When Conspiracy Theorists Can Be Useful

As Marc Lynch writes, "Even longtime observers of Egyptian rhetoric have been taken aback by the vitriol and sheer lunacy of the current wave of anti-American rhetoric," with "fliers, banners, posters, and graffiti denouncing President Barack Obama for supporting terrorism and featuring Photoshopped images of Obama with a Muslim-y beard or bearing Muslim Brotherhood colors" ...

MARWAN NAAMANI/AFP/Getty Images
MARWAN NAAMANI/AFP/Getty Images
MARWAN NAAMANI/AFP/Getty Images

As Marc Lynch writes, "Even longtime observers of Egyptian rhetoric have been taken aback by the vitriol and sheer lunacy of the current wave of anti-American rhetoric," with "fliers, banners, posters, and graffiti denouncing President Barack Obama for supporting terrorism and featuring Photoshopped images of Obama with a Muslim-y beard or bearing Muslim Brotherhood colors" and Amb. Anne Patterson bizarrely accused of acting in league with both the Brotherhood and Israel. 

It's clear there's a healthy degree of paranoia and conspiracy thinking on both sides of Egypt's political divide right now, which given some recent developments is understandable.  But a provocative recent political psychology paper suggests that conspiracy thinking may have actually played a role in helping Egyptians -- and others -- overthrow their dictatorship in the first place. 

In Speaking (Un-)Truth to Power: Conspiracy Mentality as a Generalised Political Attitude, Ronald Imhoff of the University of Cologne and Martin Bruder of the University of Konstanz attempt to define conspiracism as a "monological belief system" associated with "disliking powerful societal groups and perceiving them as responsible for political and economic events with negative implications. For instance, individuals high in conspiracy mentality will attribute the present financial crisis to the coordinated actions of greedy managers and bankers rather than systemic dynamics in a complex economy."

As Marc Lynch writes, "Even longtime observers of Egyptian rhetoric have been taken aback by the vitriol and sheer lunacy of the current wave of anti-American rhetoric," with "fliers, banners, posters, and graffiti denouncing President Barack Obama for supporting terrorism and featuring Photoshopped images of Obama with a Muslim-y beard or bearing Muslim Brotherhood colors" and Amb. Anne Patterson bizarrely accused of acting in league with both the Brotherhood and Israel. 

It’s clear there’s a healthy degree of paranoia and conspiracy thinking on both sides of Egypt’s political divide right now, which given some recent developments is understandable.  But a provocative recent political psychology paper suggests that conspiracy thinking may have actually played a role in helping Egyptians — and others — overthrow their dictatorship in the first place. 

In Speaking (Un-)Truth to Power: Conspiracy Mentality as a Generalised Political Attitude, Ronald Imhoff of the University of Cologne and Martin Bruder of the University of Konstanz attempt to define conspiracism as a "monological belief system" associated with "disliking powerful societal groups and perceiving them as responsible for political and economic events with negative implications. For instance, individuals high in conspiracy mentality will attribute the present financial crisis to the coordinated actions of greedy managers and bankers rather than systemic dynamics in a complex economy."

Now, of course the main problem with this worldview is that it’s generally wrong. Major political events generally happen through a confluence of often impersonal forces, not because a small group of elites wants them to. Plus, conspiracy minded people are often able to believe inherently contradictory things about the world. The authors note that "individuals who thought that Princess Diana was assassinated were also more (not less) likely to believe that she faked her own death". Or consider those who believe that President Obama is both a secret Muslim instituting Shariah law and a pawn of the gay agenda.

And of course, while conspiracy theorists believe their targets are the rich and powerful, they can often turn their suspicion on vulnerable groups in society, with anti-Semitism — the "socialism of fools" — being a noteworthy example.

But as the old line goes, "just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.” Sometimes there are powerful elites acting in secret for their own gain, and as Imhoff and Bruder argue, when you’re fighting the power, it can really help to have a few conspiracy theorists on your side:

 We speculate that believing in a critical causal role of conspirators in bringing about
negative events may make it easier to take a firm stand on complex issues such as nuclear
power or the global economy.  Instead of being overwhelmed by the complexities of these
issues (potentially resulting in anomia), the mental shortcut of blaming individuals or groups may facilitate social action aimed at undermining the actions or goals of those perceived to be conspirators.  Our research reveals an important but often neglected effect of conspiracy thinking: Challenging the status quo – even if for potentially misguided reasons and irrational ideas about the goals and influence of specific groups.  This may empower disadvantaged groups to take action and actively pursue their goals even in opposition to those in power. 

To take another recent example, Edward Snowden may frequently come across as  paranoid and not all of the programs he’s revealed may be as sinister as he suggests, but without people of his mindset, genuinely important secret information that should be made public would rarely be brought to light.

Conspiracy theories can sometimes be useful in challenging the status quo. Though when they’re the ones in power, it’s usually not great for their citizens.

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy  Twitter: @joshuakeating

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