Public platforms must not give space to conspiracy theories

In the US, Europe and elsewhere, bigoted views have too easily merged into the mainstream

“Tucker Carlson is correct about Replacement Theory as he explains what is coming to America,” said US Representative Matt Gaetz of the American television host in a tweet last week. The theory Mr Gaetz referred to is based on the assumption that white people are being "replaced" by non-white immigrants. It is the sort of baseless falsehood that thrives online, on forums populated by members of the far-right.

Today, some might consider Mr Gaetz a marginal figure in world politics and that we don't need to be concerned about his support for such theories. But Mr Gaetz is an elected member of the second major political party in the most powerful country in the world. And with his more than a million followers on social media, he has a sizeable audience, at least in the US.

Only a few days before that tweet, Mr Gaetz expressed this support for the French white supremacist conspiracy theory of great replacement as one of the prominent left-wing French politicians, Jean-Luc Melenchon, debated the far-right figure, Eric Zemmour on mainstream television.

Mr Gaetz's endorsement of the conservative Tucker Carlson’s use of the far-right theory and the decision of Mr Melechon to debate the extreme public figure Mr Zemmour might seem disconnected, but they represent a scourge to the very nature of public discussion in western societies.

When Mr Melenchon decided to debate Mr Zemmour, a number of criticisms arose. Mr Melenchon's defence was that he was seeking to condemn and criticise racism, which is why he entered a public discussion with Mr Zemmour. But it’s a false, red herring kind of approach. By not debating Mr Zemmour, nobody would accuse Mr Melenchon of endorsing the former’s bigotry and neo-fascism; nor would he have been ceding the public arena to a right-wing demagogue.

On the contrary, arguably, the reverse is true. Mr Melenchon, for whatever flaws he might have, is a recognised figure in France’s political mainstream. As such, even when people disagree with him, the fact that he holds such views and expresses them publicly imply they are no longer beyond the pale. This does not mean that everyone always agrees with Mr Melenchon – clearly, French voters did not during the last election, as he did not become one of the final presidential candidates in the election, let alone president.

But it does mean, due to the power of his platform, that he cannot be ignored. And the power of that platform has now been put to the service of Mr Zemmour. Supporters of Mr Melenchon object strenuously to this, saying that Mr Zemmour was vigorously debated on his points. But the mere act of engaging Mr Zemmour in a public forum of this nature meant that Mr Melenchon was giving him credibility and legitimacy.

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The Great Replacement theory passes the dinner table test of polite conversation in far too many respectable households

Legitimacy for their views is often what people on the margins crave. Speaking on mainstream platforms doesn’t necessarily make you comparable to your opponent on those platforms, but it gives you access to a larger audience. That’s precisely why far-right politicians want the attention, and why the mainstream on the left, the right and the centre need to take seriously the responsibility that the public arena demands.

The rebuttal to this argument is often predictable – that any talk of "responsibility" is a code word for "cancel culture", and we are cowardly insisting on shielding our citizenry from simple ideas.

On the contrary, the far-right has been able to promote their views on multiple occasions via numerous platforms. The law in most western countries distinguishes even appalling speech – that may be protected – and speech that is not to be protected, such as incitement.

No one is suggesting that Mr Zemmour be arrested for speaking. If anything, Mr Zemmour’s discourse is easily accessible, precisely because so many media outlets have reported it.

But we need to be careful about legitimising certain types of discourse by presenting them in the mainstream. These types of televised debates are seldom genuine discussions about societal challenges. They exist to gain support among a base that craves validation for their bigotry.

A few years ago, it would have been preposterous for anyone to discuss seriously the conspiracy theory around "great replacement" in the West. It was a fringe notion that pandered to white supremacists and used to be correctly identified as such. Today, the Great Replacement theory passes the dinner table test of polite conversation in far too many respectable households and public arenas in France, other parts of Europe and in the US and beyond.

Former Australian prime minster Tony Abbott attended a conference dedicated to the Great Replacement theory, which was hosted by Hungarian president Viktor Orban. Senior Austrian politicians such as Heinz-Christian Strache endorsed the same theory as he campaigned in 2019; the now infamous Geert Wilders of the Netherlands has been promoting the theory for many years. There are many other examples across the West.

Perhaps in 2021, Mr Gaetz is the only congressman proclaiming this white supremacist theory. But it could be only a matter of time before more people not only uphold this notion, but start publicly supporting even more outlandish theories and arguing for their legitimacy. If we want our public discourses to bear a semblance of truth, we have to take this trend seriously.

Published: September 29th 2021, 2:00 PM
H A Hellyer

H A Hellyer

Dr HA Hellyer, a Carnegie Endowment scholar, is a senior fellow at the Royal United Services Institute and Cambridge University