Politics, Lies and Conspiracy Theories starts with a description of the Dreyfus Affair. Marcel Danesi discusses how a piece of fake news in 1894 took 12 years to disprove and finally exonerate Alfred Dreyfus, a French army officer, of providing military secrets to Germany. He points out Hannah Arendt’s comment about how lies work, “not that you believe the lies, but rather that no one believes anything any longer.”
Political lies were described by Machiavelli in The Prince long before Hitler and Stalin took up his advice. Machiavelli understood that really big lies work because they are so unbelievable that no one would use them unless they were true. Such lies also work by constant repetition and the refusal to ever retract the lie.
George Orwell understood this too, writing in 1984 that, “The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was there final, most essential command.” Does this sound somewhat familiar in the present day? In 2018, Donald Trump said the following version of doublespeak at a rally in Kansas City, “What you are seeing and what you are reading, is not happening.”
People who believe in conspiracy theories tend not to focus on just one conspiracy, but rather they develop a broader conspiratorial view of the world. This view is reinforced by confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance which help people wither ignore or dismiss information that goes against their previously held beliefs and existing behaviours.
Of course them modern digital world helps multiply the problem of lies, conspiracies and disinformation exponentially. To quote Hannah Arendt again, “A people that no longer can believe anything cannot make up its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also its capacity to think and judge. And with such people you can then do what you please.”
In this short book, Marcel Danesi does a good job of outlining the history of political lies and the role of language and psychology in perpetuating them (as well as plenty of blame for The Da Vinci Code). It’s a good and sobering read for anyone interested in conspiracy theories or political discourse.