The emergence of the far-right QAnon cult in America has brought conspiratorial thinking to the forefront of global politics, particularly now that US President Donald Trump has offered his own oblique praise of the group. While the “Q” sign has become a familiar sight at Trump rallies, its appearance in Europe this August came as a shock and a wake-up call to liberal democracies everywhere.
As right-wing activists attending anti-government demonstrations in Berlin displayed their own Qs, some agitators claimed that Trump himself had just landed in the city to take control. And the event took a truly ugly turn when several hundred people stormed the stairs of the Reichstag (the seat of Germany’s federal parliament), waving the old imperial German flag with a “Q” inserted. A further weird twist was an appearance by the devoted American anti-vaccination activist Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. (the wayward son of the assassinated 1968 Democratic presidential contender, and the nephew of US President John F. Kennedy).
Among many other preposterous claims, QAnon supporters believe that Trump is engaged in an epic struggle against a global ring of liberal elite pedophiles who siphon children’s blood to extend their own longevity. The cult’s proliferation alongside the ongoing spread of Russian-sponsored “fake news” is probably no coincidence. Leading social-media platforms nowadays are awash in baseless claims, including allegations about secret plans hatched by the Chinese, the Iranians, or the American “deep state” to spread COVID-19 intentionally.
At a minimum, such disinformation distracts from real issues and sows confusion. And in today’s information ecosystem, the spread of conspiracy theories threatens to erode even further public trust in established institutions, undermine confidence in democracy, and incite violence. Containing such “theories” has thus become a matter of growing importance, even urgency, across the world’s democracies.1
THE VARIETIES OF CRANKERY
There are at least some ways to combat the proliferation of conspiracy theories, and to reduce the harmful impact of those that spread beyond the margins. But to harness the available methods and devise new responses, policymakers will need a better understanding of the problem.
While conspiracy theories have been around for millennia, the ease and scale of their diffusion today is unprecedented, owing chiefly to the rise of social media, where unfiltered information and ideas can be disseminated at no cost. Today’s most popular conspiracy theories have found welcoming homes on websites like 4chan and 8kun (previously 8chan), and can also spread unhindered on major platforms like Facebook, reaching tens of millions of people. As a result, they attract the attention of mainstream media outlets and politicians, not least Trump, who openly endorses disinformation that supports his own interests.
The systemic danger posed by conspiratorial thinking is fundamental. Without at least some agreement about facts on which to base political debate, democracy cannot function. And without at least some evidentiary standards, there can be no shared basis of fact.
To be sure, lies (statements known to the speaker to be false) and misinformation (falsehoods spread unintentionally) have always been part of the warp and woof of politics, as have claims that fall into what the philosopher Harry Frankfurt famously deemed “bullshit,” wherein facts are cherry-picked to serve a particular agenda. But rarely have political debates been so unmoored from widely accepted truths as they are today. Instead, emotions or pre-existing worldviews almost entirely determine political positions on any given issue, which makes them essentially incontestable. There can be no constructive – or even coherent – debate based on a mélange of lies, misinformation, and bullshit.
Conspiracy theories use emotionally potent narratives that immediately ring true to those who already hold certain assumptions. The more they seep into the public consciousness, the more they fortify social divisions and an “us versus them” view of the world. The formal scholarly definition of the phenomenon, writes Joseph E. Uscinski, the editor of Conspiracy Theories and the People Who Believe Them, is: “an 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.”
In other words, these are not “theories” in any scientific sense. Rather, they are fabrications, based on truth claims that can neither be verified nor necessarily falsified. To non-believers, they can seem outlandish, far-fetched, and nonsensical; but to devotees, they engender a sense of passion and in-group connection that can easily evolve into quasi-religious fervor.
Of course, some conspiracy theories are harmless. The many about aliens and government coverups (a UFO incident in Roswell, New Mexico, has captivated conspiratorial imaginations for decades) fall into this category. But others can and have had serious real-world consequences, leading to violent vigilante or extremist action, or to the subversion of public confidence in journalists and news media, schools and universities, experts of all kinds, and institutions more broadly.
“New World Order” theories, for example, accuse various institutions – the US Federal Reserve, the United Nations, the European Union, Israel, and so forth – of secretly ruling the world on behalf of a narrow cohort of “villains,” who invariably include George Soros and Bill Gates. These theories tend to be unnecessarily complex and full of contradictions, achieving their greatest impact when they are flexible or vague enough to attach themselves to more mainstream ideologies and positions. That is precisely what QAnon has done with Trump’s Republicans in the United States, European populists, and anti-Semites. By slowly infiltrating the public discourse, such theories sow suspicion and become increasingly corrosive politically.
But conspiracy theories also can cause direct physical harm, as with anti-vaxxers who recklessly threaten the lives of immunocompromised children, or mass murderers like the Norwegian white supremacist Anders Behring Breivik. When true believers interpret a conspiracy theory as a call to action, they feel justified in committing violent acts, as the “Pizzagate” shooter in the US did in 2016. And with some conspiracy theories – particularly those in which “the Jews” lurk behind every recession, war, and epidemic – such violence has become a recurring phenomenon throughout history.
AN OLD, HARD PROBLEM
Historically, conspiracy theories tend to become more prevalent in times of change, and particularly during large-scale crises or periods of profound uncertainty, such as the current pandemic. But, as Russell Muirhead and Nancy L. Rosenblum show in their 2019 book, A Lot of People Are Saying, conspiracy theories also have evolved. Whereas past conspiracy theories offered alternative explanations of events and trends, the new conspiracism mostly features bald-faced assertions with even less regard for facts or coherence.
Under these conditions, insinuation, calumny, and absurdity seem to appear out of thin air, often for reasons that are unclear. Rather than being directed at any specific goals, their intended purpose is apparently to foment political destabilization for its own sake.
Perhaps because contemporary conspiracy theories are so fluid, the believers are a diverse group. A recent Pew Research Center survey finds that among US adults, those relatively more likely to believe conspiracy theories include not only conservative, less-educated whites but also Hispanics and African-Americans. What these demographic groups share is exposure to high levels of economic uncertainty and a perceived lack of political agency. Many in each group harbor a belief that some anonymous force controls their lives, and their precarious standing in society makes them easy prey for propagandists.
What is to be done? In a 2009 paper for the Journal of Political Philosophy, Cass R. Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule of Harvard University proposed four measures that governments could take against false and harmful conspiracy theories: banning them, taxing their dissemination, supporting counter-speech, and infiltrating their sources. But none of these options is very promising.
Banning conspiracy theories ultimately means systemic government censorship, which ignores a line that most liberal democracies would refuse to cross. Taxation of conspiracy theories also implies a violation of free speech, not to mention that, as a practical matter, a tax would be difficult or impossible to enforce.
Government-sponsored counter-information would steer clear of civil-liberties violations but also could backfire, by giving even more attention to the original falsehood, or by reinforcing conspiracists’ belief that the state is involved in a coverup. And infiltrating groups and online forums carries similar risks. Why would the government task its spies with such a mission if the theory were not true?
Clearly, conspiracy theories present a wicked problem. Democratic governments that want to limit the effect of such disinformation can do little right and much wrong. Policymakers must walk a narrow path between legitimate regulation and censorship; between taxing free speech and giving conspiracy theorists a free-ride; and between the danger of appearing indifferent and that of seeming overzealous.
But what should policymakers be most worried about in the first place? They certainly shouldn’t be losing sleep over theories about extraterrestrial invasions. Instead, Muirhead and Rosenblum argue, policymakers should focus on three characteristics of conspiracy theories that justify action: incitements to violence; claims of treason against legitimate political contenders; and expressions of distrust in expertise.
These are reasonable criteria. In most democracies, in fact, all three categories are already largely covered by tort law or rules and regulations against slander, defamation, and incitement. But why, then, does the problem persist? To answer that question requires recognizing that government is itself part of the problem.
WHO’S WATCHING THE DETECTIVES?
David Coady of the University of Tasmania has pointed out that many anti-conspiracist experts mistakenly impute good intentions to governments, when they should appreciate that public officials, particularly politicians, have motives of their own. Trump is a case in point. Not only does he have no interest in safeguarding the credibility of established institutions, but he has long relied on conspiracy theories – from QAnon to “birtherism” (the false claim that former US President Barack Obama is not a US citizen) – as a political strategy.
Going even further, Uscinski argues that politicians actually are among the biggest purveyors of both conspiracy theories and actual conspiracies. As a blanket assertion, this is, to say the least, difficult to substantiate. But Uscinski points to many examples in the US that would explain why the American public has become primed for conspiratorial thinking. These include the Watergate break-in in the 1970s; the Iran-Contra scandal in the 1980s; the Whitewater affair in the 1990s; the baseless claims about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction in the early 2000s; and the bailout of too-big-to-fail banks and firms following the 2008 global financial crisis. The current era of birtherism, deep states, and QAnon did not dawn in a historical vacuum.
Appeals for more restraint on the part of politicians, while necessary, are far from sufficient. The incentives are too strong, and the opportunities too frequent, to expect politicians to abstain from conspiratorial rhetoric on their own. At the end of the day, democratic governments are left in a difficult position, especially around election time.
One approach, of course, is to do nothing, on the assumption that conspiracy theories inevitably will continue to emerge, spread, and eventually be replaced by something else. But a more promising option is to focus on the role that digital technologies and social media have played in boosting conspiracy theories’ potency. This calls for an entirely new approach, based on three separate but mutually dependent components: better monitoring, independent governance, and active law enforcement. With an independent body, there may be a chance to reduce the proliferation and virality of conspiracy theories online to the point that they are no longer materially harmful to public trust and democratic institutions.
Better monitoring in this context means a systematic, comprehensive, and ongoing vetting of websites, including social-media channels and news outlets, to detect, assess (fact check), and track emerging conspiracy theories. Starting in the US and some European countries, such a protocol could follow the model of NewsGuard, a private firm that claims to survey “95% of online engagement with news.”
The “Conspiracy Monitor” we envision (a smaller version of which already exists in France) would be nonpartisan, highly professional, and deployed on a scale and scope adequate to the task. As a for-profit or non-profit private entity, it would employ hundreds of experts, all of whom would be committed to safeguarding its reputation as a serious, independent, reliable organization working in the service of the public interest. The CM’s funding would come from dues paid by social-media and Internet companies, which share an interest in fighting harmful content to avoid litigation, regulatory action, and public obloquy. These “clients” would come to see the CM as a form of insurance protecting their business models.
The CM would use the latest technology to assess detected and reported conspiracy theories or related insinuations, and it would develop and maintain a methodologically sound “litmus test” to answer three questions: Does the theory fuel hatred, divide society, or incite violence? Does it seek to delegitimize political opponents with baseless allegations of treason or other crimes? Does it encourage general distrust of expertise and fact-based policymaking and administration without evidence of its own, thereby eroding the basis of public debate?
If the answer to any of these three questions is yes, the conspiracy theory would be classified as harmful (precisely how harmful depends on how many questions it affirms). This label would not just serve as a kind of “parental advisory.” Rather, it would entail civil action, sanctions, and enforcement. Websites judged harmful would be closed, related sites closely monitored and warned, and actors identified and notified. In cases where there is an imminent threat of violence or repeat offenses, the appropriate legal authorities may be informed.
The second major component of an effective CM is governance. Given the highly politicized nature of many conspiracy theories, the CM would have to be above suspicion as a neutral organization par excellence. It should therefore be governed by an external, independent board of experts, the CM Trust, which would operate as a not-for-profit organization. The CM Trust would be one step removed from the 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, but managed separately.
The CM, together with the CM Trust, would act as a public guardian. If the CM classifies a conspiracy theory as harmful, the board would follow up with appropriate action. The clients could then be contractually required to block any sites and delete any accounts associated with the false theory. The CM would monitor their compliance, and continue tracking the spread or mutation of the underlying conspiracy theory.
The third component, law enforcement, requires designated officers who specialize in conspiracy theories and are capable of determining when legal action is necessary and appropriate. Where these authorities would be based depends on a given country’s legal and political system.
NO TIME TO WASTE
Conspiracy theories, old and new, are gaining momentum, and constant vigilance is needed to contain the spread of those that can undermine democratic institutions and sow the seeds for violence. Those that assume cult status can link otherwise disparate movements and create a united front against liberal democracy, as with QAnon and its appearance in Europe. When adherents of these movements come to believe that elites are committing sinister, criminal acts behind the scenes, they will feel justified in pursing increasingly reckless acts, like storming the Reichstag – a symbol of democratic rebirth and transparent government.
For the world’s democracies, there is no time to waste. A new approach to managing the problem is urgently needed. The key is to focus on better monitoring, independent governance, and active enforcement, and not to entrust government to lead the effort. Official behavior may contribute to an environment in which lies, misinformation, and bullshit thrive, but they take root and spread within civil society, and that is where they must be stopped.
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