In KonspiraNorge , journalist and writer John Færseth explores how and why conspiracy theories have established themselves in Norway, how they’re found in different forms across the political spectrum, and the changes taking place as different conspiracy movements shift focus, morph and feed into each other.
I thought Anders Behring Breivik and the events of July 22nd 2011 would loom large in KonspiraNorge, but instead they form the backdrop of this wider more general discussion, which, as a relative newcomer and outsider when it comes to Norwegian society and politics, I appreciated. The first third of the book actually focuses on the US, where conspiracies of the type we meet today, particularly concerning the Illuminati, Bilderberg group, and Freemasons seem to have been born.
New World Orders and anti-Semitic conspiracies, and the frightening frequency and strength with which they continue to crop up both on the conservative right, where they are best known, and occasionally liberal the left, form the backbone of the book. The focus shifts, disappointingly briefly it must be said, to conspiracies surrounding Islam and Eurabia towards towards the end, at which point Færseth also touches a slightly more contemporary phenomenon, that of the slow cross-pollination between the traditionally male-dominated realm of conspiracy theory (with its negative focus on global politics) and the female-dominated New Age/alternative medicine (with its positive focus on self). ‘Conspirituality’ is the overlap in the venn diagram of paranoid thinking that is typified by ideas such as vaccines containing mind-controlling nanotechnology.
The interviews Færseth conducts with both well-known purveyors of conspiracies, including writers and editors for the notorious Nyhetsspeilet, and the odd members of general public who seemed to have been sucked in, are revealing and interesting and set the book apart from what is occasionally a retread of familiar ground. What’s frightening and fascinating in equal measure is just how often the interviews reveal how those taken in by conspiracy theories have misapplied useful critical thinking principles – asking questions, following what the evidence tells you, being weary of arguments from authority, etc. – to arrive at some quite outlandish conclusions. Arguing with conspiracy theorists is often a Sisyphean task: picking holes in one source often just leads to them referring to another equally unreliable source, they’ll often shift the conversation to other things, or they’ll tend to focus on unresolved, small, peripheral details in the belief they’re enough to undermine the mountains of evidence to the contrary.
Just this afternoon as I was finishing up this review I saw this 9/11 Truther documentary shared Facebook and described as “by far one of the best documentaries I've ever seen” and followed up by "... at least my opinion is based on information from both sides you're just being narrow minded. The official report is scientifically impossible even a school kid would know that".
Although it sounds a little defeatist, it’s not about convincing those that are already taken in by a particular conspiracy: ‘you can’t reason someone out of something they didn’t reason themselves into’, although it does occasionally happen. It’s far more effective to inoculating people by giving them the tools to apply sceptical thinking appropriately. Færseth is right to point out that this begins by focusing on the current generation of young adults and children, who have unprecedented access to information and need to form good habits of source criticism and critical thinking to help them filter the good from the bad – beginning with fact-checking before clicking like or share the next time they see something on Facebook.
For those masochists who do wish to take on conspiracy theories via internet forums, conversations or debates, Færseth has some sound advice which I think bear repeating:
- Be polite (it’s far too easy to forget this but it helps your cause no end).
- Don’t go in without hard facts, especially in discussions with people who deeply invested in the topic and could readily trip you up.
- Avoid falling foul of Godwin’s Law or Reductio ad Hitlerum.
- Don’t be afraid to admit if your opponent is right about something (if you are sure they are) whilst at the same time continuing to dissect other arguments about which they are not .
- Stick to the point and avoid letting the discussion sprawl into none-related areas.
There is some cheeky humour dotted throughout KonspiraNorge, not least in some of the brilliant subheadings (the highlight of which is ‘Hitler was a gay magician’), which help soften the occasional bouts of despair you feel for humanity, but it lacks the same charm and wit found Jon Ronson’s comparable Them, which I thoroughly recommend.
Whilst certainly engaging and informative, I can’t help but feel that KonspiraNorge would have been all the more compelling with some tighter editing. By way of example, discussions of conspiracies surrounding former Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg and whether or not he is 'really a Jew' are introduced and scattered throughout the book but we have to wait until two thirds into the book before we come to a chapter dedicated to the matter, and even then it is largely focused on holocaust denialism, which is covered in earlier section. This is one of many ideas which sprawl over several chapters, creating needless repetition that clogs things up.
For all its flaws in structure, KonspiraNorge is a good, critical, even-handed - and occasionally genuinely terrifying - read.