As part of our 2019 thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about their experience of facing backlash by anti-rights groups and how they are responding. CIVICUS speaks about the role that conspiracy theories are playing with Chip Berlet, an investigative journalist and activist who specialises in the study of extreme right-wing movements in the USA.
You have done a lot of work around social and political speech that demonises specific groups in society. You call this the rhetoric of scripted violence. What is scripted violence, and how is it operating in the USA?
Scripted violence is part of a dynamic process in a society under lots and lots of stress. It starts with stories circulating in a nation that warn of subversion and conspiracies. These stories are called ‘narratives of insecurity’ by Professor Abdelwahab El-Affendi, and he warns that these stories can lead to mass violence and other forms of terrorism. The process continues with ‘scripted violence’, which is when a high-status political or religious leader publicly identifies and demonises a specific group of people alleged to be conspiring to ruin the ideal nation. The result is called ‘stochastic terrorism’. That’s an awkward term, but it just means that the specific terrorist act is unpredictable. Yet the violence has been generated by this three-step process that starts with conspiracy theories.
Conspiracy theories are nothing new, but now they seem to be more widespread than ever. What role has the internet played in spreading them?
Conspiracy theories have always been around. Conspiracy theories are improbable explanations alleging a vast conspiracy by evil powerful people and their cronies. Stories circulate that make allegations posing as facts. During moments of societal stress and political change it is often harder for folks to separate what is reality-based, what is political propaganda and what is pure fantasy.
The internet has been fertile ground for planting misinformation and conspiracy theories because it’s a new medium, and all new forms of mass media go through a phase in which they are easily misinterpreted, and there are as yet not enough safeguards in place, so it’s hard for folks to tell reliable and unreliable content apart. We live in a time in which too many people think stories are real if they are on the internet. When you go to a library, there is the fiction section, and then there’s the rest of the library, where you can find history, science and other material based on facts. But content has not yet been separated that way in the internet age.
We are going through an adjustment period. We are still learning how to use the medium. In the past, misunderstandings arose when people were using a new medium that they didn’t truly understand. In the USA, the best example of this happened in 1938, when a fictional story about a Martian invasion, The War of the Worlds, was broadcast during a radio programme, and people didn’t realise it was not real news, so some people called the police and went running out into the streets in a panic. Similarly, it is really difficult for the average person to differentiate between what’s a reliable piece of information and what’s just a conspiracy theory recirculated by someone with no training or understanding of the subject they post on. Much worse is when sinister propaganda is spread for political gain. There currently is no mechanism to separate what’s true and what’s fake on the internet, although I hope someday there will be.
Conspiracy theories abound on both right and left, but these days largely seem to be fuelling far-right movements. Do you see any affinity between conspiracy theories and the extreme right?
I don’t think it has as much to do with the left or right side of the political spectrum, but rather with fear and instability in a specific society at a specific moment. What would cause relatively normal and average people, wherever they are on the political spectrum, to act out against a claimed enemy? It’s because they believe their society is under attack, and then act accordingly.
In any healthy society there always are conspiracy theories circulating, but when you hear them from somebody pushing a shopping cart down the street with all their belongings and shouting about an imminent Martian invasion, almost nobody pays any attention. These conspiracy theories are dismissed because they are being circulated by marginal or low-status folks. Most rational people simply reject them.
In an unhealthy and unstable society, in contrast, people don’t know what to believe, and may latch onto normally farfetched theories to explain why they feel so powerless. When social trust has been eroded and there is so much anger, increasingly less legitimacy is assigned to people who have actual knowledge. Instead, it is transferred to those who will name the evildoers. And some people lack the kind of restraints that most of us luckily have and prevent us from attacking others who are not like us and might seem threatening or dangerous.
Let’s say I’m an average middle-aged, middle-class white male in the USA, and I’m stressed and anxious because I fear that my status in society is being diminished. And then someone comes and tells me it’s okay to feel that way because there are evil forces at play that are causing this and tells me who is to blame for what is happening to me. According to this narrative, I would be still seated near the top of the social ladder if it weren’t for those people.
Of course, people who have privilege see it as normal. We are not aware of it. So, when the status quo that has folks like them near the top changes – because previously marginalised groups successfully claim rights for themselves – the privileged don’t see this as the loss of unfair privileges, but as undermining the natural order, the traditional community or the nation itself. They talk about themselves as real ‘producers’ in the society being dragged down by lazy, sinful, or subversive ‘parasites’.
In other words, conspiracy theories are a reflection of a society that is under stress, and they cause people who would normally be ignored suddenly to have an audience to speak to because they appear to have the answer that everybody else is lacking. People are disoriented: they do not feel connected to a common narrative of a healthy nation. Folks feel that their society, ‘our’ society, is under attack by ‘the others’, whoever they might be. So, if someone comes and tells them the name of the group of ‘others’ who are destroying our idealised community or nation, then common sense will tell us to stop them. Perhaps we need to eliminate them before they attack us – and that’s the narrative storyline of every genocide in history.
Isn’t it strange that so many ‘others’ in today’s conspiracy theories do not really have the power that they are attributed: they are usually already vulnerable groups whose rights are being attacked?
There is an interesting dynamic storyline in many conspiracy theories about the sinister people below working with certain traitorous powerful people above. Conspiracy theories, especially in the middle class, tend to identify a group of evil people down below on the socio-economic spectrum when defining who belongs and who doesn’t belong to the nation. So, a lot of the problems are blamed on these people down below in the ‘lower’ class who are portrayed as lazy and ‘picking the pockets’ of the middle class by draining tax dollars. Barbara Ehrenreich, for example, wrote a book about this called Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class.
But the middle-class conspiracy theorists generally also blame a sector of the ruling elites who are portrayed as traitors. So if you look, let’s say, at the US political scene today, the narrative during the Trump administration blames some people who are down below and who are portrayed as lazy, sinful, or subversive. These folks are breaking the rules or taking advantage. But some people listed as conspirators are high-status: such as those rich, Democratic Party bureaucrats who are depicted as the ones pulling the strings, as in a puppet show. Sometimes those spreading the conspiracy theories use a graphic of a huge mechanical vice squeezing the middle class from above and below.
Is there anything that progressive civil society could do to counter these regressive trends?
There sure is. Democratic civil society has historically developed mechanisms to face these challenges. Historically, religious leaders and journalists have played a very important role in making these kinds of claims become judged unacceptable. But the influence of both of these actors has now collapsed. Religious figures have been losing their status everywhere except in religious authoritarian countries. The internet is undermining the influence of major news organisations, and the cost of producing good journalism has become very high relative to the cost of posting a rumour on the internet. So, democracies need to develop new safeguards and mechanisms to counter these trends.
In the age of the internet, these mechanisms have not yet been developed. But although we are going through a very unstable and stressful period, the situation is not hopeless. The history of democracy is a sort of cycle in which at some point things stabilise only to fall apart again eventually until resistance builds up and safeguards are put back in place.
Leaders with some status and legitimacy within democratic civil society need to admit that we are in a really bad place and we’ve got to fix it together, so that the answer comes not from the demagogic and authoritarian political space, but from the democratic one – the demos – and that’s all of us. People need to start talking to their neighbours about the things that are not going well and about how to fix them, because these problems can only be solved collectively. When doing activist training sessions, I tell people to go sit at a bus stop and talk to the first person who sits down next to them. If you can get up the courage to do that, then you certainly can talk to your neighbours and co-workers. Regular people need to start doing just that.
In the USA, there is a kind of smug, liberal treatment of people who feel that they are being pushed down the ladder. These folks are not ‘deplorables’; they are basically scared people. These are people who had a union job and worked in a machine shop or at building automobiles. They worked for 30 years and now have nothing: their whole world has been shot down while others have become billionaires. They cannot be dismissed as ‘deplorables’. That word slip may have actually cost Democrat presidential candidate Hillary Clinton the election. We need to engage these people who are so angry and disoriented in face-to-face conversations. We need to care about them.
How can these conversations take place when social media, increasingly the means of communication of choice, often operates as an echo chamber that solidifies beliefs and fuels polarisation?
I know, I’m so old-fashioned. My solution is actually quite low-tech. You know, my wife and I have been political activists for many years, and as students in the 1960s we were involved in the anti-racist civil rights movement. At one point black organisers said: if white people really want to challenge racism against black people they should move into white communities where there is racism and try to turn it around. So in 1977, my wife and I picked up our household and moved to Chicago, Illinois. We lived in an overwhelmingly white Southwest side neighbourhood where there was white racism, but also Nazis, literally guys in Nazi uniforms, kicking black people out of the neighbourhood. A house on our street was firebombed.
Eventually we became part of a community group, and for the first three years we were out-organised by neo-Nazis. Few things could be more mortifying for a leftist activist in 1970s USA. But in the Southwest side of Chicago there was also a multi-racial group, which we joined. One day some of us who were strategists were invited over to a house for a meeting with a group of black ministers. They sat us down and gave us coffee and tea, cakes and cookies, and then one of them asked, “Do you know why black parents take turns sleeping in your neighbourhood?” We looked at each other; we had no idea. They said, “That’s because when the firebomb explodes one of the adults has to be awake to get the kids out of the house.” It had never occurred to us that black parents had to take turns to stay up all night in their own homes so they could just stay alive. Then another of the ministers said, “Do you think all those white Catholic women want babies to get killed by firebombs?” We said no, and he replied, “Well, there’s your strategy.”
Our strategy was to start talking to people: first to Catholic women who were horrified to learn what was going on, then getting them to talk to their neighbours and members of their congregations. Eventually some white Catholic priests started talking about what was happening. Five years later, the neighbourhood had become safe for black people to live in.
It seems we still have a lot to learn from the civil rights movement and their organising tactics. Nowadays it’s so tempting to organise and mobilise online, because it’s so fast, but it’s also so much more difficult to create sustained commitment, isn’t it?
Yes. I think face-to-face organising is still how you change neighbourhoods, and how neighbourhoods change societies. But of course, you cannot ask young people who are using technology to organise and protest to let go of the internet. You can’t tell people to ignore the technologies that exist. We do have a technology that enables instantaneity. I post constantly on the internet, I have a Facebook page and so on. I think it’s great to use the internet to organise people to confront racism online as well as to organise counter-demonstrations when white supremacists gather. But that’s not enough, in the same way as in the 1960s it wasn’t enough for writers to just write about the evils of racism. Those kinds of articles were published all along, but nothing really changed until people started organising – that is, talking to their neighbours to challenge the status quo.
Take civil rights legend Rosa Parks, who sat down in the white section of a bus in Alabama. There is the misconception that her act was spontaneous, but it was nothing like that: it was a tactic created by a training centre that had been set up in the south by religious leaders and trade unions. Behind one black woman who refused to give up her seat in the front rows of a bus were 10 years of training and organising at the Highland Center.
In a way, that’s also what the young climate activists and the members of the new democracy movements are doing. Look at Hong Kong: it is people rising up and saying ‘enough,’ often organising online while also organising and mobilising locally, staying in their neighbourhood, talking to their neighbours, building networks. And internationally we see young people demanding a right to stay alive – just stay alive.
You need organisation, you need training in strategies and tactics, you need support groups, and you need to talk to your neighbours. That’s how it works; there is no magic formula.
Civic space in the USA is rated as ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.