Welcome to the Leverhulme-Funded Research Project: Conspiracy and Democracy http://conspiracyanddemocracy.org HISTORY, POLITICAL THEORY, INTERNET Wed, 15 Feb 2017 15:52:49 +0000 en-US hourly 1 “Denial”: how to deal with a conspiracy theory in the era of ‘post-truth’ http://conspiracyanddemocracy.org/blog/denial-how-to-deal-with-a-conspiracy-theory-in-the-era-of-post-truth/ Wed, 15 Feb 2017 15:52:49 +0000 http://conspiracyanddemocracy.org/?p=1081 I only have a very small part in the film Denial compared to those of David Irving (played by Timothy Spall), Richard Rampton QC (played by Tom Wilkinson), Anthony Julius (played by Andrew Scott), and Professor Deborah Lipstadt (played by Rachel Weisz), but I like to think it’s an important one. When Irving sued Deborah Lipstadt and Penguin, her publishers, in the High Court for libeling him by calling him a Holocaust denier and a falsifier of history, Julius, as her solicitor, decided to defend her by proving that what she had written about Irving was true.

He asked me to go through Irving’s books, articles and speeches and address the issues at the centre of the case. With the help of two of my PhD students, who also appear in the film, I spent 18 months doing just that, and writing a 740-page report that was put before the court. We demonstrated that he was indeed a Holocaust denier, who had claimed that there was no Nazi policy of exterminating the Jews, that 6 million did not die as a result of it, that gas chambers were not used to carry it out, and that the evidence on which historians relied was forged.

Irving lost the case comprehensively. When the case was heard before the High Court in the early months of 2000, Irving was unable to shake the foundations of my report or the conclusions of several other expert witnesses who presented evidence on the gas chambers at Auschwitz, on the planning and implementation of what the Nazis euphemistically called “the Final Solution of the Jewish Question in Europe”, and on Irving’s connections with far-right, neo-Nazi groups.

In the film, John Sessions plays me incisively and with vigor as I give my evidence from the witness box. True, he only speaks for three or four minutes, whereas in the actual trial I was cross-examined by Irving for 28 hours, spread over more than a week. But the brilliant screenplay by David Hare gets over the essential point, which is that Irving deliberately falsified the historical evidence to bring it into conformity with his prejudices, his Holocaust denial. If all the egregious errors in his historical writings had been the result of mere carelessness then their effect on his arguments would have been random. But they all went to support his denial of Hitler’s responsibility for the Holocaust, the absence of any Nazi plan, and the claim that gas chambers were not used to kill vast numbers of Jews; so therefore they could only have been the result of deliberate falsification.

Irving wanted to argue, as he did in his opening statement, that Deborah Lipstadt was part of a Jewish conspiracy to discredit him. The judge did not permit him, however, to pursue this line in his closing statement. The allegation was irrelevant to the actual subject of the trial, which was Lipstadt’s charge that Irving was a falsifier of history and a Holocaust denier. Shifting the ground of an argument from the issues to the person who has raised them is a standard tactic of conspiracy theorists. They should not be allowed to get away with it.

In the end, by substantiating the defence of truth and accuracy in Lipstadt’s defamatory allegations, it was proved by implication that these things that Irving denied actually did happen. It was a victory for historical investigation. Seventeen years later, that victory no longer seems quite so comprehensive or secure. True, Irving was discredited in the eyes of the historical profession, some of whose members had previously taken his research seriously as scholarship. He also lost access to the newspapers and the broadcast media, where he had up to that point sometimes been treated as an expert on Nazism and the Second World War.

But the case was heard before the era of social media. Facebook was founded in 2004 and Twitter two years later. The Internet and the World Wide Web were already in existence, though their use was still not very widespread. These new institutions have transformed the nature of communication, putting out vast masses of unedited, undigested, uncontrolled information and, more importantly, misinformation out into the public arena.

The rapid and still largely unregulated spread of abusive ‘trolling’, the aggressive harassment of individuals through obscenities and even threats of violence and rape by social media, has introduced a new element venom into the public discourse. During and after the trial, I received a large number of abusive and obscene letters through the post from Irving’s supporters. I did not find them upsetting; they were uniformly stupid and many of them were semi-literate. I filed them away. Nobody ever saw any of them apart from those who wrote them, and myself, their recipient. But nowadays they would not be put into envelopes, they would go out there onto the Internet, via social media. This is a huge difference, and it’s degrading and defiling what should be a means of open and friendly communication, information and debate.

More importantly, however, while the trial, as it happened and as it is depicted in Denial, gave the stamp of the High Court, of the legal profession, of academic historians and political scientists, to the authenticity of the massive documentation that exists showing the Holocaust really happened, the emergence of social media and the proliferation of Holocaust-denying websites has allowed people who refuse to accept the facts to put their obnoxious opinions before the public as if they were statements of the truth.

What is at the core of Holocaust denial is of course anti-Semitism: in essence a vast and pernicious conspiracy theory that believes that there is a Jewish plot to convince the world that six million Jews were killed by the Nazis, and that the plot has only succeeded because ‘the Jews’ control the media and rule the world of academic historical research. This is of course utter nonsense, as we showed in court. Apart from anything else, Jewish communities everywhere are divided politically and socially, and the media and the newspapers are not controlled by Jews of any description acting in any kind of concert. Still less is this the case with universities and institutes of research that discover and publicize the huge mass of historical documentation now available on the Holocaust.

But all opinions are equal in the new public sphere of the Internet. And there is a new form of ‘soft’ Holocaust denial making itself heard: the suggestion that the mass murder of the Jews by the Nazis was just another genocide among many, however terrible it may have been. Anyone who has ever worked on Nazi Germany knows that this was not the case: while millions of others who were the victims of Nazism – ‘Slavs’, ‘Gypsies’, the mentally ill and handicapped, homosexuals, and others – were seen as obstacles to the rise of German power, the purity of the German race, and the implementation of German plans to colonise eastern Europe, the Jews were regarded quite differently, as the ‘world-enemy’, engaged in a global conspiracy that aimed at the destruction of the German, or as the Nazis put it, ‘Aryan’ race. They were an existential threat, so had to be killed wherever they were found. That is the reason why they were singled out by the Nazis, and even by ordinary German soldiers during the invasions of Poland and Russia in 1939 and then 1941, for specially sadistic and humiliating treatment, unlike the Nazis’ other victims.

The ‘Final Solution’ was thus far more than just another set of massacres. That is why we commemorate it on Holocaust Memorial Day, on 27 January. Yet when the Trump White House put out a statement on the Day, it made no mention of the Jews at all. Questioned on this, a spokesman claimed that the President wanted the Day to be ‘inclusive’. But the Nazis weren’t inclusive: it was only the Jews whom they tried to exterminate everywhere they found them, in their millions, in gas chambers, ghettoes and shooting pits. Seemingly the kind of anti-Semitism that reared its ugly head during the US election campaign, with Trump’s claim that Hillary Clinton “meets in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty” and that Jews “control the levers of power”, has now moved into the White House.

Hard and soft Holocaust denial are now back in business, thanks to the Internet and to social media. All we can do to counter them is to insist again and again on the facts. The release of Denial, I hope, has made and will continue to make a major contribution to the discrediting of these obnoxious and paranoid conspiracy theories.

Richard J Evans

Workshop “Populists and Technocrats: open antagonisms, hidden affinities” http://conspiracyanddemocracy.org/blog/workshop-populists-and-technocrats-open-antagonisms-hidden-affinities/ Wed, 01 Feb 2017 08:41:23 +0000 http://conspiracyanddemocracy.org/?p=1075 A workshop on “Populists and technocrats: open antagonisms, hidden affinities”, co-convened by Conspiracy and Democracy project researchers Dr. Tanya Filer and Dr. McKenzie McHarg, is one of four to have been selected from across the University for collaboration with the Philomathia Forum in 2017. The Philomathia Forum is a vital part of the Philomathia Social Sciences Research Programme, and was created to broaden the debate surrounding the development of research with direct relevance to public policy.

The Conspiracy and Democracy Project has been a natural point of departure for discussions and explorations of the issues to be addressed in the workshop. Populism has long been recognized as a natural breeding ground for conspiracy theories that target elites. And yet curiously, technocrats have also demonstrated a susceptibility for conspiracy theories; when the implementation of their vision fails or encounters obstacles, their tendency to view not only the natural but also the social world in technical terms and on the basis of a mechanical causality makes them prone to a conspiratorial mode of thinking.

The full announcement is available here: http://www.ssrp.cshss.cam.ac.uk/forum/forum-2017-workshops-selected

Peace Framed as Plot? http://conspiracyanddemocracy.org/blog/peace-framed-as-plot/ Thu, 06 Oct 2016 23:54:25 +0000 http://www.conspiracyanddemocracy.org/?p=1063 The apparently democratic character of referendums faces myriad critiques. One of them is the influence that the opinions of voters on other issues, whether or not relevant to the decision at hand, may exercise on their vote in a referendum. As this New York Times piece explains, when confronting complex choices, voters facing either information overload or information deficits might turn to a “short cut” rather than voting directly for the issue being referended.

Earlier this week Colombians voted against a peace agreement with FARC, an accord that political actors representing varied perspectives on the guerrilla group have worked tirelessly to put together. In the crucial days in the lead up to the vote, the agreement came to be described by conservatives as, among other things, an LGBT assault on family values (for the full story, see here). Even former president Álvaro Uribe, who spearheaded the “No” campaign, chipped in. Now, some critics are wondering whether deliberate issue-mixing, as well as plain misinformation, influenced the vote. To be sure, it can be easy to reach for the question of “what really happened?”, with all its conspiracy-minded undertones, when things don’t go our way. But the Colombian case raises an important question about the ways in which strategically deployed rhetoric, whose political content may be only tangential or unrelated to the vote underway, might impact the outcomes of the big and complex decisions that citizens are called to make.


‘Coalgate’: corruption, an honest bureaucrat and a deeper malaise in India http://conspiracyanddemocracy.org/blog/coalgate-corruption-an-honest-bureaucrat-and-a-deeper-malaise-in-india/ Tue, 23 Aug 2016 11:23:53 +0000 http://conspiracyanddemocracy.org/?p=1050


Nayanika Mathur, University of Cambridge

“Corruption. It’s like a demon sitting on my brain and eating it with a fork and knife.” So bemoans a character in the novelist Aravind Adiga’s Between the Assasinations set in India. While it is commonplace and easy to bemoan the pervasiveness of corruption in India, it is harder to get a sense of what it is doing to the state itself.

The case of Harish Gupta, a retired member of the elite Indian Administrative Service (IAS), reveals the dramatic breakdown of confidence and trust in the state that the talk and practice of corruption can precipitate. Gupta has been embroiled in one of the most high-profile corruption scandals of the past two decades, the coal allocation “scam” or “Coalgate” as it is popularly known.

It is centred on coal allocations made between 2004 and 2009 by the government of India to public sector enterprises and private entities. A report issued in 2012 by India’s central auditing agency, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), questioned the manner in which these allocations were made by the government of India. The CAG was of the opinion that the government could have made more of a profit had it opted for a process of competitive bidding in coal allocations. What appeared at the outset to be an issue of efficiency and profitability, however, soon morphed into an outright corruption scandal.

The scam implicated the entire state apparatus, from the then prime minister Manmohan Singh down to various officials in different ministries in Delhi. Much to everyone’s surprise and horror, it also swept up Gupta, an officer who is widely believed to be an exceedingly honest, humble, and intelligent civil servant. As secretary of coal to the government of India over 2006-08, a period when several of the questioned allocations took place, he was directly implicated in the scandal.

“Coalgate” burst on the national scene in India in 2012, and ever since then, Gupta – along with another accused – has been subjected to numerous and unrelenting investigations and legal action.

In a recent twist to events, 68-year-old Gupta (pictured below left) took the startlingly unprecedented step of surrendering himself to a special court. He informed a CBI special court judge that he was unwilling and unable to fight the multiple cases against him. He spoke of the straitened financial circumstances he was in, refused the help of the court, and professed a willingness to go to jail.

This is, by any measure, an extraordinary act of self-surrender, and we need to think more about what this gesture means and what sorts of circumstances could trigger it.

Punishing costs and legal quagmires

The legal costs are punishing for a pensioner such as Gupta and, no doubt, he is physically and emotionally exhausted by fighting several judicial and intelligence agencies all at once. Not to mention the often-salacious reports in the mainstream media where his culpability is tacitly – if not overtly – assumed. Even if Gupta were to know how to muster the resources – financial, emotional, legal, physical – to fight off the allegations, perhaps he feels it will be a Pyrrhic victory.

He has been quoted as saying that he suffers from various medical conditions and is not certain if he will live to see the completion of the trial. If that is to be the case, said Gupta – who has always maintained his total innocence and said every decision was taken in good faith – he wouldn’t like anyone to think he had escaped punishment.

The silver lining to this entire sorry saga is the response of his fellow IAS officers. Several of them are coming together to support him. Much like Gupta’s self-surrender in court, this is an extraordinary show of solidarity. It will be one of the first times that IAS officers will leave aside their own petty rivalries to rally behind a colleague whose innocence they are convinced of.

Why, after all, are we seeing such a rare form of collective activism by the bureaucracy?

Corruption is what anthropologist Michael Taussig described as a public secret – its existence is generally known but, for one reason or another, cannot easily be publicly articulated.

The bureaucracy, more than any other body, is fully cognisant of which of their colleagues is or isn’t corrupt. In 1996 the IAS association of Uttar Pradesh (Gupta’s home cadre) voted on who were the three most corrupt officers in the state in a secret ballot. Given that all three were subsequently convicted in corruption cases the list was remarkably accurate. There was also never a murmur of generalised protest of such a nature in previous high-profile cases as Gupta’s surrender has provoked.

Wider ramifications

The Gupta affair is cruelly tragic at an individual level. But it also holds alarming ramifications for the Indian state that need to be spelled out.

First, as with all the other cases of honest bureaucrats being falsely embroiled in similar witch hunts by various arms of the Indian state, it is a heavy disincentive to anyone who is truly honest and wishes to serve the state diligently. It is not just that, as the old saying goes, honesty doesn’t pay. As the Gupta case shows, being honest can actually actively hurt. For you could find yourself in a position similar to his, where you do not possess the financial clout to pay the exorbitant fees demanded by the top lawyers to outwit the multiple judicial and investigative agencies.

The Gupta case also serves to deepen a fear among serving bureaucrats against making any decisions at all. They are being slowly paralysed into inaction as they know that their signatures and decisions might be uncharitably scrutinised in the near future. These decisions can be retrospectively read as indicative of malfeasance, rather than diligence or creativity.

Most disturbingly of all, the Gupta case serves to deepen a crisis of confidence in the Indian state. If left unchecked, it is this profound public distrust of the state and its agents – rather than corruption – that will be impossible to control.

The Conversation

Nayanika Mathur, British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow in Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

New publication on conspiracy and democracy! http://conspiracyanddemocracy.org/blog/new-publication-on-conspiracy-and-democracy/ Thu, 28 Jul 2016 14:35:31 +0000 http://conspiracyanddemocracy.org/?p=1045 I’ve recently published a special issue of Critical Review, in which a group of political theorists reflect on the place of conspiracy and conspiracy theory in democratic politics.

Our former guest on the project, Lawrence Quill, has a piece based on his successful lecture on Technological Conspiracies.

I’ve written an introductory essay as well as an article on Friedrich Hayek. He might seem like the anti-conspiracy-theorist of society. And indeed he is. But wait til you see what he thinks of democracy.

David Singh Grewal argues that conspiracy theories can be understood as an attempt to make sense of a world in which power increasingly moves through networks.

Russell Muirhead and Nancy Rosenblum make an argument about the need for democratic leadership in telling truth to conspiracy, which seems particularly relevant in light of the current US election campaign.

Richard Tuck, in Cartels and Conspiracies, explores the strange disappearance of the language of conspiracy from a domain in which for several centuries it was pivotal: that of cartels and combinations of capital and labour.

And Joanne Miller and Kyle Saunders review the book by former visitors to our project Joseph Parent and Joseph Uscinski, American Conspiracy Theories.

Are you serious?: Measuring belief in conspiracy theories – Rob Brotherton http://conspiracyanddemocracy.org/blog/are-you-serious-measuring-belief-in-conspiracy-theories/ Wed, 25 May 2016 14:33:53 +0000 http://www.conspiracyanddemocracy.org/?p=1018 Psychologists love to measure things, and psychologists who study conspiracy theories are no exception. To understand where conspiracy theories come from, we need to be able to measure the extent to which people believe them. But measuring things is often trickier than it first appears.

At first glance, it seems pretty straight-forward. Pick a few theories and ask some people how strongly they believe the claims to be true or false. But the trouble is that different teams of researchers often ask about different theories, or ask about the same theories in different ways, so their scales might not be directly comparable. Plus, a scale item referring to the London 7/7 bombings, say, might not be ideal for non-British samples. Plus, conspiracy theories go in and out of fashion, potentially resulting in a scale that no longer works very well. Anitem from a 1994 study carried out in the States, for example, asks whether “The Japanese are deliberately conspiring to destroy the American economy.” (At the time, almost half of the sample-46%-said the theory was either definitely or probably true.)

In an effort to overcome these problems, colleagues at Goldsmiths and I created a measure of generic conspiracism. Our scale doesn’t refer to any specific conspiracist claim (like the allegation that the 9/11 attacks were an inside job), but instead asks about the generic assumptions that underlie the theories (like the idea that governments routinely harm and deceive their own citizens).

This is an improvement, but we’re still left with another problem, and this one is trickier to solve. We’re asking people how much they believe (or disbelieve) conspiracist claims, but what exactly does it mean when someone says they believe something like that? Does it mean they literally believe it to be true? Or might they believe it in a metaphorical sense? Might they not believe it, but tell us they do because they want to appear funny or ironic or unconventional? Might they be making a political statement? Or might they not be concerned about the truth at all? Measures of conspiracism might mean different things to different people.

This issue was pointed out by Conspiracy and Democracy project-member Alfred Moore in his response to my public talk for the project, and I agree wholeheartedly that it is an important issue for future psychological research to deal with.

It is also an issue which highlights the need for an interdisciplinary approach to conspiracy theories. In particular, history and political science-two of the major approaches of the Conspiracy and Democracy project-can be particularly valuable.

A historical approach can give us a fine-grained understanding of what people actually believe, at least on the scale of individuals. If a historian comes across a letter written by an well-known conspiracist in which they admit that they don’t actually believe a word of it, that’s a good indication that the person’s publicly stated views do not match their privately held beliefs.

Political scientists, like psychologists, are usually more interested in broad trends rather than specific individuals, and often rely on survey data. In an effort to make sure people’s responses reflect their actual beliefs, some political scientists have found a way to make people put their money where their mouth is. People’s answers to political questions, like the size of the federal deficit, are often biased by their partisan affiliation, but offering people cash for accurate answers can significantly reduce their partisan bias.

Of course, while monetary incentives might make people more accurate when answering questions that have a known answer, conspiracy theories don’t always have an objectively correct answer. The challenge will be figuring out if a similar honesty system can be put to use in the context of conspiracy theories.

Rob Brotherton 

Conspiracies Real and Imagined in the French Revolution – Marisa Linton http://conspiracyanddemocracy.org/blog/conspiracies-real-and-imagined-in-the-french-revolution-marisa-linton/ Fri, 06 May 2016 11:02:18 +0000 http://www.conspiracyanddemocracy.org/?p=999 The French Revolution saw the invention of a new political system for France, that of modern participatory politics, with an elected legislature, political clubs, and a free press. For the first time France had politicians – answerable not to one man, but to public opinion and to the ‘people’. On the face of it conspiracy should have had little place in this new political culture. Yet conspiracies, both real and imagined, played a central role in the shifting dynamics of French revolutionary politics, and contributed to the volatility of a political system which successive revolutionaries and made repeated efforts to stabilize.

  • There were many actual conspiracies, and the Revolution’s leaders had good reason to believe in the covert manipulation of power by groups seeking to impose their own political agendas, even though they often identified the wrong conspiracies, and the wrong participants.

  • Opponents of the Revolution claimed that the Revolution itself had come about by means of a conspiracy organized by Enlightenment intellectuals and freemasons.

  • A series of genuine conspiracies were launched against the Revolution. Some of these had their origins amongst the émigrés who had left France rather than accept a form of government based on national sovereignty.

  • Fear of conspiracy needs to be understood against the unstable context. A series of actual betrayals, the attempted flight of the king in 1791, the war with the leading foreign powers which began in 1792, and the civil war in the Vendée in 1793, all fed the fear of conspiracy. It was in this context that accusations of conspiracy with the foreign powers led to a series of executions in 1793-4.

  • Conspiracy was an important political rhetoric. The revolutionaries used this rhetoric to impart meaning to events, invoking narratives of conspiracy to explain events and the intentions of other political participants.

  • Much of this rhetoric of conspiracy was concerned with disguise and unmasking. Narratives of conspiracy addressed the problem of how to establish the authentic identities and genuine motives of political participants.

  • Conspiracy also had a powerful emotional resonance. There was a genuine fear of conspiracy and anxiety about conspirators, even when that fear was often misplaced.

  • A particularly traumatic aspect of French revolutionary politics is the extent to which revolutionary leaders accused one another of being secret conspirators against the Revolution. Mutual accusations of conspiracy by revolutionary leaders was a key factor in the politicians’ terror, whereby a series of revolutionary factions, including the Dantonists and the Robespierrists, were ‘unmasked’ as ‘conspirators’ and ‘traitors’.

Marisa Linton, Kingston University


Are conspiracy theories a threat to democracy? http://conspiracyanddemocracy.org/blog/are-conspiracy-theories-a-threat-to-democracy-2/ Wed, 13 Jan 2016 09:01:43 +0000 http://www.conspiracyanddemocracy.org/?p=960 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.

Can conspiracies be distinguished from other forms of collective action? http://conspiracyanddemocracy.org/blog/can-conspiracies-be-distinguished-from-other-forms-of-collective-action/ Tue, 12 Jan 2016 11:01:29 +0000 http://www.conspiracyanddemocracy.org/?p=958 Can conspiracies be distinguished from other forms of collective action?


Conspiracies are (at least partially) a subcategory of collective action. The terms covered by the collective action umbrella range from proximate categories which may, perhaps, be indistinguishable, to those that are completely distinct.

Unlike ‘conspiracy theory’, ‘conspiracy’ is easy to define: conspiracies are necessarily covert, and either illegal or at least aimed to deceive. Numerous forms of collective action are covert and legal. Protest marches, for one. Certain forms of collective action cannot be confused with conspiracies.

This is of course not a satisfactory answer; hopefully our discussion will dwell more on cases that, under certain circumstances, cannot be distinguished from conspiracies [It did – RF]. There are a number of forms of collective action that get close to being conspiracies, without fully qualifying. Alfred will have much to say about this, but any instance where elites’ interests align may produce outcomes that appear coordinated, even when produced by rational actors operating out of self interest.

Flipping the question around, the statement appears to imply that conspiracies are necessarily collective, and necessarily involve action. I’m not sure either must be true: when Andrew and I looked through the Hansard, we found the corpus was replete with popular phrases involving the term conspiracy. Apart from legal-technical usage, the most common usage saw the language of conspiracy applied to the failure or unwillingness to act, or even the structural conditions that prevent coordinated action. Take conspiracy of silence: here the conspiracy claim points to the absence of action. Or ‘events conspired’: this phrase points to an unfortunate sequence of uncoordinated events producing specific deleterious consequences. Finally, parliamentarians often talk about cases of ‘cockup rather than conspiracy’, i.e. any action (or inaction) took place without coordination, intention, and foresight. My point may be a pedantic one, and I’d concede that conspiracies do require a collective. But action? This is less clear cut.

In Venn diagram terms, most conspiracies are forms of collective action, though some cases might not be. In response to last week’s call, here’s is my minimalist visualisation of this idea:


How do conspiracy theories relate to non-democratic regimes? http://conspiracyanddemocracy.org/blog/how-do-conspiracy-theories-relate-to-non-democratic-regimes-3/ Mon, 11 Jan 2016 13:54:19 +0000 http://www.conspiracyanddemocracy.org/?p=956 Conspiracies and conspiracy theories are prevalent in the margins between democratic and non-democratic regimes. By their very nature, hybrid regimes are a likely site for conspiracy theorising: partially free media outlets, elections, and other democratic institutions, which may coexist with authoritarian practices. In such an environment, where expression is possible, but constrained, elections are free (but are they fake?), and where rulers speak the language of democracy, but appear to act in corrupt or self-serving ways, it is natural that conspiracy theories should find both an outlet and plentiful fuel.

It is in weakly democratic or hybrid regimes, such as the -stan countries (but we could also mention Weimar Germany), where exclusionary nationalist rhetoric is mobilised – often by alleging conspiracy on part of a minority or out-group. In such cases, take especially Kyrgyzstan, which at one point appeared to be democratising (it had a ‘tulip’ revolution), but has since seen ethnic tension between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz. Here conspiracy theories in the broadest possible sense have both undermined authoritarian rule, as well as attempts to introduce more democratic practice. (For more, see this article by Scott Radnitz).

Another instructive example in this context are third wave democracies. These ‘transitions’ came about through conspiracy, as old elites who felt their grip on power loosening handed power to new, (relatively) democratic leaders in exchange for various privilege – typically an amnesty and the right to keep their amassed wealth. Such negotiated transitions remain the subject of conspiracy theories. In Poland, and unlike the Czech Republic, no process of ‘lustration‘ was conducted against former Communist elites. The fear, driving much of the debate in the 2000s, was that the new, democratic elites in Poland owed their privileged position to ties with the former regime. The late 2000s saw a host of allegations that new leaders had been Communist stooges – from Lech Walesa to Donald Tusk, not to speak of Aleksandr Kwasniewski.

As we move to more fully authoritarian regimes, the situation is less clear. As Hugo notes, certain polls suggest ‘belief’ in conspiracy theories about 9/11 is widespread in many Muslim countries. I tend to be sceptical of these polls – responses appear to follow elite cues. In Russia, opinions about Russia’s relations with the West track Putin’s approval ratings. ‘Belief’ in something the respondent is unlikely to have any first hand knowledge of can become a proxy for whether or not the respondent accepts the local ‘official’ explanation, more than a question about the issue itself.

In largely authoritarian regimes such as Russia, ‘conspiracy theory’ can be applied to almost all political debate. The party landscape is split into two groups: sanctioned and unsanctioned political organisations. Thus Russians speak about the sistemnaia and the nesistemnaia opposition – the opposition acting within the system, and the one that rejects the system. In this space there is little room for conflict about policy, and political debate tends to centre on the nature of the regime. Garry Kasparov made this explicit, arguing that any sanctioned opposition movement is playing by the Kremlin’s rules, something akin to swearing a feudal oath.

This division is born out in the names of Russian political parties: Kasparov’s party is called ‘Other Russia’. What used to be Nemtsov’s Party is called ‘People’s Freedom Party “For Russia without Lawlessness and Corruption”‘. The anti-corruption activist Navalny’s party is more neutrally styled the ‘Progress Party’. It campaigns, though, to fundamentally overhaul the state. Here’s the Wikipedia summary:

‘The party’s platform stands for the decentralization of power in Russia, cutting the number of government officials, lustration for those responsible for political repressions, reducing the president’s powers, possibly switching to a parliamentary republic and ensuring the independence of the judiciary. It also stipulates “drastically reducing” government interference in the economy, ending censorship, prohibiting the government from owning media outlets and abolishing conscription.’

In this environment, the government describes the opposition as criminal; the opposition terms the government a kleptocracy. Must all articulations of these positions be conspiracy theories? They posit a conspiracy, sure, but they are in no sense marginal, nor are they a form of counter-knowledge, nor is either articulation seen as disreputable. Here the space between conspiracy and politics is small, and, I think, conspiracy theory does not helpfully delineate it.