The DeX-Files: Conspiracy Flavor-Aid

The DeX-Files: one controversial subject analyzed from a number of angles using trusted sources…and critiquing untrusted ones.

The American Left uses “conspiracy theory” to dismiss news and narratives it doesn’t like much in the way the American Right uses “fake news.” Other eras would’ve considered this a bug, but at this moment it’s a feature of the mainstream and alternative news and opinion cycle. Aristotle’s observation that “the more we know the more we don’t know” helps to explain why too often conspiracy theories fill in the gaps of what we don’t know…and sometimes of what we think we know. The prevalence of conspiracy theory in a time of unparalleled information abundance reveals deep anxieties that Enlightenment-inspired values such as truth and opinion supported by facts and argument aren’t working as well as they once did.

This examination of different ways to think about conspiracy theory is an effort in the fight against the most unfortunate trend in American intellectual life.

+“Online Conspiracy Groups Are a Lot Like Cults” | Wired | Renee Diresta | 11/13/18

““When you met an ignorant nonbeliever, you sent them YouTube videos of excessively protracted contrails and told them things like: ‘Look at the sky! It’s obvious!'” Stephanie Wittis, a self-described former chemtrails and Illuminati conspiracy believer, told Vice. “You don’t even go into detail about the matter or the technical inconsistencies, you just give them any explanation that sounds reasonable, cohesive, and informed—in a word, scientific. And then you give them the time to think about it.”

This behavior resembles another, older phenomenon: It’s strikingly similar to cult recruitment tactics of the pre-internet era, in which recruits are targeted and then increasingly isolated from the noncult world. “The easiest way to radicalize someone is to permanently warp their view of reality,” says Mike Caulfield, head of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities digital polarization initiative. “It’s not just confirmation bias … we see people moving step by step into alternate realities. They start off questioning and then they’re led down the path.”

The path takes them into closed online communities, where members are unlikely to have real-world connections but are bound by shared beliefs. Some of these groups, such as the QAnon communities, number in the tens of thousands. “What a movement such as QAnon has going for it, and why it will catch on like wildfire, is that it makes people feel connected to something important that other people don’t yet know about,” says cult expert Rachel Bernstein, who specializes in recovery therapy. “All cults will provide this feeling of being special.””

At some point in the 21st century, the nature of conspiracy theory shifted from a concern with the hidden or suppressed “facts” of history (“Who shot JFK,” for instance), to an obsession with the nature of reality itself. This shift is prevalent in recent conspiracy theories held by those who believe CERN is opening portals to Hell, or that the “global elite” are shape-shifting reptiles from another dimension. These believers have pushed their speculations to a place where reality itself is the real conspiracy for which “The Matrix” is often the favorite, most evocative metaphor.  

For three reasons I’ve suspected 9/11 conspiracy theory marks the beginnings of this shift. First, 9/11’s sheer scale beyond our imagination of what international terrorism could be and achieve. Second, the way 9/11 challenged belief in American empire. Lastly, just how much 9/11 would change our notion of citizenship as well as our relationships with the national security state. From this rupture wild speculations on how and why the Twin Towers fell filled “belief gaps” (my shorthand for the cognitive space between hard truths and convenient and reassuring sorta truths) with “Jet fuel can’t melt steel beams,“ remote controlled planes, mini-nukes, gold in the Tower basements, Jews not coming to work that day, “directed energy” weapons, and subsequently allergic reactions to “official stories” of all kinds and the political, media, and financial elites who affirm them.

Of greater consequence is that the conspiracy theory production model has been radically transformed. Before the rise of YouTube the template for producing conspiracy theory looked a lot like historical research or investigative journalism. As portrayed in films like “Conspiracy Theory” and television shows like “Homeland,” the serious conspiracy theorist is portrayed as an obsessive sleuth pursuing uncomfortable and dangerous truths. Somewhere in his cramped apartment there’s always a vision board with string connecting hastily scrawled notes, newspaper clippings, and magazine photos.

The serious conspiracy theorist wrote books with hundreds of footnotes and sold them to readers at prices that supported further research. If these people were crackpots they took their work very seriously.

YouTube changed everything by destroying this hierarchical business model and replacing it with a flattened, much more self-organizing model that democratized the production of conspiracy theory through an activity known as “crowdsourcing the truth.” This method of “truth-seeking” is thoroughly dubious of official explanations of major events. It holds that large groups of amateurs on computers can find the real truths that elites are hiding.

The product of deep suspicions of mainstream news and analysis is also an anarchic movement (though its adherents seem to be right-wing and Christian) propagating strange and ridiculous ideas portrayed as products of “citizen journalism.” With thousands (and perhaps millions) scouring the web for clues, tidbits, and breadcrumbs, then spinning ever kookier ideas on YouTube and 4Chan, today’s prominent conspiracy theories morph and rewrite themselves with new pieces of “evidence” right when it seems they’re about to be debunked. The Seth Rich conspiracy morphed into the Pizzagate conspiracy, then morphed into the Awan brothers/Debbie Wasserman Schultz/DNC conspiracy (which resulted in two “truthers” calling in a dirty bomb threat to the South Carolina police), which morphed into the Storm conspiracy, which turned into the QAnon conspiracy. Each new and goofy narrative rises as soon as the previous one is exposed as a sophisticated Pokemon Go-like LARP or a money-making enterprise.

This kind of theory production requires a metatheory that easily rebuffs objections, justifies unorthodox sources of information, exposes then denigrates “shills,” and validates paranoia as both psychological armor and an inspiration for ever more convoluted “dot connecting.”

Still, for conspiracy theorists something remains constant from one narrative shift to another—the rejection of empirical truth, reasoned inquiry, scientific fact, historical evidence, and anything that smacks of neoliberal, technocratic, 21st century big government.  

+”How to Tell If Conspiracy Theories Are Real: Here’s the Math” | Live Science | Taylor Kubota | 01/27/16

“For this new study, Grimes considered four common conspiracy beliefs: that NASA faked the 1969 moon landing during the Apollo 11 mission, that human-caused climate change isn’t real, that vaccines are unsafe, and that pharmaceutical companies are hiding cancer cures from the public. He created an equation to figure out how long these four cover-ups would likely last (if indeed they were cover-ups), given how many people are involved, the likelihood of leaks from the inside (whether on purpose or by accident), and how much upkeep would be required to keep everything under wraps.”

One of the objections to conspiracy theories that involve large numbers of people such as “The Moon Landing was faked” is that too many people would know and eventually reveal the truth. Physicist David Robert Grimes has math that calculates how long it would take for someone to spill the beans on a conspiracy involving large numbers of people. For instance, one of his conclusions is that the “faked moon landing” theory, were it true, would run quiet for about four years before it would be divulged. Surely no Moon landing conspiracist will accept that his theory should’ve been revealed as fact by 1973, perhaps because his unorthodox beliefs set him apart and make him feel special, as this study in the European Journal of Social Psychology found.

Still, what explains why the Manhattan Project remained secret despite thousands of people working on it? Well, it didn’t stay secret at all.  

+”In Defense of ‘Conspiracy Theories’: From ‘Fake News’ to the Art World” | Dissident Voice | Max Parry | 12/03/18

“An examination of the media‘s systemic failure would draw attention to its actual role in society as a tool of mass persuasion on behalf of the ruling elite. Perhaps if the official doctrines of the over-staged Warren and 9/11 Commission Reports were not treated as articles of faith, people wouldn’t be suspicious of a rogue shadow government hidden behind such obvious dog-and-pony shows. If there is no incriminating evidence in the JFK files, why on earth is the public forbidden to see them half a century later? Instead, it is the working class who are demonized for expressing the human need to grasp the social totality denied by a corporate-controlled media that performs the opposite of its expected function. They are left with no choice but to fill in the enormous blanks left gaping by a press in service of the status quo and a government with no transparency. It is always the people who are blamed for the media’s failure to do its job.”

The most fascinating aspect of studying conspiracy theory is analyzing the difference between right-wing and left-wing conspiracy theorizing. Broadly put, on the right a conspiracy theory is a secretive pattern of planning and action by perpetrators of events that change the otherwise natural progress of history and human endeavors. In this way the structure of right-leaning conspiracy theory looks much like right-wing thinking, the essence of which is individual actors making specific choices that have consequences. This explains the prevalence in right wing conspiracy theory of liberal or “globalist” boogeymen such as Aldous Huxley, Edward Bernays, George Soros and others secretly “pulling the strings” behind major events. By contrast, on the left conspiracy theory tends to have structural characteristics. Few left-wing conspiracies take place in a particular time frame or involve particular people. Rather, left-wing conspiracies are aspects of “the system,” built into the fabric of daily life, shaping our actions and ideas in ways of which we are unaware. Control is the goal, but there’s no puppetmaster. There’s no Oz behind a curtain pulling strings. Instead there are systems of thought and value that can change our world and our decisions in ways that might not be beneficial to the average citizen.

Right-wing conspiracy theory is about choices. Left-wing conspiracy is about forces. I’ve written more about “forces vs. choices” here.

+“Conspiracy Theories” | YouTube | Noam Chomsky

Following up on the last article, in this interview, Chomsky states that there are conspiracies and offers “the suburbanization of America” as an example. It’s a compelling idea with some basis in fact.  

+“‘Birds Aren’t Real’ Is the Conspiracy Theory Mocking QAnon” | The Daily Beast | Kelly Weill | 11/28/18.

“The U.S. government eradicated all birds in 2001 and replaced them with surveillance drones, the Birds Aren’t Real movement alleges. The movement (which conveniently sells merchandise) is thriving off young people’s sense of the absurd in the Trump era, the movement’s founder said. It’s disinformation as performance art. And it’s only half as ridiculous as some earnest conspiracy theories.”

Perhaps the best way for societies to combat dangerous conspiracy theories—the kind that result in a gunman shooting up a pizza shop—is to counter them with silly conspiracy theories. Conspiracy theories have real-world effects on our beliefs and actions. What if they didn’t because of a concerted effort to make them look silly?

+”What John Stuart Mill Got Wrong about Freedom of Speech” | Boston Review | Jason Stanley | 09/04/18

“In devising the strategy for RT, Russian propagandists, or “political technologists,” realized that with a cacophony of opinions and outlandish possibilities, one could undermine the basic background set of presuppositions about the world that allows for productive inquiry. One can hardly have reasoned discussion about climate policy when one suspects that the scientists who tell us about climate change have a secret pro-homosexual agenda (as the evangelical media leader Tony Perkins suggested on an October 29, 2014, edition of his radio program Washington Watch). Allowing every opinion into the public sphere and giving it serious time for consideration, far from resulting in a process that is conducive to knowledge formation via deliberation, destroys its very possibility. Responsible media in a liberal democracy must, in the face of this threat, try to report the truth, and resist the temptation to report on every possible theory, no matter how fantastical, just because someone, somewhere, advances it.”

“The marketplace of ideas” is a dubious metaphor for how free speech works in a democratic society. The idea has two flaws that may not have been appreciated in John Stuart Mill’s time but certainly are today. First, the “logic” of the marketplace commodifies even that which doesn’t look like a commodity, such as speech. Speech as a product is ultimately subject to the laws of supply and demand, as it should be 99.9% of the time. However, there are no failsafes within the marketplace of ideas itself that inoculates it from speech that would damage it or weaken our faith in it. Second, sometimes markets fail. At some point conspiracy theories, propaganda and other types of speech that engages emotional responses rather than rational deliberation can cause a failure of the marketplace of ideas. Two examples are the panic supposedly caused by Orson Welles’ The War Of The Worlds broadcast and the Rwandan Genocide, both phenomena of radio.

+”Where the ‘Crisis Actor’ Conspiracy Theory Comes From” | Motherboard | Jason Koebler | 02/22/18

“By January 1, [conspiracy theorist James] Tracy was espousing this theory in a post with the URL “sandy-hook-the-illusion-of-tragedy.” In that post, Tracy asked: “Was Sandy Hook a Relocated Emergency Drill” that was staffed by “Itinerant ‘Crisis Actors?’”

“After such a harrowing event why are select would-be family members and students lingering in the area and repeatedly offering themselves for interviews? A possible reason is that they are trained actors working under the direction of state and federal authorities and in coordination with cable and broadcast network talent to provide tailor-made crisis acting that realistically drives home the event’s tragic features,” he wrote.”

Shouldn’t some Sandy Hook “crisis actor” have talked by now? Given the prevalence of crisis actor conspiracy theory, shouldn’t, say, a dozen actors have come forward to tell their stories by now?

+”How a Liberal Scholar of Conspiracy Theories Became the Subject of a Right-Wing Conspiracy Theory” | The New Yorker | Andrew Marantz | 12/27/17

“Beck had been delivering impassioned rants against Sunstein for months, calling him “the most dangerous man in America.” Now he added the paper about conspiracy theories to his litany of complaints. In one typical TV segment, in April of 2010, he devoted several minutes to a close reading of the paper, which lists five possible ways that a government might respond to conspiracy theories, including banning them outright. “The government should ban them,” Beck said, over-enunciating to express his incredulity. “How a government with an amendment guaranteeing freedom of speech bans a conspiracy theory is absolutely beyond me, but it’s not beyond a great mind and a great thinker like Cass Sunstein.” In another show, Beck insinuated that Sunstein had been inspired by Edward Bernays, the author of a 1928 book called “Propaganda.” “I got a flood of messages that night, saying, ‘You should be ashamed of yourself, you’re a disciple of Bernays,’ ” Sunstein recalled. “The result was that I was led to look up this interesting guy Bernays, whom I might not have heard of otherwise.””

I’m tempted to name Edward Bernays as the father of left-wing conspiracy theory.  However, that designation would be better applied to Karl Marx to the extent that we can now read his work as a conspiracy theory of Capitalism against the workers of the world. Perhaps the most effective ever.

+”Flat Earthers and the Psychology Behind Conspiracy Theories” | The Awl | Angela Brussel | 12/08/17  

““If you’re a devout conspiracy theorist, you will deny the veracity of that evidence, or you’ll begin to question people’s motivation for providing that evidence in the first place.” That’s just it. People become so attached to their identity and their beliefs that they are unprepared to consider an alternative explanation, even if demonstrated to them by science. This is why it is so difficult to argue with someone who believes that vaccines cause autism and that the Earth is flat. Scientific consensus has no bearing on their frame of mind because it is the very institution of mainstream science that they harbor misgivings about in the first place.”

How many flat earthers are also creationists? The former is as much a product of The Bible as the latter. Indeed, the flat earth many of them describe is the earth as it is in Genesis. Explaining the rest of the universe in terms of the Earth as a spinning disk is surely an arduous task. However, flat earth is about something else entirely. For some believers flat earth theory is a way to reassert a heliocentric view or Copernican model of the universe. Everything revolves around the earth in that view, physically and metaphorically. There’s no evidence at all that this is real science, but science is less important than everything revolving around humans, which means that we are not the result of random molecules coming together in random sludge, which means that we are inherently special because we are God’s prized creations.

+”Nothing In Any Conspiracy Theory Is As Bad As What’s Being Done Out In The Open” | Caitlin Johnstone | 11/21/18

“I often get conspiracy buffs asking/telling me to write about this or that theory of 9/11 or the JFK assassination or whatever, and I’m just like, dude, have you seen the stuff they’re doing in broad daylight?? It’s not that I have any attachment to the official narratives the TV tells me I’m required to believe, I just find I can get a lot more traction with much better arguments pointing out the facts that are publicly known and undisputed, especially because those things are often far worse than anything alleged in any conspiracy theory.

I mean, take 9/11. Pretty bad, right? 2,996 dead human beings. If that were engineered or permitted to happen by any faction of the US government or any of its allies, that would be pretty diabolical. But would it be worse than a million Iraqis killed in a war based on lies? Even if you only care about American lives, just the number of US soldiers killed in Iraq already far exceeds the death toll of 9/11. This was a war engineered by secretive government agencies and DC insiders, justified and sold to the public with government lies, lies which were advanced as objective and unquestionable fact by the mass media. The war was rammed through without any public accountability, a million human lives were snuffed out, and when they were done nobody was tried for war crimes. Nobody was even fired. No changes were ever made to prevent such horrors from being inflicted upon our world again.”

Ah, the conspiracy theory conspiracy theory, the idea that conspiracy theory as such is a useful distraction that the powers that be utilize against otherwise bright, inquisitive people so they’ll occupy precious brain cells with aliens instead of making the world a better place. Or some such. Pretty clever. Not as clever but more prevalent these days is something like “X is just a distraction from Y,” a statement which itself can be a distraction from learning how to walk and chew gum at the same time where political outrage is concerned.   

+”Study shows 60% of Britons believe in conspiracy theories” | The Guardian | Esther Addley | 11/22/18

Almost half (47%) of leave voters believed the government had deliberately concealed the truth about how many immigrants live in the UK, versus 14% of remain voters. A striking 31% of leave voters believed that Muslim immigration was part of a wider plot to make Muslims the majority in Britain, a conspiracy theory that originated in French far-right circles that was known as the “great replacement.” The comparable figure for remain voters was 6%.

The disparities between those who voted for Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in the US was even more stark, where 47% of Trump voters believed that man-made global warming was a hoax, compared with 2.3% of Clinton voters.”

This study raises several questions about information operations. Which event was more affected by weaponized conspiracy thinking and theories, the Brexit vote or the 2016 American Presidential Election? Which created more chaos and doubt in long-standing political institutions? Which operation will have a longer lasting effect? Which engendered longer lasting doubts about our political arrangements and their abilities to solve social and economic problems?


Where are your hammers for these nails?

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