Dieudonné sympathisers make the 'quenelle' gesture in support of the comic in Lyon. Demotix/Serge Mouraret. All rights reserved.
The French comic Dieudonné is courting controversy once again. Dieudonné, who has previously been convicted for anti-Semitic hate speech, recently caught the attention of the French authorities when he said of Jewish journalist Patrick Cohen “When I hear him talking, I say to myself: Patrick Cohen, hmm... the gas chambers… what a shame.” In response, the French government directed local authorities to ban his routine, which some have done, obliging Dieudonné to now tour the country with a toned down stand-up show. At the same time, West Brom footballer Nicolas Anelka is at risk of suspension after using the quenelle, a gesture created and popularised by Dieudonné and described by some as a reverse Nazi salute, at a football match.
The political scientist Jean-Yves Camus has noted that Dieudonné is the focus of a “broad movement that is anti-system and prone to conspiracy theories, but which has anti-Semitism as its backbone”. This view is supported by a recent interview with author Alain Soral, who defended his friend Dieudonné on the BBC’s Newsnight. When asked about the quenelle, Soral characterised it as “anti-system”, not anti-Semitic. But Soral then went on to say:
"Only recently the most powerful Jewish organisation in France, the CRIF, decreed that [the quenelle] was an anti-Semitic gesture. So basically their idea is that an anti-system gesture is an anti-Semitic one. So at the end of the day is that simply an improper accusation, or is there a deep link between the system of domination that Mr Dieudonné is fighting against and the organised Jewish community? Well, that’s the question." (BBC translation)
While Soral was careful to not be explicit, it appears that he was alluding to a conspiracy connecting the Jewish community with “the system”.
Conspiracy theories not directly based on anti-Semitism are also commonplace – not only in France, but Europe-wide. In Hungary, the economist László Bogár, a frequent guest in the public media and at government events, explains every political issue in the context of a “global financial empire”, and thinks for example that Walt Disney cartoons wanted to deliberately “program” people to be good consumers. And conspiracy theories have become even closer to the political mainstream: some conspiracy theorists (e.g. Béla Pokol, a political scientist whose favourite explanation scheme is the “Global order of domination”) have become leading decision-makers. The organisers of the pro-government “Peace March” in Hungary want to save the country from Brussels’ constant colonising attempts.
It might be tempting to dismiss these views as isolated anomalies. But our research at Counterpoint, Political Capital and the Institute for Public Affairs suggests that the phenomenon of conspiracy theories is in fact surprisingly widespread in several European countries. Clearly some conspiracy theories are more problematic than others – those that pin blame on the Jewish community are anti-Semitic hate speech, while others are merely the manifestations of healthy scepticism. But there is, we think, a common thread that runs through these theories – each conspiracy theory, in Cass Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule’s words, is “an effort to explain some event or practice by reference to the machinations of powerful people, who have also managed to conceal their role”. In our latest study, The conspiratorial mindset in an age of transition, we try to explore the underlying cultural factors behind conspiracy theories and suggest when and how they should be tackled.
A fertile ground for conspiracy theories
For our study, we surveyed the popularity of conspiratorial thinking in France, Hungary and Slovakia. We found widespread support for the belief that it is not the governments who governs – 50 per cent of respondents in our French survey either fully or slightly agreed with the statement that “actually, it is not the government that runs the country: we don’t know who pulls the strings”. Large numbers also agreed with the statement in Hungary and Slovakia.
While of course it does not follow that everyone who agrees with this statement is a conspiracy theorist – the statement, after all, does not explicitly identify a conspiracy as such – these findings do suggest that many people are susceptible to a conspiratorial mindset. We define the conspiratorial mindset as a firm belief that conspiracies can be used to explain all sorts of events and decisions. According to those who have a conspiratorial mindset, conspiracies are the main driving force behind economic and political events, even history itself.
Our study argues that there is fertile ground for the conspiratorial mindset in Europe. This is in part the product of a period of transition. Post-communist transitions in Central and Eastern Europe and economic and political transitions in the European Union have led to a perceived loss of control – a belief that governments do not have the power to truly make policy.
Furthermore, transitions often lead to uncertainty – the next stage of a transition is likely to be different and unfamiliar when placed next to what came before, even if it is a clear improvement. But in the case of Europe the transition is doubly uncertain because the next stage is not just unfamiliar – it is unknown. The post-Communist transitions may well have sparked uncertainty, but they at least knew that they were transitioning to capitalist democracies. Today in Europe, a feeling of transition is mixed with a sense of confusion: the European institutions will change, but it is not clear what they will change into. We argue in our study that these transitions have helped the conspiratorial mindset to prosper.
Populism and conspiracy theories
As these transitions have taken place, the phenomenon of populism has also emerged in Europe. Our study found that conspiracy theories and populism are powerfully linked. We found a strong correlation in Hungary and France between support for populist radical right parties and conspiratorial thinking. Voters for Marine Le Pen were more likely than others to agree that secret groups such as the Freemasons were pulling the strings of government from behind the scenes.
This is unsurprising in at least three ways. First, populist radical right politicians often make use of conspiracy theories to further their agenda. In Hungary, members of the populist radical right party Jobbik promote conspiracy theories indicating that Jews are somehow responsible for tensions between Roma and non-Roma communities, with one former chairman commenting “What is gypsy crime? Let’s not deceive ourselves: it’s a biological weapon in the hands of Zionists.” László Bogár and others, such as the historian Kornél Bakay who denies both evolutionary theory and the finno-ugric origin of the Hungarian language, are much-admired “scientists” on the radical right. In France, Dieudonné himself has become friendly with the Front National after previously opposing the party in the 1990s.
In Slovakia, Marian Kotleba, leader of the extreme right ĽS-NS movement, who was recently elected as the regional governor of Banska Bystrica and has become infamous for his anti-Roma stance, has embraced several conspiracy theories about hidden plots of Jews, Zionists, Freemasons, who allegedly try to dominate, conquer, subjugate or destroy Slovakia and the rest of the world. According to ĽS-NS, “manipulators of human minds implanted the idea that experts would govern our country. However, these were not experts favouring the Slovak nation, but were Czechoslovaks and Bolsheviks, now they govern us and liquidate the Slovak nation. They dragged us into the EU, and into the terrorist organization of NATO”.
Second, the core concept of populism that these parties exploit is a division between the (morally) “pure people” and the “corrupt elite”. Conspiracy theories can help to sustain this division by alleging secretive wrongdoings at the elite level while at the same time emphasising the innocence of an uninformed public.
Third, both conspiracy theories and populist politics are deeply linked to institutional distrust. Political Capital’s Demand for Right-Wing Extremism Index indicates that anti-establishment attitudes expressing institutional distrust are on the rise Europe-wide. Counterpoint’s Reluctant Radicals project on the reluctant supporters of populist parties showed that distrust in government was a recurring predictor of support for populism across Europe. And the conclusion of our research on conspiracy theories was that political distrust was the key variable most strongly associated with support for conspiracism, over and above demographic factors like gender, religion and education level.
Catherine Fieschi has argued before on openDemocracy that populism “feeds off the dysfunctions of democracy, while rarely acting as the corrective which it claims to be”. Something similar can be argued with regard to the conspiratorial mindset. While healthy scepticism is important for a well-functioning democracy – blind adoration for political leaders is a recipe for disaster – the conspiratorial mindset has its problems too. Like populism, the conspiratorial mindset springs from and draws light to important political problems – like the dangerously low levels of trust in institutions across Europe – but pointing to conspiracy at every turn is more likely to fuel this distrust than address it effectively.
And, even worse, it could promote pernicious conspiracy theories – ones that stigmatise and incite resentment of particular minority groups such as Jews or Roma. While we were not able to test anti-Semitic conspiracy theories directly in France, we did so in Hungary and Slovakia, where we found strikingly high levels of support. For instance, 46 per cent of the Hungarian and 34 per cent of the Slovakian sample agreed with the statement “Jews would like to control international financial institutions”.
Debunk or engage?
Anti-Semitic or xenophobic conspiracy theories (for instance, the “Eurabia” conspiracy theory that contends that European governments are encouraging the spread of Islam to undermine European values and traditions) are notoriously hard to tackle. The results from our study suggest that the traditional strategy of “debunking” theories is unlikely to work on its own. If conspiratorial thinking is rooted in institutional distrust, then discrediting the conspiracy theory will not address the underlying problem. Indeed, research in social psychology has shown that individuals typically have intuitive beliefs first and justify them after – so endless debates about, for instance, whether 9/11 was a Jewish conspiracy are unlikely to be fruitful.
Instead, we argue that to address these conspiracy theories campaigners need to engage with their roots: phenomena like political transitions, perceived loss of control, and institutional distrust. This of course will differ depending on the particular cultural context. But combining an appreciation of the roots of the conspiratorial mindset with an active debunking (even ridiculing) strategy is likely to be the best way of undermining the most dangerous and most catchy conspiracy theories.
Legal actions against advocates of conspiratorial hate speech are in themselves unlikely to solve the overall problem. If the demand for such theories prevails, they will re-emerge and feed populist and extremist forces again and again. This means that a far more multi-layered, pre-emptive and subtle approach to tackling anti-Semitic and xenophobic conspiracy theories is vital.
 The figures are not directly comparable since, although the same questions were asked, the survey methods differed. The French and the Slovakian samples are representative of the adult population, while the Hungarian is representative of regular internet users. See the report for further methodological details.