In a world increasingly dominated by sensationalism and misinformation, conspiracy theories have found fertile ground to flourish. Dismissed by many as the ramblings of a paranoid few, these theories have long been relegated to the fringes of society. But the experts now warn that they are witnessing the emergence of a new threat vector: conspiracy theorists being proven right.
The exposure of government surveillance programs like PRISM, the revelations surrounding the secret experiments of MKUltra, and the acknowledgement of covert military operations like Operation Gladio, have all served as a sobering reminder that conspiracy theories are not always baseless. Darker still, we’ve even learned that the US government experimented with syphilis on Black folks and were the ultimate cause of the high rate of STDs among non-white populations.
More recently, the lab leak theory regarding the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic has yet again sparked totally unnuanced “conspiracy theorists were right” discourse. While initially the lab leak theory was clamped down on for being a dangerous conspiracy theory, the hypothesis has — more or less by random chance — been the one to recently gain traction in expert opinions.
And while the true origins of the virus remain unclear, the fact that a modern conspiracy theory could potentially hold elements of truth has raised alarm bells among guardians of democracy like journalists and experts.
The specter of true conspiracy theories heralds profoundly dangerous implications for our ability to function as an open, inclusive, and equitable democratic society. As once-dismissed theories find validation, shadows of doubt are cast upon the credibility of the mainstream institutions and experts who set out to protect us to begin with.
While those with less nuanced thinking argue that revelations of truth serve as a necessary check on power, experts caution that society is now far more complex and fragile than during the era when Fox Mulder and Dana Scully chased government conspiracies in X-Files.
Public acceptance of parts of even one conspiracy theory will inevitably erode trust in essential institutions and have profound consequences for our ability to shape societal cohesion and protect marginalized minorities like BIPOCs and women.
What the experts all agree on is the importance of critical dialogue about the dangers of conspiracy theories, and the need for democracy’s stakeholders — NGOs and governments — to come to the table and explain how they intend to combat the danger. Government also needs to lay out a dynamic and resilient framework for cooperation with the private sector so that we can present a multifaceted and unified front against conspiratorial thinking in all areas of society.
This is no less than a fight for democracy itself, and so it must be transparent, provide accountability, and be vigorous in upholding our democratic values. We must all come together to strengthen the fact checkers and counter narratives that exploit people’s fears, insecurities, and distrust. Our efforts should focus on rebuilding trust in institutions, amplifying marginalized voices, and ensuring that accurate information is priority-available to the common person in the street.
But the fight against conspiracy theories goes beyond facts alone. We must nurture an informed and resilient society-mass that can build pathways around the dangerous challenges posed by conspiracy theories, and we must do it all while while upholding our core values of progress, justice, equity, and human rights.
Because it’s ultimately the safety of marginalized bodies that are at stake. And if history has taught us anything it is these three, powerful words: Black lives matter. Women’s lives matter.
Our lives matter.
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