LONDON – Last Wednesday, as wildfires ripped across the Amazon rainforest, the Brazilian president took to Facebook to accuse nongovernmental organizations of setting light to the trees. Speaking on a Facebook Live broadcast, Jair Bolsonaro presented no evidence for his claim. But that should hardly be a surprise. In responding to a crisis by simply spreading conspiracy theories, Brazil’s far-right leader was simply embracing an alarming global trend, in which truth and reality risk becoming ever less important when it comes to political messaging.
Spreading conspiracy theories for political ends is hardly new — indeed, it is as old as politics itself. The last decade, however, has seen an explosion of such activity — and it is continuing to intensify. In the last month, U.S. President Donald Trump implied that Bill and Hillary Clinton may somehow have been involved in the death in custody of financier Jeffrey Epstein, who died in an apparent suicide while awaiting trial on sex trafficking charges. China, meanwhile, has accused Western provocateurs of being behind growing protests in Hong Kong.
How widely such conceits are believed is hard to tell. What is much more apparent, however, is that their spread points to an unquestionably alarming tendency — a growing lack of respect for the truth, and increased willingness among those in authority to disregard it altogether.
It’s a tactic that, so far at least, seems to bring with it considerable rewards. Trump owes much of his current political career to his relentless pursuit — since largely abandoned — of the baseless “birther” theory that his predecessor Barack Obama was born outside America in Kenya and therefore ineligible for the White House. Such talk helped win Trump growing political notoriety, particularly among right-wingers in chat rooms and on radio and TV — and perhaps brought the realization that being politically and otherwise outrageous might be a path to power.
Under President Vladimir Putin, Russia has become a hotbed of this kind of political activity. While Putin himself largely steers clear of direct involvement, Kremlin-linked media outlets have become relentless pushers of conspiracy theories and otherwise false information.
This trend extends deep into society, academia and popular culture. After the success of U.S. broadcaster HBO’s documentary drama on the Chernobyl catastrophe earlier this year, Russia is producing its own version, which accuses the CIA of being behind the 1986 nuclear disaster. A 2015 study of Russian international relations textbooks, meanwhile, showed a dramatic growth in theories blaming the United States and other international actors for Russia’s recent problems, particularly since the end of the Cold War.
Again, such thinking is not new. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, allegations of an international Jewish conspiracy were often based on the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” a fraudulent document that was widely circulated and believed. Such stories helped set the preconditions for the rise of Nazism and the Holocaust, which also used emerging communication technology such as radio and cinema to spread such paranoia and hatred.
In the modern era, of course, it is the internet and social media that really supercharge such thinking. The depths of chat platforms like Reddit and private Facebook, WhatsApp and other groups allow conspiracy theories to develop largely out of sight, then outline and extrapolate from them among niche communities.
Such fictions can have real-world consequences. In the run-up to the U.S. presidential election in 2016, more than one million tweets were shared with the hashtag #pizzagate, referencing a bizarre conspiracy theory that Hillary Clinton and other members of the U.S. elite were involved in a pedophile ring being run from a Washington pizzeria called Comet Ping Pong.
The restaurant received relentless phone, email and other abuse, with opinion polling at the time suggesting that just under 10 percent of the U.S. electorate took those allegations seriously. On Dec. 4, 2016, 28-year-old Edgar Madison Welch went to the restaurant with his AR-15 assault rifle in the apparent hope of liberating captured children he believed were being held there.
Although no one was hurt, he fired several rounds before being arrested. Multiple right-wing mass killers, however, have also been avid consumers of conspiracy theories, including Norway’s Anders Breivik, who killed 77 in a 2011 gun and bomb attack.
Such outcomes may be an inevitable consequence of the proliferation of such theories. Those sharing them, however, likely have a much simpler agenda — to discredit the truth and ensure dialogue remains focused on their terms.
As long as NGOs are defending themselves against suggestions they torched the Amazon, they are not explaining why the fires are so dangerous or otherwise attacking the Brazilian government. As long as Trump can keep dialogue focused either on conspiracy theories or his more eye-catching actions — such as trying to buy Greenland — people are not discussing other things, like alternatives to his presidency.
The most alarming thing about these tactics, at least for now, is that they seem to work. Unless we can find an alternative — and fast — politics will likely keep getting worse, both globally and domestically in almost every country.
Peter Apps is a writer on international affairs, globalization, conflict and other issues.