Even a brief guide to conspiracy theories must acknowledge that some conspiracies are real. Hitler’s generals did plot against him, while Edward Snowden has shown that almost everything we suspected about the US government’s snooping ambition is true.
As the late Umberto Eco liked to point out, however, sooner or later we find out about real conspiracies. The plotters stage a coup and announce themselves. Or they’re caught and shot. Or all is uncovered by a leak.
It’s false conspiracies that are driven by paranoia or fake news. They remain false pregnancies, empty secrets, hinting at much but revealing nothing, heightened by fantasy, and impossible to refute. Their theorists ‘reveal all’, assure us of ‘open secrets’, but somehow the conspiracy never rises to the surface.
It’s a distinction to remember when considering the conspiracy theories in vogue in Malta. I was noting them absent-mindedly until I decided to count every one I came across. I was stunned to count 22. (You can count more or fewer, depending on whether different groups of plotters are rivals or in alliance.)
Here’s a sample. Remember, this list includes conspiracies that may be true. For reasons I’ll get to, it’s important to see them together with the wild ones.
There are no fewer than four people who are said to have been victims of a frame-up: Chris Cardona, Joseph Muscat, Adrian Delia and Yorgen Fenech. Please note: there are more plots than ‘victims’.
About Muscat, for example, it is alleged both that, on Egrant, he may have been framed by his enemies and that he ‘framed’ himself in order to frame his enemies.
Fenech is said to be the victim of a frame-up — but by whom? Caruana Galizia’s real assassins? The police and security services? Adrian Delia’s Nationalist enemies (smearing Fenech to get at Delia)? Caruana Galizia’s own family, intent on shaking an innocent tycoon for his money? And do we have to choose between these plots or is Fenech our own Count of Monte Cristo, with diabolical enemies in cahoots for their own different reasons?
Then there’s the assassination. Was it the Mafia? Was it one or two sets of masterminds? What about the laptop? Some have even wondered whether it was a diabolical suicide designed to bring down Muscat.
The theme of ‘capture of institutions’ is a botanical garden of plots. Depending on whom you listen to, these institutions include (here’s just a short list): the police, the public inquiry, Labour, the PN and the EU. The latter is said to have been captured by the PN, which wants to harm Malta, but the PN itself is said to have been captured by Labour, the ‘establishment’, the Caruana Galizia family or Repubblika, which itself may be controlled by George Soros or Richard Cachia Caruana.
Against such giddiness, it’s almost prosaic to suspect Bill Gates is behind COVID or a sinister vaccine or both.
It might seem in bad taste to list together alleged plots that are plausible — even sensible ways of making sense of the known facts — and others that are outrageous if not fevered. But grouping them together helps us see how fake conspiracies gain a hold.
First, contrary to what you’d expect, they do not play on people’s credulity. They play on people’s natural scepticism by getting them to doubt everything. People seek evidence for what they’d like to believe; radical doubt about everything helps their confirmation bias seem rational.
When conspiracy theorists push a theory to provide a smokescreen for the guilty, they do not seek to persuade people that the theories are true. They aim to instil radical doubt in any rational explanation. Hence why they might even push several conspiracy theories, even incompatible ones.
Second, in cases like ours, fake conspiracy theories do not push a counter-narrative. They take the same narrative — say, an assassination motivated by a lust for millions; or a sinister takeover of an institution — but replace the protagonists. This way, different explanations get confused over time. The most rational explanation ends up sounding much like the wild one.
Fake theories mirror the plausible ones, which is why the number of alleged political frame-ups suddenly froths up in a country that had hardly experienced them previously, or why the same institution suddenly seems to have been captured by many competing cabals.
So how can you tell which is which? Three general rules help.
The rule of revelation: Real plots rise to the surface — in documents, money transfers, intercepted messages… If an alleged plot rests on an ‘empty secret’ — intimations of huge significance in a photo or a parked car, which significance is always promised but never revealed — then you’re probably dealing with a fake plot.
The rule of imitation: Fake conspiracies tend to mirror real ones, not the other way round. For this reason, they tend to be proposed later in time.
The rule of art: Life is stranger than fiction which, after all, is limited by our imagination. If the plot you’re reading about sounds like Alexandre Dumas, it probably came from him.
Above all, console yourself. Our country isn’t losing the plot. On the contrary, it’s awash in too many.