Obsessed with Doubts? Mistrust and Conspiracy Theories in Academic Literature

Discussions around the most popular topics in Georgia are often submerged in doubts and mistrust. Many social groups feel that everything is not what it seems at first glance, the explanation of events is often misleading, and there are alternative understandings of what is going on that are rarely revealed and are kept secret. For example, during the pandemic, many social groups feel doubts and mistrust towards the treatment procedures of Covid-19 patients, towards pharmaceutical companies and vaccination processes. There are doubts and mistrust towards political governance and decision-making as well. Alternative explanations of events, often labeled as conspiracy theories, usually follow the same narrative thread – what is shown on the surface is not always true, there are unseen powers and intentions at play that are hidden behind the façade, and kept out of sight by powerful people and institutions.

ყვარლის ტბის ხედი

Origins and causes of invisible powers are imagined differently. For example, assumptions about Covid-pandemic are often linked to the greed of pharmaceutical companies, or political leaders deciding to cull the population or inventing a fake epidemic for a united world order, and even more. Different global and local discussions on politics, global warming[1] and even humans stepping on the Moon are shadowed by doubts and alternative explanations. These doubts and perceptions characterize a much wider public than the one in Georgia; we can encounter them in different parts of the world being used to explain a host of different events. Often videos or photos are not sufficient to prove that events transpired a certain way, and there are suspicions that these materials are fake or fragmented. No wonder this era is sometimes called the age of post truth.

In popular discourse, mistrust, doubts, rumors and conspiracy theories are discussed along with disinformation, bad political governance and collapse of the social fabric. However, sociologists and social anthropologists, are interested in these issues to understand the following: what could mistrust, doubts and conspiracy theories tell us about the specific community that believes in them as well as the context in which they are produced? What kind of social anxieties do they reflect? How do these narratives and feelings influence the social and political systems as well as the general public? Moreover, conspiracy theories and alternative explanations of events are verbally expressed ideas that could include both coherent narratives as well as fragmented, scattered opinion without one contradicting the other. While such narratives can be called discourse, the act of doubting is also an emotive, perceptual experience, and hence can be described as affect. Mistrust as a social phenomenon seems to exist in both of these dimensions.

The spread of modernity had originally implied expansion of the free market, capitalism, the liberal state model and a belief in the superiority of rationality, and this also led to the conviction that modernity would bestow good governance and transparency. It was believed that the rise of transparency would result in the disappearance of doubts and mistrust (West and Sanders 2003). However, contrary to such expectations, in many contexts modernity has actually brought mistrust, doubts, and ambiguity, and it has become even more difficult for people to understand causality between different things and explain the events around them; the intentions and mechanisms of power have become even more hidden and obscure (Sanders 2003; Pedersen 2011). The typical, Western liberal conviction that the world would steadily become more unequivocal and understandable seems to have fallen flat on its face. In fact, in multiple contexts, including the ones in the west, attempts to institutionalize transparency politics have been accompanied by mistrusts, doubts and conspiracy theories.

The Invasion of the free market, one of the main determining factors of modernity, has also caused doubts and mistrust in many contexts despite the fact that the free market was originally imagined as a rational, emancipatory economic model. One of the reasons for this was the increasing economic inequalities in more or less egalitarian societies, such as many African communities (Sanders 2003). By the end of the 20th century, republics newly created after the collapse of the Soviet Union became the projects for the expansion of western modernity, liberal state model, transparency, good governance and free market. According to this promise, the free market and transformed economic relations should have brought wealth and prosperity. This promise was not fulfilled in these republics either; instead, poverty, ever-increasing inequality and deep mistrust have been generated towards different institutions. As a result, in many societies of Africa (West and Sanders 2003) and post-soviet republics (Pedersen 2011), conspiracy theories, doubts and occult beliefs have now resurfaced and proliferated.

Within the scope of my doctoral research, I am interested in mistrust and doubts towards political and economic systems in Pankisi. In Georgia, suspicion and mistrust are often cultivated towards Pankisi by different narratives and policies, as well as both the international and national media (Barkaia and Janelidze 2019; Manning 2009). However, I am interested in the opposite dynamic, and as a result, I wish to understand what kind of doubts and mistrust are generated by the political and economic system in Pankisi, how are these doubts expressed affectively and how is this mistrust reflected in everyday conversations and activities. In this article I will try to have a short overview of the academic literature and different ideas about doubts, mistrust and conspiracy theories.

Political Potential of Mistrust and Conspiracy Theories

Katrine Gotfredsen’s research in Gori in 2013 describes how people are particularly mistrusting of the political order and governance in Georgia (Gotfredsen 2013; 2015). Her research shows that for people living in Georgia, politics appears as a realm hidden away from ordinary citizens. Policies and political power are felt to be controlled by a small group, and for regular people, politics seems to be quite obscure and unreachable; they do not believe that they have any impact on political decisions. People involved in her research are certain that what seems as transparent is in fact a façade and doesn’t communicate the truth, and hence, you should “not believe what you see” - what is lurking behind the façade is an uncertain nature of power; what is said out loud to explain events is not true, and real reasons and causes are not disclosed to the ordinary people. Hence, in Gori people usually use alternative interpretations and ideas of political events that are deemed to be conspiracy theories.

At first glance, this kind of understanding of power and politics should have a political potential because these opinions are a direct or indirect critique of political governance and political power. On the one hand, this interpretation could describe reality better than official narratives and discourse. In Georgia there are signs of  illusory democracy and citizens seem to have a minimal impact on the political system. Since all the processes seem chaotic, it is difficult to describe this kind of a system by opinions that do not carry conspiratorial signs. Anthropologist James Scott thinks that apart from revolutions, protests and obvious collective disobedience, there can be everyday forms of resistance and hidden transcripts that remain unnoticeable by power structures, but nevertheless they can potentially resist and transform such structures (Scott 2000). Scott believes that hidden transcripts such as songs, myths, gossip, rumors, jokes and more could have the potential to contest power (Scott 1990). Moreover, he thinks that everyday forms of resistance demonstrate that power could be ruptured and alternative order could be conveyed with this type of oral narratives.[2]

In Gotfredsen’s research, however, we see that her conclusion is the opposite of Scott’s findings. In Gori, even if people believe that they can never impact politics, they are an inherent part of the system. Since they believe that they exist outside the realm of politics, Georgians’ feelings, doubts and hopelessness about politics reproduces the system as an ambiguous, elitist one, and as a result, the true potential of change is lost. Unlike Gotfredsen, Akhil Gupta wants to raise questions in an Indian context as to what could be the significance of rumors and gossip about the state. Could rumors about the state be thought as everyday forms of resistance that could shake up political power? Or is the consequence quite the opposite - does the state come to be imagined as an omnipotent and omniscient machine that cannot be defeated or penetrated (Gupta 1995)?

It is interesting that the state, different institutions and public figures are also actively involved in creating and spreading doubts and conspiracy theories. In the hands of the powerful, conspiracy theories could become a strong tool that is used to discredit certain groups, while simultaneously avoiding the label of conspiracy. Those who are the targets of mistrust and conspiracy theories by powerful groups should address mistrust and refute suspicions with reasoned arguments. On the other hand, alternative opinions and doubts voiced by powerless groups are often relegated to the sphere of the phantasmagorical, and hence, are not taken seriously.

Therefore, there are different and conflicting opinions about the political potential of conspiracy theories, rumors and mistrust. If certain researchers ascribe to them liberating prospects and possibilities of alternative order, others are skeptical towards these hopes and believe that these types of narratives (conspiracy theories, rumors) and affects (doubts) can further strengthen existing systems of power. Besides, we should not forget that conspiracy theories and doubts are often cultivated by powerful groups and used against different groups, such as Kists[3] in Pankisi, in order to create or reinforce mistrust towards them.

Obsessed with Doubts and Conspiracy Theories?

When we mention conspiracy theories, we should remember that it is not just a descriptive concept, but it also has a moral, normative and evaluating dimension. This term consists of two words: “conspiracy” is a political term that was used to describe coups and forceful change of a monarch; as for “theory”, it is linked to science and research (Mckenzie-Mcharg 2020). The term itself carries a certain degree of ambiguity and it needs to be defined upon use (ibid.). According to Mathijs Pelkmans and Rhys Machold, opinions getting labelled as ‘conspiracy theories’ is a function of power. The arguments put forward by the powerful are rarely labeled as conspiracies, even if they carry the traits of conspiracy theories (Pelkmans and Machold 2011). The authors explain that it’s often ordinary people whose opinions are categorized as conspiracy theories. Moreover, it is quite difficult for the disenfranchised to mark certain discourses and opinions as conspiracy theories, even if these opinions are based on mythical or incoherent logic (ibid.). Therefore, in general, powerless groups are the ones that are depicted as irrational and easily beguiled by fabricated stories and occult cosmologies, and such a perception further marginalizes them in the mainstream discourse. Arguments of those who hold power are depicted as rational, and if they are ever disproved, their views are regarded to be false and not “conspiratorial”.

Mathijs Pelkmans believes that unlike verbally expressed thoughts and conspiracy theories, doubt is difficult to grasp and often exists as a sentiment or a feeling. Doubt is not the opposite of faith, but on the contrary, the former is closely related to the latter (Pelkmans 2013). Doubt indicates uncertainty and instability, but it also indicates that it was preceded by faith, because faith is needed first that can be doubted later. Doubt is often seen as a barrier that must be overcome through faith, yet, if we look at it from another angle, doubt can become a basis for mutual understanding between different groups; one must doubt the legitimacy of one's own ideas and beliefs in order to gain a deeper understanding of different beliefs and viewpoints (ibid.). Similar to doubt and belief, the phenomena of trust and distrust co-exist as well (Mühlfried 2019). In order to explain their coexistence, Matthew Carey says that if there is one, there is always another's shadow: where people trust others, trust may not be fulfilled; where mistrust reigns and people believe that everything is inherently unknown and uncertain, they also know that some things are more uncertain and unknowable than others (Carey 2017). Florian Mühlfried points out that people may trust the same institution, person, and group to some extent and at the same time not trust them in certain situations. Hence, we should not forget that trust and distrust are rather complex phenomena (Mühlfried 2019). Moreover, mistrust of certain institutions often implies the trust of alternative institutions or individuals. Additionally, according to Matthew Carey, mistrust may even have the potential to promote a more egalitarian society (Carey 2017).

Mistrust, conspiracy theories and doubts, paradoxically, often arise out of the trust in alternative sources, institutions, personas and power axes. In order for conspiracy theories to spread, it is necessary to have faith in sources where alternative interpretations of events are depicted; people who are doubtful to many events still trust their specific acquaintances, neighbors, friends, or even Facebook groups and individuals online. Therefore, conspiracy theories and doubts may become a source and a weapon of power for certain groups and power could be lurking behind certain conspiracy theories (these theories may not even be called conspiracy theories in popular discourse). Since the largest conspiracy accounts, websites and groups require quite a lot of funding and resources[4], it is very much likely that they are funded by specific individuals who themselves want or already possess some kind of power. Moreover, belief and doubt, trust and mistrust coexist – belief and trust are needed to believe an explanation that is labeled as a conspiracy theory. Consequently, conspiracy theories are associated not only with doubts and criticism of power, but also with belief. Florian Mühlfried describes that conspiracy theories, such as the global movement of Covid-19 deniers, can sometimes carry similarities with religious narratives and movements (Mühlfried 2021). From my observations, people could have almost religious faith towards alternative explanations and narratives.

Conclusion

The aim of this article was to offer a bird’s eye view of the existing literature on doubt, mistrust and conspiracy theories, as well as investigate their political potential and relations with the Georgian context. There are conflicting opinions regarding conspiracy theories and mistrust. On one hand, they are believed to offer better explanations of reality than official discourses, and hence, they could also represent a criticism of systems of power and become everyday forms of resistance. On the other hand, there is a skepticism whether existent suspicions, mistrust and conspiracy theories shake the system to its core. It is quite possible that they could strengthen alternative sources of power, or reinforce existing power structures. Conspiracy theories and doubts are strong mechanisms in the hands of the powerful. In the hands of the weak they do not seem to have a transformative ability; instead, labels of conspiracy are often used to discredit these groups and attribute to them irrational thoughts or an inherent gullibility. An important finding of anthropological literature is that doubt and belief, or trust and mistrust, are not diametrically opposite concepts. Rather they coexist beside one another and the existence of one hints at the existence of the other. Alternative explanations, conspiracy theories, doubts and mistrust, therefore, can have varying potential in everyday life, and they show the worldviews and attitudes of different people.

Today conspiracy theories and doubts around the pandemic as well as the larger political and economic order expose people’s anxieties and concerns about bodies, health, economic disparities and death. The pandemic has generally aggravated notions of a precarious existence and a sense of instability. For the majority of the Georgian population, adequate healthcare and access to medical services are quite unattainable. Different conspiracy theories, rumors, sentiments or fragmented ideas give vent to people’s feelings of doubt towards pharmaceutical companies, local health clinics, research centers and global organizations. One reason for this could be that people are becoming more aware of the power asymmetry that exists between private companies and ordinary communities. They realize that they do not have a control over their own lives. These sentiments also reveal that conspiracy theories are closely linked to anxiety and fear about an uncertain future.

 

References:

Barkaia, Maia and Barbare Janelidze. 2019. Under the Security Gaze: History, Politics and Religion in Pankisi Gorge. Tbilisi: EMC.

Carey, Matthew. 2017. Mistrust: An Ethnographic Theory. Malinowski Monographs, v. 3. Chicago, IL: Hau Books.

Gotfredsen, Katrine Bendtsen. 2013. “Evasive Politics: Paradoxes of History, Nation and Everyday Communication in the Republic of Georgia.” Copenhagen: University of Copenhagen.

———. 2015. “Invisible Connections: On Uncertainty and the (Re)Production of Opaque Politics in the Republic of Georgia.” In Ethnographies of Grey Zones in Eastern Europe: Relations, Borders and Invisibilities, 125–39. London: Anthem.

Gupta, Akhil. 1995. “Blurred Boundaries: The Discourse of Corruption, the Culture of Politics, and the Imagined State.” American Ethnologist 22 (2): 375–402. https://doi.org/10.1525/ae.1995.22.2.02a00090.

Manning, Paul. 2009. “Folklore and Terror in Georgia’s ‘Notorious’ Pankisi Gorge.” Explorations in Anthropology 9 (1): 18–27.

Marcus, George E., ed. 1999. Paranoia within Reason: A Casebook on Conspiracy as Explanation. Late Editions 6. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Mckenzie-Mcharg, Andrew. 2020. “Conceptual History and Conspiracy Theory.” In Routledge Handbook on Conspiracy Theories, edited by Michael Butter and Peter Knight, 16–27. New York: Routledge.

Mühlfried, Florian. 2019. Mistrust. New York, NY: Springer Berlin Heidelberg.

———. 2021. “Suspicious Surfaces and Affective Mistrust in the South Caucasus:” Social Analysis, June, 1–21. https://doi.org/10.3167/sa.2021.6503OF1.

Pedersen, Morten Axel. 2011. Not Quite Shamans: Spirit Worlds and Political Lives in Northern Mongolia. Culture and Society after Socialism. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Pelkmans, Mathijs, ed. 2013. Ethnographies of Doubt: Faith and Uncertainty in Contemporary Societies. Library of Modern Religion 32. London; New York: I.B. Tauris.

Pelkmans, Mathijs, and Rhys Machold. 2011. “Conspiracy Theories and Their Truth Trajectories.” Focaal 2011 (59): 66–80. https://doi.org/10.3167/fcl.2011.590105.

Sanders, Todd. 2003. “Invisible Hands and Visible Goods: Revealed and Concealed Economies in Millennial Tanzania.” In Transparency and Conspiracy, edited by Harry G. West and Todd Sanders, 148–74. Duke University Press. https://doi.org/10.1215/9780822384854-005.

Scott, James C. 1990. Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts. New Haven: Yale University Pr.

———. 2000. Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance. Nachdr. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press.

West, Harry G., and Todd Sanders, eds. 2003. Transparency and Conspiracy: Ethnographies of Suspicion in the New World Order. Durham: Duke University Press.

 

[1] For example, in the winter of 2021 there were theories about snowstorm in Texas that snow was fake and synthetic, and it was used to scare citizens with global warming. Many Texas residents tried to prove this theory on TikTok by setting snow on fire. In these videos, snow turned black instead of melting. Texas residents believed that this was the proof that snow was fake. See more https://www.kxan.com/news/texas/simple-experiment-debunks-texas-fake-snow-theory/

[2] It is important to mention that Scott does admit the possibility of hidden transcripts and everyday forms of resistance reinforcing power structures.

[3] Vainakh people that have been migrating to Georgia from Chechnya and Ingushetia over the past few centuries

[4]  For example, during Donald Trump’s presidency, Trump and his supporters were often labeled as conspiracy theorists. For many people, Trump’s support was automatically equated with belief in conspiracy theories. Moreover, many accounts that are known as conspiracy theory accounts have actively supported Donald Trump. This example is noteworthy because it casts doubt over Pelkmans and Machold’s thesis that ideas by the powerful are never labeled as conspiracy theories.