My last post was a general explanation about why I feel it’s important to expose conspiracy theories for what they are: in short, dangerous bullshit (cf. Harry Frankfurt On Bullshit). Dangerous because they get people confused and they very often lead to violence. Here I explore what CT is, and what is the reason for promoting it. A note: This is merely a short intro… Books have been written about this subject. I can recommend Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (not directly about conspiracies, but the anti-expert idea is closely related) and Thomas Milan Konda’s Conspiracies of Conspiracies.
1) Conspiracy theories have been around for ages. Some are fairly harmless, many have sparked mass killings, (check pogroms, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, the Rwandan massacres, various “ethnic cleansings” that we’ve seen since 1992, etc.).
2) What are they: Essentially a way of reorganizing facts and often adding new, mostly fake ones. The tonality is “whispered,” in case someone is listening. . They essentially state that any incident large or small is controlled by some evil forces or individuals who intend to (fill in the blank). Some of them go far, talk about lizard people, etc… You’re in crazy territory then. A young student, Abbie Richards drew a very concise chart worth viewing. What she does not mention, however, is that the lower theories are often “gateway drugs” leading to psychosis territory. (More below).
3) These individuals promoting them like to pretend (or they really believe) they are at the forefront of an apocalyptic battle of good versus evil, usually one that cannot be won anyway, which is what makes CTs so durable: It’s about nothing real, it’s just a rearranging and creating of odd facts. The theorists also like to pretend they are victims of the Great Conspiracy: Ask yourself, WHY are they being taken down from social media or their material is not taken seriously by regular news media? They will say: It’s the evil bugaboo. But conspiracy theory has nothing to do with free speech. The reason most of them remain obscure, and should, is because of the gatekeepers (editors and the like), who check the material and see if it is relevant, true, verifiable, in any way significant or meaningful. The other reason is because they distract from real issues and are dangerous, even lethal. They can convince an unstable person to commit acts of violence, and in the current situation, they are slowing down the moment when the rest of the planet can get back to work again.
4) The real personal motivation for generating these myths is usually recognition, money, and/or, power.
5) There is now some serious political motivation and impact: Most of the Covid-19 “anti-maskers,” “it’s just influenza,” “hydroxychloroquine,” “we should be like Sweden,” “It’s all a hoax,” etc., material on the Internet started or has been co-opted by so-called “populists,” a euphemism the media use to describe what are essentially neo-Fascists and anti-democratic forces. In the USA, the highest bully pulpit is occupied by a fairly transparent con man who freely dispenses conspiracy theories and lies, which are then picked up by his media (Fox News, Sinclair, Breitbart, etc) and his apostles and spread around. And that has reached European shores, where people just go along with it (I’ll write about this in Part 3) without really knowing the origins of the stuff.
This has been amply documented by serious journalists, which is precisely why we have a president in the USA who has been ranting stupidly about “fake news,” and conspiracy theorists just repeat that message. Like sheep going baa baa. If you have been following the climate change “debate,” you will see parallels: 97% or so of the scientific community says: It’s real, it’s here, here is the evidence (Swiss friends, look at your glaciers). But suddenly, all attention is on the 3% that say it’s not the case. I asked Australian psychologist Stephen Lewandowsky about this phenomenon, here is his response:
“(M)ost of the dissenting climate scientists had terribly mediocre careers (at best) until they became climate deniers. And then all of a sudden, they appear on TV and testify in front of Congress and so on. The second thing is that most of those scientists have a long history of contrarianism in their field—science does tend to attract the occasional cantankerous individual who would not fit in anywhere else. But those are just anecdotal impressions rather than hard data, so I can’t be too certain except for the first three—money, ideology, notoriety.”
6) Watch out: Facebook and other social media are an easy and cheap way of spreading the deflection, because most people think” oh, this is interesting, maybe it’s true.” I would posit then, that a major factor in the spread of conspiracy theory is the fact that “clips” from YouTube are easy to absorb and difficult to deconstruct, i.e., to reference this McLuhan’s The Medium Is the Massage. It is just like the coronavirus, each reader/listener needs to use an intellectual mask to sort out the lies and the BS and the vapid arguments from what’s more or less real.
Finally: What you can do about it: First, stop posting this stuff and saying “I don’t have an opinion, either way.” If you don’t feel competent to read a text, don’t promote it, it’s irresponsible. You are literally risking people’s lives from the safety of your keyboard. Also, the moment you post something, the algorithm will register you as having an opinion and will send you more of the same rubbish. If you do feel like posting something you find interesting/different, then check it out carefully: What is the source? Did you Google it, and which sources came up first will tell you who is pushing it. Check out the fact checkers like Snopes, etc., they often do excellent work. And then check their work. Many conspiracy theories are built using syllogisms. Check each element. When you do that, listen to your intuition. Does it sound right? (This is what journos do).
Now you’ll start seeing why the satrap in the White House has tried to denigrate and minimize the hard work of real news gatherers. I’ve never been a “great journo” doing big things, but I did not get a press card because I believed in hobgoblins. Now you’ll also understand why there’s a job description called journalism.
Here’s the longer version:
Conspiracy theories have been around for ages. Many are simply developed by individuals seeking to draw attention to some pet political/social topic, expose a bugaboo, frequently a non-existent one, or simply to boost an individuals need for self-importance and recognition. In politics, the conspiracy is a great way of attracting attention and demonizing the opponent, and in the religious field, one finds a great deal of these stories, especially since religious leaders tend to self-victimize and self-stigmatize. It’s part of the charisma. At any rate, CT can be fairly effective, depending on the audience.
So what is a conspiracy theory? Basically, it’s the idea that the world’s events, large and small, are in fact being controlled by invisible, all-powerful forces. Sometimes these are organizations, sometimes they are individuals, but then they tend to be “untouchables,” like billionaires Bill Gates and George Soros, whose elevation to Dastardly Doyens of all that is evil is in fact nothing more than latent anti-Semitism, the financier having replaced the Rothschilds in the roster of Jewish evilissimas. The groups or organizations have often existed for real, like the Illuminati, Freemasons, the Jews, the Club of Rome, and so on, but their impact is nothing like what the conspiracist will describe. The Communists have been favorites in the USA since 1871, believe it or not, and a separate chapter should be devoted to them. Suffice to say, when you hear grown men who are supposed to be leaders call Democrats “Marxists,” you know they are merely string up archaic fears.
I would encourage people to read Richard Hofstadter’s “The Paranoid Style” published in Harpers Magazine in November 1964, a time during which the impact of the McCarthy-driven red scare was dwindling. It pithily explains how the conspiracist actually works. Hofstadter uses the clinical term not because he considers CT a sign of proponents being “of unsound mind,” but because “(i)t is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant (…) Style has more to do with the way in which ideas are believed than with the truth or falsity of their content. I am interested here in getting at our political psychology through our political rhetoric.”
This is a crucial distinction to make. It’s not only the content of the CT, but the tonality. At its core, therefore, CT is the obvious backed by a spooky soundtrack.
In my view, there are at least three identifiable tiers to the CT, plus a few ancillary players, like the media. Tier 1 covers the owners of the information, the ones who launch or really curate the conspiracy theory. “As a member of the avant-garde who is capable of perceiving the conspiracy before it is fully obvious to an as yet unaroused public,” wrote Hofstadter, “the paranoid is a militant leader. He does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician. Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish. Since the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated.”
Therein lies the danger. This is a fight that will need confrontation. And in a country like the USA, where guns are a plenty, who knows which neurons will suddenly start sparking and backfiring… In addition, the conspiracist will always intimate that he/she is a victim of sorts, and has been or will be attacked. One inspector from the Federal Criminal Office (the German FBI) I knew told me that one political cult I was researching used to call him up to tell him they’d been shot at, or attacked in some way. All nonsense, but he had had to investigate. Pete Evans, an Australian star chef and noisy conspiracist also kept suggesting in an interview that if he disappeared or died, it would not be an accident. An incredibly irresponsible thing to say, but conspiracy theorists are, if anything, irresponsible.
There are too many reasons to create these odd fables to list here. In recent times, though, becoming an Internet celebrity is one way to slake ones thirst for recognition and money. You have the notoriously callous Alex Jones, whose porcine grunting especially about the Sandy Hook “crisis actors” finally got him into well-deserved trouble he well deserved, or Glenn Beck, with his Vicks-induced theatrics and his chalkboard covered with phony connections. For these two, dumping their self-respect to make fools of themselves brought in the riches. Pete Evans, mentioned above, was also selling some $24,000 “light machine2 that was supposed to perform some miracle.
The Internet has boosted CT considerably, by offering very cheap platforms to spread the nonsense. Facebook and others, have become festering sewers of conspiracy theories, and the average user will spread the stuff without really thinking. This is irresponsible (as I mention above). But it’s also why Facebook and Twitter have come under attack.
The notorious Q-Anon conspiracy theory is particularly pernicious in this regard. Q is allegedly a clandestine source in the government explaining to the world how Trump is combating elites, the “deep state” (a typical “obvious thing” with spooky music in the background), child pornography; in other words, he is the Messiah. Indeed, the QAnoners use terms like “awakening” and are awaiting some grand moment when a bunch of Hollywood stars will be arrested for child pornography. This strange obsession is in and of itself unhealthy. Q cannot be seen or named, and is thus particularly thrilling for those who’ve fallen for the con. This irony, that an invisible person is spreading non-information, and people believe it (several spreaders are members of Congress or want to be) make Q the almost the perfect conspiracy theorist. My hunch? Look for a 400-pound guy in a basement, or the like (in the meantime he’s rich…there are so many suckers out there).
Ranters like Jones and Limbaugh and Hannity and Savage and Kirk are dangerous, because they tend to fill their audiences with fear and loathing. They will not incite violence directly, but they will condone it, and the anger they generate can easily fuel violent acts. When you speak of a specific group with such hatred, violence must always be considered as a possibility. The far-right, Trump-boosting Sinclair Broadcast Group finally pulled a 26-minute video called “Plandemic” by an anti-vaccination barker named Judy Mikovits that put Dr. Fauci at the center of a massive conspiracy theory (they are always huge!), which in turn drew death threats to the good doctor and his family. Really nice, right? CT is dangerous.
But pulling out late is actually just a brand-washing technique… the insemination has taken place and the story, boosted by the Internet’s steroids, then runs all by itself. No amount of debunking will work (pizzagate is still a thing among the QAnoners, in spite of a guy actually going there and shooting up the place only to find it didn’t even have a basement. But the conspiracists can now ALSO say: “You see, they are trying to silence us!” It’s a perfect con game.
That’s when the second group of conspiracy theorists gets going and plunder the first. They are generally less noisy, so you must train your ear. I call them “Monday-morning quarterbackers,” mainly because the only reason they can comment and critique and invent is because they are safe, they will not really get their hands dirty. Take the Covid-19 conspiracies: Governments have already imposed measures that have “flattened the curve” and saved lives, so the conspiracist is not faced with a very dramatic situation. They can be smug about it and say: “Merkel should have done this differently. Look at Sweden.” Extrapolating from Sweden, Germany would have had about 50,000 deaths. Then the same people would be on television or YT channels saying: “The government ran a euthanasia problem, they should have imposed a lockdown…” See how it works?
Their discourse is easily recognizable, but sometimes they manage to sound so reasonable, you almost think they are legit. Take the hydroxy clamor: It started with a little-known doctor in Marseilles… He suddenly says he has a miracle cure. It’s early in the pandemic, people are afraid. Hope blossoms. His name, as is to be expected, is uttered from pole to pole. He may legitimately think he has got the solution. But the medical field has rigorous systems in place to test, and his “testing” didn’t pass muster. The testing system is to prevent accidents (like thalidomide) and points out that his study has serious flaws and the drug he’s using has unwanted side-effects… (The average vaccine takes over 10 years to get onto the market).
But Trump gets wind of it and uses his platform to promote it. And then come the real plunderers, like Simone Gold, promoted by a far-right-wing group affiliated with the astroturfish Tea Party. She makes a video (much better than writing the stuff down, which then has to be read and checked) that goes viral. By time the real fact checkers have pointed out the incredible flaws in it, the absolute nonsense, including the speech by some strange doctor in Texas, who believes in “demon sperm,” and the dangers of believing her, the video, like the coronavirus, has infected millions.
I have spent a lot of time just skimming the surface of CTs and hopefully communicating how urgent it is put a stop to them. Unfortunately, they are now genuine money-makers, and that means they are driven by robust profit motives.
In our both-siderist culture, it may appear unfair that I only listed the right-wingers. There is a reason for this. First, they are definitely the most dramatic and loudest ones. Second, they have now been integrated into the mainstream of conservative politics, which have drifted to the extreme right wing. Third, they have made it over to Europe, where, suddenly people of all stamp have started demonstrating against mask-wearing, the confinement, the government, etc. There’s a political will behind it. As I mentioned: The boy who cried wolf…. If you can train people to not react to the cry of wolf, when the wolf is there, you can’t get people to move. Think of climate change. Governments will have to act at some point. What will my anti-masker friends say: “Here’s a really interesting clip, a scientist no one has ever heard about says it’s just a way to achieve the New World Order. Actually, he says that driving SUVs and flying around the world millions of times a year is totally harmless.” And the person saying that will be the same boy who cried wolf.
I’m not saying conspiracy, but one fake conspiracy is a really good way to conceal a real one.
In part 3, I’ll briefly look at the Common Folk, those who carry the water for the conpiracists.