piece for the Dahrendorf Forum and Project Syndicate, Helmut K Anheier and Andrea Römmele outline a plan to fight conspiracy theories. Their proposal involves creating an organisation to track and monitor conspiracies, which they call “Conspiracy Monitor” (CM). It would be a private, non-partisan group dedicated to evaluating theories on three criteria: whether it is divisive and could fuel hatred, whether it assumes criminal wrongdoing on the part of political opposition, and whether it is harmful to public trust. Any theories that failed one of the tests would be labelled, with sanctions—and possible referral to law enforcement—as a result.

While Anheier and Römmele are correct to reject the heavy-handed bans and flawed taxation approaches that Sunstein and Vermeule propose, their monitoring approach carries several risks. Most notably, people already distrust many institutions. For decades, groups of experts have presided over failed policies and worsening inequality. People will distrust new institutions for the same reasons that they lost faith in the old ones. They may grow even more resentful that there is another elite project to tell them the “correct” view.

Despite assurances that the agency will be detached from government, there is little guarantee that CM could be protected from political influence. The US Supreme Court is allegedly non-partisan, yet is hotly-contested for political ends. In the hyper-polarised US political climate, control over CM would almost surely become yet another battleground for partisan warfare.

We have already seen the political bias inherent in fact checking services. A broader and more powerful organisation is likely to fall into similar traps, only with greater consequences. As the journalist Matt Taibbi has written, as soon as we pursue the goal of “quashing ‘harm,’ there are really only two possible outcomes: an ever-expanding game of speech Whac-a-Mole, or a double-standard.”

In addition to being used for partisan ends, CM could also be used as an effective way for the ruling classes to shield themselves from scrutiny. Already, the term “conspiracy theory” serves as a convenient cudgel which is used to attack anyone sceptical of elites’ motives and conduct. With an official designation, the label could become an even more potent distraction tactic. The people running monitoring and regulation may only crack down on conspiracies counter to their interests. Conversely, they would let other conspiracies flourish that cover up their allies’ misdeeds. As social conditions deteriorate, we must acknowledge that conspiracy theories will become a favourite tool of the powerful, as they effectively distract from real political issues. We cannot trust that same elite to monitor conspiracies that may hide their own wrongdoing.

The criteria that Anheier and Römmele propose are also excessively broad. Their three tests could be used to sanction theories that may actually be to society’s benefit. For example, the accusation that Donald Trump could seek to undermine the 2020 election—by definition a conspiracy theory, as it alleges a plot by the powerful to protect their own interests—could certainly damage public trust and is likely to sow discord. Yet is almost undeniably true and in the public’s interest to know.

Any monitoring effort also risks mission creep. Even with good initial intentions, the scope of such a program is likely to expand beyond recognition, much as anti-terrorism efforts have. For example, if Q-Anon content is to be banned, should all references to “save the children” (another favourite slogan of the Q-set) also be removed from social media? Considering this is also the name of an international charity, it is easy to see where the lines blur, making most efforts at regulation impossibly messy.

Finally, the focus on conspiracy theories diverts political energy from fixing real problems. To really restore public trust, corrupt business and political practices should be combatted, and inequality must be tackled. Spending energy and resources on monitoring and sanctioning spurious theories takes away from more important efforts and provides cover to those who perpetuate structural injustices.

Conspiracy and social decay

Periods of economic unrest frequently coincide with rising interest in conspiracy theories. As the historian Eric Hobsbawm argues, during the nineteenth century, the rise of apocalyptic and conspiratorial theories during the Industrial Revolution demonstrated an “incapacity to deal with the earthquakes of society which were breaking down men’s lives.” As the “fourth industrial revolution” again alters our relationship to the economy and each other, it is no wonder that we see a rise in conspiracism.

When economic “shock therapy” was imposed after the fall of the Soviet Union, the resulting social strife again provided ample opportunity for conspiracies to flourish. As Keir Giles, author of Moscow Rules: What Drives Russia to Confront the West, has pointed out, “the simultaneous disappearance of communism as a guiding philosophy that united Russia and of Russian power and influence in the world left an ideological vacuum, which was filled in the early 1990s” by cults, conspiracies, and mysticism. Only the rise of Putin, and the emphasis on Russia as a great power, managed to fill this void. As the West’s international standing and social conditions deteriorate, we can expect a similar fate.

As with many other conspiracies, Q-Anon itself is fundamentally a way to cope with disappointment and decline. As Donald Trump’s failure to lock up political opponents has disappointed supporters, they chose to invent a story in which “elite paedophiles” have secretly been rounded up and detained or killed. As in other cases, conspiracists struggle to cope with a difficult reality, so they invent a fantasy. Indeed, periods of acceleration in Q-Anon’s popularity coincide with Trump’s greatest difficulties—such as the Mueller probe and this year’s COVID-19 failures. The theory is now so engrained in mainstream Republican thinking that it is difficult to imagine any efforts to combat it succeeding.

Fighting the root cause

In today’s era of rampant inequality, widespread governance failures, and open (and largely unpunished) corruption, people are rightly angry at elites and institutions. Deprived of feelings of political agency and looking for answers, they turn to conspiracies and spurious accusations.

Rather than monitoring or regulating the spread of conspiracies, we must view conspiracy theories as primarily a symptom, not a cause, of social decay. Of course, a more equal society will not eradicate conspiracies, but it can reduce their salience and political impact.

Plans to combat conspiracy theories are correct to prioritize restoring public trust in government, which has been hovering near all-time lows. But to demand public faith in institutions as a precondition for effective governance is to put the cart before the horse. The first step is to create a government that truly serves the people. Only then will it be worthy of the public’s trust.

Edward Knudsen is a Research Associate with the Dahrendorf Forum at the Hertie School. 

The opinions expressed in this blog contribution are entirely those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Dahrendorf Forum or its hosts Hertie School and London School of Economics or its funder Stiftung Mercator.