My daughter told me she had an assignment about conspiracy theories for school. She thought that the very name seem to remove any credibility to it. By labeling something a conspiracy theory, you immediately treat it as unfounded.
It didn’t use to be that way. When I was younger, conspiracy theories were a fundamental part of our democratic life. In Italy, government behaviour has been murky at best especially during the 70s, the so called “years of lead”. That was the time of “state terrorism”, and when Pier Paolo Pasolini (pictured above) wrote his landmark “I know” article on Italy’s number one newspaper Corriere della Sera. And the term “conspiracy theory” was used by right wing reactionaries to quit credibility.
How times have changed. Today, conspiracy theories are about secret, large-scale atmospheric spraying program, or about moon landing, or about – can you believe it – the Rotschild. Conspiracy theories are now equivalent to fake news or post-truth politics. They are a joke.
As a result, I am pushed (together with most people I know) towards ridiculing conspiracy theories. If I have to choose between those conspiracy theories and the mainstream message of mass media, I choose the latter. Of course I still exercise my critical sense towards mass media, but my gut feeling of intolerance (especially after the US elections) is stronger against conspiracy theories than against mass media.
In other words, the low quality of conspiracy theories is achieving a polarisation of the discussion, much in the same way that terrorism polarises the policy debate. The world becomes divided between conspiracy theorists and mainstream, just as between ISIS and Bush/Trump/LePen.
The problem is not the influence of conspiracy theories – it’s their low quality. It is a pity because there is lots of space for good and useful conspiracy theories, with the deep linkages between mass media, politicians and multinationals. Just to mention one I come across every day, the Spanish newspaper El Pais is constantly spinning facts, becoming a sort of renewed Pravda of the declining Socialist Party.
But not everything is bleak. I think we are witnessing a democratisation of conspiracy theories. They used to be reserved to the cultivated elite, but now they have been taken up by a wider audience. The decline in quality is an inevitable consequence of this democratisation. And this is not necessarily bad. Conspiracy theories could be seen as a first step towards political conscience. We should build on them as a sign of critical thinking. They will get better over time.
Certainly the decline of newspaper and loss of trust in mass media has played a role in this. But this is not to say that we need the old newspaper back. Mass media have failed their promises and they only deserve not to be trusted. And we most certainly not need Facebook to protect us from fake news.
In the medium term, conspiracy theories and fake news will be defeated by intelligence and criticisms, as they have always been. People will grow out of it. While there is damage being done in the short term, I just do not believe that we can attibute Trump and Brexit to the people being fooled by fake news.
And most certainly the solution is not to bring back the old media or to be protected by new media.