Essay by Keith Rankin.
“What psychologists call apophenia – the human tendency to see connections and patterns that are not really there – gives rise to conspiracy theories”.
The Gordon Riots
“June 1780 [witnessed] the worst mob riots of the eighteenth century. Lord George Gordon was a born incendiary of extreme, almost insane, views. … He established an ‘association’, in the style of the time, and the Protestant Association soon came to include men of property, artisans, London apprentices and those elements of the city that were known as the mobile vulgus or more colloquially ‘the mob’.”
Peter Ackroyd, The History of England, Volume IV
The year 1780 was well after the ‘religious wars’ – the reformation and especially the counter-reformation – were over. But England was then an economic tinderbox, and was in the midst of a losing war to save its American empire. Nine years before the Bastille was stormed in Paris, the Gordon mob stormed London’s equivalent, Newgate Prison. Ackroyd says “the prisoners shrieked in terror of being burned alive … [but] were dragged away from the fires, or crawled out … the fetters still clinking about their legs. … On the same day, houses of wealthy Catholics were sacked or burned to the ground.” The mob also targeted the Bank of England, the Tower of London zoo, and Bedlam hospital. “Eventually the military restored order with some judicious threats and violence.”
This wasn’t simply random violence; it was fuelled by a baseless anti-Catholic conspiracy theory. Ackroyd comments: “The London poor did not attack their own. The Catholics who were pursued were wealthy gentlemen, lawyers and merchants. It came as an unwelcome surprise [confirming] that savage anger lay just below the surface of the century.” The rioters included a number of people who might be classed today as ‘middle class’. This was a case of ‘apophenia’, whereby a misreading of the social distress of the time led some otherwise intelligent people to target particular scapegoats.
The aftermath of these riots was a suppression of political dissent, meaning that England – and then the United Kingdom after that entity formed in 1801 – could not have a revolution of the type that happened in France from 1789 to 1799. The revolution that did happen, instead, was an industrial revolution; a revolution that eventually – and without political intent – addressed some of the issues that provoked the Gordon riots.
The Jan 6 mob, the US ‘election steal’, and other events that could have been misconstrued
The mob insurrection of the United States Capitol in January can be understood as a similar event; an event underpinned by super-conspiracy movements, such as Q‑anon. This case of apophenia was discussed recently – The Listening Post, Al Jazeera, 13 Mar 2021 – in terms of computer-game theory. People love to ‘solve’ puzzles through clues – remember the Da Vinci Code – and this process can lead whole groups of people down ‘rabbit‑holes’ of unreality.
If we who are not (or believe we are not) down rabbit-holes of unreality, we should be more aware of the kinds of symbols and processes that can fuel apophenia. In early November, I was concerned that – in many US states, including ‘battleground’ states such as Pennsylvania – the state authorities decided not to count advance postal votes until after election-day votes had been counted. It would be as if the many advance votes in New Zealand were all treated as special votes. The result of such a process in New Zealand would typically be a comfortable election-night win to the ‘right’, to then be overturned by special votes.
The sequence in which votes are counted has a big effect on the emotion and drama of an event. There are other analogies, such as the America’s Cup regatta in San Francisco in 2013. Team New Zealand, needing nine wins to win the Cup, was leading 8-1, and was comfortably ahead in what could have been the winning race. Then, with the finish line in sight, the race – in light airs – was called off [unexpected to viewers, who had not been pre-warned of this possibility]; this was because the participants had agreed that each race should be subject to a time limit. The situation was like a cricket test match where, on the last day, and with just one more wicket to claim, the five-day match is called off due to bad light. Subsequently, New Zealand could not win another race – the final score being 9-8 to their American opponents, Oracle. This outcome could easily have been construed as a conspiracy against Team New Zealand, whereas the reality was that the Americans were improving faster than the New Zealanders. Fortunately, the reality was understood by New Zealand sport fans, who never rioted (as some of the fans of Argentina’s recently deceased Diego Maradona have done since he died).
Back to the November election in the United States, if the advance votes in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Michigan and Wisconsin had been counted first – as they would have been in New Zealand – then on election night the final outcome of the election would have been much clearer, and the opportunities to see an ‘election steal’ would have been much reduced. The problem was that, in these states, the uncounted postal votes were overwhelmingly for Biden, and there were many more of them than had been indicated by the media. Thus, we saw states with allegedly ‘98% of votes counted’ switching from Trump to Biden as the remaining 2% swelled into rather more than 2%. Interestingly, in Arizona, the votes were counted in a completely different sequence from Pennsylvania; and, on election night, it was only Arizona that gave the key clue that Trump might not win. In subsequent counting, while late-counted votes were about 7 to 1 in favour of Biden in Pennsylvania, in Arizona the late-counted votes favoured Trump. While Trump still lost Arizona, that state – called for Biden on election night – turned out to be much closer in the end than Pennsylvania was.
For Americans already primed to believe that the election might be stolen, the dramatic change in the final result compared to the election-night result, had all the visual ingredients that a ‘steal’ might have. Of course, it was not a steal, but – given our propensity to apophenia – it had the optics of a steal.
The whole situation is potentially a slow disaster, in the world, for democracy. It is like the proverbial ‘butterfly effect’; an effect where small initial events can, rarely, escalate into chains of world-changing events. Decisions about the sequencing of vote-counting made by local bureaucrats in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Michigan and Wisconsin created much needless drama, and a resulting set of optics that has fed a popular movement that already had been well-primed. Since then we see not only the January riots but also that the Republican Party itself has become hostage to the ‘election steal’ conspiracy. And, even worse, since then a number of subsequent elections in other countries have had losers claiming, with minimal if any evidence, that election steals took place in their countries. The example that matters most of course is Myanmar, where the military coup – and its brutal aftermath – have taken place amidst this wider rhetoric of stolen elections.
These conspiratorial movements can become very ugly. One of the major people now being targeted is George Soros (see The Troubling Truth about the Obsession with George Soros, Forbes 12 Sep 2020); another is Bill Gates. Soros is a Hungarian-born intellectual (author of The Alchemy of Finance) – who like some past intellectuals (eg Isaac Newton, David Ricardo, John Maynard Keynes) made a lot of money on the stockmarket – and also happens to be Jewish.
While Lord George Gordon, in 1780, targeted Catholics and set off a wave of riots, the present equivalents may be following the dangerous and well-preceded path of anti-semitism.
Keith Rankin, trained as an economic historian, is a retired lecturer in Economics and Statistics. He lives in Auckland.
contact: keith at rankin.nz