HOW TO MAKE SENSE OF CONSPIRACY THEORIES
© copyright by Rob Ager Dec 2010
WHAT DO GOVERNMENTS HAVE TO SAY ABOUT CONSPIRACY THEORIES?
To some small extent we’ve already touched on how governments perceive and respond to conspiracy theories. We noted in chapter 2 that brief rebuttals of several conspiracy theory accusations are listed on the website www.america.gov. The page forms a sort of collective rebuttal of all conspiracy theories. However, this direct rebuttal from government to the citizen is out of the norm. The conspiracy debates are mostly left to occur in citizens’ own homes, internet chat rooms, bars, campaign groups, academic circles, and in the circus arena of corporate media.
Despite there being a lot of poor quality media coverage of conspiracy theories (by poor quality I mean mass polarization of opinion and mutual character assassination) governments, at least in the West, remain largely silent on such topics. Perhaps, as Cass Sunstein explained, this really is because those governments consider dialogue in their own defence to be futile. And perhaps it’s because there is some truth to some of the conspiracy theories and, naturally, they don’t want to implicate themselves.
There are two specific areas in which conspiracy theories are more frequently commented on by representatives of government.
Frequently, whistle blowing comes from former government employees who don’t have a career to protect. And sometimes whistleblowers will seek refuge in another country in the process – Alexander Litvinenko for example.
In cases of conspiracy accusations between different government departments, the ensuing debates in court rooms and debating chambers can be very informative because those doing the accusing (assuming they don’t have some ulterior motive) are acting from a position that is the opposite of what Cass Sunstein calls “crippled epistemology”. They are people who have had direct experience or access to information on the conspiracy topic in question. Several of the most controversial and widely believed conspiracy theories have been fuelled in this way, such as those relating to the Waco siege, 9/11, climate change, and the invasion of Iraq.
Conspiracy accusations from one government to another are more varied. Sometimes it’s as simple as the leader of a country standing up and accusing another government on the world stage; Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran have publicly expressed their belief in the 9/11 conspiracy theory.
In other instances, governments allow the broadcasting of conspiracy theory documentary films on prime time television – films in which other governments are the subjects of accusation, yet similar documentaries in which the host country government is the accused are shown less frequently. For example, as of January 2007 the film Loose Change had been broadcast in 12 countries, according to the Guardian. It has also been subjected to an organised distribution campaign in Germany. Despite being one of the most widely downloaded and viewed films of all time, Loose Change has received hardly any broadcasts on US television and has never been broadcast in the UK or received a cinema release. Nor is the DVD available in High St retail stores.
Another example of these international variations on media coverage of conspiracy theories is the best-selling Chinese book Currency Wars. Apparently, this book is popular with Chinese officials. From the reviews I’ve read it appears that this book basically puts forth the same argument already expressed by western academics and writers such as Antony C. Sutton (The Federal Reserve Conspiracy, The War on Gold), Janine R. Wedel (Shadow Elite) and John Perkins (Confessions of an Economic Hitman); the argument that western economies and governments are largely controlled by privately owned central banks such as the Federal Reserve of the US. In this article at the Foreign Policy Blog Network, Henry Hoyle describes the book’s assertions as “delusions”, yet he also offers a conspiracy theory of his own, suggesting that the Chinese government “may well have intentionally whipped up public sentiment to feign powerlessness in private conversations with pushy diplomats.” Hoyle also offers some thought on government management of conspiracy theories. Though he is specifically discussing China, his comments are also applicable to governments in general.
“The received wisdom in Chinese political studies is that while the government is beholden to public opinion in the short term, it has plenty of latitude to mold that opinion in the long run. … The opposition of the masses to any given policy is thus only a temporary obstacle - it can be assuaged in due time with corrective public opinion management, … as the leadership cannot always be of one mind about everything, we should not be surprised if the Party’s opinion management work reflects this indecision. The validity of the conventional wisdom is contingent on elite opinion being unified; otherwise, the sentiments of the masses may yet prove to be a wildcard in foreign policymaking.”
A more recent variation on the dissemination of conspiracy theories by one government against another is the globally broadcast news channel Russia Today (a.k.a RT). As the name suggests, its headquarters are in Moscow, but what is interesting about Russia Today is that many of its reporters are Americans or British people working for the channel from outside of Russia. Some of these reporters would very unlikely be employed by US or UK media sources because of their highly critical views of their own governments. For example, the RT reporter Webster Tarpley; who frequently asserts that western intelligence and defence organisations stage foiled terror attacks in their own countries to keep the war on terror going. Being that these conspiracy theory assertions are coming from western reporters, it’s difficult to accuse RT of biased reporting.
Like most major media outlets, RT will have some bias towards the national interests of its country of origin, but such sources are useful in that they offer a variation of opinion and subject matter that can be contrasted with media in other countries.
Several conspiracy theories were favourably hinted at in a series of billboard ads by RT in 2009 and the clash of opinion resulting between Russian and British funded journalism is evident in this Telegraph article attacking the credibility of RT. Note that in the embedded video the argument declines into a battle of personal attacks and petty insults coming from supposed professionals. And in this surprisingly frank admission, US media heavy weight Walter Isaacson explains "We can't allow ourselves to be out-communicated by our enemies" and he makes specific reference to RT and several other non-US news channels.
Despite all of this international interest and controversy over conspiracy theories, government response to conspiracy theories at the national level is minimal. It’s also extremely difficult to find policy papers on the subject.
Fortunately for our study here, the “Conspiracy Theories” article by Cass Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule contains a series of policy suggestions as to how the US government and intelligence agencies might deal with the challenge of conspiracy theories.
“How can government get behind or around the distinctive feature of conspiracy theories -- their self-sealing quality, which tends to fold government’s denials into the theory itself as further evidence of the conspiracy? An obvious answer is to maintain an open society, in which those who are tempted to subscribe to conspiracy theories do not distrust all knowledge-creating institutions, and are exposed to corrections.”
Thankfully, the author’s are talking some sense here. If society becomes less open (limitation of free speech and infringement on freedom and liberties) then justified and accurate “conspiracy theories” would flourish, fuelling appropriate resistance and, if necessary, revolution. And I would like to believe that Sunstein and Vermuele would do the right thing and join that resistance. But, note that they are assuming that the “open society” is something the US government is in a position to choose between maintaining and abandoning. An “open society” shouldn’t be seen as simply a way of rebutting conspiracy theories and stemming revolution. It should be an ideal pursued by high ranking officials such as Cass Sunstein because it is the right thing to do.
The authors offer the following strategies for policy consideration (in their own words):
Fortunately, the authors disregard the first two options, which if pursued would validate many of the conspiracy theories, causing wider dissemination, acceptance and revolt. But, unfortunately, they conclude: “Our main policy idea is that government should engage in cognitive infiltration of the groups that produce conspiracy theories, which involves a mix of (3), (4) and (5).”
This “cognitive infiltration” is then broken down into the following actions:
Additional strategies and insights offered by the authors are as follows:
Regarding the risks of cognitive infiltration, the authors explain, “Infiltration of any kind poses well-known risks: perhaps agents will be asked to perform criminal acts to prove their bona fides, or (less plausibly) will themselves become persuaded by the conspiratorial views they are supposed to be undermining; perhaps agents will be unmasked and harmed by the infiltrated group.” The assertion that agents may become persuaded by the conspiratorial views doesn’t exactly support the authors’ confident assertions as to which conspiracy theories are based upon “crippled epistemology” and which are actually credible when examined in detail.
What is really odd about Sunstein and Vermuele's article "Conspiracy Theories" is that it is a publicly available policy paper. Surely the publishing of such policy recommendations would undermine the effectiveness of the "cognitive infiltration" tactics. This is cetainly true in that Dr David Ray Griffin, a prominent 9/11 "conspiracy theorist", has responded to their report with a critical book called ... Cognitive Infiltration. It could be that Sunstein and Vermuele made their report public so as to generate paranoia and mutual suspicion among 9/11 activists. It could be that they believe in the 9/11 conspiracy theory and are trying to warn the public of efforts to undermine the theory. Or perhaps they thought nobody except the relevant government officials would bother reading it.
“Cognitive infiltration” is a policy of propaganda, deception and attempted mass mind-control through virtual infiltration and the covert hiring, bribing and indirect recruitment of people who the public believe they can trust. Quite simply, it is an attempt to weave a sophisticated grand-scale lie to the masses. The basic assumption held by Sunstein and Vermeule is that an honest, open debate with the public should be avoided because the public are incapable of it and will inevitably be drawn into believing conspiracy theories.
A government’s response to conspiracy theories, if it wishes to retain a high majority of public trust, should be:
This is the democratic approach to conspiracy theories that would be the hallmark of a genuine “open society”.
Judging by how western media sources have been covering the topic of conspiracy theories, especially in Britain and America, the practice of “cognitive infiltration” has already been in wide operation for many years. It is an undemocratic manipulation tactic more suited to the fascist and communist regimes of Hitler and Stalin, and is designed to promote an illusion of an open society, while simultaneously undermining it.
“Cognitive infiltration” is, hypocritically, a conspiracy against “conspiracy theories / theorists”. It is a conspiracy against people’s democratic right to criticise and investigate the activities of governmental institutions. It is morally and legally unsound. If an individual citizen is suspected of some major crime, they are not afforded the immoral luxury of “cognitive infiltration” against their accusers. The evidence is assessed by unbiased and independent experts who have no personal, financial or political links to the defendant. If the evidence is good, a charge is made. The defendant is then taken to trial and has a chance to defend their case, but with all of the evidence presented by the prosecution also being taken into consideration by an impartial jury. The term “conspiracy theory” holds no place in these democratic court room proceedings. And it shouldn’t hold any place in the investigation of suspected crimes by government officials or their close associates.
In addition to those described earlier in this article, there are many examples of media sources using similar cognitive infiltration tactics to those suggested by Sunstein and Vermuele. We don’t have any immediate way of knowing which, if any, of them have been recruited or otherwise influenced by government pr experts and which of them are simply supporting government rhetoric as a strategy of career advancement. Nor can we disregard that possibility.
In this March 2010 article for Foreign Policy magazine, called “On ‘Conspiracy Theories’”, Stephen M Walt attempts to refute allegations of a Neoconservative plot to engineer a war with Iraq. He does so by initially likening the accusation to a variety of other conspiracy theories, including the moon landings and Area 51 UFOs, and then goes on to make claims about the supposedly limited rationality of people who do happen to believe in a particular conspiracy theory (his style echoes the recommendations of Sunstein and Vermuele). To support his character assassination of conspiracy theorists Walt also cites “preposterous claims about secret Jewish influence (such as the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a notorious Czarist-era forgery)”, yet in 2007 Walt co-authored the book The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy. This book, and its source paper origins, were the subject of heated debate. According to NPR (National Public Radio) the initial paper was the subject of a “fiery 40-page critique by law professor Alan Dershowitz that compared the study to The Protocols of Zion, a historic anti-Semitic slur.” Walt knows what its like to be denounced as an anti-semitic conspiracy theorist, yet he employs the same rhetoric against others as a career move for his own convenience.
Another tactic that is widely used (by all debaters, including government officials) to block mature debate of conspiracy theories is the “straw man”. Rather than offer a detailed account of this I’ll simply refer you to this short informational video on the subject.
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