Conspiracy theories are an issue progressives can no longer ignore

Conspiracy theories are often dismissed as the humorous, yet mainly harmless preserve of a lunatic ‘whacky’ fringe. Bizarre they can be, but they are no laughing matter. They are a serious, widespread and influential cultural habit, and in certain social contexts they can be harmful.

Our guest writer is Carl Miller, co-author, The Power of Unreason

Conspiracy theories are often dismissed as the humorous, yet mainly harmless preserve of a lunatic ‘whacky’ fringe. Bizarre they can be, but they are no laughing matter. They are a serious, widespread and influential cultural habit, and in certain social contexts they can be harmful.

In The Power of Unreason, a Demos report released on Sunday, we looked at the role of conspiracy theories in extremist groups, violent ideologies and radical doctrine. We analysed over 50 extremist groups from across the spectrum, and frequently found conspiracies at the heart of their propaganda and ideology.

Conspiracy theories seem to have an important functional value across a wide smorgasbord of extremism, intolerance and violence. They create demonologies – ‘the other’ – that the group defines itself against. They are used to discredit moderating and dissenting voices, and are an important rhetorical device in the legitimization of violence. Moreover, they harm trust in government in ways we don’t yet fully understand.

So, what to do? Obviously government is hamstrung: if it gets involved, it may inadvertently fan the flames of conspiracy theories even further. The best response is to open up, and make sure young people have the skills to tell truth from falsehood. Easier said than done, but some things can help.

First, government, and yes this especially includes the counter-terrorism community, needs to move a little more towards the light of the public domain. Conspiracy theories thrive in the dark. They fill the vacuum that a lack of credible, frank information leaves. Obviously there are limits to what can be published, but the culture of the security services must change.

Putting information into the public domain cannot be seen purely as a threat to security work that might nevertheless have other incidental merits: it actually has an important security function itself. More openness could be achieved through more availability of counter-terrorism trials’ transcripts, explicit, regular and apolitical intelligence announcements, and greater sharing of information at a local level

But more broadly conspiracy theories live on the net. Today, people are bombarded with ‘counter-knowledge’, false information packaged to look like fact. People do not have the critical skills to discriminate between credible truth claims and its many imposters. This needs to change. Much of the government’s Preventing Violent Extremism effort has been met with huge distrust, cynicism, and even open hostility.

Government cannot tell people what to think, but it can promote standards of how to think: what is the source, what is the evidence, how good is the evidence and what credible evidence is being ignored?

The issue of conspiracy theories is an important one for progressives. In an important sense, conspiracy theories are a reaction to structural inequality. Even if the conspiracy the theory purports to uncover is not true, they arise from a felt sense of being controlled by elites. They are indeed very often ‘insurrectionary’ – a tool for pushing against an establishment of peer-reviewed journals, mainstream media, and government spokesmen. In a real sense they are empowering.

We all have a responsibility to speak out against intolerance and bigotry, and also to speak out and confront conspiracy theories when we encounter them. Especially given the difficulty of direct governmental intervention, this is a problem civil society must take by the horns.

24 Responses to “Conspiracy theories are an issue progressives can no longer ignore”

  1. Shamik Das

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  2. Jose Aguiar

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  3. Alec Speight

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  4. winston k moss

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  5. Miko Flohr

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  6. LockPickerNet

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  7. Democratic Society

    Noted: Conspiracy theories are an issue progressives can no longer ignore //bit.ly/diEvU3

  8. Kevin McNamara

    a condescending article on conspiracy theories, hmm //bit.ly/djK8xG

  9. Guy Aitchison

    This article uses the word “conspiracy theory” as though it’s unproblematic, but there’s nothing in the term that necessarily implies falsehood. Sometimes “conspiracy theories” turn out to be correct, as with Iraq and WMDs. A little recognition of the complexity of the issue and the fact that, you know, elites do sometimes lie to us, wouldn’t go amiss.

  10. aacogz

    LftFoot4Wards pc on ConspiracyTheories //bit.ly/a4j4Jn has a pt BUT lets not4get wht happened2 @Wikileaks & GarethWilliams #GCHQ #MI6

  11. Tom Hewitson

    RT @leftfootfwd: Conspiracy theories are an issue progressives can no longer ignore: //bit.ly/djK8xG

  12. andrew

    Conspiracy theories are an issue progressives can no longer ignore …: Conspiracy theories are often dismissed as… //bit.ly/9XGntV

  13. Constance

    Harming trust in government is a good thing. Guy Aitchison says that elites sometimes lie. If you independently fact-check what governments and mainstream media say about, say, the Israel-Palestine conflict, you’ll find that they lie ALL THE TIME.

    Crackpot denizens of 9/11 and JFK conspiracy theories are NOT the same as ordinary dissenting citizens. Governments are appointed by the people, and the burden of proof for any of its claims lies with the government. You SHOULD distrust your government. You should hold your government accountable for everything it says.

    This article doesn’t know which way it’s going. It says that we need critical skills to discriminate between the credible and the false, but almost in the same breath, it underhandedly labels dissenters as conspiracy theorists. It says that government should “promote standards of how to think” (critical thinking skills?). This is terribly wrongheaded. Governments are power centers. They are not going to give their subjects the tools to dispel their own FUD.

    We, the people, need to promote critical thinking and fact-checking skills and an independent press. Confronting our own government’s claims is just as important as confronting conspiracy theories.

    The article says that conspiracy theories are “a tool for pushing against an establishment of peer-reviewed journals, mainstream media, and government spokesmen.” How is holding the “establishment” accountable not a good thing?

    One good point was made: Governments should open up. The people should demand transparency.

  14. James

    Every morning journalists on listservs talk to each other about what to write. By the text book definition, they conspire. Then they go in to work and have a editorial meeting where they will, by the textbook definition, conspire. Everyone on Wall Street does the exact same thing. Everyone in Government does the exact same thing. So conspiracies happen by the thousands every single day. That’s fact.

    And if I theorize about what they’re plotting, that makes me the crazy one?

    Wake up, each side demonizes others for listening to reason under the guise of “crazy conspiracy theories”. There’s nothing crazy but the powerful who plot in the shadows.

  15. ant

    Governments are indeed hamstrung. They can’t tell the truth and neither can the media because so many of them were involved and had foreknowledge of the 9/11 attacks. The solution is simple. Hold a criminal investigation into the 9/11 attacks: this means an examination of the evidence, arrests, charges, witnesses giving evidence under oath and a complete forensic investigation of what went on that day. Nothing else will make it go away because the public are not sheep and are not as stupid as the people who did 9/11 hoped they were and everyone knows the 9/11 Commission was just another covert intelligence operation in and of itself. As John Lennon said and sang, ‘Gimme some truth’. Amen to that.

  16. Solomon Hughes

    Very odd that Demos have published a pamphelt about the danger of conspiracy theories, and their publication makes no mention the most successful conspiracy theory of modern times – the supposed conspiracy where Saddam developed weapons of mass destruction to pass on to his friends in Al Qaeda. This had the features of a classic conspiracy theory: Enemies who are secretly friends; a hidden plot against society; undercover meetings between Iraqi agents and 9/11 hijackers in Prague ; Iraqi’s training hijackers on a grounded plane ; Iraqi anthrax spread by Al Qaeda agents in America; Smersh style underground bases and mobile bio labs. But none of it was true: No WMD, no link between Saddam and Osama, no Prague meeting, no terrorist training at Iraq’s Salman Pak compound, neither Iraqi nor Al Qaeda involvement in the US anthrax attacks. It was all a conspiracty theory, and it led to massive violence, with hundreds of thousands of deaths. Demos’ authors seem to think conspiracy theory is something nasty found in the wierd fringes, not the “sensible” centre, but the WMD-Iraq-Bin Laden conspiracy theory was promoted by the governments of Britain and the UK, with the help of the most respectable newspapers and commentators.

  17. Mark Welkie

    RT @progressiveness: Conspiracy theories are an issue progressives can no longer ignore #progressive //bit.ly/cVVTAV

  18. Carl Miller

    Hi there everyone, thanks for your comments. I’ve enjoyed reading them.

    I’d like firstly to clear up a misconception appearing in lots of the discussions of our paper. By no means do we think that ‘conspiracy theories’ is an unproblematic term. It should never be used to dismiss theories out of hand. Indeed, in our paper, an important element in our definition is that conspiracy theories are belief in a small cabal secretly plotting for their own ends regardless of the evidence. Conspiracy theories are those that demonstrate this kind of asymmetry of scepticism: dismissing official narratives whenever given the chance, yet engaging in ludicrous mental gymnastics – selective presentation of evidence and deliberate distortion included – to wrap any evidence, also given the chance, around their pet theory.

    Neither do we dispute that some conspiracy theories have turned out to be true. There are indeed small groups of people that wield disproportionate power over us, and do exploit this power for their own ends. In our report we mention examples of this.

    Kevin – I hope this clears up the ‘condescending’ element of the article. It wasn’t meant to be. Indeed, in our report we explore many of the very compelling psychological reasons why otherwise rational people swallow conspiracy theories.

    Guy – Your point is very much taken on board. There wasn’t space in this article to cover the epistemological issues of ‘conspiracy theories’ at length. I urge you to go to the report for this.

    Constance – I’ve never labelled ‘dissenters’ as conspiracy theorists. Skepticism and openness are things our report promotes. Our point is that the same level of scepticism must be shown to all theories – official and alternative.

    For those posts stating unshakable conviction in conspiracy theories, I ask you to constantly be prepared to challenge your own version of events. Many conspiracy theorists call for citizens to ‘keep an open mind’; to ‘ask questions’; this is exactly what you should do. Challenge yourself – is your evidence as overwhelming as you think? Is there counter-evidence? We’ve all read the “anomalies” over the pentagon crash. How many of you have read the report by the American Society of Civil Engineers (//fire.nist.gov/bfrlpubs/build03/PDF/b03017.pdf)? Constantly question, but question in a way that is balanced, and doesn’t pre-figure the answer.

    If you really want to find the truth, you won’t find it in the mutually-consolidating echo-chambers of conspiricist chat rooms.

  19. whyatt

    What one person may like to call a conspiracy theory may be an unknown fact to another or the way the world and business and media actually behind closed doors but which no one talks about publicly to yet another person.

  20. whyatt

    What one person may like to call a conspiracy theory may be an unknown fact to another or the way the world and business and media actually operate behind the closed doors but which no one talks about publicly to yet another person.

  21. Matt Owen

    ‘Conspiracy theory’ is the intellectual equivalent of a four-letter word. There are only theories, all of which should be challenged and analysed. That some of them involve elements of conspiracy should neither strengthen nor weaken any given theory automatically.

  22. POC

    RT @leftfootfwd: Conspiracy theories are an issue progressives can no longer ignore //bit.ly/djK8xG

  23. Weekend reading, 10 September 2010 « Policy Progress

    […] Carl Miller (Demos) – Conspiracy theories are an issue progressives can no longer ignore […]

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