Are Conspiracy Theories Destroying Democracy?

Last Updated January 13, 2019 by . First Published in 2013.

We have conspiracy theories because sometimes governments and organisations do conspire. But are conspiracy theories destroying democracy?

Are Conspiracy Theories Destroying Democracy?

What if I told you I had conclusive evidence that the moon landings have been faked, however I was coerced into keeping it secret under orders from the CIA, NSA and MI6. Most of you would think I was a loony, however for some, it might appear completely plausible, or even most likely, that an unknown author on an unknown website should stumble over such important information.

We live in a golden age for conspiracy theories and there is a growing assumption that everything we are told by the authorities is wrong, or at the very least, not quite as it seems, and that the truth is being manipulated or obscured by powerful vested interests. It feels like the more information we have about what governments and corporations are up to, the less we appear to trust them.

"The reason we have conspiracy theories is that sometimes governments and organisations do conspire," says Observer columnist and academic John Naughton.

It would be incorrect to think of all conspiracy theorists as loopy nuts, however for those of us seeking to make sense of a complex world, the trouble is understanding which parts of the conspiracy theory to keep and which to throw away.

The internet is generally assumed to be the primary driving force behind the expansion in modern conspiracy theories, principally because it gives any person a voice that may be heard worldwide that they would not have had in the past. Also, conspiracy theories were once restricted to fringe audiences, and have now turn out to be commonplace the mass media.

Mr Naughton is one of three lead investigators in a major new Cambridge University project to investigate the affect of conspiracy theories on democracy. He plans to check internet theories on 9/11 with pre-internet theories about John F Kennedy's assassination.

Like the other researchers in this field, he's conscious about what delving into the darker recesses of the conspiracy world mean.

"The minute you get into the JFK stuff, and the minute you sniff at the 9/11 stuff, you begin to lose the will to live," he told the audience in Cambridge.

Like Sir Richard Evans, who heads the five-year Conspiracy and Democracy project, he's at pains to stress that the purpose is not to prove or disprove any specific theories, however to rather learn about their impact on culture and society. Why are we so interested by them? Are they undermining trust in democratic establishments?

David Runciman, professor of politics at Cambridge University, the third main investigator, is eager to explore the concept most conspiracies are in fact simply "cock-ups".

"The line between a cock-up, a conspiracy and a conspiracy theory is much more blurred than the conventional view that you have got to choose between them," he informed the Festival of Ideas.

"There's a conventional view that you get these conspirators, who are this kind of sinister, malign people who know what they are doing, and the conspiracy theorists, who occasionally stumble upon the truth but who are on the whole paranoid and crazy.

"Actually the conspirators are often the paranoid and crazy conspiracy theorists because in their attempt to cover up the cock-up they get drawn into the web in which their self-justification poses as some giant conspiracy trying to expose their conspiracy.

"And I think that's consistently true through a lot of political scandals, Watergate included."

It can also be true, he argues, of the in-fighting and plotting that characterised New Labour's years in power, as recently uncovered within the memoirs of Gordon Brown's former spin doctor Damian McBride.

The Brownite conspiracies to remove Tony Blair have been "pathetically ineffectual" - aside from the 2006 "curry house" plot that forced Blair to name a departure date - however the picture painted by Mr McBride of a "paranoid" and "chaotic" inner circle has the ring of truth about it, he claims, and Mr Brown - said to be a keen student of the JFK assassination - knew a conspiracy when he saw one.

"You feel he sees conspiracies out there because he has a mindset that is not dissimilar to the conspiracy theorists," said Prof Runciman.

He is also analyzing whether or not the push for greater openness and transparency in public life will fuel, rather than kill off, conspiracy theories.

"It may be that some of the things conspiracy theories feed on in addition to silence, is a surfeit of information. And when there is a mass of information out there, it becomes easier for people to find their way through to come to the conclusion they want to come to.

"Plus, you do not have to be an especial cynic to imagine that, in the age of open government, governments will probably be even more cautious to keep secret the things they want to keep secret.

"The call for for openness always produces, as well as more openness, more secrecy."

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