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post-truth, alternative facts, fake news – why we’re living in the age of the conspiracy theory

​The Photographers' Gallery in London are in the midst of Conspiracy Week, an exhibition that includes a series of events and screenings delving into the phenomena — from UFOs and image manipulation, to the current political climate with Brexit and the...

Clementine de Pressigny

Photograph by Billy Meier From the UFO Photo Archives of Wendelle Stevens

A conspiracy theorist is now in charge of the United States of America, which puts the whole world in a dangerous position. So the timing is all too right for the current show at The Photographers' Gallery, where they are in the midst of Conspiracy Week. It's an exhibition that includes a series of events and screenings delving into the phenomena — from UFOs and image manipulation, to the current political climate with Brexit and the mind-boggling election of Donald Trump. To get to the bottom of why conspiracy theories are more prevalent than ever we spoke to Dr. Hugo Drochon, a legit expert on the topic, who will be giving a talk at the Photographer's Gallery on the why's and how's of the highly implausible becoming the widely believed.

 We originally thought that conspiracy theories weren't that dangerous democratically, because it was small marginal groups who weren't strongly engaged in politics.

Conspiracy theories were not always crackpot ideas being wielded as tool to gain and maintain power. Their place in society has altered quite drastically over the 20th century, as Dr. Drochon explains. They used to play a healthy role in democracy, serving as a way to challenge to authority thus providing a kind of check and balance. But, as Dr. Drochon explains, the concept has been recast in more recent decades, with the conspirators no longer being understood as pockets of society seeking to challenge the government. 

"Instead of plots being located amongst the people, with groups of radicals plotting to overthrow those in power, now you get the inverse. People now think it's the state that is plotting against them," Dr. Drochon says. "If you think about the rhetoric in the Trump campaign, there was the idea that Hillary had been plotting with Wall Street against the people with a kind of new liberal agenda, or the whole Trump line of 'drain the swamp', it's the politicians that have been plotting to take away the jobs of the people." 

From the UFO Photo Archives of Wendelle Stevens

So why has there been such a shift in the meaning of the term 'conspiracy theory'. The change is down to "a general disappointment with democracy. At the beginning of the 20th century there were still all these hopes invested in it. People thought 'oh, we have democracy so what we want will become policy'. But there's been a disconnect between what people thought they'd voted for, and what actually happens in politics." 

Conspiracy theories are now functioning within that space between intention and results, for huge numbers of people who are unhappy with their own situation. "We originally thought that conspiracy theories weren't that dangerous democratically, because it was small marginal groups who weren't strongly engaged in politics," says Dr. Drochon. "But when you associate conspiracy theories with extremist politics, that's when it becomes very dangerous."

When conspiracy theorists come to power they tend to become more extreme, because the only way they can account for people's desires not actually being fulfilled is another conspiracy. 

These conspiracy narratives provide a way to explain, in simple terms, why the version of democracy currently in operation in US in particular, has not created successful lives for vast swathes of the population."That's why Trump was so attractive to people, because he says let's get rid of the intermediaries, I'm the direct expression of your desires, I'm going to do directly what you want done." He seemingly eliminates those dangerous elites who are conspiring to get in the way of the prosperity of others, by making up things like climate change. 

So the underlying issue at the core of why conspiracy theories have taken off in such a big way — have, as Dr. Drochon says, "moved from the margins to the mainstream," is deeply connected to another of the reasons posited for Brexit and Trump's win — inequality. That, of course combined with the rise and rise of social media, which has meant the traditional gatekeepers of information, those tasked with fact-checking and research — journalists — no longer control news. A Pew survey showed that over 60 percent of actual grown adults in the US get their news from Facebook, which is increasingly circulating fake news — great click bait, which means great traffic numbers. We're facing a serious uphill battle with getting back to a place where truth trumps lies. "When conspiracy theorists come to power they tend to become more extreme, because the only way they can account for people's desires not actually being fulfilled is another conspiracy. Trump is still peddling conspiracy theories — he's won the election but he says he only lost the popular vote because dead and illegal people voted."

From the UFO Photo Archives of Wendelle Stevens

So, the billion dollar question: is there any feasible way to combat the growing power of the conspiracy theorist? You can't directly push back with logical arguments, Dr. Drochon says, because the response tends to be that anyone disagreeing is part of the conspiracy. Continuing to provide a united vocal challenge to the conspiracy-theorist-in-chief is clearly important. "All the resistance movements — the women's marches for example, that's great and it seems to have put a bit of pressure on him already, and the question on that side at least is whether those movements can actually become - can organise properly in a way that they can become an official opposition." 

But to provide direct and sustained challenges to conspiracy theories we clearly must look to technology, which is fueling the issue. "Silicon Valley in general is very anti-trump, and I'm not sure about what Facebook will do, but Google — because most people only look at the first few results that come up in their searches — but there's a way of lowering extremist and unreliable sites within the algorithm. That's a real possibility for Google now, they're looking at that at the moment." But there's complex wider issues to be addressed before these potentially dangerous conspiracy theories move back to the margins of society, rather than being propagated by those making decisions that reverberate around the world. "I think this needs to be addressed at a broader political, social and economic level. Conspiracy theories are a symptom of something larger. If people believe them it's because there's a general malaise in society, and if you address that they will decrease," says Dr. Hugo. "There's a lot of pedagogical work that needs to be done, to say look, politics doesn't happen like that, it's really complicated, there's plurality, lots of people have lots of different desires, and you need to find a way of reaching compromise, you can't just have your own desires."

Conspiracy Week is on at the Photographers' Gallery until the 19th of February

Credits


Text Clementine de Pressigny