How Democracy’s Decline Fuels Conspiratorial Knowledge

Published December 11th, 2019 - 07:35 GMT
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At the juncture between political marginalization, a growing concentration of power in elites, fear of an uncertain future and of other groups, distrust in establishments, real and imagined victimhood, mass media, prejudiced thinking and the need for a narrative connecting it all together, lies the conspiracy theory.

Well-known conspiracy theories saturate everyday political life: Obama is a Muslim Kenyan in cahoots with black extremists, the Clintons ran a child sex ring, 9/11 was an inside job, George Soros is funding migrant caravans, the CIA created ISIS; the list goes on.

In each case, an image is conjured of a clandestine group of powerful individuals meeting in shady or opulent spaces and hashing out the direction of world politics without anybody to stop them. They are conspiring to siphon off Earth’s resources, divide land and people while wreaking havoc and gathering plunder.

Conspiratorial knowledge has been a defining feature of the global political landscape, and while its impacts have been felt at the level of presidential elections, regime changes and mass shootings, major media outlets still fail to understand their appeal. 
 

“It’s hard to see how there’s going to be any solution to this problem as long as large sections of the population see themselves as being completely powerless.” 

Many political leaders including U.S. President Donald Trump rely on conspiratorial knowledge to push their agenda and galvanize their base of supporters, giving conspiracy theories a constant political clout that cannot be ignored. Some conspiracies are actively promoted by prominent news organizations as well.

Though other news outlets try combating this type of knowledge by fact-checking it, picking out individual details and revealing their falsehood, the strategy falls short.

The narrative undergirding the conspiracy theory often remains in-tact, as does the burning question of why so many people cherish them as revelations into power, and understand them, however wrongly, as key glimpses into the machinations of clandestine politics. 

To better understand the forces driving conspiratorial knowledge and its influence, Al Bawaba spoke with Quassim Cassam, a professor of philosophy at the University of Warwick who is an expert on conspiracy theories.

His new book, Conspiracy Theories, details their persistent popularity as well as staking out their potentially fatal consequences. He contends that the root cause of many conspiracy theories lie the political alienation its propagators experience, and thus a key solution rests in empowering marginalized communities.


Quassim Cassam (courtesy of the University of Warwick)

Though many conspiracy theories’ claims rest on outlandish assumptions of centralized power, many reflect the genuine concerns of a population who have been victims of intangible political forces themselves. This is particularly felt in the Middle East, where an absence of independent, trusted media sources has left open a knowledge void, filled partially by locally circulated conspiracy theories, according to Cassam.

Given that most Middle East states were created by the infamous Sykes-Picot Agreement, which was a literal conspiracy to divide the region up between France and British empires, many local conspiracy theories don’t seem unthinkable. 

"If you live in a society or culture where you have in fact been the victim of actual conspiracies, it’s not entirely surprising if you are then susceptible to stories about non-actual conspiracies.” 

“Psychologists like to say there’s a particular mentality that they call the ‘conspiracy mentality,’ where if you have this mentality, you’re more likely to believe conspiracy theories than if you don’t,” Qassam says, noting that African-Americans in the U.S. are statistically more inclined to believe conspiracy theories.

“But another way to look at it is to say well, if you live in a society or culture where you have in fact been the victim of actual conspiracies, it’s not entirely surprising if you are then susceptible to stories about non-actual conspiracies.” 

This thinking is further accelerated when communities are marginalized further, revealing a link between democracy’s decay and the rise of conspiratorial knowledge.

“People who are marginalized politically, who are disempowered, who feel they have no control, who perceive themselves the victims of oppressive regimes; it’s not surprising that they resort to conspiratorial explanation as to what’s going on,” Cassam argues.

“It’s hard to see how there’s going to be any solution to this problem as long as large sections of the population see themselves as being completely powerless.” 

To listen to the full interview, click here:


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