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Why conspiracy theories have taken over politics and pop culture

Glenn Greenwald, a lawyer, author and journalist who broke the Snowden revelations, outlines the allure and inner-workings of conspiratorial thinking

Conspiracy theories have an enduring appeal – the moon landing was faked, 9/11 was an inside job, Avril Lavigne was replaced by a doppelganger, global warming isn’t real. They range from pretty harmless to the politically and socially galvanising, either banished to the annals of hyperlocal forums or storming the steps of international governments.

When people feel like they aren’t in total control of their lives, when they look for security and understanding in our current political hellscape, making a few mental leaps leads some to comfort and justification for their beliefs, however far a reach. A study found that almost half of all US citizens believe in a conspiracy theory of some sort, and 60 per cent of British people – not that the concept is anything new. The Illuminati conspiracy can be traced back in history to 1776, and old religious scriptures from the third century have pushed the theory that Jesus married Mary Magdalene. Most that catch our attention centre on issues about who’s running things, or what we hear and see in the press. It’s a way of thinking that has insidiously found its way into Brexit, the US presidency, immigration and climate change.

In the last year, we’ve seen the affect of conspiracy theories going mainstream in the form of QAnon. It’s an online conspiracy theory that’s bled into real life, about an anonymous person or collective known as Q that is believed to be a person or group with high-level access to the government. They started to share cryptic, supposedly leaked pieces of information. It has since mutated into a huge conspiracy surrounding Donald Trump, known otherwise as “The Storm”.

There’s also the concerning targeting of school shooting survivors like those in Parkland, accused of being crisis actors. Not that conspiracy theories are always totally wild or right-wing centred either, from government surveillance theories to issues around ongoing wars and Russia.

Glenn Greenwald, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, author and lawyer has reported extensively on the surveillance state, American politics, and conspiracy. Greenwald, American but Brazil-based, broke whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelations about the National Security Agency’s disturbing practices, and is known for his intense, relentless style of journalism. In October, the Intercept co-editor joined a panel at the Centre of Investigative Journalism’s Logan Symposium to discuss issues surrounding Russia, the United States and theories of collusion. The London conference, themed around conspiracy, explored subterfuge, propaganda and power through the lens of journalism, art and activism.

Below, Greenwald speaks to Dazed about the allure of conspiracy theories, how they pan out in our current culture, and how we can navigate a world of propaganda and misinformation.

WHAT DRAWS US INTO THE WORLD OF CONSPIRACY THEORIES

I think it’s a natural human instinct when events take place in the world that are complicated and confusing, that are difficult to comprehend and subvert our expectations of how the world works. We look for theories that provide us with some certainty in the world, so that we can have a better sense of security and confidence about how things function.

Religions have been explaining this human need for centuries, by offering people explanations about hidden forces. Now they focus on the election of Donald Trump, the triumph of Brexit, or the rise of extremism throughout western Europe in places we never thought it was possible for it to thrive. People needed to better understand why these events are happening that are so contrary to what they have been taught to believe. So conspiracy theories like, ‘Putin is engineering this all’, give people a way to feel more comfortable because the world in actually understandable rather than very complex and requiring figuring out.”

WHY CONSPIRACY THEORIES SHOW UP ON SCREEN AND IN OUR MEMES

“Conspiracy theories are really exciting. Sometimes, even, they’re true – there are groups of people working together in secret for some particular end. I don’t think any rational person can dispute that. There are people in prison in every modern country for the crime of conspiracy. But I think the idea of conspiracy theories are so appealing because they're incredibly exciting, it makes politics more exciting to believe not that huge numbers of people are voting out of dissatisfaction or because they feel like they need a change in their lives, but because Russian agents have infiltrated our halls of government and are using blackmail to control people who are in power.

This is the kind of stuff of films and novels, and there's a reason for that. It’s entertaining and stimulating, and it makes politics more fun to believe it. There’s a big entertainment value that people often overlook as to why they've become so popular.”

“It’s imperative that the internet not be allowed to become dominated by a tiny number or unaccountable Silicon Valley executives, as is now happening” – Glenn Greenwald

HOW CONSPIRATORIAL THINKING BLOOMED LONG BEFORE TRUMP

“Conspiratorial thinking has been pervasive in western political and media circles for many decades. The US and British elite who pride themselves on being rational and the opponents of conspiracy theories, invented and disseminated some of the most damaging conspiracies of the last several generations. They told people Saddam Hussein was in the nuclear weapons program, he was in alliance with Al Qaeda, and they convinced a huge percentage of the American population that Saddam himself had participated in planning 9/11.

People like to assign conspiracy theories to countries that we like to look at as being primitive, but in reality, the most advanced, sophisticated, rich, western democracies are awash with conspiracy theories typically pioneered, disseminated and endorsed by leaders of their own. It’s gotten more pervasive since, but the aberration took place around 9/11.”

CONSPIRACY THEORIES CAN BE A WAY OF AVOIDING HARD QUESTIONS

“Imagine you’re a western elite, and you have spent the last four decades advocating for policies in globalisation and free trade, which have caused the disappearance of the middle class largely in the US and the UK, and increasingly throughout western Europe. Those hundreds of millions of people realise finally who is to blame – the ruling class. They then direct great amounts of anger towards you. If you're an elite who is responsible for that, the last thing you want is the scrutiny focused on what you've done. What you want instead is to distract people's attention away from you and onto some foreign villain or hidden forces on Facebook, anything but yourself. This has been a common tactic of power factions forever, though it isn’t a tactic that’s really working – who is waking up and worrying about what the Kremlin is doing? This tactic will retreat.”

“People lose confidence in the sources of information they’re told to believe, so they become much more amenable to alternative theories” – Glenn Greenwald

CONSPIRACY THEORIES PERMEATE THE LEFT AS MUCH AS THE RIGHT

The Democratic party has never been immune to conspiracy theories – from Joe Biden to Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, they were in favour of Iraq war. The Democrats were among the leading warriors during the Cold War, spreading all kind of conspiracy theories about Russia's influence. I think that the 2016 elections really was an extraordinary shock to the Democratic party and its followers – not just because Donald Trump got elected, but because they were told for months by their experts that the chances of his winning were basically zero. That creates this feeling of insecurity about how they understand the world,. Again, they became more susceptible to conspiracy theorising as a result. It’s also because they didn't want to accept any responsibility for what has happened. Conspiracy theories about unseen forces conspiring against them became the perfect way to avoid responsibilities. The real left can be sceptical, but the establishment liberal left is self-serving enough to believe these.”

WHY PEOPLE TURN AWAY FROM MEDIA AND TOWARDS CONSPIRACY

“People lose confidence in the sources of information they’re told to believe, so they become much more amenable to alternative theories – like with the Iraq war and the 2008 financial crisis. Some stem from truth – with the Trump presidency, there is a very powerful faction in Washington, the Deep State, military-industrial complex, the forces of the CIA or FBI, whatever you want to call it, who have been conspiring to subvert the Trump presidency because they dislike the outcome of the election. A lot of that is true and fuels a certain type of thinking that happens even with the most deranged.”

HOW OUR DIGITAL GENERATION CAN NAVIGATE LIFE IRL AND URL

“The internet is a double-edged sword. The promise of the internet was that it would liberate the means of communication and dissemination of information from large corporations that previously had monopolies over them.

Our means of political discourse has become democratised and equalised in a way that’s actually quite healthy and positive. The problem, of course, is that anyone can post anything online, which means that there's no accountability, cost or checks when false information is disseminated, often anonymously with no ability to trace who is responsible for it. It’s a powerful tool for deceit and propaganda.

The only solution is for people to devote themselves to ensuring that they think critically. When you read something online no matter who it's from, whether its anonymous or from a media outlet that you're supposed to trust, don't just assume that it's true. Look at things skeptically, find out if there's actually convincing evidence for the assertion, and demand evidence before you believe things. Don’t just believe that simply because something appears on your computer screen, even if it’s from an authoritative source or somebody that you trust, that it’s actually true. That’s all of our responsibilities as citizens. It’s imperative that the internet not be allowed to become dominated by a tiny number or unaccountable silicon valley executives, as is now happening.

One of the dangers of social media is that it can be so distorting – our instinct as human beings is to expose ourselves to information that makes us feel good and not bad, and that can be quite obfuscating about how the world actually functions.

Brexit is a good example: if all you're doing is blocking everybody who supports Brexit or refuse to follow them because they have bad ideas, and only read Guardian or Independent journalists, you're gonna be shocked to find that the world isn't what you created in a little social media bubble that's designed to validate and please you.

HOW GREENWALD EXAMINES HIS OWN RELATIONSHIP WITH THE INTERNET

“I don't think we’ve even begun to understand what the psychological implications are for those who use social media as individuals or collectively. It holds people like me, who have influential platforms, accountable by making us hear from our critics and engaging with people who have questions or objections about things we're saying or doing, and I think that's really healthy and important. On the other hand, as a public figure or otherwise, the amount of toxicity and hatred you intake if you're not consciously regulating is something that I don't think our brains are really designed to endure. You really think about your own health and your own intellectual life when thinking about how best to use social media. I've definitely limited and changed the way I've used social media because of that.”

Glenn Greenwald’s book No Place to Hide on Snowden and the surveillance state from 2014 is available online here. You can find out more about the Centre of Investigative Journalism and its work here