Conspiracy theories presuppose that both sides of a scientific or social debate must have the same veracity.
These are times of lizards. Just look around: Australia refused to issue a visa to the controversial David Icke, Holocaust denier and creator of conspiracy theories about humanoid reptilians, who lectures about reptilian rulers, manipulation and governmental mental control. YouTube announced less than two months ago that it will change its algorithms to stop recommending so many videos of conspiracy theories. Facebook just announced it was hiring Newtral and Maldita to combat “fake news” on its platform. Agence France Presse will also extend its verification agreement with Facebook to Spain, an agreement it already has in 15 other countries. The BBC decided to veto having people in its debates who advocate negationist positions about theories on which there is universal scientific consensus. In the documentary, “The Earth is Flat,” Netflix describes a contemporary phenomenon which is expanding with the greatest speed: terraplanism.*
It seems, therefore, that we accept that we are surrounded by conspiracy theories and that they represent enormous social and political dangers. How did we arrive here in such a short time? When did we become accustomed to conspiracy theories which are now necessary to deter?
As Chris French explained on BBC News, conspiracy theories “are transversal in terms of social class, gender and age,”** and presuppose the fallacy that the two sides of a scientific, social or political dispute must have the same veracity. If we add to this that a conspiracy theory, as a norm, has the narrative capacity to create regular patterns, we can understand that they are the objects of seduction. Our times seem to have accelerated the power of conspiracies: toxic ideas about elites controlling the world or delusional plans to introduce migrants of Muslim origin [into countries] with government help, are increasingly frequent.
Until very recently, we presupposed that the cannon fodder for conspiracy theories was a uniform mass of ignoramuses and country folk capable of succumbing to the most absurd and baseless theories in relation to the origin of the universe, climate change or the twin towers attack. But a recent article by Julia Ebner in The Guardian warned about the dangers to democracy that not just conspiracy theories represent, but the danger that their material construction, their framework, represents. Ebner cited the example of the QAnon community, which started on the 4chan forum, with clear parallels to the extreme-right action networks such as the English Defence League and Pegida.** Recently, QAnon coopted demonstrations of the yellow vest protesters and promoted the most hard-line pro-Brexit campaigns. The report, “The Battle for Bavaria” from the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, in which Ebner takes part, uses the Bavarian elections as a case study. The report details how the international community of the extreme right mobilized, principally in favor of the ultra-right Alternative for Germany party. And it revealed the new transnational communities of the extreme right which have emerged in Europe, and how they actively participated in the Bavarian elections, spreading theories of conspiracy and disinformation with trans-Atlantic allies. Ebner explains how, by injecting conspiratorial narratives into these movements, its members can take advantage of current networks and alter their political direction. One tactic they have used is to combine conspiratorial hashtags with those of viral campaigns and themes that are trending on networks. The noise it generates is sufficient to distort public perception.
We will have to inspect the narratives of disinformation and also check the attempts of the big platforms to stop them.
Perhaps we should stop explaining this narrative of disinformation as some anthropological curiosity, typical of a laughable, uninformed group of people, and understand that it is an exercise in trial and error. If one is able to create channels where someone thinks that a reptilian drinks his blood and controls his vote, or that we live in a gigantic terrarium, it is much easier to implant and normalize the idea that immigrants receive more help from the state than others, or that climate change is an enormous conspiracy theory. We have to inspect these narratives and verify how authentic the attempts by platforms to stop them are. For example, two of YouTube’s top content creators, Logan Paul and Shane Dawson, publish videos that flirt with conspiracy theories such as terraplanism and the ‘orchestration of the California fires.’ Dawson’s video on YouTube surpassed 62 million visits. When asked by The Verge about YouTube’s newly announced regulations and how YouTube would apply them to those videos, YouTube did not clarify its decision, but responded that the video about terraplanism will not be supplemented by information refuting the theory. Oh yes. These are the times of lizards.
*Translator’s note: Terraplanism refers to a movement of people who believe the earth is flat, also known as “flat earthers.”
**Editor’s note: “4chan” refers to an image-based online bulletin board where anyone can post comments and share images anonymously. “QAnon” refers to an extreme right-leaning conspiracy theory about a supposed secret plot by an alleged deep state against President Trump and his supporters.
*** Editor’s note: The Verge is an American technology news and media network operated by Vox Media.