Wasiq Wasiq, an Advisor to Muslims Against Anti-Semitism (MAAS)
Covid-19 has been exploited by extremists and terrorists. It has provided them with a route to continue their campaign of terror. On a strategic front, Islamists have used it as a means to broadcast a message that governments are overstretched dealing with Covid-19, meaning this is the perfect opportunity to strike. The far-Right has also capitalized on it, positing that populations in hospitals will be higher than normal, therefore attacking them could cause maximum casualties. Whilst lockdown in many countries mean large populations are not operating as normal, terrorism has not stalled. Instead, it has adapted itself to this new environment.
What Are Conspiracy Theories?
One of the ways it has adapted is through the use of conspiracy theories. Covid-19 has enabled extremists and terrorists to renew and create new narratives that serve their agenda. Iranian government propaganda channels have pushed the message that there is a specific variant of Covid-19 designed to target Iran’s population. The far-Right have done the same by blaming Covid-19 on a globalist agenda seeking to take control of the world by wiping out the white population. Despite how ludicrous these ideas may sound, one man’s conspiracy theory is another man’s truth.
It may, therefore, come as no surprise that the definition of “conspiracy theory” does not suffer from consensus. One widely used definition says conspiracy theories are defined by “the conviction that a group of actors meets in secret agreement with the purpose of attaining some malevolent goal”. Yet another respected definition says conspiracy theories are “any explanation of an event that cites the existence of a conspiracy as a salient cause”.
Still, a general theme of conspiracy theories is the belief that a malevolent force operating in the shadows seeks to advance an agenda against popular will. Thus, it is little surprise that extremists and terrorists of all camps, who rely on paranoid, conspiratorial ideologies, view conspiracy theories as a utility — a means to an end.
Why Do People Adopt Conspiracy Theories?
Individuals are drawn to conspiracy theories — in most cases — by epistemic motivations. When unsatisfied with normative sources like the mainstream media, individuals look to “alternative” sources. When faced with an excess of conflicting information, conspiracy theories can seem as credible as truth. But conspiracy theories can also be more deliberately chosen as a means to protect a cherished belief — particularly in times of uncertainty when such handholds are most emotionally valuable, e.g. during a coronavirus pandemic. One way to distinguish a conspiracy theory from a reality-based theory that might well include a conspiracy is that the former is immune to evidence. Rather than change the theory based on new information, a conspiracy theory subsumes all new information into its original thesis — and anyone who presents evidence that cannot be subsumed is regarded as part of the conspiracy, proof only that the forces trying to suppress the truth are much vaster than originally proposed.
This is a particularly helpful tool for both Islamists and the far-Right to radicalize others. Once the individual has accepted the ideology, any “attack” on this belief becomes by definition illegitimate — evidence of the critic’s malevolence. Rather than damaging the belief system, such attacks can even provide reassurance, and they certainly provide extremists with an opportunity to draw radicalized individuals even further into the extremist bubble, withdrawing them from countervailing influences and encouraging them to seek comfort in the uniform environment of the extremists where they can feel “safe”.
It is worth pointing out that the utility of conspiracy theories in holding together an otherwise-untenable epistemic system is one reason they have become more mainstream as politics has become more polarized. They are appealing: rather than people being forces to reassess their views based on evidence, let alone admit their “side” made a mistake, a conspiracy theory can prove they were right all along.
Another aspect to conspiracy theories is the meaning and fulfilment they provide in the lives of some. Conspiracy theories can help some people to feel like they are taking control of their lives. For example, despite the world being in a pandemic, the feeling resulting from feeling powerless may lead people to turn to conspiracy theories as a way to take control of their internal narrative and reject official reports. The need for autonomy in one’s life appears to drive this. Furthermore, by accepting the conspiracy theory, an individual may believe they have reduced “the risk posed by dangerous sources” in the fight against the establishment. In other words, it is a strategic tool used to attack a perceived enemy.
In a similar vein, conspiracy theories are tactically helpful in that they allow an individual to attribute blame to convenient scapegoats. When a terrorist attack takes place and the perpetrators are Muslims, both Islamists and the far-Right adopt this method. Many Islamists simply deny 9/11 was carried out by Muslims, attributing it to “Zionists” or the U.S. government. The far-Right, by contrast, tries to implicate all Muslims in such atrocities.
Dealing with the Problem
There are potentially ways of dealing with conspiracy theories.
First, it has to be accepted that they will always exist, so it is important to monitor our information space and keep an eye on them. Removing them from media outlets does not solve the issue, it just drives it underground and makes monitoring more difficult. Of course, the risk is that continuing to host them on our platforms amplifies their message and thereby does the bidding of the conspiracy theorists. I am not entirely convinced by this since the public, in their majority, will not be drawn into conspiracy theories.
Second, build trust within our mainstream media. Whilst it is imperfect, we cannot allow the narrative to fester that the media is hostile to the population. Such conceptions could leave individuals seeking information from disreputable sources and even extremists. This is a two-way street, however. While we need to be confident in challenging conspiracy theories that paint the media as an entity serving a small clique that is hostile to most of the people, the media itself needs to be more responsible to avoid giving credence to this idea.
Whilst conspiracy theories may pose a risk, the greater risk is how the conspiracy theories can be used to advance a nefarious agenda. Dismantling the transactional relationship between those who traffic in conspiracy theories and those individuals who find them useful may hold the key to developing sound policy that minimizes extremism and terrorism.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.