The conspiracy theory is a part of history as old as prostitution and human communication. Its origins lie in suggesting those in power are manipulating events at the expense of everyone else. Conspiracy theories imply that the established version of history is something that doesn’t deserve to be believed, and should instead be proved false. It assumes that groups of influential people deliberately meet to determine the future of history at the expense of individual freedom.
This has taken prominence within the US in recent years. The QAnon conspiracy theory has gripped America, not least online. It argues that Washington D.C. contains a series of Satan-worshipping paedophiles who are acting against Donald Trump, but none of this is based on facts. Yet many Trump supporters have used its supposed existence as part of his re-election campaign, arguing that Trump is trying to prevent a coup from Hillary Clinton and George Soros.
This conspiracy theory also helps to feed into views of a deep state, which was used by Trump supporters before the 2016 election. Claims that a group of people within Washington were preventing him from ascending to the Presidency ran strong and demonstrated the power of lies and misleading information. By making America great again, Trump aimed to drain the swamp of politicians who were seen as barriers to progress and enemies of innovation.
Conspiracy theories haven’t just been fuelled by supporters of Trump. The President himself has been a long term supporter of the notion that truth is manipulated by those in power. But this theory forgets that, because though he only recently entered the political establishment, he has long been a member of the economic establishment. As a businessman, Trump regularly fuelled the birther conspiracy, which suggested that former President, Barack Obama, wasn’t born in America. This is despite conclusive proof that he was born in Hawaii.
Similarly, Trump has no problem promoting conspiracy theories that have proven to be incorrect. In 1989, Trump paid for full-page advertisements calling for the death penalty to be used against the Central Park Five. This was despite the fact all five individuals were later proven innocent and completely exonerated. To take out such advertisements would only prejudice a trial. More recently, Trump tweeted in 2012 that global warming was a conspiracy theory by the Chinese to make American manufacturing non-competitive. Since becoming President, he has hardly committed any action to positively deal with climate change.
I believe the rise of conspiracy theories generally links to a decline in the notion of the truth within America. Where there used to be grand, unifying projects Americans could aspire towards, political divisions have exploded. Your version of the truth is shaped by what TV news channel you watch, which neighbourhood you live in, and what political party you vote for. There is a declining unity over what the future of America should be, and growing animosity about its direction. The polarisation has meant any shared version of the future has gone.
Animosity has led to the assumption that one’s political opponents must be acting in bad faith. There is a view that, if someone happens to think differently, they can’t hold a legitimate point of view. It must be a form of manipulation, a conspiracy. This has thus peddled the growth of conspiracy theories where Democrats and Republicans hold one another In bad faith. Strangely, conspiracy theories are likely to only rally around one’s core set of voters. A swing voter who has previously voted Republican is hardly going to be won around to the Democrats if they’re told their former party is evil.
Though conspiracy theories have always existed, their increased presence is likely because of the internet. Though such websites were meant to democratise the truth, their existence has worsened echo chambers. Social conservatives can congregate together and spread their version of the truth. Similarly, liberals can use an echo chamber to portray their version of how society operates. There is no opportunity for the meeting of minds. Where it does happen over Twitter, only abuse seems to be the unifying factor.
In the UK, conspiracy theories are used but are not in public discourse to the same extent. Though anti-lockdown protests have blamed coronavirus on Bill Gates and 5G, this is by no means a mainstream opinion. While it always pays to be critical and question the government, conspiracy theories rely on baseless assertions. Indeed, their biggest flaw is believing the world is ordered and planned.
In reality, life is far more chaotic. Cock-up nearly always trumps conspiracy. Where such views of the world do arise, the most effective way of combating them is through educating and suggesting, however uncertain our world appears, there is objective truth. This is the only value that can hold any society together.