We’re used to conspiracy theories that come crawling out of corners of the Internet, where anonymous users make absurd claims without any evidence. So why do these hoaxes occasionally slip into the mouths of politicians?
John Michael Carey, a professor of government and social sciences at Dartmouth University, explains that “conspiracy theories hold that hidden groups are perpetuating secret plots to advance their own interests, even at the expense of the broader public good. Such narratives are ubiquitous across diverse political environments.”
Carey holds that political elites have the power to push conspiracy narratives into mainstream political opinion, and they’re almost always politically motivated, with tremendously polarizing effects.
“Partisan loyalties push some citizens to accept, and others to reject, the same narrative depending on (their) political slant.”
There is still little literature that looks at what the impact of conspiracy theories might be on society, but there has been much research aimed at understanding how and why these theories spread.
One study published last year in the European Journal of Social Psychology identifies four basic principles that characterize belief in conspiracy theories:
- Consequential: Conspiracy theories have an impact on people’s health, relationships and safety.
- Universal: Belief in conspiracy theories are widespread across time periods, cultures and social settings.
- Emotional: It’s negative emotions, rather than rational deliberations, that drive belief in conspiracy theories.
- Social: Belief is closely associated with the psychological motivations that underlie intergroup conflict.
To prevent the consumption and spread of these kinds of hoaxes, the study recommends encouraging rational thinking and “providing rational arguments against specific theories.”
It’s been proven that initiatives designed to refute implausible conspiracy theories do in fact make a difference, and can reduce widespread belief.
The researchers also recommend increasing feelings of security among the public — hoaxes spread when people feel a lack of control. Interventions should be designed to decrease negative emotions towards groups or political ideologies, and increase analytic reasoning.
Here’s a roundup of some politicians from around the world who don’t seem interested in following that advice, from the whacky anti-vaxxers and flat earthers to the more politically devious.
In Brazil, President Bolsonaro mischaracterizes Nazism
In April of this year, President Jair Bolsonaro visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and museum only to conclude that “there is no doubt” Nazism was a leftist movement.
Bolsonaro’s Minister of Foreign affairs, Ernesto Araújo, had recently made the same claim on Twitter, linking to a blog post that explained the theory in detail. Araújo has also stated that the issue of climate change was invented by “cultural Marxists” to help push an anti-Christian agenda.
The claim that Germany’s Nazi movement was leftist has appeared in U.S. politics as well, though it’s been repeatedly debunked. As Vox explains, Nazism was based on a foundation of racism and anti-Semitism, combined with the belief in one supreme ruler with total authority over the people.
Nonetheless, the hoax has been spread via YouTube and other social media in Brazil since 2010, when the polemic political pundit and self-taught philosopher Olavo de Carvalho posted a video on his website claiming Nazis were socialists. Carvalho is considered to be Bolsonaro’s “intellectual guru.”
Aos Fatos, a fact-checking platform in Brazil, estimates that of 149 verifiable statements Bolsonaro has made since his inauguration, 82 of them have been either entirely wrong or erroneous.
In Italy, Massimiliano Fedriga doesn’t care for vaccines
Massimiliano Fedriga, president of the northeastern region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia, seemed to have experienced a change of heart regarding his anti-vaccination stance after contracting chickenpox earlier this year.
Fedriga had been a vocal opponent of Italy’s new law that made a range of immunizations mandatory for children before they could attend school. He went as far as calling the law “Stalinist” in an interview last year.
When Fedriga came down with the chickenpox in March, he wrote in a Facebook post that he’d seen a “series of celebratory comments on Twitter because I’ve been hospitalized,” insisting that he was not an anti-vaxxer and had indeed vaccinated his children.
Chickenpox is a vaccine-preventable disease, one of the ones the law requires of children.
In Canada, an ex-councillor questions Islamophobia and the Earth’s roundness
Nathalie Lemieux previously served as the deputy mayor of Gatineau, the fourth-largest city in Quebec. She was stripped of that title in February after claiming she didn’t believe Islamophobia existed, saying instead that Muslim immigrants have failed to integrate into society.
Shortly after, Lemieux, who is now serving as councillor, wrote an online comment in which she suggested that evidence of the Earth being flat has been hidden.
“Who decided that the Earth is round and why do you believe it?” she wrote from her personal account, responding to a news article about YouTube clamping down on videos promoting conspiracy theories.
“The first question to ask is now that people realize that it’s possible that the Earth is flat, why do they want to hide the explanations that prove it,” the comment read.
In Greece, Panos Kammenos accuses Soros of foul play in Greece
In January of this year, Poynter reported on Panos Kammenos, then defense minister of Greece, who’d appeared in Parliament espousing a conspiracy theory about George Soros, the founder and former leader of the Open Society Foundations.
Kammenos claimed that Soros had been working with Zoran Zaev, the prime minister of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, on an agreement that would be “the beginning of the implementation of the plan for the dissolution of Greece.”
Last year in November, Kammenos suggested that the former foreign minister, Nikos Kotzias, had also been bribed by Soros into backing the deal, an accusation that led to Kotzias’ resignation.
After the parliament speech, Kammenos retweeted an article that detailed more conspiracies of Soros’ meddling in Greek politics without any concrete evidence. At the time, Kammenos had 90,000 followers.
Kammenos has since stepped down from his role, and his right-wing Independent Greeks party quit the government.
In Venezuela, Maduro promotes anti-Semitic conspiracy theories
The rise of interim President Juan Guaidó in Venezuela has compelled the country’s authoritarian dictator, Nicolás Maduro, to espouse anti-Semitic allegations of “Zionist” plots to take over the government.
Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chavez, have been scapegoating Israel and Jews as a political tool since as early as 2006.
In today’s crisis, Maduro’s government has spread the claim that Guaidó, a leader of the opposition attempting to oust Maduro from power, is secretly a CIA agent serving the interests of the United States and Israel.
In February, the Venezuelan Communist Party, which is aligned with Maduro, published a tweet implying that the Zionist army of Israel was attempting to invade the country under the guise of bringing in humanitarian assistance.
Venezuela is no stranger to conspiracy theories from its government.
In 2011, Hugo Chavez had the body of Simon Bolivar exhumed. Chavez wanted to prove that Bolivar, the South American liberation hero who was a native Venezuelan, had been murdered by Colombian oligarchs. The exhumation provided no evidence to back his claim, though Chavez continued to repeat it, and Bolivar’s death remains a mystery.
In the United States, Trump makes up thousands of illegal voters
Just this week, President Donald Trump repeated the unfounded claim that immigrants living illegally in the United States have been voting in large numbers.
Without evidence, the president said that these immigrants are able to put on different articles of clothing to vote repeatedly in states like California.
Throughout his presidency, Trump has also repeatedly alleged that millions of illegal votes cost him the popular vote against Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, again without any concrete proof.