Conspiracy theories involving powerful forces orchestrating global events have a long history.
Ideas that Jews, Freemasons, the Illuminati, lizard people or aliens are secretly running world affairs have been around for centuries. But in the past year conspiracy theories have been taking centre stage in mainstream politics both in Europe and the United States and have also been linked to deadly crimes.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban made fears of a migrant invasion orchestrated by George Soros a central part of his election campaign last March.
Then, in late October, prior to the midterm congressional and senate elections, US President Donald Trump alluded to a conspiracy theory that Soros was funding a migrant caravan travelling towards the US from Honduras. That was after the theory had been propagated by a host on Fox News and tweeted by a Republican senator.
“George Soros is a useful character because he taps into this pre-existing far-right narrative about Jewish control,” says Kelly Weill, who covers conspiracy theories and the far-right for The Daily Beast. “And throughout the years we’ve seen this anti-Semitism turn into a documented conspiracy theories.”
|People feel very destabilised, I think, in our current news environment … And when you offer conspiracy theory often that’s a way of sort of simplifying the world. It gives people an easy answer in a world that feels scary and confusing.|
Also in the US, both Cesar Sayoc, the man alleged to have sent a series of pipe bombs to figures on the mainstream left – including Soros, and Robert Bowers, who allegedly shot dead 11 people at a synagogue in Pittsburgh last November, were animated by, according to their social media posts, conspiracy theories linked to the migrant caravan.
Conspiracy theories about the migrant caravan had been seeded on anonymous chat forums that are well-known for white supremacist rhetoric well before they emerged into the mainstream.
“Key to the growth of these series is them not just living on places like 4chan or Reddit but them making the leap to these more widely used social media platforms where they can garner a much wider audience,” according to Shannon McGregor, assistant professor of Communications at the University of Utah.
Social media has been key to the success of the breakout hit of conspiracy theorising in Donald Trump’s America. The QAnon conspiracy theory was born over a year ago on the anonymous chat forum, 4chan when a mysterious poster identifying as ‘Q’ began to allude to current events relating to the Trump administration in cryptic comments referred to as ‘crumbs’.
YouTube hosts countless videos created by QAnon believers explaining the tenuous logic behind “proofs” of Q’s prognostications, and dozens of private Facebook groups are dedicated to reinforcing the beliefs of those who subscribe to the theory.
“What’s interesting about QAnon is that it’s not a passive experience for people who believe it.” Travis View, cohost of the QAnon Anonymous Podcast says, “It’s very gamified, it’s very fun but the problem is that they don’t actually really think it’s a game, they think that they’re actually genuinely uncovering some sort of secret from deep inside the government.”
In recent months, QAnon believers have been emerging into the open, appearing at Trump rallies. Celebrities such as Roseanne Barr have tweeted about the theory and in December, a California city council member became the first legislator to reference Q in a speech.
The dangers of conspiracy theories leaking into the world of politics are obvious, especially when they exaggerate fears, prejudices and harmful divisions in society. However, it would be simplistic to blame the social media platforms and also wrong to stigmatise believers who, perhaps with some justification, have little trust in the mainstream media.
“People feel very destabilised I think in our current news environment,” says Weill. “They don’t know what’s real. And when you offer conspiracy theory often that’s a way of sort of simplifying the world. It gives people an easy answer in a world that feels scary and confusing.”