Conspiracy Without Theory
January 17, 2021
Conspiracy theories have existed since the dawn of our republic. Traditional conspiracism gives order and meaning to apparently random occurrences by insisting that some powerful unseen agency is behind catastrophic events, and only the select few brave "believers" know the truth. In this alternate reality, JFK’s assassination was not the doing of a lone gunman. 9/11 could not have been the work of fewer than two dozen men plotting in a remote corner of Afghanistan. Sandy Hook could not have been the design of a 20 year old psychopath. Conspiracists insist that the U.S. government must have been complicit. They often call these “false flag” attacks.
The Illuminati puppeteers are behind it.
Things are not as they seem, and once all the "facts" that are withheld by reliable sources and omitted from official reports are carefully analyzed and the plot uncovered, secret nefarious conspiracies make sense of seemingly disconnected events.
For some, this is entertainment, a novel distraction: after hours ruminations over beers or bong hits. For others, it's a neurotic disorder: an addiction to patterns of thinking that are destructive to themselves, the people around them and the social norms that bind an increasingly disconnected society together.
Humans evolved to rely heavily on heuristic thinking, or, mental shortcuts. Random coincidence is uncomfortable and unsettling. When we reject authoritative standards of evidence and falsifiability, and deny evidence to the contrary, we soon develop the paranoid delusion that we are victims of a world conspiring against us.
Not all conspiracy theories are wrong. The government and CIA have fooled us before, and when we found out the truth we felt like suckers. Uncovering conspiracies real or imagined is a dopamine hit, like a good true crime novel or detective show. Conventional conspiracy theories offer a plausible theory with evidence, even if that evidence lacks credibility or the relationship is spurious.
Nancy Rosenblum, a research Professor of Ethics in Politics and Government at Harvard University posits that a new variant of conspiracy thinking has evolved: conspiracy without the theory.
The new conspiracism we are seeing today, however, often dispenses with any explanations or evidence, and is unconcerned with uncovering a pattern or identifying the operators plotting in the shadows. Instead, it offers only innuendo and verbal gesture, as exemplified in President Trump’s phrase, “people are saying.” Conspiracy without the theory can corrode confidence in government, but it cannot give meaning to events or guide constructive collective action.
The effect of conspiratorial thinking, once it ceases to function as any sort of explanation, is delegitimation. The new conspiracist accusations seek not only to unmask and disempower those they accuse but to deny their standing to argue, explain, persuade, and decide. Conspiracism rejects their authority. In the end, the consequences of delegitimation are not targeted or discrete but encompassing.
This new lazy conspiracism requires only a vague assertion. No proof required.
Donald Trump’s limited phraseology leverages, “a lot of people are saying...” Rosenblum notes that such oblique references to unnamed actors are elastic; they encompass a changing cast of public enemies and a wide but unspecified repertoire of evil deeds. Complicity by mere suggestion conveniently requires no responsibility to explain or provide evidence. It absolves the speaker of responsibility to support the assertion. It's often framed as a question. Thus, endless investigation is required, with a raise of an eyebrow and shrug of the shoulders as they walk away.
This is a page from the playbook of sly Soviet-era news propaganda techniques:
- Pose xyz as a question, IE, “Was the election rigged?"
- Keep repeating the question. Even better, put in bold letters in the lower third of your newscast.
Pulitzer Prize winning critic Michiko Kakutani observes in her now legendary article "The Death Of Truth" in The Guardian:
The strategy, essentially, was this: dig up a handful of so-called professionals to refute established science or argue that more research is needed; turn these false arguments into talking points and repeat them over and over; and assail the reputations of the genuine scientists on the other side. If this sounds familiar, that’s because it’s a tactic that’s been used by Trump and his Republican allies to defend policies (on matters ranging from gun control to building a border wall) that run counter to both expert evaluation and national polls.
More recently Russia has enhanced the tactic with a technique the RAND Institute calls “Firehose of falsehoods.” The characteristics are:
- High-volume and multichannel
- Rapid, continuous, and repetitive
- Lacks commitment to objective reality
- Lacks commitment to consistency.
The goal is to entertain, confuse, and overwhelm. The "firehose" takes advantage of modern technology, such as the Internet and social media, and recent changes in the way people produce and consume news.
The RAND paper, widely circulated among the intelligence and journalistic community details:
The experimental psychology literature tells us that first impressions are very resilient: An individual is more likely to accept the first information received on a topic and then favor this information when faced with conflicting messages. Furthermore, repetition leads to familiarity, and familiarity leads to acceptance:
- Repeated exposure to a statement has been shown to increase its acceptance as true.
- The “illusory truth effect” is well documented, whereby people rate statements as more truthful, valid, and believable when they have encountered those statements previously than when they are new statements.
- When people are less interested in a topic, they are more likely to accept familiarity brought about by repetition as an indicator that the information (repeated to the point of familiarity) is correct.
- When processing information, consumers may save time and energy by using a frequency heuristic, that is, favoring information they have heard more frequently.
- Even with preposterous stories and urban legends, those who have heard them multiple times are more likely to believe that they are true.
- If an individual is already familiar with an argument or claim (has seen it before, for example), they process it less carefully, often failing to discriminate weak arguments from strong arguments.
The convergence of all these techniques has already had a devastating impact on democracy. Mainstream conservative media enables it by repeatedly posing conspiracist questions. Rosenblum observes it serves to delegitimate the state and mechanisms of democracy with no ethos or alternative to replace them:
Conspiracism’s attack has a partisan penumbra, then, but its effects are totalizing and go well beyond what even radical conservatives want. It destroys not only liberal policies but the institutional capacities of the state wholesale. The communities of special knowledge—the doctors and economists and engineers who regulate the safety of airplanes, who steward the macroeconomy toward low inflation and sustainable growth—do not reside on one side of the partisan divide. To undermine them is not to weaken liberalism or progressivism or the left but to weaken democracy. Conspiracism is the acid that dissolves the institutions, processes, and standards of justification that make government possible.
Sadly, modern conspiracism offers no ideology, political strategy or movement to fill the resulting void. Conspiracism in practice borders on mass psychological disorder: hysteria, denial and occultism -- an addiction to uncover odious plots against the Constitution, the fabric of society, sacred American values, white national identity -- but not for the sake of affirming any coherent or consistent alternative vision of society. It's morally righteous yet practically bankrupt.
We must call out conspiracists’ claim to reality. Speaking truth to unfounded conspiracy is a moral imperative, even if the conspiracists are hopelessly lost and cannot be convinced to step away from the precipice of the rabbit hole. We need inspiring stories as compelling as the baseless falsehoods they peddle without evidence.
Americans, so sheltered throughout their lives from the dangerous oppression of authoritarianism and real corruption many people around the world experience daily, need to once again see that the ordinary routines of democratic politics are a miracle of modernity. This means strict adherence to the customs of constitutional process so that citizens can once again appreciate the purpose of democratic norms. Americans need to see examples of institutional integrity and fair, egalitarian politics at work again.
License: Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)