Are conspiracy theories destroying democracy?

Conspiracy theories

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The more information we have about what governments and corporations are up to the less we seem to trust them. Will conspiracy theories eventually destroy democracy?

What if I told you I had conclusive proof that the moon landings were faked, but I had been told to keep it under wraps by my BBC bosses acting under orders from the CIA, NSA and MI6. Most of you would think I had finally lost my mind.

But, for some, that scenario - a journalist working for a mainstream media organisation being manipulated by shadowy forces to keep vital information from the public - would seem entirely plausible, or even likely.

We live in a golden age for conspiracy theories. There is a growing assumption that everything we are told by the authorities is wrong, or not quite as it seems. That the truth is being manipulated or obscured by powerful vested interests.

And, in some cases, it is.

'Inside job'

"The reason we have conspiracy theories is that sometimes governments and organisations do conspire," says Observer columnist and academic John Naughton.

It would be wrong to write off all conspiracy theorists as "swivel-eyed loons," with "poor personal hygiene and halitosis," he told a Cambridge University Festival of Ideas debate.

They are not all "crazy". The difficult part, for those of us trying to make sense of a complex world, is working out which parts of the conspiracy theory to keep and which to throw away.

Conspiracy theories through the ages

Benjamin Disraeli
  • 'Secret societies': Paranoia was rife in the 19th Century in the wake of the French revolution. British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli (pictured) warned of "secret societies which have everywhere their unscrupulous agents, and can at the last moment upset all the governments' plans"
  • Freemasons: A secret society tracing its roots back to the 14th century, freemasonry has been accused of everything from controlling the judiciary to faking the moon landings
  • Illuminati: Initially referred to the Bavarian Illumaniti, a secret society founded in 1776 to oppose religious influence over public life. Outlawed in 1785 but name now linked to alleged conspiracies to create New World Order
  • Dreyfus affair: A young artillery officer of Jewish extraction, Alfred Dreyfus, was wrongly convicted in 1894 of treason and sent to Devil's Island in a case that divided France. Nationalists believed there was a Jewish conspiracy against Catholicism
  • Protocols of the elders of Zion: An anti-semitic hoax supposedly describing Jewish plans for world domination. Publicised by the Nazis despite already being exposed as fraudulent
  • McCarthyism: Named after Senator Joseph McCarthy who led a witch-hunt against suspected communists in American public life in the first half of the 1950s

Mr Naughton is one of three lead investigators in a major new Cambridge University project to investigate the impact of conspiracy theories on democracy.

The internet is generally assumed to be the main driving force behind the growth in conspiracy theories but, says Mr Naughton, there has been little research into whether that is really the case.

He plans to compare internet theories on 9/11 with pre-internet theories about John F Kennedy's assassination.

Like the other researchers, he is wary, or perhaps that should be weary, of delving into the darker recesses of the conspiracy world.

"The minute you get into the JFK stuff, and the minute you sniff at the 9/11 stuff, you begin to lose the will to live," he told the audience in Cambridge.

Like Sir Richard Evans, who heads the five-year Conspiracy and Democracy project, he is at pains to stress that the aim is not to prove or disprove particular theories, simply to study their impact on culture and society.

Why are we so fascinated by them? Are they undermining trust in democratic institutions?

David Runciman, professor of politics at Cambridge University, the third principal investigator, is keen to explode the idea that most conspiracies are actually "cock-ups".

"The line between cock-up, conspiracy and conspiracy theory are much more blurred than the conventional view that you have got to choose between them," he told the Festival of Ideas.

"There's a conventional view that you get these conspirators, who are these kind of sinister, malign people who know what they are doing, and the conspiracy theorists, who occasionally stumble upon the truth but who are on the whole paranoid and crazy.

Sir Richard Evans: What constitutes a conspiracy theory?

"Actually the conspirators are often the paranoid and crazy conspiracy theorists, because in their attempt to cover up the cock-up they get drawn into a web in which their self-justification posits some giant conspiracy trying to expose their conspiracy.

"And I think that's consistently true through a lot of political scandals, Watergate included."

'Curry house plot'

It may also be true, he argues, of the "vicious" in-fighting and plotting that characterised New Labour's years in power, as recently exposed in the memoirs of Gordon Brown's former spin doctor Damian McBride.

The Brownite conspiracies to remove Tony Blair were "pathetically ineffectual" - with the exception of the 2006 "curry house" plot that forced Blair to name a departure date - but the picture painted by Mr McBride of a "paranoid" and "chaotic" inner circle has the ring of truth about it, he claims.

Gordon Brown Gordon Brown was a keen student of conspiracy theories

And Mr Brown - said to be a keen student of the JFK assassination - knew a conspiracy when he saw one.

"You feel he sees conspiracies out there because he has a mindset that is not dissimilar to the conspiracy theorists," said Prof Runciman.

He is also examining whether the push for greater openness and transparency in public life will fuel, rather than kill off, conspiracy theories.

"It may be that one of the things conspiracy theories feed on as well as silence, is a surfeit of information. And when there is a mass of information out there, it becomes easier for people to find their way through to come to the conclusion they want to come to.

"Plus, you don't have to be an especial cynic to believe that, in the age of open government, governments will be even more careful to keep secret the things they want to keep secret.

"The demand for openness always produces, as well as more openness, more secrecy."

Which brings us back to the moon landings. I should state, for the avoidance of any doubt, and to kill off any internet speculation, that I am not in possession of any classified information about whether they were faked or not. My contacts at Nasa are not that good.

But then I would say that wouldn't I?


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  • rate this

    Comment number 1508.

    The more information spreads the more apparent conspiracies emerge. The stigmergic effect of CEO's giving each other a wink and pursuing shared interests is not conspiracy but convergent evolution - agreement not to compete but not conspiracy. The more we connect the more these apparent 'conspiracies' happen. They are the effect of memetic evolution in a rich information space

  • rate this

    Comment number 1507.

    The collapse of WTC7 reported at 16.54 EST by the BBC, but it did collapse at 17.20 EST ??? What kind of cock up is that supposed to be you super journalists of the BBC? Nice try anyway.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1506.

    1414.Argent Pur
    57 Minutes ago
    1400. CURTAINS 2012

    Gullible people are those who DON'T question what they are told.


    I don't just question the belief that thermite was painted onto the steel, I totally dismiss it!

  • rate this

    Comment number 1505.

    @1498. Paul:

    None of that is evidence of a conspiracy. Also, Do you have a girlfriend?

  • rate this

    Comment number 1504.

    1482 webboffin
    The Pentagon's walls were reinforced concrete because it is the Military command centre. In fact they were adding extra reinforcement throughout the building to make it even stronger. They even claimed that the additional steel framework with kevlar netting that had recently been put in saved lives. In some photos you can see the reinforcement which is bent OUT when it was hit IN?!?

  • rate this

    Comment number 1503.

    No, don't advocate 'closing the book' as we approach the 50th anniversary of the assassination of JFK.
    For you to suggest such a thing must surely imply the BBC is in the hands of the CIA.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1502.

    1498. Paul

    Some facts about 9/11 that no-one disputes are:
    - G.Bush refused to be questioned on his own the events of 9/11.
    Well, he missed most of it as he decided to stay in that classroom whilst it was all taking place. The US president is actually one of few people who didn't see 9/11 happen.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1501.

    " LUFC_FR
    Ah yes, the 'moon landings', and those Hassalblad cameras that could take perfect images in such extreme cold and extreme heat.
    No fogging of the film, no dust spots on the shots, no shots out of focus"

    What cameras can't focus back then? Selected photos aren't going to be blurred. Those cameras were not from Argos. How can camera lenses fog in a zero water/air environment?

  • rate this

    Comment number 1500.

    495. whambam
    "Lou Reed is dead!! and no THAT is true, sad news indeed"

    It's a conspiracy. He's actually still alive and is working for the NSA.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1499.

    Are conspiracy theories destroying democracy? NO.
    Vested interests, lobbyists with their own agendas and career politicians are destroying democracy.

    The 'Will of the People' counts for nothing today - voting only gives the public a chance to replace one bunch of shysters with another bunch of shysters, both of whom are out to shaft the public whilst ceding control to corporations. Tragic.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1498.

    Some facts about 9/11 that no-one disputes are:

    - G.Bush refused to be questioned on his own the events of 9/11.

    - WTC7 was deliberately left out of the 9/11 report.

    - There was no identified aircraft debris ever found at the Pentagon and no video footage.

    - The only flights over the USA after the airspace shutdown were Saudi flights.

    Do you really need a weatherman to tell you its raining?

  • rate this

    Comment number 1497.

    Conspiracy Facts

    Murdoch hassling Blair to go to War daily (A Campbell)

    Blair promised Bush he'd go to war before Parliamentary Approval
    well before WMD claims

    Document offering evidence for case of war contained many falsehoods

    Heinous political crime-TB concocted false manifesto to justify taking UK to war

    Inquiry is Shucking and Jiving
    Babylon Bobbing and Weaving with a Left and A Wrong

  • rate this

    Comment number 1496.

    The government will tell you what the truth is. Do not believe reason, your eyes or your ears. If you doubt anything phone the government and they will confirm the truth for you.

    Millions were in germ war tests Much of Britain was exposed to bacteria sprayed in secret trials. Conspiracy Theory?

  • rate this

    Comment number 1495.

    Lou Reed is dead!! and no THAT is true, sad news indeed

  • rate this

    Comment number 1494.

    Its very weak of a BBC man to lump together all 'conspiracy theories' into one package. This is the same organization which protected Saville for all those years, an organization who treated victim's testaments as conspiracy fantasies in themselves. No one trusts the BBC anymore, people don't trust your journalists who don't investigate, they simply regurgatate government/corporate press releases

  • rate this

    Comment number 1493.

    The moon hoax for all mankind.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1492.

    1486. Pinotmoir
    The not so secret world govt, and their lap dog media mouth piece. The bbc.
    There are many other media corporations that make a far more suitable lap dog mouthpiece than the BBC. Either you only know the BBC (which makes you, ahem, not knowledgeable) or you are just crowbar-ing an anti-bbc comment in.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1491.

    It is unfortunate that blatantly incongruent facts (especially scientific ones) which are pointed out by individuals are mixed together with their new re-interpretations (which is the "conspiracy theory") in one big bundle. Facts that are wrong, incongruent or devoid of scientific possibility are just that. Wrong. Not conspiracy theories.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1490.

    How many times was Hillsborough reviewed? How many Policemen knew of that cover up? Cameron circumvented security procedures to get Coulson into Downing Street. Wilson was called a conspiracy nut for voicing concerns about the secret service - transpired they DID have a file on him. There have been hundreds of conspiracies - of course some will be suspected wrongly - but only a fool denounces all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1489.

    Integrated part of ANY society that claims to "love" free speech!
    So if UK want to belong to this so GOOOOOOD club- do not let any elected official control anything spoken or written word!
    (Have in minde Stasi- KGB and McCarthy-Mao- Hitler etc.)


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