At first you might not believe that baseless rumours would be a threat to democracy, but there are some important prerequisites for democracy, namely, that we have some confidence in the public authorities; that our knowledge about the world is based on facts, observation and reason, and not on speculation; and that we regard the world as a place we have an influence on.
Conspiracy theories are based on the idea that "someone is behind it" and that "we're up against more powerful forces." As citizens, according to the conspiracy theories, we have no power over developments because, as we all know, "someone else" decides. Conspiracy theories therefore lead both to political apathy and to a contempt for, or fear of, the group allegedly behind the conspiracy. It can be the authorities, big business, the Jews, the intelligence services, the Freemasons, Rotary or others.
In Europe, conspiracy theories are not a big threat, probably because we are generally well educated, we have a great influence on our own lives and we have a relatively large degree of trust in our fellow citizens and the authorities. In the U.S., by contrast, a generally critical attitude towards the authorities has gone over the top in certain circles and has become a breeding ground for a number of conspiracy theories. One of these is that it was the U.S. authorities themselves who stood behind the World Trade Centre attacks on 11 September 2001. If that kind of nonsense takes hold, Americans will be undermining their own society and its democracy.
The Middle East
However, it is at its worst in the Middle East, where even state-controlled media and the authorities propagate rumours and conspiracy theories. The story of the Jews controlling the world is being presented as an official fact in several countries. Besides being a threat to the Jews, the widespread notion of Jewish power is an effective tool to suppress social and democratic reform: when other people are running the world, there is nothing that local governments can do to improve people's conditions. Instead of reforming their own society and getting development going, conspiracy theories give the local authorities a convenient opportunity to blame others for the misery and squalor.
Hopefully, the Arab Spring of 2011 and onwards will give people real political influence and the need for excuses will thereby be diminished or eliminated altogether.
The weakness and tenacity of conspiracy theories
Common to all the conspiracy theories is that they do not survive a visit by Ockham's Razor (see chapter: Christianity - Dogma Takes Over); i.e. if one searches for the simplest explanation from the facts, conspiracy theories fall to the ground.
The problem, however, is that conspiracy theories are not about knowledge and logic; they're about feelings. Conspiracy theories are stories that confirm prejudices and emotions. Rational arguments and counter-evidence rarely suit the emotions, and conspiracy theories are therefore usually immune to facts and common sense.
Next chapter: Subversion of the Physical Community