Penn Libraries webinar traces the evolution of conspiracy theory from ancient France to modern America

Penn Libraries hosted a virtual workshop on Tuesday titled “Conspiracy Theory and Political Culture, Past and Present.” Credit: Derek Wong

Penn Libraries hosted a virtual workshop on Tuesday to discuss the parallels between the spread of conspiracy theory in Dreyfus-era France and the United States today.

The event, “Conspiracy Theory and Political Culture, Past and Present,” covered topics ranging from the use of social media as a medium to disseminate conspiracy theories to the future prevalence of conspiracy theories in American political culture. . Walter H. Annenberg History professor Sophia Rosenfeld moderated the event, which hosted Adrienne LaFrance, editor-in-chief of The Atlantic, and James McAuley, author of “The House of Fragile Things” and contributor to The Atlantic.

The event was organized in partnership with the Lorraine Beitler Collection of the Dreyfus Affair. The collection of over 1,000 pieces relating to the Dreyfus affair – a French political scandal that began at the turn of the 20th century – is held at the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts.

LaFrance, who has focused his journalistic work on the intersection of politics, media, technology and information systems, spoke about the need to create an information infrastructure and how it can reduce the danger to people. conspiracy theories.

McAuley – who attended the Paris Zoom – agreed, adding that the Dreyfus affair, in which France remained divided and anti-Semitism increased in the following years, led to the spread of conspiracy theories around this time. . He added that historically the United States is entering a period similar to the Dreyfus affair in which conspiracy theories are spreading at a rapid pace.

“We are entering a similar time in the United States, where we live in two kinds of adjacent realities that are ultimately irreconcilable, and that is exactly what Dreyfus-era France appears to have been,” McAuley said.

LaFrance added that while there are similarities between the two eras, the widespread spread of disinformation in the current landscape is largely due to social media.

“You may have had a single preacher who has gone from town to town spreading conspiracy theories, but the scale and effectiveness that social media enables is simply unprecedented in the history of technology,” she declared.

McAuley analyzed the role of social media in the circulation of conspiracy theories such as that which “gives community to militarized mediocrity”, as well as the importance of striking a balance between reporting what is newsworthy and what is not. not when it comes to conspiracy theorists.

In a closing question, Rosenfeld asked LaFrance and McAuley what they thought of the end of these destructive “mass illusions” and conspiracy theories.

“There is nothing more you can do except stand up for the truth as best you can, as you can, and not amplify the lies,” McAuley said.

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