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How Conspiracy Theory Shapes Reality: An Example From Guinea



How conspiracy theory shapes reality: an example from Guinea

By Susanna Fioratta for The Conversation

GUINEA — A woman casts her ballot in Guinea’s presidential elections in the capital Conakry, in October 2015. In Guinea, people are protesting in the streets against a reported attempt by President Alpha Condé to orchestrate a constitutional change that would allow him to remain in office beyond the end of his second term next year.

Police have responded violently to the demonstrations. At least eight protesters have been killed and many wounded. Protest leaders have also been imprisoned.

At this point, the story seems clear: a population is uniting against the threat of an authoritarian government. But as this situation develops, the way Guineans talk and act politically may not always appear so straightforward. The question of who holds power – and who ought to hold it next – may become subject to conflicting theories, interpretations, and suspicions, as it has in the past.

Nine years ago, when Condé was elected to his first term, theories of conspiracy circulated through the country. Many Guineans were convinced that high-level actors were plotting to fix the election. I was in Guinea at that time, studying migration, politics, and Islam.

In a recently published paper I examine how conspiracy theories about politicians and political events became central to the 2010 elections. I argue that popular theories of high-level electoral conspiracy shaped the emergence of new political orientations. These influenced individual actions and, sometimes, led to violence. In turn, this intensified suspicions of conspiracy.

Conspiracy theories are often dismissed as irrational paranoia, but they often reveal broader truths. This is especially the case among less powerful people in contexts of insecurity. And Guineans, who have experienced both colonial exploitation and socialist state repression, have reasons to be suspicious.

Far from being just an ignorant or irrational way of talking about politics, conspiracy theories make people feel that there is meaning to what happens in their lives. And that meaning forms the basis for actions and events.

Many of the players from the 2010 election remain on the scene. They could provide the material for fresh conspiracy theories around the 2020 election. This could have serious consequences.

Lead-up to 2010 elections

The 2010 presidential elections in Guinea capped a tumultuous two years. In that period a long-time president died and a junta of junior army officers took his place in a military coup. Months later, the junta led a brutal massacre of civilian protesters. Subsequently, an attack on the junta leader effectively removed him from power.

Following these dramatic events, elections were finally held in a long, fraught process that began with a first round in June and culminated in a runoff in November. The elections were widely viewed as the country’s first democratic presidential elections since independence from France in 1958.

Throughout these uncertain months, news about the elections was often difficult to obtain. Still, Guineans exchanged information gleaned from multiple sources. These included state-run TV news, international radio programs, phone calls with friends in the capital, and conversations in cafés. With no clear distinctions between fact and fiction, people speculated about the significance of particular events and actively sought to discern what powerful parties might be hiding from public view.

Amid accusations of fraud, repeated scheduling delays, and other setbacks, the existence of a conspiracy to fix the election seemed, to many, the likeliest explanation.

Living in Guinea’s Fouta Djallon highlands during this time when electoral conspiracies became increasingly popular topics of conversation, I witnessed particular shifts in how people talked. Ethnic identities seemed to grow both more important and more rigid. A formerly mistrusted politician was hailed as a saviour. For some, violence became justified as a regrettable but necessary response in the face of threat.

Changing reality

In my article, I examine two particular theories of conspiracy that circulated during Guinea’s 2010 election.

The first relates to a horrific event that took place on September 28 2009. On this day, leaders of several political parties held a demonstration at the national stadium to protest the military junta’s continued rule and to call for fair elections.

In response, soldiers barricaded  the stadium and began shooting into the crowds. Over 156 people were killed and at least 109 women and girls were raped. Most Guineans I knew blamed Dadis, the junta leader and self-declared president, for the massacre. Confirming their view, a United Nations inquiry found Dadis and other junta members responsible for the atrocity.

One year later, the first round of elections had left two frontrunners to compete in a runoff: Condé, an ethnic Maninka, and Cellou Dalein Diallo, an ethnic Fulɓe. Around this time, the way people talked about the massacre began to shift in the Fouta Djallon. Instead of viewing the stadium massacre as a military crime against unarmed civilians, many Fouta Djallon residents, who largely identified as ethnic Fulɓe, theorised that Condé and other powerful Maninka figures had plotted the massacre expressly to eliminate Cellou Dalein, and, by extension, all Fulɓe.

video of Dadis accusing Condé of organising the massacre to clear the field of his political competitors was widely circulated. People who had previously condemned Dadis for perpetrating the massacre began to view him as the victim of a conspiracy masterminded by Condé. Many in the Fouta Djallon grew increasingly anxious that a future President Condé would target them for persecution.

People who had previously deplored military rule now declared they preferred it to the prospect of a Condé presidency. People who had previously criticised Cellou Dalein for complicity in government corruption now spoke of him as a hero whose presidency would usher in a new era of greatness.

The second case of conspiracy theory involved allegations of poisoning. People attending a rally for Condé’s party got sick, and party members accused Cellou Dalein supporters of poisoning them. A series of violent attacks on ethnic Fulɓe houses and businesses followed.

In the majority-Fulɓe Fouta Djallon, people began to theorise that leaders of Condé’s party had poisoned their own supporters to incite violence against Fulɓe. Recounting theories of conspiracy and counter-conspiracy surrounding the suspected poisoning, people in the Fouta Djallon became more convinced than ever that, collectively, they faced a grave threat. Only uniting behind Cellou Dalein could save them.

Ultimately, when Cellou Dalein lost the election, many in the Fouta Djallon understood his loss as the consequence of a vast plot to keep the Fulɓe from gaining political power. This conviction motivated some people to violently attack their Maninka neighbours’ property.

It also led others to legitimise this violence as a form of justice. People talked and acted in ways that would not have been acceptable only a short time before. Reality had changed.

New social and political realities

Theories of conspiracy often seem paranoid and irrational, but they not infrequently point to larger —- if not literal —- truths.

Ten years later several individuals have been charged with responsibility for the atrocity. But none of them has been brought to trial.

Condé, who won a second presidential term in 2015 (challenged again, unsuccessfully, by Cellou Dalein Diallo), reportedly aims to amend Guinea’s constitution to allow him to seek a third term in 2020. In this effort, he appears to have support from Russia.

There is still material for conspiracy theory, which in turn may shape the emergence of new social and political realities.

The Conversation publishes knowledge-based journalism that is responsible, ethical and supported by evidence from academics and researchers in order to inform public debate with facts, clarity and insight into society’s biggest problems.

Susanna Fioratta is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology, Bryn Mawr. She received funding for this research from Fulbright, the National Science Foundation, the Social Science Research Council’s International Dissertation Research Fellowship and the Wenner-Gren Foundation.

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White House Gift Shop Selling Coronavirus Commemorative Coins



White House Gift Shop Selling Coronavirus Commemorative Coins

WASHINGTON, DC (TMZ) — The White House Gift Shop is hawking some odd memorabilia … a coronavirus commemorative coin no one asked for.

The COVID-19 coin features the names of President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence … and it depicts an empty presidential podium on one side, and a graphic of the novel coronavirus above the world on the other side.

The coin also shouts out the rest of the COVID-19 task force … with smaller printed names for Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, Surgeon General Dr. Jerome AdamsDr. Deborah Birx and Dr. Anthony Fauci.

The collector’s item is emblazoned with tons of slogans … including “Together We FOUGHT The UNSEEN Enemy,” “Everday HEROES Suited Up,” and “Everyday CITIZENS Did Their Part.”

The White House Gift Shop is already taking pre-orders for the coin … and the price is slashed from $125 down to $100. The store, which is privately run and only loosely related to the actual White House, claims proceeds will be donated to hospitals.

The COVID-19 coin is the 11th in the gift shop’s “Historic Moments” collection, which also commemorates Trump’s meetings with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

So, at least the coronavirus coin is in … good company.

Trump's Coin Collection

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Trump Thinks Armed Michigan Protesters Are ‘Very Good People’



Trump Thinks Armed Michigan Protesters Are 'Very Good People'

MICHIGAN (TMZ) — President Trump has found another group of “very good people” … the gun-toting right-wing extremists who stormed the Michigan statehouse to protest coronavirus restrictions.

Trump is strongly supporting the heavily-armed protesters … he says they are very good, very angry people who deserve a seat at the table with Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer.

Mind you, Michigan does not meet the very same federal guidelines for reopening that the President and his coronavirus task force announced last month.

Trump tweeted out his support of the rifle-clad protesters and tried to shift the onus on Whitmer, saying … “The Governor of Michigan should give a little, and put out the fire. These are very good people, but they are angry.”

POTUS added … “They want their lives back again, safely! See them, talk to them, make a deal.”

The protesters are up in arms over the fact Gov. Whitmer extended the state’s emergency stay-at-home order until the end of May.

Of course, Trump started the battle cry for the “liberation” of several states — including Michigan — just hours after he laid out the federal guidelines. He, at least, said reopening should be done slowly and smartly … based on data.

That’s apparently out the window.

It has to be said … Trump’s comments about the Michigan protesters are reminiscent of the Charlottesville rioters, who he called very fine people.

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Trump’s Own Officials Depended on WHO. Then He Turned Against It.



Trump’s Own Officials Depended on WHO to Fight Coronavirus. Then He Turned Against It.

As President Donald Trump publicly bashed the World Health Organization over its response to the coronavirus pandemic last week, American aid officials tried to delicately sidestep the political tensions, internal documents shared with ProPublica show.

And Trump’s campaign upended weeks of partnership between his own administration and the WHO, which provides advice and support for health officials in developing countries. The U.S. Agency for International Development had chosen to funnel much of its pandemic response through the WHO.

Even as they dealt with the fallout of Trump’s decision to cut off WHO funding, his administration leaned on it for expert advice.

“Given the political dynamics, I do not recommend reference to WHO here or below,” wrote one U.S. Agency for International Development career official in a comment on a draft report about how emergency funding would be spent. “Recommend deleting.”

The April 10 comment on the document prompted a rebuttal a few days later from another career official, one of many who argued that the WHO’s role in the health crisis should not be caught up in a political spat.

“It’s actually important to reference WHO standards during this type of emergency pandemic response – even with current political dynamics,” wrote the official, who argued for leaving in the mention of the WHO. It’s unclear which wording made it into the final version of the document.

A redacted image of comments left on a USAID draft document suggesting omitting a reference to the WHO.

The exchange was just one example of the angst that spread throughout USAID as it became clear that Trump would follow through with his April 10 threat to cut off WHO funding, and it was indicative of efforts by officials to downplay the role of an important public health partner. Just a few days later, on Tuesday, Trump paused all U.S. funding for the WHO, upending crucial plans for containing the virus in developing countries and bolstering China’s narrative that it is stepping into the traditional U.S. role of global leader.

Interviews with current and former U.S. officials and the internal documents and communications show that despite Trump’s recent disparagement of the WHO, his administration was for weeks relying heavily on its expertise and global reach to fight the pandemic. And in a public relations battle between China and the U.S. over global leadership, American diplomats and aid officials have cited robust U.S. funding of the WHO as a key supporting argument.

The WHO’s expertise is a critical resource for developing countries that lack their own strong public health sectors, said Jeremy Konyndyk, a former USAID official during the Obama administration. Cutting the WHO out of funding means the U.S. is eliminating its own ability to control the pandemic in those countries, he said.

“If you want to try and fight a public health crisis in a developing country without the WHO, you are lost from the outset,” Konyndyk said.

Particularly in conflict zones where the U.S. has limited or no reach, such as Syria, Yemen and Libya, working with the WHO is crucial, one U.S. official said on the condition of anonymity.

Just one day after Trump’s announcement, on Wednesday, WHO staff held a presentation for USAID’s Global Health Bureau on health care in conflict settings, according to a description of the meeting seen by ProPublica.

USAID, the State Department and the White House did not respond to requests for comment. The WHO referred ProPublica to comments on Wednesday by its director general, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, saying that his organization hopes the U.S. will continue to be a “generous friend” and that his agency “works to improve the health of many of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people.”

The State Department and USAID turned to the WHO soon after the agencies received nearly $1.3 billion in new funding from Congress to address the pandemic in March. That funding had few strings attached, meaning officials could disburse it largely as they saw fit and did not have to channel it through the WHO or any other specific entity.

In a March memo outlining the administration’s global pandemic response, obtained by ProPublica, officials wrote that the U.S. would work “in close coordination with” the WHO. Several strategy elements mentioned the WHO.

In a March 31 public statement, the State Department highlighted U.S. assistance to the WHO, boasting that the agency’s “broad-based effort would not be possible without U.S. support.” The statement made repeated swipes at China, comparing U.S. funding of multilateral organizations to China’s much lower contributions.

That view was also reflected in an internal document dated April 13 and titled “Countering People’s Republic of China (PRC) Propaganda on Health and Humanitarian Aid.” It cited “critical support” from the U.S. to “the World Health Organization, UNICEF, the World Food Program and dozens of other organizations.”

Internal State Department guidance sent in early April, with diplomatic talking points about U.S. assistance, encouraged “Ministries of Health to reach out to the local WHO representative and other local partners to inquire about laboratory test kits, reagents, and supplies, laboratory supplies, and test kit availability in your region.”

The guidance also served as an endorsement of the WHO’s unique capabilities. “WHO uses existing agreements and its vast network of procurement mechanisms to purchase tests on behalf of countries that cannot afford them,” it said.

The U.S. quickly funneled nearly $700,000 each to Morocco and Iraq via the WHO last month. In response to a White House query this week, USAID officials compiled information on several grants they had made to the WHO that were supporting coronavirus relief and detection efforts in South Africa, India, Angola and elsewhere, according to a spreadsheet seen by ProPublica.

U.S. officials working on the response said they now worry about how they can help countries if they can’t channel the assistance via the WHO.

“For several countries, the WHO is the only way we can help them,” one official said. “We know nothing about anyone else who’s operating there.”

The significant U.S. reliance on the WHO in the Middle East prompted officials in the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs to write a memo to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warning of the consequences of a funding halt. The memo, a draft version of which was seen by ProPublica, warned of undermining the global response to the pandemic, threatening American lives, and ceding ground to China.

Indeed, Trump officials have been preoccupied with the idea that China is winning the global PR battle. On Thursday morning, White House, State Department, USAID and Pentagon officials held a conference call to discuss the issue, focusing on the Middle East. Several diplomats in the region said that talking points against China gain little traction in their countries, according to someone with knowledge of the call.

Privately, USAID officials acknowledge that China is well ahead of the U.S. in pushing the narrative that it is the leading humanitarian actor responding to the pandemic, according to meeting notes and emails seen by ProPublica.

One U.S. embassy in North Africa reported to officials in Washington this week that the Chinese had until recently avoided bashing the U.S. in favor of boosting their own donations of medical equipment. There was one exception, they noted: The Chinese took the opportunity to highlight the U.S. decision to halt funding to the WHO.

Do you have access to information about the U.S. government response to the coronavirus that should be public? Email Here’s how to send tips and documents to ProPublica securely.

ProPublica is an independent, nonprofit newsroom that produces investigative journalism with moral force. We dig deep into important issues, shining a light on abuses of power and betrayals of public trust. Follow on Twitter at @ProPublica 

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