Where on the ideological spectrum do conspiracy theories lie?

As we constantly try to increase our understanding of extremism we have to careful on putting things in boxes

When you hear the phrase ‘conspiracy theory’ what do you think of first? Flat earthers (i.e. those who really think we live on a disk rather than on a sphere – see a great podcast ‘Infinity and Beyond‘ on this howler!)? Those that think Bill Gates created COVID-19 so he could make money off the vaccines he would help develop? That the US government is hiding UFOs in Roswell, New Mexico?

To my mind, conspiracy theories remind me of my late mother. She was an avid reader of The National Enquirer (NE), a hilarious ‘fake news’ paper she would pick up at the grocery store and bring home for us to laugh over. The ‘stories’ in the NE were real works of fiction, completely unbelievable. My favourite? ‘Survivor of Titanic sinking found 80 years later sitting on iceberg: “I am really sick of eating fish” says lonely man’

But conspiracy theories are no longer a laughing matter. Some really crazy ideas are now being taken up by individuals who are going on to plan real acts of violence. In what is referred to as ‘Pizzagate’, a 29-year-old North Carolina man fired a military-style assault rifle inside a popular Washington pizzeria in December 2016, wrongly believing he was saving children trapped in a sex-slave ring run by Hillary Clinton: he received a four-year prison sentence for his efforts.

Conspiracy theories are no longer a laughing matter. Some really crazy ideas are now being taken up by individuals who are going on to plan real acts of violence.

The leading source of concern these days is the so-called ‘QAnon‘ movement, named after an anonymous online user who refers to himself as ‘Q’ and is spreading disinformation that maintains President Trump is waging a secret war against elite Satan-worshipping paedophiles in government, business and the media (what is it with the paedophilia obsession??). ‘Q’ regularly leaves clues, called “Q drops” or “breadcrumbs” and speaks in cryptic tones. Those who get what he says really think he is on to something.

Where, then, should we put this ‘movement’ (I am not sure it is a ‘movement per se, but I also don’t know what else to call it)? It seems to be clearly right-wing in nature, ergo the support for Trump, a dominant right-wing leader if there ever was one.

Any part of the ideological spectrum

But not all conspiracy theories (or theorists) are on the right part of the ideological spectrum. In the 1997 film Conspiracy Theory with Mel Gibson I don’t think anyone would describe the main character as a right-wing fanatic. My mom too had some interesting views, some of which could be seen as conservative, but I did not paint her as a white nationalist (for example).

I do think that conspiracy theories can occupy any part of the ideological spectrum. But it is this current crop which is worrisome as it can shift heavily rightward and appeal to those who already have ideas that are not just right-wing but are associated, in a worst case scenario, with violence (neo-Nazis, white supremacists, anti-Semitics, Islamophobes, anti-immigration protesters, etc.).

The challenge for our security intelligence and law enforcement agencies is to determine which ones pose a very real threat to our society. I recall talking to a colleague years ago at CSIS (Canadian Security Intelligence Service) who used to have to deal with ‘walk ups’ (those that showed up, unsolicited, at our doors) who complained that CSIS was ‘reading their minds’. This may seem ‘funny’, although in some cases these individuals needed psychiatric help, but who was to say that one could not have been armed?

I recall talking to a colleague years ago at CSIS who used to have to deal with ‘walk ups’ (those that showed up, unsolicited, at our doors) who complained that CSIS was ‘reading their minds’.

Those that embrace violence in the furtherance of a ’cause’, be that cause political, ideological or religious, not only fall under the criminal code definition of ‘terrorism’ but are a growing concern. There are reports, for instance, that the QAnon ‘phenomenon’ is spreading beyond the US.

I do not believe that it is important to lose sleep on where to ‘put’ this form of violence. What we need to do as a society is to push back against it rather than ignore it: these people are not the harmless ‘flat earthers’. And we need to equip our law enforcement and security intelligence agencies with the resources to monitor and interdict it.

The ‘Roswell’ bunch may be ridiculous and the object of our derision: the QAnon bunch are a very different matter.

Phil Gurski

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