World War II was started by a conspiracy theory. The idea that an entire group of people — specifically the Jews — could be blamed for the defeat, failures and poverty of another larger group of people was a compelling conspiracy theory for many. Some of us today are encouraged by the mistaken belief that a failing isn’t really our fault but the fault of a devious neighbour. It’s a useful tool used by fascists to control large groups of people.
Donald Trump sailed into the Oval Office on just such a set of conspiracy theories. He encouraged irrational hatred of Muslims. He promoted suspicion and hatred of America’s neighbors south of the border. He turned Americans against Americans. He built more metaphorical walls than actual walls. And when he finally lost his bid for a second term, he claimed the election was rigged.
Fascism is a vagabond that will hitch a ride on any conveyance that’s handy to get it to its destination. Bigotry, global warming denialism, vaccine hesitancy, massive election frauds are conspiracy theories that are used to promote fascism today. Fox News, OAN, Newsmax and others use conspiracy theories to make people angry and fearful. Anger and fear are emotions that are useful for fascism.
What is a conspiracy theory? A conspiracy theory is an explanation for an event or situation that invokes a conspiracy by sinister and powerful groups, usually without evidence or poor evidence at best, when other explanations are far more likely. The greatest weakness of most conspiracy theories is they typically require vast numbers of people in order for them to work. For example, the current anti-vaxxer conspiracy theory depends on the silly notion that most of the medical professionals across the planet have somehow gotten together to promote a sinister vaccine used to control us.
Most conspiracy theories are, in the minds of the theorist, unfalsifiable. A theory is said to be falsifiable if it can be disproved by a counterexample. For instance, the expression “All swans are white” is immediately falsifiable if I produce a single black swan. A conspiracy theorist would say, in effect, “But that’s not a real swan!” Or, “You painted (or photoshopped) that swan!” And so on.
Today, in part thanks to the internet, we are awash in conspiracy theories. I’m sad to report that many Americans are still convinced that on 9/11 the twin towers and building 7 were destroyed by controlled demolitions instead of structural weaknesses created by fire, or that the Pentagon was attacked by a missile fired by elements within the United States government. These kinds of conclusions are reached due to an appalling lack of critical thinking, and an almost magical belief in the superpowers of mysterious groups to get away with almost anything, no matter how absurd.
Do real conspiracies happen? Of course they do. How are we supposed to know the difference? For one, real conspiracies are more narrowly focused, like insider trading or other financial frauds, or even when a whole government, such as Russia, conspires to influence an election, as they did in 2016 and 2020. And, of course, there’s real, solid, hard evidence to prove these things happen. Above all, notice that these actual conspiracies are widely known. It’s very difficult to keep conspiracies a secret, and impossible when large numbers of people are involved.
The chances that a conspiracy theory is wrong is overwhelming, by definition. The problem is the will to believe. Most people who believe in conspiracy theories very much want them to be true. That makes it next to impossible to talk those people out of their beliefs. The older the conspiracy theory is — like the literally thousands of conspiracy theories surrounding the Kennedy assassination — the more “venerable” they are and the more resistant they are to counter arguments.
The only way I can see out of this deadly problem of widespread belief in conspiracy theories is the long and tedious process of education. Critical and scientific thinking must become a significant part of a child’s education. If we are diligent then eventually, perhaps in a few hundred years, superstition and ignorance will be bred out of us. But it’s a long, slow process. Ignorance is a tenacious foe. But as long as they exist and are promoted by the ignorant, conspiracy theories will remain the most fertile ground for fascism. And, as ever, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, comrades and friends, stay safe.
Robert Harrington is an American expat living in Britain. He is a portrait painter.