“The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” These words from WB Yeats encapsulate our current political impasse. Whereas in Yeats’ time the worst may have been persuaded by the rational, in today’s age of social media, the worst can spread their ideas with conviction – irrespective of the truth.
Social media blurs the distinction between fact and fiction, legitimising disinformation with every like, comment and share. Those who dig deeper, find more “alternative facts” as online algorithms become complicit in suggesting videos of similar content. As the gullible fall further down the rabbit hole, their scepticism is validated as it reverberates around the echo chamber. It is in these far-flung corners of the internet where the vulnerable fall into the conspiratorial labyrinth.
Internet searches for conspiracy theories have proliferated since the beginning of Covid-19. The first myth peddled around the pandemic was that it was a “plandemic” or a hoax. After the death of millions worldwide, the conspiracy shifted its claim, this time speculating that the lockdown would never end. Since the lockdown has been lifted, they now predict that Bill Gates, amongst others, are using vaccinations to insert us with microchips.
Whilst the conspiracy theory changes every time it is shown to be false, the justification behind the conspiracy stays the same – the government is trying to control you and strip you of your civil liberties. This is where the alt-right manipulate conspiracies to fit into their extremist ideology, by offering simple solutions to complex structural issues. The explanations they offer appeal to emotion over reason, allowing objectivity, science and truth to become obsolete. No longer are conspiracy theories merely fun dinner party anecdotes, but a real threat to democracy and our political institutions.
In a report published by the European Commission that investigated links between the far-right and conspiracy theories, they found that, “right-wing extremism has proven to be active and efficient in the dissemination of conspiracy theories aimed at targeting individuals… and mobilising extremist action and violence.”
The hodgepodge of conspiracy theory and far-right ideology was displayed for all to see during the spectacle of the storming of Capitol Hill. Deriving from the mother of all conspiracies, QAnon prophesied that Donald Trump was to arrest a cabal of Satan-worshiping paedophilic elites. This theory was believed by purportedly half of all Trump supporters. When this failed to come to fruition, disinformation alleging the election was rigged spread online. Assured in their ignorance, the followers of the QAnon conspiracy, along with a variety of far-right militias, stormed Capitol Hill and killed a police officer.
This is how the far-right use conspiracy theories to undermine liberal democracy. When each conspiracy theory is not grounded in any substance or logic, the conspiracy can mutate, changing its line of inquiry despite clear evidence to the contrary. This is an inversion of the US government’s approach to the never-ending “war on terror.” When the enemy is unseen and faceless, like Covid-19 or a cabal of Satan worshipping elites, factual reality is superseded by a blind belief in the irrational. When emotion is all that is left, the alt-right create an immediate sense of danger that can be manipulated to attack political institutions and overthrow democracy.
The stormers of Capitol Hill were a strange concoction. Old-guard American patriots lined the streets with confederate flags. White nationalists and neo-fascists stood side-by-side as they sought to subvert democracy and re-instil American greatness.
But amongst them were also the conspiracy theorists. With their tin-foil hats replaced by coonskins and bicornes, they dressed up as if they were at one of those uniquely American conventions, where a group of outsiders meet up and wallow in each other’s weirdness. There is no doubt that many of these rioters were from the fringe of society, the outsiders who are excluded from public life and fearful of their precarious socio-economic situation.
And with wages stagnant, landlords pushing up rents, gig economy jobs, saddled with debt, unaffordable education and go-fund-me pages for operations, the rioters have a right to be angry at a political establishment that is failing them.
But this is not because of a cabal of Satan-worshipping paedophilic elites or Covid-19, it’s because of an extreme form of neoliberal capitalism that is fundamentally rigged against the interests of the poor. And Donald Trump is not their saviour, but a man who has enabled the creation of these precarious living conditions through deregulating the banking system and cutting tax for very wealthy. And Bill Gates is not inserting you with microchips to track you, but he is preventing the Global South from having access to vaccines, and Silicon Valley is tracking your data and selling it off to the highest bidder.
The irony is that the suspicion of power the rioters have expressed is not unfounded, but misguided. The conspiratorial answers offered by the alt-right on social media has created a false class consciousness amongst the disenfranchised. Meanwhile those responsible for exacerbating inequalities can continue unchecked, whilst the marginalised entangle themselves in a web of lies that leads to no answers – only the destruction of our democracy and political institutions.