Radical Right Conspiracy Theories Are A Threat To Democracy

The modern radical right lives by Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels' maxim: “Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth."
On a day that saw Minnesota break a record high of 8,703 COVID cases, far-right conspiracy theorists, Qanon, and “Stop The Steal” followers stood maskless shoulder to shoulder outside the Minnesota State Capitol – November 14, 2020. (Chad Davis/CC BY-SA 2.0)

On a day that saw Minnesota break a record high of 8,703 COVID cases, far-right conspiracy theorists, Qanon, and “Stop The Steal” followers stood maskless shoulder to shoulder outside the Minnesota State Capitol – November 14, 2020. (Chad Davis/CC BY-SA 2.0)

Dr. Alan Waring is a retired risk analyst and former Visiting Professor, now Adjunct Professor, at CERIDES (Centre for Risk and Decision Sciences) at the European University Cyprus.

In evaluating radical-right grand conspiracy theories, I confess to originally qualifying as an industrial chemist and declare my position as a skeptic in the tradition of the ‘father of chemistry’, Robert Boyle, and his 1661 treatise The Sceptical Chymist. To me, conspiracy theories in current vogue are as suspect as spagyrism (alchemy) became to Boyle and other early ‘new enlightenment’ scientists. This declaration is not to disbelieve the possibility of conspiracies (which, of course, may exist) but to object on four distinct grounds.

First, the sheer number and frequency of conspiracy theories disseminated by radical-right extremists defies credibility ‒ it is almost as if they are coming off a production line. Second, each theory individually has poor ‘face validity’ ‒ that is, like QAnon and so many conspiracy theories, it lacks common-sense plausibility. Third, they all seem so far-fetched and clearly intended to damage their targets as well as stir up mistrust and even hatred, rather than serve a public good, that the motives of both their originators and disseminators must be suspect as egregious.

Fourth, and perhaps more deeply, such conspiracy theories are also suspect on scientific grounds. For acceptability, explanations require substantive testable evidence as well as a capacity to pass the parsimony test and causation test.

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The Simplest And Most Unifying Explanation

A striking characteristic of most conspiracy theories is the complexity of the explanations they contain. Typically, they contain a surfeit of necessary collaborating human elements that would necessarily have to work accurately and reliably in perfect harmony on a long-term basis, thereby defying normal rational expectation. The greater the number of elements and links (i.e. complexity) of a conspiracy theory, the greater is its vulnerability to anomalies, breakdown, implausibility, and poor prediction and control. Complex human or ‘soft’ systems are often wickedly contrary and resistant to manipulation and control, all of which renders grand conspiracy theories automatically improbable.

The parsimony test ‒ often called Ockham’s Razor ‒ relies on the universal empirical observation that the simplest and most unifying explanation for a phenomenon is the most likely to be correct. Conspiracy theories that fail the parsimony test include: the alleged existence of an international cabal of Zionists, Jewish bankers, the Illuminati, Freemasons and others controlling the world and engaged in terrible crimes against the people, variants on the international cabal theory that allegedly involve Democrats or Hillary Clinton (QAnon), or allegedly involve Muslims and George Soros.

Association Does Not Mean Causation

In addition to the parsimony test, a robust theory needs to be able to pass the causation test. In other words, does the theory prove (as a result of no disproof) that variable A causes variable B? Whereas this may seem a simple test, in reality, many relationships between two variables demonstrate not causation but association, a much weaker relationship that may be wholly misleading. Associations are often spurious and coincidental, however plausible they may seem.

Where complex human systems are involved, such as those featuring so prominently in grand conspiracy theories, the most that may be confidently demonstrated will be associations between variables. However, such theories are typically articulated with a narrative constructed from a mix of some relevant facts to convey authenticity and a preponderance of fiction and conjecture, but all intended to imply that the theory demonstrates causality.

For example, Fact A, it is true that George Soros is an international financial guru, is Jewish, and promotes neo-liberal economics, liberal multilateralism, and liberal migration policies. It is also true, Fact B, that some European countries, including Hungary, have suffered both economic difficulties and coping with mass transit of migrants escaping from wars and hardship and on their way to Germany and northern Europe. But, Fact B is only incidentally associated with Fact A ‒ and the latter certainly did not cause the former. To suggest otherwise, as do many radical-right activists, is a deliberate fabrication seeking to falsely allocate blame.

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The Drama And Psychology Of Radical Right Conspiracism

Overall, grand conspiracy theories, on which the radical-right depends for so much of its self-justification, have a flavor of dramatic plots in Hollywood movies and little real-world credibility. Those who believe such theories to be literally true probably represent a mixture of such characteristics as: gullibility; a need for the excitement and drama that conspiracy theories may bring to otherwise drab and jaded outlooks; a morbid vicarious fascination in dreadful events involving human tragedy, terror, and potential harm, well known in psychology; prejudices and radical ideological commitments which such theories support; anti-rational anti-science world-view; paranoid delusional feelings of being a victim of ‘dark forces’; beliefs based on faith not fact; and compulsive belief in palingenetic salvation typically offered as a corollary to such theories e.g. The QAnon Storm.

Despite the serial discrediting of such theories, the radical-right and its supporters continue to repeat and disseminate them, aided and abetted by the Internet and social media. For example, in 2020 the radical right’s arch-disrupter Steve Bannon, a one-time Chief Strategist to President Trump, repeatedly publicized a conspiracy theory about the covid-19 virus, alleging that the virus had been leaked (implying deliberately) from a covert bio-weapons facility in Wuhan, China. This allegation has been flatly refuted by authorities.

The latest conspiracy theory being broadcast by the radical right, and in particular President Trump and his supporters, alleges that he lost the 2020 US Presidential Election solely as a result of electoral fraud encouraged, if not orchestrated, by the Democratic candidate Joe Biden, Democratic Party congressmen and officials, a hostile media, and anti-Republican officials encouraging voter fraud. So far, not a shred of credible evidence to substantiate Trump’s allegations has been forthcoming.

The Nazi propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, noted the value to propagandists of repeating a lie so often that it is believed. Therefore, it is likely that dissemination of grand conspiracy theories will be expanded and intensified by the radical-right and their supporters, whether in corporate organizations, or enablers or among the public at large. Effective strategies to curb and control the egregious impact of such propaganda, and the conspiracy theories embedded in it, therefore become all the more urgent.

Yet, there remains a crucially important aspect of this whole conspiracy theories phenomenon that may be easily overlooked. It is clear that not all among the radical-right and fellow travelers believe these grand conspiracy theories to be literally true, but they nonetheless continue their campaign on an end-justifies-the-means basis. Their main aim is not to get all recipients to believe the lies, although if some do that is a bonus. Their priority is to sow the seeds of doubt, uncertainty, confusion, anxiety, disturbance, and chaos in society, in such a way and to such a degree that the radical right and their policies are then seen as the only logical saviors from such calumny.

How To Neutralize Fake Conspiracy Theories

Attempts to defeat fake conspiracy theories by logical argument and unassailable facts are hampered by three factors: (1) the time and sustained effort required to repeatedly demolish absurd conspiracy theories ‒ once a theory is released it is extraordinarily difficult to expunge, (2) legal constraints on governments preventing dissemination of such material, and (3) the unrestrained availability of Internet and social media for dissemination purposes.

So far, online platform companies such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google, have been very reluctant to self-regulate to the degree necessary to prevent public harm resulting from fake conspiracy theories (and other fake information) their platforms distribute. There are some signs that commercial pressures from advertisers have some persuasion, as well as government actions to limit the current unfettered power of platform companies e.g. the US congressional investigation, the forthcoming Online Harms Act in the UK, and the UK’s use of cyberwarfare expertise to disrupt the online dissemination of anti-vax conspiracy theories.

One promising line of push-back against conspiracism might be to expose publicly the personality, character, background, ideology, political connections, public statements, extremist connections, personal scandals, and other profile characteristics of individual conspiracy theorists and prominent believers. It is notable that such people like to propagate an illusion that they are righteous paragons of virtue, almost saints, with special superior perception and insight, and are only interested in saving humankind (or at least those they deem deserving). Such inflated egos of conspiracy theory cults need to be set against their ‘feet of clay’ reality.

However, in democratic societies, there is no single ‘magic bullet’ to kill the scourge of conspiracism and multiple approaches will be necessary.

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.

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Opinion // CARR / Conspiracy Theories / Disinformation / Donald Trump / Radical Right