Conspiracy theories and witchcraft persecutions

Contemporary conspiracy theories and older witchcraft beliefs have a lot in common. Both are networks of ideas, mostly unconnected with each other, but linked by tenuous theories. This comparison has been explored by a team of researchers at UCLA and Berkeley using AI and folklore to map the key people, things, and relationships in thousands of social media posts.

On reading the article in The Guardian, a couple of things struck me. One was the similarity to rhizomatic theory as expounded by Deleuze and Guattari; the other was that there are small nuggets of truth within the web of misinformation. As Dave Cornier explains:

A rhizome, sometimes called a creeping rootstalk, is a stem of a plant that sends out roots and shoots as it spreads. It is an image used by D&G to describe the way that ideas are multiple, interconnected and self-replicating. A rhizome has no beginning or end… like the learning process. 

– Dave Cornier

The thing about conspiracy theories is that they are based (however remotely) on nuggets of fact, but fungal threads of misinformation attach themselves to those nuggets of fact. Big Pharma really does make obscene profits from selling drugs at inflated prices. Mobile phone technology really could be used for spying. Bill Gates really does have a lot of money and a philanthropic foundation that intervenes in third world countries. Stir in a huge dollop of fear and misinformation, and you can see how people might start to make spurious connections between these things.

the rhizome pertains to a map that must be produced, constructed, a map that is always detachable, connectible, reversible, modifiable, and has multiple entryways and exits and its own lines of flight.

– Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 21

Medieval beliefs about witches and Jews attached themselves to fears about the weather, crop failures, contaminated water supplies, and unexplained illnesses. All of those things were real phenomena, but their causes were misunderstood, so people felt the need to blame a reviled out-group within society. This is still the case in areas where witchcraft beliefs are still prevalent.

The article suggests that one way to start deconstructing someone’s belief in a conspiracy theory is to show them parts of the web of misinformation that they do not believe in, and how those are connected to the bits of it that they do believe in, in the hope of making them see the irrationality of their belief. Another way is to provide them with true explanations of the causes of illness, bad weather, crop failure, and so on.

If you come across someone who believes any aspect of a conspiracy theory, whether it is about witches or covid vaccines or climate science, this might be worth a try.

You would think that people would realize that it would be incredibly difficult for thousands of people to maintain a massive and elaborate lie, such as they maintain is happening, but apparently that never enters their heads.

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