Conspiracy theories are ruining trust


Propastop recently wrote about the crazy conspiracy theories around the coronavirus. Why do many people still believe in conspiracy theories and how are they used in information conflicts.

First, you have to agree on what is meant by conspiracy theory. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines conspiracy theory as a theory that explains an event or circumstance as the result of a secret plot, usually invented by powerful conspirators. Dr. Clare Birchall, a lecturer at King’s College in London and conspiracy theory investigator, adds a definition to the concept of malicious intent and defines conspiracy theory as a narrative that explains an event or series of events as a result of a clandestine activity by a malicious group.

While the first definition defines, for example, Santa’s and the elves’ narrative as an ‘ adult conspiracy against children ‘, then according to the second definition, because of the lack of malevolence, it does not really qualify as a conspiracy theory.

The government is hiding the truth

In his book, „A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America„ Michael Barkun, a well-known American academic, puts forth three main points that are common to all conspiracy theories:

  • Nothing happens by accident
  • Nothing is as it seems
  • Everything is connected

Looking at these three statements, it becomes clear why people believe in conspiracy theories and why it can be dangerous to society. It is common for modern people to look for logical reasons for events and we all want our worldview to be an understandable whole. In real life, however, there are events that are unnatural and devastating to the world – be it wars, terrorist attacks, assassinations of well-known people, stock market crashes or diseases that threaten loved ones.

This is where conspiracy theories come in and make it easy to put together a complicated puzzle – everything is connected and everything has a reason. If something goes wrong, someone is guilty of it – Freemasons, Illuminati, Jews, Bilderbergs and Reptiles or someone else.

However, because at the heart of any conspiracy theory is that nothing is as it seems, they create conflict with „official“ or „mainstream“ information and undermine trust in the channels that convey this information. Daniel Cohnitz, a professor of theoretical philosophy at the University of Utrecht, said in his presentation on 11 March in Tartu that conspiracy theories undermine social institutions and disrupt people’s networks of trust. Above all, however, they create an „information fog“ and people affected by conspiracy theories no longer know who or what to believe, so they may be reluctant to make any decisions at all.

Mihhail Lotman, a semiotics researcher of conspiracy theories in Estonia, considers the beginning of modern conspirology to be at the end of the 18th century. The revolutionary development of information and communication technology and especially the spread of Social Media, has given unprecedented influence to conspiracy theories. Algorithms aimed at personalizing information polarize Social Media content and increasingly push users to their limited „information bubble“, which promotes the spread of conspiracy theories.

Everything can be used as a weapon

Undermining trust in social institutions, sowing confusion and increasing people’s political inactivity – could all be the purpose of information operations for a country wishing to play a role in world politics, for example during elections or referendums in another country?

Indeed, conspiracy theories have been in the toolbox of Russian special services since their inception. It is believed that „the secret protocols of Zion“, talked about by many conspiracy theorists to this day, were commissioned by the Czarist Russian secret police, Ohranka (lecture by Mikhail Lotman on this subject). The tradition is still alive to this day and Ilya Yablokov, a lecturer at the University of Leeds, gives numerous examples in his research of how Kremlin TV, RT promotes various conspiracy theories. In the authors opinion, the populist and anti-elite claims of conspiracy theorists in RT programs are intended to unite an imaginary global „nation“ against the dangerous „other“ represented by the USA state apparatus. Russia is shown as a campaigner for the „people’s“ interests and a leader in the fight against the US elite.

Often, however, the purpose of disseminating different conspiracy theories is not to unite people behind a particular idea, but simply to confuse and divide society.

Coronavirus as a blessing

The viral pandemic is affecting various conspiracy theories as a fertilizer and as people’s fears grow, more and more of them are being used. The Kremlin is utilizing this opportunity. They recently leaked to the media a secret broadcast by the European External Action Service (EEAS) acknowledging that Russia is trying to undermine EU Member States from inside by conducting a false information campaign on the coronavirus. It is noted that the fake accounts of Russian-affiliated Social networking sites that previously broadcast news about Syria and Yellow jackets have now begun to distribute conspiracy theories and false information about the coronavirus in English, Spanish, French, Italian and German. (An example of coronavirus conspiracy theory broadcast by Russian State TV).

The Kremlin’s shadowy influence of course is not involved in every spreading conspiracy theory. An Estonian language example of applying various conspiracy theories to a panic stricken population is previously criminally convicted, Jaya Shivan Kracht’s Social Media video appeal, which reiterates all the pertinent New World Order (NWO) talking points. The Eesti Päevaleht thinks that financial interests were the motivator behind this particular conspiracy theory

Photo: Javier Sales/Flickr/CC