The anatomy of a conspiracy theory

While conspiracy theories — about extraterrestrial visitors, secret government experiments, or alternative explanations for events like the JFK assassination or the 1969 moon landing — have long been whispered (or even shouted) in some companies, they have rarely been taken seriously by mainstream American media. electrical outlets. But with the rise of platforms from Info Wars to the 4chan message board to Twitter, these beliefs are not only flourishing among the communities where they began, they have also begun to drive the news cycle more wide. Questions about Jeffrey Epstein’s death, Greta Thunberg’s climate activism and ongoing developments in Ukraine are recent examples.

While it may be tempting to dismiss conspiracy theories as harmless, albeit troubling, diversions, some have had dangerous real-world consequences in recent years. One theory postulating a link between vaccines and autism, for example, has led to a drop in vaccinations and an increase in measles cases. Another (called “Pizzagate” in the press) linked to the Comet Ping Pong restaurant in Washington, DC has prompted multiple attacks on the establishment.

All of this has led some analysts to conclude that the prevalence of conspiracy theories today is much higher – an assessment dismissed by others, who nevertheless acknowledge that we are while speaking about them more. There is also recent research suggesting that conspiracy theories are not necessarily harmful, given that belief in them can enhance political commitment.

To have a longer vision of their history, New York University News spoke with Eliot Borenstein, professor in the Department of Russian and Slavic Studies and author of Conspiracies against Russia: conspiracy and fantasy after socialism (Cornell University Press, 2019), which traced how conspiracy theories, and the sentiment and paranoia that accompany them, are ingrained in Russian political and cultural life today. In the book, Borenstein, a faculty member affiliated with NYU’s Jordan Center for the Advanced Study of Russia, also compares this phenomenon under President Vladimir Putin to that which occurred in the United States under the Trump administration – a juxtaposition that offers perspectives that transcend borders, ideologies and historical circumstances.

Generally speaking, under what historical and political conditions have conspiracy theories flourished?

Conspiracy theories adapt easily to virtually any political environment, but social unrest, polarization, and an acknowledged history of state secrecy are part of their natural habitat. In my opinion, however, the conspiracy is less about politics and more about information. It’s probably easy to understand how conspiracy theories could thrive under a restrictive media regime: in the absence of reliable information, people fill in the blanks with speculation. This was certainly the case in the Soviet Union, for example, when people took it for granted that they were being lied to. But the conspiracy is also quite comfortable in information systems based on surplus rather than scarcity. The media environment in the United States, with its multiple private television stations offering radically different worldviews, allows viewers of Fox News and readers of Breitbart to live in a world that systematically excludes facts that might contradict it.

Comments are closed.