You know those little green-and-white USDA Organic labels you find on organic produce? What if someone told you that their adhesive transmits a powerful drug into the edible that over time can render humans sterile? It’s true, they say; they’ve seen the lab reports, and go on to assert that this is a plot by USDA and agribusiness interests to decimate nutritionally savvy people as a way boost sales of poison-laden GM food products.
Insidious beyond belief, you think. You’re pretty sure it’s a crock, but your doubt gene says “What if…?” and you decide to check it out. You email people to ask if they’ve heard it and some of them do the same. Someone finds a truther blog with a long discussion thread about it and lets you know. Alleging scientific credentials, certain discussants proceed to hypothesize about the chemistry and physiology of the attack vector and argue about that. Others point to connections between certain USDA political appointees and Big Food. The rumor has become a thing, and even if you post refutations that get shot down, you’re now part of it.
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Pop Quiz: Which of these do you think might have been the work of conspiracies?
Here’s My Take:
JFK: It’s quite likely that JFK was felled by a conspiracy orchestrated by the CIA, involving the Cuban exile underworld and possibly the New Orleans syndicate, pretty much as Oliver Stone said in JFK. Much of Stone’s material comes via CIA whistle-blower USAF Col. L. Fletcher Prouty. Here’s the epilogue to his book JFK: The CIA, Vietnam and the Plot to Assassinate John F. Kennedy that the printer strangely omitted.
Vince Foster: There was no conspiracy to murder Vince Foster. There was a conspiracy, apparently organized by Jerry Fallwell, Rex Armistead, and others at the Arkansas Project funded by Richard Mellon Scaife, to pin Foster’s death on the Clintons. The truth may be that life in the White House drove Foster so deeply into depression that he shot himself in the head.
Federal Government; Deep State, New World Order, Freemasonry, etc.: The notion that occult elites secretly manipulate the affairs of nations goes way back, spawning a zillion theories about who these people are, what binds them together, and the instruments of control they use. These days, this sort of talk generally issues from alt-right sources, bloviators like Alex Jones, Breitbart News, and Donald Trump.
I’m as fed up with being jerked around by unelected neoliberal elites as any of those rapscallions, but our Venn Diagrams of the perpetrators almost certainly differ. In any event, I’m skeptical that some sort of New World Order Board of Directors exists that calls the shots. If it did, it would be pretty unwieldy. But the truth is out there, I’m sure.
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I picked these three out of Wikipedia’s long yet quite incomplete List of Conspiracy Theories because they represent three different types of conspiracies, not that there aren’t a lot more. One I consider real, one fake, and one too protean to ever be proved or disproved except by anecdote, implication, or concerted whistle-blowing.
In science, theories stick around until someone disproves them, and different theories about the same thing may uncomfortably coexist. Scientists know better than to say a theory has been definitively proved, as the next experimental test could falsify some or all of it. But when it comes to human affairs, controlled experiments are hard to come by and predicting events is an inexact science at best. (Not to worry; Big Data is working hard on it.) Angling in on truth through data analytics and simulations, trials of drugs and defendants, arbitration and mediation, or opinion and electoral polls yields outcomes that some welcome and others dismiss. Nothing is proved because nothing can be. Leftover doubts drive conspiracy theories, all the more so when what is doubted is widely asserted and believed at the expense of alternative explanations. It almost seems as if conspiracy theories are a law of nature.
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What about you? Are you into any conspiracy theories involving, say, 9/11, faked moon landings, aliens from outer space or Kenya, satanic boardroom cults, black helicopters, FEMA concentration camps, chemtrails, and such? If you don’t favor these, there are many more to choose from in your area of interest. How many truther blogs, retweeted rumors, and subReddit encounters does it take for you to think “You know…” and start digging in?
A theory such as the food label conspiracy hatched above is useless if kept to oneself. It needs to be plausible and properly pitched to gather steam, preferably in the Internet haunts of those most likely to repeat it. Propagating it makes it sticky but can also fragment it. People may have different ideas about what should be done, if anything, to take down the conspiracy. Those who advocate heinous solutions aimed, say, at damaging a person’s or an institution’s credibility and reputation, can become a conspiracy of their own. But for allegations to take wing, whomever they’re about should be seen as shady miscreants pursuing money or power by hook or by crook. Theories about cabals working in the public’s interests don’t hack it. If alleged conspirators aren’t seen as having ulterior self-interest, no one will care about them.
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So how to tell a real conspiracy from a bogus one? In a rambling article in WIRED on October 8th that annoyingly conflates disinformation and conspiracy, its correspondent Emma Grey Ellis—who seems to fancy herself a mistress of memes—lays out “a guide to online conspiracy theories.” After a breathless history of a century of disinformation efforts carried out via the media of the day aimed at defaming certain groups (mostly Jews and communists), Ellis zooms in on the important stuff:
Love (or hate) a celebrity? With a few keystrokes, you can comb through just about every paparazzi photo ever taken of them and watch videos of their interviews and public appearances for hours on end until you’re positive there’s some funny business going on. An alleged aversion to pens and emoji-heavy Instagram captions convinced some that Glee star Lea Michele can’t read. A monomaniacal focus on Katy Perry’s eye and eyebrow shape has led some YouTubers to believe the singer is actually murdered child-pageant star JonBenét Ramsey all grown up.
These are conspiracies? She then refers to “Poe’s Law,” named after a habitué of Creationist chat rooms calling himself Nathan Poe who, frustrated with posts that could be either creationist cant or parodies of it, made a pronouncement that got dubbed a law and then became a meme. Typically, Ellis misses its essence:
Poe’s Law is how jokes and memes jump the fence to become full-blown conspiracy theories on today’s internet.
No it isn’t. What Poe actually wrote was:
Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is utterly impossible to parody a Creationist in such a way that someone won’t mistake for the genuine article.
Ellis seems to allege that conspiracy theories are born by exaggerating some proposition to new heights of absurdity and currency, embellishing her argument with a dubious syllogism that her editor should have red-penciled:
And conspiracy theories are to people what an unsupervised toddler is to a bored border collie: It may not look quite like a sheep, but when you nip at its ankles, your brain sure feels like it’s doing its job.
What she’s dimly latching onto is how stinkbugs like Alex Jones, Breitbartians and a grab-bag of alt-right sworn enemies of neoliberal globalists like Hillary and George Soros, manage to invent half-assed conspiracy myths like PizzaGate (as reported by the BBC and there contextualized by Salon). They recruit the credulous to spread the word by regurgitating their fabrications and defaming whomever essays to debunk them. And should the level of outrage over a debunked conspiracy theory rise to a certain level, Twitter and/or Facebook might eject some of its propagandists. This naturally reinforces their and their cohort’s conviction that a massive liberal conspiracy to abduct children and turn them into sex slaves (or whatever) truly exists. The Don himself hopped aboard that tawdry bandwagon, solemnly vowing to take on America’s “human trafficking epidemic,” only to slough off that unremunerative task on Melania. He doesn’t have to believe in PizzaGate to seize on it as a vehicle worthy of taking a spin in to burnish his brand.
Demonstrably, conspiracy-mongering is more of an epidemic than is snatching kiddies to turn them into porn stars (but hold on, suppose those unidentified victimized kids are actually crisis actors?) And for Ellis, the buck stops there. For her, all conspiracy theories issue from under alt-right rocks or are fabricated for the fun of it, and all are crocks. And she, from her redoubt in the WIRED Synopticon, is on a campaign to stamp them out.
Bully for her. But what purports to be a guide to online conspiracy theories (aren’t they all online by now?) somehow shockingly omits any mention of the CIA’s sway over broadcasters, film studios, newspapers, magazines, and even literary journals—often called the Liberal Media but also including conservative organs—for the better part of a century. The agency is well-known for coaxing and prodding major and some minor news outlets to affirm the government’s line on foreign and military policy and soft-pedal domestic dilemmas like economic and racial inequality or corruption in high places. Excepting the neoliberal “Resistance” against all thing Trump and #MeToo targets, how many exposés of the high and mighty have you seen in the press, and how many of those bad actors were brought to justice? In that dark chasm of mainstream indifference to malfeasance the Deep State festers and thrives, forcing you to ask questions and circulate facts that news outlets don’t.
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Even as resentment over official disinformation and unaccountable secret governance is something that the alt-right and the alt-left share, still they bloviate and bicker about what’s behind it. And perhaps that’s what’s supposed to happen; if there’s one thing that our betters don’t want, it is to lessen divisions in this country. And so media outlets fan the flames and manufacture stories aimed at keeping our eyes off the ball.
And manufactured they are, according to specifications that vary from outlet to outlet. And so, in one way or another, all news is fake. According to Poe’s principle, then, it’s impossible to teaze out news that’s sincere and veridical from what’s disinformation and propaganda. Anything can seem to have truthiness should it please us. That tendency to interpret incoming information in a way that reinforces one’s opinions is called Confirmation Bias, and it’s an affliction no one is immune to. To confirm my own bias about this, then, I shall quote myself:
The persistence of human error that bends not to evidence of truth decay seems to have been with us for all of recorded history. It’s a serious problem that seems to have no lasting solutions. People don’t handle doubt well, especially self-doubt, and are hardwired to ignore obvious evidence that what they believe just ain’t so. Confirmation bias stands before truth like a nightclub bouncer, never admitting troublemaking thoughts. And truths that manage to slip past tend to get seated at tables in the back reserved for Cognitive Dissidents and told it’s wonderful to have you here. Enjoy the show. No talking please.
As long as one is politically engaged—Emma Grey Ellis’s tips on how to immunize oneself from conspiracy-mongering notwithstanding—there’s no escape hatch from the echo chamber. It is only the apathetic who will tell you it’s all a crock of shit; those to whom governance matters cannot stay neutral. The gap between those who see impending doom and those who think we’re on the right track continues to widen, until the protestations of the one can no longer be heard by the other.
It’s the technology, stupid; how it is harnessed for partisan ends, who’s doing it, and why. But while the alt-right seemingly has no qualms about fabricating divisive theories, progressives and the radical left still quaintly insist on truth-telling. I consider that a principled moral strength, but it belies a naïvety about the way modern communications and human nature work.
Maybe we should stop being reactive, as we did by trying to take down Judge Cavanaugh with a minor sex scandal, and go on the offensive with the real dirt—that he has no interest in justice for the people, only for the prerogatives of the powerful as a foot soldier of a neoliberal-neofascist system that holds democracy in contempt as it chugs along toward totalitarianism. An enterprise that’s too all-encompassing, entrenched, pervasive, and in many respects unconscious, to be called a conspiracy. It’s human nature, stupid.