Seminar on popular education and conspiracy theories: summary and conclusions

Organised by Counterpoint, in partnership with the CNAJEP (Comité pour les relations nationales et internationales des associations de jeunesse et d’éducation populaire – committee for national and international associations of youth and popular education) – Paris, October 31, 2013.


This seminar brought together researchers and experts on conspiracy theories, including Rudy Reichstadt, founder of the watch-dog website, and Joël Gombin, a Counterpoint associate, as well as leading figures of the French popular education movement, such as Benoît Mychak, the managing director of the CNAJEP – a consortium of major French popular education organisations. The seminar was deemed important because popular education organisations could be important players in preventing the rise of conspiracy theories, even though they are in general not yet concerned with this issue. The seminar focused on what conspiracy theories are (and are not) and how the popular education movement can act against them.

  • The seminar began with a definitional explanation. Rudy Reichstadt, founder and webmaster of the website, introduced a distinction between conspiracism and conspiracy theories.
  • According to Reichstadt, conspiracism is not an ideology, but quite the opposite: it is a discourse that may be used by very different ideological or political sides. It is a recognisable discourse, which  elicits a number of themes and a peculiar rhetoric. In particular, it asks: cui bono? Who benefits from the crime? It supposes that some facts are linked without us being aware, and it promotes an opposition between the way things look and the way things actually are.
  • Reichstadt emphasised that a conspiracy theory, on the other hand, is a narrative that wants to abusively substitute the commonly admitted version of a fact with an alternative narrative, at the heart of which is the notion of a plot, or a conspiracy. “Abusively”, because the plot cannot be proven by commonly admitted rules of evidence.
  • Reichstadt then discussed the commonly admitted – but not self-evident – idea that there is a contemporary epidemic of conspiracism. Indeed, we may see all this through the magnifying glass. This was linked to the Internet making visible some phenomena that were previously underground. Historically, conspiracy narratives were born at the same time as the French Revolution: the counter-revolutionary Abbé Barruel’s Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire du jacobinisme was the first example. According to this text, the French Revolution was the consequence of a plot devised by a Bavarian freemasonic order, the Illuminati. Barruel’s thesis was an immediate hit, especially amongst the emigrated milieux. They indeed had good reasons to believe in this narrative: the Revolution indeed took place; and the Illuminati indeed aimed to spread “new ideas” and therefore conducted, in some ways, a subversive project [See Adam Weishaupt, Introduction à mon apologie followed by Johann Heinrich Faber, Le Véritable Illuminé ou les vrais rituels primitifs des Illuminés, edition established and translated from the German by Lionel Duvoy, éditions Grammata, 2010.]. The issue is in proving a causal relationship. Here, we find a common element of conspiracy theories: most of them mix proven facts with unproven ones. In Mythes et mythologies politiques, the French historian Raoul Girardet underlines that political myths (like the conspiracy myth) all have some roots in the real world.
  • There are nevertheless strong hints of a contemporary rise in conspiracy theories, and the Internet revolution has played an important role in that diffusion. Indeed, it changes the cognitive conditions in which one accesses information.
  • Some conspiracy theorists point fingers at the “naïve” who don’t see conspiracies anywhere. But no one actually says that! Conspiracies actually exist, of course. But if history is made of conspiracies, it is also made of beliefs, myths, and lies, which have their own historical consequences.
  • Several speakers insisted that the idea of scepticism should not be abandoned to the conspiracy theorists. Modernity is indeed built on the idea that truth is to be found behind appearances. The permanent scrutiny of dogmas, official stories, etc. is central to the Enlightenment. But, Benoît Mychak said, it is necessary to debunk discourse mingling truth and speculation, misleadingly calling itself “rationalist” or referring to the “scientific method”.
  • In Reichstadt’s view, conspiracism is indeed a phenomenon on the rise, and one may actually quantify this rise. There are “entrepreneurs” in conspiracism, who actually live for it and even make a living out of it. One prominent example is the American conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. In just a few years, he has created a genuine empire in the conspiracy theories industry. His revenue is estimated to be several millions of dollars per year. This also explains why he goes further and further in discussing ever more extravagant conspiracy theories: he is the prisoner of a one-upmanship created by his own audience. Economically, he has to follow and lead his customer base. An enquiry centred on the evolution of the revenue generated by the sale of conspiracist books or DVDs would very likely show that during the last few years this revenue has risen – an indirect sign of the growing audience for these narratives.
  • The sociologist Gérald Bronner devised another way of shining some light on this phenomenon. He analysed the significant increase in queries for the keyword “Illuminati” on Google over the last five years. [Gérald Bronner, La démocratie des crédules, PUF, 2013.] Furthermore, many teachers and educators have testified that the Illuminati conspiracy narrative has become widely popular among young people in recent years.
  • Reichstadt went on: it is all the more interesting that, while the Illuminati narrative was born in France, its contemporary version has been imported from the United States: in France it had been totally forgotten until it reappeared a few years ago.
  • In 1882, an ultramontane journal, La Civiltà Cattolica, published a letter from Barruel sent to the Pope in 1806, quoting a letter from a certain Simonini. It is unclear whether this letter was a fake, and in which case who made it, but this letter drafts the basis of the global Jewish conspiracy. Here an important teaching may be underlined: looking for the origins of these myths and putting them in perspective may help counter conspiracism.
  • Mychak worried that one of the problems for the popular education movement is the use by conspiracy theorists of a rhetoric of emancipation. But, according to Reichstadt, it can be easily debunked, for the conspiracy theorists’ doubts are very selective and uneven: one doubts everything (such as the “official” accounts given by news outlets), other than Thierry Meyssan. We may therefore ask the question the other way round: who benefits from the conspiracy theories?
  • It was noted that one should refuse the relativism that presents 9/11 “official” accounts as just another conspiracy theory (in which Al Qaeda is the conspirator), no different from the conspiracy theory attributing the plot to the USA or to Israel. The very important difference is that one rests on factual, proven elements, whereas the other one is only substantiated by speculation. Generally speaking, conspiracy theory narratives are a “mille feuille of arguments” (Gérald Bronner), constantly trying to reverse the burden of proof.
  • Benoît Mychak, underlined that conspiracism is not identified as an issue in itself by the world of popular education. He pointed to the ambiguity of the links between popular education and conspiracism: on the one hand, the popular education movement defends a project of emancipation, whereas on the other hand conspiracism is a form of demagogy and alienation. But in a peculiar way, there is at the origin a proximity between the two. One could say, in a thought-provoking way, that conspiracy theories demonstrate a need to understand and a refusal of ready-made explanations. But popular education has different ambitions, and different means and ways of acting. Moreover, it is useful to distinguish between “conspiracy entrepreneurs” and “customers”. Popular education tries to give the keys to the world’s insights, whereas the conspiracy theorists try to impose their vision of the world. Popular education does not want to impose a view of the world, but rather to empower individuals, citizens, so that they may elaborate their own views. Conspiracy theories are ready-made; popular education is not. Conspiracy theories are vertical; popular education is more horizontal. Conspiracism fuels prejudice; popular education fights it.
  • The popular education movement distinguishes between formal education (i.e. school), non-formal education (which is institutional but is neither mandatory nor does it lead to a degree) and informal education (which is non-institutional and mainly takes place within the family), said Mychak. For the popular education movement (which belongs to non-formal education), it is important to address the challenge of conspiracy theories, in particular through the route of information. Information channels are increasingly numerous and diverse. It is important to teach people, in particular the young, to use new communication technologies, and in particular the Internet. There is an education of the Internet to elaborate and a critical mind to train, in particular with regard to the quality of the sources. More specifically, it is possible to train people to recognise the discursive style of conspiracy narratives. This is an educational concern, as well as a social and political concern. Therefore, both the Education nationale (ministry for education) and the popular education movement are worried. Moreover, all generations are affected, even though, as Rudy Reichstadt underlined, a whole new generation is now building itself a political and historical culture and consciousness online, through self-education. For example, Égalité & Réconciliation (the website of Alain Soral’s association) is today France’s most visited political blog.
  • Rudy Reichstadt underlined two important differences between popular education and conspiracy theories. Firstly, conspiracism is politically fruitless. It’s more about diversion than political action. Moreover, conspiracy theories are linked to (cognitive) laziness. Thus, it’s not about pretending to know the absolute truth, but simply distinguishing between what has been established and what has not. Reichstadt also argued that there are not two but three different kinds of conspiracy theorists: the conspiracy entrepreneurs, the consumers, but also the transmitters between them.
  • Benoît Mychak wondered whether we shouldn’t defend freedom of expression more firmly, and therefore give more, not less, of an audience to conspiracy theorists. Shouldn’t we debate with them?
  • Rudy Reichstadt thought that we should not debate with conspiracy theorists. Debating with them is legitimising them. For a debate to be possible, there needs to be the possibility that one of the debaters may change their mind and that both act in good faith. Pierre Vidal-Naquet made that very same argument about Holocaust deniers. In any case, some conspiracy theorists do have a voice in the mainstream media every now and then.
  • The problem is in fact not so much about fighting conspiracism, or distinguishing between a “good” and a “bad” conspiracism. It’s really about being on the side of facts, Reichstadt argued. Conspiracy theories can have important consequences, for example in terms of public health: see the conspiracy theories about vaccination, for example. These theories tend to lower the rate of vaccine coverage (see the articles by Jean-Yves Nau on Likewise, in genocidal speeches (against Jews, but also Armenians, Tutsis, etc.), victims are the subject of a discourse depicting them as the authors of plots. Richard Hofstadter, one of the earliest scholars of conspiracy narratives, has already shown that the conspiracy narrative generally leads to a challenge to the democratic system.
  • Finally, it was noted that the general tendency of modern societies towards ever more transparency makes secrecy and opacity socially unbearable. Conspiracy theories are thus attractive because they give the impression of shedding some light on areas previously shrouded in secrecy.
  • The conclusion of the seminar was that, rather than discussing whether the conspiracy theorists should be offered opinion columns and air time, the important way of approaching the issue is to give citizens the tools to consider these narratives with critical appraisal. There is a prime example of fact checking and debunking that may be an inspiration. In the United States, debunking is more developed than in France, where it is still in its infancy – in particular because in the US there is a very strong philanthropic economy: it is non-profit organisations, not the state, who do the job.

Categories France, News, Pilot projects | Tags: | Posted on November 2, 2013

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