Can conspiracy theories be instruments of global diplomacy?on 2 March 2016
By Ilya Yablokov
A few weeks ago the X-files series returned to the screens reminding us of how smoothly the conspiratorial perception of the world intervened the everyday life of the ordinary Americans, the Britons, and, indeed, the Russians. ‘The truth is out there’ - the motto, which appears in every episode, encapsulates the constant pursuits of agent Mulder to uncover the grand governmental plot. The weekly re-production of the latest conspiracy theories in the series was excellent evidence of how conspiracy theories turned into a mainstream phenomenon and, in a way, lost the libel of paranoia, which followed it in previous decades.
In fact, the intense study of conspiracy theories, which began pretty much at the same time, demonstrated that they can mean more than just an alternative or bizarre reading of politics. But to what extent could a certain story be regarded as a conspiracy theory? And to what extent could conspiracy theories actually contain some factual elements of politics, economics or culture? The real conspiracies of the past and present largely determine the perception of conspiracy ideas, providing the basis for public trust in conspiratorial explanations (take the examples of the Tuskegee experiment, when Afro-Americans became the object of scientific research of syphilis and basically were poisoned by the doctors, or the Snowden affair which disclosed the mass surveillance operation of the US intelligence).
If we acknowledge this, then conspiracy theories could help us to interpret power relationships in the modern world. Conspiracy notions within the context of open, democratic society could be revealed as a challenge to the existing social and political state of things in order to transform it in a positive (or negative) way. Conspiracy theories could be understood as a peculiar power instrument that helps undermine reputations of political actors and at the same time increase power and public legitimacy of their accusers. In other words, conspiracy theories help divide the world between the ‘good’ people and a small bunch of evil ‘Others’ (whoever they could be) thus helping those who spread these ideas to gain prominence, political legitimacy and public support.
Leaving aside the perception of conspiracy theories as a tool for crackpots, could we imagine conspiracy theories as a sophisticated instrument of power politics? In particular, can we imagine that conspiracy theories may be used to promote a country globally, thus turning it into an instrument of public diplomacy? The case of the Russian international television channel RT (aka Russia Today) is one of the prime examples of this.
Established 11 years ago to promote Russia across the globe, it pursued to counterbalance criticism of Russia by western media and spread a favourable picture of the policies of the Russian government globally. The Kremlin’s idea was to juxtapose Russia to the US and make Russia a speaker on behalf of the third-world nations excluded from the US-led ‘New World Order’. This was made by broadcasting 'alternative' news which not necessarily made the headlines in the major media outlets (such as CNN or the BBC), but constantly involved scandals with the US, UK or EU governments. A simultaneous adoption of arguments of left- and right-wing critics of the United States gives RT leeway to adapt its narratives in relation to different audiences, thereby expanding its global influence. Moreover, the Kremlin's links to both right- and left-wing intellectuals in Europe and the US supplies RT with a range of figures who are ready to justify Russia's policies to foreign audiences.
The toolkit of ideas to spoil the reputation of the Western government (and the US government in particular) includes conspiracy theories which expose the actions of the corrupt elites which rule the nations. Tapping into an excessively rich tradition of conspiratorial mythmaking which existed in the US for decades, RT skilfully uses traditional American conspiracy theories to muscle support for its news output among various subnational audiences. Recently, the channel launched a show by Jesse Ventura, a prominent American conspiracy theorist and TV anchor, which is completely devoted to debunking lies of the US government. Another show, which was heavily charged with conspiratorial ideas, The Truthseeker, was at the centre of controversy over its claims that the BBC’s reports from Syria had been staged. . Later the show somehow disappeared from the list of programmes and even the archive of the shows vanished!
Why RT is so focused on spreading conspiracy theories and what implications it might have for other countries? RT's endorsement of different types of conspiracy theories, both bizarre and well-grounded in real facts of governmental cover up operations, allows it to infuse the current social and economic inequalities of American and European societies with conspiratorial allegations, thereby generating a distinctly anti-elitist message and winning attention of domestic audiences. No matter what the stories are today, they need to pursue an anti-elitist idea which would polarize the society between the people and the tiny group of elites which rule the country (and the world, allegedly). This gives RT the chance to question the integrity of European and American media outlets and governmental institutions and enables them to defend the policies of the Kremlin.
RT has recently switched to being in active defence of Russia’s involvement in the Ukrainian conflict whilst members of Putin’s political elite have completely slipped into open accusations against the West in conspiring against Russia. The rapid escalation of the conflict and the growing rift between Russia and the West over the Ukrainian and Syrian conflicts makes conspiracy theories an attractive and, perhaps, an effective tool of self-defence, which can reach various audiences and justify the Kremlin’s actions. It can both cherish the supporting group of Russia across the world and stain the US and the UK’s reputation by exposing its involvement in the world conflicts in the past (following the Russian proverb: ‘Takes one to know one’). However, measuring the success of public diplomacy instruments is a complicated task and their proclaimed efficiency would not necessarily guarantee the successful accomplishment of the foreign policy goals. No matter how well these theories are wrapped and sold on the global market of ideas by RT, it would require a great deal of time to turn them into a decisive political tool. Still, as an innovative way of applying the good old conspiratorial ideas, they are definitely worth of in-depth academic research.
Ilya Yablokov holds an MA in Nationalism studies from Central European University, Hungary (2009) and received his PhD from the University of Manchester, UK (2014). His research interests include conspiracy theories, nation building and politics in post-Soviet Russia, the history of post-Soviet journalism and international broadcasting. He has published in peer-reviewed journals (Nationalities Papers, Politics, Democratizatsiya). In 2015, he won the BASEES Prize for the best peer-reviewed article published by a post-graduate student. At the moment, Ilya teaches Russian politics, history and media at the University of Leeds (UK). His article ‘Conspiracy Theories as a Russian Public Diplomacy Tool: The Case of Russia Today’ has recently been published in Politics. He tweets @ilya_yablokov.
Image: Alper Çuğun CC BY-NC-ND