Growth in Conspiracy Theories Risks Undermining Democracy in Balkans

All crisis and catastrophes give rise to conspiracy theories, a social phenomena that leave no one indifferent. Their popularity grows, especially in times of COVID-19 pandemic.

As an unwritten rule, in such times of crisis, people become more amenable and paranoid, and then collective anxiety can be expected around the globe, including in the Western Balkans.

There are two opposite views on the validity of “conspiracy theories”. One treats them uncritically, considering them absolute truths.

Contrary to this, all “conspiracy theories” are dismissed as a product of human imagination. Is the “truth is still out there” between these two options, as in the famous science fiction TV series,  “The X-Files”?

In the Western Balkans region, events have opened up many opportunities for manipulation. Some so-called conspiracy theories, combined with fake news, lead to collective paranoia. It all contributes to a lack of trust in existing institutions, directly undermining the already fragile democracy in the region.

Conspiracy as a phenomenon is ingrained in the human race from the earliest days of its existence. A secret connects the actors in any conspiracy; it also makes them vulnerable.

Hence, keeping the secret is the priority in a conspiracy group. As mentioned, the aim of every conspiracy is two-fold: to either harm or help someone. Conspiracy is part and parcel of many political phenomena, such as terrorism, assassinations, wars, and more.

Therefore, the existence of conspiracies should not be doubted, as conspiratorial actions lie at the core of human nature. This is best evidenced by the nature of political activity, which is mostly covert in nature – it is widely estimated that at least 80 per cent of political decisions are made “behind closed doors”.

The problem arises with the “conspiracy theory” phenomenon, which is mainly pejorative in nature. Explanations of phenomena in an unconventional way or by means of extraordinary evidence – including the role of “evil people” who seek to harm others in order to pursue some interests of their own – is how “conspiracy theories” might be briefly defined.

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, we were familiar with the ideas that Earth is flat, that the world is ruled by people-reptiles, that Hitler is still alive and that there are aliens among us. There are even theories about the origins of “conspiracy theories”, or, as philosophers would say, conspiracy meta-theories.

The pandemic caused by the coronavirus has hugely added to speculation, sparking new “conspiracy theories” in the Western Balkans. The five most popular include that:

  1. Bill Gates artificially created the virus in order to profit together with globalists and pharmaceutical companies; their ultimate aim is to make a vaccine and implant people with microchips.
  2. Coronavirus was caused by the effects of the 5G network. This idea was launched by various public figures, such as David Icke, who has almost a million followers on his YouTube channel , which, by the way, was removed during the pandemic.
  3. Coronavirus is a fabrication, used to divert public attention from the real political goal – populating the Western Balkans with illegal migrants.
  4. We are being sprayed by a substance of unknown origin from airplanes, which affects human health.
  5. Climate is being changed artificially. The evidence of this is the snow in Serbia, which allegedly could not be melted even by fire from a lighter.

We may wonder why “conspiracy theories” are so popular and who draws the line between what is true and what is false. One problem with all these “theories” is that they are not entirely based on lies. They do contain a grain of truth that sinks in the sea of fiction (and reality).

It is also possible to explain the need for them in the Western Balkans in several ways. First, these explanations create an illusion of control. Even the worst truth can be better than uncertainty, and the Western Balkans, are in a permanent state of uncertainty.

It is uncertain when we will join the EU, where our territorial borders are, when or whether our living standards will improve. Finally, it is uncertain whether we will survive COVID-19. Amid this collective anxiety, the answers offered by “conspiracy theories” are a straw to grasp at.

The second one is a sense of superiority. Having the answers to such difficult questions, concerning the pandemic for example, creates an illusion of power over the supposed enemy that is “conspiring to destroy us”. Thus, we point out the culprit and, in so doing, strengthen our collective identity. This particularly occurs in the case of a conflict between two rival collectivities.

The third esplanation is the sense of meaning that “conspiracy theories” give us. Despite the unconventional nature of their explanations, everything somehow seems logical and makes sense.

Digitalisation of communications is certainly conducive to the massification of  “conspiracy theories”, and may ultimately lead us to digital authoritarianism.

It is clear, for example, that some political actors around the world have used the pandemic as an excuse to control information, degrading us to a level of arche-politics.

Finally, as rational beings, humans should have the right to doubt, as well as to think critically. After all, this is the core principle of democracy.

The only question which remains unclear is, what if some conspiracy theories are not just “theories”? As Freud said: “Just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean that they are not out there to get me.”

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