Conspiracies and Democracy

2021-03-11

On March 11, the Sciences Po American Foundation hosted alumna Chine Labbe in conversation with Professor Nancy L. Rosenblum, Senator Joseph Clark Research Professor of Ethics in Politics and Government emerita at Harvard University.

Chine Labbe is the Managing Editor for Europe at NewsGuard, a start-up fighting disinformation through human-written analyses of news sites based on their credibility and transparency, and the founding host, editor, and producer of Good Code, a podcast on ethics in digital technology. Nancy Rosenblum studies historical and contemporary political thought and most recently published the book A Lot of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy with Russell Muirhead. Labbe and Rosenblum were joined by Gérard Araud, former Ambassador of France to the United States. 

Labbe began the conversation describing the atmosphere of 2020 and “how a pandemic fed a growing distrust in institutions, in governments, and in elites throughout the world, and created the perfect fertilizer for conspiracies, for conspiracy mindsets, and for false narratives to gain momentum and reach a wider audience.” She painted a picture of the self-appointed QAnon shaman Jake Angeli at the U.S. capital on January 6, adding that while conspiracies and false narratives have always existed, the mix of widespread fear and anxiety and the impression that no one had answers that swept the population at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic “was the perfect cocktail for false narratives and conspiracies to thrive.” Rosenblum agreed that Covid was a very good environment for the spread of conspiracy, especially in the context of two external conditions: a president who had the capacity to impose his conspiracist mindset on the nation and years of delegitimization of all knowledge-producing institutions. What Covid introduced, she asserted, is the big issue with conspiracies: they raise the question, “who owns reality?”

Rosenblum explained the difference between conspiracy and conspiracy theory, and how this difference can explain some of conspiracy’s political potency. A conspiracy theory, she said, is an explanation of an event that claims things are not as they seem. Conspiracy theories are built on evidence, patterns, and argument, and some conspiracy theories are true. When conspiracy becomes decoupled from theory, however, it dispenses with argument and instead relies on repetition. The power of these unsupported charges can be explained by three things: a love of the performative aggression of charging conspiracy, the collective—especially the collective identity of conspiracy that Rosenblum argues Trump has created—and the fact that one does not have to believe the particulars of a conspiracy claim for it to resonate. 

Labbe gave a description and history of the QAnon movement, and Rosenblum analyzed some of its particularities. Unlike most conspiracy charges, QAnon is not a response to a singular event. The movement is incredibly politically potent because it attacks its enemies by charging them with sexual degeneracy, it went offline and into public life early on, and it is an apocalyptic conspiracy, based on prophecies and violence leading to the birth of a new world. QAnon is different from most conspiracy claims, Rosenblum adds, “because it is like a participatory role-playing game. The story isn’t coming from one person.”

In the United States specifically, Labbe and Rosenblum discussed the role of conspiracy in delegitimizing institutions by question their meaning, value, and authority. The political effects of conspiracy have been the delegitimizations of two essential institutions of democracy: knowledge-producing institutions and political opposition. Labbe expressed an increasingly critical effect of the delegitimization of knowledge-producing institutions in 2020, that conspiracists were able to pose as credible news sources online to spread alternative facts as the truth. On a larger scale, each time conspiracy strikes hard in the U.S., it strikes hard in Europe. The QAnon narrative, Labbe said, found a home on European websites and slowly attracted more followers. The idea of a stolen U.S. election was also adopted to the European context, threatening not just the essence of American democracy, but also threatening to sow distrust in the European electoral process, too. 

Labbe and Rosenblum concluded with the question of what is to be done. Labbe stressed the importance of media literacy in order to help the public learn to spot misinformation and conspiracy. “We have to add into our toolkit,” she said, “this idea of understanding who is behind our sources and who has been feeding us the news.” Rosenblum underscored the “moral imperative to speak truth to conspiracism, not in attempt to convert, but to give a sort of moral backbone to the rest of us.” 

Gérard Araud concluded the discussion with a history of conspiracy, beginning with the French Revolution, “a momentous example of conspiracy theories,” arguing that conspiracy has historically always been “a background noise to normal life.” Conspiracy, he says, is the result of disarray, of those trying to find an explanation for their feelings of powerlessness. In times of crisis when people feel really frightened in their existence, conspiracy gives a human source to the problem, and thus a sort of human hope to solve the problem. “A crisis of conspiracy theories,” Araud stated, “is a symptom of a political, economic, and social crisis of our societies. The best way to return conspiracy theories to background noise is to solve the political, economic, and social crisis of our Western societies.”

The next installment of the #AlumniWebinar Series will welcome Hubert Joly, former chairman and CEO of Best Buy on April 26th at 12 PM EST.  He will discuss his upcoming book The Heart of Business: Leadership Principles for the Next Era of Capitalism to be published on May 4th.

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