Over the past five years, concerns about fake news and the rise of disturbing conspiracy theories, such as “Pizzagate” or those that circulate around 5G, have resulted in any number of hand-wringing articles and podcasts from despairing journalists, which can often sound superior and fail to understand the pull of disinformation.
Refreshingly, Phil Tinline’s Conspiracies: The Secret Knowledge takes a longer, broader and deeper view of conspiratorial thinking, digging through history, journalism, fiction and film to try to understand why the idea of being “in on” secret information is so compelling. “Maybe thinking about all this in terms of stories,” Tinline says, “might tell us something about how we think about the workings of power.”
[See also: Why pandemics create conspiracy theories]
Episode one of three, “Some Smoky Backroom”, explores the anxiety inspired by the early 20th-century anarchist groups, seen in GK Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday and John Buchan’s The Power-House. It traces the representations of anti-Semitic conspiracies during the French Revolution and the upheavals of 1848, to the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” hoax of the early 20th century, in the work of Hilaire Belloc and in the conspiracies of the far-right theorist Nesta Helen Webster. Tinline considers the all-seeing figures secretly running the world in the Sherlock Holmes stories, Fritz Lang’s Dr Mabuse The Gambler and Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps. By reflecting on how fictional depictions of conspiratorial plots grew alongside, and perhaps even influenced, real-life conspiracy theories, Tinline is able to communicate how “the logic of drama informs conspiratorial thinking” right up to the present moment.
Tinline’s skill lies in persuasively finding the connections between these varied examples. Episode two explores the paranoia in the US during the 1960s and 1970s, fuelled by the assassination of JFK and the Watergate scandal. He also turns to the concept of “narrative graphs” to distinguish between the legitimacy of the real “Bridgegate” conspiracy (when the staff of a New Jersey Republican governor colluded to create severe traffic jams as revenge on a Democrat mayor) and the fake “Pizzagate” theory that surfaced during the 2016 US election.
This article appears in the 24 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Spring special 2021