Abdo Alaoui
24 January 2024

Conspiracy Theory and the Existential Dilemma

The twentieth century is full of stories highlighting policymakers who frequently lied to their people in order to stay in power or to avoid the social and political unrest getting worse.

When conspiracy theory and allegations meet, it’s the perfect match. In politics, they make a political case appear sound for a short period of time. However, when both conspiracy theories and allegations are marinated in lies, they push state-actors to keep pouring water in the sand, and this is a problem.

In this case, the political actor loses control over the events. When the political actor is a head of state, the show appears to be insipid. In the Arab, African, and Latin American political subsystems, people are used to watching their representatives lack sound vision and good perspective to both make their cases and convince them.

In this respect, while political actors use manipulation, they hide their impotence to meet people’s expectations. Even in countries praising democracy according to western standards, the idea of manipulating people is familiar and accepted. Furthermore, manipulation is practiced in countries labeled as abiding by democracy and transparency rules.

This is not new. In 1928, Edward Bernays was a pioneer in making images, slogans, and specific language to manipulate the American public. He worked on ways and means to stage false opinions and keep using them to impact people’s consciousness and predict their behavior. 

The capitalist school of thought was regaining its aura in the aftermath of World WWI. Bernays’ work was intended to help big corporations and multinational companies sell more and control the economic and financial markets. He brilliantly developed what was later called “the public relations culture,” which was a key element in any job description or aspiration to get higher social status.

Strangely, at the same time, Orson Welles’ epic movie “Citizen Kane” was released in 1941. The movie received controversial reviews. Reviewers and moviemakers shared the view that Welles dealt with the deep social and political divisions that American society was experiencing back then. 

Proponents and opponents of isolationism and interventionism—two swinging trends that were added to the interventionism model, which American political culture was renowned for—waged a fierce fight against each other. Critics also assumed that the movie was an early example of mass media manipulation of public opinion. They added that it was meant to give leverage to the media conglomerates to influence the democratic process.

Manipulation as a strategic choice vs manipulations as a behavioral dissonance 

At the same time, George Orwell’s 1949 novel “1984,” depicted the correlation between political power and its drive to subjugate people. “Big Brother,” the epic imaginary character, has control over everything. He mingles with what people read, speak, and say. Orwell explores all aspects of totalitarianism, be it exerted through mass media, government surveillance, or forced auto-censure.

Manipulating is the perfect means to control, if not subjugate, people. The works of Aldous Huxley  and Roger-Gérard Schwarzenberg revealed the importance of images in shaping people’s perception, which unavoidably impacts their mindsets and political culture.

Critics emphasize the importance of turning an image into a myth. And ultimately into a language, to borrow Roland Barthes’s pattern. Even though people need to be entertained sometimes, this does not mean they like to be fooled. Fooling people is not only cheating on them; it is also despising them and looking down on them.

More humiliating is the fact that leaders and decision-makers tend to transform lies into a ritual. It is also shameful that they do it without even frowning. The impact on the community and society depends on the event and the context the leaders are subject to.

The twentieth century is full of stories highlighting policymakers who frequently lied to their people in order to stay in power or to avoid the social and political unrest getting worse. But lies have a short life.

From the Arab landscape, four examples top the list. The first example highlights Gamal Abdel Nasser’s behavior before, during, and after the Arab-Israeli War in 1967. Through the Cairo Broadcasting Company, he endeavored to get people to believe that he was the savior who was chosen to free the Arab nation from slavery, dependence, and assimilation. 

But the loss of the war against Israel forced him to resort to the cultural hegemony instrument – to use Gramsci’s expression but for different purposes. He managed to convince people that what happened was meant to be. Religion and ideology teamed up to make the cultural instrument work. He failed. 

The second example depicts the behavior of the Iraqi information minister, Mohammed Said al-Sahhaf, during the US-led coalition intervention in Iraq in 1991. The invasion was a consequence of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Said al-Sahhaf became famous for screaming all night on the radio, pretending he was near the battlefield,  that the Iraqi army was about to defeat the American army. He did a good job for a while before the Arab public discovered that he was bluffing because that was what he was good at.

Al-Sahhaf was even credited with competing with CNN, the new satellite TV channel, and media tools back then, which brought about an epistemological break in the media crossfire techniques. This new tool was based—and still is—on fooling people and getting them to adhere to a new concept, which is making every piece of information a stage for entertainment.

The third case presents Muammar Kaddafi amid the so-called Arab Spring in 2011. He kept calling on people to resist and take over from those who were determined to overthrow him. He resorted to every trick he had used during his forty-two years in power as a single authoritarian leader in order to get his message through. He failed, too.

The abovementioned examples highlight one single piece of evidence, which is that he who swims in a muddy swamp drowns in it. There are leaders or decision-makers who start by staging chimerical situations and scripting false roles and end up believing everything is real.

In this respect, people remember Gamal Abdel Nasser, Saddam Hussein, and Muammar Kaddafi, believing their armies were among the top ten most powerful. And people remember too that as soon as these leaders found out that a lie was a lie and that their people did not trust them anymore, they tried to play the “victim mentality’’ for the sake of making amends. They did it by alternately playing the arguments of foreign threat and internal treason.

In Latin America, virtual foreign aggressors have been fingerprinted. They were used as scapegoats by the left-wing ruling parties over the last fifty years. Raised in Marxist-Leninist ideology, the majority of them could not breathe without identifying a potential enemy in the backyard. Fidel Castro, Hugo Chaves, and Daniel Ortega succeeded in combining ideology with myth. They did not refrain from reverting to beliefs rooted in practices that they held dear, such as voodoo traditions and even black magic.

The Elian Gonzales Saga was one of the best-known stories that people still remember. In 2000, Elian, a 5-year-old Cuban boy, was found on Thanksgiving Day lost in the middle of the ocean on a drifting boat. His mother and her boyfriend couldn’t make it, and they drowned. Elian miraculously survived and was put into his uncle’s custody.

Elian’s story resonated with the American public conscience at a time of tense relations between the United States and Cuba. Elian became subject to public manipulation both in Havana and Washington, DC. Fidel Castro used the story to highlight an old tale, saying that Cuba would experience hard times at the beginning of the 2000s and a boy named Elian would appear to save the island and he would be the ruler.

In Washington, DC, people had a different interpretation. They associated Elian’s saga with the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. They were prolific on the accuracy of the zero-sum curse prophecy. The prophecy rooted in Native American tales predicted that every American president who would be elected in a year ending with the number zero would be either assassinated or not be able to go until the end of his term. It was thought that Ronald Reagan’s survival of an attempted assassination in 1981 had interrupted the curse cycle. The September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks were then thought to have revived the curse.

Anger Management/Fear Management

In sub-Saharan Africa, some leaders managed to cement in people’s minds the idea that they enjoyed extraordinary powers. They combined this belief with their need for unchallengeable charisma. The allegedly tremendous power they enjoyed allowed them to rule without being held accountable for the wrong policies they engaged their countries in.

Robert Mugabe’s story is worth telling in this group. Despite Zimbabwe being ranked among the poorest countries in the world, he managed to stay in power for three decades. He succeeded in manipulating his people and using the fear of danger and threat as a paralyzing force to get rid of his political opponents. 

Mugabe perceived the universal enfranchisement Zimbabwe got in 1980 as a sacrosanct achievement to claim ascendance over his political rival. He used his hypothetical charisma to help him build up a system similar to Orwell’s, where “Big Brother” is always right and the others wrong.

One can also mention the story of the South African Vice-president Jacob Zuma (1999-2005). Accused of raping an HIV positive woman, in 2006, he said during the cross examination trial that he took a shower straight after the sexual interaction. He was smart enough to get people to widely comment his argument rather than concentrate on the case. He was famous for epic answers of the kind and that was a good instrument of ruling by manipulating.  

The culture of using the argument of “foreign hands” as the main cause of all kinds of deficits a country records is still prevalent in many countries, specifically in the Arab World.

A telling example of this culture of manipulation and victim playing is Algeria, whose president presented the last case to date in this respect. Indeed, in his interview with Al Jazeera late last month, the Algerian president Abdelmajid Tebboune came up with what he called a scoop. 

He pretended that in 1964, Francisco Franco proposed to give Western Sahara to Algeria, but Ben Bella turned down the offer. Why? Because, he claimed, Algeria had always respected the rule of inviolability of borders inherited from colonization.

But this so-called scoop was not a real scoop; it was pure fabrication to satisfy the fantasy in which the Algerian regime lives when it comes to the Western Sahara question. During the interview, President Tebboune appeared to yet again express his anxiety and fear that Morocco would at some point raise the issue of the Eastern Sahara. 

The Algerian president’s choice of 1964 for his fabricated scoop is telling as this date was one year after the Morocco-Algeria border war, also known as the Sand War. In so doing, he did not predict that this far-fetched scoop was going to revive a dormant truth with respect to the ups and downs of the relations between Algeria and Spain for almost fifty years.

President Tebboune forgot to mention that in 1964 Algeria hosted the separatist Canary Islands Independence Movement, which. sought independence from Spain. Algeria reiterated its support for this movement in 1978, before the Organization of African Unity. It aimed to get it accepted as an African National Liberation Movement. Of course, Algeria failed in this. He also forgot to mention that Algeria supported the ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna) terrorist movement in the Basque country. 

Despite ETA’s declaration that it had given up the armed fight against the Spanish central government in 2011, it still has a close cooperative relationship with Algeria. It participated in training the Polisario’s security forces. This gives Algeria the potential to keep blackmailing Spain.

The Algerian leader also forgot to mention Algeria’s and Spain’s behind-the-scenes complicity at the time Morocco was working hard to recover its Saharan southern provinces. This is not to mention how President Boumediene played Mauritania against Morocco from 1969 to 1975, either by blackmailing or threatening Nouakchott.

If President Tebboune’s scoop was accurate, why did the Spanish government not make the same proposal in the 1970s amid internal political turmoil? There was no deal between Spain and Algeria in terms of territorial cession. The only deal possible was to oppose the 1975 trilateral agreement that put an end to the Spanish colonial presence in the Sahara.

Blackmail practices have continued until now. Under Bouteflika’s presidency, Algeria signed with Spain a treaty of friendship, good neighborliness, and cooperation in 2002 — in the aftermath of the Leila Island crisis that pitted Morocco against Spain the same year. This treaty was unilaterally frozen when, last year, Spain embraced Morocco’s Autonomy Plan and described it as the only sound and viable solution to the regional conflict over the Sahara.

There is evidence that Algeria’s obsession has always been to get a corridor to the Atlantic Ocean. Undoubtedly, this is the main chapter in the Algerian military doctrine. When President Tebboune was pressed to explain whether he would perceive the Sahara dispute as a matter of national security or as a decolonization process, he jumped to conclusions as he is used to. 

He emphasized, without even allowing the journalist to finish her question, that the issue was about decolonization. He did not seize the opportunity the journalist had given him. She wanted him to elaborate on the national security principle as the main driver of Algeria’s perception of regional geopolitics.

Independent observers have had a hard time understanding the rationale behind the Algerian decision-makers’ enmity against Morocco. Some even wonder what is in Algerian leaders’ time machine and whether they know what they are talking about when they advance weak historical evidence to challenge their neighbor’s arguments.

When Algerian  officials are requested to speak out of anger to make their case, they respond in a way that proves that they obviously need good anger management professionals so they can have a fair discussion about their existential dilemma. They need some sort of slow burn to get themselves to understand that the geostrategic chessboard has changed and that putting forward false evidence would lead nowhere.

It goes without saying that conspiracy theory and public opinion manipulation are the best ingredients in domestic and international politics. In the beginning, the advent of information technology was regarded as a blessing, a helpful invention that would help people see things crystal clear and democratize the right to knowledge and participative approach nationwide and worldwide.  Many still believe so. But some share the view that information technology tools have become a burden and a poison that kills people’s imagination and halt their need for intellectual blossoming.

Every day, people are assaulted with unsolicited information. They don’t have time to make the difference between information that is a good deed and information that is a misdeed. But something is certain: they cannot avoid getting the information. The trouble is that they end up being manipulated.

The information technology outlets participate in making people think like robots. The same information is shared and dispatched a hundred times between friends. At the end of the day, over a drink or a dinner, people exchange the same information, analysis, and assessments.

Over time, they end up feeling bored whenever they get together. Those among them who choose to be a little distant for the sake of freely breathing different flavors are labeled arrogant or uselessly scornful. Thus, it becomes very difficult to distinguish good deeds from bad deeds. 

More intriguing is that people accommodate themselves with laziness and take for granted all that the media and professional newsmakers serve them. The line between the bluff and the information per se is not visible anymore. Yet people accept being manipulated. Friedrich Nietzsche said that “no power can maintain itself if only hypocrites represent it.”

The correlation between ethics and politics does not sound real to many. Military strategists and policymakers share the view that all means are good to win a war. Deception, broken commitments, and bluffing are part of the game. They leave it to historians and scholars to draw conclusions.

And again, through manipulation, military strategists and policymakers convince people that declassified files are public property, and they can do whatever they want with the information these documents contain. It is amazing how people feel impressed, not knowing what to do with information that reveals how horrible wars were and how leaders, who were highly appreciated during their time, were not that innocent. Sometimes, they confess that charisma was associated with human rights abuses and all sorts of atrocities.

In all cases, history has shown that people who are short on arguments resort to violence. When violence becomes a means to ruling and staying in power, it depicts a sort of troubled mindset. The main question remains: who has been manipulating whom? 

Again, conspiracy theory sounds like a premonition, like a curse. But for short-sighted leaders, it fills the gap between the hidden script and the public transcript. And they are happy with the outcome. To them, tomorrow is another day, except that they have nothing to promote except a false image of a vanishing power. Yet, they are not aware of it.

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Source : moroccoworldnews.com

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