We Asked an Expert if Conspiracy Theorists Could Destroy Democracy
As a birther, Donald Trump is the first conspiracy theorist candidate with an actual shot at the presidency. But the US isn't alone. From anti-vaxxers to halal certification—theories once dismissed as crazy are gaining political currency.
History has been made at this year's US election. But I'm not talking Hillary Clinton, who's just become the first woman to win a major party nomination.
No, I'm talking about Donald Trump, who first burst onto America's national political scene as a prominent member of the birther movement—(falsely) claiming that Barack Obama was born overseas, and thus was ineligible for the presidency. Because of this, Trump has earned himself the auspicious title of the first conspiracy theorist candidate with an actual shot at presidency.
Australia isn't immune to conspiracy theory politics either. From anti-vaxxers, to Tony Abbott's prominent advisor Maurice Newman's one-world climate hoax, and those stubborn claims of a link between terrorism and halal certification, Australians are just as susceptible.
VICE: Hey Dr Moore, tell me are there certain areas of politics that attract conspiracies more than others?
Alfred Moore: A remarkably wide range of issues can lend themselves to conspiracy beliefs across the political spectrum. For example, in the last decade you have birther conspiracy theories: the belief that Obama was born outside the United States and that there was some vast coverup of his true origins, which is mostly believed by people on the right. On the other hand you've got 9/11 conspiracy theories, again with claims of a government cover up, but mostly believed by people on the left.
There are also different types of issues involved. Some beliefs are related to a particular event, something shocking, like an assassination or a terrorist attack, that is a complete breach of reality and where people try to reach for an explanation to make sense of it. Then there are other kinds of situations that are more structural, like claims that bankers and financial and political elites have rigged the system in a certain way. There's a very very wide range of things that are susceptible to being called a conspiracy theory.
Is social media magnifying conspiracy theories that probably would've just died out in the past?
This is an interesting problem, because one of the big fears—more general than just conspiracy theories—is that social media allows people to self sort their "information environments." Another scholar, Cass Sunstein, has speculated that people get caught in their own information bubbles where they only see self-confirmed beliefs and he thinks that is what's making conspiracy theories seem more prevalent in the social media age.
One problem with that kind of narrative is the assumption that it rests on, that there is more conspiracy belief today than there was in the pre-internet age. But there's not a great deal of evidence to suggest there's an increase.
It maybe becomes more obvious, but there are a few reasons for that. One of them is that when you look at how often a conspiracy theory is mentioned online, you find many of the mentions are in the context of debunking or mocking or culturally commenting on, rather than holding or expressing them. On that score we have to put a question mark over whether they are actually more prevalent or not.
Are conspiracy theories dangerous?
There does seem to be an obvious set of dangers. People who write about this have been worried about these being related to the general problem of trust in government, promoting a kind of vicious cycle of cynicism. A lot of people are worried about group polarisation in democracies because this makes it harder to reach compromises and have reasonable discussions which are the basis of democratic government.
Another way in which they could be a threat is by demotivating compliance with governments. If you look at the example of vaccinations, conspiracies have a very tangible effect of making people less likely to vaccinate their children and so pose a threat to public health. There are others who point to the potential role of conspiracy theory as something that plays some kind of role in extremist political violence, everyone from [Oklahoma City bomber] Timothy McVeigh to Anders Breivik.
How does this play into your research? Do conspiracy theories actually undermine democracy?
One point is that conspiracy theories tend to be framed against the assumption that in advanced democracies, real conspiracies are hard to sustain. Conspiratorial presumptions might be a plausible way of understanding events in Pakistan or Russia, where there is limited trustworthy information about governmental actions.
In advanced democracies; however, with practices of governmental transparency conspiracy seems less plausible. So there is a sense in which real conspiracies are thought to be implausible. But conspiracy theories—especially where they are believed by the poor and dispossessed—can be a threat to democratic politics in the ways I mentioned.
Against this, we need to remember that real conspiracies happen. They are usually not the grand-plan, forward-looking control of complex events, but more often cover-ups of institutional cock-ups, but to point to hidden coordination to deceive the public is often not wholly unwarranted. The problem is how to draw a line between scepticism and cynicism, reasonable suspicion and unreasonable paranoia. Furthermore, partisan political language constantly flirts with conspiracy theory.
Does this create any particularly concerning theories or trends?
I'm most worried by conspiracy claims that are believed and promoted by the powerful. Thankfully—with the exception of Trump, who may or may not even be sincere—politicians making overt accusations of conspiracy to explain things like economic downturns are hard to find and usually out of the mainstream. However, where political leaders either cynically promote or actually themselves believe that the ills of the nation are caused by a specific group of hidden enemies, I do get worried. For instance, in Turkey or Poland.
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