These days, a mass shooting in the news is basically a guarantee that in the next 24 hours at least 100 different people on the internet are going to use the red paintbrush tool in MS Paint to put meaningful circles around pictures of people’s eyebrows.
I used to regularly argue with a conspiracy theorist in his site’s comment section. I’d investigate his claims, quickly find out how reality disagreed with them, then get accused of being part of the conspiracy for pointing out its flaws.
It was fun, in its own dumb way. But he withdrew from being wrong on the internet, and now the United States has a conspiracy nut as its President.
Conspiracy theories aren’t just amusing stupidity any more, they’ve become weaponised, and they’re being used to create further division (and endanger people such as the students in Florida who are speaking out after they came under fire- their friends were killed- in the latest school shooting).
Their belief system is complex and rooted in a series of bizarre conspiracy theories that hold that the original US government set up by the Founding Fathers has been replaced with an evil secret government that has sold all US citizens into slavery by using them as collateral against foreign debt.
As explained by the Southern Poverty Law Center, they believe the government creates a secret alternate identity for each American at birth and sets up a secret US Treasury account — sort of like a corporate “trust” — under that alternate identity. The US government funds these “corporate shell” accounts to the tune of hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars.
Because the US no longer uses the gold standard, it instead uses these accounts as collateral to back up its currency. The money is said to represent each citizen’s future earning potential. The sovereign citizens thus believe the government has “pledged its citizenry as collateral, by selling their future earning capabilities to foreign investors, effectively enslaving all Americans,” according to the SPLC.
Part of their proof is that birth certificates and other government documents, said to represent this scheme, put names in all capital letters. So whereas Jennifer Williams is the real person, JENNIFER WILLIAMS is the secret Treasury account.
By declaring themselves “sovereign citizens,” members of these groups say they are freeing themselves from government enslavement and separating themselves from their secret, government-created alternate identity.
Just framing this as a conspiracy theory nut might.
Exposure to conspiracy theories about vaccinations causing autism can sway parents’ decisions about vaccinating their children- putting their kids, and all their friends/schoolmates, at risk from diseases which had been all but eradicated.
The development of vaccines is one of the most important advances in the history of medicine. Indeed, a recent Parliament Postnote discussed how governments should further stimulate vaccine research (Post, 2008). However, even with increased efforts of policy makers, in recent year’s vaccination rates have declined. In many regions of the UK rates lie well below the recommended 95% uptake (Health Protection Service, 2013). One obstacle may be the influence of anti-vaccine conspiracy theories. Rather, current psychological research has shown exposure to anti-vaccine conspiracy information reduces pro-vaccination intentions (Jolley & Douglas, accepted*). Thus, whilst the decrease uptake of vaccines could be for several reasons, it highlights the contributing potential detrimental effect of conspiracy theories.
Maybe the conspiracy theorists are in the pay of Big Measles. Or perhaps they’re so wrapped up in their fantasy worlds that they’re blind not just to reality but to the potential harm of the lies they’re propagating.
I’ve argued with conspiracy theory believers, and been called all sorts of names because I’ve pointed out the implausibility of their claims. However, it’s these people who like to crow about being the only ones who can see the “truth” who are the most gullible. The distrust in authority or “the mainstream” (and everyone else) that they foster, makes them more likely to accept without question ridiculous, and often contradictory, ideas so long as they show the Establishment in a bad light. It’s a sad way to live, and I often find myself feeling sorry for them at some point during our exchanges.
Variations of this have been turning up as comment spam-
Breaking News from TIME WARNER NEWS: We work for big news companies own by the Evil Jews regime in America; We betray our boss and leak this important news to you: The mass genocide terrorist organization known as the illuminati (also known as the Bilderberg Group) used the H.A.A.R.P. weather weapon machine to wipe out an Elementary school in Moore, Oklahoma because that school didn’t want to house train the little children to worship the Devil.
Not quite a full house on conspiracy theory bingo- nothing about 9/11 or birth certificates- but they sure have managed to condense the crazy, haven’t they.
When you wonder what would happen if a conspiracy theorist were to come across a genuine conspiracy (or, at least, a crime committed by more than one person, which I think qualifies as a conspiracy), you know the result isn’t going to be anything like a Mel Gibson movie. You know it’s going to be more like this-
I have a go-to blog to keep track of conspiracy theories. Luckily for me the guy who runs it is also a Christian fundamentalist, creationist homophobe. So this one blog keeps me up to date on what’s incensing the intolerant and uninformed without having to follow any others.
Late last week he ran a story he’d picked up from another paranoia site called infowars, which I believe is considered some sort of nexus for this stuff. The story- well, the basic story- is that a British outfit called New Forests Company is working with the Ugandan government to evict farmers from land so it can be planted with trees which will be traded as carbon offsets by large polluters. The Ugandan Police or military, possibly with NFC’s knowledge and approval, were violent in their eviction tactics, leading to at least one death. To compound the heavy handed evictions, the farmers received little or no recompense and have been moved to land they can’t get as good a yield from.
This much of the story, at least, is backed up by Oxfam, who have started their own investigation.
This is unpleasant, another example of representatives of a developed nation corrupting, or taking advantage of the corruption of, a less developed nation for profit. It’s been the way throughout history, from the first explorers up to BP in Iran and Shell in the Ogoniland area of Nigeria. We should do something to draw attention to them, punish the perpetrators and get the dispossessed back their land.
Did the conspiracy theorists say any of this? Or suggest signing up to Oxfam’s Grow campaign to find out what you can do about it.
Of course they didn’t.
They layered a confection of a conspiracy theory onto it, inventing connections which aren’t there and obscuring the truth beneath their fantasies. This isn’t another example of corporate misbehaviour, they say. Instead it’s all about “mainstream media silence, climate change and humanitarian scams, neo-colonialism under the guise of protecting against climate change, land grabs, and UN and Big Pharma eugenicists working towards population reduction as part of a global regime”. This sewage of talking points they regurgitate, trying to force their pet hates into holes that aren’t even there, hides the real crime.
If these people who like to think of themselves as brave seekers of truth and revealers of corruption really were then they wouldn’t belittle genuine problems by including them in their fantasies. If they truly cared about the victims of this Ugandan land grab they’d stick to reporting the unpleasant truth rather than discarding it so they can repeat their unbelievable fantasies.
Ultimately, as I’ve said before, the rantings of conspiracy theorists distract from crimes that really have been committed and help no-one but the criminals whose escape they help to cover.
I keep meaning to write some more about the ongoing News of the World/News International implosion (Update Here’s my previous comment on it- Private grief is not public interest.). But every time I think I’m ready to start some more news breaks and I decide to leave it for a while longer to see what happens next. Thus have I tricked myself into waiting for this whole affair to be over before I say anything.
Going off at a tangent to the potential demise of Rupert Murdoch’s empire I did notice something interesting earlier this week. I follow the RSS of blogs by a couple of self righteous fundamentalists. It’s my way of keeping track of what I call the “reactionary bigotsphere”. One of these fundies is, conveniently, a believer of just about every conspiracy theory going, which helps me keep up to date with another set of fringe beliefs.
Now the whole Murdoch affair should appeal to a xenophobic conspiracy fan. It’s got an unsavoury foreigner acting against British interests and values, corrupting the Police and those in power, working to keep the public misinformed and stoke up fear and hatred, behaving in ways which are morally repugnant and illegal and co-opting his powerful friends to cover it all up. All with the aim of garnering more power and money for himself and his planned dynasty, no matter how far it drags the rest of us down.
Okay, maybe my mate Stewart’s a bit busy, maybe he hasn’t got round to covering Murdoch-gate yet. Maybe he hasn’t realised just how deep and how high the corruption that could come to light goes. He should check it out, then maybe he could stop relying on made up “facts” and actually get angry about stuff that really happened. But maybe some of his “they’re all out to get us” friends are ahead of him.
Stewie seems to have a high opinion of someone who blogs under the name of Leg Iron. Perhaps he has something pertinent to say about News International.
Cards on the table.
I don’t care.
Or perhaps not. After this busted flush Leggy then goes on to say nothing in particular about Rupert’s motivations in about half a dozen different ways.
It seems that, when confronted with evidence that they’ve been lied to and manipulated, the sort of person who likes shouting loudly about how everyone else is being lied to and manipulated shuts up. I can’t help thinking that the reason this particular bunch aren’t interested in the crimes of News International (and the rest of the right wing press) is that those papers are the source of the lies and misinformation they use to fuel and justify their bigotry. Or perhaps they’re too scared to complain about genuine bad behaviour, because the next step is to take action against it, and they would rather carry on fighting non-existent enemies.
I’ll get back to the bad behaviour of Britain’s press eventually, and I’ll try to do something to make a difference. Which is for the best, because the conspiracy theorists are all looking the wrong way when it comes to what’s wrong with the world.
For the past 20 weeks I have been engaged in a very strange dialogue with the two noble Lords, in the course of which I have been trying to bring to their attention the willing availability of a strange organisation which wishes to make a great deal of money available to assist the recovery of the economy in this country. For want of a better name, I shall call it foundation X.
It all sounds very familiar, as I read the ramblings of at least one deluded conspiracy theorist. Variations of the old conspiracy theorist canard, “The experts say I’m wrong, but I know secrets the experts aren’t privy to.” are deployed at least twice, making it all quite hard to believe.
Stross says that it all sounds very Robert Ludlum. I haven’t read any Ludlum stuff recently, and mention of the Vatican makes a Dan Brown comparison feel more natural. Either way, I’ll wait to see if any other revelations are forthcoming. In the meantime, would it be possible to learn more about Lord James of Blackheath’s earlier career laundering money for the IRA with the Bank of England’s blessing?
It makes you wonder what other strange stuff is uttered under Parliamentary privilege which we don’t get to hear about.
Numbers stations are a mysterious phenomenon possibly related to espionage. They are radio transmitters in Russia which broadcast seemingly random numbers or sounds. Recently one of them, UVB-76, changed from its normal buzzing to garbled messages. Theories abound about what they could possibly mean. If this was part of the prologue to a piece of spy fiction it would signal the activation of a sleeper agent or cell intent on killing key members of the British establishment (or US government if you must insist on not being parochial). They would have been called out of retirement by reactionary forces within the Russian government intent on taking the world back to the uncertain certainties of the Cold War or creating a neo-Soviet empire.
Another real life event which sounds like the opening of a thriller is the gruesome and bizarre murder of Gareth Williams a specialist in codes who worked at GCHQ and had been seconded to MI6. The conspiracy theories are already being formulated on that one, and everyone’s calling him a spy when the label is almost certainly inappropriate, just to sex the story up.
The Irwin series of stories (I have ideas for a few more after Tiger has finished serialising) feature a former MI6 analyst, so stories like this are of great interest to me. The reality will be much more mundane than the imagined reasons behind them, of course, but they fascinate for alittle while.
During the election I subscribed to a load of political blogs’ RSS feeds. After it I unsubscribed from most of them. Foolishly, I revisited the two most obnoxious of them again recently.
Richard Carvath stood as an independent candidate in Salford and Eccles, the seat retained by Hazel Blears and polled 384 votes. He claims, loudly and repeatedly, that he would have done better if the media, the big parties and homosexual-perverts hadn’t conspired against him. Homosexual-perverts is a favourite phrase of Carvath’s. He can’t just say homosexual, it has to be homosexual-pervert. He may have read somewhere that you can reinforce your message by using your preferred phrases regularly until the reader starts thinking in them as well. But he’s gone overboard- the Carvath blog is overloaded with them, every sentence employs a piece of similar wordplay, all of it of a level which should embarrass anyone over the age of ten. Homosexual-perverts abound, homophobic registrars who refuse to perform Civil Pervertships are conscientious objectors honoured with the title of Decents. I’ve seen him use the phrase Guardian-perverts as well, and it should be obvious who Barack Obortion is. I’m sure he thinks it’s all very clever, witty even, but it just looks like the ever less coherent ramblings of someone with serious mental problems.
Carvath is on a mission from God, the voice in his head. He recently had a nasty accident whilst climbing, breaking several bones and damaging his back. If it had happened to any of his growing list of homosexual-pervert enemies (which is anyone who points out how nasty his beliefs are) he would no doubt be crowing about how God had punished them for their sins. Because it happened to him it’s somehow a form of blessing and all part of his invisible friend’s holy plan. I can only hope he gets better mentally at some point as well as physically.
Cowan has a couple of tame commenters who’ll up the frothing at the mouth quotient when necessary. English Viking hates foreigners who come over here to work and improve their, and our, lot. Ancient Danes and Norwegians who popped over for a little recreational raping and stealing are obviously okay, though. Len wants you to know the Truth and accept God, because science, reality and not hating people just because they’re different is obviously the work of Satan.
The natural response to the likes of Carvath and Cowan is this-
But in the long run that’s just a waste of time. They enjoy being wrong, and feel that having all the flaws of their arguments pointed out somehow proves their case. It’s far better to ignore them or point out elsewhere just how stupid they’re being today.
Which is what I know I should do, and what I shall try to do, but I’m not making any promises that I won’t pop over there occasionally and slap them on their own blogs.
I recently read Voodoo Histories: How Conspiracy Theory Has Shaped Modern History by David Aaronovitch. It’s an interesting book which clearly, though with much sarcasm, lays out the history of several conspiracy theories then debunks them. From the Protocols of the Elders of Zion to (in the revised edition I read) the fuss over Obama’s birth certificate, it takes apart the most popular made up histories of the last century.
One of the theories examined in the book is the “mystery” of the death of David Kelly, a conspiracy theory which has been dug up again by the Daily Mail. The in-depth and considered (“The Mail has a healthy scepticism of conspiracy theories.” insists a related editorial) drags up the same arguments as previous iterations of this tale. “Severing the ulnar artery couldn’t have produced enough blood loss to die from.” But only one mention of the overdose of co-proxamol painkillers Kelly took, enough to be fatal by themselves in most cases, and none of an existing arterial problem. “Kelly didn’t seem suicidal.” To people who knew him in passing and are looking back on the events with the whispers of foul play colouring their opinions. His wife, on the other hand, had noticed how depressed he was about his sudden unwanted notoriety. “The Government stood to gain from his death.” Now I’m no fan of Blair, and opposed the invasion of Iraq, but I can’t see any way that the slimy little bastard could have benefitted from Kelly’s death. If anything, the suicide kept the spotlight on the flimsy reasoning behind the invasion of Iraq far longer than if Kelly hadn’t died.
Of course, it shouldn’t be a surprise that a conspiracy theory wouldn’t die. I bet the Protocols are still considered real in certain circles. And it’s no surprise that the Daily Mail should be so intent on stirring it up. It’s just a shame that so much time is going to be wasted on this when there are more important things to be dealing with.
The New Scientist has a special report on the roots and methods of denialism. Should be useful reading for anyone who ever finds themselves talking to creationists/climate change deniers/9/11 Truthers/anti vaccination types/that bloke in teh pub who knows what really happened to Elvis.
How to be a denialist
Martin McKee, an epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine who also studies denial, has identified six tactics that all denialist movements use. “I’m not suggesting there is a manual somewhere, but one can see these elements, to varying degrees, in many settings,” he says (The European Journal of Public Health, vol 19, p 2).
1. Allege that there’s a conspiracy. Claim that scientific consensus has arisen through collusion rather than the accumulation of evidence.
2. Use fake experts to support your story. “Denial always starts with a cadre of pseudo-experts with some credentials that create a facade of credibility,” says Seth Kalichman of the University of Connecticut.
3. Cherry-pick the evidence: trumpet whatever appears to support your case and ignore or rubbish the rest. Carry on trotting out supportive evidence even after it has been discredited.
4. Create impossible standards for your opponents. Claim that the existing evidence is not good enough and demand more. If your opponent comes up with evidence you have demanded, move the goalposts.
5. Use logical fallacies. Hitler opposed smoking, so anti-smoking measures are Nazi. Deliberately misrepresent the scientific consensus and then knock down your straw man.
6. Manufacture doubt. Falsely portray scientists as so divided that basing policy on their advice would be premature. Insist “both sides” must be heard and cry censorship when “dissenting” arguments or experts are rejected.
Sometimes, there comes a point in a discussion where you just have to look awkwardly at your feet and shuffle away, like when when the troofer tells you the CIA were responsible for 9/11, or the cab driver tells you he blames the blacks, or when the shouty man on the bus tells you he invented paint. Any rational response would fall on deaf ears. If vague mentions of social benefits of immigration being cut from speeches can be proof of deliberately importing voters, nothing you can say will make a difference.
The Oath Keepers, the scary sort of organisation which appears when people take conspiracy theories too seriously. It sounds like an unwritten part of Sounds of Soldiers.