The Independent View: Confronting conspiracy theories is a classic case of civic society trumping central government

Conspiracy theories, an increasingly popular dinnertime conversation, are often otherwise dismissed and ignored. At most they are regarded as the amusing yet ultimately harmless hobby of a fringe, irrelevant few. They are neither of these things. They are a powerful social phenomenon. In many contexts they demolish trust between government and communities. In some, they are dangerous.

On Sunday, Demos released a report, The Power of Unreason. In it, we looked at the role that conspiracy theories play in radical and extremist groups. Analysing over 50 such groups, we found conspiracy theories to have a strong functional value that play into the social dynamics of radicalization. Extremist groups use conspiracy theories to recruit, to discredit voices of moderation, and to divide the world into ‘us’ – a small colony of true believers – and ‘them’ – the rest of the world. Most worrying, in these contexts conspiracy theories are used to justify acts of violence as the only way of ‘waking up’ a benighted populace from their acquiescent slumber.

As Hannah Arendt said of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the chief political and historical fact of the matter is that the forgery is being believed (Origins of Totalitarianism, 357).  That is more important than whether it is true or not. Although untrue, conspiracy theories, through being believed, are having a very real and often harmful social influence.

Responding to conspiracy theories is difficult. Conspiracy theories are self-sealing; attempts to refute them are seen as evidence of the conspiracy theory itself. Government is especially hobbled in the responses that it can make. Statements on conspiracy theories are not judged on their content, but on the identity of their author. Those that are critical are pre-judged as of course government-sponsored disinformation and disruption campaigns.

The online response to our paper is an interesting micro-study of these processes at work. The paper flew at breakneck speed through conspiricist groups such as 911truth.org, IntelHub and Youtube. The paper appears as a ‘straw-man’ on these online echo-chambers, where users climb over each other to denounce us as a ‘Marxist/neocon/Islamist front group working for a Freemason/Illuminati/Bilderberg backed New World Order’ (delete according to taste). They also notice that the Demos logo resembles the ‘all seeing eye’. Secretly working for the Illuminati, it would be remiss for us not to display their branding on our logo, of course.

What this reception highlights is the difficulty of any group successfully combating conspiracy theories by itself. There are nevertheless important things government can do, too. As conspiracy theories thrive in the dark, it must work hard to shine the light of public scrutiny on its operations and activities, especially those most cast in shadow: the counter-terrorism and intelligence communities. Yet, any ‘top-down’ forms of communication are destined to fail. This is why civic society is the most important agent for combating conspiracy theories. It is down to everyone – individuals, charities, social enterprises, and non-governmental organizations – to confront conspiracy theories as well as the lies, distrust, bigotry, intolerance and ultimately violence that they can spread.

Carl Miller from Demos is the co-author of The Power of Unreason.

The Independent View‘ is a slot on Lib Dem Voice which allows those from beyond the party to contribute to debates we believe are of interest to LDV’s readers. Please email [email protected] if you are interested in contributing.

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29 Comments

  • This is dangerous, pernicious nonsense, and deeply corrosive of freedom of speech and free inquiry.

    What is a “conspiracy theory”? I ask, because those who make it their business to decry such things and anathematise those who propound them, never give us a definition.

    So, I will provide a definition which I think fits pretty well. A “concpiracy theory” is an interpretation of a historical event or concatenation of events that the decrier does not like and/or considers ideologically unacceptable.

    Calling something a “conspiracy theory” is a powerful rhetorical device. It has the immediate effect of shutting down inquiry and debate, and of anathematising the advocate as mentally ill, a danger to civlisation, a social pariah, etc.

    And yes, Carl Miller shamefully, but inevitably, trots out the hoary old Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion just to warn anyone even thinking of stepping out of line that if they do they will be branded as anti-Semites.

    If someone makes a claim about a historic event that conflicts with “official” or orthodox understandings, the first only only inquiry should be: “Is the claim true?”

    But Carl Miller and his friends reject this procedure. To them, any such claims are heresies and cannot be entertained on purley a priori grounds.

    Liberals must surely see the extreme dangers in what Carl Miller and his friends are doing.

    About a week ago, the UK government admitted that the former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the RUC colluded with the Roman Catholic Church to protect an IRA murderer, Father John Chesney, in order to obviate embarrassment to the Church. If David Icke had said this, his claim would be dismissed with haughty smugness and anyone taking it seriously would be called feeble-minded or deranged. Yet it happens to be true.

    We have talked about having an evidence based approach to policy making. How about an evidence based approach to the evaluation of unorthodox claims about historical events? the most powerful weapon against extremism and unreason is truth.

  • To presume that all conspiracy theories are false would to presume that no real conspiracies ever take place.

  • Carl Miller 2nd Sep '10 - 3:42pm

    Hi everyone.

    I’d like to jump in quickly to deal with a topic that is appearing in lots of the discussions about our paper, but which I didn’t have space to explicitly cover in this article: what is a conspiracy theory?

    By no means do we deny that some conspiracies have turned out to be true. We mention some of these in our paper: including Operation Northwoods and the CIA-backed coup against Salvador Allende.

    Neither do we, nor should we, rhetorically use ‘conspiracy theory’ to prima facie dismiss arguments we don’t like. This a priori rejection is intellectually dishonest, and runs contrary to the very baseline standards necessary for open debate.

    In our paper, we define conspiracy theories as the belief in a small cabal secretly plotting for their own ends regardless of the evidence. This definition is key. Conspiracy theories are those that demonstrate this kind of asymmetry of skepticism: dismissing official narratives whenever given the chance, yet engaging in ludicrous mental gymnastics – selective presentation of evidence and deliberate distortion included – to wrap any evidence around their pet theory.

    Transparency of government, and the promotion of critical thinking skills are the answer. All we ask is that conspiracy theorists should hold all accounts of events –both official and alternative – to the same standards of enquiry.

  • Mike Fairchild 2nd Sep '10 - 5:53pm

    There are certainly a lot of wild nonsensical 9/11 Conspiracies out there in the internet ether. Saw one about top secret anti-gravity vehicles just today.

    There is also evidence. The Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth don’t propound theories; they have assembled considerable scientific evidence of the controlled demolition of World Trade Center buildings 1, 2 and 7. They demand an investigation.

    Check it out: http://www.ae911truth.org

    Cheers!
    Mike

  • Scott Muller 2nd Sep '10 - 7:16pm

    If ever the government is threatened by a conspiracy group, all that is required is transparency. Can you blame people for thinking a plane did not hit the Pentagon when the FBI had confiscated all videos in and around the Pentagon, within minutes of the strike, and now won’t release them? What harm could there possibly be in releasing those videos? Conspiracy groups are created by the very entity that derides them. There’s a huge group that thinks the government is covering up the Area51 “alien crash site”. The reason why this group exists is because the government made all info about the event top secret. There’s a very simple way to disband this particular group – transparency. If there are no aliens, what possible harm could there be in declassifying what is claimed to be 1950’s military technology? The NUMBER ONE weapon that 9/11 Truthers have at their disposal is the thermite traces found by European scientists in the WTC dust samples. All our government has to do to lay this whole thing to rest is test the stuff. The collapses showed signs of possible implosion, others claim to have found residual thermite, so what would possibly be the harm in running some tests? NIST says it would be “a waste of taxpayer money”. I, for one, would claim it would be a very wise investment of taxpayer money, if it would finally put the issue to rest. So I disagree with the author’s claim that conspiracy theorists are self-perpetuating; that they cannot be logically “talked down” with evidence. It is the lack of evidence that is the problem.

  • John O-Neill 2nd Sep '10 - 8:20pm

    The report notes that the 9/11 truth movement is “peaceful”, but makes no distinction between the legitimate questioning of the official account of 9/11 and any number of unrelated, and often racist, conspiracy theories. That legitimate questioning includes issues such as: the free-fall collapse of Building 7 which was not hit by any plane on 11th September 2001, the transfer of money from the head of Pakistaini intelligence (ISI) to Mohammed Atta’s bank account the day before 9/11, the inexplicable supposed plane-crash into the Pentagon with no sightings and no cctv of it having happened, where the fissure in the building was not the wingspan of a plane, among many other issues.

    The report is only concerned with limiting the effects of conspiracy theories on operations of the state, not with justice or the accuracy of the historical record. It states:
    “More broadly, conspiracy theories drive a wedge of distrust between governments and particular communities. Conspiracy theories – such as those that claim 7/7 or 9/11 were ‘inside jobs’ – demolish the mutuality and trust that people have in institutions of government, with social and political ramifications that we still don’t fully understand. This can especially hinder community-level efforts to fight violent extremism.”

    The report cites the writings of Cass Sunstein, an Obama appointee who recently called for the “cognitive infiltration” of 9/11 truth groups. The Demos paper in turn calls for government agents to “openly infiltrate” websites and chatrooms in order offer “alternative information” and “plant seeds of doubt”. If that is not a state-sanctioned agenda at play to legitlimise some future change in public policy, I don’t know what is.

  • The public inquiry into Diana’s death looked at first like an expensive waste of money. But it shut the Daily Express up after years of at-least-weekly ‘Diana cover-up’ stories.
    So yeah, transparency is the key.

    There are, for sure, real conspiracies and cover-ups, but the truth isn’t served by fantasy elsewhere.

    >considerable scientific evidence of the controlled demolition of World Trade Center
    >That legitimate questioning includes issues such as: the free-fall collapse of Building 7

    All these have been answered. Eg the ‘supposed plane crash’ – care to explain, for one, where the missing flight and its passengers are?
    You can try this site for starters:
    http://www.debunking911.com/

    People will believe what they want to believe, of course. I remember a woman shouting at me on a CND march in my teens that I was in the pay of the Russians!

  • I find your article offending. Iam a college graduate , I am concerned about my world, and active in government. Just because I dont agree with the way my government is being run and I am smart enough to research and to seek out the truth you dare call me or anyone else a conspiracy theorist. Wake up.

  • George W Potter 2nd Sep '10 - 9:45pm

    @Scott

    Could it simply be that the footage might reveal details of what was happening prior to the plane crashing into it? Stuff that might classified for security reasons?

  • Cassie,

    There was no public inquiry into the death of Princess Diana, there was an inquest, which Mohummad Al-Fayed was perfectly entitled to call for. It might have been a complete waste of judicial resources, but that’s open justice for you.

    George W Potter

    I don’t really want to stray into discussions of individual cases, but I do have to point out that the whole of the perimeter of the Pentagon is visible from satellite (hence the photos we see on the news). Long gone are the days when one can do things in the open air and keep them secret.

  • Mike Fairchild 3rd Sep '10 - 1:33am

    Cassie, don’t be taken in by sites like http://www.debunking911.com and ae911truth.info. They only demonstrate the determination of the perpetrators and their supporters to obfuscate the truth.

    Instead, ask your self:

    > Why does the American government steadfastly refuse to release closed circuit video of the Pentagon crash? There were many cameras deployed in a direction for a clear view. Why did they almost immediately confiscate tapes from nearby private sites?

    > NIST admits that WTC 7 was in free fall for about 2.5 seconds at the initiation of the collapse, yet they don’t explain how this could be. Look at the video. The building falls straight down into its footprint. For this to have occurred something must have simultaneously removed all of the supporting steel columns. What could have removed the columns? It is not physically possible for fire to have done it.

    > Thermitic residue has been discovered in every tested sample of WTC dust. It has been demonstrated that these nano-thermite particles blow up. They are not paint chips as the government claims. Where did they come from?

    > Molten iron has been found in the ruins of all three buildings. Many eye witnesses report seeing it. There is physical evidence of it in the dust and in the remains of the buildings. Jet fuel fires cannot melt steel. Despite all the evidence, NIST claims there was no molten iron. What is the source of the molten iron?

    I could go on for pages of unexplained verifiable scientific facts.

    I don’t have a conspiracy theory, but I do have ample evidence of a crime that was not the work of 19 crazed Arabs with box cutters.

    WE NEED AN INVESTIGATION!!!

  • Topsy Krett 3rd Sep '10 - 8:12am

    While some of your points may be true, the rest is just nonsense.

  • >Sesenco
    There was no public inquiry into the death of Princess Diana, there was an inquest,

    I thought there had been a perfectly good inquest in Paris and he just rejected its findings because they didn’t fit his theories?

    >Cassie, don’t be taken in by sites like http://www.debunking911.com and ae911truth.info.

    See, that proves the thing that those who believe in conspiracies believe any evidence to the contrary is part of the conspiracy. ;-)
    Amazing how many hundreds of people have to be in on it, and they all think the end (whatever that was? Afghanistan? Iraq?) justified the deaths of 3,000 innocent people. And how they fixed the science to fit the facts when there were questions afterwards.

    I’d be more interested in finding out exactly how much our last government was aware of/involved in rendition and torture.

  • BTW: did Cheney and co EXPLOIT 9/11 to their own ends? Sure.
    But if they’d wanted something to get support for a war in Iraq, and had gone to all that trouble with explosives and hijacking planes, don’t you think they’d have ensured there was an actual link between the bombers and Iraq?

    Rather than just implying one (as they did) and HOPING the US public would believe them?

  • Mike Fairchild 3rd Sep '10 - 1:08pm

    > Cassie

    Like I said, I don’t have a conspiracy theory. I don’t know who did it.

    I have evidence of a crime. Get out your Physics 101 text book. Review the parts on the laws of motion and gravity, then review any physical evidence the debunkers put forward with a critical mind. Finally review the physical evidence on the ae911truth.org site, and have a great day.

    We need an investigation.

  • When government and industry lie and omit, you really can’t blame people for filling those voids in the truth with speculation and you should really have nothing to say when they get it wrong.

    The people you need to be taking to task are the liars in government.

    It’s that simple.

    In fact, it may even be a good policy decision to help perpetuate the wildest “conspiracy theories” as a way to force government to tell the truth. Really hold their feet to the fire.

    As the great comedian Bill Hicks said, “All governments are lying c***suckers!”

    We need to change that.

  • >We need an investigation.

    Who would you trust to carry it out?

  • @Cassie
    don’t you think they’d have ensured there was an actual link between the bombers and Iraq?

    If the hijackers were Iraqi and therefore supposedly sent by Saddam, then the threat would be over when Iraq was invaded and Saddam deposed.

    There wouldn’t be an open-ended “war on terror” (a term as ambiguous and mis-used as ‘conspiracy theorist’) with ‘Al-Qaeda’ popping up here and there to justify the attacks of (or military presence in) other oil rich countries who don’t do what we tell them too. (Seen the ‘reports’ that Bin Laden is in Iran?)

    You need to look at the big picture. Iraq was only the 1st step. We are seeing the build up to the next step now with Iran.

    p.s. I recommend watching a British documentary called ‘The politics of fear’

  • You guys crack me up, the establishment and its cronies in the mainstream media is so utterly discredited that you are sounding desparate. Using the term of “conspiracy theories” to try and silience debate, nice try, but this isn’t the year 2000 and truth is the invincible enemy of lies and we don’t need violence, violence is a tool of the state.

  • Simon Hazelton 3rd Sep '10 - 6:04pm

    I believe you will find that the state holds a monopoly on violence. Conspiracy theories are coming to the fore because of the perpetual lies spun at the populace through their un-elected leaders, or are the Liberal Democrats pretending to be an elected government as well now.

  • Cassie,

    “I thought there had been a perfectly good inquest in Paris and he just rejected its findings because they didn’t fit his theories?”

    Al-Fayed was entitled to an inquest in the United Kingdom held under English law. He had the opportunity to present evidence supporting his claim that Diana was murdered by MI5 on the orders of the Duke of Edinburgh, and conspicuously failed to do so.

    “Amazing how many hundreds of people have to be in on it,”

    More or less than were in on the Manhattan Project or the DD landings, both of which were kept completely secret?

    “and they all think the end (whatever that was? Afghanistan? Iraq?) justified the deaths of 3,000 innocent people.”

    The US military-industrial complex and families have never had any problem with killing innocent people. Dresden? Hiroshima? Nagasaki? Vietnam? Panama? Fallujah? All these atrocities produced far more civilian casualties than 9/11.

    “But if they’d wanted something to get support for a war in Iraq, and had gone to all that trouble with explosives and hijacking planes, don’t you think they’d have ensured there was an actual link between the bombers and Iraq?”

    To what Merdeka has just said I would add that the immediate target for Cheney in 2000 was not Iraq but Afghanistan. The oil companies wanted a pipeline built across that country linking Central Asia with the Indian Ocean, and negotiations with the Taliban had broken down earlier in the year.

  • The truth is a funny thing, most of the people who propagate lies mix the truth with the falsehoods; making it almost seem believable. While the truth is so outside of most people’s accepted reality that they think it must be a lie. The media’s redefinition of words through their viewers’ inferences on meaning is truly an ab horrid thing. A conspiracy theory is not what you probably think it is. Why don’t you pick up a dictionary? It seems to me that anyone who is not a conspiracy theorist is either in a coma or retarded.

    This is a quote from the above article. By definition it is a conspiracy theory.
    Extremist groups use conspiracy theories to recruit, to discredit voices of moderation, and to divide the world into ‘us’ – a small colony of true believers – and ‘them’ – the rest of the world.

    Of course these media sites like to state theory as fact, discredit people who actually think for themselves, and general point fingers at anyone who doesn’t believe that their conspiracy theories are superior to all others.

    If you cannot disprove a theory, it remains valid in a scientific mind. If the other perspective is so wrong, then prove it. Or you can continue to act like children, believe everything you are told by “reputable sources,” bury your head in the sand and wish the truth to go away. Here is the red pill if you dare to take it, or there is the blue pill if you want to choke on your own ignorance.

    Choose wisely, the fate of the world reallies on what YOU see as the truth.

  • Out of control unrepresentative criminal govt that habitually lies and the distrust of it is the biggest cause of conspiracy theories.I also like the way this Marxist Stateist drone Carl Millar calls for “collective” action on the part of the public to confront conspiracy theories but Carl Millar should be careful what he wishes for because the public in greater numbers that are growing by the day are confronting conspiracy theories but not in the way that Carl Millar would like simply because the distrust of govt is irreversible because people have had enough.Of course this is really all about silencing dissent and criticism of the edifice of “Central govt” and such is the reputation and distrust of “Central govt” that even if it was to become more transparent then that in itself will not create trust in govt and it shoots itself in the foot with Demos advocating infiltrating certain websites to confront and dispel conspiracy theories.

    How does this proposition in any way encourage trust in govt when it is advocating using underhand tactics to “infiltrate” websites ??

    It just serves to demonstrate just how clueless these kinds of Govt affiliuated think tanks are and the likes of Cass Dumstein are and in any event in my own experience govt paid disinfo agents and Cointelpro are easily spotted and are easily dealt with and they usually disappear back to where they came from after they have been humiliated and belittled so its a pointless exercise because they are no match for a well educated and streetwise public with nothing much to lose who are sick and tired of being lied to.

    Look at 9/11 where the US Govt discovered a new revolutionary way of demolishing and disintegrating buildings on top of their own footprints.Simply fly a plane into them and let the Kerosense fuel burn for 45 minutes and magically the buildings just collapse and disintegrate into dust.Or i could talk about the magic disappearing oil in the Gulf Of Mexico and how the EPA who are a govt agency claim that Corexit is completely harmless and then Govt is somehow disturbed and concerned that others openly state that they think its a cover up ??

    So who is more dangerous ??

    The govt and BP or a conspiracy theory/fact about how the Govt colluded with BP to hide the scale of the disaster ??

    The govt of course is more dangerous so i would like to ask Carl Millar and Demos what the best way to solve this problem is.

    The absolute stupidity of this article and its train of thought is that attempts by govt to criticise conspiracy theories and the fact that the author is complaining that it is “hobbled” and cant win either way when it is attempting to dispel conspiracy theories is just plain stupid because the article and Demos are advocating infiltrating websites in an attempt to confuse and obfuscate the truth so can anyone else see the flaw in this logic ??

    Its actually laughable.

    If an individual or organisation are habitual liars then common sense dictates that you are going to not believe them and question what they say.

    Simple common sense.

    I might as well point out that Demos have played no small part in the destruction of the democratic process in the UK and politics as a whole and have been doing so since 1997 when the UK govt that is attacking the people it falsely claims to represent went up to Defcon 4.

    Does the name “Common Purpose” mean anything to anyone ??

    Notice the Orwellian Newspeak in the title of the book by Carl Millar – “Unreason”

    Double plus good !!

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