Are conspiracy theories a threat to democracy?
Conspiracy theories are a marginal phenomenon, a form of disreputable counter-knowledge, and therefore unlikely to bring down strong democratic governments. Nonetheless, a case might be made that they contribute to a sometimes misplaced trust in elites. By all accounts, such trust is at historic lows. Complacency and political cynicism may be at corresponding highs. As Hugo noted, the polling data we have seen tends to suggest a link between conspiracy theorising and political disengagement. Trust correlates with irrational suspicion. Alfred has argued that conspiracy theories may, under certain circumstances be a good thing, as unpromising lines of inquiry that nonetheless ensure elites remain accountable. Our data suggest irrational suspicion and mistrust of elites is no recipe for holding power accountable. If anything, it points in the opposite direction: conspiracy theories may justify and deepen a profound sense of disenfranchisement.
Byung-Chul Han writes that neoliberalism casts the individual simultaneously as master and slave, with the result that ‘anyone who fails to succeed blames themselves and feels ashamed’. Failures are chalked up to individual mistakes, not societal failures or power imbalances. The result is apathy. Conspiracy theorising exists on the other end of this spectrum: individual failures are rationalised as inevitable, the result of the system (or society) being run in the interests of the few.
I return to my point about conspiracy theorising being a label normatively applied to the persistent disinclination to interpret events as the result of random or complex interactions. On balance, I suspect it is better for democracy if we default to giving political elites the benefit of the doubt, rather than imputing sinister motives, but I may be wrong about that.
More importantly than what happens within firmly democratic states, I think conspiracy theories pose a challenge to any democratising project, e,g. in hybrid states – ones that combine the trappings of democratic rule with various informal or traditional authoritarian practices. Deep mistrust of political elites opens up vulnerabilities that can be exploited by authoritarian regimes, to sow mistrust within other states, and to discourage their own citizens from seeking democratic change. Take Russia Today – the TV channel claims to provide an alternative or corrective to Western mainstream news. According to Peter Pomerantsev, journalists working for the station talk about RT as a counterbalance to Western propaganda, the suggestion being that any notion of truth is of secondary significance. Anyone who thinks otherwise, Pomerantsev reports, is seen as naive. What matters is competing narratives and positions, positions that pose as equally valid.
Recently I attended a conference where a colleague presented the results of a new poll. She asked Russian university students to rate the degree to which they accepted 11 statements about Russia and the West. These statements, taken from state television, positioned the West (or America) variously as hypocritical, the perpetrator of crimes and atrocities, in competition with Russian power, and as responsible for hoodwinking its own citizens. As it turned out, ¾ students agreed that ‘Western countries have long exhibited double standards: their condemnation or endorsement of political forces abroad is determined by geopolitical interests, not morals’. In contrast, when asked about Russia’s role in international relations, students often struggled to answer, with more than 20% ticking the ‘hard to say box’ when asked to assess the statement ‘A new world order is forming in which Russia’s position is strengthening and the West can no longer dominate’. The students held much firmer opinions about the West and America than about their own country.
To the extent that Russian media reporting on the West adopts conspiratorial narratives, these explanations appear to provide popular, accessible firmly held cognitive shortcuts for assessing the value of Western-style democracy. Assuming we think democracy is normatively better than authoritarianism, then this is probably no good thing.