Comment // Culture & Media

Why was the "conspiracy theory" myth created?

Recently, UNESCO launched its Think Before Sharing (TBS) campaign to "stop the spread of conspiracy theories". We are told that conspiracy theories are nonsense and the people who espouse them idiots. So why is this leading agency of the United Nations so concerned, indeed obsessed, with stopping silly people talking gibberish? Or is there more to it than that, from UNESCO's perspective?

The United Nations (UN) formally began operation on 24 October 1945. The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) sprang from the London Conference of 44 "allied" nations that convened just a week later, on 1 November 1945, concluding their session on the 16th. The formation of UNESCO was one of the UN's founding acts after the end of the Second World War.

Allegedly on behalf of their peoples, the Governments of the States Parties to the UNESCO Constitution declared:

That since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed [. . .] the States Parties to this Constitution, believing in full and equal opportunities for education for all, in the unrestricted pursuit of objective truth, and in the free exchange of ideas and knowledge, are agreed and determined to develop and to increase the means of communication between their peoples and to employ these means for the purposes of mutual understanding[.]

Truly noble aspirations, but just words written on bits of paper. Nearly eighty years later, UNESCO is not interested in them, if it ever was.

The "unrestricted pursuit of objective truth" has been abandoned by UNESCO in favour of telling people what to think. The target remains "the minds of men"—but the "free exchange of ideas and knowledge" has been firmly rejected.


The TBS Alliance's Bizarre Relationship With Evidence

The TBS joint initiative between UNESCO, the European Commission, Twitter and the World Jewish Congress began in 2020. It stated that its intention was "to raise awareness of the existence and consequences of conspiracy theories linked to the COVID-19 crisis." It added:

The COVID-19 pandemic has unleashed a parallel pandemic of dangerous misinformation and rumours in the form of conspiracy theories [. . .] Conspiracy theories undermine science, facts and trust in institutions, and pose an immediate threat to individuals and communities.

A "fact" can be said to be "a thing that is known or proved to be true". To "prove" that something is a fact, we must consider the "evidence or argument establishing a fact or the truth of a statement".

Facts and the truth are discovered by examining the evidence and by exploring the logical arguments which may provide the required proof. The TBS alliance's handy social media pack approaches the concept of evidence in a novel and highly unusual way.

One of the memes proffered, suggesting the six things that conspiracy theories have in common, lists "supporting evidence" as a reason both to identify a "conspiracy theory" and consequently to reject the cited evidence. The logic offered to substantiate why the "supporting evidence" should be ignored is that it has been labelled as part of a "conspiracy theory" by the TBS alliance.

This wacky concept pops up again in the TBS alliance's infographics. Apparently, "evidence that seems to support the conspiracy theory" isn't really evidence at all—presumably because the TBS alliance say it isn't. The TBS material continues that "any 'evidence' is forced to fit the [conspiracy] theory."

It just gets more confusing.

Something either is evidence or it isn't. Evidence can't be forced to fit any theory. Rather, the theory is formed from the evidence. If the evidence suggests the theory is true, it may be so—but the theory must account for all the relevant evidence. If there is evidence that contradicts the theory, then the theory remains doubtful and requires further investigation. 

Remarkably, the TBS alliance has attempted to divorce facts from evidence. It rejects the idea that someone might discern the facts for themselves by examining the "supporting evidence" that informs an alleged "conspiracy theory". Instead, it insists that people should rely upon facts determined through an alternative, and quite bizarre, method.

The TBS claims that a fact is established if it is authorised by a qualified expert or fact-checking site and is reported with an objective "tone", whatever that means. Only approved evidence is evidence, as the TBS introduces the ridiculous notion of officially sanctioned evidence. This is not even close to any kind of logical methodology for finding "facts". 


The TBS Campaign Initiative

There are some key concepts that the TBS alliance has attached to the label of "conspiracy theory". So-called conspiracy theories can apparently be refuted "with facts". In other words, the TBS alliance insists that there are no "facts" associated with what it calls "conspiracy theories".

The TBS alliance claims that conspiracy theories are "part of a wider trend of increasing hate speech, and increased racist, xenophobic, and anti-Semitic attacks, which also target LGBTQ communities". The alliance alleges both that these trends are increasing and that these supposedly baseless "conspiracy theories" are hateful, racist, anti-humanitarian, antisemitic and homophobic.

As a result, the TBS alliance insists that the people who talk about supposed conspiracy theories are dangerous—because, according to Professor Stephan Lewandowsky, "belief in conspiracies can harm or even kill people." This was reiterated by UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay, who said that conspiracy theories "cause real harm to people, to their health, and also to their physical safety".

Prof. Lewandowsky was joined by John Cook PhD, from George Mason University's Center for Climate Change Communication, and Professor Michael Butter to provide the TBS alliance with sciencey advice. 

Nowhere in the TBS alliance 2020 announcement is the word "evidence" discussed in connection with the term "conspiracy theory". The word is only used once in the statement of Prof. Butter, who claimed that there was "evidence" that people can be taught to recognise "conspiracy theories".

So presumably, Prof. Butter has precisely defined what a conspiracy theory is?

Indeed he has. In his pamphlet entitled Guide To Conspiracy Theories, Prof. Butter defines "conspiracy theory" as "the belief that events are secretly manipulated behind the scenes by powerful forces". This cod definition is the illogical drivel that forms the basis of nearly all of the so-called academic research into conspiracy "theory" and its alleged "theorists".

The argument that proponents of this pseudo-intellectual "definition" advocate runs as follows:

Real conspiracies are only identifiable when they are officially acknowledged by approved government spokespersons, recognised by appropriate experts or revealed by the mainstream media. Until then, regardless of how much evidence there is exposing the conspiracy, it remains a "secret" and is therefore incomprehensible. While it is categorised as a secret, any evidence exposing the conspiracy must be ignored because none of it can possibly exist until the conspiracy is officially approved for public debate.

It is easy to dismiss this as little more than naïve stupidity. However, it is unlikely that academics, cognitive scientists, experimental psychologists and intergovernmental organisations are all, collectively, gullible fools. Seen in another light, this concept of the "conspiracy theorist" is actually part of a robust defence of power that will not brook any dissent.

Prof. Lewandowsky and John Cook published the Conspiracy Theory Handbook in March 2020. The academics wrote:

Real conspiracies do exist. [. . .] The U.S. National Security Agency secretly spied on civilian internet users. [. . . ] We know about these conspiracies through internal industry documents, government investigations, or whistleblowers.

Lewandowsky and Cook admit that conspiracies exist; point to a known example of (in this case) a government conspiracy; but then add that we can only know about government conspiracies following official "government investigations". Other evidence, they say, might come from documentation or whistleblowers. Yet the academics make no mention of, for example, the Obama Administration's aggressive use of counter-espionage laws to silence whistleblowers and suppress document leaks in the US. 

The pair add:

Conspiracy theories, by contrast, tend to persist for a long time even when there is no decisive evidence for them. Those conspiracy theories are based on a variety of thinking patterns that are known to be unreliable tools for tracking reality.

What work is this weasel adjective doing? "Decisive evidence" is evidence authorised or conceded by the appropriate authority. All other documents, witness testimony, video, audio or forensic evidence are not "decisive" because the necessary "government investigations" haven't been undertaken. Therefore, the conspiracy theorists—point as they may to a wealth of evidence—possess a "thinking pattern" that is delusional:

Typically, conspiracy theories are not supported by evidence that withstands scrutiny but this doesn’t stop them from blossoming. For example, the widespread belief that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were an “inside job” has persisted for many years after the event. Decades after the fact, a vast majority of Americans believe that the government covered up the truth about the JFK assassination.

There is no official "scrutiny" of the evidence offered by the so-called conspiracy theorists. Rather, it is flatly denied, because it has been labelled as part of a "conspiracy theory".  Alleged debunking is left to "experts" and supposedly independent fact-checkers who often offer irrational arguments based upon logical fallacies and assumptions to avoid discussing evidence.

The above statement from Lewandowsky and Cook reveals the true working definition of "conspiracy theory" that these scholars and global institutions have adopted. This, then, represents the knowledge base underpinning the the TBS alliance's campaign.

Conspiracy theory is, according the the TBS alliance, any questioning of the official authorised accounts of an event or a related policy decision. The conspiracy theorist's delusional "thinking pattern" is that he has the temerity to doubt the stories that those in power demand he believe

Worse still, those doubts may lead "conspiracy theorists" to question those who rule them and undermine the trust that the rulers crave. According to Lewandowsky and Cook, such questions are dangerous and should be actively resisted by all: 

Conspiracy theories damage society in a number of ways. For example, exposure to conspiracy theories decreases people’s intentions to engage in politics or to reduce their carbon footprint. [. . .] Social media has created a world in which any individual can potentially reach as many people as mainstream media. The lack of traditional gate-keepers is one reason why misinformation spreads farther and faster online than true information.


A Malevolent Agenda

The TBS alliance has no reasonable argument. It has simply issued claims and made allegations which, when scrutinised, are entirely without foundation. Its assertions about, and its recommended responses to, so-called conspiracy theory are at times so preposterous that they are downright comical. Unfortunately, the global agenda that the TBS alliance serves is no laughing matter.

In 2020, Audrey Azouley said:

[Conspiracy theories] amplify and legitimize misconceptions about the pandemic, and reinforce stereotypes which can fuel violence and violent extremist ideologies.

The TBS campaign is part of a concerted effort to link alleged "conspiracy theory" with extremism and violent extremism, which means terrorism. The mainstream media have been pushing this agenda for some time. There is no evidence to support this contention, but our would-be overlords departed the realm of facts and truth some time ago as they redefined evidence as something quite distinct. 

A whole industry of fact-checkers, open-source intelligence (OSINT) operatives, anti-hate lobbyists and concerned NGOs—entities without exception loyal to power—has grown up to promote the persecution of people who question authority. This has been combined with moves by the think tanks, intelligence agencies and strategic advisors to initiate policy development intended to tackle the problem of people who won't do as they are told or believe what they are supposed to. 

In 2019, the FBI released an intelligence bulletin entitled Anti-Government, Identity Based, and Fringe Political Conspiracy Theories Very Likely Motivate Some Domestic Extremists To Commit Criminal, Sometimes Violent Activity. In it, the FBI recommended the blanket censorship of so-called "conspiracy theories". Primarily, it seems, this was because they might be true:

[. . .] [A]nother factor driving the intensity of conspiracy theorizing in the United States, and subsequent threat from conspiracy minded extremists, is the uncovering of real conspiracies and cover-ups, involving illegal, harmful or unconstitutional activities by government officials or leading political figures.

More recently, the UK Government-funded Commission for Countering Extremism (CCE) published How Hateful Extremists Are Exploiting the Pandemic. The CCE claimed: 

During the COVID-19 pandemic we have seen an increased visibility of conspiracy theories ranging from anti-vaccine, anti-establishment to anti-minority and antisemitic. They are not specific to any one ideology, but are used by the Far Right, Far Left and Islamists to further their own ideological aims. [. . .] Conspiracy theories contribute to extremism.

According to the CCE, to question vaccines is a "conspiracy theory". Asking questions of power is another and, while the CCE cannot identify any unifying ideology at all, the umbrella term of "conspiracy theory" can be applied to far right, far left and Islamist extremism.

Apart from the fact that this verbiage is intellectually redundant dross, the reason why the bogeyman of the "conspiracy theorist" has been created is evident. It is a catch-all for anyone who questions the state in all its forms. 

Those in power, and those who serve them, are going to use their conspiracy theory canard to attack, marginalise and silence critics by alleging they are dangerous. We cannot and should not rule out that, in their efforts, they will resort to force under the guise of "keeping people safe". 

All of this is built upon pseudo-scientific claptrap. The absurd notion that the people labelled conspiracy theorists are those silly folk who fancy that a secret can be known is suddenly ubiquitous. For example, reliant solely upon risible scholarship, the CCE also claims: 

Conspiracy theories have been a key tactic used by extremists to recruit and divide communities. Conspiracy theories are defined as ‘attempts to explain the ultimate causes of significant social and political events and circumstances with claims of secret plots by two or more powerful actors’.

There are some people who blame the Jews for the world’s ills. Others blame Islam, some hate gay people, some are racists, and a minuscule minority even advocate violence to pursue whatever political cause they support. 

These are societal problems that need to be addressed. But these views are not disproportionately held by those labeled as conspiracy theorists.  

Probably the largest research study into the demographics of “conspiracy theorists” was undertaken by political scientists Joseph Uscinski and Joseph Parent for their book American Conspiracy Theories

They found that distribution of the phenomenon between the sexes reflected standard demographics. Educational attainment was also in keeping with the general population, with 23% of conspiracy theorists university-educated.

The people studied couldn't easily be categorized by ideology. Liberal and conservative, socialist and capitalist, Democrat and Republican were all equally likely to be “conspiracy believers”. 

The people labelled as “conspiracy theorists” turned out to be a subset reflective of wider society and, from a demographic perspective, not to be a distinct group at all. They held a variety of views on a wide range of subjects. Their only unifying trait was that they did not believe everything they were told by the government and other authoritative institutions. 


A Blustering Gang

"Conspiracy theory", as defined by the TBS alliance, the CCE, the experimental psychologists and fellow travellers, does not exist. There is no evidence to suggest that it does.

"Conspiratorial thinking" is not an identifiable psychological flaw. It is not irrational, as claimed. It is nothing more than the questioning of authority.

"Conspiracy theorist" is just a label deployed by those who defend power to convince the wider public to see those so labelled as other. This "othering" is a technique used by all tyrannical regimes to subjugate, oppress and sometimes eliminate those dissidents.

Mis-/disinformation is merely information that suggests cause for doubt about official narratives and that leads to the questioning of authority. The essentially egalitarian nature of the current model of social media is causing "damage" to "society" because people can openly communicate ideas with each other.

"Traditional gatekeepers" are necessary to stop this infestation. Only the mainstream media—the approved mouthpieces and propagandists of the régime—can safeguard power and protect it from the contagion of public scrutiny. 

"True information" is decreed by the appointed experts, fact checkers and the mainstream media, who collectively set the permitted tone for the conversation. They define the Overton window, outside of which all political debate is forbidden. 

UNESCO's Constitution is a meaningless bit of paper. While it is certainly waging a war for the "minds of men", the TBS alliance which it has formed despises the "unrestricted pursuit of objective truth" and "the free exchange of ideas and knowledge".

UNESCO is one gang among many that claim authority. Collectively, these gangs are seeking to exploit labels created to shut down free speech and freedom of thought. They are determined to silence any who question their power, by any means necessary.