Will the web always be a hive for conspiracy theories?


2:01 pm - September 2nd 2010

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contribution by Carl Miller

On Sunday, Demos released a report, The Power of Unreason. We looked at the role conspiracy theories play in extremism, violence, and terrorism.

Extremist groups use conspiracy theories to recruit, to justify violent acts and to maintain an ideology that sees violence as the answer to the world they find themselves within.

Conspiracy theories can therefore be dangerous.

They have an important functional value for extremist groups and they play into the social dynamics of radicalization. They create ‘the other’ that the group defines itself against. They inspire something we call a ‘self-aggrandizing siege mentality’: where the group sees itself as a tiny colony of true believers pitted against an entirely hostile world.

Overall, they divide and isolate, and it is in these conditions of alienation that extremism and violence find fertile soil. Outside of extremist groups they also drive a powerful wedge of distrust between communities and their elected governments.

This kind of disengagement is not just a problem; it is a danger. Today.

One of the big culprits for the spread of conspiracy theories is the internet. Of course, conspiracy theories like JFK and the moon landings long pre-date the digital age, but the recent explosion of conspiracy theories does coincide with widespread internet use, especially the latest revolution of social media.

Conspiracy theories live in these lawless arenas where peer-review, journalistic standards, and source attribution are largely absent. They are the creatures of youtube, chat rooms and discussion groups.

What to do? Any kind of censorship, or information campaign is wrong and will not work. We can’t and shouldn’t restrict the information that people encounter. It’s a given that we all will be daily bombarded with thousands of pieces of ‘counter-knowledge’, misinformation packaged to look like fact.

But, although we can’t tell people what to think, we can teach people how to think better for themselves.

One of the most important ways to increase our resilience to conspiracy theories is to equip young people with the skills to tell the different between credible claims, and their many imposters. Education must move into this vacuum: what are their sources?

What is the evidence, and how can we tell good evidence from bad? What evidence is being missed out? These are questions every young person must be educated to habitually ask. If people really want to get to the truth, bypassing the basic standards of journalism and open argument is not a good route.

—-
Carl Miller is co-author of the Demos report: The Power of Unreason

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Reader comments


I hope the Demos report is better written, and has fewer clunking assertions, than this blog post. (Example: the internet isn’t the “culprit”, it’s at most the conduit or catalyst; the culprits are conspiracy theorists themselves).

Of course, conspiracy theories are usually nonsense. 9/11 was not an “inside job”, and the Americans certainly wasted billions to put a man on the moon before the Sovs.

But conspiracy theories are not always to be dismissed so lightly. Like when the Italian secret services colluded with far right fanatics and acquisced in the bombing of the Bolognia train station which killed 80 innocent people.

Sometimes, they really are out to get us…

I note that Miller fails to define “conspiracy theories“. His report has a shot at it and, to be honest, fails rather badly. Thus, we see the futile pummelling of an odd, misshapen strawman.

So, who’s really behind all these conspiracy theories then?

So, who’s really behind all these conspiracy theories then?

The CIA, Mossad, and MI5 in cahoots with the Bilderbergers and global corporations…

I know several people who love believing in conspiracy theories but aren’t political extremists. Isn’t it just a parlour game to most people? Perhaps you are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories if you are an extremist, but you are also more likely to be male if you are a criminal. It is not necessarily a close correlation.

And what exactly is the sensible explanation for JFK’s assassination? The lone nutter with a magic bullet (who gets shot himself shortly after his arrest)? There is plenty of crazy theories out there but there is still plenty of actual forensic debate going on about what happened there.

although we can’t tell people what to think, we can teach people how to think better for themselves

Conceited, patronizing, left-liberal condescension in a nutshell.

Conceited, patronizing, left-liberal condescension in a nutshell.

Far better to let people wallow in the kind of ignorance that rightwing thinking thrives on…

Next up in the Daily Mail: Fairytales can cause cancer!

…or alternatively, can someone point out the difference in meaning between “meritorious” and “meretricious” to whomever greenlit this article? They clearly misunderstood the memo.

Well, yes, Flowerpower, I can understand why right wingers might take issue with people being taught better reasoning skills.

‘So, who’s really behind all these conspiracy theories then?’

I can’t take credit for ALL of them – but I am behind most crop circles.

‘although we can’t tell people what to think, we can teach people how to think better for themselves’

You could point out the difference between conspiracy theory and rational, evidence based institutional analysis.

You could point out the difference between conspiracy theory and rational, evidence based institutional analysis.

Yes, that’d be nice.

12. Solomon Hughes

Demos are asserting that conspiracy theories are daft and dangerous ideas found on the fringes, in the “unregulated” world. They seem to ignore the fact that the most successful conspiracy theory of our time – the theory that there was a conspiracy between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda to threaten the West with biological, chemical and nuclear weapons. This had all the elements of a classic conspiracy theory – Public enemies being secret friends, secret meetings in shady places between Iraqi intelligence and Al Qaeda, suggestions that Iraqi’s trained 9/11 pilots at a secret base in Iraq, that Iraqi intelligence gave their Anthrax to terrorists , who then posted it around America. The Saddam-Al Qaeda conspiracy theory even sounded line an “Area51” type story, with endless tales of underground bases and the like. And it was completely untrue, and based on the scantiest of evidence. And this conspiracy theory was certainly used “to justify violent acts and to maintain an ideology that sees violence as the answer to the world “. But it wasn’t pushed by people on the fringe, in chatrooms or in the “unregulated” internet. rather the details of this conspiracy theory appeared in the Sunday Times, Telegraph, Mail The Observer, the Washington Post, the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal. It appeared in dossiers and presentations made by two of the most powerful governments in the world. Demos seem to want to divide the world between the establishment , with its sensible ideas, and the fringe, with its weird conspiracy ideas, but as the Iraq example shows, the most effective and most dangerous conspiracy theory of our times was not tucked away in “lawless arenas where peer-review, journalistic standards, and source attribution are largely absent “.

Actually, ‘lawless arenas where peer-review, journalistic standards, and source attribution are largely absent’ sums up Bush and Blair’s governments pretty well.

@10 So you are an alien!

Ben M @ 7 & gwenhwyfaer @ 9

Maybe you and Mr Miller don’t have kids brought up in the digital age. My experience is that the current crop of “young people” Miller seeks to patronize is the most media savvy, sceptical and least credulous generation in centuries. They certainly have nothing to learn from the freakshow post-Marxists at Demos.

Besides, the best way of teaching reasoning and analytical skills is something called an old-fashioned liberal education, not some think-tank approved epistemology package – a kind of “nudge” version of a thought-police patrol.

Could I just point out that the idea that right-wingers want people to not be able to reason and think for themselves is, believe it or not, a conspiracy theory…

Actually, most of us (as with liberals, left-wingers and, as far as they have an opinion, political agnostics) would like people to have a decent education which teachs them to think for themselves. Unfortunately, most of the opinons against that sort of thing seem historically to have been based in the department of education (whatever its name is today) and the teaching unions (who, to be fair, are more concerned with their members than the children – and do care about the latter). Or at least, that’s what I’ve been led to believe on the further reaches of the internet 😉

15. Flowerpower

I was just being as facetious as you…

18. Chaise Guevara

@15

Not sure how you get from “tell kids it’s a good idea to examine the validity of statements”, which is what this article proposes, to “some think-tank approved epistemology package – a kind of “nudge” version of a thought-police patrol.”

This is how the Iranians (Press TV) are reporting the Demos paper:

A leading British think tank is calling on the government to be more transparent regarding the operation of its secret services to inspire trust in the public.

The independent think tank, Demos, said in a report titled, The Power of Unreason that covering up events like the 9/11 New York attacks and the 7/7 bombings in London only strengthens speculation that they were ‘inside jobs’.

Covering up the 9/11 attacks and the 7/7 bombings???? Demos said that??!!!

Who are the conspiracy theorists now?

This is a very poorly written article.

The gist of it is that “conspiracy theories” (undefined) are responsible for “extremism” (undefined) and therefor “conspiracy theorists” (undefined) need to be silenced and not debated. You offer no data, nor even an anecdote, so it’s little better than an opinion piece. A biased and poorly informed opinion at that.

The term “conspiracy theory” is a loaded term, it is pejorative and invokes images of tinfoil hats and is regularly flung around by the left to silence dissenting voices. The term is NEVER applied to leftist groups. Your egalitarian heroes, the labour party, bought into the biggest conspiracy theory of all, that there were WMDs in Iraq. No one is accusing them of wearing tinfoil hats. Are the Labour party dangerous “extremists” (undefined) who need “education”. I think this is the case but do you? If not, why not?

“One of the most important ways to increase our resilience to conspiracy theories is to equip young people with the skills to tell the different between credible claims, and their many imposters. Education must move into this vacuum: what are their sources? ”

This is delicious irony. After you have presented an elaborate thesis with a spurious conclusion, built on ABSOLUTELY NO EVIDENCE, you then demand that people make these demands of your mythical conspiracy theorist “extremists”. Clearly you apply one standard to the so-called conspiracy theorist and another to yourself.

What exactly is the point you are trying to make anyway? It seems to me you’re trying to say that anyone who disagrees with your world view and presents an opposing arguement should be silenced. Did I read you wrong?

@Dutch

Ummm I hate to break it to you but the theory that there were WMDs in Iraq was pushed hardest by right-wingers on both sides of the Atlantic. And sure there are lefty conspiracy theorists, not sure where you’re pulling that one from.

oh and @Dutch again

Not sure if you’ve actually read the article

You say:

It seems to me you’re trying to say that anyone who disagrees with your world view and presents an opposing arguement should be silenced. Did I read you wrong?

The article says:

What to do? Any kind of censorship, or information campaign is wrong and will not work. We can’t and shouldn’t restrict the information that people encounter.

So yeh, you did read it wrong. Try again!

Oh, yeah…

Any kind of censorship, or information campaign is wrong and will not work.

Have I misunderstood this, then? (From The Power Of Unreason.)

Recommendation: Introduce some limited, open infiltration of Internet and physical sites by government to introduce alternative information. Government agents or their allies should openly infiltrate the Internet sites or spaces to plant doubts about conspiracy theories, introducing alternative information.

@BenSix

Oooooeeeoo! I’ve not actually read the full report as yet and was just commenting on this article… so yeah, that does seem a bit errrrm wrong.

I’ll be generous with the OP and Demos on this one. The language about countering post-millennium conspiracy theories is not well developed. Even the term ‘conspiracy theory’ appears to have confused some readers here.

The OP doesn’t seriously address ‘outsiderness’. Conspiracy theories, like racism or homophobia, appeal to outsiders or people with chips on their shoulders. It is insufficient to argue that extremist groups use conspiracy theory or racism or homophobia to recruit new members. The presence of professionals, educated in philosophy and the scientific method, in such organisations indicates that education alone doesn’t work. The illiberal solution, of course, is described in _A Clockwork Orange_. What is the liberal answer?

The OP notes that social media on the internet creates a culture dish for theorists. I’d suggest looking back one stage to how rolling news channels report events. The attacks on 9/11 and their results were reported over many hours. The TV channels didn’t have hours of footage and repeated the same clips of events, not necessarily in the order in which they occurred.

Our recollections of what happened are coloured by what we saw on the news and by the internet channels that delivered video before the web dissolved under the strain. Unless you were at home watching a channel that broke the news, watching the events happen in sequence for eight hours (without too many snap backs), you would have a poor understanding of the chronology. You might think that you recall a sequence of events that did not actually occur. Belief in conspiracy theories emerges from such false memories.

So it is important for journalists to improve their standards. When they use video to illustrate a story, they need to start at a beginning rather than jumping to the most memorable event and telling the story backwards, then forwards. Accurately reporting what is known at a moment in time is not censorship; facts may need to be corrected; rolling news is not very good at this this.

@23 BenSix:

“Have I misunderstood this, then? (From The Power Of Unreason.)”

Yes. The next paragraph defines clearly what is recommended. The word ‘open’ is significant. Demos do not suggest that every contrary web site should be contained in a wrapper defining the contents as evil. They propose that government employees should proffer different arguments on web forums and should not disguise their identity.

“Government agents or their allies should openly infiltrate the Internet sites or spaces to plant doubts about conspiracy theories, introducing alternative information. Arabic speaking Muslim officials from the US State Department have participated in dialogues at radical Islamist chat rooms and websites to ventilate arguments not often heard among these groups: often with some success.”

Even the term ‘conspiracy theory’ appears to have confused some readers here.

Well, yes: the term’s been so abused I’m never sure how people have defined it for themselves.

@22

“But, although we can’t tell people what to think, we can teach people how to think better for themselves.”

LOL. The point of your entire article is that anyone who voices a “conspiracy theory” (undefined) needs to be silenced, to prevent “extremism” (undefined) by your reckoning. Your only caveat is that you don’t advocate silencing people using the law or overt force, no, your weapon of choice is “education”. Seems like the gentleman who mentioned a “clockwork orange” wasn’t too far off the mark. Granted, you pay lip service to the fact that you can’t entirely ram your political dogma down people’s throats but you are indeed, most definitely “telling people what to think”.

You just don’t like it when people don’t agree with you.

To be honest the whole thing is so vague and sanctimonious, I’m kind of having to guess what it is you’re getting excited about. 911 troofers or something? The only conspiracy theory in your propaganda piece is the link you make (with no basis that I can see) between these “conspiracy theories” and so-called “extremism”.

To quote Alanis Morrisette, a little too ironic, don’t you think?

Get a new job mate, honestly, journalism isn’t for you. I suggest you become a social worker maybe.

@28

Two things:

1] Methinks you protest too much.
2] I didn’t write the article.

Actually one more thing:

3] What is wrong with encouraging people to think critically and evaulate evidence before leaping to conclusions? Or do you think that morons who believe in a lizards-from-space conspiracy should be taken seriously?

“Could I just point out that the idea that right-wingers want people to not be able to reason and think for themselves is, believe it or not, a conspiracy theory…”

Nope, that is not a conspiracy theory………. it is fact.

In America there have been many politicians on the right from the stupid states like Alabama who would not support libraries because they did not like the idea of people thinking for themselves. That is why conservatives love religion. It teaches you to obey, and not to think to hard, but accept your lot.

@29

“Two things:

1] Methinks you protest too much.
2] I didn’t write the article.

Actually one more thing:

3] What is wrong with encouraging people to think critically and evaulate evidence before leaping to conclusions? Or do you think that morons who believe in a lizards-from-space conspiracy should be taken seriously?”

Oh OK, my apologies, I assumed from your outraged tone you must be the author.

“1] Methinks you protest too much.”

I don’t know what you mean by this, but you haven’t answered any of the points I made, it’s just an ad hominem attack.

“Or do you think that morons who believe in a lizards-from-space conspiracy should be taken seriously?”

I don’t know how to respond to this either. Theories of any kind of course should be evaluated based on facts, not political beliefs. What I object to is this brand of hysteria whereby vaguely described and defined conspiracy nuts are linked to so-called extremist movements without any evidence.

I haven’t seen (and you haven’t given) any examples of what these so-called “dangerous extremists” are doing which is dangerous or extreme or in any way driven by a conspiracy theory.

It’s ridiculous in fact, this is simply a risible propaganda piece. Surely you can see that.

This must be the 5 billionth(exaggeration) article i’ve read in the last few weeks pontificating about conspiracy theories. Not one of them has ever properly explained what they actually mean by term conspiracy theory, beyond the tiresome old pejorative sense used by dim commentators to attack anyone who questions their world view. Using the phrase as a sweeping umbrella term simply won’t do, no different from saying ‘black people are lazy’, rather than ‘some black people are lazy’.

An excellent case in point is the case of David Kelly. So many article like this one have been written about this in the last few weeks attacking the ‘conspiracy theories’ about kelly’s death. Not one of the explained what conspiracy theories they mean, or identified the conspiracy theorists they were attacking. The facts are that the vast majority of people expressing unease about the Kelly case are offering no alternative theory, conspiratorial or otherwise. That doesn’t stop the pavlovian conspiracy theory straw man attacks they receive. That’s because these commentators are attacking caricatures that exist largely in they’re own mind, and doing so because questioning the establishment narrative on controversial areas violates their world view.

Government agents or their allies should openly infiltrate the Internet sites or spaces to plant doubts about conspiracy theories, introducing alternative information.

Already doing it, sunshine.

@31

Outraged tone? I should use these —> 🙂 <— more often…*sigh*

Anyhows. If your point is that "conspiracy theory" hasn't been defined in the OP then fine, but I think most people are pretty aware of what qualifies as a conspiracy theory and what doesn't, and the importance of this article is that it's opened up a lot of different interpretations of what the term means. I don't know if the full Demos report defines the terms.
All I'm saying is you can't shout at an author for wanting people to be educated so they can tell the difference between bollocks and truth – that's not telling people "what" to think, any more than a mathematician saying "2+2=4" is some sort of totalitarian ogre.
There are plenty of examples of conspiracies influencing extremists. The whole basis of Nazism was fuelled by anti-Semitic conspiracies (the Protocals of the Elders of Zion, for example) and on the other side the extreme Communists think there is a global cabal of capitalists sitting around munching on cigars and shooting the poor for funzies. And of course Islamism is influenced by anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism and the BNP members believe in a conspiracy by the "metropolitan liberal elite", whoever they are.
And yes, I think you protest too much, as from your “outraged tone” it reads like you believe in half the conspiracies and woe betide anyone who attempts to correct you. I may be wrong, but that’s how it comes across.

How do you define “conspiracy theory”?

The definition of conspiracy theory is simply a theory about a version of events that involves some conspiratorial element. It’s not difficult. There is no judgmental element inherent in the term unless it is abused, as it so tiresomely and continually is.

@31 Dutch: “What I object to is this brand of hysteria whereby vaguely described and defined conspiracy nuts are linked to so-called extremist movements without any evidence.”

Jon Ronson has written about this on frequent occasions. The followers of David Icke and the Bilderberg Group analysts link their web sites to much more unpleasant organisations and have book offers for _The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion_. As Ronson has done, ask them about anti-semitism and they’ll tell you that when they talk about bankers and lizards controlling the world that is literally what they mean; they don’t mean Jews and are crazy enough to misunderstand what a link to Jeff Rense implies.

They are crazy but they aren’t bombing synagogues.

The stuff about which we should be scared uses traditional racist and nationalist narratives. Not many lizards. The conspiracy theories are pre-millennium, probably pre-Kennedy assassinations. Ironically, the internet makes it easier to spot them rather than the old days when they communicated via postal mail.

At the same time, we should be thankful to Jon Ronson and the like for their discussion of crazy outsiders who might become dangerous outsiders.

As soon as man stops trying to exploit man, and lie about it, then there will be no more ‘conspiracy’ theories.
This thread is classic ‘blame the victim’.

38. PeterSimplex

Delete article by Carl Miller. Insert Comments 32 and 35. Clear, succinct. true.
End of.

I think most people are pretty aware of what qualifies as a conspiracy theory and what doesn’t…

Well, herein lies the problem. They think they do. Demos, for example, hold that they’re intrinsically false and rope in any theory that culture has deemed ludicrous. Do you think they’ve studied JFK to see if alternative theories are “not the most plausible account of events“? Nah, I’d guess they’ve just assumed it’s so. The piece’s credibility depends upon the reader sharing its author’s prejudices.

Scholars, by the way, don’t cleave to Demos’ definition. Charles Pigden writes…

…when conspiracy theories are false or silly they are not false or silly because they are conspiracy theories or because they are manifestations of an intellectual syndrome known as ‘conspiracy thinking’. They are false or silly because the specific conspiracies that they hypothesize are non-existent, far-fetched or improbable…

While Brian Keeley holds…

…c[ould] we identify a class of conspiracy theories – I call them “unwarranted conspiracy theories” (UCTs) – that were by defnition incredible?

My conclusion was that, alas, such an analysis fails. !e chief problem is that there is a class of quite warranted conspiracy theories about such events as Watergate, the Iran-Contra Affair, etc., and that there is no principled way of distinguishing, a priori, the two classes from one another. !ere is no “mark of the incredible,” as it were (as Hume argues there is for reports of miracles).> As a result, contrary to being able to reject conspiracy theories out of hand, prior to any investigation, we ought to adopt an agnostic attitude with respect to conspiratorial claims.

@39

Hm, right, but to use the JFK example – the “alternative” theories are conspiracy theories because they imply a conspiracy of silence and collusion by however many agents you want to include (the Onion had an amusing article about this in their book Our Dumb Century with the headline “Kennedy Slain By CIA, Mafia, Castro, LBJ, Teamsters, Freemasons” followed by him being shot “129 times from 43 different angles.”) – now whether any of the theories are true is at the moment beside the point, it is just a statement of fact that they implicate a “conspiracy”.
I personally think it’s important for conspiracy theories to be out there so that people can examine all the evidence rather than one side of the other and that includes tin-foil hatters, rational skeptics, government agents, lizard-hatin’ paranoids, concerned of Tunbridge Wells etc etc etc. My only point is that while that is a desirable situation it is important for people to be able to understand how to process that information (as a crap example, you don’t use wikipedia as a source for an undergraduate essay).
Just because something is a “conspiracy theory” doesn’t make it wrong or false.

@ Pill

“Nazism was fuelled by anti-Semitic conspiracies”.

No this isn’t true, anti-semitism was only one element of Nazi ideology and it didn’t come from a book (published fifty years previously) which has been proven to be a fake. It came from the percieved betrayal of Germany by German jews during the first world war, AKA the Balfour agreement and Versailles peace treaty as well as the dacadence of the Weimar Republic, which the Nazi party blamed on jewish pornographers and cultural influences. Books such as the Protocols were undoubtedly used by the Nazi party for propaganda purposes but they did not, of themesleves, create rampant anti-semitism. The book is not a “conspiracy theory”, the book existed. The contents could be described as a “conspiracy theory” but not the book itself.

“And of course Islamism is influenced by anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism”.

Well no, not really. Arab/jewish relations prior to 1948 were generally considered cordial. Jews had disaporas across the entire Arab world, in fact they still do in places like Iran. Tehran has 11 synagogues and 2 Kosher restaurants. The diference is that these are religious jews and not militant Zionists annexing arab land.

http://www.sephardicstudies.org/iran.html

Could it be that instead of Arabs in the Middle East being driven by some vague anti-semitic conspiracy theory, they are in fact driven by opposition to militant Zionism, do I need to list the atrocities Israel has committed in the name of Zionism? Of course, anti-semitic propaganda is out there as well, “the eternal jew” and “hook nosed disturber” are common and unpleasant images but it’s merely propaganda used to bring people to a cause, it is not the instigator. You’re mixing up Judaism with Zionism.

“and the BNP members believe in a conspiracy by the “metropolitan liberal elite””

Well to play Devil’s advocate, I’d like to see a source on this statement. My understanding of the BNP’s main platform is that it is opposed to unfettered mass immigration which has no popular mandate. If you first acknowledge that mass immigration has no popular mandate (which it most certainly does not) then it can be argued that it is a policy which is being imposed upon the british electorate by a “Liberal elite” against their collective will. This is a theory that fits the facts, they might use colourful language to make their point but that can hardly be considered a “conspiracy theory”.

“How do you define “conspiracy theory”?”

The term is so over-used it has become de-valued, it’s meaningless, just another slur to fling at anyone who says something you don’t like or agree with. It’s like the guy who gets called an “anti-semite” for pointing out Israeli brutality in Gaza or a “racist” for questioning Obama’s health care programme.

Just because something is a “conspiracy theory” doesn’t make it wrong or false.

Oh, I agree! Unfortunately Demos doesn’t.

@Dutch

Nazism – yep I know it was a multi-faceted monster hence why I used the word “fuelled”: the propoganda against the Jews certainly helped Nazism get its foot on the political ladder.

Islamism: I’m on about the modern creed of fundamentalism, the preachers who want Jews to be killed wherever they are (and Iran hosting a holocaust-denial love-in) – they all use the similar tactics of conspiracy theories about Jews running the world to whip up hatred and muddy the waters by throwing in Zionism and Israel’s crimes against humanity in Gaza et al. There are plenty of sources for the myth that Jews were evacuated from the World Trade Centre on 9/11 put about by fundamentalist Islamists. And if that ain’t a conspiracy theory I don’t know what is.

The BNP: Unfortunately I used all of their election literature to line my cat’s litter box, but I’m fairly sure if you roam around their site you’ll find a lot of swivel-eyed loons who believe in an elite that run the country for some evul communist/liberal ends. Immigration does actually have a popular mandate, otherwise the British public would have voted in an anti-immigration Party at some point. It’s how democracy works (something the BNP always need pointing out whenever I meet their members (I live nr Burnley so it’s quite a regular thing)).

The point of all of this isn’t that conspiracy theories “make” extremists, but they add fuel to the flames and maybe they take a few legitamate grievances too (like with Israel, or arguably as you say immigration) then turn them into a campaign. But again, I’m not arguing they shouldn’t be out there.Just that people should be equipped with the tools to understand what’s what and challenge arguments from both the establishment and the conspiracy theorists.

@BenSix

Well we’re right and they’re wrong. Wanna set up a think-tank? 😉

Good idea! I always to establish one called Policies Deranged.

Sally,

Nope, that is not a conspiracy theory………. it is fact.

In America there have been many politicians on the right from the stupid states like Alabama who would not support libraries because they did not like the idea of people thinking for themselves. That is why conservatives love religion. It teaches you to obey, and not to think to hard, but accept your lot.

References would be nice, but to assume that the actions of a few religious nutjobs in Alabama reflect the right wing of political thought is rather like saying the actions of Pol Pot in Cambodia reflect the left wing of political thought, and therefore the left wing is clearly historically against education. Clearly this is not the case (I’ve met too many Marxist academics to believe otherwise) but it is the same level of logical fail.

What you are doing is taking one thing, which I will assume is factual although I was unaware of this myself, and extrapolating it. Effectively, without evidence, you are accusing say David Cameron of opposing effective education because someone who is from a different religious creed, nationality and outlook than Mr Cameron happens to oppose libraries (not education per se). If assuming that this behaviour is secretly characteristic of all right wingers, and they are hiding it by not declaring it, is not a theory about a hidden consipiracy, I’m not sure what is.

Hi everyone,

Many thanks for the comments. I’ve enjoyed reading the non-abusive ones.

I’d like to jump in quickly to give my ideas on a question key to this discussion: what is a conspiracy theory?

To the criticism that there was no adequate definition of conspiracy theory in the OP, I completely agree. Unfortunately, there wasn’t space in the article proper to deal with the important epistemological controversies surrounding the term conspiracy theory, a term, incidentally, I completely agree shouldn’t be used un-problematically.

Let me be clear: by no means do we deny that some conspiracies have turned out to be true. Indeed, in our paper, we define conspiracy theories as the belief in a small cabal secretly plotting for their own ends regardless of the evidence.

Neither do we, nor should be, use the term conspiracy theory as a rhetorical tactic to, a priori, dismiss arguments we don’t like. This is intellectually dishonest, and certainly hostile to open argument.

Our definition (and again, I openly admit this is not uncontroversial – but no definition of conspiracy theory actually enjoys an established consensus): A conspiracy theory is the belief in a small cabal secretly plotting for their own ends regardless of the evidence.

Notice the second part of the definition. We created this because, whilst skepticism is fine, we found a very broad cultural habit of applying this skepticism is selective, asymmetrical ways. Conspiracy theories are those that dismiss official narratives whenever given the chance, yet engage in ludicrous mental gymnastics – selective presentation of evidence and deliberate distortion included – to wrap any evidence around their pet theory.

Our report calls for education (no, not ‘thought police’, we simply feel that in many ways the current curriculum has not kept apace with the digital age) and openness, not censorship and disruption. All we ask is that people subject all explanations – both official and alternative – to the same level of scrutiny.

“The BNP: Unfortunately I used all of their election literature to line my cat’s litter box, but I’m fairly sure if you roam around their site you’ll find a lot of swivel-eyed loons who believe in an elite that run the country for some evul communist/liberal ends. Immigration does actually have a popular mandate.”

Well hold on a minute, let’s deal with these claims. In your first sentence you admit that you’ve never even read any BNP litreature but you’re “fairly sure” that it’s all a bunch of “loons”. Do you not realise that if you aren’t prepared to do even the basic pre-requisite research that you have no right to comment or pass judgement?

http://communications.bnp.org.uk/ge2010manifesto.pdf

That’s the BNP manifesto. It’s OK, you can read it, your computer won’t explode and you don’t have to run out and get a swastika tattoo from all of the evil white supremacy brainwashing and conspiracy theories. It’s a PDF file.

I don’t advocate the BNP, but clearly not for the same reasons as you (ignorance of their platform). There are no mentions of conspiracy theories in this manifesto that I can see, I can’t even see any xenophobic statements. Sorry please remind me, who are the ones spouting unfounded conspiracy theories again?

So immigration has a popular mandate? So when both the Labour Party and the Tory Party debated immigration in the recent election, they both advocated more of it I assume and placed it at the forefront of their re-election platform. I think not. They both said there would be less and were argueing over who would have the stricter controls. Clearly this isn’t a policy which the British electorate are overjoyed about. How about this from Labour speech writer Andrew Neather: –

http://www.thisislondon.co.uk/standard/article-23760073-dont-listen-to-the-whingers—london-needs-immigrants.do

“I remember coming away from some discussions with the clear sense that the policy was intended – even if this wasn’t its main purpose – to rub the Right’s nose in diversity and render their arguments out of date. That seemed to me to be a manoeuvre too far.

Ministers were very nervous about the whole thing. For despite Roche’s keenness to make her big speech and to be upfront, there was a reluctance elsewhere in government to discuss what increased immigration would mean, above all for Labour’s core white working-class vote.”

This doesn’t sound to me like the labour party felt their immigration policy would be popular with their core vote. Do you need me to find stats to support how unpopular Labour’s imigration policy has been? Seriously? I can find reams of data if you need it.

“The point of all of this isn’t that conspiracy theories “make” extremists, but they add fuel to the flames and maybe they take a few legitamate grievances too (like with Israel, or arguably as you say immigration) then turn them into a campaign. But again, I’m not arguing they shouldn’t be out there.Just that people should be equipped with the tools to understand what’s what and challenge arguments from both the establishment and the conspiracy theorists.”

Well you know, I can kind of agree with this, I would have to say that it’s a fairly redundant point as you’re essentially saying that all people with political agendas use propaganda to further those agendas and people should learn to spot it. This point holds equally for left and right wing politics.

Charlieman

If that’s what they mean by “open” then, well – fair enough. All claims to the contrary are cheerfully retracted.

Carl

Conspiracy theories are those that dismiss official narratives whenever given the chance, yet engage in ludicrous mental gymnastics – selective presentation of evidence and deliberate distortion included – to wrap any evidence around their pet theory.

But why have you defined it so? Keeley (who you cite), Pigden and a fair few other scholars – Coady, Clark and Basham – all accept that “conspiracy theories” can be perfectly correct. There are just good ones and bad ones.

By the way, have you considered theories around, for example, JFK to see if they “engage in ludicrous mental gymnastics – selective presentation of evidence and deliberate distortion included – to wrap any evidence around [themselves]“?

Soz. if I seemed abusive, by the way.

Sorry if I seemed abusive, by the way. Never mean to, but in the midst of an evangelical fervour to stop people being wrong on the internet

@47

Care to link to the report?

@Dutch

Apologies, there appears to be some confusion here: I didn’t mean that I hadn’t read the BNP leaflets, merely that I can’t quote directly from them as they are no longer in my possession. As for ignorance of their policies and ways of thinking: the past few years I have debated with more BNP activists than I care to think about and at the last election I went to three local political hustings where their candidate was present (there was a fourth that he didn’t turn up to), so I think I know what I’m talking about.
Sure, in their manifesto they water down their more extreme positions (you won’t read how Nick Griffin thinks the holocaust didn’t happen/was exaggerated, for example, or how one BNP councillor thinks that being raped is like being force-fed chocolate), but just a cursory glance at the articles on their site shows they think there is a leftist conspiracy against them (and by their token all of dear old Blighty) – from here, for instance: “The warning by British National Party leader Nick Griffin that state-directed attempts to persecute the BNP were just the precursor to moves against any dissident group which did not agree with the far left, is about to become a reality for Christians opposed to homosexuality.” (Emphasis added) – now I’m thinkin that looks like a conspiracy theory to me.
As for immigration: I didn’t say it’s not a concern to some people. But the simple fact is that if enough people were bothered about it as the BNP claim then they and UKIP would be cleaning up at election time. And they aren’t. People are still voting in massive numbers for Lab, Con and LD – and indeed the majority of people voted for those with “softer” immigration policies than the right-wingers. The claim that we, the people, have been somehow hoodwinked into letting in Johnny and Jenny Foreigner in is absurd as it is conspiratorial. It’s similar to how the UKIPers claim that we’ve never been given a vote about being in the EU (as it now is) or not – well we are, every election, because there are parties who want immediate withdrawel. If sufficient numbers voted for them then we’d be out and UKIP would have a point. Scary stuff.. The point is the BNP take concerns that may be legitimate and blow them up into weirdo fringe theories.

By all means, Dutch: http://www.demos.co.uk/publications/thepowerofunreason

BenSix, thanks, an interesting point that I appreciate. I’m the first to admit that the actual language we have at our disposal – the term ‘conspiracy theories’ most prominently – is not always very helpful.

The reason we defined it as such was because we feel there is not just the intellectual, rational, epistemological side to the phenomenon of conspiracy theorising – there is also a social, reputational side that leads people to make the asymmetries of skepticism I mentioned earlier.

We too, fully state that some conspiracies turn out to be true. According to our own definition, they’re not conspiracy theories, I suppose, but theories of conspiracies 🙂

I hope we can see now how it is probably our language-use (this is probably my fault) have led to lots of misunderstandings, both about the article, and our paper more generally. Incidentally, the paper is currently the bete noir of many conspiricist chat rooms – based on the totally unfounded suggestion that we’re calling all conspiracy theorists terrorists.

I hope if you read the report, you’ll see that we do not.

Thanks again,

Carl

Mr S. Pill

The problem with the JFK event is the evidence in the case has long since been lost in the fog, either through incompetence, deliberate destruction, cover-up or just the passage of time. What’s left when you strip everything away is an official set of events – the Warren Commission, so fundamentally flawed by both design and practice that no open minded person can accept them. That doesn’t mean you have to believe in a complete and fully documented and evidenced alternative theory, because there simply not enough evidence in existence to do so. I know for a fact that the Warren Commisions version of events is wrong in dozens of key respects. For instance, we know their own evidence actually exonerated Oswald from firing a rifle that day. We know their own evidence shows the CE399 – the so called magic bullet, was not the bullet found in Parkland hospital. We know their own ballistics experts were adamant that the magic bullet could not have done the damage attributed to it. We know in the at least 4 different official investigations into the medical evidence since 1963, the wounds changed on each occasion, both in position, characteristics and size. The list goes on.

And this is were we are with many ‘conspiracy theories’. One the one hand, skeptical people can clearly see that many of the official explanations we are giving are achingly inadequate and unproven, yet on the other there is simply not enough evidence available to construct the alternative scenario that is often demanded of us. We are thus stuck in this perpetual no mans land, were we squabble for eternity about unknowns, never settling on anything approaching fact

And unfortunately, this situation causes some people to speculate so wildly that the most salient point is often completely lost – the official explanation is wrong.

In the case of David Kelly, this has not really happened. There has actually, if you move beyond the wild eyed fantasies of those that attack all conspiracy theories as moon howling, been little or no speculation as to what actually happened to Kelly. The vast majority of those question the official explanation have offered no alternative because that’s not the point. The point is the official account is inadequate.

[i]By the way, have you considered theories around, for example, JFK to see if they “engage in ludicrous mental gymnastics – selective presentation of evidence and deliberate distortion included – to wrap any evidence around [themselves]“?[/i]

Of course, the greatest example of ludicrous mental gymnastics ever seen is the single bullet theory. The Warren Commission, presented with their own evidence that there must have been more than 3 shots and thus more than one gunman, decided that this was politically unacceptable and instead invented a scenario that to this day is so utterly absurd as to act as a kind of lightening rod to someones entire world view. If you accept the the single bullet theory as fact – if you look into the sun and claim its night, then you are someone who will accept anything so long as it keeps the safe cosy little establishment world view intact.

@soilysound

I’d agree with all that. Many years ago I got stuck in a rut reading about JFK and the mountain of conflicting accounts and whatnot and lack of evidence etc did my head in. I guess as Carl Millar says we’re working within the contraints of language here, as I point out upthread just because something is a “conspiracy theory” it doesn’t automatically disqualify it from being true, or nearer the truth than the official version of events. But it equally doesn’t automatically raise it above the establishment.

“The truth is rarely pure and never simple.” – Oscar Wilde

Mr Miller argues that “conspiracy theories” must be confronted because, he asserts, some of them are dangerous. I argue that Mr Miller’s attempt to silence and ridicule alternative voices must be confronted, as it threatens free thought and speech, and the very democratic ideals he presumably believes he is defending.

The biggest problem with Mr Miller’s report is that it fails to properly define what a “conspiracy theory” is – and worse, labels everyone who believes in these (undefined) theories as “conspiracists”. If I were to use blanket terms like “Muslims” or “blacks”, I would quite rightly be challenged, as I would be massively generalising and conflating a whole range of different people and beliefs into one, indistinguishable mass. Mr Miller is guilty of constructing the very straw man he mocks a minority of “conspiracists” for assembling; a flimsy misrepresentation that is easily knocked over. Similarly, Mr Miller references the tired old “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” conspiracy theory, a belief held by only a minority of “conspiracists” but which is often used to falsely discredit all as dangerous, raving Jew-haters.

Conspiracies have existed throughout history and many of them (far, far more than the paltry three mentioned in the Demos report) have turned out to be true. Before these theories were accepted as real, some researchers had information and ideas for which they could have been, and indeed were, dismissed as “conspiracy theorists”. Dismissing all conspiracy theories as absurd and nonsensical is to risk allowing real conspirators to get away with their crimes.

Mr Miller gives the impression he believes all conspiracy theories to be the same, similarly devoid of truth and logic. Again, there is a huge difference between many theories and to dismiss those, such as the alternative accounts of 9/11 (1300 professional architects and engineers, incidentally, do not believe the official conspiracy theory), is both ignorant and dangerous.

Whilst in the Demos report the authors do concede that not all conspiracy “groups” are violent, their conflating of widely differing organisations, both violent and non-violent, as well as their repeated invocation of terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda, is highly dangerous. In the minds of some, alternative 9/11 researchers could potentially be associated with terror groups like Al Qaeda – a tactic, incidentally, employed by Warmaster General Bush shortly after the collapses of the Twin Towers and WTC 7 on 9/11.

Mr Miller claims that conspiracy theories lead to a breakdown of trust between government and communities. I suggest he considers which came first – lack of trust in government, or a renewed interest in conspiracy theories. When he is able to refrain from patronising “conspiracists” and pauses to consider that it was the government’s own conspiracy theories about WMD, leading to the slaughter of untold innocent civilians in Iraq, then he might realise that his thesis is in fact precisely the wrong way around. And suggesting greater transparency in the intelligence services whilst advocating COINTELPRO-style infiltration of dissenting groups, is nothing less than grimly ironic.

In summary, this attempt to demonise and thought-police is far more dangerous than the conspiracy theories it attempts to ridicule and silence.

MistrBrit

Hi MistrBrit,

Thanks for commenting.

For a definition of conspiracy theories, I direct you to my earlier comment on this article.

I don’t mention the Protocols in this article. In the other, I only do so because it is contained in a quote from Hannah Arendt.

For the criticism that I dismiss all conspiracy theories as similarly illogical – that is due to the definition I use – again, i refer you to my previous comment.

We certainly do not conflate 9/11 researchers with al-qaida (unless of course, you think we do because they are both mentioned in the same 55-page report).

As to why conspiracy theories exist, I lean towards the view that they are a result of structural inequality. With the concentration of power, and deep feelings of alienation from government, from the perceptions of many there may as well exist a conspiracy. I talk about this a little bit in this article: http://www.leftfootforward.org/2010/08/conspiracy-theories-are-an-issue-progressives-can-no-longer-ignore/

Thanks for the comments, MistrBrit, and for keeping the discourse civil and measured. I assure you this is no attempt to thought police, nor to brainwash.

Carl

@ Mr. S Pill

“The warning by British National Party leader Nick Griffin that state-directed attempts to persecute the BNP were just the precursor to moves against any dissident group which did not agree with the far left, is about to become a reality for Christians opposed to homosexuality.” (Emphasis added) – now I’m thinkin that looks like a conspiracy theory to me.”

Well in the interests of giving the BNP a fair hearing, I’d have to disagree with this.

Founding Signatories of the UAF: –

http://uaf.org.uk/about/founding-signatories/

I can see a good number of Labour MPs there, in fact their best and brightest, wouldn’t you agree?

Now watch this: –

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=imrO5U7rCmY

So… the UAF use violence and intimidation against their political opponents and the UAF are supported, indeed founded, by Labour Party MPs. So the Labour party supports the use of violence against it’s political opponents.

That’s not a conspiracy theory, I just proved it.

Well Carl, you could come up with some complex psedo-physiological or socio-economic reasons as to ‘why conspiracy theories exist’ or you could acknowledge a more straightforward answer – they exist because conspiracies exist.

@Dutch

Oh dear, logic fail on your part I’m afraid. The quote from the BNP story was in relation to a group of fundie “Christians” who were protesting at Pride in Manchester the other week. So any references to the “State” are referring to the ConLib coalition, not the Labour Party, and UAF (note: no definate article needed (“the Unite Against Fascism” makes no sense)) were not involved in Pride as an org AFAIK.
If you believe the BNP bullshit then you believe a) there are “state-directed attempts to persecute the BNP” (there aren’t – they are not a banned organistaion and have even been on Question Time FFS) and b) the strawman of a) is “just the precursor to moves against any dissident group which did not agree with the far left” – well shit man that would include pretty much every Party left of the SWP. I don’t really think the SWP are in charge of the country… I could, of course, be wrong.
See how easy these things can get twisted..? I’m thinking our pal at Demos might have a point or two.

@62

What are you on about, are you being deliberately thick headed? I was making the point, in fact proved the point, that the government, previous and current no less, supports an organisation which practices violence and intimidation against it’s political enemies and that’s not a conspiracy theory.

Can you refute that specific point?

64. Just Visiting

Dutch 41

>> “And of course Islamism is influenced by anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism”.
>
> Well no, not really. Arab/jewish relations prior to 1948 were generally considered cordial

Although relations have got worse since 1948 (arguably because the Arab world now has lots of oil money to promote it’s world view)..

it’s not true to say they were cordial before.

The hatred of Jews is central in Islam – which has at its heart that anything Mohammed did is good: and so Islamic theologians quote the Qu’ran where Mohammed himself took part in beheading a whole tribe of Jews who were un-armed after being defeated in battle.

Remembrance of that destruction of a whole Jewish tribe as a _good thing_ are still around today – if you watch the videos of the folks on the Gaza convoy – on the way from Turkey they sang songs commemorating it.

Or another pre-1948 example – there is photo evidence and records of meetings in the 1930s between the Grand Mufti (top imam) of Egypt and senior figures in the Nazi regime: an Arabic division of the SS was set up, and the Mufti sought the assistance of the Nazis to destroy the Jews in the Middle East after the (hoped for successful outcome) end of the war.

The Nazis and the the Persian state were very friendly, indeed the renaming of Persia to Iran – meaning land of the Ayrans, in the 30s was a direct result of that mutual admiration. But that’s an anecdote the real problem lies with over a century of western Imperial abuses in the middle east, of which Israel represents the about nadir of that sorry relationship. I personally have sympathy for both sides of the divide, both the monstrous creation 100 years on, of largely Victorian-Edwardian anglo-american imperialists.

Indeed, as any budding conspiraloons knows, the worst Edwardian fascist of them all – Winston Churchill was the first man to gas the Kurds.

Sollysound @ 65

the worst Edwardian fascist of them all – Winston Churchill was the first man to gas the Kurds.

Churchill advocated using tear gas. He did so to minimise loss of life. Hardly what the phrase “first man to gas the Kurds” conveys in a post-Saddam context.

Half-truths and similar distortions are indeed the stock-in trade of conspiracy theorists.

Here’s the full Churchill quote, so no one goes away with the wrong impression:

“I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas. We have definitely adopted the position at the Peace Conference of arguing in favour of the retention of gas as a permanent method of warfare. It is sheer affectation to lacerate a man with the poisonous fragment of a bursting shell and to boggle at making his eyes water by means of lachrymatory gas. I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes. The moral effect should be so good that the loss of life should be reduced to a minimum. It is not necessary to use only the most deadly gasses: gasses can be used which cause great inconvenience and would spread a lively terror and yet would leave no serious permanent effects on most of those affected.

Churchill advocated using tear gas. He did so to minimise loss of life. Hardly what the phrase “first man to gas the Kurds” conveys in a post-Saddam context.

When you’re putting down the rebellion of a people who, quite reasonably, aren’t sure why you domineer their land I think your claims to humanitarianism are somewhat crippled

Carl –

If you’re using such a definition then, well, go ahead but prepare for a bit o’ confusion.

I’m not sure that you and Jamie Bartlett‘s lumping of all theories re: 9/11, JFK and so on into the bracket of “ludicrous mental gymnastics” doesn’t suffer from at least a pinch of preconception, though. If you hold that “conspiracy theories” are those which defy all evidence you need to study each one before tarring it and, er – well – without the desire to be rude I’m not sure that you have.

To clear it up: when you write of “open infiltration” do you mean that officials should self-identify as such?

Flowerpower, that’s just a question of scale. The point remains that over the years we have committed so many atrocities against the people of the middle east, and laid down the legacy for so many modern day conflicts that we must be held morally responsible. Indeed even Saddam Hussien’s gassing of the Kurds is hardly an act entirely free of western fingerprints.

@ 69

Sollysound, I think the difference between nerve gas and tear gas is rather more than a mere matter of scale. As for ‘atrocities’ allegedly perpetrated by the British in the Middle East – these were very few in number and in scale have been dwarfed by the atrocities committed by the various peoples of the region against one another.

@Carl Miller

I have reviewed your definition of “conspiracy theory”, as stated in one of your comments above: “the belief in a small cabal secretly plotting for their own ends regardless of the evidence”.

The problem here is the question of who is reviewing that evidence, and assessing it as insubstantial and unconvincing. It is obvious that you are biased against all “conspiracy theories”; I suspect that any evidence presented in support of one would never persuade you that an alternative theory, rather that the official theory, was the most plausible version of events. This is a reactionary, closed-minded attitude, and a major obstacle to establishing the truth of a matter.

Presumably you would refer me to the official NIST reports (you do so in a comment on Jamie Miller’s Demos blog) as proof of the official 9/11 conspiracy theory. I challenge you to read David Ray Griffin’s “The Mysterious Collapse Of World Trade Center 7”. This book shows how the official NIST report into WTC7’s collapse cannot possibly be true, highlighting the fact that the report is unscientific and false. It is a shining example of the critical thinking skills that you rightly believe to be so important. Mr Griffin’s work is supported by 1300 professional architects and engineers who also disbelieve the official conspiracy theory.

Just out of curiosity, do you unquestioningly believe the official 9/11 conspiracy theory, the 9/11 Commission report, and the NIST reports?

MistrBrit

A touch harsh calling Churchill a “fascist”. He might have been lots of unpleasant things but without him the war would have in all likelihood been lost. So in that respect he did more to combat fascism than anyone in our cosy little lives.

@71

What’s your opinion on the actual events of 911?

To my mind, the evidence points to a Mossad false-flag operation to get the US into a war in Iraq and increase western hostility to Palestinians and the Arab world generally, with elements of the US government complicit for their own ends.

Alas, there is no “smoking gun” so to speak, so one can not make firm assertions. The evidence though is undoubtedly far stronger for the version of events I just mentioned than the risible official version.


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