The Counteroffensive Against Conspiracy Theories Has Begun

Around the world, authoritarian governments have been using disinformation to disrupt protest movements. The protesters are evolving to take them on.

Protesters wearing gas masks and makeshift body armor march in the streets of Hong Kong.
Anti-extradition-bill protesters in Hong Kong (Kim Kyung-Hoon / Reuters)

From Hong Kong to Moscow, Tbilisi to Belgrade, swelling crowds are protesting on the streets, often facing down twitchy, armed police with their tear gas and batons, returning week after week.

Some rallies have been the biggest since 1989, the great year of pro-democracy revolutions. But something fundamental has changed in the 30 years since. In 1989, in the “color” revolutions of the early 2000s, or in the Arab Spring of the early 2010s, people-powered demonstrations seemed part of what political scientists refer to as a wave of democratization—a larger narrative about inevitable progress toward ever-greater freedom. History had a right side, an arc, celebrating an idea of the free individual with the right to self-expression, freedom of movement, and free (often Western) culture.

Today’s protests, though, seem tactical and small, not part of a greater story. What happened? How did the universal idea of progress fall apart? Can anything new take its place?

“President Reagan said that the day of Soviet tyranny was passing, that freedom had a momentum that would not be halted,” President George W. Bush announced in 2003, before connecting the events of 1989 with his vision for the Middle East following the U.S. invasion of Iraq. “Iraqi democracy will succeed, and that success will send forth the news, from Damascus to Tehran, that freedom can be the future of every nation.” The invasion was an attempt at top-down imposition of democracy, but it dug deep into the language and iconography of 1989. When Saddam Hussein’s statue was torn down in Baghdad, in scenes reminiscent of the destruction of Lenin’s statues in Eastern Europe, the visual seemed to suggest a historical equivalence. Instead the invasion brought civil war and hundreds of thousands of deaths. Words and images that were imbued with powerful meaning in Eastern Europe in 1989 lost their significance in Baghdad.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, the failure of the Arab Spring in Egypt, where pro-democracy euphoria was replaced by an even stronger military dictatorship than before, did much to tarnish the sense that protests inevitably lead to freedom and prosperity.

The geopolitical logic of protest narratives has also been undermined as supposedly robust democracies have been corrupted. When I visited Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, last month, protesters angered by a Russian lawmaker’s speech in the Georgian Parliament told me they saw their cause as pro-European. But what did that mean exactly, when the European Union now has leaders such as Hungary’s Viktor Orbán? He was a pro-democracy-protest leader himself in 1989, but has since mastered the art of subjugating the independence of the media and judiciary, hollowing out democratic institutions from the inside in ways dexterous enough to avoid sanction by the EU.

Successful protest movements need to set out an alternative vision to the regime. Democratic capitalism versus communism was an easy contrast to articulate in 1989. Or take the 2000 Serbian revolution, where students demonstrating against Slobodan Milošević opposed his government’s war-mongering nationalism in favor of a Serbia integrated with the international community.

Today’s strongmen are not so stiff. Instead of hanging on to one single ideology, they have learned to speak in different tongues. In the early years of Vladimir Putin’s rule, for example, the Kremlin mixed overtures to Soviet greatness with Western reality shows, the veneer of capitalism, and supposedly competitive elections. Even Russians have far more access to information than in Soviet times, and are free to travel. Likewise in China, where the regime mixes the language of communism with a culture of mass consumerism. Serbian protesters are currently up against Milošević’s old information minister, Aleksandar Vučić, a man much more sophisticated than his old boss—simultaneously maintaining good relations with Brussels and Washington. Demonstrators in the capital, Belgrade, rail against suspicious election outcomes, the beating up of opposition politicians, and the squeezing of independent media, but they can never quite connect and build a coherent story.

This flexible approach to ideology has also been accompanied with a new tool: conspiracies. Conspiracy theories have long been used to maintain power. The Soviet leadership saw capitalist and counter-revolutionary conspiracies everywhere; the Nazis concocted Jewish ones. But those conspiracies were ultimately there to buttress an ideology. With today’s regimes, the idea that one lives in a world full of conspiracies becomes the worldview itself. Conspiracy does not support the ideology; it replaces it. In Russia this is captured in the catchphrase of the country’s most important current-affairs presenter: “A coincidence? I don’t think so!” says Dmitry Kiselyov, as he twirls between tall tales that dip into history, literature, oil prices, and color revolutions, which all return to the theme of how the world has it in for Russia and how pro-democracy protests are actually engineered by shadowy, all-powerful forces. Similarly, Beijing has been quick to condemn the Hong Kong protesters as tools of a nefarious West intent on humiliating China.

The effect of this conspiracy pileup is that you, the little guy, can never change things. If you are living in a world where nebulous forces control everything, forces you can never quite see or understand, then what possible chance do you have of turning anything around?

But dismaying and demotivating people is only one approach. Even more clever is to climb inside the narratives of protest movements and render them meaningless.

In 2014, in Ukraine, after a revolution ousted a pro-Russian president in Kyiv, Russian-sponsored forces staged their own protests in the east of the country, mimicking the rallies in Kyiv down to small details like using tires to build barricades. These counterprotests were called “the Russian Spring,” co-opting the language of the 1968 Czechoslovak uprising against the Kremlin, and so when Moscow then launched its covert war in Ukraine, it worked as a piece of negative storytelling: pro-democracy protests, the Kremlin seemed to be saying, lead not to prosperity but to instability, blood and death. Russian media regularly reinforce this link, with videos that mix what they claim to be American-engineered protests in Europe and the Middle East with scenes of carnage in Ukraine and Syria. The message is that protests and chaos are intrinsically linked.

In a more subtle way, the Kremlin’s digital campaigns in the United States in particular eat at the trust one feels in protest narratives. By taking on the personas of American civil-liberties campaigns—Black Lives Matter, for instance—and using them to manipulate voters in favor of Donald Trump, the end result is that one starts doing a double take at everything one encounters online. Was that American civil-rights poster actually produced in St. Petersburg? Is anything what it says it is? The very notion of genuine protest starts to be eroded. Getting caught is part of the point, making it easier for the Kremlin to argue that all protests everywhere are just covert foreign-influence operations, that there is no such thing as truly bottom-up, people-powered protest.

Still, protesters risk their safety in Hong Kong, Tbilisi, and Moscow. So instead of looking for old, failed grand narratives, perhaps we need to listen closer to the protesters themselves to see how democracy is truly contested today.

Be water, my friend” is a catchphrase of the Hong Kong demonstrations. Protesters avoid giving the authorities an obvious target: Don’t gather in one place, where you can be encircled; don’t have clear leaders, who can be arrested; ebb and flow the demonstrations to keep officials confused. Protesters are taking on some of the liquid logic of their rulers to make themselves a harder target. In this approach, seemingly less important events and symbols can become suddenly imbued with meaning. In Hong Kong, an extradition law has become symbolic of a struggle for rights; in Tbilisi, the visit of a minor Russian lawmaker to the Parliament has led to consistent protests; in Moscow, elections to the city council, which many don’t even notice, have become a synecdoche for the constrictions of Putinism. Once regimes have caught up with these symbols and language, new ones can be located, and coalitions form around them.

This ability to find connections and momentum in a fractured landscape is perhaps the underlying essence of the current protests. The regimes they fight have no single ideology, united only in their aim to demotivate people and break up common efforts. As a Harvard study of the Chinese government’s online-propaganda strategy showed, the Chinese government allows for some criticism, but immediately censors any hints at collective action: “The Chinese people are individually free but collectively in chains,” the study’s authors conclude.

I saw this dynamic represented graphically when I visited Mexico City to research a new book about propaganda around the world, and met with Alberto Escorcia, an activist who specializes in all things digital. As we sat in a café, he opened up a laptop to show me how he sees protests not so much as a succession of ideologies and ideas, but as the dynamics between networks. In the center of the screen was a vibrating ball of dots with lines in between them, with new lines joining in between the dots all the time, the whole thing quivering, growing, thickening. This was a real-time representation of online conversation among protesters during major demonstrations in Mexico, when hundreds of thousands took to the streets in 2014 after 43 students were murdered by drug gangs. Each dot was a person, each line a conversation between them, and the links grew with the mention of the words powering the movement.

As Escorcia showed me the graphic representation, an actual march went by outside the café we were sitting in. This was how I’d always seen protests: images of passionate people, slogans, speeches, stories, history. Escorcia saw them differently, as something more abstract.

From the top of the screen something new emerged—many darting little batlike shapes. These did not connect with one another; instead, they descended separately on the ball, pecking away at it, pulling it apart. “These,” Escorcia said, “are the bots and cyborgs.”

With the protests swelling, the bots and cyborgs were being used to undermine them. Demonstrators suddenly found themselves accused of being paid by the opposition, of being unpatriotic. Instinctively, they started to respond, defending themselves online against their accusers.

On Escorcia’s screen, you could see the consequences—the little nodes representing protesters would stop interacting with one another and instead turn outward to engage with the attackers, and as they did so, the thick lattice became thinner and the ball started to break apart into a shapeless, twitching mess.

The aim of the protest leaders was to keep the networks cohesive; the aim of the attackers, to break them up.