• Stephan Raab

A “true” (his) story or the global rise of conspiracy theories

By Stephan Raab

Do you believe in the virality of Covid 19 or do you think that it is all just a big conspiracy? Latest since the outburst of the pandemic, conspiracy theories are on the rise, gaining more followers. This research piece follows the origins and reasons for conspiracy theories, addressing the impact of scientific discourse, fake news, and disinformation on policymaking in times of crisis.

Source: Pixabay Author: geralt https://pixabay.com/de/illustrations/mann-fenster-corona-coronavirus-4957154/

Conspiracy or an introduction into psychology

Did we really go to the moon, or did mankind never leave the flat earth?[1] Do you think climate change is just a hoax?[2] Does 5G cause Corona? Will the vaccine implant a microchip under our skin? This list could go on and on[3].

Currently, looking at the “Hygiene Demos” in Germany, probably translated best as “Sanitation Rallies”, opponents are protesting on the streets against Corona measures, which they consider to be inappropriate. They go as far as to claim that the coronavirus is a prefabricated meaning for a “Corona Dictatorship”. Besides the corona measures critics, many proponents of conspiracy theories are joining those protests[4], signaling that conspiracy theories seem to have become more visible in public politics during recent years. This paper envisages to give a reason, why conspiracy theories seem to become more salient in the times of pandemics.

When dealing with Covid 19, dealing with a pandemic of an unknown virus is dealing with uncertainty. Here, the search for scientific proof plays a major role in justifying certain measures, while slackening others, determining the impact of the measures on society. Social distancing, lockdown and unemployment are measures affecting society very hard. However, speaking from an educational point of view, those measures might be accepted, when the reason behind seems legitimate and reasonable, in that case avoiding an overburden of health care. Nevertheless, the virus seems barely visible, only under the microscope as barely predictable. Dealing with this kind of uncertainty, science, politics, and society search to make sense of that. Conceiving a strategy depends on those assumptions, determining future actions to be taken. However, as soon as politics or science are not able to provide proper sense making, individuals begin to start their own kind of sense making process in order to make sense of current events.

This is the moment, where conspiracy theories start to flourish. According to Douglas et. al. 2019 there are three reasons for the emergence of conspiracy theories. Those are epistemic, existential as social motives, how to cope with uncertainty.[5]

Basically, what is defined as science and what is considered a conspiracy theory, starts from the same roots. The epistemic motives are determined by searching for casual explanations of an event. Both are speculative in understanding the world and its implications. According to the Latin root sciare, -to know- it is about gaining knowledge about a certain issue.[6]

However, regarding the existential motive, science and conspiracy theory start to diverge. While science is based on falsification, conspiracy theory is based on verification. In his book, “The Open Society” the philosopher Karl Popper discusses the question if there is proven true knowledge. Different than what might be expected, he argues, that science is not about finding proven facts, but rather trying to disapprove them by finding reasons, that those facts are wrong. An example used by Popper are white swans. The scientific hypothesis that all swans are white is only valid until there is one black swan to be found, proving the hypothesis to be wrong. There might be many speculations about causes and consequences, trying to find explanations, however in science there is no ultimate truth. [7] Conversely, conspiracy theorists are arguing they would know the “ultimate truth”, convincing the society about the urgency of the theory.

Three components distinguish a conspiracy theory. First of all, they argue that unusual societal and political phenomena are the results of one or a group of malevolent actors to realize their hidden agenda. Secondly, conspiracy theories depict history as a Manichean struggle between good and evil. Finally, mainstream political actors or media were just a tool to distract the public, where most of society would be lacking a proper political judgment to see this hidden agenda.[8] This empowers people who lack instrumental control to reject the official political narrative. In such way a, the formation of a new perceived empowerment to resist and take back control surfaces.[9] At public eye you can try it out building your own conspiracy theory here.

Eventually, social motives of conspiracy theories strengthen the belonging to a group. Groups or even states are kept together by common narratives, defining their own identity. Blaming others for the trajectories and own failure helps to create sense of “we against them”.[10]

In summary science and conspiracy theories both try to make sense of an uncertainty. However, while science searches for discussion, conspiracy campaigns for “ultimate truth”.

Covid 19 and the rise of conspiracy geopolitics

The pandemic has put new fundamental questions on how we perceive the world. “Since the ‘enemy is not somewhere outside, it is inside us’, our common humanity intrinsically constitutes a security threat. This inverts the logic of security premised on the protection of human life from outside, whether these are posed by other states or existential threats such as hunger and disease.”[11] But who is to blame for that? How can Corona measures be legitimized nowadays?

Throughout history, different stories have been told, how those stories should be retold. Different narratives have been shaping world politics. Put in a neutral way, “conspiracies are best understood as narratives that are legitimized or delegitimized within the hierarchies of authority and modes of knowledge production present in particular interpretive communities.”[12]. Referring to this neutral perspective, belonging to a certain group determines how the environment is interpreted. Seen from the perspective of the interpretive communities of certain conspiracy theories, there might be hidden actors, such as a the “Deep State” of the QAnon movement, pursuing a hidden agenda, only accessible to a view purportedly “Enlighted”, knowing the “truth behind”. [13] This is, what makes conspiracy theories a threat to democracy. Democratically elected politicians and governments could not be held accountable any longer. Conspiracy theories do not accept the democratic procedures leading to legitimate decisions anymore, rather politics and media are just considered a smokescreen to cover the secret intentions of hidden actors. Conspiracy theory puts the democratic basis of legitimacy and trust into question. [14] Admittedly, examples of real conspiracies can be found often in history, but what is quite striking is that conspiracies do not count as an exception anymore but have become a permanent tool, used among the highest levels of political representatives within democratic societies. Those can be found for instance in the United States, Brazil, and Turkey, but also in European countries such as Hungary or Poland

As stated in the definition, conspiracy theories can be seen as a narrative to delegitimize or to legitimize a certain policy. Referring the social contract, inspired by Rousseau, government in power are held responsible for their governance by the judgement of the governed. What might be worrying, that is the political orchestration of conspiracy theory by political leaders such as Donald Trump, Viktor Orban, Jair Bolsonaro or Recep Tayip Erdogan. All of them using tools of populism, pursue a strategy of legitimizing their policy by delegitimizing their critics. They proclaim representing the “real people” or the “real America, against plotters, striving to thwart their agenda, hindering the promises of political leaders to become true. Donald Trump for instance argues, there would a hidden conspiracy against him by liberal media, pursuing one goal to make him fail.[15] Other examples are Victor Orban blaming George Soros and the European Union for thwarting his agenda[16] or Tayip Erdogan arguing against Zionist.[17] Thus, conspiracy theories are an essential tool of what can be defined as the “logics of populism”.[18] They create a sense of “we” against “them”, fostering legitimacy within one’s own social group.

Dealing with contingency and complexity

Conspiracy theories are an alternative to understand something that might not be understood. However, the challenge of Covid 19 is different, that international terrorism or global migration. There is no human actor or a social group, that can be called responsible, punished, or excluded from society, either by putting in prison or by closing borders. Conversely, Covid 19 is a virus, not a human actor being conscious about a certain agenda to follow. Therefore, the reasons and solutions have to be found within the society itself, asking a question of its social contract. Conversely, Covid19 is a harbinger for unprecedented and unexpected events in the age of evolving globalisation. Dealing with that kind of uncertainty makes it hard to find sense within. Therefore, the World Health Organization has labelled, something particularly started by China and the United States, as “infodemics” in analogy to the Covid19 pandemics. Foremost, China is blamed to either have “invented” the virus, being to negligent, or even using it as a strategic weapon to destabilize the West, particularly the United States of America. According to the WHO, “the infodemics spreads faster and more easily than this virus and is just as dangerous[19]. Yet, counter narratives are struggling hard to be heard in that pandemic.

Astoundingly, it could be assumed that “established” science would have gained reputation, when on a daily basis virologists and medics have been going on-screen. Conversely, according to a poll by the European Council on Foreign Relations, trust in scientific expertise declined.[20] A wide share of representative participants polled in eight countries , in total 38%, believed that scientist were instrumentalized by politics for their goals, and trust slumped mostly in countries such as Poland (53%), France (48%) or Italy (46%). Every day, new updates and “misinformation” and “fake news” provide a different picture. However, it is the task of politics, with the help of science, to make sense of that uncertainty. They are in charge of assessing what is right and what is wrong, what must be done and how to act. Nevertheless, the cleavage here is obvious, as there is no simple right or wrong. Those conclusions always depend on the way a person or a community interprets a certain event. Here, referring to the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann and his systemic approach, everyday a system, whether it was a person, a community, or a society, has to deal with contingency. Expressed in other words, every moment there are several options to choose, but only one of those can be realized. Therefore, those systems have to act under the aspect of uncertainty. Based on the capability to conceive those contingencies, a special own logic (Eigenlogik) starts to define the identity of the system, legitimizing further options, and what might be fitting next.[21]

During the time of Corona, this contingency becomes obvious as the pandemic has revealed the side-effects of globalization. Covid does not serve as a game changer of history, but rather as an accelerator of global trends. [22] Nevertheless, the outcomes are not to be foreseen: might there be pluralistic global system, will there be a trend for regionalisation, or will there be global anarchy? What are the pandemic’s impacts on climate change, digitalisation, the rising influence of China, the retreat of the United States, the challenges of a welfare state? Put differently, Covid19 has accelerated a trend of globalisation, putting old paradigms and narratives of legitimacy into question. Whether in a democracy or dictatorship, citizens are clearly unhappy with their governments — and they are not afraid to show it. Political scientist Dr Maha Hossain Aziz calls for a “global crisis of political legitimacy”, where the political status quo is recurrently being challenged by protesting citizens”[23]. The founder and president of the World Economic Forum (WEF) Klaus Schwab called it an “identity crisis”, arguing, that: “with the fast change, which they cannot anymore digest and the complexity of the world – many people are going through an identity crisis[24]

A new story for history

“Probably, it will take lots of research and investigation until we figure out, how a tiny virus led to a pandemic affecting the whole world. “What we will have to know, is how to deal with infodemics affecting our worldview, how society, politics and science will conceive information, dealing with unknown as how to communicate in discourses to find sense within.

This research paper introduced into the roots and reasons for the success of conspiracy theories. Currently, societies worldwide are succumbed to a stage of uncertainty, not knowing what to expect next. Many are expecting political leaders and science to make sense out of this, telling them what should be done, and what shouldn´t be done. However, this crisis puts special burdens on society, affecting some groups more than others, revealing the discrepancies of modern globalization. Intrusive measures such as lockdowns require outstanding legitimacy to be justified in a democracy. Yet only “scientific proof” does not suffice to be the ultimate basis of legitimacy. Conspiracy theories show that things aren´t just true because we want them to be true. Expressed differently, what might be considered true depends on the interpretative lenses.

Dealing with Covid 19 requires an unprecedented societal corporation, but what do we know now? Probably, this is currently the time of “science”, searching for knowledge as a scientific answer. In contrast to conspiracy theory, blaming a hidden agenda of malign hidden actors, in science there is no ultimate answer, yet a permanent balancing between various points of view. Dealing with uncertainty, what is considered appropriate or not depends on our own narrative.

Some are searching for answers in “leading science” others are rejecting it, searching for strong leadership, others are just felt left disempowered and left behind without orientation. The core skill against conspiracy will be critical thinking as the ability to discuss points on an equal level. Nobody can say for sure, how Covid 19 will change the trajectory of history, what we know for sure, a new story for history is needed. Facing an ever-increasing diversity and complexity a simple right or wrong won´t suffice anymore.

Therefore, the history of the future should be based not only on science but solidarity, dealing not just with data but discourse, trying to find a common sense in a world of change. Maybe the digital global age will also be an age of education, and a way of new critical thinking.

[1] Brazil, Rachel (14.07.2020): Fighting Flat Earth Theory; In: physics world https://physicsworld.com/a/fighting-flat-earth-theory/ [2] Burn-Murdoch, John; Hook, Leslie (15.09.2019): Survey underscores high level of US scepticism on climate change; in Financial Times https://www.ft.com/content/e5374b6c-d628-11e9-8367-807ebd53ab77 [3] Lynas, Mark (20.04.2020): Covid: Top 10 current conspiracy theories; In: Cornell Alliance for Science https://allianceforscience.cornell.edu/blog/2020/04/covid-top-10-current-conspiracy-theories/ [4] Höhn, Anne (06.08.2020): Coronavirus rallies: Germany's growing anti-lockdown movement; in: Deutsche Welle https://www.dw.com/en/germany-protests-coronavirus/a-54456654 [5] Douglas, Karen et. al. (2017): The psychology of conspiracy theories; in: Current Directions in Psychological Science 26 (6) p.538-542. [6] Ibid 538 [7] Popper, Karl (1974): Karl Popper on Science & Absolute Truth; in YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u0LIZV5H8bs [8] Oliver, Eric; Wood, Thomas (2014): Conspiracy Theories and the Paranoid Styles of Mass Opinion; in: American Journal of Political Science 58 (49); p. 952-966.; p. 953. [9] Douglas et. al. 2019: 539 [10] Ibid 540 [11] Shani, Giorgio (03.04.2020): Securitizing ‘Bare Life’? Human Security and Coronavirus; In: E-International Relations;