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Why conspiracy theories are getting more absurd and harder to refute
Democracy requires a minimum amount of mutual trust among citizens, and conspiracism destroys it.

By Sean Apr 11, 2019, 8:10am EDT

Are we living in a golden age of conspiracy theories?

That’s the argument Harvard politics professor Nancy L. Rosenblum makes in her new book, A Lot of People Are Saying. And it’s not merely that conspiracy theories are thriving — they’re also getting more absurd, less substantive, and harder to refute.

In fact, what we’re seeing now, according to Rosenblum and her co-author Russell Muirhead, is more “conspiracism” and less theory. Which is to say, the purpose of conspiracy theories is no longer to explain reality or offer some account of the world; instead, the point is to erode trust in public figures or institutions.

She points to the recent Pizzagate conspiracy as a perfect example. This was a fake news story alleging that Hillary Clinton and her former campaign chair, John Podesta, ran a child sex ring in the basement of a pizzeria in Washington, DC. It was totally fabricated, but it proliferated enough online that a man eventually showed up at the restaurant with an assault rifle and fired at least one shot.

Rosenblum believes this new form of conspiracism amounts to a direct attack on the foundations of liberal democracy and what she calls “knowledge-producing institutions.” As conspiracism takes root in our politics, she says, we lose our capacity to deliberate about the direction of the country. And ultimately, democracy itself becomes impossible.
I spoke to Rosenblum about the nature of modern conspiracy theories and how they’ve evolved into an existential threat for democratic societies. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Sean Illing
Why write a book about conspiracy theories now?

Nancy Rosenblum
Charges of conspiracy have in the last two years become a malignant element in public life, and I think it’s been really corrosive to our politics. But what struck me and my co-author was this intrusion of conspiracism, which we think is fundamentally different from conventional conspiracy theories.

Not a day passes without some sort of conspiracist claim about rigged elections or fake news or something absurd like Pizzagate. And the cast of characters that are engaged in conspiracy charges now ranges from a compulsively conspiracist president to public officials — elected representatives who either endorse these conspiracist claims or acquiesce to remain silent — to conspiracy entrepreneurs and their followers.
So it’s a not-insignificant part of our population, and it’s a common element now in public life.

Sean Illing
And how do you define a conspiracy theory?

Nancy Rosenblum
A conspiracy theory is an explanation of an event — an event that seems otherwise unintelligible or improbable. And the explanation is that underneath what seems unintelligible is actually some sort of conspiracy or secret plot. Sometimes conspiracy theories are true, sometimes they’re false. It’s often hard to tell the difference, but in all cases, it’s an attempt at some reasoned explanation for a complicated event.

Sean Illing
So a conspiracy isn’t wrong by virtue of being a conspiracy theory, but it’s more likely to be wrong because it’s an attempt to take a complicated event and fit it into a broader narrative framework?

Nancy Rosenblum
That’s right, and I’m so glad you said that, because Wikipedia actually defines a conspiracy theory as a false threat of a conspiracy, and that’s not true. There are both progressive conspiracy theories that are not only true but have advanced American democracy, and there are total fabulations that are pure inventions.

Sean Illing
Can you give me an example of an accurate conspiracy theory and one that was totally fabricated?

Nancy Rosenblum
Examples of sheer fabulation would be the “faked moon landing” (Stanley Kubrick actually filmed it in a studio) or that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is dead (the Democrats found a body double to deny her death in order to prevent President Trump from filling her seat on the Supreme Court). Or, more to the point, perhaps, the recent Pizzagate conspiracy.

As far as useful progressive conspiracy theories go, a good example is the work by academics like Naomi Oreskes documenting conspiracies by the tobacco and fossil fuel industries to cast doubt on climate science, which actually refutes the climate hoax conspiracy that says global scientists are bribed to produce reports of catastrophic human-caused global warming.

Or the Progressive movement in the early 20th century that cast corporate boardrooms and smoke-filled rooms of political bosses as potential roadblocks to democracy; the result of what they called “muckraking” reporting on this corruption was democratic reforms that are still with us, like direct democracy and referenda, etc.
The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the dedicated Communist  but instead the people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction, true and false, no longer exists -- Hannah Arendt.


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Why conspiracy theories are getting more absurd and harder to refute - by pbrower2a - 04-14-2019, 06:04 AM

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