By Bryce Greer
The populist playbook of conspiracy theories – how does this work? As I reflect on the readings this week, I found myself looking into how conspiracy theories work on the local level (i.e., the populace) as it compares to the political, and elite, level (i.e., the populists). It is a dangerous game and using Kalmar’s structure of a stepping process on the political level (pg. 185), I want to attempt to show a similar structure through the local context.
I took interest in Vice’s interview of Elke and Jurgen Technow, two German adherents of Q-Anon as they explained it as “an idea for good” and a “peace movement.” Melissa Chan’s question of “what if they were wrong” showed what I would perceive as self-awareness to the term “COVIDidiot”, and it made me question the layers to conspiracy theorists further. First, Mark Scott places the main reason for Q-Anon’s spread to be COVID-19. Quoting Johnathon Bright, “if you feel like you’re losing control of your life, you’re more likely to believe in these conspiracy theories.” I would agree in part, however many arguably have lost some extent of control in their life during the pandemic, and perhaps more susceptible, there must be other reasons that can be traced into the recruitment of conspiracy theories by far-right groups.
Continuing the Vice video, although only seeing a brief time of the Technow’s, the couple held specific emotive values to the theory due to child abuse being reported in the Q-Anon narrative. Nothing seems to suggest that they fit into the fringe groups of anti-Semites and the far right but nonetheless they fall into an area coopted by these groups. This is where Berlin’s resident Mirko and his story fits the stepping-process. To Mirko, “the problem with conspiracy theories is that people are interested at first. Maybe they even think it’s funny. But step by step, they get deeper into it and are infected.” Here is the beginning of it, although it does not explain every detail.
On the local level, when one enters the belief of conspiracy theories, it can start somewhat harmless, although misconstrued. Mirko, however, also brought up the Epstein affair which led me to think about the more mainstream, and nonpartisan, conspiracy theory “Epstein Didn’t Kill Himself,” which arguably holds some credence to become as mainstream as it was. One scholar, in the video, notes that conspiracy theories strive by creating a master narrative of many others – and by placing credible theories in alongside anti-Semitic theories, the deeper one dives the closer to the fringe they go. This leads us to Michael Walter as he notes how he was ostracized by his friends, families, and church because he knew “the Truth.” Ultimately, he now is stuck in an echo chamber as his only support comes from those that believe the same theories.
And this, of course, is how the populist can use the populace in their conspiracy theory playbook. Through every push into the theories done on a local scale, harmless for some and hate-fueled for fringe anti-Semites and far-right followers, ostracization and deep-seated infection into more fringe theories leaves the populist to push their rhetoric. Returning to the second week and our definition of populism, it begins by having distrust for the media and the elite, and that is how conspiracy theories start in its nonpartisan origins for some of them. The recruitment into the far-right, of course, comes by populists using this distrust and linking themselves to localized conspiracy theories to further push fringe theories into the mainstream. The populist uses the populace and allows the conspiracy theory to grow through disinformation. How do we fix this? Well, I think it must start by depolarizing media and breaking the distrust – although arguably I think that may feel quite utopian in belief.
Ivan Kalmar, “Islamophobia and anti-semitism: the case of Hungary and the ‘Soros Plot” Patterns and Prejudice Vol. 54 (1-2) (2020): 182-98.
How this TV chef turned COVID truther helped QAnon boom in Germany. VICE News, (23 October 2020) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O1yOqtbWrdg&ab_channel=VICENews
Scott, M. QAnon goes European. POLITICO. (23 October 2020) www.politico.eu/article/qanon-europe-coronavirus-protests/