Victoria Hanson, Victoria Dueno and Michelle Fenn BBC Reel
From “Pizzagate” to QAnon, conspiracy theories may seem like a product of the modern world, where social media is ubiquitous.
On December 4, 2016, Edgar Welch opened fire at a pizzeria in suburban Washington.
The attacker thought he was putting an end to a child-prostitution ring linked to Hillary Clinton, one of several fabricated stories spread in those months to affect the Democratic nominee’s presidential campaign.
It shows that one wrong click can lead you into a digital maze of conspiracy theories, but this is apparently not a phenomenon unique to our times.
“Conspiracies have been around for as long as humans have existed. It’s a way of explaining the inexplicable,” says Cammy Agavan, executive director of the University of Southern California’s (USC) Dornsife Center for the Future of Politics.
Can looking at the past help us understand the present?
“When I started learning about QAnon (the conspiracy theory that former US President Donald Trump is struggling with child abuse and the ‘deep state’), I was really surprised because they had an ancient medieval book and they were reading it. It was like a pinball machine. , all the lights were on, but I saw new patterns,” says Jay Rubenstein, director of the same university’s Dornsife Center for Pioneering Worlds.
“I had no intention of studying conspiracy theories, but in the last couple of years I think I’ve had to start thinking about them because it’s become clear to me that they really affect the way the world works,” he adds.
In a few words
“A conspiracy theory is that an evil group conspires toward a malicious goal,” says Annie Sternsko, a doctoral student at New York University’s School of Social Psychology.
Conspiracy theories cover everything from subliminal messages in advertisements to the moon landing.
But there is one thing that connects them.
“It’s a simple story. The hidden villain must do all his harm without being seen. You have the victims, the oppressed poor who deserve our sympathy. Then you have the hero who unmasks the villain,” explains Don Edelstein, professor of French and history at Stanford University.
In the Middle Ages, the devil was the greatest villain.
“The conspiracy theory that really started in the Middle Ages was anti-Judaism,” says Rubenstein.
“The belief is that the Jews conspire to take back the Holy Land through a pact with the devil that they will sacrifice a Christian child every year at Easter, and finally, the devil returns Jerusalem to them.”
“Once this idea caught on, it became almost a habit to develop conspiracy beliefs about how the world works.”
But there is one person who stands out in this art like no other.
“The greatest and most feverish conspiracy theorist of the Middle Ages was King Philip the Fair, or Philip IV of France (1268-1314),” says Rubenstein, and describes:
“The conspiracy most associated with him involved the Templars, an order based in Jerusalem.
“Their basic idea was to live like saints but fight like warriors. They renounced property and family and lived together in society.”
“The Templars made money with a vengeance. They collected donations, built churches all over Europe, and they were so successful that they managed the bank accounts of the kings of France.”
“But in 1307, Philip the Fair decided he wanted to get rid of it, and he did so by creating his own conspiracy theory.”
“He said they engaged in profane practices: sodomy, pederasty, Satan worship and witchcraft.”
“He sent men all over France, and in one night he arrested all the Templars.”
“It was one of the most successful conspiracies of all time, and the most successful of the Middle Ages.”
True and false
The Middle Ages are coming to an end, but the use of this universal weapon continues.
“Whenever there are periods of political or social upheaval, we see an increase in conspiracy theories,” says author and science disinformation and denialist Sarah Gorman.
“Throughout history, conspiracy theories have had similar elements, usually something that’s happening at the time that’s hard to explain or very uncertain and you’re trying to find an explanation.”
Differentiating fact from fake news requires information, and this has sometimes been difficult.
“When talking about an early modern or pre-modern historical event, it’s important to keep in mind that information is always scarce,” Edelstein points out.
“A lot of times people don’t know what’s going on. They often have no way of knowing if something is true or if it’s just another rumor.”
“I think that’s why conspiracy theories are more likely to emerge, especially in situations where information is scarce and you have little way of deciding what information you can trust.
One of those moments was the French Revolution.
“At the time, they were everywhere,” the Stanford professor explains.
“One of the most important groups of the French Revolution was the Jacobins Club, born in Paris in 1789 at the beginning of the Revolution.”
“In 1792, he was indeed considered one of the most radical factions of the French revolutionaries, and was well represented in politics.”
“They are often the ones pushing for a purge, to remove council members.”
Like other revolutionaries of the time, the Jacobins resorted to conspiracy theories linking their opponents to foreign governments or capital and known counter-revolutionaries.
“They used this technique and perfected the strategy to outlaw their competitors.”
“That’s one of the areas where the French Revolution is important, because that’s when you really start to see the emergence of the modern conspiracy theory genre.”
What is a modern conspiracy theory?
“There is an implicit sense that elites are corrupt. They don’t reflect the true feelings of the people and are actively working against the interests of the people,” Edelstein says.
“And charismatic leaders often know how to use that narrative very well.”
“Stalin justified the failed attempt to nationalize grain in the Ukraine—which led to a terrible famine in which some 3 million people died—he described it as sabotage and blamed the Trotskyists.”
“Many in the Russian political establishment and ordinary people found it easy to believe because it came from Stalin.”
“There is certainly something about the person spreading the conspiracy that adds to its success,” he concludes.
“Conspiracy theorists are great storytellers,” says Rubenstein.
“They’re very good at telling stories and adding information in ways you’ve never seen before and never thought of on your own.”
“By doing that, it feels like they’re letting you into a secret world.”
A history of conspiracy theories and a secret world involving child sacrifice, Templars and corruption clubs.
In the 21st century, we add pizzerias to this list.
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