We normally think of conspiracy theories as the preserve of cranks, the jet-fuel-won’t-melt-steel-beams nutters who think 9/11 was an inside job, or those strange individuals convinced that everyone from 3rd century BC Greek astronomers to Stephen Hawking have perpetuated the myth that the world is spherical rather than flat.
But in recent months we’ve seen conspiracy theorising edging ever further into the mainstream, and two stories from opposite sides of the political spectrum over the past week show quite how far it has come.
First, we had George Soros backing a “secret plot to thwart Brexit” on the front page of the right-wing Daily Telegraph, detailing a donation made by the financier to what was in fact a very public campaign for a second referendum on EU membership. The story painted the Best for Britain organisation as a shadowy cabal aiming to undermine the will of the people, accompanied by a dose of dog-whistle anti-Semitism.
Then, just a few days later, The Times ran a story about Oxfam employees paying local women to attend sex parties in Haiti – women from the same damaged communities they were meant to be helping. This time around, it wasn’t a newspaper pushing conspiracy theories, but a range of left wingers who suggested that the story had been released in a bid to punish Oxfam and discredit the charity’s work.
The fact that The Times had published its scoop mere weeks after the publication of Oxfam’s damning report on global inequality was used to argue that the newspaper must be motivated by vengeance rather than justice (or even just a good story).
In a blog post, Richard Murphy, a respected left-wing expert on tax, cited a column by Rod Liddle attacking Oxfam’s supposedly anti-capitalist agenda as evidence that the journalists at the Times must have produced their report in a bid to defend their wealthy masters.
“What The Times is really angry about is the fact that the world, rightly, believed Oxfam when they said that capitalism distributes the rewards of market activity inequitably and that the world’s wealthiest people did not actually earn their fortunes but extracted them from others,” he wrote. “And so, in an attempt to discredit this message The Times is dedicated to raking Oxfam’s muck. And it found some.”
To be fair to Murphy, it’s a plausible motive, but he hasn’t provided any evidence that backs up his claim.
Now, of course, clandestine organisations plotting to overturn democratic votes do exist. And of course, it is not exactly unheard of for a newspaper to run a story to punish some perceived enemy, political or otherwise.
But with both the Soros story and the response to the revelations about Oxfam, conspiracies have been imagined and alleged without any evidence to back them up, just a conviction that such an uncomfortable truth couldn’t really be true. It’s unthinkable that those motivated by what they think is best for the UK might believe Brexit is a terrible idea. It’s unthinkable that The Times might consider a major charity failing to stop the abuse of those it was trying to help a story worth printing on its own merits.
For people faced with things they don’t want to accept, conspiracy theories can be a useful comfort blanket. People can use them to hide from those inconvenient truths without troubling the rest of the world too much.
But what’s especially worrying about both these recent examples is how the theorising has spread from the fringes into mainstream discourse – the pages of a national newspaper, the public posts of otherwise reasonable activists and commentators (Murphy was at one time described as an economics guru for Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn).
You don’t have to be a centrist to resist buying into convenient conspiracy theories, but you do need to be prepared to accept that maybe, sometimes, some of those on your side, maybe even lots of people on your side, might be wrong, and maybe even that sometimes the other side might be right. But that’s very difficult if your chosen political stance demands absolute belief.
Many of those touting the most outlandish conspiracy theories will urge you to “keep an open mind” on whether the moon landings were faked or aliens crashed at Roswell. Doing so seems to be beyond a growing chunk of people on both the left and right who see a conspiracy behind anything that challenges what they know, without any doubt, must be true.