More than 30 years ago Umberto Eco wrote a book, Foucault’s Pendulum, about the creation of conspiracy theories by a group of Milanese book editors which embroils them in real conspiracies.
The editors, sick of looking at crackpot manuscripts, create more by randomly throwing hermetic manuscripts into a computer named Abulafia after the medieval Jewish cabbalist.
Texts about the measurements of the Great Pyramid, the Knights of the Temple, Assassins, Brazilian voodoo, Rosicrucians and others are all piled in. ….and needless to say it all ends badly.
But today, as with much of Eco, it seems prescient and perceptive as we witness similar phenomena as conspiracy theories are created, believed and disseminated.
Conspiracy theories have always been with us and the current conventional wisdom is that the only real difference is that social media has enabled new levels of diffusion of such theories. Up to point Lord Copper one might say.
Richard J. Evans’ The Hitler Conspiracies: The Third Reich and the Paranoid Imagination looks at five which were critical to the 20th century. They include discussion of whether the Protocols of the Elders of Zion was a ‘warrant for genocide’; the post-war German belief that the German army was ‘stabbed in the back’ in 1918; who was responsible for burning down the Reichstag; why Rudolph Hess flew to Britain; and did Hitler escape the bunker.
Evans argues that: ‘there are many differing claims within the overall conspiracist paradigm, though the conspiracists seldom argue with each other, preferring instead to concentrate their fire on ‘official knowledge’ or ‘traditionalist historians’.
As befits a scholar Evans argues that “even in an age like our own, where the gatekeepers of opinion formation have been bypassed through the Internet and anyone can put out their views into the public sphere, no matter how bizarre they might be” painstaking research and refutation still has a role to play.
Hal Berghel, University of Nevada, in a discussion of the QAnon phenomenon (Computer May 2022) points out that the January 6 insurrection and assault on the Capitol was not a unique existential crisis in the US and argues that insurrection, riots, massacres, uprising and sundry other forms of organised mass violence are not unusual in the US.
He cites the 1676 Bacon’s Rebellion; Shays Rebellion (1786); Wilmington Insurrection (1898); the Civil War; and, the 1933 Business Plot coup planning as a few of the previous examples.
He also cites Mike Rothschild’s book – the Storm is Upon Us – which defines QAnon as “a complex web of mythology, conspiracy theories, personal assumptions featuring a vast range of characters, events, symbols, shibboleths and jargon.”
Berghel himself, in an earlier paper, argued that “the success of QAnon had in getting fringe elements to coalesce into effective partisan tribes speaks to the extent to which much of political propaganda is extralogical performance art. The fact that there was no verifiable content in QAnon missives was no deterrent int galvanising the base.”
He also discusses the fact that QAnon follows similar strategies to the Protocols authors and illuminates their capacity to believe passionately disparate and contradictory ideas in the context of Leon Festinger’s 1950s research on cognitive dissonance which arose from the study of an apocalyptic cult which predicted doom on 21 December 1954. When it didn’t occur the strongest adherents to the cult doubled down on their commitment to the cult.
Berghel looked at 2020 research which asked adults if they had heard of or believe in four QAnon conspiracies such as a global network of people who torture and sexually abuse children in satanic rituals.
A majority reported that they had not heard of QAnon but 20% of the sample believed in at least one QAnon conspiracy claim suggesting that the ideas are percolating through society even when their origins are unknown..
A Pew Survey also showed that 40% of Republican voters who have heard of QAnon conspiracies said QAon was a good thing for the country.
Another survey by Robert Pape showed that the January 6 insurrectionists were drawn from a pool of 65 million Americans who believe the 2020 election was stolen and a third of those are willing to use force to overturn the results. About 30% of these support right-wing militias and 32% own guns.
Pape found the greatest driver of the beliefs was belief in the ‘great replacement theory’ in which whites are losing control to non-whites.
Berghel emphasises that social media ‘is an ideal reinforcing environment.’
“Sharing, whether manifested as redirected copypaste…memes, images and multimedia or online sharing has similar effects by unifying targetted communities. But the flexibility of online sharing is unique.”
“What we are learning is that social media is the key component of global disinformation campaigns that promulgate the big lies of our time and encourage the subversion of democratic processes. Future students of disinformatics may look back at the QAnon experience as the start of a Cambrian explosion of disinformation.”
So what is to be done? Berghel argues that, as with Stephen Jay Gould’s response to the Omphalos hypothesis (that the world was only 6,000 years old and made by a creator who left false evidence like fossils so people would be deceived into thinking the world was billions of years older) we should not try to confront “ the intransigence and hostility or ignore and intellectually inert delusions” but rather the arguments should be dismissed and not debated.
Of course, in the US one has to confront not only social media disinformation but also folk memories and beliefs which are equally deluded.
Alicia Puglionesi’s In Whose Ruins discusses 19th century origin stories passed on as empirical fact that white people are the rightful inheritors of American lands as a ‘lost tribe of whites’ inhabited North America prior to the people who are actually the Indigenous Americans.
A similar myth is exposed in Norse America by Gordon Campbell. He traces the westward expansion of the Norse across the North Atlantic to North America – a journey that probably stopped at the site of what is now L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland.
He also describes the many local boosters, activists and other who have promulgated and celebrated the myth that America was founded by the Norse.
This fantasy that the US was founded by Vikings rather than anyone else is emblemised in a Viking statue in Alexandria Minnesota commemorating it as ‘the birthplace of America’ and the claim that Vikings reached the city.
So, ignore the conspiracists, ridicule them, argue with them…there are many strategies. But none so far unfortunately seem to be working. Stephen Jay Gould’s advice may be appealing but the dismissal tactic could just further beliefs that ‘elites’ are conspiring to hide the truth.
John Spitzer brought the Bergehl paper and Lost Tribe book to the author’s attention.