The Covid19 pandemic came with an explosion of dangerous fake news and its edgy cousin, conspiracy theory. Instead of trying to expose any particular conspiracy theory, we will deliver a much lower blow and reflect on some of the functions that conspiracy theory has within society. After all, it’s all part of the system.
Let me start by addressing that conspiracies do happen, such as for example the election fraud of Carlos Salinas in 1988. In contrast to conspiracy theory-conspiracies, real conspiracies have a clear motive, actual identifiable effects, a limited number of involved actors, no paranormal elements and historical evidence. Another type of conspiracy is more systemic, such as the Mafia de Poder power sharing and corruption networks, but this is based on routines and basic group dynamics, rather than spectacular elements or a master plan. In this essay, we will discuss conspiracy theory as a genre of popular culture. This includes your secret society, baby eating and raven mask type of conspiracies; your ‘hidden reality’ conspiracies; your ‘the government is trying to make us gay’ chemical trail conspiracies and finally your James Bond villain ‘Bill gates uses Covid vaccines to control us’ type conspiracies.
In classic sociology, social phenomena can both be explained from a causal and a functional perspective. The first explains why something happened in the first place, while the second explains why it keeps happening: it serves a purpose to the larger social system. For example we can explain how people causally fall into prostitution, but we must also explain functionally why societies implicitly tolerate such practices. Some conspiracy theories might have started out of genuine confusion about a certain issue, but we should observe that ‘conspiracy theory’ has become a ‘thing’ in popular culture. It is a genre that one can be ‘into’ with recurring elements and symbols, and the true conspiracy theorist has incorporated the genre into his persona and lifestyle.
This leads us to the first function of conspiracy theories: they are commercialized like any other commodities. People make good money of those seeking forbidden knowledge. One common variant is that the conspiracy-traffickers try to sell or advertise products that promise to relief the anxiety and fear generated in their herd. A classic example of this is conspiracy king Alex Jones, who makes a living of selling survival gear and ‘brain pills’ to those who seek protection from the Lizard people. A soft variant of this are pop stars (or their managers) making vague references to ‘the Illuminati’ or the flat earth theory to draw attention to upcoming projects. You know Michael Jackson tried to warn us, right? A more mainstream variant is the commodification of conspiracy theory and its paranormal activity cousin as a unified genre. A stunning example of this is Gaia.com, a streaming service fully dedicated to both spirituality and theories on aliens and chemtrials. In a lesser variant, we also see that some TV stations dedicate a program to conspiracy theory, for example ‘Extranormal’ on TV Azteca. The fact that one can group together all conspiracies into a commercial streaming service or a morning TV show should be a first warning sign when it comes to how much they actually challenge existing power relations.
The next function is more complex: fantastical conspiracy theory distracts from real social problems, including the ‘normal’ conspiracies and corruption described earlier. Let us start by observing that conspiracy theories usually have a certain degree of looseness built into them, which helps deflect direct questioning while keeping them ‘fun’ and thus safe. Notice that most conspiracy theory lacks clear motive: ‘they’ (Bill Gates, Soros, the Jews, the government, etc.) want to control us via some mysterious way, but what exactly they want to control and why remain open. The ‘government’ created Corona, but what does that even mean? Did AMLO do that (your tia in the family chat saw it coming!), or the gringos, the Chinese government, or all of the above in some unexplainable alliance? Also notice how what could be believable conspiracies are often spiced up with fantasy and occult elements, such as drinking baby blood, masked meetings, obscure rituals, aliens, etc. The first element makes the theory more applicable regardless of context, the second makes it more exciting, but both result in entertainment and edgelord-dom rather than genuine systemic critique.
It is a healthy attitude to mistrust economic and other power elites, yet by introducing fantasy into the equation any real critique outside the conspiracy circle is neutralized. Conspiracy theory traps potential critical minds in a fake treasure hunt for hidden secrets, distracting them from actual scandals. Take for example the “Estafa Maestra” scandal, probably one the largest corruption cases in recent Mexican history. This involved the embezzlement of hundreds of millions by top government officials, including the now imprisoned social affairs secretary Rosario Robles. In my experience, fewer people know this case than the theory that the Queen of England eats babies to stay young. Another example is the current Covid19 crisis: it is obvious to the critical reader that economical elites (Amazon, for example) are using this crisis to consolidate their power, externalize depths to governments and reshape labor and class relations. Yet adding the idea that they created this virus, we abandon the path of genuine critique and take a sharp right towards the gossip land exit. This is especially frustrating from a Marxist perspective, since the Marxist reflex to look for economic power relations behind phenomena has much to offer to suspicious minds, who are now entertained with pseudo-intellectual cosplay. Whatever grain of truth or critique is in conspiracy theories is discredited and compromised by the fantasy gravy poured over it.
Which brings us to the third function, which is that conspiracy theory disempowers. It does so in multiple reinforcing ways. To start, some conspiracy theories are hyped up to be so large that they leave no room for action: the elites (backed by aliens) are so evil and connected that any resistance is futile. The conspiracy theorist is left to save herself and bunker down with some survival gear. Conspiracy theory almost never amounts to any real social action or effort to stop the corruption, with the rare exception of the gringo assault rifle theorist turned (mass) shooter. This fits in with the previously described loose nature of many conspiracy theories, which builds in a layer of cynicism. Just like many conservatives are deeply Christian until it is time to give to the poor, the conspiracy theorist is loud until it is time to actually organize around these secret threats. Don’t count on them in a riot.
To understand the second way in which conspiracy disempowers, we have to remember the fact that most conspiracy theories are simply wrong. This means that when people are led to believe a conspiracy theory, otherwise valuable active citizens are most likely to look for answers in the wrong place. Unsurprisingly, rarely anything of value to social struggle is found by these potential allies. Yes, the Egyptian gods warned us, but how does that help to stop the PAN from banning sex education? And who needs critical sociology, actual data or investigative journalism when you have message boards.
The aforementioned ignorance of real facts also disempowers by isolating movements and activists. Conspiracy theory with occult elements has a deterrent effect on serious critical thinkers, and isolates the conspiracy theorist. If consistent, the latter is often left in an increasingly cornered position, where the emerging wholes in one’s worldview can only be filled by absorbing more conspiracy and forbidden knowledge, thus isolation from potential allies in the fight against elites. One is left paranoid and with no credibility – one more activist neutralized.
As mentioned in the introduction, the everyday operation of corrupt societies and global imperialism involves many things that could be considered conspiracies. But conspiracy theory as a cultural genre is functional to maintaining the status quo, by commercially coopting, distracting and isolating citizens who could otherwise be valuable students, political actors or local activists. It hijacks their precious curiosity and open-minded mentality, and makes sure they never learn real critical theory or data that can expose real scandals or elite collusion. Similar to my critique of mindfulness and cheap anticapitalism, conspiracy too often leads to inaction and is therefore ultimately conservative in nature. Or am I connecting too many dots?
In any case, there is more harm in conspiracy theory than it itself being a conservative meta-conspiracy. As fake news in itself it can do tremendous harm, as we can all witness during the current pandemic. People take unneeded risks, trust in fake cures and a growing army of vaccine sceptics awaits to hinder our herd immunity once a solution is found. Furthermore, conspiracy theory can also be used to discredit social movements at will: shout out to my feminist children-of-Soros! Lastly, it can give an intellectual allure to busters and clowns, further raising levels of ignorance.
So what should be done about this? I propose that the best antidote to conspiracy inflicted impotence is actually learning to ‘connect the dots’ and investing in research skills. One would do well by learning more about actual critical theories that can help one to see reality from a different but accomplished angle, such as for example the aforementioned Marxism amongst many others. The next step is to experiment with actual research, which for the record does not include watching Whatsapp videos. This could be something like taking a course in qualitative or quantitative research methods, but also something as simple as learning how to check for sources or ownership relations. There is something satisfying in figuring out that a seemingly neutral sounding yet suspiciously anti-socialist organization on Latin politics is operated from a Manhattan headquarters and funded by the Rockefeller foundation – without jumping to a global Jewish conspiracy. A critical citizen could also get acquainted with the many new transparency and freedom of information mechanisms that exist, and press governments on all levels on suspicious activities instead of spewing smoke with memes. But that is not for everyone, and you could also save the effort by just reading quality investigative journalism.