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Will conspiracy theories be the death knell for democracy?

Roar writer Chloe Ferreux on the threat conspiracy theories pose to democracy and how our institutions should respond.

Often considered harmless and a source of humour, those who believed in outrageous conspiracy theories were the first in line at the Capitol Insurrection on January 6. Indeed, since the Coronavirus pandemic, more conspiracy theories have emerged. How has this happened? Fear and hatred. What is the price? Democracy and national security. As Alex Kaplan stated, “2020 is the year where QAnon has become a problem for everyone”. At the very heart of the Covid-19 crisis and the fear it has inflicted, conspiracy theories have been pushed even by elected representatives in the US Congress.

Conspiracy theories have political consequences. To function in a democracy, there must be a shared reality, there must be agreement on a certain number of principles and basic beliefs. Positioning themselves as true purifiers of biased institutions, they appear in the public debate as whistleblowers. When former President Donald Trump condemned “fraudulent” elections, it called into question the possibility of a base of shared values, on which we can build a healthy, democratic debate. With this structural change in societies, there is a real danger that people will no longer have any common reference. At that point, there is no longer any way to discuss or debate with each other.

From Covid-19 to the US elections

Donald Trump is an example of what conspiracy theories could do to democracy if we feed them. For weeks he has argued that the results of the 2020 Election were tainted by fraud, a claim that is unproven. The conspiracy theorist group “QAnon” has seized this opportunity to gain members. And although it only represented a few at first, the movement has gradually evolved into an extremist politico-religious ideology that can become a danger to democracy.

Why have elected representatives supported these conspiracy theories? First, because it’s almost impossible to contradict a conspiracy. These theories have become impervious to fact-checking – they are spread at high speed on social media and can go viral on platforms where confronting incorrect opinions is challenging. The rhetoric is effective; the people who spread these theories have no hesitation and no doubt. As the French political scientist Clément Viktorovitch likes to remind us: “Someone who seems very convinced immediately becomes very convincing”.

Furthermore, the theories play directly on emotion, an extremely effective political tool to convince the electorate. Indeed, the pandemic has played an important role in the popularisation and acceptance of QAnon in the United States. On Facebook, the number of people joining the movement since the beginning of 2021 has increased by 581%. It has offered its adherents comfort in uncertain and unprecedented times. These times are ripe for the spread of fear and anger amongst people: fear towards Covid-19, and anger towards the government and its institutions. This rhetoric is not only effective but also challenging to refute. Qanon becomes then the master of the narrative, able to explain complex events in a simplistic way.

It only takes a few seconds for conspiracy theories to spread, but hours to fact-check them. As conspiracy theories become more and more popular, they become a golden opportunity for politicians; but in a democracy, avoiding legitimate debate by playing on fear and anger risks leaving a detrimental legacy. By undermining trust, by ruining any possibility of a shared “common world” – a factual reality around which the debate of differing opinions can be organised – conspiracy theories transform the democratic debate into a dialogue of the deaf. In this sense, it constitutes a permanent danger for the democratic system.

The time to bury democracy has not arrived. The time to improve it has.

Conspiracy theories are not a recent phenomenon. Certainly, they have proliferated with the help of social media and fear that Covid-19 has caused, but democracies have always had to face up to these types of argument and beliefs. As Leibniz stated in the 17th-century: “Everything conspires”.

Our knowledge, scientific or otherwise, remain a social construction. It is therefore a mistake to represent the followers of conspiracy theories as simply people who do not know anything. We need to understand a phenomenon in order to combat it effectively and we must urgently abandon the false idea that conspiracies are silly ideas that we do not need to worry; that it is merely the expression of a thirst for justice or an allergy to political lies. Conspiracy not only provides the wrong answers to legitimate questions, but also avoids, denies, and negates all of the real solutions to people’s problems.

Our response should therefore be to stop finding excuses to dismiss conspiracy theorists and to acknowledge the crisis of confidence in our institutions. While conspiracy theories are outrageous and wrong, people resort to them for a legitimate reason: a need for comfort in uncertain times and a feeling of abandonment by the establishment. Instead of being complacent that democracy is going to be buried by these beliefs, our institutions need to take them on board in order to improve themselves and to better respond to the problems that affect the people.

Knowing who controls the public debate could, then, become a solution to hinder the growth of conspirators. Whether it is in the United States, where the most extreme cases of conspiracy are manifest, or in Europe, answering this question is becoming an increasingly vital issue for democracies. Indeed, should we give a voice to those who propagate fake news? If so, how do we regulate it, and how can we reconnect these people to a system they desperately want to abandon? Once again, these are questions that only the political future can answer.

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