Daniel W. Drezner

Why conspiracies and conspirators are like international institutions

Today was a big American foreign policy news day.  Hamas and Fatah seem to have kissed and made up under the aegis of the Egyptian caretaker government; there’s a national defense reshuffle as Leon Panetta is moving from CIA to SecDef and David Petraeus is moving from CENTCOM to the CIA; the FEderal Reserve’s Ben ...

Today was a big American foreign policy news day.  Hamas and Fatah seem to have kissed and made up under the aegis of the Egyptian caretaker government; there’s a national defense reshuffle as Leon Panetta is moving from CIA to SecDef and David Petraeus is moving from CENTCOM to the CIA; the FEderal Reserve’s Ben Bernanke held the Fed’s first-ever press conference

These are all big stories, and yet the lead of the day is the fact that Barack Obama showed everyone his long-form birth certificate.  There’s something really sad about the fact that this needed to be done, but there it is.  

Today’s spectacle prompted Slate’s David Weigel, who has followed the varieties of birtherism with an eagle eye, to ask honestly when enough is enough

Here’s the thing. I’ve spent a lot of time writing about conspiracy theories. I think they’re darkly amusing….And if we’re being perfectly honest, conspiracy stories do gangbusters traffic. If I were an advertiser, I wouldn’t tell a writer to knock off writing about conspiracy theories.

But this is an honest question: How far can people take this stuff? Is there absolutely no downside to using your celebrity to make the wildest accusation you can and watch reporters fight like the monkeys at the start of 2001: A Space Odyssey for the right to cover them first? In the past, rabbit hole chases for stuff that would blow the lid off some conspiracy or another have backfired, wildly. (Google "Dan Rather" and "National Guard documents.") And in the past, things that have caused a lot of amusement for a lot of people have gotten predictable and boring, pointless. This has to happen at some point. Tell me this happens at some point.

I’m fascinated by conspiracy theories too, and I’m afraid I have some bad news for Weigel.  The truly scary thing is that conspiracy theories do even better gangbuster business outside of the United States.  Hear the one about the Mossad being behind the 9/11 attacks?  How the United States caused the earthquake in Haiti?  It’s quick, cheap and easy to create a conspiracy, especially when the truth is usually banal and/or mundane. 

As I wrote in The Spectator last year: 

What is clear is that, thanks to the technological and globalising revolutions of the last two decades, modern life has become infinitely more complex. The world has become far less easy to understand in terms of its economic and social organisation. Yet humans remain hard-wired to look for patterns in a chaotic universe. As David Aaronovitch recently observed in Voodoo Histories, conspiracy theories offer the comfort of a narrative, no matter how crazy it sounds….

Will anger and distrust be a permanent fixture in the politics of affluent countries? A global economic rebound should lead to increased trust in both business and political elites. Beyond trying to revive their economies, however, there must be something that governments can do to earn back the trust of some of their people. The most obvious first response would be to offer more information to persuade angry and distrustful people that their worst fears will not be realised. Unfortunately, such a policy might backfire. Political scientists Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler conducted experiments to see whether correct information could erase misperceptions. They discovered that ‘corrections actually strengthened misperceptions among the most strongly committed subjects’. The very attempt to correct erroneous beliefs simply causes the most extreme adherents to put themselves into a cognitive crouch. This might explain why, even though an image of Barack Obama’s Hawaiian birth certificate can be accessed on the web, many ‘birthers’ still believe the President was not born in the USA.

This has nothing to do with intelligence, either — a few weeks ago I wasted spent 15 minutes explaining to a Fletcher student that, in fact, Julian Assange was not a CIA agent.  This sounds laughable, except that at least one head of government said the same thing.   

As long as trafficking in these questions draws eyeballs, the media will continue to act as an amplifier for these kinds of crazed worldviews. 

There is a downside for those who care about their reputation — ask Pierre Salinger.  For heads of stare and almost everyone else, however, these costs likely seem negligible compared to the political and psychological gain that comes from belief. 

Think of conspiracy theories like internaional institutions — they don’t actually explain much, but they never go away either.  Even global governance structures that have longed outlived their usefulness do not disappear — they just persist with fewer adherents.  Popular conspiracy theories work the same way, because there will always be a hard core of believers who can sustain their belief regardless of things like "facts" and evidence."  Indeed, scorn from the mainstream just fuels their conviction that they must be onto something

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and the author of Theories of International Politics and Zombies. His latest book is The Toddler in Chief. Twitter: @dandrezner

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