I’ve spent a lot of time looking at conspiracy theories recently. I may have mentioned this before.
There is, sadly, no end of midwits out there inclined to believe in all manner of conspiracy theories. These aren’t truly stupid people. Rather, they are people who feel disenfranchised and seek a target to blame.
Probably the most prevalent conspiracy theory today revolves around the World Economic Forum, who do themselves few favours by being fronted by Klaus Schwab, who looks and sounds like a Bond villain. Optics in a visually-mediated world mean a lot, more than they probably should, after all.
As a talking shop for elite futurists, the WEF are relatively easy to depict as psychotic Illuminati, so long as you don’t actually look too closely, and rely on carefully edited YouTube clips with jaundiced and misrepresentative commentary, rather than doing the long slog of actually reading their books and position papers and speeches.
The actual conspiracists are those disingenuous content editors who produce those shrill and alarming YouTube videos for profit. Which is not to say that some are not also true believers in what they produce. But they are self-aware enough to know that they have to carefully edit their material to produce the message they want. Their readers and listeners are not so aware.
For a conspiracy theory to be truly successful though, it must pass the midwit truth test, which is that it must speak to the sense of disenfranchisement of the audience, provide a scapegoat in the form of a conspiracy, and then propose resistance, in the form of an amorphous appeal to human liberty and autonomy.
Because what affects these conspiracist audiences is exactly that – a sense that their own lives are not theirs to command. In short, they lack the agency they feel they ought to have in their own lives.
We might additionally relate this to complexity scientist Peter Turchin’s idea of the overproduction of elites. Anyone who was told as a teen that their pathway to lifelong success was to become a graduate, but who then finds themselves a decade later paying off extensive loans even while working precariously in low-status service positions, inevitably feels cheated, and wants someone to blame.
So the audience for conspiracies is largely made up of what I term ‘elites-in-exile’, people who feel, for varying reasons such as educational achievement, societal expectation or self-importance, that they deserve much more access to power (and the concomitant trappings of wealth and status) than they actually possess.
Their constraints may be financial, or related to a sense of disengagement with the ongoing gallop or politics or technology in directions which they cannot relate to. And a successful conspiracy aims to hit all of these trigger buttons at once.
It also attempts to be all things to all midwits. Hence something like the WEF conspiracy manifests in an almost bewildering array of variants, mutating like a virus to accommodate pre-existing anxieties and concerns.
Therefore, the WEF conspiracy tells anti-Semites that the forum is secretly run by Jews, while simultaneously presenting it as Communist to those who oppose far-left politics. To those with a strong sense of ethnic affiliation, whether racist or simply nationalist, it becomes a globalist attempt at genocide and depopulation – the Great Replacement theory. To those concerned about the ongoing march of technology in directions which alarm them, it mutates into a cabal of ardent transhumanists. To anti-vaxxers, it aims to control or kill us all using experimental medical treatments, and so on.
In these ways, a successful conspiracy like that centred on the WEF can leverage pre-existing concerns by concentrating them on a target, amplifying them, and providing a simple one-stop solution to their audience’s concerns – resistance to and eradication of that target.
And because a successful conspiracy is constantly mutating in form to address different audiences, it becomes hugely contradictory, yet almost impossible to counter. Ultimately, the solution is an extremely difficult one to implement – addressing the agency gap for the elites-in-exile who have been abandoned to producing or consuming such conspiracies in an attempt to obtain access to the power over their lives they feel has been denied to them.
The problem with achieving this is manifold. Firstly, the democratic gap even in liberal democracies is such now that almost no one has such a sense of agency anymore. That would require a systemic reset of how we do politics at every level, to embed participatory (and much more direct) democratic modes into what is increasingly becoming a totalitarian or technocratic world.
Additionally, conspiracy theories reward the few with exactly what they are seeking – wealth from their monetised proselytising of conspiracy, status as opinion leaders within the audience, and the power to project their perspectives widely. That these perspectives are factually incorrect, erroneous, self-serving, carefully curated and deliberately misleading is less important to them in this regard.
The utter erosion of the public sphere in recent decades – a product of many malign societal developments including an overly combative adversarial politics and an overly punitive reaction to disagreements (such as cancel culture) – has left a space in which conspiracies may flourish without the disinfectant of scrutiny and debate.
There are, in short, no easy answers. But for our elites-in-exile, an easy answer is what they want in this complicated world. Even when it’s patent nonsense.