Scott Radnitz poses two basic questions in his new book: What leads governments to promote conspiracy theories, and what effect do those theories have on politics and society?
Radnitz is an associate professor in the Jackson School of International Studies. His book, “Revealing Schemes: The Politics of Conspiracy in Russia and the Post-Soviet Region,” was published this month by Oxford University Press. His first book, Weapons of the Wealthy: Predatory Regimes and Elite-Led Protests in Central Asia, was published by Cornell University Press in 2010.
“Revealing Schemes” explores “causes, consequences and contradictions” from a collection of 1,500 conspiracy claims from a dozen countries in the post-Soviet region from 1995 to 2014, as well as national surveys and focus groups.
“My book looks at how politicians use conspiracy theories,” Radnitz said. “While people tend to associate the use of conspiratorial rhetoric with dictators — who seek to dominate, distract or otherwise manipulate their citizens — one of my main findings is that conspiracy theories (or claims, more precisely) emerge in the course of political competition.
“In other words, they come in handy to rulers whose power is in some doubt, rather than those who enjoy unrivaled control. I argue that incumbent leaders deploy conspiracy claims to send signals about their knowledge and power, and to pre-empt future threats.
“For this reason, rulers also frame as conspiracies certain kinds of events that threaten their power: mass protests, challenges to sovereignty, or militant or terrorist violence — all of which are visible and palpable challenges to authority.”
UW News: Who believes conspiracy theories, and why?
S.R.: In the U.S. and other Western countries, conspiracy theories are popularly believed — according to some studies, by half the population. Yet they did not enter into mainstream politics — until recently — for two reasons: first, these democracies developed together with, and thanks to, civil society watchdogs and knowledge-producing institutions that held politicians in check.
And second, conspiracy theories have long had a pejorative connotation, such that politicians who endorsed them would be stigmatized and not taken seriously. It’s evident now that neither condition holds as they once did.
Independent institutions are coming under attack by illiberal forces within democracies, making it easier to get away with political lies and disinformation. And certain politicians — and here, I don’t think I need to mention a particular master of the craft — thrive on conspiracy theories. Such rhetoric is not only not shunned by their followers; instead it is rewarded electorally and used to amass power and money.
Needless to say, this development should concern citizens who value the quality of democracy and prefer leaders who are accountable and responsive to their needs.
There are news reports that Russia, China, Iran and Saudi Arabia all have recently pushed QAnon narratives as part of disinformation campaigns aimed at the United States. Is this a new phenomenon? What are their goals?
S.R.: The conspiracy theories thriving in the United States just now, mostly on the political right, are highly politicized and vicious. Once people are as divided and vulnerable as we are, it’s easy for political opportunists, whether here or abroad, to play their hand at exacerbating anger and distrust.
For countries seeking to advance their geopolitical interests, different kinds of propaganda work at different times. For example, during the Cold War, the U.S. government sought to advertise the American way of life as a way to turn people in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe against their governments, which was highly effective.
Today, stoking distrust in American elections, or making people afraid of getting vaccinated, or more generally, encouraging Americans to hate each other, appears to be an effective tactic for U.S. adversaries, and it’s cheap and easy to do through social media.
But it’s important to keep in mind that as much Russia or Iran has sought to degrade American political discourse, it is Americans themselves who bear the brunt of responsibility for this dismal state of affairs. And it’s here that the problem needs to be fixed.
For more information, contact Radnitz at [email protected]