by Wissam Nasrallah
Conspiracy theories have become the ‘hummus’ of Lebanese political discourse. You cannot engage in any conversation about what is happening around us without having to dip your bread in it.
Like ‘hummus’, all strata of Lebanese society enjoy conspiracy theories–young and old, ‘Ashrafiyis’ and ‘Akkaris’ (name of Lebanese towns), engineers and plumbers, bankers and farmers, pastors and taxis drivers all enjoy conspiracy theories – ‘kellon ya’ni kellon, wa ana wahad menon’ – all of them means all of them and I am one of them (this is an adapted version of a slogan chanted by protestors in the current Uprising).
Let me start with a very recent example. As soon as they took to the streets in what has come to be known as the “October Revolution”, the Lebanese started receiving messages via WhatsApp videos about how a secret revolutionary organization called Otpor has been orchestrating the protests in Lebanon and elsewhere in the world. Otpor (resistance in Serbian) originated in Serbia, and the messages claim that billionaire investor Georges Soros, a would-be Zionist agent, funds it. The link between the Lebanese Uprisings and Otpor seems to be the clenched fist symbol that protestors have been using (read more on this forum).
So, what is a conspiracy theory anyways and why is it so pervasive?
According to the dictionary, a conspiracy theory is a “theory that explains an event or set of circumstances as the result of a secret plot by usually powerful conspirators” (Merriam-Webster). Its effects on society and our political and civic culture should be considered very seriously as they can be harmful and, at times, even devastating. According to Mike Wood, a lecturer at the University of Winchester, these campaigns “motivate people to take actions–to vote or to not vote, to vaccinate their kids or not to vaccinate their kids, to do all of these things that are important.” The difficulty lies in the fact that theories are just theories and they cannot always be scientifically refuted, especially when it comes to politics and international affairs, making them much harder to fight.
In addition, through social media, conspiracy theories now reach a wider audience sitting in the comfort of their living room. This is even more alarming since the younger generation informs themselves predominantly through social media, rather than through traditional channels such as journalism, academia and government officials whom they consider suspicious.
The not so good news is that this phenomenon is not restricted to the Middle East; it is widespread in developed countries as well. According to research, half of the US population believes in conspiracy theories. Popular conspiracy theories claim that 9/11 was carried out by the CIA, that the Illuminati are seeking to install a world government or that vaccines are a big pharma plot to make more money.
It is very easy to mock and belittle conspiracy theories, but in all fairness, the matter is much more complex than we might think, and I realized my own limitations regarding the subject matter while attempting to write this blogpost.
My aim in this post is to identify some of the reasons and mechanisms that produce and spread conspiracy theories, and to reflect on some practical implications for us today.
The popular saying goes, “there is no smoke without fire.” All-too-real conspiracies, which look like they have been taken out of a James Bond movie, have marked out the modern history of the Middle East. For example, the current states in the Middle East were carved out in 1916 by a secret treaty between British and French diplomats known as the Sykes-Picot Agreement. In 1953, democratically elected Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh was overthrown following a coup that was orchestrated by the CIA (Operation Ajax). These covert operations were on the rise during the cold war and have since became part of mass culture and our political imagination through dramatic blockbuster movies. Finally, and on a more pleasant note, aren’t Santa Clause and his elves the greatest conspiracy of all?
One might ask, if yesterday’s conspiracies were true, why wouldn’t they be also true today? Additionally, would the hundreds of thousands of intelligence employees working in one of the 17 US agencies with billions of dollars in operating budget be sitting reading the news all day long?
These examples are just a few among many others that have nurtured a conspiratorial culture amongst Middle Easterners, and have, in the minds of many, inflated the real power and influence of foreign intelligence agencies. In the case of Lebanon, the allure of conspiracy theories is proportional to the foreign meddling to which the country has become accustomed.
Conspiracy theories are the Viagra of the mind as they give back the feeling of being in control over life’s events. Indeed, explaining complex phenomena using a simple overarching narrative provides the person with a sense of clarity and understanding of the situation. In his insightful and entertaining article, “Why we love Conspiracies”, M.J. Weber explains that “instead of being at the mercy of complicated and convoluted historical forces that are entirely beyond our control, a good conspiracy makes the world black and white… A good conspiracy eliminates uncertainty and ambiguity. It’s us vs. them. Good vs. Evil. You are the hero in this narrative, the underdog fighting a global, seemingly unstoppable menace.” In the case of the Lebanese Uprising, the most common and easy explanation for these events is that they are the direct result of the regional standoff between the US and Iran.
This is probably one of the most basic human traits; it is an unconscious coping/escape mechanism that helps us make sense of what is happening without having to go through the painful process of self-examination. Indeed, it is much more convenient to blame others for our misery than to own up to our mistakes.
Furthermore, since global problems are an aggregate of our small individual mistakes, we usually have a hard time connecting our individual actions to the bigger problem. In other terms, it is always easier to blame America, Iran or Saudi Arabia for our economic and social woes than to critically examine ourselves, identify our failures and adopt corrective measures. This is more so when the political arena is locked by the ruling elite with cooptation as the only entry point (this is hopefully changing with the current uprising!). A sense of apathy then takes hold of us and the blame game becomes a very appealing outlet.
Our brains unconsciously seek out patterns in random things such as seeing faces or animal shapes in clouds. It is what scientists call Pareidolia. In other terms, when random events take place, our brains attempt to seek out a common thread or a meaningful pattern that would link these events together and make sense of what is happening. Our confirmation bias reinforces this tendency by pushing us to seek evidence that confirms our assumptions or comforts our worldview.
Furthermore, proportionality bias assumes that big events have big causes. This leads us to overemphasize the impact of certain events on the course of human history or, on the contrary, to exaggerate the causes that lead to the major events happening. Philosopher Karl Popper explains that conspiracy theorists discount the unintended consequences of our actions and decisions and “they assume that we can explain practically everything in society by asking who wanted it.” In other terms, we forget that economic and social effects are a result of the acts and omissions of many ordinary people who did not intend for things to happen the way they did.
In the case of the current Lebanese Uprising, one might ask how such an unprecedented mobilization in the modern history of Lebanon could be the result of a menial WhatsApp tax, and the spontaneous outburst of anger of ordinary citizens. Our biases push us to seek other spicier explanations such as the meddling of foreign powers. This is not to say that foreign powers cannot benefit from such a situation, but it seems to me that this cannot be the sole explanation.
Disinformation nowadays has proven to be more effective than traditional weapons. State-sponsored disinformation campaigns spread untruth and conspiracy theories with the aim of confusing people and making them doubt through fear, uncertainty or anger. Regimes use it to divert attention from internal issues and to test the loyalty of the people by uniting them against external enemies (in the case of the Middle East, mainly the US and Israel). In the age of social media, research has proven this strategy to be very effective given that “on average, a false story reaches 1,500 people six times more quickly than a factual story. This is true of false stories about any topic, but stories about politics are the most likely to go viral.”
Furthermore, the veil of secrecy that surrounds a lot of the decision-making processes in politics, especially in this part of the world, has created a culture of suspicion and distrust in politics and politicians that reinforces the allure of conspiracy theories.
As Christians and citizens, we have often contributed to spreading false news and information by forwarding the messages we have received on social media without fact checking them or challenging their assumptions. When the Christchurch mosques shootings happened in March 2019, almost instantly a video of a church being burned down in Pakistan by Muslim extremists started circulating on WhatsApp. Most people did not know that the video was a few years old (neither did I, I had to google it on the spot), but many clicked on the forward button as a Pavlovian reflex without measuring the consequences of such an act. By joining in the forwarding frenzy without checking the facts and the date, we either unconsciously endorsed the Hammurabian law of retaliation, “eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth”, or we subdued the feelings of compassion and empathy towards the victims because somewhere in the past or the present extremists are persecuting Christians.
In the case of the Otpor video and the Lebanese Uprising, some Lebanese activists have probably learned from the experience of other non-violent movements or have even read A Guide To Effective Nonviolent Struggle (Otpor’s manual). Nevertheless, this does not render the demands of the protestors for a just and transparent political system free of corruption and nepotism any less honorable and legitimate, and it does not make the protest a huge plot fomented by a secret organization that aims to undermine Lebanese democracy.
There is no doubt that such a situation is of big interest to foreign governments, especially if it enables them to achieve their regional goals without firing one bullet. However, it would not be fair nor intellectually honest to limit the protest to such a consideration.
As Paul exhorts us in 1 Thessalonians 5:21-22 (ESV), we should endeavor to “test everything (Prophecies and conspiracy theories); [and to] hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil.” We are therefore not to believe everything but to give thought to our steps as Proverbs 14:15 reminds us.
With that being said, we are also to remember not to be naïve but to stay vigilant since “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6: 12, ESV).
Next time you have a discussion that involves conspiracy theories, challenge assumptions and check the facts without belittling or mocking the person in front of you; stay humble and remember that oftentimes there is no one single explanation behind it all.
Finally, we know that there are things we cannot know and to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld that there are things we do not know that we do not know about. In a sense, this should not worry us. Before ascending to heaven, Jesus told his disciples “it is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:7-8, ESV). That should be our mandate and our focus. Our role is to trust in Him, and the good news is that He has proven to be trustworthy.