The scarecrow of the conspiracy theory: a convenient screen

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On January 4, the New York Times opened a debate in its columns with a short series of articles on conspiracy theories(1). After the Parisian attacks of January 7, many articles on this theme also appeared in French newspapers — with explicit titles betraying the objective pursued. We can read for example:« Young people more exposed to conspiracy theories »,« How conspiracy theories are born »,  » The conspiracy theory, the political weapon of the weak », « The workings of the conspiracy machine » or « Why are children tempted by conspiracy theory? ».

All these articles evoke conspiracy theories without any of them daring to specify what this term, outside of any conviction, any reality and any opinion, can objectively designate. On reading them, however, the only common denominator of all these points of view appears: the loss of confidence of a part of the population in the official presentation of events (or in their analyses), that is to say, emanating from the power, big media or political institutions. This mistrust — justified or not — of the official theses leads more and more people to trust unofficial sources with significantly different versions of the facts. If we imagine that this phenomenon can be generalized to a large part of society, we can better understand the concern of the authorities, and more generally of our elites. For what would be left of our system if the populations no longer believed what they were told by the political and media elites who run them?

The objective of all these articles appears unambiguous: to discredit anyone who questions the official theses, that is, the truth as conceived by the authorities. In this respect, all the old methods are used, starting with the use of suggestive neologisms, such as « conspiracy theorists », which evokes the image of half-crazed people who imagine that masked plotters are meeting secretly at night in basements to harm the entire community.

The second method, which was frequently practiced by the USSR and Mao’s China, consists in disqualifying the word of people who doubt the official versions by sticking on their backs a pathology certified by specialists. Thus, any dissonant or dissenting speech will be considered deviant behavior that must be addressed. As a journalist on France 2 said in all seriousness:« we must identify and treat all those who are not Charlie »(2). In the half-dozen NYT articles(3)A supposed specialist of the phenomenon denounces the « paranoid » nature of conspiracy theorists, another sees in it the symptom of an anxiety « (Note the choice of term, which emphasizes the uneducated or uneducated nature of the conspiracy seekers who belong to « themassmedia ».Another evokesthepopular beliefs that help people to admit what they do not understand. The picture is painted: anyone who has doubts about the theses presented by the authorities is called a conspiracy theorist, a mentally ill person who generally has little education and is subject to popular beliefs because he or she does not understand the world. In the French articles, the same method is used, since they speak of « vulnerability » to conspiracy(4) as if it were a disease, a vulnerability that increases with youth: the idea is to make questioning the official theses seem like retarded adolescence. Conspiracy theorists are therefore victims — immature in all cases — and journalists wonder how to help them. One of the articles goes further than a simple reference to adolescence, as it talks about children tempted by the conspiracy theory(5). So, if you have any doubts about what is officially presented to you, it means that you have fallen back into childhood. In the same spirit, we can also note the intervention in the columns of the NYT(6) of a psychology professor who uses a maternal benevolence with an extreme condescension judging these theories to be laughable and harmless for the most part.

« He who wants to kill his dog accuses it of rabies » is the third method designed to neutralize any idea contrary to the official theses. To do this, conspiracy theories are sometimes indefensible or absurd, or even prosecuted by law. Thus, by reading the articles cited above, one would think that conspiracy theorists do not believe in the first steps on the moon in 1969, that they are convinced that aliens landed on earth a long time ago (but that the governments are hiding it from us), and finally, that they are deniers. So please know that if you doubt certain information or analyses exposed in the mainstream media, it means that you think that aliens are among us and that you deny the existence of gas chambers. This method is frighteningly effective since, in these terrifying times of thought trials, of slanderous denunciation of intention or non-charlisma, everyone fears, and it is quite legitimate, to be suspected of this and lynched.

The portrait of the conspiracy theorist having been drawn, whether under the features of the naive victim of his lack of understanding of the world, or under those of the paranoid delirium of the mentally ill, it is also necessary to cite examples and to situate him on an unacceptable political chessboard. One will then read in Le Figaro: « conspiracy was the hallmark of the extreme right. Since the September 11 attacks, it is also found among certain currents of the radical left »(7). The message is clear: the extreme right and the extreme left are united in their folly; only extremists can doubt the official versions. As for the examples, they are explicit: Alain Soral, the comedian Dieudonné or Jean-Marie Le Pen are cited. Once all these precautions have been taken, certain analyses can be described as conspiracy theories in order to discredit them. Thus, we learn from supposed experts who are supposed to « dismantle conspiracy mechanisms »(8), that conspiracism is very widespread in Russia. Indeed, still in the same article, according to the « expert » interviewed, « the Kremlin televisions describe (…) the color revolutions as Western conspiracies. This time, if you think that some regime overthrows were organized or supported by American agencies, you are a victim of the Kremlin’s propaganda, a master in the art of conspiracy. In Le Monde, one can read the same type of discourse, just as accusatory when, about the assassination of Boris Nemtsov, the newspaper writes:« The conspiracy theory is gaining momentum in Moscow (…) and the Russian authorities do not hesitate to point to its sponsor: the West »(9). The objective here is, with the help of conspiracy theory disqualification, to rule out any explanation other than that Nemtsov was murdered by the Kremlin.

Even more interesting, and infinitely more disturbing, is the description of conspiracy theorists given by the Jean-Jaurès Foundation, the famous Socialist Party think tank that President Hollande commissioned a report on in January. This is what the think tank, considered to be the seat of the government party’s intellectual elite, writes in its report(10) when it sets out to describe those who doubt the official theses: « (…) heterogeneous movement, strongly intertwined with the negationist movement, and where admirers of Hugo Chavez and unconditional supporters of Vladimir Putin are present. An underworld of former militants (…) of the extreme left, (…), sovereignists, national-revolutionaries, ultra-nationalists, nostalgic for the Third Reich, anti-vaccination activists, supporters of the lottery, 9/11 revisionists, anti-Zionists, followers of alternative medicine, agents of influence of the Iranian regime, bacharists, (…) ». From this odious Prévert inventory intended to give an account of conspiracism as understood by the authorities, it is contempt and intolerance, even hatred and insults that emerge from these infamous associations, mixing without shame the followers of alternative medicine with the admirers of Nazis and Hugo Chavez (about the latter, let’s remember that he was the left-wing president of Venezuela, regularly elected four times in a row, and that he distinguished himself at the international level by his refusal to bend to the American domination; His alliance with Morales in Bolivia, Correa in Ecuador or Castro in Cuba make him a major actor of the socialist wave in Latin America, a wave that has just made Obama bend a few days ago, forced to lift the embargo on Cuba). According to the French Socialist Party, to approve Chavez’s socialism is to be an outcast, just like refusing to fuel the civil war in Syria, or being part of an underworld, or being anti-Zionist, or being nostalgic for the Third Reich, is to belong to a movement where all the unmentionables, all the sorcerers that must be fought. It is worth noting that the Jean Jaurès Foundation dares to add to this blacklist, thus dishonoring the name it bears, that of Etienne Chouard, a simple citizen blogger who became famous in 2005 for having launched a campaign for the « No » vote in the referendum on the European Constitution, and who today claims a radical position on the need to rethink democracy.

On reading this pitiful description — which, it must be repeated, is carried out by the ruling party elite — it is easy to understand that anyone who does not think as our elites want is branded a conspiracy mongerer. Thus, the « conspiracy« problem is no longer to distinguish truth from falsehood, plausibility from fable or delusion from reason, no, the problem is to think or not to think as the power suggests. We must therefore condemn all those who, finally, « are not Charlie ».

This month of January 2015 ends with an amazing text:

« To fight an enemy, one must first know and name him (…) it is always the plot, the suspicion, the falsification (…). Conspiracy theories spread without limits and have, in the past, already led to the worst. So in the face of these threats, we need answers, strong answers, adapted answers. (…) We must be aware that the conspiracy theories are spread by the Internet and social networks (…). We must act at the international level so that a legal framework can be defined, and that the platforms that manage social networks be made to face their responsibilities and that sanctions be pronounced in case of failure. »

These few lines are not taken from a manuscript of Orwell’s that has not yet been published, but from François Hollande’s speech on January 27 about anti-Semitism. Two weeks after this speech, the implementing decree(11) was published, allowing the blocking of websites without a judge on suspicion of apology for terrorist acts, which Amnesty International denounced as a vague concept(12) in an article published on 18 March, in which it was revealed that five websites had already been blocked without legal proceedings.

On March 19, the Council of Ministers presented the draft Intelligence Law, which provides for the reinforcement of data linked to Internet connections: the main idea is to install black boxes in Internet service providers to monitor and verify all data transits. The argument is to equip them with algorithms designed to detect behaviors close to possible terrorists, and to control the people in contact with those already suspected. In addition, data retention is extended from one to five years and all operators will have to provide the elements allowing the decryption of the data. The daily newspaper Le Monde states(13): « France is not alone in addressing the issue of encryption: the subject is also the source of a tug of war between the FBI, Apple and Google. (…) The British Prime Minister, David Cameron, has threatened in recent months to make illegal the encryption systems whose creators have not provided the « keys » to the authorities.  »

Finally, on April 9, the main Internet hosts reacted by sending a warning signal in a communiqué to the Prime Minister(14). In addition to painting a bleak picture of the economic consequences that would result from the adoption of such a law (loss of several thousand jobs and the relocation of all their platforms abroad), they oppose the « real-time capture of connection data » by black boxes with vague contours, and declare: « [40% de clients étrangers] This is because there is no Patriot Act in France, and the protection of companies’ and individuals’ data is considered important. If this is no longer the case tomorrow because of these famous « black boxes », it will take them between 10 minutes and a few days to leave their French host. » (…) « Indeed, we are not the United States, we do not have an NSA, whose opaque surveillance activities have driven many companies and individuals around the world to become clients of France: a more transparent democracy that respects the rights of its citizens.  »

This could be the outline of a strange new world, a world in which big business comes to the rescue of our freedoms by protecting us from political power.

Michel Segal

Author of Ukraine: Stories of a War, Other Times Editions, 2014.

Addendum: the « black box » law was finally voted in the National Assembly in the night of April 16. It was passed by a vote of twenty-five to five; at the time of the vote, approximately 95% of the members were absent(15).

Notes et références
  1. « Room for debate : Are conspiracy theories all bad ? », New-York Times, 4 janvier 2015.
  2. « Il faut repérer et traiter ceux qui ne sont pas Charlie », Nathalie de Saint Cricq, youtube.
  3. Voir Note 1.
  4. « Les jeunes plus exposés et plus sensibles à la théorie du complot », Le Figaro, 16 janvier 2015. Cette lecture est édifiante. L’article a la forme d’une interview de Gérard Bronner qui est présenté comme un sociologue spécialiste de la distinction entre croyances et savoir. Outre qu’il contient de nombreuses fautes d’orthographe, le texte est écrit dans un français absolument épouvantable, mélangeant formulations alambiquées, fautes de syntaxe et phrases incomplètes ou sans signification énoncées par l’interviewé.
  5. « Les enfants tentés par la théorie du complot », L’Express, 4 février 2015. Cet article particulièrement odieux est écrit par une énigmatique « chercheuse en psychologie ».
  6. Voir note 1.
  7. « Crash du MH17, comment naissent les théories du complot », Le Figaro, 21 juillet 2014. C’est un article très intéressant, un cas d’école, car il explique sans détour que, « alors que les Etats-Unis impliquent Moscou dans la destruction du MH17 , (…) des médias russes évoquent un complot ». Ainsi, l’accusation américaine sans fondement mais reprise par la presse sans le moindre questionnement est présentée par le journaliste comme l’expression de la raison, tandis que les protestations, la réfutation et la défense de Moscou est associée au délire d’une théorie du complot.
  8. Voir note précédente.
  9. « Russie : la stratégie du complot permanent », Le Monde, 6 mars 2015.
  10. « Conspirationnisme : un état des lieux », Fondation Jean Jaurès, 24 février 2015.
  11. J.O. du 5 février 2015.
  12. « Blocages de sites internet en France : l’autorisation d’un juge est indispensable », www.amnesty.fr7.
  13. http://www.lemonde.fr/pixels/article/2015/03/18/ce-que-prevoit-le-projet….
  14. Ici publié en intégralité: http://www.ovh.com/fr/news/articles/a1743.le-gouvernement-veut-il-contra….
  15. Voir www.numerama.com/magazine/32817-boites-noires-les-5-deputes-qui-ont-vote….
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