Here
and
Now

opinions

Conspiracy theories risk becoming new currency of post-truth politics

13 Comments
By Peter Apps

On Aug 21, as wildfires ripped across the Amazon rainforest, the Brazilian president took to Facebook to accuse nongovernmental organizations of setting light to the trees.

Speaking on a Facebook Live broadcast, Jair Bolsonaro presented no evidence for his claim. But that should hardly be a surprise. In responding to a crisis by simply spreading conspiracy theories, Brazil's far-right leader was simply embracing an alarming global trend, in which truth and reality risk becoming ever less important when it comes to political messaging.

Spreading conspiracy theories for political ends is hardly new – indeed, it is as old as politics itself. The last decade, however, has seen an explosion of such activity - and it is continuing to intensify. In last month, U.S. President Donald Trump implied that Bill and Hillary Clinton may somehow have been involved in the death in custody of financier Jeffrey Epstein, who died in an apparent suicide while awaiting trial on sex trafficking charges. China, meanwhile, has accused Western provocateurs of being behind growing protests in Hong Kong.

How widely such conceits are believed is hard to tell. What is much more apparent, however, is that their spread points to an unquestionably alarming tendency – a growing lack of respect for the truth, and increased willingness amongst those in authority to disregard it altogether.

It's a tactic that, so far at least, seems to bring with it considerable rewards. Trump owes much of his current political career to his relentless pursuit – since largely abandoned – of the baseless "birther" theory that his predecessor Barack Obama was born outside America in Kenya and therefore ineligible for the White House. Such talk helped win Trump growing political notoriety, particularly amongst right-wingers in chat rooms and on radio and TV – and perhaps brought the realization that being politically and otherwise outrageous might be a path to power.

CONSPIRACY THEORIES

Under President Vladimir Putin, Russia has become a hotbed of this kind of political activity. While Putin himself largely steers clear of direct involvement, Kremlin-linked media outlets have become relentless pushers of conspiracy theories and otherwise false information.

This trend extends deep into society, academia and popular culture. After the success of U.S. broadcaster HBO's documentary drama on the Chernobyl catastrophe earlier this year, Russia is producing its own version, which accuses the CIA of being behind the 1986 nuclear disaster. A 2015 study of Russian international relations textbooks, meanwhile, showed a dramatic growth in theories blaming the United States and other international actors for Russia's recent problems, particularly since the end of the Cold War.

Again, such thinking is far from new. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, allegations of an international Jewish conspiracy were often based on the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion", a fraudulent document that was widely circulated and believed. Such stories helped set the preconditions for the Holocaust and the rise of Nazism, which also used emerging communication technology such as radio and cinema to spread such paranoia and hatred.

In the modern era, of course, it is the Internet and social media that really supercharge such thinking. The depths of chat platforms like Reddit and private Facebook, WhatsApp and other groups allow conspiracy theories to develop largely out of sight, then outline and extrapolate from them amongst niche communities.

COMET PING PONG

Such fictions can have real-world consequences. In the run-up to the U.S. presidential election in 2016, more than one million tweets were shared with the hashtag #pizzagate, referencing a bizarre conspiracy theory that Hillary Clinton and other members of the U.S. elite were involved in a pedophile ring being run from a Washington pizzeria called Comet Ping Pong.

The restaurant received relentless phone, email and other abuse, with opinion polling at the time suggesting that just under 10 percent of the U.S. electorate took those allegations seriously. On Dec. 4, 2016, 28-year-old Edgar Madison Welch went to the restaurant with his AR-15 assault rifle in the apparent hope of liberating captured children he believed were being held there.

Although no one was hurt, he fired several rounds before being arrested. Multiple right-wing mass killers, however, have also been avid consumers of conspiracy theories, including Norway's Anders Breivik, who killed 77 in a 2011 gun and bomb attack.

Such outcomes may be an inevitable consequence of the proliferation of such theories. Those sharing them, however, likely have a much simpler agenda – to discredit the truth and ensure dialogue remains focused on their terms.

As long as NGOs are defending themselves against suggestions they torched the Amazon, they are not explaining why the fires are so dangerous or otherwise attacking the Brazilian government. As long as Trump can keep dialogue focused either on conspiracy theories or his more eye-catching actions – such as trying to buy Greenland – people are not discussing other things, like alternatives to his presidency.

The most alarming thing about these tactics, at least for now, is that they seem to work. Unless we can find an alternative – and fast – politics will likely keep getting worse, both globally and domestically in almost every country.

Peter Apps is a writer on international affairs, globalisation, conflict and other issues. He is the founder and executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century; PS21, a non-national, non-partisan, non-ideological think tank. Paralysed by a war-zone car crash in 2006, he also blogs about his disability and other topics. He was previously a reporter for Reuters and continues to be paid by Thomson Reuters. Since 2016, he has been a member of the British Army Reserve and the UK Labour Party, and is an active fundraiser for the party

© (c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2019.

©2019 GPlusMedia Inc.

13 Comments
Login to comment

in which truth and reality risk becoming ever less important when it comes to political messaging.

Like when Democrats peddled a conspiracy involving Putin and "Russian spies" after Trump got elected.

Look how much damage that ridiculous conspiracy theory did while it dominated political discussion in America for 3 years.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

Conspiracy theories are also pretty popular right here on JT. Example, the Jeffrey Epstein case where many people prefer to believe not that a miscreant was overcome by shame and guilt and committed suicide in his cell, but rather that a hit was organized involving the Clintons/Trump/Buckingham Palace/whoever according to your politics, plus co-operation from everyone from the Attorney-General to the jail governor to the guards, plus the coroner, the police and everyone who supplied evidence to the inquest.

Problem is that every now and then, maybe 1%, the conspiracy theory turns out to have some truth in it. That makes it a (remote) possibility, not a probability.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

the Jeffrey Epstein case where many people prefer to believe not that a miscreant was overcome by shame and guilt and committed suicide in his cell,

LOL! I almost choked on my coffee laughing at that one. Shame and guilt, oh yeah, I bet he was overwhelmed by it. That's why one of his last exclusive private visits was by a teenage girl. She must have helped him relieve his feelings of shame and guilt.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

LOL! I almost choked on my coffee laughing at that one.

Lotta coffee being choked on over the past couple of weeks. I almost choked on mine several times wondering how people can confect and believe in a chain of extremely unlikely events rather than give any credibility to the bleedin' obvious.

It needs a real black hat/white hat understanding of human nature to think that even a guy like Epstein wouldn't be subject to the normal human capacity for shame and guilt, once he was out there in the open for the world to look at. Still, I suppose if you've got that kind of understanding of human nature, it must make judging other people so much easier.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

While we shouldn't believe every whacky conspiracy theory going around bear in mind that former two time British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, a man who ought to know, stated that "The world is governed by very different personages from what is imagined by those who are not behind the scenes."

Bloodless coups, subterfuge, backdoor deals, covert action, and the like in order to overthrow governments, take over businesses, etc, has been a part of politics and business for millenniums. Rather than being skeptical of such things we should accept such as fact.

And the most monumental conquest would be global domination. It should not surprise us in the least that there are those who are at present scheming to subvert national sovereignty in order to bring about a world government which they control.

Those who have the most to cover up are those who most loudly cry 'Conspiracy theorist!'.

People, don't be blind, duped and brainwashed by the evil elites. They don't care about us.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

I almost choked on mine several times wondering how people can confect and believe in a chain of extremely unlikely events rather than give any credibility to the bleedin' obvious.

I have to say that, among all the wild theories, the overwhelmed by shame and guilt one is among the least likely. Overwhelmed by the thought of the rest of his life broke and/or in prison is reasonable. But even that raises conspiracy questions in how such an important and at-risk prisoner was allowed to commit suicide.

People are complex, but Epstein was, if anything, proud of who he was. There is simply no way he felt shame or guilt at what he did. Intellectually, he was well beyond such "common" emotions. He is not a hard person to understand.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

Overwhelmed by the thought of the rest of his life broke and/or in prison is reasonable.

Well, I agree with you on that. In fact it's just as likely an explanation than the "shame and guilt" scenario, and there were probably elements of all of that in his decision.

If Epstein's death was "organized" it doesn't seem very well thought through, considering the enormous risks to anyone involved and how many witnesses remain alive to tell the story about who was involved in his sex ring - paramount among those, the girls themselves. Now if they started getting popped off...

I can't say that the conspiracy theories surrounding Epstein are impossible. I just say they're highly improbable. In my opinion it's because it's often the case that no-one can categorically say that such theories are absolutely impossible that explains why they gain traction in the first place - although the main reason for the popularity of any given conspiracy theory is that there's something in it, somewhere, that people just want to believe. Whether it's true or not.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

It's good to question the official narrative. It's positively patriotic to hold your governments under intense scrutiny.

Problem is, these days...

Most CTs will somehow allude to a New World Order, a Globalist conspiracy - a shadowy govt run by a certain demographic... the sort of trash that comes from the likes of debunked theories like The Protocols and other anti-Semitic canards.

Best avoided.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

@Toasted Heretic

It's good to question the official narrative. It's positively patriotic to hold your governments under intense scrutiny.

Agreed. If it's good to do so on on national level, why not on a global level?

National governments are known for lying, covert behind the scenes action, secret pacts, etc. So why then do you consider the notion of behind the scene actors conspiring to do such things on a global scale a fantasy?

While I can't prove it, it seems perfectly logical to me and consistent with human history.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

While I can't prove it, it seems perfectly logical to me and consistent with human history.

Possibly.

But then again, anti-Semitism and bigotry seem perfectly logical to many people out there. And unfortunately, their facts are often based on the canards and tropes I've mentioned plenty of times. Or based on religious beliefs, which could be described as fanciful and not scientific.

Not saying that's where you're coming from, btw.

Intelligent and informed debate is always to be welcomed. My issue is when it's backed with the nasty stuff, as mentioned above.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

If Epstein's death was "organized" it doesn't seem very well thought through, considering the enormous risks to anyone involved and how many witnesses remain alive to tell the story about who was involved in his sex ring - paramount among those, the girls themselves. Now if they started getting popped off...

If they knew he was going to kill himself, then arranging for a camera to malfunction, for him to be taken off suicide watch, a guard to fall asleep and a cellmate to be transferred out wouldn't involve that many people.

And that leaves the girls, who have none of the resources Epstein had. Wouldn't be too hard to offer them a carrot and stick. From the girl's point of view, if they could kill Epstein, the girls would be easy to get rid of. On top of that, they most likely all could use some money, which will be offered. And easy choice. If they decide to tough it out and go to court, and don't disappear, they will be shut down like most innocents in these situations by the powers that be. They will be called drug addicts, sluts, money-grabbers and liars. Some former "party girl / teenage hooker" is going to be believed over British royalty? I think not.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

@Toasted Heretic

Possibly.

But then again, anti-Semitism and bigotry seem perfectly logical to many people out there. And unfortunately, their facts are often based on the canards and tropes I've mentioned plenty of times. Or based on religious beliefs, which could be described as fanciful and not scientific.

Not saying that's where you're coming from, btw.

Intelligent and informed debate is always to be welcomed. My issue is when it's backed with the nasty stuff, as mentioned above.

Who is working behind the scenes concerns me less than what they are doing and it's negative effect on the average population. Undemocratic maneuvering, loss of rights, loss of national sovereignty, legal and financial manipulation, wars, poverty and eventual dictatorial control over the world's populace.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

The behind the scenes faceless manipulators are scared because the free (for now) flow of information via the internet has given rise to those who have exposed their sick plans for global domination. So they are attempting to inoculate the population against the exposure by crying 'conspiracy theories!', 'post truth politics' etc. Articles like this are a perfect example.

There is only one truth according to them, theirs, and whatever slick lies and propaganda they feed us via the media. Of course they are already attempting to ban the posting of such 'conspiracy theories' and the day will come when they do.

Think of it, for the first time in history, in a soon to be cashless society, we will soon only be able to make any sort of monetary transaction through financial institutions they either own or control in some way. He who controls the money controls the world and everyone in it.

Don't fall for the lies contained in articles like this.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Login to leave a comment

Facebook users

Use your Facebook account to login or register with JapanToday. By doing so, you will also receive an email inviting you to receive our news alerts.

Facebook Connect

Login with your JapanToday account

User registration

Articles, Offers & Useful Resources

A mix of what's trending on our other sites