Conspiracy Theory: Secrecy and Transparency

1Increasing transparency in society in general and in politics in particular should, in principle, reduce belief in conspiracy theories. Indeed, every conspiracy needs secrecy. With the reduction of spaces of secrecy, the basis for all speculation on conspiracies should also be reduced.

2In reality, if academic researchers debate whether beliefs in this or that theory have increased [1] or remained at the same level, [2] no specialist defends their decrease. After a period of proliferation of conspiracy theories, linked to national-populism, [3] the current health crisis has shown, on the contrary, that they have a large audience. [4]

3There are many factual reasons for this. Assuming that philosophers like Han [5] are right when they characterize information societies as transparency societies, spaces of opacity still exist: State secrets or, on the Internet, the “deep web” and the “dark web”, where dissidents and terrorists meet and actually conspire this time. And the existence of real conspiracies in secret places seems to be a good reason for some conspiracy theories to be considered plausible.

4The notion of conspiracy is linked to secrecy on at least two levels: the secrecy of the groups involved and the secrecy of their activities. [6] The groups may be known, but the activities must be secret in order to be called a conspiracy. Secrecy can be protected through two main strategies: “passive” avoidance and “active” dissimulation. In the first case, conspirators carry out their secret activities in already existing spaces of opacity. In the second case, they must create new forms of opacity by using disguise and lies.

5Those who subscribe to conspiracy theories must therefore believe in at least one of the following two options: a) the transparency society is not so transparent, or b) there are conspirators who are able to hide their activities—and perhaps even their existence—in plain sight.

6We will examine this second option using the “conspiracy theory of ignorance”, defined by Karl Popper as an epistemological position that :


interprets ignorance not as a mere lack of knowledge but as the work of some mischievous power, the source of impure and evil influences which pervert and poison our minds and instil in us the habit of resistance to knowledge. [7]

8Popper saw it as a logical consequence of the “naive epistemology” that views knowledge as a simple process of capturing what exists. By adopting this point of view, the knowing subject does not start out from prior conjectures, even less from prejudices; he is an empty receptacle that fills up with data, and nothing, in the very structure of the receptacle, determines the form of the knowledge that is lodged there.

9Neither the “naïve epistemology” nor the resulting “conspiracy theory of ignorance” are new. Popper himself found old formulations of such an idea, notably in the famous thesis of the “clergy’s deception” which developed under the Enlightenment. In the perspective of the Enlightenment, it is the interest of the clergy to keep the people in the dark that explains the ignorance and superstition of the people. But Popper then detects a curious contradiction: by rejecting religious authority, the Enlightenment rendered an essential service to the advancement of scientific knowledge; but it did so by using an erroneous theory, with perverse consequences for the future. Indeed, it is not enough to get rid of faith and religious prejudices to have access to unquestionable knowledge. Reality, according to Popper, is not transparent, and knowledge is not the result of an impartial accumulation of facts gathered in their “natural state” in the outside world, but something that we construct from prior conjectures.

10It thus seems reasonable to ask whether the conspiracy theory of ignorance does not also exist in the “transparency society” [8] in which we live, and whether, in this society in which we find ourselves constantly exposed and in which reality seems always within reach, this dynamic that leads from naive epistemology to the conspiracy theory of ignorance is not also at work. It is undeniable that conspiracy theories abound in the overcrowded virtual windows of the transparency society and that the political dimension they have taken on has become increasingly clear in the decisive electoral processes of recent years (Brexit referendum, US presidential elections in 2016).

11This transparent society is the offspring of the progress of science and technology and, therefore, is the heir to the Enlightenment project. Ironically, the advanced technological means that support it are the vehicle through which distinctly anti-scientific theories and beliefs are propagated, including that of the “flat-earthers”, which is certainly not the most grotesque. The virtually unlimited possibilities of information and dissemination of knowledge are marred by the systematic practice of disinformation and the strategic dissemination of lies. If Popper had already noted a contradiction in the Enlightenment’s use of the theory of clergy’s deception, the paradox, at the practical level, is even more striking today: conspiracists use the practical results of applied science to question it or even to oppose its alleged tyranny. If the phenomenon were to proliferate, we might be led to recognize, as postmodern thinkers have wanted for decades, the death of modernity under the blows of its own technological tools.

12In the following pages, we will discuss the relationship between conspiracy theories and secrecy, especially in the political realm, and after examining the notions of “transparent society” [9] and “transparency society” [10], we will try to identify the spaces that remain available for secrecy and conspiracy, in a world where everything is supposed to be exposed to the gaze of all. This will then lead us to question the current relevance of the Popperian “conspiracy theory of ignorance”.

13Unfortunately, current events offer us an illustration of these mechanisms of proliferation of conspiracy theories, which are developing around the COVID-19 pandemic: they combine a distrust of institutions, science, and the media, with the perverse effects of a naïve epistemology that places unrealistic expectations in the capacity of scientific authorities to immediately know reality. The potentially disastrous consequences of these beliefs reveal the need to study a phenomenon that until now seemed like a harmless eccentricity.

Conspiracy and Secrecy

14Secret is that which is not revealed, that which is reserved for a few. Those who do not know the secret may know that there is a secret, even if they do not share its content. They can also be completely unaware of its existence, without speculating on what is hidden.

15Conspiracy needs secrecy. It needs it in order to spread, to achieve its goals in practice, but it also needs it, by definition, to be considered a conspiracy as such.

16A public conspiracy would be an obvious contradiction in the term itself: when one or more people agree to share common interests, the alliance between them can be called many things, but certainly not a conspiracy. A conspiracy is considered as such when the activity does not occur in the light of day and in plain sight. If the public has become aware of it, it is because it has been foiled, or because it has achieved its objective and secrecy is no longer in order: if one wishes to assassinate Julius Caesar, it is preferable that neither he nor those who would prevent his assassination know of our plans, but once the deed is done, it is no longer necessary to maintain certain precautions, or it would only be necessary to avoid the inflammatory harangues of Mark Antony inciting the Roman people to turn against the assassins.

17The victims of the conspiracy may also become aware of the plot when it fails and comes to light, before the conspirators have been able to achieve their goals. As Machiavelli reminds us in the chapter on conjurations in Discourses on Livy, [11] few conspiracies succeed because they are constantly exposed to the danger of being discovered, either through the denunciation by unreliable participants or through the verbal excesses of some imprudent conspirators.

18Thus, between the conspiracy about which we still know nothing because it has been kept secret and the conspiracy about which we have no doubt, because it has succeeded or failed because of a premature revelation, but which in any case is unequivocally admitted as such, there is a vast and fertile territory of ambiguities in which conspiracy theories develop.

19If conspiracy needs secrecy, then conspiracy theory needs the suspicion of secrecy. Those who believe in conspiracy theories know or think they know about the alleged conspiracies by means of clues. The conspiracy is ongoing and remains secret, but a few clues surface and give a glimpse of what lies behind. The conspiracy is therefore never completely hidden, as long as those who know how to recognize its signs can guess it. [12]

20To relativize the importance given to conspiracy theories, it has been argued that such an ambiguous situation, between the secret and its revelation, is naturally unstable: the period of uncertainty may be prolonged for some time, but finally the verdict falls, one way or another: the theory is then rejected or the reality of the conspiracy is demonstrated. As Machiavelli already noted, it is difficult to find more than one or two men who can be fully trusted, and as soon as there are more than three or four men in the secret, there is no longer any way to prevent the plot from being discovered through deliberate betrayal or frivolity.

21The wider the scope of an alleged conspiracy, in space and time, the more difficult it becomes for the conspirators to keep their oath of silence. And this is confirmed by historical evidence of real and concrete plots. In some cases, the plot was discovered because of the indiscretion of a single conspirator, moments before its objective was achieved. These are some of the cases, which are exposed, not without irony, by Machiavelli in the passage dedicated to “Failures due to a disturbance of the mind”: Quintianus, appointed to assassinate Emperor Commodus, turns to his victim with a dagger in his hand and shouts: “This is what the senate is sending you”. This cry causes his arrest before he has even had time to raise his arm to strike the fatal blow. This is also the case when Anthony of Volterra, who was about to kill Lorenzo de’ Medici, involuntarily put him on guard by saying “Ah, traitor!”

22In purely rational terms, this could be a convincing argument for rejecting certain conspiracy theories. But rejecting a theory that we do not find plausible is not the same as refuting it. And conspiracy theories tend to be irrefutable precisely because the category of “secrecy” transcends the dichotomous oppositions between visible and hidden, true and false, confirmed and refuted.

23It should be remembered that the classic argument argum:entum ad ignorantiam has two parts: on the one hand, it treats the absence of supporting evidence as evidence against; on the other hand, the absence of evidence against becomes supporting evidence. The one or the other is preferred depending on who bears the burden of proof. Does the believer have to prove the existence of God, or does the atheist have to prove his non-existence? Conspiracy theory often ignores the burden of proof and, in its most extreme versions, may even argue that the absence of any evidence of the conspiracy is, in fact, the best evidence that there is a perfect conspiracy that has eliminated all traces of its existence.

24Indeed, the presumption of secrecy allows us to always maintain a dimension of uncertainty in social reality. As social actors, we simulate certain realities on a daily basis, while others remain hidden. And we are aware, as part of the representation of ourselves in our various social roles, that there are backstage areas to which only those who collaborate with us in a specific social representation [13] have access. The social world can be mapped by indicating to whom its different regions are open.

25The daily assumption of secrecy in social relationships is not necessarily negative, because “a part of each of us, including people in our intimate circle, must have an obscure and unpredictable side in order not to lose their charm” [14]. The interest and attraction that the individual feels for others is maintained so long as this secret reserve is not exhausted.

26But conspiracy theory cannot be justified by simply appealing to the argument of probable secrecy and dissimulation. It also attracts its followers, emotionally speaking, with the promise of an endless stream of discoveries. To definitively verify or refute a conspiracy theory, if that were possible, would mean ending this virtually endless process of discovery. The theory is alive as long as it allows new hypotheses to be formulated and new clues to be found. [15] It should come as no surprise, then, that soap operas, whether in the form of a television series, novel, or comic book, often use the large-scale conspiracy as a narrative engine and as an overarching framework that organizes the plot into an ever-expanding structure of meaning. [16] According to Barkun’s [17] influential characterization, conspiracy theory starts with three principles: everything is connected, nothing happens by chance, and nothing is as it seems. The world has meaning and there is a deep structure into which everything fits and nothing is left to chance; however, the promise of a fully decipherable world is constantly frustrated by the last principle: we can never be sure that we have gained access to this reality, for what appears to be real may only be the penultimate veil placed by someone trying to deceive us.

27At a social level, conspiracy beliefs are linked to the frustrated promises of the social sciences, which were expected to provide complete and exhaustive answers, almost mechanistic, giving causal explanations and practical results comparable to those obtained by the physical-natural sciences in their own field. Conspiracy theories appear in the cracks of the concept of society, [18] parallel to sociology, which takes it as its object at the same time. The idea of conspiracy constitutes a cognitive mapping [19] that allows the conspiracist to orient himself in the social world when he has nothing left to guide him. Thus, the areas that we are not able to perceive well, because of the insufficiency of our observation tools (i.e. because of the limitations of the social sciences) or because of the difficulties inherent in the object itself (i.e. the opacity of a reality that is not transparent), fall into the category of secrecy. For the conspiracist, these are not simply unknown areas, but also areas hidden by “those who do not want us to know the reality”.

28This distrust can be exploited in partisan confrontation. Uscinski and Parent have noted the empirical relationship between electoral defeats and processes of removal from power on the one hand, and the proliferation of conspiracy theories that explain these failures by so-called shady actions of illegitimate winners on the other. As the authors sarcastically summarize, “conspiracy theories comfort the losers” [20].

29In these cases, conspiracy theory does not only offer a causal explanation, nor a more or less conforming panoramic image of a reality that is otherwise difficult to reconcile with our worldview: it also gives those who believe in it a mission in this world, that of confronting an enemy that is larger and much worse than a political adversary. In some of its most extreme versions, conspiracy theories allow the conspiracist to become the hero of an apocalyptic battle that reaches its climax in our time, after centuries of underground development. But other, less catastrophic narratives also have the potential to mobilize in relation to the conventional political confrontation scenario, as they turn conspiracy theorists into champions of the truth against those who want to hide it at almost any cost by lying to the people or deviously diverting their attention to secrets inconceivable to most of them.

Secrecy and Transparency

30As the means of observing the world become more and more numerous, there should be fewer and fewer hiding places to dissimulate secrets. Electronic eyes have multiplied and have colonized spaces that, until recently, were hermetic: citizens see themselves from new angles and, moreover, they expose themselves from new angles. The methodical division of spaces according to their use in social representation [21] has been demolished: no backstage can become a front stage without the will of those who take refuge in its illusion of privacy.

31To follow Simmel’s logic without any nuance could lead us to conclude that if secrecy disappears, the mystery and “charm” that depended on maintaining a minimal reserve of opacity also disappears. But, as Simmel himself observes, showing can also be another way of hiding, and if according to one of the fundamental principles of conspiracy theory, nothing is as it seems, then conspiracists have reason to suspect that all these images are in fact only a simulacrum of hyperreality [22] that hides what is really going on.

32In any case, postmodern transparency [23] does not imply reference to a single reality. On the contrary, postmodern society, rather than being transparent, is complex and chaotic— the result of a multiplication of points of view that destroys the unilinear history that historians have long told, taking into account, without always being aware of it, the criteria and priorities of the upper classes. The image that the postmodern society transmits, according to Vattimo, is not that of a unitary and coherent whole, but of a mosaic of fragmentary and, sometimes, even contradictory images. If modern conspiracy theory is born out of frustrated expectations of not being able to know society in its totality and of cracks in the conception that different social groups have of it, postmodern fragmentation seems to be a particularly conducive environment for the acceleration of this dynamic.

33Audiovisual communication, the press, cinema, and above all television, allow us to observe ourselves in real time and, according to Vattimo, to concretely reach the selfknowledge of the absolute spirit that Hegel considers to be the culmination of history, but without going beyond the previous stages, which are incorporated into a global and coherent synthesis, if not by pulverizing history into several histories. Emancipation, according to Vattimo, should not come from that chimerical perfect knowledge to which the Enlightenment and its direct heirs aspire, but from the liberation from the infinite diversity of perspectives channeled by the media.

34This proliferation of previously suppressed points of view, this “revenge” of subaltern cultures and subcultures in the single and traditional history, is the product, according to Vattimo, of decolonization, the end of imperialism and, mainly, of the birth of mass media. To the extent that conspiracy theories are, also, “marginal” points of view, opposed to an “official version” [24] with the claim of hegemony, it seems consistent that conspiracy theories are in line with the demolition of the monolithic social reality and the liberation of diversity, although many conspiracy theories also appear as conservative reactions to the loss of a stable and monolithic world. [25]

35This variety of images is, moreover, the raw material that feeds conspiracy theory, often constructed by researching, compiling and reinterpreting various documentary perspectives on concrete events. Let’s take the well-known example of the assassination of John F. Kennedy: the existing images of the concrete act have been analyzed to detect discrepancies or inadequacies that would reveal the true nature of the crime and the scaffolding that justifies it. Similarly, images of the killer Lee Harvey Oswald at different times in his life were also analyzed for potential revealing contradictions. For example, Knight [26] shows a poster prepared by the investigator Jack White in which seventy-seven photographs of the killer are juxtaposed from childhood to adulthood. White concludes that, given the notable differences in physiognomy over time, the photographs cannot all be of the same person. Thus, in contrast to the “official version”, the view emerges that there were not only other shooters besides Oswald, but that Oswald himself was in fact several people.

36According to some analyses, conspiracy theorists justify their beliefs by claiming a relativism inspired by the poorly assimilated or poorly digested ideas of Critical Theory, [27] which leads them to attribute to different perspectives on reality a bias linked to prejudices and interests that depend on social positions. However, the conspiracists attribute to the electronic eye of the camera an implacable objectivity that eliminates any possibility of distortions, since the camera, unlike humans, has no emotions or interests, and simply collects what is happening in front of it, in an aseptic way.

37Conspiracy theorists know that it is possible to stage false situations in front of a camera and pass them off as real; some famous theories, such as that of the “Moon landing conspiracy”, support precisely such a form of lying. But in a context of distrust of institutions and traditional media, this does not translate into a distrust of any filmed situation: rather, it can lead to the rejection of images from traditional media, because they represent the “official version” and because the media have the means to manufacture simulacra of reality, while at the same time pushing to give more credibility to “homemade” and “spontaneous” recordings that conflict with the “official version”.

38In this way, secrecy and conspiracy not only do not disappear, but emerge strengthened. The most invulnerable secret being the one hidden under our noses and the most effective plot being the one that develops under an illusion of absolute transparency, conspiracists suspect the reality exposed to the eyes of all, as when a magician shows the inside of an apparently empty box but which hides in reality something behind a mirror placed at 45°. The multiplication of points of view necessarily implies the multiplication of divergences, of shifts in perspective, of small cracks in the official version from which theories are built. As a result, either the conspiracists believe that some of these divergent versions are false, or they assume that it is not the perspectives that are multiple but the object itself: the images are different because they reflect different realities, although at first sight they may appear to be the same, or worse, someone is trying to convince us that they are the same in order to serve their own obscure interests.

39According to Vattimo, this process of decomposition also applies to history, which, by losing its unitary character, by fragmenting into multiple stories, allows for rewritings or new writings that respond to different criteria of selection of significant facts (for example, the daily life of people compared to the exploits of great men, or the role of cultures considered subaltern in the process of globalization versus the ethnocentric narrative of Western cultural diffusion), but also to the will to elaborate alternative histories that unmask the hidden actors behind processes of social change. Since Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire du jacobinisme (1798-1799), in which Augustin Barruel attributed the French Revolution to a conspiracy hatched by Freemasons and atheists, the history of modernity has been written in parallel by a plethora of alternative histories, of which The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is one of the most infamous examples.

40In the transparency society, as Han [28] describes it a quarter of century after Vattimo, these dynamics are exacerbated. According to him, what happens today is not an invasion of intimacy by the electronic eye but a surrender of this intimacy by those who renounce it, motivated by an imperative of exposure that obeys the economic and cultural logics of contemporary capitalism. We no longer need to be sought out, it is we who feel the need to show ourselves, and to reinvent ourselves by discovering little by little who we are when we expose ourselves. Because, as Han reminds us, one of the first and most serious mistakes of transparent communication is to forget that we are not transparent to ourselves, and that we keep secrets deep inside us that we cannot access. This is why, despite Simmel’s warnings about the dangers of losing this “charm” of secrecy, every subject remains potentially inexhaustible: it is never too late to surprise oneself and one’s followers with a new identity, or a twist in the script of one’s existence.

41Beyond the psychological pathologies that can be linked to compulsive digital exhibitionism, at the sociological level, the search for absolute transparency that Han perceives denotes a deep crisis of trust. The social media user needs to see and be seen, to watch and be watched, to trust others and have them trust him. Ready-made phrases justify this: “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear”. But, logically, there should be no reason to scrutinize those who have nothing to hide. Total surveillance implies total distrust. And any pact or negotiation that takes place in the dark, out of public eye, becomes a conspiracy. As Simmel pointed out, “the secret society, just because it is secret, seems to be a conspiracy against the existing powers”. [29] From this point of view, if a citizen takes refuge in the blind spot of the surveillance camera, it is because he wants to do something he should not.

42But this perception contradicts the experience that social actors have acquired by staging their lives in front of the electronic eye. This experience familiarizes them with the practical workings of the construction of transparency and, even more so, with the means of dissimulation it provides. As Dean MacCannell has explained about the staged authenticity sold to visitors in tourist destinations, going beyond the front stage does not mean accessing the real backstage. It is possible to sell tourists who are already familiar with the usual attractions so-called authentic experiences that are actually just as elaborate as the others. Between the outermost scenario of social representation and the intimate realm of private life, there is an almost infinite succession of hybrid regions between the front stage and the real backstage that is impossible to reach. Often, our daily exercises of digital transparency fit into a similar pattern, and they are driven by a conscious control of what we want to show, regardless of the fact that the dynamics of networks and the characteristics of digital content transmission and storage multiply the opportunities to lose this control.

43In terms of public opinion, this daily experience of controlling of one’s own image shapes the social perception of political leaders. Their exposure to an audience of potential voters, citizens who depend on their management, is calculated to maximize the probability of achieving their electoral and political goals, and this fact impacts journalistic reporting. The so-called spontaneous images they communicate to the public were designed by a team of consultants. They do not manage their Twitter accounts: the messages that bear their signature inversely signal those they have written personally. There are different levels of authenticity in their communication with citizens and different levels of staging to protect their secrets.

44Within the target audience, this may lead some individuals, on the one hand, to fatally overestimate the degree of control that politicians have over their own image, and on the other hand, to stubbornly look for inadvertent blinks of an eye or slips that reveal a carefully hidden reality. In short, many people remain suspicious, drawn to the pop Machiavellian culture of television dramas such as House of Cards or Baron Noir that confirm the perception of politics as the privileged domain of simulation, secrecy, and conspiracy. Conspiracists adapt their interpretive framework to what they assume is the nature of political reality: because it is made up of appearances deliberately fabricated to hide the truth, they look to the simulation for clues to the underlying reality. The overexposure of political leaders, the emphasis on transparency, and the obviously (and understandably) artificial attempts to share scenes from their private lives with the public feed the suspicions of the already suspicious.

Transparency and Conspiracy

45The era of transparency and the reduction of the space that allows for the accommodation of the secret, obscure and suspect because it is secret, represent a step backwards in relation to the civilizing advance that, according to Simmel, was first the fruit, in the distant past, of the institutionalization of private spaces outside of public exposition.

46Simmel defended it in these terms in a famous passage:


Secrecy […], the dissimulation of certain realities, obtained by negative or positive means, is one of the greatest conquests of humanity. Compared to the state of childhood, where every representation is immediately expressed, where every enterprise is open to all eyes, secrecy means an enormous extension of the life, because the total publicity prevents many existential contents from being manifested. Secrecy offers, in a way, the possibility of the existence of another world, next to the visible world, and the latter is much influenced by the former. [30]

48Secrecy enriches social life, opens up new possibilities that are unthinkable under the constant exposure of the public sphere, simply because these possibilities can only be conceived and thrive under the protection of a cover. Total transparency, for this very reason, impoverishes social life by truncating all these possibilities at the root.

49At a political level, the transparency of decision-making and negotiation processes can lead to polarization [31] and thus to the fragmentation of public opinion, which is sometimes facilitated by the proliferation of conspiracy theories. [32] Subject to the imperative of transparency, political agreement is far more difficult to achieve: the negotiator must have a certain leeway to move forward and give in to the positions of the other party, without being strictly engaged from the outset to a program of maximum demands that the other party will never be able to accept, being itself bound by equally strict antagonistic demands.

50The more entrenched the positions, the more difficult the agreement and the more complicated it becomes to justify it to the public. It is therefore necessary to find a posterior region, far from the public eye, so that the interlocutors can negotiate, in addition to the substantial content of the pact, its public representation in the Goffmanian front stage. This is why transparency seems lethal for the process of agreement, while being necessary for the product of this process: [33] it eliminates the discrete spaces that are essential to the transaction. In a context of political polarization, full transparency leads to maximalism, since it is not possible to seek agreement with one’s opponent without paying a high price.

51The political leader and his team of advisors may have relatively tight control over the communication products they use to project the leader’s image and to stage transparency, but it is far more difficult for them to regulate the images that are recorded and broadcast by all the electronic eyes that watch his every step. [34] The only possible defense, to avoid being accused of having “multiple faces”, or of being several people like Lee Harvey Oswald, is to maintain a disciplined consistency and display an unnatural uniformity. The transparent leader cannot say one thing and its opposite to one and the other as he sees fit. He must try to be consistent if he does not want to be faced with an act of digital public humiliation, or suspected of dishonesty.

52Ironically, the same transparency society that demands consistency between different perspectives on the political leader also offers, in its fragmentation, opportunities to diversify messages by clearly dissimulating differences. The use of microtargeting in electioneering (see, for details on some recent examples [35]) works well because it exploits the fragmentation of the transparent society: in fact, there are relatively tight compartments in this mosaic of screens within which propagandists can at any time address only those who interest them.

53In so doing, it is relatively easy to fuel the dynamics of polarization. The imperative of transparency leads to effective public scrutiny of any negotiation process, and thus to greater rigidity and intransigence on the part of the parties involved, as they wish to avoid being accused of betrayal of those they represent and of suffering predictable electoral reprisals.

54Such a context favors the dynamics of escalating hostilities (since there are electoral incentives to present a more authentic, i.e., more drastic, position than the others) and hinders any attempt at a lull, which requires the opposing parties to find common ground where they will agree on how each will be able to keep up appearances when confronted by their partisans. It is necessary to explain the transaction in terms that do not allow it to be interpreted as a humiliation or a surrender: this is also the language used by the opponents of the pact to denounce it in the face of public opinion.

55On the other hand, the availability of increasingly precise technical means to diversify messages builds virtual echo chambers that reinforce existing divisions in information and ideology. The political leader for whom certain groups of citizens will never vote has a vested interest in their being true purists of an ideological position opposed to his own. In this way, it is easier to demobilize them by presenting the opponent as “too moderate”.

56In this fragmentary and transparent world, it is logical to ask whether the conspiracy theory of ignorance that Popper challenged is still relevant today. Indeed, for those who subscribe to the “naive epistemology” denounced by Popper, there are many reasons to believe that it is relatively simple to know reality as a whole when it is recorded by the appropriate camera. Technical means make it possible to capture all the images and to broadcast them in real time: practically any citizen belonging to a country still qualified as “developed” has the possibility of broadcasting live by streaming the phenomena in which he participates or of which he is the witness. Effective censorship has become increasingly complicated and attempts to suppress specific images often result in their viralization as a response. Reality, at least in its visual dimension, seems totally within our reach. In theory, everything is visible. But does this mean that in practice citizens see everything? Even if they could see everything, does it mean that they can know everything?

57A naive epistemology is characterized by excessive expectations about our cognitive abilities. If there are no obstacles between the subject and the object, knowledge takes place through contact, immediately and without distortion. A camera that directly records reality should function as an extension of the eyes and thus amplify knowledge capacities, not reduce them.

58However, although the ordinary citizen has many more means than he did just a few decades ago, he is aware that others, who are not ordinary citizens, have even more means and have no reason to share their discoveries with him. The same goes for data: transparency initiatives on the part of public administrations, the posting of information online, including access for the scientific community to statistical micro-data generated by different institutions, do not balance out the inequality that exists in relation to other actors who make commercial use of data, and who possess information on an unimaginably larger scale. It is from the somewhat vague impressions of their relative position in the social world that individuals shape the cognitive map [36] by which they orient themselves.

59The basic elements to develop the conspiracy theory of ignorance are already there: the proof of the extent of the knowledge that some diffuse subjects (governments, companies, Facebook, Twitter) have of citizens, since they know what the voters are going to vote for even before the voters decide, and they offer consumers, in social media banners, products that the consumers don’t even know they like.

60Therefore, when in a critical situation such as the one caused by COVID-19 citizens find that the information and data provided by institutions are not completely reliable, or even grossly erroneous, conspiracists find it difficult to simply attribute this failure to the error or imperfection of the available tools. If the official number of infected people is lower than the reality, they suspect that this result is due to government cover-up and not to understandable difficulties in the face of an unexpected situation that is beyond their capabilities. With all the means provided by Big Data, which allows the simultaneous tracking of countless transactions in the physical and virtual world, how can we not know, in real time, how many people have been infected and how many have died in each country? Believers in conspiracy theories come to the conclusion that the authorities know the truth and don’t want to tell it. Why do the scientists, from whom we expect conclusive and definitive answers, repeatedly contradict themselves or are dubious and hesitant in their discourse on the coronavirus for the general public? If a part of the audience does not understand that the results of science are always an estimate and provisional, that they are always susceptible to refutation and that science progresses by correcting itself, it is understandable that some come to the conclusion that they know more than they are telling us and that they are trying to deceive us.

61Once suspicion has set in, transparency cannot clarify anything, given the irrefutability of conspiracy theories. Sometimes it can even exacerbate it, because as the degree of exposure increases, so does the likelihood of new discrepancies, real or imagined, further calling into question the honesty of the people or realities involved. But even if there are no new loopholes into which doubt could creep in, there is no sufficiently exhaustive exposure that could completely disprove conspiracy theories: conspiracists assume that all the so-called backstages that are shown are staged and always hide the real backstage, which remains out of reach.

62Nowadays, the proliferation of conspiracy theories may be a perverse effect of two parallel processes of democratization: the liberalization of the information market and the explosion of abundance in the supply of products on that market, so that the individual “may be easily tempted to compose a representation of the world that is mentally convenient rather than true”. The ideal of absolute transparency goes in the same direction: although in general terms it obeys a democratically sound dynamic, it causes perverse counterproductive effects towards itself. This is one of the principles that can be invoked by those who, from positions such as national-populism, use democratic rhetoric to stiffen the institutional structure that supports liberal democracy. In their view, establishment politicians must be subjected to total transparency, as they will always seek ways to hide secrets and betray the people, in the service of interests carried by dark supranational actors. National-populist leaders, on the other hand, enjoy the presumption of innocence: they represent the interests of the people and their intentions are pure, so that they deserve the trust of the people, provided that their version of reality (alternative facts) conflicts with the one defended by others, their “corrupt media” and their “sell-out scientists”.


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