Fear and insecurity in the age of conspiracy
The spread of a culture of fear in Europe might be the ultimate goal of the Putin administration in achieving its strategic ambitions. Social sciences use the term ‘culture of fear’ in order to describe the emotional response produced by actors, which use fear as a political incentive for achieving their goals by increasing the impact of insecurity, instability and anxiety on social discourses and relationships (Furedi, 2002; Massumi, 2005, 2015; Molder, 2011; Wodak, 2015). Brzezinski (2007) has noted that a culture of fear ‘obscures reason, intensifies emotions and makes it easier for demagogic politicians to mobilise the public on behalf of the policies they want to pursue’. It is an attractive political instrument for hiding motives, evoking irrational emotions and mobilising people under the flag of populist gains (Molder, 2011: 241-242). Therefore, conspiracy theories can effectively support the spread of a culture of fear, in order to justify totalitarian or authoritarian policies built on strong images that pretend to give easily adaptable explanations for people feeling insecure.
The challenge of the post-truth world has taught us that human society, even in its highest stage of technological progress and social development, is far from being naturally open to liberal democracy. Totalitarian and authoritarian regimes are able to effectively play with the weaknesses of liberal democracies and gain remarkable popular support under the slogans of law and order in standing against freedom and human liberties. Norbert Elias (1982: 300) implied that fear is among the most important mechanisms through which ‘the structures of society are transmitted to individual psychological functions’. Consequently, fear is the most effective tool for alternative right movements wishing to secure public support, changing ideological patterns from liberal democracy to populist ideologies, and building an image of Europe as in terminal decline.
The power of fear has been one of the major fundamental drivers throughout the development of international society, being a general motive often appearing in fear-induced situations and producing enmities and polarisations in vulnerable security environments. Fiona Jeffries (2012: 38) pays attention to the increasing impact of political fear and the exclusive emphasis on reproduction of it, which opens up ‘new forms of thinking about fear as a technology of political discipline’. ‘Otherisation’, where negative assumptions people might feel against different identity groups are emphasised, works well with the effective introduction of the culture of fear. If fear becomes a part of identity politics and produces identity-related narratives, it will drive us into the fear-driven world, which can easily produce never-ending security dilemmas, easy to enter and difficult to leave (Lebow, 2008: 92). Fear may often become morally justified for taking radical actions in the time of crisis. Reed Davis (2008) notes that in real war situations, fear and uncertainties constitute an alternative force that overpowers rational decision-making.
The increasing trend of insecurity, which is characteristic of a post-truth environment, may be among the major catalysts for the proliferation of a culture of fear. The Russian Federation has had a long tradition of conducting influence operations in Europe including image-building, disinformation campaigns, propaganda and conspiracy theories, which are easily adapted in the post-truth insecurity environment (lasiello, 2017: 51). The Putin administration has been open-minded in turning to new polarities, testing new strategies, and developing their status conflict with the West after seeking higher status in the international system. The goal is to establish control over the domestic and international media by especially focusing on TV and the internet (Giles, 2016; Hellmann & Wagnsson, 2017).
In Europe, the Kremlin is supporting extremist and Eurosceptic political movements, purchases Western media outlets, often followed by black propaganda campaigns - spreading false, incomplete and misleading information (Hellmann & Wagnsson, 2017: 156). But the ideological orientation of today’s Russian Federation is more complicated and flexible, totally different from the Soviet Union, which focused on Communist and leftist movements. Under the Putin regime, Russia has become a prominent protector of European alternative-right movements even though shared ideology might not be the primary factor of their support. Kremlin’s strategic narratives (for strategic narratives, see Miskimmon, O’Loughlin & Roselle, 2013) describe the West as a declining power, which suffers from liberal-democratic values that it equates with weakness. Conspiracy theories are fuelling conspiratorial thinking through narratives powered by fear, which seek to convince the audience that the conservative movement fights against the political establishment (the ‘elite’) and acts on behalf of poor and less-educated part of society (the ‘people’), the position in the political spectrum traditionally occupied by leftist movements. Nevertheless, they may support the leftist movements as well if their political agenda fits with Russia’s strategic goals to weaken and destabilise Europe as the case of the Russian occupation of Crimea or the warfare in Syria or Ukraine demonstrates.
A culture of fear has a significant impact on the Russian imagination of Europe. According to the fearmongering narratives produced by the Putin regime, Europe should fear Russia because of its inevitable intent to attack and conquer Europe, and the Russian people should feel themselves insecure because they have been told to wait for the attack from the West, identified as a hostile power to Russia. Claims of a ‘secret world government’ led by George Soros, a Hungarian-American business magnate and the founder of the Open Society Foundation supporting democracy and human rights in multiple countries, often presented in the speeches of former US President Donald Trump, are core narratives that have long been promoted by Russian conspiracy theorists and their counterparts in Europe (McLaughlin & Trilupaityte, 2013; Becker, 2019; Madisson & Ventsei, 2020; Langer in this volume). These claims unite liberalism, feminism and homosexuality into one antagonising political theory and strategy, which pretends to reveal the workings of the world government. This is also how Russia portrays the West and Europe in their ideological battle against the Western liberal-democratic values (Lamelle, 2016; Ônnerfors, 2019).
Alternative-right movements all around the world have openly demonstrated their admiration of Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, who has been considered as a protector of Western alternative-right movements. Protesters of the ‘United Right rally’ in Charlottesville 2017 chanted ‘Russia is Our Friend!’, as well as ‘Jews Will Not Replace Us!’ and ‘The South Will Rise Again!’ showing a combination of anti-Semitism, racism and pro-Russian sentiment (DeLany, 2019: 3). In Europe, the goal is to weaken European unity, damage liberal democratic values and, in the long run, destroy the EU. What is common to alternativeright movements, from Trump to Putin, is their démonisation of non-white immigrants, economic migrants and asylum seekers and their openness to ‘white genocide’ theories (Charlton, 2019).