I love conspiracy theories. From the novels of Thomas Pynchon to websites with names like Above Top Secret I find them endlessly entertaining.
I just don’t believe in them.
Don’t get me wrong, I think that from time to time conspiracies do happen, but they tend to be limited, temporary and hard to conceal. In particular I don’t believe grand narrative conspiracy theories. Governments sometimes try to cover up things that have gone wrong, and sometimes they meddle in the affairs of other countries to promote their own interests.
But I don’t believe that they routinely commit terrible crimes and deliberately bamboozle the public to hide them. Same way that I loved the X Files, but I never actually believed they were true.
I am also a massive fan of US political historian Richard Hofstader, and I would recommend any and all of his books without hesitation. His finest moment is the extended essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” which describes the mixture of heated exaggeration, suspicion, and conspiratorial fantasy that dominated the thinking of Goldwater Republicans.
People choose conspiracy theories because the world isn’t working the way they think it should, and they don’t know why. For decades and decades conspiracy theories were largely a right wing phenomenon, restricted to Conservatives.
Conservatives, who saw the world becoming more socially liberal, and less confirming to socially conservative mores saw conspiracies in all kinds of places. Hollywood, the Illuminati, Pizzagate and Q-Anon. The extent to which conspiracies have come to dominate right wing thinking can be seen on websites like Zero Hedge, which started out with a mix of economics and financial markets, and which is now almost entirely given over to crazy Goldwateresque fantasies.
These are from the last few day’s headlines:
There were left wing conspiracy publications like Lobster, which flourished during the Cold War and the Northern Ireland conflict (when conspiracies were definitely going on) but which fizzled out in the decades after the Berlin Wall came down. Their popularity was largely confined to the authoritarian left who mourned communisms passing and saw all world events as a conspiracy against righteous leftiness.
Liberal lefties like me believe in progress, that things can, and do, get better. Poverty is falling world wide. Life expectancy is rising. We accept that conspiracies take place, but we don’t believe that they shape world events.
The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.
A series of events have shaken this liberal left worldview; Brexit and the election of Trump in particular. Our faith in progress has been badly shaken.
People on the liberal left are starting to embrace conspiracy worldviews that a few years ago were confined to the the small group of authoritarian lefties who saw everything that happened since Thatcher as a wicked neo-liberal conspiracy to make everything worse. Some people on the left have gone even further and embraced conspiracy theories about Israel and Jews that a few years ago were the hallmark of the far right.
Once it was only right wing people who called me a sheeple, or who told me the mass media were telling me what to think. Now it is predominantly lefties, sometimes promoting conspiracy theories that I am used to seeing decorated with Pepes.
Conspiracy theory based left wing websites like The Canary and Skwarkbox have sprung up, offering the same over-heated, under-factual stew that Conservatives have been lapping up for decades. Mostly these are ridiculous:
Sadly at times rather more sinister conspiracies are promoted, including suggestions that Jews invent anti-semitism to “smear” Corbyn, which at times cross over into outright racism:
But here is the problem.
Even though I don’t believe in conspiracies there is something about recent events which does look a lot like a conspiracy.
Lets start with Trump. There is something deeply weird about Trump’s election, particularly the way he won the electoral college without winning the popular vote.
Trump isn’t the first President to win an election that way. It happened twice in the C19th in the aftermath of the American Civil War (Hayes and Harrison). In both cases there was well documented interference with the Electoral College to manipulate the outcome.
No President won the electoral college without winning the popular vote for over 100 years, and then it happened twice. Dubya won in 2000, losing the popular vote by a tiny margin, with his victory achieved by a re-count in Florida overseen by his own brother. Trump lost by nearly 3m votes, the largest losing margin in history.
The last Republican President to come into office by winning the popular vote was George Bush, back in 1988.
It is difficult to see that this is a co-incidence.
There are 2 possible explanations for this.
Firstly it could be that there is a systematic bias in the US voting system. The US political system gives a greater weight to the views of white voters, particularly white voters in rural areas, then it does to non-white voters in urban areas. As a consequence politicians who appeal to rural white voters (Republicans) have an advantage over politicians who appeal to urban and non-white voters.
This is due to the way that electoral college votes are allocated to states. Smaller rural states, with a mostly white population, have more electoral college votes relative to their population compared to larger, more diverse states
This means that rural white voters can elect a Republican President against the wishes of the majority of the electorate. This effect is magnified in states which use voter suppression techniques to reduce the black vote.
The second possible explanation is that there was interference in the last Presidential election, that illegal techniques were used, and the this caused the Trump upset.
This explanation implies that there was some kind of conspiracy to rig the result of the last presidential election. There are 2 variants of this conspiracy theory:
- The Great Hack: the Trump campaign and Cambridge Analytica used data mining and “weapons grade” manipulation techniques to swing the Presidential election, in particular using personality quizzes to build up a psychological profile of voters which they then used to manipulate them.
- Russian interference: The Russian Government used social media to carry propaganda messages that helped sway the election Trump’s way
The Mueller report and a separate Senate investigation both found evidence that Russia had tried to interfere in the last Presidential election, while a Commons Select Committee found significant evidence to support the Great Hack theory. 13 Russian agents have been indicted. Facebook have admitted that there was a data breach linked to Cambridge Analytica, who have ceased trading as a result of the revelations.
Hard to think of a better word to describe this than a conspiracy?
If Trumps victory was tainted by conspiracies then what about Brexit? The Great Hack suggests that there might have been similar techniques used in the Brexit campaign, which showed a complete disregard for moral rules of campaigning.
This is where I struggle if I am honest. I worry that the Guardian, in pursuit of clicks is at risk of overstating the story.
The Leave campaign did use some campaign techniques that were deeply misleading. We know this because the same commons select committee forced Facebook to release “dark” ads that the Leave campaign. These included ads designed to gather data on individuals which could be used to target, as we as the targeted ads themselves
The problem is that the ads the Leave campaign used don’t look much like the ones in the Great Hack. The data gathering FB ads used by the Trump campaign used personality tests to shape a psycholigical profile which was used to identify who to target.
The ads by the Leave campaign were much more basic, designed simply to identify people who were gullible.
These are examples of the dark ads that the Leave campaign used during the referendum:
This isn’t a sophisticated exercise in manipulating an election. It isn’t even new. We have seen this kind of thing before. This is exactly the same techniques we have seen the financial services industry use to miss-sell products to customers for decades.
It’s no surprise that this many of the principals in the Leave campaign came from this background, because their tactics to manipulate people during the Leave campaign look remarkably similar to the tactics used to mis-sell any number of financial products from mortgages and pensions through to PPI.
Not only that but the demographics of people who are mis-sold financial products shows a big cross over with key groups of leave voters. For those familiar with mosaic classifications the 2 largest groups mis-sold financial products are “Vintage Value” and “Senior Security”. These 2 groups were among the most likely to vote leave.
Comparing the 2 data sets being the victim of the mis-selling of financial services strongly predicts voting Leave. The same gullible people have been ripped off and manipulated for decades.
I realise that leave voters reading this will be gnashing their teeth by now, but it’s really hard not to come to the conclusion that the Leave campaign used the same crude techniques to target gullible people that the financial services industry uses. In an extreme example data held by Eldon Insurance (owned by Arron Banks) was used to target Leave voters in the Brexit campaign.
Despite all of this I am still a sceptic. There were definitely conspiracies around Trump, but I’m not convinced that they got him elected. I think that the Koch brothers spent years creating the right environment for the USA to elect an authoritarian nationalist only to see their careful plans hijacked by an orange faced clownshoe whose election was the result of a system rigged in favour of white voters and a whole load of luck. He is going to need even more luck and even more rigging to win again.
I also think that if we ran the EU referendum 10 times Remain would win 9 and Leave would win 1. Sadly we live in the timeline with the 1 Leave victory. In the case of Brexit the nation fell victim to crude manipulation of gullible, older voters, using techniques that we should have outlawed decades ago.
In the UK and the US failure to follow through with meaningful electoral reform and failure to control the actions of cynical corporations brought us to this point. Not weird conspiracies.
The marble Milliband FA broods….
Left wing conspiracies; john pilger, the canary blaming political zionists, skwarkbox
realise that this will infuriate lots of my middle class mates, but increasingly we live in
We find it easy to believe in conspiracies because we don’t know people any more
“if you don’t understand how someone could possibly believe something as stupid as they do, that this is more likely a failure of understanding on your part than a failure of reason on theirs”,