The attempted insurrection of the US Capitol one month ago was the tipping point of a political trend that has seen conspiracy theories moving from the side-lines into the centre of politics. From the 2016 US presidential election, to Brexit, political events over the last several years have given rise to so-called ‘post-truth politics’, characterized by a lack of agreement over the nature of truth.
For the adherents of conspiracy theories, ‘nothing is as it seems’ and they therefore believe in alternate realities which have contributed to a new form of relativism in contemporary society, bearing significant implications for national and international political issues ranging from climate change, vaccination programmes, democratic elections and diplomatic relations between countries.
Indeed, the de-legitimation of conspiracy theories has enhanced their visibility, and after recent events in the US, it is no longer enough to simply dismiss them. Instead, they need to be recognized as a political force that can have a bearing on national and international political stability with potentially severe consequences in already unstable political environments.
Lessons from science
Countering the risks posed by conspiracy theories first requires acknowledging the existence of ‘deep truths’. Quantum physics shows us that different conflicting realities can co-exist. One such example is the complementarity principle, regarding the wave-particle duality, where light is a particle but also a wave.
Physicist Niels Bohr, who originated the complementarity principle, also coined the concept of a deep truth. Normally, the opposite of a truth is a falsehood and this is simple enough to refute through facts, for example, the number of people that attended the US presidential inauguration this year.
In contrast, deep truths are more difficult to grasp, for example, understanding the nature of matter and this principle has manifestations beyond science if applied to politics. While fake news is simply false, conspiracy theories are a more complex phenomenon whereby their specific premises are fundamentally imaginary, but they are real in the sense that large numbers of people believe in them and this has real-world implications.
Furthermore, they are also real in the sense that conspiratorial behaviour in politics does take place and often provides the breeding ground for dangerous narratives to emerge. So what does this mean for addressing the challenge of post-truth politics in the 21st century?
Imaginary or real
One of the key sentiments of most conspiracy theorists is a profound distrust in the political establishment and forms the basis for ‘deep state’ theorizing where it is believed a group of people, such as influential members of government and other elites, secretly control government policy. This conviction is indeed a central element of the QAnon movement whose adherents took part in the insurrection of the US Capitol on 6 January 2021.
The ripple effects of this belief, and the subsequent political messaging that feeds it, often goes beyond the intended purpose, for example, the disinformation campaigns during the Brexit referendum in the UK in 2016 gave rise to a number of Islamophobic conspiracy theories about Muslim migration to Europe.
Furthermore, more recently in 2020, the Chinese government spread disinformation to distract from the origins of the coronavirus. This has brought about several conspiracy theories including claims of attempted biological warfare asserted by the governments of both China and the US against one another, despite the fact that SARS-CoV-2 was unknown to virologists before it emerged in December 2019.
Indeed, during the War on Terror, a wide range of conspiracy theories emerged that were influenced by US foreign policy decisions, such as when, in order to capture Osama bin Laden, a fake polio vaccination programme was set up in Pakistan in 2012 under the Obama administration to acquire samples of his family’s DNA.
This action resulted in widespread distrust of the polio vaccine in Pakistan at the time which, not only served to undermine the international humanitarian community’s efforts to eradicate polio in the country, but has also contributed partly to the rise of conspiracy theories against coronavirus vaccines in Pakistan today.
Decision-makers currently lack an adequate understanding of how conspiracy theories come to be, how important they are for those who believe in them and therefore what impact they could have on national and international political stability.
In the context of the ongoing coronavirus crisis, and the roll out of vaccination programmes, there is an urgent need to counter misleading conspiracy theories against vaccinations to ensure the protection of global public health. Indeed, monitoring conspiracy theorist activity on the internet, for example, as the UK government is currently doing against a growing anti-vaccine movement, is an important step in recognizing, let alone, understanding and acting on the impact these theories could have.
But this cannot be simply achieved by cracking down on online content. There is also a need to look to the root causes and understand why people are increasingly believing in these narratives. Rebuilding trust in public institutions, along with strengthening community cohesion, therefore needs to be of paramount importance for national governments moving forwards. Indeed, important lessons can be learnt about strengthening trust in scientific institutions from the climate change community which has dealt with climate change conspiracies that have fed climate denial for decades.
International collaboration based on mutual trust and a commitment to a peaceful world is equally important to ensuring that conspiracy theories are not weaponized at the national level in order to peddle conspiracy theories against other nations on the global stage. Indeed, all national governments have a common interest in countering conspiracy theorist movements since many of the current conspiracy theories support a worldview which denies science at a time when science is needed the most.
Ultimately, grappling with the risks posed by conspiracy theories requires addressing the underlying social conditions – from growing socio-economic inequality to a looming mental health crisis – that have enabled these narratives to prosper. Proactive and concerted action by national governments, global institutions, media organizations and the scientific community therefore is going to be needed more than ever in the months and years ahead if we are to counter the harmful risks posed by conspiracy theories once and for all.