Confused, atomised, bludgeoned - people seek easy solutions

Theories that kill

Thomas Klikauer looks at the connection between ‘fake news’ and the far right

On October 28, it was reported that within 72 hours three hate crimes killed two African-Americans in Kentucky, nail bombs were send to Democrats and to people who criticised Donald Trump. Finally, a man shouting anti-Semitic slurs opened fire inside a Pittsburgh synagogue, killing 11 people attending Jewish services. The men who committed these acts had one thing in common: they believed in conspiracy theories.

It is in this context that Christian Alt and Christian Schiffer have published their German-language book, Angela Merkel is Hitler’s daughter published by Carl Hanser Press. We have entered the age of “half-truths, fake news, paranoia, resentment and irrationality”, they write - and the age of conspiracy theories. The hallucination that Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, is “Hitler’s daughter” is one of the more laughable - albeit obscene and very dangerous - conspiracy theories. As a matter of fact, conspiracy theories are not really ‘theories’ at all. Neither are they scientific. They are not a confirmed type of explanation about nature and society made in a way consistent with scientific methods. Conspiracy theories do not produce provable knowledge. As a consequence, they would better be labelled ‘conspiracy beliefs’ - or, even better, ‘conspiracy myths’. Their advantage, however, is that they appear to provide broad, internally consistent explanations that allow people to preserve beliefs in the face of uncertainty and contradictions.

With the rise of Facebook, etc, conspiracy myths seem to have developed their very own digital reality, which exists quite apart from analogue reality. Inside this digital space, a “large amount of bullshit” has been invented. In Germany it is no longer uncommon to hear conspiracy myths, such as “Secret forces created the refugee avalanche that is destroying our homeland”. There never was an avalanche. There are no secret forces. And refugees will not destroy our homeland.

Still, these are more than just dangerous misbeliefs. They are early signs of a rising fascism. Historically, the Nazi hallucination of a Jewish world conspiracy paved the way to Auschwitz. Today, conspiracy myths are high currency for nearly all rightwing politicians - and perhaps a few leftwing politicians as well. A clear indication of their ascendancy is the current occupant of the White House. Donald Trump is known to be a ‘birther’: ie, someone who believes that presideent Barack Obama did not have an American birth certificate.

Slightly less nuts but equally dangerous was the ‘Pizzagate’ conspiracy. No, Hillary Clinton did not run a child pornography network in the back room of a pizza shop. Yet conspiracy mythologists claimed that ‘CP stands for Cheese Pizza, but it also means child pornography’. Perhaps - as one of the world’s key demagogues, Steve Bannon, says - “The story is more important than reality”. Existing separate from the mainstream press, conspiratorial stories are distributed widely through the internet without fact-checking, counter-arguments, editing, etc. With quality journalism being increasingly eliminated, ever more people seem to believe what they read on Facebook.

Conceivably, every new authoritarian regime comes with a new form of communication. Hitler had a radio called Volksempfänger (People’s Receiver). His ideological successors - today’s populists - have the internet (Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, etc), via which “truthiness” (Stephen Colbert) is broadcast. One of the most hideous ‘truthinesses’ is the idea that ‘Obama was born in Kenya’. Today, many Americans still believe that.

In many cases, conspiracy myths work particularly well when they target individuals and small groups: Obama, Hillary Clinton, ‘witches who eat children, and Jews who poison wells and create Aids’. Conspiracy myths also mix well with romantic novels and sell millions of books. Today, many are created and broadcast by “bullshit factories”. These result in some Facebook users only seeing ‘truth’ as “echo chambers” or “mirror” of their own world view.

This is largely the case inside Germany’s crypto-Nazi party, the AfD (Alternative for Germany) - referred to by some as ‘A Fucking Disgrace’. The party has “by far more Facebook fans than party members” - 400,000 of them, compared to just under 30,000 members. A relatively high usage of Facebook was also found in the case of so-called Reichsbürger (sovereign citizen) Wolfgang P, who shot dead a policeman in 2016. Wolfgang P believed that “World War III was on the way, civilisation was breaking down and he had to defend his home”. His own particular conspiratorial hallucination had deadly consequences.

Here are a few other examples of conspiracy myths:

The authors claim:

… women are more likely to believe in conspiracies compared to men and religious people are more likely than non-religious people to believe in them. Secondly, an increase of income comes with a decrease in believing in conspiracy theories.

While conspiracy myths have existed since feudal times and most likely even before that, one gets the impression that today, “whenever and wherever something exists, there is some sort of conspiracy myth” about it. Almost all conspiracy myths come with a hefty dose of paranoia as well as a circle-the-wagon feeling of “If you are with them, you cannot be with us”. Already those who utter the slightest possibility of disbelief are assessed as being “with them”.

What nearly all conspiracy myths have in common is their attempt to reduce complex social, economic and political issues to simple, black and white explanations. They explain them in a way that is easily understood. On the other hand, there are also some more elaborate conspiracy myths - and ‘Angela Merkel is Hitler’s daughter’ is among the best examples of those. Here it is:

Adolf Hitler died in a plane crash in the 1950s. But before that Hitler donated his sperm to Gretl Braun, the sister of Eva Braun. Eva Braun was the lover of the Führer. The insemination was successful and Gretl Braun gave birth to a girl called Angela. Angela is named after Eva Braun’s niece, Angela Maria ‘Geli’ Raubal.

This might sound laughable (actually it is), but, on the other hand, “more bullshit is always possible”, enriching the world of conspiracy theories on a daily level. Much of this applies to the motto, “Whatever excites and is outrageous will lead to more clicks … this is the e=mc2 of the internet.” Secondly, “‘True’ is whatever is good for us and our group.” A prime example was another particular conspiracy myth, one of the most hideous and dangerous examples: the infamous Protocols of the elders of Zion. Although shown to be a fake by the New York Times in 1921, its afterlife continued when Germany’s “Nazis distributed it massively during the 1920s”.

This conspiracy theory had extremely bitter consequences, ending in Auschwitz. Even today, “the protocols are still read and believed”, as the recent case of an AfD parliamentarian shows.

All this indicates that, as ridiculous as many such myths seem to be, “conspiracy theories have to be taken enormously serious”. Obviously, the people behind them never refer to themselves ‘conspiracy theorists’. They call themselves “truth seekers dedicated to enlightenment”. To be a conspiracy myth inventor, it is important to know that facts do not matter at all. What matters is the believability of a conspiracy.

Perhaps one of the true “masters of conspiracy theories was Adolf Hitler. He also believed in the protocols … similar tendencies can be detected in Donald Trump”.