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OP-ED: How conspiracy theories shape politics and minds

  • Published at 01:33 am February 7th, 2021
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Serious accusations need to be countered with the truth, not with more smoke around the subject

Conspiracy theories have existed in human history since time immemorial. They have fed human imagination to account for anything natural or supernatural -- anything that cannot be explained rationally but still a cause has to be found or blamed for something that happened to individuals, society, or a country. 

Conspiracy theories are expedient, easy to spread, and these need not be proven scientifically. You believe in these because they free the mind from the rigour of analysis, proof, or logic. Most egregious examples of conspiracy theories in modern times are the assassination President Kennedy, accident of Princess Diana, survival of Hitler and his escape to the Americas, staging of the air attack on Twin Towers of New York and the Pentagon, etc. 

How do conspiracy theories flourish and get oxygenated? There are several reasons, all of which have to deal with human inclination to rely more on instinct and less on reason. It is easier to believe stories of unidentified foreign objects floating in the sky than to exercise the brain and scrutinize the rationality of such stories. 

It is safer to put blame on someone else rather than one’s own inability to prevent an unpleasant event or happening. It is convenient to find an enemy for all the ills that you face because that way you deflect attention from yourself. Most importantly, conspiracy theories get more traction than truth. Conspiracy theories have more glamour, they fire your imagination much more than truth, which is usually bland.    

Conspiracy theories are, however, most useful in politics and in blame shifting, particularly in crises. When politicians face adversity, they blame their opponents in creating the crisis; they call this a conspiracy by their opponents to degrade and humiliate them with false accusations, be they of corruption or criminal conduct. When a country’s leader launches an attack on the opponents and tries to suppress them, he relies on conspiracy theories to defend his actions. He justifies his actions as an effort to save the country from conspirators who are out to destroy the sovereignty of the country. 

The most curious part of the floating of conspiracy theories in politics is not that the political leader alone is responsible for floating it, he or she creates a cult of supporters who spread the theories with robotic precision. In fact, some of these theories may have their genesis in the political or social goals of groups of people who find a host for these theories in a political leader and rally around him. 

This phenomenon was most visible during the last presidential elections of the US, which spawned a number of many outrageous theories, proponents of which rallied around ex-President Donald Trump like bees to a hive. Some of the most preposterous theories were and still are that the Democratic Party indulges in child trafficking for immoral purposes, that there is a deep state (hidden government) in the US of cronyism that is conspiring against Donald Trump, that the entire Russian help for Donald Trump in the elections was a conspiracy to undermine Trump, and there are dozens like this. All of these were repeatedly regurgitated by Trump supporters and were promoted by Trump himself. 

The pinnacle of the conspiracy theory came after the elections, when Trump was trounced in the presidential elections, but he refused to acknowledge the results, calling them rigged and a deep conspiracy to unseat him. He rallied his supporters with repeated labelling of the election as fraudulent and rigged. When words could not change the results, he moved courts to overturn the results in several states but with no effect. The results remained as they were, since he and his supporters could not bring any shred of evidence to prove their assertion. A frustrated Trump took to the unthinkable and unimaginable path of inciting a gathering of his supporters to march on the Capitol on the day of final election results declaration by the Congress with tragic results. 

Unfortunately, the United States is not the only country where conspiracy theories thrive and drive politics. In Bangladesh, there has been no dearth of conspiracy theories spawned not just by individual groups, but political parties and political leaders. These conspiracy theories gain ground because they are safe bets to hoodwink people and divert attention from inconvenient truths. They are nothing but smokescreens to mislead people. 

Just as air rushes in when there is a vacuum, falsehood and conspiracy theories also rush in when there is absence of transparency in official actions. In a totalitarian state, it is not uncommon to see that the supreme leader’s illness is concealed, his absence from state functions usually explained as preoccupations with more serious business. 

Actions by the government against opponents are termed as patriotic steps to prevent saboteurs from harming the government. The press is forbidden from delving into the actions of officials, not to speak of writing against them. In a totalitarian state, the government is the sole purveyor of information. The public media can function as long as they regurgitate the information provided by the government. 

In states that have absolute control over information, the only source available for the general public is often the foreign media. In the digital world of today, this source which now has no limits and can reach any home in the world even if the governments try to restrict access. As a result, people gobble up any news on their countries, particularly when information is not available to them domestically. The dire absence of truth and transparency in their own governments lead them to rely on foreign sources even though they cannot independently verify these. They believe the sources because they think a foreign source is independent of control of their government. 

Typically, government responses to these bursts of news from foreign sources are highly indignant and resentful, calling these mendacious and conspiratorial to malign the government and its leaders. Unfortunately, instead of clearing the cloud surrounding such news such indignant responses only create more vapour around the subject, and create more suspicion in people’s minds. This in turn gives birth to more false news and conspiracy theories. 

Home and abroad, we all have been disturbed by a recent foreign media report that surfaced serious charges against some highly placed individuals in the government and their associates. Maybe some people were aware of them, maybe not. But these are serious accusations that need to be seriously treated and the public kept informed. Dismissing these again as conspiracies to malign the government may not serve us well. We have to face these up front and deal with them with the truth. 

Conspiracy theories and stories of conspiracies do not go away by simply denying them. They can only go away when people are fed truth and nothing but truth. They can only go away when people have trust and faith in the people who lead them. Our leaders have to believe that their words and actions will have effect only when they speak the truth and make their actions transparent.

Ziauddin Choudhury has worked in the higher civil service of Bangladesh early in his career, and later for the World Bank in the US.

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