Fake news and conspiracy theories

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By RENATO ORTIZ*

It is the belief that shapes the conception of the world, despite the inconsistencies of reality

Conspiracy theories are interpretations of the world, they make visible what is supposedly hidden. This is its virtue, that is, the cognitive quality capable of showing that things “are not what they appear to be”, which underlies a dimension that escapes the gaze that only stops at the surface of what is shown. In this sense, they have nothing illogical, nor irrational, there is a “conspiratorial reason” that justifies and apprehends the logic of the world.

Every theory is an explanation, the question is what kind of explanation are we talking about. In the contemporary world there are impasses, adversities, challenges, but above all unpredictability: wars, ecological disasters, unemployment, poverty, insecurity. In the face of uncertainty, it is necessary to reaffirm the order, it is the safe haven in the face of existing “threats”. The theory codifies and justifies the latent conflicts, gives them meaning.

One should not expect an intellectual refinement from these narratives, they are simple and simplistic, they understand that there is a new world order dictated by political forces (communists, liberals, democrats) and economic forces (transnational corporations) that control people's lives . The idea of ​​conspiracy feeds on suspicion, on what is not seen, it privileges the hidden intention that in principle would act in the world. This idealized and linear conception of reality allows identifying a small group of people, the conspirators, who would be responsible for the current domination. “Theory” strips control bare.

The conspiratorial discourse is based on some argumentative assumptions. The first is the existence of an “us” as opposed to a “them”, the victims and the conspirators. The binary and dichotomous perspective names the virtuous and the enemies to be fought. There is a kind of religious underpinning to this type of understanding, as if life were an incessant battle between good and evil. This brings conspiracy theories closer to modern populist ideologies, I mean current ones, like Donald Trump or Jair Bolsonaro.

Opponents are enemies to be slaughtered. This Manichean trait is particularly expressed in the type of language used in which intolerance becomes the grammatical structure of discourse. Among us, the lingua franca of Boçalnarismo transformed the insult into a valid discursive argument (“PTistas”, “scoundrels”, “corrupts”, “thieves”). By apprehending the Other as a threat, the classification system eliminates and erases him from life in society.

A second aspect refers to the nature of the facts interpreted by the available code. In a synthetic way, it can be expressed as follows: “nothing exists by chance, everything is interconnected”. Facts, regardless of their nature (even if they are incompatible), are discrete elements that acquire meaning when adjusted to the intellectual proposal that apprehends them. In this sense, they constitute evidence that “prove” the veracity of the theoretical framework that makes them intelligible.

The logic of conspiratorial thinking operates through evidence, however, this works as a data of the authenticity of what one wants to demonstrate. A comparison with the detective novel, heritage of the XNUMXth century, a kind of popularization of the scientific spirit, is illuminating. The detective's job is to separate the clue from the evidence, the false leads from the true ones; the data to be deciphered has multiple configurations that attest or deceive reason. There is a margin of error that strains the character of the novel, he lives permanently in doubt.

It is thus a discourse in which an attempt is made to separate the wheat from the chaff, what really matters from appearances. Conspiracy theories work according to the principle of single causality, they presuppose the existence of an intention in which the index is transmuted into evidence, it is the confirmation of the narrative veracity. An example: the idea that man has never been on the moon. The statement is supported by a specific evidence: the photograph of the American flag on the lunar surface. In it, a small folded part is seen, which is perceived as something “trembling”; well, there is no wind on the moon, so the picture was taken somewhere on Earth.

What matters here is not the content of the statement, but the causal chain of the argument. If the flag is fluttering, the photo is false; and it is known that it is false because its falsity was already assured by the theory postulated earlier. Another example: during the events of January 8 in Brasilia, footage shows a person waving a PT flag. This means: “the destruction of the Palácio da Alvorada was carried out by infiltrators of the Workers' Party”. In both examples, the clues are details deduced from the theory, it works as a kind of oracle that interprets “everything that happens” or “it could still happen”.

The corollary of this type of argumentation is that not just a fact, but different and discrepant facts can be approximated to each other. Let's look at some of them “the vaccine against covid is bad for health”; “the polls were rigged in the 2022 presidential election”. In principle, we are faced with disconnected statements, there is no common link that unifies them.

The scientific validity of the vaccine does not imply any type of fraud or election success; the scientific level does not coincide with the political dimension. However, conspiratorial thinking rationally ensures a pertinent explanation: “the vaccine and the ballot boxes are part of a manipulation on a transnational scale and in the case of Brazil there is a plot involving the Federal Supreme Court and leftist forces”. The premise acts in this way as an instance of intelligibility of random facts and the truth would be assured by the explanatory coherence that appropriates them.

This brings us to the topic of fake news, how to understand them? A first alternative is to consider them in their falsity. Once the world is divided between “good” and “evil”, its use becomes morally defensible. The error is a fortuitous dimension of a broader proposal, in other words, the end would justify the means. If the “enemy” must be shot down, the false is something circumstantial, a minor artifice in a larger battle.

This bi-polar perspective of reality favors the defense and use of spurious means to achieve certain objectives (a theme common to ideologies and religions). In this case, the dispute around the implausibility of the facts would be of little relevance, the truth is secondary to the expected results. The second possibility is to understand them in their veracity.

Let's consider the examples of photography on the lunar surface and the footage of the invasion of Praça dos Três Poderes. In both cases we are faced with a discrete element of a larger event: a photo, a film. Highlights that stand out from a broader context (other photos of the landing on the moon, other shots of the coup attempt on January 8th) to assert themselves as indication and evidence of a hidden purpose. What lies outside the detail is thus discarded.

It is as if the real were reduced to a point where the hidden truth is concentrated. Suspicion then becomes a sore point of the argument, it constitutes the mechanism through which counterevidence is refuted. In a certain way, it can be said that the effort to know the facts in no way weakens the original conception, on the contrary, it is strengthened due to the denials it knows. Suspicion feeds doubt, in this case, clarification is superfluous, as it is the belief that shapes the conception of the world, despite the inconsistencies of reality.

* Renato Ortiz He is a professor at the Department of Sociology at Unicamp. Author, among other books, of The universe of luxury (Mall).

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