Two weeks ago, Washington police arrested Edgar Maddison Welch, a man who entered Pizza bar Comet Ping Pong armed with an assault rifle. Welch was on a 'self-investigative mission' to find out whether or not the bar was harbouring 'child sex slaves' as a popular online conspiracy construction goes. High-placed Democrat politicians are being accused of involvement in an underage prostitution network, using the bar as a front organization.
Are conspiracy constructions dangerous? Can they be a 'radicalising multiplier' as Jamie Bartlett and Carl Miller argued, creating demonologies of ‘the enemy’, delegitimizing voices of dissent and moderation and acting as 'rhetorical devices' to portray violence as necessary to ‘awaken’ the people from their acquiescent slumber? A research project into three popular conspiracy constructions in The Netherlands questions the often assumed relationship between conspiracy constructions and violence. Indeed also in The Netherlands there are some examples of individuals turning violent, partly driven by conspiracy constructions. However, these incidents are exceptions to the rule.
Conspiracy constructions function as substitute ideologies and substitute religions in a post-political setting. Offering a clear master narrative of ‘Us’ and ‘Them’, and making a complex world eligible again, conspiracy constructions function as coded social critiques informing those who feel alienated, neglected and betrayed by the political establishment. Notwithstanding the often violent and hateful discourse on social media one should not exaggerate the risks in terms of national security. The popularity of conspiracy constructions and the hateful discourse against the political system signals foremost powerlessness, despair and resentment that finds an outlet on social media.
Conspiracy constructions however can become a more powerful political device when they no longer are only the mainstay of those without power but become entangled with, and deployed as part of a political strategy by powerful forces. Discrediting the very idea that there is something called the 'truth' or 'objective reporting' undermines societal institutions and societal trust. The problem however is that sometimes the boundary between conspiracy constructions and legitimate criticism against structures that favour the rich and powerful is fuzzy to say the least. As is the boundary between 'constructive' democratic critique and 'destructive' critique.
For academics the challenge is not to fall in the trap of assuming that there is a clear difference between 'real news' and 'fake news', between 'legitimate criticism' and 'conspiracy theories'. In fact, every society has its specific historical 'truth regime' - which is not the same as 'objective truth'. As Holm argued: 'Who gets to decide when, where and what is “within reason” is, of course, up for grabs and reflects the wider distribution of ideological power and epistemological regulation within society'. Currently different 'truth regimes' are in conflict, battling for hegemony. Analyzing the shifting distribution of ideological power as partly mediated by the popularity and influence of conspiracy constructions seems to be a core task for scholars the coming decade.