Are conspiracy theories really that surprising?

This first part might diverge from the readings this week to some degree, but it is still related, and it’s been something I’ve been wrestling with in the last year or so. I find a lot of it is frustration of being lied to and manipulated in so many ways by the people they should be trusting have led it them to not trusting anyone. Once you can’t trust anyone and have no reference points for valid truth in your life you end up suspicious about everyone. This results in these kinds of thoughts and impressions of the world around them. People still want truth, even if we live in a world where everyone seemingly makes their own. Once that trust in the truth is breeched though it’s very hard to get back. Also, it’s really not surprising in a world with the way governments and politicians have lied about and misconstrued so many of the major events of our lives that there’s little faith in our systems (as we have seen in this course). This is fairly cynical I will grant that. I am by no means associated or believe in any of these ideas. I just don’t think they actually came out of nowhere. There is a clear association in my mind.

Now, to the readings this week. One part that stood out to me in the Politico article concerning Q-anon and the Vice interview were this idea that people who feel not in control of their lives or that they’re losing the “familiar” around them are typically adherents or susceptible to these conspiracy theories. I found this interesting…but also a bit like they were gaslighting people as well. My main idea concerning this was the fact that they target out of work people due to the coronavirus. I feel like the fact that these people question the government (and fairly extremely I will admit) makes sense. Also, they take it to the extreme, way farther than I am comfortable with, but how else can they respond to this? People have lost their livelihoods, homes etc. all in the name of public safety but then have to watch government officials keep collecting their paychecks and big businesses having their most profitable year to date. The wealth gap this year has grown enormously. How else can you see that if not a conspiracy at the very top? And then for these wealthy academics to say they’re “far-fetched” or “People FEEL like they’re losing control over their lives”. There is nobody FEELING like they lost control over their lives, they ARE losing control over their lives.

Conspiracy in the Digital Age

The QAnon conspiracy theory originated in the United States and was initially a phenomenon that was unique to American politics. However, its popularity has spread overseas in recent years, and its tenets have especially been co-opted by populists and right-wing provocateurs in Europe. The best explanation for this is the increasingly overarching nature of conspiracy theories and the belief in secret government plots. As mentioned in Scott’s article, the concept of a “deep state” has transcended borders and can be interpreted in different ways. The relatively ambiguous and vague nature of the QAnon posts has been captivating for many people, who have directed its “anti-elite” rhetoric to their own governments and politicians. The necessity of transnational cooperation to address to COVID-19 pandemic has only added fuel to the conspiracy theories, whose adherents see coordinated lockdowns and other shared strategies among countries as proof that a “shadow government” indeed exists.

The Kalmar article discussed the tendency of populists to use “dog whistles” to implicitly communicate certain conspiratorial positions. In this case, some Hungarian far-right nationalists identify George Soros as being solely responsible for the recent influx of Muslim migrants into Europe. Although the position of these groups on the migrant crisis is openly Islamophobic, its anti-Semitism is masked behind criticism of the Jewish Soros. The intention here is to avoid accusations of anti-Semitism, while still hinting that Jews are weaponizing an immigration crisis to the detriment of native Europeans. These tactics are hardly new to such groups, but they have become especially dangerous in an age of information overload and the fast proliferation of fake news.

The strategic trading of foes

The Holocaust has become, effectively, shorthand for evil – which has given antisemitism, at least in the Western political context, an inimitable stench in politics. It has created something of a third rail in politics, a rule of thumb: to be antisemitic, is to be profoundly racist.

But, more troublingly, the inverse logic is also applied sometimes: to be racist is to be antisemitic; and to not be antisemitic is to not be racist.

As Ivan Kalmar describes, this has allowed for something of a compromise in the far-right: make a show of supporting at least a few Jewish figures, and use that as a shield against accusations of racism/Islamophobia when they target Muslims. Supporting Israel here allows those far-right parties to show support for a Jewish polity, and be recognized for it by Israeli leadership under Benjamin Netanyahu; and also use their ‘support for Israel’s right to exist’ to justify harsher policies against Muslims cast as existential enemies of Israel.

This whitewashing dynamic ties into the European Union’s own raison d’être: preventing a new Holocaust and such crimes against humanity has becoming the public justification for the Union’s existence, easier to sell to the public than a mere engine for economic integration. To do that, though, the Holocaust has been positioned as the darkest stain on the history of Europe – worse than the Great War, than Napoleonic Wars, than the Thirty Years’ War. Nothing less would properly explain why a European Union was coming into being only now, rather than after the destruction of those years.

By making the Holocaust such an exceptional event, though, the European Union allows for that exculpatory dynamic I describe in the first paragraph – and by making Holocaustic recognition a rite of passage for candidate countries, it installs in them early on the logical bases to make that intolerant trade-off.

Ironically, though, there is another dynamic at play in those countries, which might actually weaken the logic of the Holocaust as a uniquely evil event. Namely, these countries have long pushed for recognition of the Soviet occupation as an equivalent, if not a worse, trauma. The occupation lasted longer, they say; invaded the lives of its denizens more deeply, probed them more invasively; and killed more overall.

Of course, there are problems with this narrative, not least of which is the attempt to refocus attention not on the Jewish victim, the ‘Other’, but rather on those victims from the ethnic cores of the Soviet Republics and satellites. In that sense, amending the narrative to equate Holocaustic and Soviet crimes – as the European Union has done, to some degree, by explicitly recognizing both on August 23, the ‘Black Ribbon Day’ also known as ‘the European Day of Remembrance for Victims of Stalinism and Nazism’ – may not help the ethnic nationalism driving the far-right to exclude Muslims. In fact, it might make things worse, by weakening the logic that leads these groups to tolerate Jewish communities (at least openly – their actions may speak differently).

But, at least, it might also strip away the thin veil hiding the intolerance of these groups, and might force them back out of the mainstream in those countries where they have managed to crawl onto the main stage.

Conspiracy Theories: Diffusion or Accumulation

Lucas Lang

This week’s readings examined the role of conspiracy theory in influencing the radical right. Conspiracy theory is a complicated element of society. It is typically an indicator of mistrust directed either at groups, classes, or individuals who are deemed to be a threat to society. The readings examined what could be examined as two very different versions of the use of conspiracy theory. One version they examined was conspiracy propagated by government. The example focused upon was from Hungary and observed the Fidesz party’s use of conspiracy surrounding George Soros. The party depicted him as being the propagator of not only Hungary, but also many of Europe’s “problems”, such as multiculturalism, immigration, and cultural decay. Through utilizing this rhetoric, the party is able to portray itself as being the people’s protector against the threats that it creates. By diffusing these ideas to the citizenry, they can create support. The second version examined was conspiracies propagated by the people. These theories tend to be suspicious of governments and the establishment. They are often spread by word of mouth and though external sources. While some conspiracy theories are exchanged in closed groups, others have become so popular that political parties have formed and adopted their beliefs in order to appeal to greater groups of people. In this second version, it is therefore the accumulation of belief within the people which is adopted by the government.

Ironically, part of the reason that conspiracy theories spread so well is that they are often given credit due to persecution. When theories are actively denied or repressed, adherents to the conspiracies will often interpret repression as evidence that they were correct and are being persecuted to prevent the truth from being spread, thus increasing outsiders curiosity.

The Populist Playbook

By: Andreea Gustin

This week centered on conspiracy theories and how they have become a part of the populist playbook in Europe. The last few weeks of the course, we’ve look at themes that have had transnational aspects. This week’s theme is no different as can be seen with Mark Scott’s article, QAnon goes European, which details how QAnon crossed the Atlantic and has become a part of protest, populist and conspiracy groups in Europe. 

It was interesting to see how this American conspiracy theory has integrated into different areas and groups within Europe and how social media and the network society has played a role in QAnon increasingly making their way into the existing online communities and protest movements across the continent. This new interconnectedness we are seeing as a result of the global network society and social media platforms has made it easier for conspiracy groups to spread information like wild fire and to target many different kinds of individuals and groups that they might not have otherwise reached. 

This is a very fitting time to talk about the role of conspiracy theories. As we’re navigating through the COVID-19 pandemic, people have been spending a lot more of their time online, as discussed in the Scott article, and it’s led people to come across a lot of disinformation, anti-vaccine content and other conspiracy content. I don’t necessarily believe that people spending more time online is automatically making them fall for conspiracy theory traps, but I do think that the new complexities of fake online sources and conspiracy theories have made them harder to spot now-a-days than it was traditionally. Foreign and unpredictable situations like the current pandemic make a perfect breeding ground for conspiracies. 

Conspiracy Theories in Europe

Sara Dix

The spread of conspiracy theories has become a major influence in spreading disinformation, particularly as a result of the coronavirus crisis. The QAnon conspiracy, while maintained in the fringes throughout Europe, it has taken a strong hold in Germany as described in the YouTube video about TV Chef, Attila Hildmann, and briefly in Mark Scott’s QAnon goes European article. Aside from QAnon, Ivan Kalmar focuses on the utilization of conspiracy theories and the “Soros Plot” by Orban and his Fidesz party in Hungary.

In general, there are a variety of conspiracy theories that have attracted people from various groups such as the Yellow Jacket movement in France, the anti-vaccine community in Italy, and Brexit followers in Britain. The main conspiracy theory that has grown recently in Europe is QAnon; a theory that blends anti-government, anti-lockdown, and anti-Semitic rhetoric with the unfounded belief that the global elite is running a vast pedophile ring. But the main reason that this conspiracy has spread is due to the coronavirus crisis.

While this conspiracy began in the US, it has become a problem in Europe, particularly Germany. I found it interesting how many Germans found themselves believing the QAnon conspiracy because Germany was not as effected by Covid-19. They were able to handle the coronavirus more effectively than other places through lockdowns. I’m also not surprised that conspiracy theorists are negatively impacted both economically and emotionally as conspiracies do appear to be extremely unsound by those who did not fall into the conspiracy trap.

QAnon across the pond

By: Conrad Yiridoe

Scott’s article on the QAnon continued presence in Europe was intriguing. The idea that a seemingly American based conspiracy being able to gain some popularity in Europe appears nonsensical at first glance. However, Scott does a great job of explaining that the ambiguity and flexibilities of the QAnon phenomenon are its strength that allows it to maintain a grasp on European affairs. The article goes on to explain that the pandemic has provided solid ground for QAnon to take off in the continent, and I agree with this to an extent. The idea that because of Covid-19, many more people are finding themselves online, plus spending even more time online is a fair argument. However, the idea that just because people are online more, leads to them automatically taking QAnon to heart, I tend to disagree with slightly. More likely, the fact that we are in the midst a major global event that affects many, is more likely a reason for this. Historically, whether it’s with the Brexit affair, the migration crisis of 2015, the economic crisis stemming from the late 2000s, major events in the world tend to be a great breading ground for increasing conspiracy related activity. However, to ignore some of the unique characteristics this pandemic has brought up, would be foolhardy. The ever presence anti-vaccine campaigns have continued as expected. The most interesting concept brought up during the pandemic, has been the lockdowns. Ranging from economic consequences, to the idea of individual freedom infringements, lockdowns have provided further fodder for QAnon to continue.  

The Vox video on some of the conspiracies in Germany provides a great example of a few of these concepts in action. Whether it’s the concerns with the vaccines, or the idea that a few global elites are using the pandemic to control the masses, the pandemic has clearly given different people different things to believe in. Now, given the apparent stalled momentum that Afd have had lately, perhaps this is a sign that the QAnon phenomenon will not be taking on the rapid momentum, at least politically, as has been observed in the US, given the recent election to the House of representatives of a committed QAnon follower.

The Role of the Internet

By: Willem Nesbitt

With this week’s readings and topic covering the rise of QAnon, an obvious focus was given to how and why such a conspiracy was able to emerge and propagate across the globe. Placing blame on the ongoing pandemic is an obvious answer, which, as Oxford researcher Johnathan Bright points out; “People are spending even more time online, so have more time to come across anti-vaccine and other conspiracy content.”

With past weeks in our class discussing ideas surrounding how nationalist and right-wing movements have managed to transcend borders in an ironic sense, the internet is most certainly the obvious leading culprit in the ability for those groups, and now conspiratorial movements, to have a wider reach. Beginning quietly on 4chan’s /pol/ board, whether ironically or unironically, that very board fostered and promoted the central Q poster and their adherents, eventually spreading their message to the more mainstream realms of YouTube, Reddit, and Facebook.

With 30% of surveyed Republican voters believing in the central core tenants of the QAnon conspiracy (and an alarming 43% being “uncertain”), it is obvious that the internet has helped spread this conspiracy far beyond the confines of imageboards. This results in a question – do social media sites, whether they be Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, or others, have a responsibility to curtail and remove posts regarding conspiracies such as QAnon? Following the temporary shutting down of right-wing social media site Parler earlier this year, a debate erupted over the ideas of “free speech” on the internet, and many on the left believe that these other sites are still not doing enough to prevent the spread of these conspiracies.

QAnon has successfully packaged a particularly virulent populism – but they certainly aren’t the first

Michaela Bax-Leaney

As Miro Dittrich observes in his interview with Vice, one of the elements which makes QAnon so pervasive and ‘successful’ is its ability to adapt to other conspiracy narratives, in particular in its ability to adapt itself to local situations. And I would argue that it is therein that lies the formula for success employed by populist, often far-right movements.

These movements have largely mastered the ability to tap into a few broad, general themes that function on both a large, often global scale, but also translate well to hyper-specific situations. By tapping into people’s feelings of disenfranchisement, loss of control, and fear, these movements are able to achieve a cycle of self-affirmation once followers have been brought into the fold.

For example, to Kalmar’s article. Say the Hungarian worker has recently been laid off, and sees the exodus of refugees flocking to Europe for safety. The post hoc fallacy suggesting that the two facts have a causal connection – the worker is now going to be competing against this “flood” of migrants for work – acts as an entry point for the more noxious facets of these populist theories. But if they (those fighting against the elites, that is) were right about the first point, what’s to say that aren’t right about the Soros myth, or vaccines as a vehicle for microchips.  

And while QAnon has certainly done it remarkably well, as Dittrich notes, it is hardly the first of its kind, particularly in the antisemitic roots of the conspiracy. And it is the very thing that makes QAnon attractive to new followers that makes it so very difficult to combat. After all, if a group of global elites is trying to manipulate circumstances – be it in reference to a global child sex trafficking ring, or simply a local by-election – how can efforts to combat that misinformation be trusted? Thus, rather than emphasizing how to change the minds of QAnon followers, perhaps as Mirko suggests in his interview, efforts are better directed towards improving media literacy in the first place.

The Stepping Process of the Populace Conspiracy Theory and its Weaponizing of it by the Populist.

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.

References:

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/