Musa Okwonga explores why conspiracy theories are finding such an audience and what this exposes about the worrying state of our democracy and the social contract.
It wasn’t the first time I had received an email or WhatsApp message from a close relative which contained a conspiracy theory, but it was the most striking. It was a warning that the 5G wireless communication being rolled out across mobile phone networks was already the world’s leading cause of death. “While Coronavirus is real, the main world order killer is currently 5G,” it stated.
My first question was, hang on a minute, 5G has only been around for five minutes and suddenly it’s killing more people than, say, tuberculosis? My second question was why are relatives of mine sending me this? I think that both questions matter, and I will address them in turn.
I will start by answering the second. I have always felt that conspiracy theories are so popular because, at some level, they are comforting: that it is easier to believe that the people in charge know exactly what they are doing, because the alternative – that our society is a runaway train, a dangerously chaotic mess in which our leaders are stunningly incompetent – is too frightening to contemplate. But, as a good friend pointed out, there is another element to this which is that many people dismissed as conspiracy theorists have been revealed, over time, to have been telling the truth. In her view, the popularity of conspiracy theories has much to do with a suspicion of authority which is born from bitter experience.
My relatives who send me conspiracy theories do not fit the profile of those whom you might call dangerously delusional. They are intimately acquainted with reality, often uncomfortably so. Several of them are refugees, who have seen life at its most brutal; they know many people who have been kidnapped, never to be seen again. Their default view of government is one which ruthlessly and routinely sacrifices people for profit.
In that context, the 5G conspiracy theory is a precise distillation of their concerns about the terrifying way in which previous and recent governments have already behaved. They share these theories with me as a form of warning, because they know the danger and the cost of being unprepared for the worst your society can do. As the old saying goes, “just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you”.
In my exchange with my good friend, the British singer-songwriter Aruba Red, I realised that my relationship with conspiracy theories has a certain amount to do with social class. My view of major institutions is fundamentally positive – that they are flawed, but that we are better off with them than without. It is relatively easy for me to believe this because my experience of these institutions, on the whole, is good. I am one degree removed from a world where states and governments have actively inflicted harm upon their own citizens. Fortunately – because I am trusted by those who sent me these theories, and because I was polite but firm – it is possible for me to rebut them on a personal level. But on the societal scale, we need a far grander solution.
The Existential Public Health Issue
I worry about the type of language which circulates in circles that have fallen prey to conspiracy theories.
That description of 5G as “the main world order killer” is a grim echo of the anti-Semitic conviction that there is a cabal of Jewish people pulling the strings of the planet. Once people have been encouraged to treat society’s leaders – its politicians, pundits, media – as fundamentally hostile actors, then their minds become much more amenable to older and even more dangerous prejudices.
What can be done? Well, to answer that, I should address the first question posed above.
What is striking is the speed and the intensity with which the 5G conspiracy theory has taken root – something for which I believe governments, political commentators and social media companies are primarily responsible. It is they who have continually weakened the immune system of our democracies, leaving them ever more prone to this current pandemic of untruth. They must therefore act to correct this mess by refusing to attack evidence-based reporting and the rule of law at every opportunity.
Fifteen years ago, it might have been unthinkable that there could be a conflict more damaging to the rule of law than US President George W. Bush’s ‘War on Terror’, but here we are now with the War on Truth: a world in which victims of school shootings are dismissed as crisis actors; where people saving countless lives in Syria have been smeared as terrorists.
We have reached this point in large part because people in positions of influence and power, themselves living quite comfortably, have said anything to get ahead, regardless of its basis in fact, and now they are endangered by the same threat they created. It is grimly fitting that the Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, a man whose disregard for reality is well-documented, will stand in as Prime Minister if Boris Johnson is adjudged too ill to perform his duties. In the short term, deceit prospers; in the long term, most – if not all – of us stand to lose.
Social media companies have long posed as neutral actors in all of this, claiming to stand above all for the defence of free speech, but this is a laughable pretence. Whether they like it or not, they are the arbiters of public discourse and they recently acknowledged this by removing two tweets about the Coronavirus by Brazil’s President, Jair Bolsonaro, on the grounds that they were harmful to public health. Let us hope that they also begin to treat systematic disinformation, as a whole, as the existential public health issue for civil society that it truly is.