Conspiracy thinking can take over our understanding of the world and immobilize our ability to create a better future. How does that work, and what can we do about it?
— MIT Media Lab (@medialab) July 21, 2017
Here at the Defiance Conference, we’re joined by journalist and author Masha Gessen. As a journalist living in Moscow, Gessen experienced the rise of Vladimir Putin firsthand. In her 2012 bestselling book The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, she gave the chilling account of how a low-level KGB operative ascended to the Russian presidency. Her upcoming book looks at how totalitarianism reclaimed Russia.
Conspiracy thinking contaminates life under certain kinds of regime, says Gessen. She starts with “an unfunny joke” from a 1940s diary of an academic who kept a journal of the Hitler years: “Hitler has run into Moses. Hitler says to Moses, tell me the truth: you set the bush on fire yourself, didn’t you?” The joke illuminates, says Gessen, partly because it refers to the Reichstag fire, which many people believed was started by the Nazi party to justify their following actions. Conspiracy thinking is also infectious. In this story, Hitler believes in conspiracies, people believe conspiracies about Hitler, and Hitler thinks that Moses is behind a conspiracy too.
Conspiracies form around the promise of simplicity. Authoritarians get elected by couching their promises in an imaginary past, drawing from traditional values. Conspiracies also work this way, presenting something that already happened as something that is going to happen. She describes 9/11 truthers, pizzagate, and birthers. Russiagate is also a conspiracy: it explains how we got here and how we’re going to solve the problem: Russia got Trump elected, it is claimed, and when we prove it, we’ll be able to get rid of him.
But the possible existence of conspiracy is not an excuse for conspiracy-thinking, says Gessen. When we cling to this idea that there’s one thing that explains everything, we do grave damage to our own ability to think, our politics, and our ability to act.
Why is conspiracy thinking so terrible? It prevents us from looking at the complexity of a given situation. Sometimes things are just a mess. If you read yesterday’s New York Times interview with the president, says Gessen: here’s a man who can’t grasp the meaning of health insurance, federal employment, parades, handshakes, dinners. But somehow, people still believe that he can grasp the meaning and import of a conspiracy: for example that he can keep a secret for many months. What’s wrong with thinking that the president can do this? It’s not reality, says Gessen.
Becoming divorced from reality is a very dangerous thing in life, action, and politics, says Gessen. A focus on the Russian conspiracy theory interferes with our grasp on reality. The Russian part of the story is a different kind of mess. In the popular imagination, the Russian government is governed with an iron fist of one man who controls armies of trolls, spies, etc.. Yet we know that the DNC was hacked by two independent groups that weren’t aware of each other. That’s not an accident; it’s the kind of mess that the Russian state is in. The inroad to the Trump campaign was made by a low-level lawyer who was trying to advance the interests of her clients, says Gessen. She was probably in no position to dangle her offers. She was partly a con artist trying to con Don Jr. into taking that meeting, and she was successful. She may likely have been in competition with other Russians who also stood to benefit greatly by establishing relations with the Trump campaign.
Even if we accept the theory that the Russian government played a substantial role in the election, says Gessen, American voters are still the people who elected Trump. Some have argued that we need to take a closer look at the fabric of American society after the election, many people have focused instead on the Russia story, says Gessen. Newspapers don’t have infinite resources, and their focus on Russia draws attention away from other things. For example, journalists haven’t been asking many questions about US foreign policy toward Russia. Instead, they’re asking about Russiagate. Similarly, argues Gessen, focus on Russiagate has reduced journalists’ focus on the impact of the election on the state of US democratic institutions.
Conspiracies obscure the future. When we focus on conspiracies, we think about what happened. Conspiracy-thinking anchors our hopes about how discovery of the conspiracy will magically lead to change, rather than the things that create real change. The only way to counter a message of the imaginary past is to imagine a glorious future. People who resist authoritarian power often say that things were great before the authoritarian rose to power, and that we need to go back to how things were. Of course the resistance needs to focus on what to salvage, but someone needs to think about the future says Gessen. One of the reasons a complex world becomes so frightening is that people can no longer imagine the future. Citing Erich Fromm’s Escape From Freedom, Gessen talks about how rootless people become when they can no longer imagine their future.
To defy conspiracy thinking, we need to engage with reality, says Gessen. Accept new information as something that exists in context, and just what you’re learning today. Conspiracies pull us into our online universe of ever-spiraling conspiracy theorizing.