• Analysis

Why conspiracy theories are corrosive to social movements — and what to do about it

Antisemitic conspiracy theories on the fringe of the movement for a ceasefire in Gaza make it harder to effectively diagnose the problem and challenge power.
Embed from Getty Images

“Be forewarned that this has left me very disillusioned, and I felt the same way as I felt when deconstructing Christianity,” said one TikTok creator, speaking into her phone camera. She was one of dozens, if not hundreds, of young people whose recent videos went viral after reading one particularly striking bit of agitprop: Osama Bin Laden’s 2002 “Letter to America.” The letter, which had been published by The Guardian until they deleted it, outlines a relatively straight-forward critique of American foreign policy, laced with extreme social conservatism and vast conspiracism. 

For the mostly Gen-Z readers, the letter was new, but it has been added to university syllabi and passed around the blogosphere for decades. The disillusionment these first-time readers were experiencing was presumably the reality that Bin Laden did not orchestrate 9/11 simply because he “hates our freedom,” but that Western powers have engaged in real crimes, with the U.S. as the primary culprit. But for anyone who knows their way around American history, Bin Laden’s critique is thin and obvious, and the diagnosis strays into familiar tropes.

“These governments have surrendered to the Jews, and handed them most of Palestine, acknowledging the existence of their state over the dismembered limbs of their own people,” wrote Bin Laden, who blamed Jews for just about every violation. “You are the nation that permits usury, which has been forbidden by all the religions … the Jews have taken control of your economy, through which they have then taken control of your media, and now control all aspects of your life making you their servants…”

The piece does what populist, conspiracy tracts have always done: It takes real instances of oppression and spins them into an easily digestible, and false, narrative so that those making sense of the horrors can point fingers. While not a particularly novel take, Bin Laden’s references to Palestine made it relevant today, and if you have never encountered any deconstruction of America’s foreign policy, it may shock you.

But the idea that the letter offers a biting critique misunderstands the purpose of dissent: Opposition to the current state of the world is not synonymous with fighting for a liberatory future. And the inability to parse out this reality has revealed instability across a radical left that often clamors after any ally in the struggle against systemic injustice. Without safeguards and clarity on the mission, nearly any voice against the status quo can be mistaken for a friend — including those who want to replace it with something even more deadly or whose analysis relies on conspiracy theories.

Revolts from below

History is a staccato of uprisings and revolts, nearly instinctual rejections of various systems of peonage and slavery. The question about uprisings is not if they will happen, but what form they will take. The conditions that bring about struggle, such as the exploitations that inspired peasant uprisings across feudal Europe or the explosive growth of the labor movement around the turn of the 20th century, are always legitimate, but not every expression of resistance is valid. The same labor movement that fought for the weekend also stood against non-white immigration and, at times, went on strike to “protect” white workers from integration. 

Experiencing a crisis does not immediately grant someone special insight into the causes of their conditions, and there is a long history of communities turning their anger on marginalized people rather than the powerful.

This is endemic to fascism’s rise. In countries where economic deprivation and crisis were explosive, many succumbed to revolutionary impulses that promised to address society’s failures while also validating the worst impulses established by colonialism and white supremacy. 

The culture of conspiracy theory can exist on the left when political acumen is not valued and rebellion of any type is understood as a net positive.

As French-Israeli scholar Zeev Sternhell chronicled, fascist movements actually emerged out of a dissenting socialist trend: They wanted to destroy the system so badly that they cared little for the mechanism or outcome of that destruction. These “national syndicalists” replaced class as the historical change agent with “nation,” thus redirecting the dramatic anger the masses held towards their stagnating societies away from a class struggle and onto a racialized, authoritarian nightmare. They certainly wanted revolution, just not the type the left typically desires.

Undirected populism tends to reproduce our society’s bigotries and biases. For the West, antisemitism was a primary folk narrative to explain dislocation and alienation: “It was the Jews who were responsible for widening inequality and political disenfranchisement.” This belief has deep roots in Christian empire. And when modernity emerged and people were looking to explain new systems of abstraction, many turned to older antisemitic theories and simply secularized them. As European colonialism spread across the globe, it also exported many of its ideas, which explains why antisemitic conspiracy theories are found far from antisemitism’s Christian origins. 

During populist uprisings, it’s common for antisemitism to replace grounded political analysis. These ideas are often not the result of intentional misdirection by antisemites, but present because antisemitism remains a part of the Western populist imagination. Marxist scholar Moishe Postone called this “structural antisemitism” because the complicated way that capitalism works often confuses the public as to where the center of power lies, and what kind of figures should be seen as uniquely pernicious. The same principle works for most forms of scapegoating, such as when economic conflict is channeled into anti-immigrant xenophobia.

Previous Coverage
  • How the left is reclaiming the fight against antisemitism
  • This culture of conspiracy theory and blame-setting is endemic to the political right, which needs to channel working-class anger away from those in power and onto a marginalized community as a patsy. Since the right is not interested in challenging the wealthy or petitioning the powerful, they redirect disaffection onto a mirage.

    This dynamic can also exist on the left when political acumen is not valued and rebellion of any type is understood as a net positive. The left has changed dramatically over the past 30 years, moving into more spontaneous formations like Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter and mass antifascist actions. This has created a vacuum where movements need support, training and political development. Communities now organize more horizontally, and there is no turning back the clock on this development, at least in the near term. But when these movements lack any clear plan to achieve liberation, activists can also misread the issue, relying on conspiracism instead of analysis and finding friends where none exist.

    War conspiracies

    The confusion about how to challenge power — and the battle between conspiracy theory and a real mapping of power — has shown up in countless social movements, including some fringe cases in the movement for a ceasefire in Gaza. For example, in a Nov. 27 testimony before the Oakland City Council’s hearing on a proposed ceasefire resolution, one person said that “Israel murdered its own people on Oct. 7.”

    This unfounded proposition, which has shown up in other news outlets and commentary on the war, was that many, if not most, of the Israelis were actually killed by the IDF. It often comes with different implications, such as the idea that the IDF was catastrophically careless and then blamed Hamas or that it was a false flag attack to justify the bombing of Gaza.

    It is clear that some casualties on Oct. 7, including those from a tank attack and possibly from helicopter fire near the rave, could have happened as a result of reckless IDF behavior, but there seems to be little evidence that this is a particularly sizable portion of those killed. 

    However, ostensibly socialist news outlets like Max Blumenthal’s Grayzone have focused heavily on trying to undermine the claims of Hamas atrocities, assigning Jewish casualties to Israeli Defense Forces. The suggestion from much of this discourse is that the killing of Israelis was either mostly by the IDF or that Hamas killings were largely manufactured, thus displacing any concern that may emerge about what was done. 

    This framing creates multiple problems, such as hinging opposition to the assault on Gaza on who is responsible for Israeli deaths — or the callous denial of Jewish victimhood — rather than Israel’s disproportionate use of violence. This shifts the messaging away from challenging Israel’s genocidal assault on its own terms and turns it into a convoluted debate about shadowy military orders and hidden directives. 

    Support Waging Nonviolence

    Support Us

    Waging Nonviolence depends on reader support. Become a sustaining monthly donor today!

    Donate

    Despite being one of the most well documented attacks in recent history, many seem to think that acknowledging Hamas violence will undermine their justifiable charges of genocide against Israel. But that is not the case. Being critical of Hamas’ brutal attack on Oct. 7 does nothing to undermine the movement against Israel’s ethnic cleansing of Palestine. But any introduction of falsehoods simply fractures a movement’s global vision of justice.

    When this happens, it can help even more wild conspiracy theories to circulate, such as a popular TikTok video — seen by over 300,000 accounts before being plucked from the platform — claiming the Hamas attack was created by the media. 

    Once conspiracy theories enter the fray they often cross-populate with seemingly unrelated topics, as well. This has led to allegations of connections between Israel’s bombing campaign and the war in Ukraine both being seen as possibly the machinations of a new world order. 

    Given the IDF’s history of duplicity and denial of war crimes, there are reasons why distrust should be endemic. As Israel enacts one of the most brutal, one-sided assaults in the country’s history — the biggest displacement since the nakba — there are reasons that people are motivated to reframe the narrative away from the Western media’s complicity in Israel’s killings. Watching news outlets spin Israel’s violence as self-defense can be maddening, so it’s understandable why people would want to use any possible narrative to puncture their framing.

    But Israel has also chosen to conduct its indiscriminate violence in plain sight. No conspiracy theory is required. If we are unable to see where the conflict comes from — to understand the historical, economic and political forces involved — conspiracism becomes an easy way to explain something that demands an intense amount of context. 

    Previous Coverage
  • an activist confronts white nationalists outside the White House protesting against Israel. How the far right is trying to manipulate the crisis in Gaza
  • The conspiracy theories and misinformation have been as extreme in the other direction as well. False claims circulated about Hamas, such as the untrue allegation that militants had “beheaded babies,” that a baby was “cooked in an oven” or that Gazan suffering and casualties have been exaggerated. There is also an emerging far-right conspiracy theory in Israel that it was the pro-democracy protesters who staged the attack as a false flag. 

    It is exactly these types of claims that create even more distrust among those witnessing the violence, making it harder for people to find clear reporting to believe and facts to depend on. All of this has become even more severe as AI generated images and “deep fakes” give us a window into what the future of online conspiracy holds for us. The extensive misinformation has been used to mask, or even justify, Israel’s emerging genocide in Gaza. This is clearly verifiable and does not require extrapolation beyond the evidence. 

    When we include unprovable claims or assume extraordinary covert means beyond those verifiable in normal statecraft, we undermine our own analysis and allow for latent falsehoods and bigotries to replace grounded outrage. Those on the left can also frame any resistance to imperialism — even by far-right political and racist theocratic political movements — as allies simply by virtue of their attack on the imperial antagonist. 

    Avoiding this dangerous dynamic requires the left to build a vision and set of principles, an insight about the kind of world we want to fashion once we usher away the institutions that are propping up the unacceptable status quo. Simply picking the least objectionable side in a conflict between despotic powers or empowering anyone who can strike a blow to the halls of power is not enough. 

    Establishing this consistency requires the left to return to political arguments, reading groups, liberation schools, teach-ins and serious debate hashed out in late night meetings. This is what will move the justifiable instinct that something is wrong to an accurate diagnosis that begs workable action. Without a clear picture of how our world has failed, any demagogue can capture the energy of the disaffected by offering a solution that creates even more profound problems. Our mission is not to simply destroy the old world. It’s to build a new and more just one in its place.



    Recent Stories

    • Q&A

    Overcoming despair and apathy to win democracy

    May 20, 2024

    Lessons on movement building from one of the founders of the Serbian student movement that brought down dictator Slobodan Milosevic.

    • Feature

    Inside the student movement that forced Ireland’s Trinity College to divest from Israel

    May 17, 2024

    As news of crackdowns on U.S. campus protests spread, students in Ireland drew inspiration and planned a strategic path to victory.

    • Q&A

    Palestinian lawyers are working harder than ever to support political prisoners

    May 15, 2024

    A Palestinian human rights lawyer with Addameer on the hardships and necessity of providing free legal aid and documenting human rights abuses.