Why conspiracy theories are not just a harmless joke

Conspiracy and modern anti-Semitism are deeply irrational world-views that developed in tandem and are almost impossible to disentangle.

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As October drew to a close, two acts of far-right terrorism took place on American soil. A pipe bomb was sent to the Jewish philanthropist George Soros, with further bombs posted to a series of prominent US liberals. Shortly afterwards, a lone gunman murdered 11 worshippers at a Pittsburgh synagogue. The prime suspects in each case – Cesar Sayoc and Robert Bowers – had something in common: both understood the world through the prism of conspiracy theories.

Most commentators treat conspiracy theories as a harmless joke, a signifier of naivety. We crack a wry smile when we think of David Icke, the former footballer and Green Party spokesman, who now makes a living by telling anyone who will listen that members of the Rothschild family are blood-drinking, Satan-worshipping lizards in disguise.

However, our research suggests that there is a worrying sincerity and consistency to the theories, which centre around an anti-modern, anti-democratic world-view, whose anti-Semitic heritage is never far away. Social media is the primary means by which this perspective has spread across the political spectrum. Alarmingly, it is clear that many of the conspiracists’ followers are not engaged in a harmless diversion, but take their theories seriously.

Social media provides a window into the minds of Sayoc and Bowers. Sayoc was active on Facebook and Twitter while Bowers preferred the alt-right’s favoured website, Gab.

Sayoc’s Facebook and Twitter accounts were awash with conspiracist material. Much of it related to Soros, whose name now appears to be supplanting even that of Rothschild in anti-Semitic conspiracism. For example, Sayoc circulated one meme at least seven times that described Soros as a “Judeo-plutocratic Bolshevik Zionist world conspirator”. Sayoc also made death threats through Twitter, including one against Soros, and another against a gun control activist linked to him in a conspiracy theory that the terror suspect circulated at least 99 times. On the day that a pipe bomb was delivered to Soros’s address, Sayoc shared a cluster of anti-Soros memes. These included one from Icke proclaiming urgently that the “WORLD IS WAKING UP TO THE HORRORS OF GEORGE SOROS”.

Conspiracy theories also permeated the final three contributions that Bowers made to Gab before the synagogue attack. The first referred to the so-called ZOG or Zionist-Occupied Government: a term used to suggest that Western governments are under the control of an international “Zionist” conspiracy. The second linked the National Refugee Shabbat, organised by the Jewish-American non-profit HIAS, to a conspiracy theory that Jews deliberately promote immigration into historically white nations to weaken and destroy them.

Although the roots of that theory stretch back to Hitler, variations on it are popular among followers of Icke and the Hungarian leader Viktor Orbán, who associate Muslim immigration with one particular Jew: Soros. In his final post on Gab, Bowers again referenced the theory: “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people… Screw your optics, I’m going in.”

When distressing events take place, humans naturally ask why they have happened. Simplistic explanations blaming despised individuals or groups have a seductive appeal to many. At the end of the 18th century, a mythology emerged that sought to explain the upheavals of the French Revolution in terms of the machinations of the Freemasons and the (already defunct) Bavarian Illuminati. Shortly afterwards, the proponents of that fantasy added a new group of conspirators: the Jews. In time, Jews became more and more central to their fantasies, which developed into a secularised version of a much older European vision of the Jew.

Just as many European Christians, from the Middle Ages onwards, conceived of Jews as a cabal of vampiric sorcerers led by Satan, modern anti-Semites believe in the existence of a “Zionist” bureaucracy that exerts its malign influence through the secular magics of finance, political corruption and control of the press.

The step from medieval to modern anti-Semitism is a short one. In the lurid fantasies of Icke, for example, the “Rothschild Zionist” elite is both a corrupting bureaucratic manipulator and a cabal of vampiric Satanists. Just as conspiracy theories are not simply allegations of conspiracy, anti-Semitism is not simply racism. Conspiracy and modern anti-Semitism are deeply irrational world-views that developed in tandem and are almost impossible to disentangle. Together, they divide the people of the world into innocent and guilty parties, and encourage those who strike out against the supposed villains to see themselves as heroes.

Totalitarians and terrorists believe, and encourage belief in, conspiracist, polarised explanations. On the far right, conspiracy theories have long been used to radicalise individuals who are unhappy with the state of the world. Islamism has at its heart a mythology of Jewish-American conspiracy against Muslims. The Stalinist show trials were carried out in order to force confessions of imaginary conspiracies against communism. The Holocaust was perpetrated by Nazi conspiracy theorists, whose faith in Mein Kampf and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was so strong that they accelerated the slaughter of the Jews when they saw that they were losing the war.

It is time to stop indulging conspiracy theorists, as well as those who help them to reach wide audiences. PayPal and other corporations recently withdrew their services from Gab, whose association with dangerous conspiracy theories had become a reputational risk. Now, the major social media platforms must take responsibility too.

Daniel Allington is a senior lecturer in social and cultural artificial intelligence at King’s College London. David Toube is director of policy at Quilliam

This article first appeared in the 14 November 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How the Brexiteers broke history