“Conspiracy theories are a serious threat”

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At first glance, many conspiracy theories seem ridiculous. But why do many people still believe in these theses? And why are they experiencing a boom during the corona pandemic? Questions that “Terra X” presenter Dirk Steffens gets to the bottom of in a new TV documentary.

Since the corona pandemic had a firm grip on Germany and the world, they have been sprouting up like mushrooms at regular intervals: conspiracy theories. Sometimes people think that Bill Gates or the vaccination mafia are behind the coronavirus, others consider the disease to be an invention from the outset. But as confused or silly as some theses may sound: conspiracy theories can become very dangerous and even endanger democracy, Dirk Steffens is sure of that. For the ZDF documentary “A case for Lesch and Steffens – Arguing for the truth” (Sunday, October 18, 7.30 pm), the science journalist and “Terra X” colleague Harald Lesch dealt with conspiracy theories and their origins and effects .

teleschau: In the past six months, the world has turned 180 degrees due to the corona pandemic. One aspect of this crisis is conspiracy theories. How unsettling do you see this multitude of conspiracy theories?

Dirk Steffens: The individual conspiracy theories may seem remote and sometimes funny to us, but mostly harmless. But in sum, they are a serious threat. If you open the newspaper or look at reports on the Internet, it almost looks as if our society is in danger of losing its mind.

teleschau: Why is that?

Steffens: In the past, religion and politics drew very binding guard rails that were accepted by the vast majority. That succeeds less and less. That is why outlandish ideas are now discussed almost as seriously as sensible ones. The result is a great deal of confusion, and then mere assertions sometimes seem as important as a well-founded report. Because there are so many confused theories, and some reach an amazingly large audience, it becomes incredibly difficult for us ordinary people to separate right from wrong.

“Crazy theses must not become part of the discourse”

teleschau: How dangerous are these theories for democracy?

Steffens: For democracy, a basic agreement about what is reasonable is necessary, otherwise public discourse cannot function at all. Conspiracy theories are dangerous where they find their way into public debate. When someone is sitting on a talk show who is advocating a completely absurd thesis and next to them is someone speaking of real knowledge, in journalism we sometimes have a tendency to seek the truth in the middle. It’s a learned ritual from political journalism. But we mustn’t do that in science journalism.

teleschau: But?

Steffens: If one person claims that the earth is flat and the other truthfully says that the earth is a sphere, the truth is of course not in the middle at all. The middle between two convictions is madness. We mustn’t discuss like that. In the end, that is exactly what is endangering democracy. Crazy theses must not become part of the discourse. We must not allow that to happen, and we must not approach it either. One must not have too much understanding for complete insanity, because otherwise we would have to break off any target-oriented discussion.

teleschau: As is currently the case in some cases when dealing with the corona pandemic …

Steffens: At Corona, the demos in Berlin are a wonderful example, where Nazis march next to hippies under rainbow flags – some want world peace, others the civil war. What unites them is not reason or a common thesis, but only a criticism of the official truth. If governments, authorities, scientific institutions and the media are fundamentally questioned, then our democracy no longer has a basis for action.

teleschau: The theories no longer represent just isolated spinners. How to deal with conspiracy theorists

Steffens: That is the big question. There is a study by the University of Erfurt on the government’s corona measures, which, broken down very simply, says: Only twelve to 14 percent of people can even imagine demonstrating against corona measures. Of course, the 50,000 people who demonstrated in Berlin were a lot. But we are a country with 83 million inhabitants, and 80 percent of the people think the corona measures are mostly sensible. We must not waste our time debating with the small minority.

“The marketplace of ideas has developed into a stage for screamers and extremists”

teleschau: What role do social media play in this context?

Steffens: Through the conspiracy fantasies, we experience very clearly for the first time how the echo chambers on the Internet, social media, can reinforce minor opinions so that we all suddenly have the feeling: “But there are many.” But no, that’s not a big part of society. There are very few conspiracy fanatics who make an incredible amount of noise and who join forces with Nazis or right-wing people – whether consciously or unconsciously. This movement is just a pseudo giant. The closer you look, the smaller it gets.

teleschau: On the one hand, digitalization has made access to knowledge easier than ever, on the other hand, conspiracy theories are spreading rapidly over the Internet. How do you explain this paradox?

Steffens: It is a great historical error that is now becoming visible. In the beginning, the thesis on digitization and the Internet was that a democracy of knowledge would emerge and that truth would prevail in a natural, evolutionary way, because everyone can finally have a say. But now, at a time when everyone can broadcast their thoughts live, we are experiencing that it does not bring a new quality to public discourse, but rather a chaos of opinion.

teleschau: Initially, they had completely different visions for the Internet …

Steffens: The marketplace of ideas, which the internet should be, has developed into a stage for screamers and extremists. That was not foreseeable, but it makes clear the great social change caused by digitization. This upheaval is as huge as the invention of the car or the electrification of society. We thought the internet would bring more democracy and truthfulness, but we are now seeing that the truth is having an increasingly difficult time being heard in this cacophony. The world is getting crazier and crazier because more and more people can say everything louder and louder everywhere.

“Sometimes silly aluminum hat wearers turn into very dangerous people”

teleschau: Where do you have to start in order to dry up the breeding ground for conspiracy theories?

Steffens: To a certain extent, we just have to live with it. We must not imagine that we can fundamentally dispel conspiracy theories. As long as there are humans, there are conspiracy theories. It was just often not as loud as it is today, also because of the completely different possibilities of the Internet. We shouldn’t think about how we can convince the crazy aluminum hat wearers – we won’t succeed.

teleschau: But?

Steffens: We should ask ourselves how we can sensibly manage a society in which a certain proportion of people are not accessible to rational arguments. We have to contain it because one thing must not be forgotten: Of course it looks silly when someone puts on an aluminum hat. You can also laugh at what Attila Hildmann writes on social media because that’s really crazy. But for structural reasons, conspiracy theories are often found in the vicinity of right-wing attitudes and are linked to anti-Semitism and the arbitrary hatred of other groups of people. Sometimes silly aluminum hat wearers turn into very dangerous people.

teleschau: Alternative facts are also being disseminated at the highest political level, for example with US President Donald Trump. What are the consequences of this culture of distrust for society?

Steffens: There we have the big problem, namely that political populists like Putin, Bolsonaro and Orban are taking advantage of these conspiracy fantasies. In the case of Trump, one has to fear that he actually believes it. It will of course be very difficult because then the theories that are actually criticized by conspiracy theorists seep into the public places. Then at some point it will be impossible for us to tell them apart – extremely dangerous.

“The coronavirus creates the perfect breeding ground for conspiracy fantasies”

teleschau: How can you protect yourself from conspiracy theories?

Steffens: You have to do your own thinking, you can’t avoid that. We must not believe everything we feel, we must check the logic of arguments, wait calmly to see how the facts develop and must never believe that there can be simple answers to complex questions.

teleschau: Why are conspiracy theories currently receiving such approval?

Steffens: The rather plausible thesis is that times of crisis are also times of conspiracy fantasies. Whenever societies are faced with unfamiliar and major challenges, one looks for simple explanations. The coronavirus creates the perfect breeding ground for conspiracy fantasies: Suddenly we were faced with a threat that neither of us had on our list. A danger that we cannot see, hear, taste, feel, that could lurk anywhere and that we cannot control. That scares you. And fear kills reason.

teleschau: How do conspiracy theorists proceed?

Steffens: They take a little grain of truth and around it they grow a cornfield full of crazy fantasies. When it comes to coronavirus, for example, many still believe that it came from a secret laboratory in Wuhan. It is true that there is a biochemical laboratory in Wuhan that works with coronavirus. Everything else around it is wrong.

teleschau: The corona crisis is far from over. What further development of the tension between science, society and conspiracy theories do you expect?

Steffens: That depends on how resilient politics, science and the media are. When politics begins to take diffuse fears and unproven truths too seriously, as Trump does, at some point it softens the social consensus of reason. The same applies to science and the media when they offer too much space for remote and unfounded opinions. These three social groups must not give a single millimeter of space. Understanding and common sense must not be called into question and must always be the model of our actions.



Dirk Steffens


© ZDF / Jana Kay
Dirk Steffens

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