How The Anti-Democracy Movement Is Weaponizing Conspiracy Theories
Dr. Chamila Liyanage is a Policy and Practitioner Fellow at the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR) and a Researcher/Content Developer at Radical-R: Radicalisation Research, UK.
Can conspiracy theories be likened to violent extremist ideologies? The answer is ‘no’. An interplay between the two does not happen automatically. If it happens, it may suggest that commonalities exist between extremist ideologies and conspiracy theories. As recent evidence suggests, it does indeed happen.
What are conspiracy theories? Conspiracy theories hatch onto shadows, assuming that shadowy organizations or figures are behind every functioning of the world. Extremist ideologies are, instead, extreme views and extreme measures such as violence as means to achieve an end.
As Rogers, referring to Beck and Crenshaw, states, ‘the cognitive approach defines violent extremist behaviour as a logical response to the environment, or the final, rational choice in a sequence of choices’. Both the rational choice theory and the organizational theory concerning extremists’ descent to violence accept similar premises. Crenshaw identifies terrorism as a political strategy; it follows a logical course with a rational purpose. The terrorist organization is the axis where extremist actors take what Crenshaw notes as a ‘collectively rational strategic choice’. To make such a rational choice, extremist actors must deal with practical issues.
Violent extremism leading to terrorism is mainly understood as a logical and practical choice made by a terrorist organization. It consolidates and mobilizes a campaign of violence. Terrorism is a manifestation of asymmetric warfare, utilized against a much stronger enemy such as a state by weaker opponents. In such a no-nonsense strategic choice, where do shadowy conspiracy theories play any significant role? Wouldn’t conspiracy theories, often understood as the imagination of the gullible mind, even pertaining to mental illness, weaken the pragmatic resolve of extremist actors, like the Islamic State (IS), the political extremists’ die-hard to establish a fundamentalist Islamic Caliphate, a religious but a real-world geopolitical entity, which would allow a fundamentalist lifestyle?
Wouldn’t conspiracy theories, imagining illusive Satan-worshipping liberal elite,s or the fabled New World Order dampen the purpose of any extremist group, downplaying their real-world grievances? After all, who would be enticed by conspiracy theories? First, it would be the fringe conspiracy theorists. If they happened to flood the ranks of the radical right, wouldn’t it effectively cancel out the radical right cause and its real-world mobilizing grievances such as immigration?
While all these observations can still be made, unfortunately, recent evidence suggests that violent extremism increasingly overlaps with conspiracy theories. The latest examples are the Hanau shooter’s beliefs in fringe conspiracy theories and the storm of Capitol Hill by QAnon followers on January 6, 2021. How does this happen? Are conspiracy circles being radicalized? Do conspiracy theories intersect with extremist movements, or do conspiracy theories play a mobilizing role in radicalizing individuals?
Observably, the recent upsurge of conspiracy theories in violent extremism derives from a clear source rather than suggesting a causal link between conspiracy theories and extremist ideologies. This article argues that the current conspiracy upsurge, leading to violent extremism, is due to an active movement, which mobilizes age-old conspiracy theories as part of a cult-like worldview, finding allies in worldwide anti-democratic movements.
So how do we understand this movement, ideology, and the context, which has already passed an organizational stage, with its current ability to mobilize violent extremism, both online and in the real-world?
Illiberalism: The grand unification
To understand the conspiracy beliefs, which are flooding online extremist milieus and influencing real-world violent extremism, we need to ask the right questions. First, asking if an interplay between extremist beliefs and conspiracy beliefs will place the focus elsewhere, hiding the real phenomenon at work. Second, to understand the underlying dynamics of what can be noted as an overlap between conspiracy beliefs and extremist beliefs, which occurs at an unusually alarming rate, we need to ask: How does the current overlap between violent extremism and conspiracy theories arise and in what context?
This study identifies a movement, which is culpable for mobilizing conspiracy beliefs, inciting violent extremism. The study names it as ‘the movement to malign liberal democracy’, acknowledging its primary task. The movement has a clear purpose, which is replacing liberal democracy. The purpose and the task of the movement are clear. However, this wider anti-democratic movement is not easy to recognize as it unusually crisscrosses, bringing unlikely allies with many ideological dispositions. Nonetheless, they all benefit, one way or another, from their common opposition to democracy.
The movement consists of several poles of clearly identifiable ideological elements. If we categorize the key ideological elements of ‘the movement’, the first pole represents the intellectual adherents of the traditionalist school of thought, integral traditionalism, anti-modernist elements, and anti-western thought movements.
The second pole consolidates the new age movement, the disclosure movement, popular conspiracy circles, cult believers of millenarianism, messianism, ancient Hindu, Egyptian, and Tibetan faiths, and some adherents to alternative lifestyles.
The third pole unites the ideological adherents of the European New Right (such as the alt-right), the radical right, populists, ultra-nationalist elements, anti-globalists, revolutionary conservatives, and authoritarian regimes. The first pole is cultural, the second is social/spiritual/imaginative, and the third is political in disposition.
Traditionalists in the first pole share a holistic view of the world where life is said to be part of a primordial truth connected to an all-conceiving source, a metaphysical reality in which human ‘reason’ plays no role. Traditionalists believe that the human connection to this metaphysical reality is all lost because of the values of modernity, as modernity said to lead humans away from the absolute truth. Anti-modernism finds allies in anti-western, nativist, racialist, and religious discourse, considering modernity as a corruption to the natural way of things. It fundamentally opposes neoliberalism and democracy, favoring an absolute power, who discerns rule from an absolute metaphysical source.
The spiritual and imaginary movements in the second pole are diverse but share a joint opposition to democracy for many reasons. New agers want an alternative lifestyle as opposed to what they call the ‘corrupted’ current aeon. Many sorts of alternative lifestyle movements and spiritual and occult beliefs are a part of it. The Disclosure Movement is in a deep delusion, believing that benevolent aliens offer free energy, but the nefarious governments and the elites are keeping them out. Cultish movements worldwide await a savior to deliver humanity from troubles. For thousands of years, their beliefs have been repeatedly reignited during troubled times such as the current pandemic.
However, the political elements at the third pole are the ones who seize the real strategic opportunity offered by all these cultural, social, spiritual, and imaginary positions, shrewdly diverting the opposition against democracy to form a political movement. This is where the revolutionary right and the authoritarian regimes build their political projects. At last, the wind is turning in their favor, assisted by an all-out metapolitical assault against the values of neoliberalism and liberal democracy.
With its divergent actors, this anti-democratic movement opposes democracy for various reasons, and many in the end play into the hands of the radical right and authoritarian regimes. The recent upsurge of conspiracy theories leading to violent extremism does not happen in a vacuum. Instead, it occurs in a context where there is an active movement.
The overwhelming evidence for the current interplay between conspiracy theories and violent extremist beliefs does not happen due to the commonalities between extremist beliefs and violent extremist beliefs. The reason is much more straightforward, simple, and comprehensible. The flooding of conspiracy theories interwoven with extremist beliefs is due to a ‘movement to malign liberal democracy’, which actively mobilizes conspiracy theories to vilify democracies, unwittingly becoming the means to an end, a worldwide authoritarian revival.
This article is brought to you by the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). Through their research, CARR intends to lead discussions on the development of radical right extremism around the world. Rantt has been partnered with CARR for 3 years. We’ve published over 150 articles from CARR’s network of PhDs, historians, professors, and experts analyzing extremism and combating disinformation.