Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Cure that Causes: Playing Out Scenarios

“Conspiracy Theories,” a 2008 paper by Profs. Adam Vermeule and Cass Sunstein, proposed that the government engage parapolitical researchers in “counterspeach.”  This entailed a direct appearance on Internet conspiracy forums by either government employees, or specially hired government agents.  They indicated a preference for the use of agents, because of conspiracists’ presumed disdain for official sources.  They’re thought was that researchers might find any information from official sources as little more than the party line, and doubt its accuracy.

Vermeule and Sunstein also seemed to feel that such an infiltration would work best if the public were unaware of any infiltration, either on the part of government actors, or paid agents.  In other words, they proposed a secret infiltration of conspiracy research networks in order to seed them with “true” information, which would in turn heal the “crippled epistemology” that allegedly leads to conspiracy thinking. 

In many cases, we don’t have to speculate about how some of these scenarios would play out.  In the assassination of Robert Kennedy, for example, the official pronouncements of Special Unit Senator (SUS), the police task force assigned the case, and Sirhan Sirhan’s subsequent conviction on 17 April 1969 did not persuade many conspiracy researchers.  Judge Herbert Walker, Prosecutor Lynn Compton, LAPD detectives Manuel Pena and Enrique Hernandez and any other principal couldn't really say anything that would change dissenting opinions.  And such is understandable.  In this instance, citizens accused officials, and therefore the government, of criminal activity.  Thus any official statement on the matter lacks objectivity.  Government is not exactly a disinterested party, here.  The public also realizes that government actors engage in a number of public relations activities to mitigate misfeasance and malfeasance.  While such might contain some verbatim truths, many (whether conspiracist or not) might accurately perceive the spin of said truths.

As for asking, or contracting with, non-officials to openly disseminate information about a particular conspiracy story, we have historical precedent for that too.  The Warren Commission consisted of current and former elected or appointed officials.  But these men did not serve in their official capacities with respect to Commission, which itself had no law-enforcement authority.  The open support of President Lyndon Johnson and his staff might not have engendered mistrust all by itself.  But for dissidents, it would have about the same level of believability (or more accurately, unbelievability) as the previous example, and for the same reasons. 

The third option, secret third-party government infiltration, doesn’t have much of a known history.  How it would play out would thus require a bit of speculation.  But if we suppose that if a “cognitive infiltrator” wished to enter a conspiracy forum with a bit of information, exactly what would that information consist of?  If the information were already readily accessible via mainstream press or online news sites, those participating in the chat, or the forum, would most likely already be aware of that datum, which they’ve already dismissed or placed within a different context.  What other information could the secret third-party agent then present would be difficult to determine.  Surely, no clandestine agency would ever dole out classified information in order to win an online argument, would it?* Even if it did, how could the target of this information, i.e. the conspiracist, ever fact check this information, or corroborate it by an independent source?  How would anyone know that the classified item is in fact accurate?

Playing out this third scenario, one would still have to wonder how in the world this would be an effective means of uncrippling epistemologies, conspiracy or otherwise.  Most likely, any reiteration of the same basic facts, especially if vociferous, vehement or persistent, would have the same tiresome effect as the one-note response of any other PR flack stridently reiterating talking points. 

The assertive intrusion of government-friendly memes into a group most likely will not shake that group’s consensus on key points.  But that doesn’t keep “cognitive infiltration” from slowing down conspiracy networking for other reasons.  Maybe the tactic won’t persuade.  It could nevertheless discourage.  As our friend Brownrice pointed out in the previous post, the policy could show more effectiveness as a method of “destabilization.” 

The point of destabilization wouldn’t be to reason with conspiracy researchers, but to harass or verbally abuse them, to the point where they feel distrustful of other researchers, or no longer feel secure in engaging in the activity.  In the Theremy story that I posted about in 2013, I received complaints from fellow researchers that they had been victimized by data mining and subsequent doxing by people who acted deliberately and maliciously. Others were subjected to abusive tirades (most notably on the “UR Doin’ It Wrong” thread), from posters who attempted to enlist other comrades to join in the abuse.  For many of those who took part in it, Theremy had a decidedly negative impact on their lives, from general disillusionment with conspiracy theory, to, in one case, the dissolution of a marriage. 

Did some kind of government agent cause or stoke  the resultant strife within Theremy?  Kinda impossible to tell.  As mentioned earlier, President Barack Obama appointed author Sunstein to head the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA).  Ostensibly, this agency reviews regulatory policies on behalf of the Oval Office.  It also reviews government policies pertaining to such things as food, labor, natural resources, and, most important, information.  OIRA also oversees the implementation of said policies.  Thus, Sunstein was in a position to review a policy that he himself proposed, and then supervise its launch.  Since the proposal called for a secret implementation of this policy, then the public has no way to know whether he helped to implement it or not.

Of course, one could argue that just the mention of such a policy would have a similar effect, even if the policy itself never existed.  If researchers suspect that potential government agents might lurk behind every poster, commentator, forum or website, then a witch hunt mentality could very well ensue, as was the case for the “UR Doin’ It Wrong” thread, which profoundly disrupted a once vibrant, cooperative conspiracy community. Some began to distance themselves from the host site amid suspicion of their fellows, and doubts about their own efficacy in exposing high-level criminal conduct.  Some simply left the entire subject of conspiracy behind them, never to return (as of yet–we’ll see).

The point here is that most anyone could correctly predict that infiltrating conspiracy forums with talking points wouldn’t end online conspiracism, as Profs. Vermuele and Sunstein assert.  But infiltrating conspiracy forums in order to stress out individual members would certainly slow it down.  That could possibly explain the weakness in the first part of “Conspiracy Theories.”  If the authors seemed indifferent to understanding why conspiracy thinking occurs in the first place, one might suspect that the first part merely served as a pretense to justify or legitimate the actual policy proposal.  As far as the public knows, government employees and/or agents are parceling out information, and not harassing or abusing conspiracy researchers.  But, because of the secrecy involved, we would have no clue as to what they’re doing, if they indeed do anything. 

Of course, if government actors were actively abusing dissenting opinions behind a facade of secrecy, we have precedent for that scenario too.  A few years back, our friend Ray alerted me to the following story in which a number of violently abusive attacks were made on people skeptical of the Army Corps of Engineers’ performance during Hurricane Katrina.  Turns out, these attacks came from the Army Corps of Engineers.

Figure 1.  ACE personnel secretly harassing online critics.

So the thought of hiring third-party contractors to abuse or harass people divergent views isn't out-of-the-question, although it should be.

*Actually, it has.  In a 18 January 2013 episode of NPR’s On the Media, Washington Post journalist Ted Gup reported that Intel, the CIA in particular, seemed to have little compunction about leaking classified material if doing so would yield public relations benefits.

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Monday, August 31, 2015

The Cure that Causes: Official Action Required

In “Conspiracy Theories,” Profs. Adrian Vermeule and Cass Sunstein concede that parapolitical hypotheses need not be unfounded.  Yet, the context in which they find innocuous and justified conspiracy research is quite narrow:
This is not, and is not be intended to be, a general claim that conspiracy theories are unjustified or unwarranted. Much depends on the background state of knowledge-producing institutions. If those institutions are generally trustworthy, in part because they are embedded in an open society with a well-functioning marketplace of ideas and free flow of information, then conspiracy theories will generally (which is not to say always) be unjustified.
The underlying assumption here is that most press within the West (especially in the US) is “trustworthy.”  Does that mean unbiased?  One can certainly argue that Fox News has a clear and profound ideological bent, and that other major news outlets have corporate ties, and consequently voice a corporate viewpoint.  Does it mean that the news is necessarily accurate?  I know first hand that people working to produce news often try their best to make sure that what goes on the air is factually accurate.  Yet, I’ve personally witnessed a number of events where large, and important parts of the story were simply ignored.  This redacted material, in turn, could negate the validity of the story that aired.* 

The logical extension of this assumption is the conclusion that while the press might be untrustworthy in other parts of the world, that doesn’t occur here.  Thus, any Western belief in a conspiracy explanation is unjustified.

Vermeule and Sunstein also state that many conspiracy hypotheses are “inconsequential,” meaning their dissemination does not call for any public actions, especially those that would have deleterious effects on society .** With some exceptions, the authors see these as innocuous, requiring no reaction from government.             

The authors nevertheless see potential danger in conspiracy thinking:
Overseas, 'a 2002 Gallup Poll conducted in nine Islamic countries found that 61 percent of those surveyed thought that Muslims had nothing to do with the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001...According to an anonymous State Department official in charge of anti-disinformation, ‘a great deal of harm can result ‘when people believe these lies and then act on the basis of their mistaken beliefs.’‘ For example, 'Al-Qaeda members ‘were encouraged to join the jihad at least in part because of disinformation...’

The widespread belief that U.S. officials knowingly allowed 9/11 to happen or even brought it about may have hampered the government’s efforts to mobilize social resources and political support for measures against future terrorist attacks.'***
The question therefore arises as to whether or not the government should react to conspiracy stories.  The authors argue that rebutting a conspiracy story might legitimize it.  Even if government can compellingly show no conspiracy in a particular case, it can raise credibility in others that Uncle Sam (or John Bull, or insert national symbol here) doesn’t comment on.  But silence, they argue, entails an even greater risk.  If a story can disseminate unchallenged, it can gain believers and foster plurality, thus resulting in wider acceptance.  This leads the authors to believe that a more pro-active approach, one that attacks many conspiracies, can diminish the effect of any specific conspiracy hypothesis:
In a typical pattern, government plays a wait-and-see strategy: ignore the conspiracy theory until it reaches some ill-defined threshold level of widespread popularity, and then rebut....

However, this logic overlooks an important synergistic gain: rebutting many conspiracy theories can reduce the legitimating effect of rebutting any one of them.
Consequently, the authors see a need for government to address conspiracy speech in one of three ways.  The first would be to ban conspiracy hypotheses altogether.  The second would be to impose fines or additional taxes on those who write about conspiracy.  The third method they propose is “counterspeach.” 

As far as we can tell, there is no law that would allow for the banning of conspiracy viewpoints, although serious consideration of them can certainly be banished from the mainstream press through policy.  We don’t exact taxes or fines against conspiracy proponents, but their employers could fire them, or reduce their workload/pay to the point of economic hardship.****

Vermeule and Sunstein don’t seem to take the notion of banning and/or taxing conspiracy speech as a viable option.  Most Westerners would probably find these ideas repugnant, counter as they are to free speech traditions.  Not surprisingly, the authors advocate the last option on their list: counterspeach, which they later describe as “cognitive infiltration.”

The choice of cognitive infiltration itself presents several decisions: whether or not to (1) utilize government employees to infiltrate conspiracy venues; (2) hire “private” parties unaffiliated with government to infiltrate conspiracy venues; or (3) make informal arrangements with “private” parties to infiltrate conspiracy venues.  Profs. Vermeule and Sunstein are quite aware of the historical specter of COINTELPRO, MERRIMAC, CHAOS and other efforts by the government to infiltrate citizens groups.  They carefully wish to point out the difference between their proposal and these past actions:
One promising tactic is cognitive infiltration of extremist groups. By this we do not mean 1960s-style infiltration with a view to surveillance and collecting information, possibly for use in future prosecutions. Rather, we mean that government efforts might succeed in weakening or even breaking up the ideological and epistemological complexes that constitute these networks and groups.   
On second blush, one would have to realize that the only real difference between “1960s-style infiltration” and their proposal is that the former happens in meatspace, the latter in cyberspace.  The Church Committee documented a real concern to disrupt not only these groups, but the influence that they had upon each other and the public at large.  So these two goals would be nearly identical.  Also, since Vermeule and Sunstein justify these actions in order to thwart actual terrorist attacks, then any such infiltration would have to include the collection of information for a later prosecution (unless you plan on a summary execution).

Profs. Sunstein and Vermeule might counter-argue that the main difference between the historical program and their proposed one is that the former wanted to collect information.  The latter wanted to give information.  Firmly believing that conspiracy milieus suffer from a “crippled epistemology,” (i.e., they don’t have enough facts to understand the truth), the idea would be to infiltrate the groups, give them adequate facts to support a non-conspiracy point of view. 

Government actors would have, as an advantage, a presumed authority to speak on matters that pertain to their particular jobs.  But the authors feel that if an official announces or confirms her identity in an online conspiracy forum, than other members might suspect that she’s doing little more than giving out the party line.  If the government agent disavows his official capacity, or a third-party contractor is used, then this might give their dissenting opinions more weight.  But the authors caution that this is a high-risk proposition, should the cognitive infiltrator blow his cover.
In the former case, where government officials participate openly as such, hard-core members of the relevant networks, communities and conspiracy-minded organizations may entirely discount what the officials say, right from the beginning. The risk with tactics of anonymous participation, conversely, is that if the tactic becomes known, any true member of the relevant groups who raises doubts may be suspected of government connections.
The snickering irony here is that Profs. Vermeule and Sunstein are suggesting a government conspiracy to discount the notion of government conspiracies.  The not-so-funny side of this, however, is the potential consequences such a policy would have.  If one thinks about it for any length of time, it’s difficult to believe that anyone, government actor or no, undercover or no, could log into a chat room, forum, or Twitter feed and say something to the effect of, “Oh, your data are either incomplete or wrong.  Here are the true, complete facts.”

And the resident netizen of that cybervenue will respond by saying, “I’m so wrong, you’re so right.  I now see the light, Hallelujah!”

Again, judging from their other work, I can confidently assert that Profs. Vermeule and Sunstein are brilliant men.  The latter has a record of outstanding public service.  So I’d have to think that they could see the flaw in this logic.*****    The authors state in their conclusions that conspiracy stories are sometimes a threat to National Security and the public safety, and many more should be rebutted by cognitive infiltration.  But if cognitive infiltration has no proven efficacy in stemming conspiracy stories, why advocate for it? 
*For example, I watched my students peacefully protesting school tuition policy.  They had the savvy to invite the local ABC, NBC, CBS and FOX affiliates, who all came down, and interviewed then.

A phalanx of police stood by with nightsticks out, and in hand.  The students had legally obtained a permit for the demonstration. But the permit constrained them to the sidewalk.  One protester, not looking where he was going, accidentally stepped one foot off the curb.  He immediately pulled himself completely onto the sidewalk, but too late.  The police descended, pulled him out into the street, and beat him repeatedly with the billy clubs, as the cameras filmed the entire thing. 

Despite the fact that the reporters at the scene were appalled by the police action, and had witnessed (even shot) the whole thing, the lead line for all four major affiliates was “Violence erupted during a demonstration....”

True, violence had occurred.  But without any information about what led up to it, the viewer could very well believe (a) there was mutual aggression on the part of students and police, or (b) the students (note plural) were the aggressors.  The footage of all four stations was almost identical, each showing the police beating this one helpless kid in the street, but without showing the police pulling this one person off the sidewalk for an extremely mild transgression.  

I’ve also had the privilege to know a number of reporters for major news outlets, and many of them have complained to me about the degree to which their work has been “edited” by superiors before airing.  They’ve also told me that supervisors sometimes excised pertinent factual information because it made certain political or corporate parties look bad.

**The authors give the examples of the Easter Bunny and Roswell to demonstrate this characteristic. 

***I don’t plan on going into any depth on the validity of this statement, but one can immediately note a couple of things.  First, there’s much we (i.e., the general public) do not know about 9/11 because we have seen little factual evidence to support the official conclusion.  In its stead, we’ve seen numerous and vehement statements of disclaimer by officials. Second, since HUMINT on Al Queda has been so limited, I’m not sure there could be any definitive account as to how much conspiracism has played a role in that organization’s growth as opposed to the actual US-imposed sanctions against Iraq (which killed over 500,000 according to the UN), or the historic military intrusions into both Iraq and Iran (which in itself resorted in the re-establishment of a brutal monarch that tortured and murdered thousands more).

****Examples covered in The X-Spot would include Dr. John Mack (Professor, Harvard Medical School) who almost lost his tenure for considering the possibility of alien abduction, or John King, a CIA analyst who temporarily lost his clearances (and therefore couldn’t work) after criticizing the Agency on a humor website.  Another example would be Prof. Ward Churchill (Communications, University of Colorado at Boulder), who lost both his tenure and his job for suggesting that the 9/11 attacks were a logical consequence of illegal US actions in the Middle East.

*****In fact the authors do make note that the disclosure of information does not necessarily heal epistemological cripples.  In an anecdote about the release of 9/11 video that would show whether a jet or a missile slammed into the Pentagon, they wrote:
An example involves the disclosure of the Department of Defense video involving Flight 77’s crash into the Pentagon on 9/11. A pro-transparency group, Judicial Watch, filed a FOIA request to obtain the video, but the Defense Department declined, saying that the video was to be used in the trial of Zacharias Moussaoui. Judicial Watch filed suit to force disclosure, with the avowed objective of using the video to rebut the conspiracy theories surrounding Flight 77....

As we have detailed above, the video’s release did little to squelch the Flight 77 conspiracy theorists, who promptly folded the video into their theories.
So there’s never any guarantee that “accurate information”will persuade someone to your
opinion,  even if you both agree that the information is indeed accurate.

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Friday, July 31, 2015

The Cure that Causes: Projecting a Mountain of Cascades

In their 2008 paper “Conspiracy Theories,” law professors Cass Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule delineated what they felt are the causes of conspiracy beliefs and their dissemination.  They explained the genesis of conspiracism in terms of rumor, preconceived biases against institutions, and “crippled epistemology,” or in other words a rational understanding based on incomplete or faulty data.   The dissemination of these stories they called “cascades.”

The term ‘cascade,’ as used by the authors, describes a phenomenon similar to that of a snowball rolling downhill.  There is a sense of momentum as the story takes hold not in an intellectual or scientific context, but rather within a social one.  As they wrote:
Assume that the group members are announcing their views in sequence.  Each member attends, reasonably enough, to the judgments of others.
The first type of cascade deals with the nature of information itself.  In this example, people aren’t coming to opinions independently, simultaneously or even in an overlapping way (which is most often the case), but stating opinions one at a time in a specified order.  The specific example they offer (see previous post) shows a pattern, in which person A believes in a conspiracy hypothesis, person B remains undecided on that hypothesis, and person C disagrees with the hypothesis.  Because person A speaks first, his opinion influences the others.  If person B is next, the response she would give is 50-50: she could agree, or not agree.  If B agrees, then person C is more likely to change his belief to conform to what now appears to be a unified front consisting of persons A and B.

Vermeule and Sunstein admitted that the illustration they gave of these cascades is overly simplistic, and does not represent the complexity of informational dissemination through conspiracy circles.  So at first blush, one might wonder why they would give it in the first place.  They explained it’s because they want to show something else.  People have varying thresholds of proof needed to adopt a conspiracy explanation.  So in this instance, person A has a presumably lower threshold of proof than B, because he does not need as much information as she to definitively and positively state the existence of a conspiracy.  The evidence presented to person C must meet an even higher standard of proof for him to concur with the conspiracy explanation.

The problem here, as Sunstein and Vermeule described it, is that plurality can actually substitute for information when assessing a conspiracy hypothesis.  In other words, if a lot of one’s peers believe something to be true, he or she can consequently see their own view as faulty, and endorse the prevailing sentiment:
Of course the example is highly stylized and in that sense unrealistic; conspiracy cascades arise through more complex processes, in which diverse thresholds are important. In a standard pattern, the conspiracy theory is initially accepted by people with low thresholds for its acceptance. Sometimes the informational pressure builds, to the point where many people, with somewhat higher thresholds, begin to accept the theory too.
To many, this might seem commonsense.  From our own experiences we have probably known people who keep their mouths shut rather than voice (boldly or meekly) an unpopular opinion.  So even if they disagree, they tacitly affirm the majority view by not countering it. 

Yet ironically, that’s one of the most critical flaws in this notion of informational cascades. If person C sees a plurality within conspiracy researchers, and then believes everyone else is right and he is wrong, then one would have to assume that person C only or overwhelmingly interacts with other conspiracists.  Out of all the conspiracy topics I’ve researched, only two are believed by a majority of the public:  namely the assassination of JFK by someone other than or in addition to Lee Oswald; and the suppression by national governments of UFO information.  Otherwise, conspiracy hypotheses tend to be minority opinions.  So if person C only interacts with other “conspiracy theorists,” that’s going to be the only way he will see that opinion as a plural one.  But in real life, contrary to the prevailing stereotypes, conspiracy researchers exist within other realms of society, be it in their homes, workplaces, geographic community, or cyberspace venues where friends have little interest in conspiracy.  Moreover, the most easily accessible media (e.g. television, radio, print) usually marginalize, ridicule, and in some cases attack conspiracy claims.  

So the idea that a person accepts a conspiracy belief because of the increased number of adherents is problematic when one considers the other non- or anti-conspiracy spheres this person inhabits.  If one is predisposed to change one’s position to fit into group think, you would have to question why this would only happen within outre parapolitical circles, but not with respect to the actual mainstream, where there’s a greater plurality supporting person C’s original belief that no conspiracy occurred.

Vermuele and Sunstein then described the role of reputational “cascades.” Here, person C does not believe the conspiracy hypothesis despite the united front presented by persons A and B.  Instead, person C’s position (i.e., of non-conspiracy) remains unchanged.  He still believes that no-conspiracy has taken place.  He nevertheless declines to address, or perhaps even endorses the viewpoint of A and B because he wishes to maintain good relationships with them, or because he fears their hostility should he openly contradict them. 

Here, it would have been more helpful had Vermuele and Sunstein given specific examples. This is important because I can easily give you other examples where the opposite seems true, starting with Mae Brussell.  Mae wasn’t shy about disagreeing or criticizing anyone else’s conspiracy opinion, even if it came from such a beloved a friend as Paul Krassner (whom she occasionally took to task).  By the same token, she actually recommended the works and opinions of such researchers as Mark Lane and Dick Gregory, both of whom she despised.* In other words, we can see her acceptance of information as indifferent to the original source.  Here, there’s no fear for reputation, or going along to get along.

You can find a much more recent example that strikes closer to home in the infamous ‘Bad’ Guys: UR Doin It Wrong”  thread on Rigorous Intuition.  Here one could see a number of competing ideas and independent actors who clashed over a speculation thrown out by one of forum’s members.  None of them seemed as though they were about to change their beliefs, or for that matter stay mute on the subject.  And that wasn’t atypical of that particular board, and many others where posters expressed a number of disagreements on other topics (although not as vehemently as on the “UR Doin It Wrong” thread).  While there were social casualties resulting from the exchange, with some contributors feeling ostracized from that particular community and departing from it, it did not stop anyone from disagreeing with anybody.  For that matter, it didn’t keep some from pursuing parapolitical topics afterwards.  Simply put, the reasons Sunstein and Vermeule gave for people adopting a particular conspiracy hypothesis in no way occurred here. 

Another problem with the idea of reputational (and for that matter informational) cascades is that it implies a somewhat hierarchical structure, whereby someone can establish the legitimacy of a belief to people who are, for lack of a better word, followers.  Again, more examples would have been helpful, here.  For instance, I would concur with the authors that there are such conspiracists as Lyndon LaRouche, a cult leader who can coerce his disciples to believe, as a component of dogma, that the Tavistock Institute created the Beatles in order to spread communism. While I would concede that someone like LaRouche really exists, I would also have to characterize him as at the fringe of conspiracism.  And it’s somewhat intellectually dishonest to conflate the fringe with the mainstream and present them as qualitatively (and quantitatively) the same thing.

The point here is that conspiracy researchers often have cause to consider themselves (justifiably, or unjustifiably) an “expert” on the conspiracy topics closest to them; subject material addressing the anomalies that they have experienced within their lives.  Consequently, their experiences differ by varying degrees.  That in turn leads to a mild disagreement about a specific event or type of activity.  Most often this is settled by an agree-to-disagree convention, or by a mutual attempt to reconcile informational differences, if possible.  Thus, the structuring and the dissemination of conspiracy stories is not nearly as passive a process as Vermuele and Sunstein depict, where people are simply giving binary yeas or nays to the conspiracy beliefs developed by others.  Rather, there tends to be a much more collaborative effort of construction.**

True, if one looks hard and long enough, he or she could find just about anything.  So I have little doubt that Vermuele and Sunstein could have discovered examples of these cascade effects in actual conspiracy texts, if they tried.  But as I wrote in the previous post, this particular 2008 paper spent considerably more time examining anti-conspiracist literature than it did conspiracy texts.  Had the authors delved more deeply into conspiracy texts, they would have found real life examples, thus negating the need for hypothetical ones.   Had they taken a more objective approach–i.e., had they approached the subject in just about any other way than as a social pathology screaming for a cure–the authors would not only have demonstrated a more thorough understanding of conspiracy research (as opposed to a pop culture cliche of conspiracism), but a deeper knowledge of why it becomes inaccurate, when it is indeed inaccurate.

Of course, what struck me about “Conspiracy Theories” when I first read it was the confident tone it exuded in matters of epistemology, crippled or otherwise.  I mean, imagine reading a scholarly biography of yourself, and realizing that the author not only messed up a few arcane details, but screwed up major life events that they could have easily fact-checked.  Yet, this tome has the language and style of professionalism and erudition, and thus evokes the signifiers of truth.

And that’s when it hit me.  The authors clearly had little understanding about conspiracism.  However, they demonstrated profound insight into information systems and epistemology. The problem is that the views espoused by Sunstein and Vermeule don’t apply nearly as well to conspiracy research as they do academic research. 

Granted, academia doesn’t suffer from some of the intellectual or methodological shortcomings of the conspiracy milieu.  For instance, academics tend not to speculate or extrapolate from results.  More often than not, they state findings only to the extent that they can support with evidence.  And since there is no national security interest in the bulk of academic research, there’s really nothing preventing scholars from exploring a topic or phenomena to an extreme degree. 

Thus, crippled epistemology doesn’t seem to be much of an issue.*** But many outsiders would probably be surprised at the degree to which social interaction guides scholarship.  People form various “schools” of thought, that disagree with each other.  Although there’s quite often some consensus on basic stuff, and important consensus on complex ideas, there’s a lot of debate on myriad issues.  And people often take sides.  As a recovering academic, I saw this not only within my own department, but in other departments at other universities whenever I had a chance to schmooze with former colleagues (and friends).  It’s not that I’m saying that scholars are constantly at each others’ throats.  It’s more the case where one can often see a tribal mentality that on the one hand dispenses knowledge, but on the other hand advocates a position.

It’s in this venue where I can more readily see cascade effects with respect to knowledge dissemination.  Academia has something that conspiracism lacks, namely a hierarchal structure of authority.  While lowly adjunct professors might be in a position to correct or advise a full professor on the subject of the former’s expertise, they don’t have equal standing vis-a-vis the pronouncement of canon.  Likewise, the viewpoint of an advisor can very well influence the viewpoint of doctoral candidates, who might defer to the former’s judgment because they assume the advisor knows more than they do, Moreover, the advisor can provide plurality by citing the current literature written by scholars who believe the same thing (informational cascade).   But even if the candidate refuses to buy into the information given by the advisor, then he or she has considerable pressure to either agree with the information, or keep silent on the matter.  Academic advisors and senior colleagues can give enthusiastic recommendations.  They can also give tepid recommendations or none at all.  Senior faculty, in particular, can write positive peer reviews, which usually translate to promotions, and (better yet) more money.  Because it’s a hierarchical structure, it’s important for the student or junior faculty member to remain in the good graces of people above her or him.  There’s thus incentive to affirm beliefs or observations that the junior does not hold (reputational cascade).
Or to put this in terms of vulgar, easy-to-digest psychobabble, much of “Conspiracy Theories” reads like the psychological projection of academia’s shortcomings onto the workings of conspiracy culture, which obviously has its own set of issues with respect to accuracy (or inaccuracy).

To be honest, I cannot fathom why two highly esteemed intellectuals would write or even think of publishing the first half of this paper, flawed on so many levels as it is.  I would have expected my peers and supervisors to rake me over coals had I turned in something that problematic.  But after reading it as many times as I have, I get this vague sense that the authors just didn’t care that much about exploring the creation and dissemination of conspiracy stories.  Worse, I dread that this first half served only as a cynical pretense to justify the remaining part of the paper.                           
*Specifically, Mae said, “I hate their guts.”  Lane and Gregory held a mutual opinion of Brussell.

**Granted, collaboration could itself lead to inaccuracy.  But note, the process described by the authors does not square with typical conspiracism practice. 

***Of course, there are exceptions, especially in the humanities where informational gaps can result from destroyed texts, linguistic and cultural misunderstandings/interpretations, or because of the obscurity of a source.  Hard sciences tend to have more epistemological gaps of the national security kind if the research has to do with martial technology, as one grindhouse actress could tell you.

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Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Watch This Space

I've been meaning to get out a new blog before the month ended, but the 30th came up before I realized.  I'll be back to work soon.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

The Cure that Causes

A man thought his wife was having an affair, but he couldn’t prove it.  So he took off work one day, to follow her around.  He tailed her leaving the house mid-morning.  She arrived at a bar, where she began talking to a gentleman.  They then left together in his car, and drove to a nearby motel.  The husband could see them in the window hugging, and kissing and taking off their clothes.
But just then, at that critical moment, someone turned out the lights and closed the curtains.  So he never knew for sure.
–old joke told to me by an old dude.

A couple of years ago, I cited a 2008 paper written by law Professors Adrian Vermeule (Harvard) and Cass Sunstein (University of Chicago–currently at Harvard).  Simply titled “Conspiracy Theories,” it generally examined parapolitical stories in two contexts.  They first gave an explanation for why they both exist and persist.  They then proposed action to stop what they considered “harmful” conspiracy theories. 

Vermeule and Sunstein break down the causes of ‘conspiracy theory’ as (1) “informational cascades,” (2) “reputational cascades” and (3) “crippled epistemologies.”* According to the authors, Informational cascades come about because of the dissemination of information in a more or less linear fashion.  Because of the linear nature, subsequent examiners will tend to follow the lead of an opinion that someone else–presumably a leader or someone with cache within the social division–has stated earlier if they are uncertain or unknowledgeable about the facts.  They write:
Andrews is the first to speak.  He suggests that the event was caused by a conspiracy of powerful people.  Barnes now knows Andrews’s judgment; she should certainly go along with Andrew’s account if she agrees independently with him.  But if her independent judgment is otherwise, she would—if she trusts Andrews no more and no less than she trusts herself—be indifferent about what to do, and she might simply flip a coin. 

Now turn to a third person, Charleton.  Suppose that both Andrews and Barnes have endorsed the conspiracy theory, but that Charleton’s own view, based on limited information, suggests that they are probably wrong.  In that event, Charleton might well ignore what he knows and follow Andrews and Barnes.
Reputational cascades occur for a similar reason.  Unlike informational cascades, however, the reputational cascade occurs even when people know both the facts and their own opinions.  Yet they will defer both in order not to undermine the reputation of the group, and/or their reputation within the group.  As Vermeule and Sunstein explain:
In a reputational cascade, people think that they know what is right, or what is likely to be right, but they nonetheless go along with the crowd in order to maintain the good opinion of others.  Suppose that Albert suggests that the Central Intelligence Agency was responsible for the assassination of President Kennedy, and that Barbara concurs with Albert, not because she actually thinks that Albert is right, but because she does not wish to seem, to Albert, to be some kind of dupe.  If Albert and Barbara say that the CIA was responsible for the assassination of President Kennedy, Cynthia might not contradict them publicly and might even appear to share their judgment -- not because she believes that judgment to be correct, but because she does not want to face their hostility or lose their good opinion.
Crippled epistemologies, according to the authors, are the cornerstone of conspiracy-theory building.  They assert that personal acceptance, or tolerance, of conspiracy hypotheses does not result from narcissism, paranoia, delusions or other pathologies.  They’re instead caused by a paucity of direct knowledge.  The lack of direct knowledge leads the individual to accept what others (depending on their credibility, one would guess) state as true or direct knowledge.  And, frankly, the little information that one receives via this route is almost always inaccurate.  Thus, an individual doesn’t believe or consider possible a conspiracy belief because he or she is irrational.  Rather, the belief stems from ignorance.
In some domains, people suffer from a ‘crippled epistemology,’ in the sense that they know very few things, and what they know is wrong...Many extremists fall in this category; their extremism stems not from irrationality, but from the fact that they have little (relevant) information, and their extremist views are supported by what little they know....Conspiracy theorizing often has the same feature. Those who believe that Israel was responsible for the attacks of 9/11, or that the Central Intelligence Agency killed President Kennedy, may well be responding quite rationally to the informational signals that they receive.
When “Conspiracy Theories” first came out in 2008, it received quite a bit of attention from parapolitical circles and others whom the professors might deem conspiracy theorists.  Most of this reaction has been rather hostile, naturally.  But the attention (and hostility) increased the following year when President Barack Obama nominated, and Congress confirmed, Prof. Sunstein to head the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.

Most of the vitriol exhibited by detractors was itself understandable, but highly emotional.  The outrage has primarily centered on the second part of that paper, namely the one that proposes a cure for online conspiracism.** But I have an even deeper alarm for the first section, for it really missed the mark on why conspiracy thinking occurs. 

Let’s start with the notion of “crippled epistemology.”  There’s a bit of truth in what Profs. Sunstein and Vermeule are saying here.  Quite frankly, conspiracy researchers would have to admit (as I often do) that we are not working with a complete set of data.  To sum up the main reason in two words: government secrecy.  To sum it up in one word: classification.***  We simply cannot know “all the facts” because, quite frankly, government authorities routinely withhold information from the public, oftentimes only affirming or confirming information that is politically convenient, or in some other way consistent with policy agendas. 

The first problem here is that the authors seem to imply that if the conspiracy researcher/believer/considerer knew the “real truth,” then they would not support a conspiracy hypothesis.  Common sense tells us that people do not tend to hide neutral or flattering information.  On the other hand, they’re quite quick to hide embarrassing or self-incriminating information.  So in this context, one justifiably wonders why the authors would automatically assume that all hidden information validates a non-conspiracy explanation.  More to the point, the authors have given us no empirical reason to declare that what little Suzie Q. Citizen knows is wrong, or mostly wrong.

Moreover, gaps in information don’t simply negate the information that’s there.  As the joke quoted above illustrates, we often have not only enough information to reasonably induce something untoward has happened, but enough to make a non-conspiracy hypothesis extremely implausible.  The JFK Assassination is one such instance where eyewitness and forensic evidence compellingly excludes the most cited culprit as the President’s actual murderer. 

Second, the reality is that between those who automatically nix the idea of conspiracy and those who don’t, the latter usually have more information that’s (ironically) contained in official or reputable sources.  The former often tends to accept what’s offered by established news outlets (e.g. CBS Evening News, New York Times) with little question.  And for most that is the extent of their knowledge.  (After all, if one feels no reason to distrust the government agents and media corporations, why look for conspiracy?)  Conspiracy researchers tend to know the mainstream, official or quasi-official stories as well as additional information supplied by witnesses, public documents and other informants of varying credibility.  So, while Profs. Sunstein and Vermeule are correct in pointing out that those who engage in conspiracy research often do not have not have complete knowledge of their subjects, they fail to address the even more ‘crippled epistemology’ (does anyone else see that term as pejorative, or emotionally provocative?) of non-conspiracists.

Third, I would agree that sometimes zealously believed conspiracy theories can be wildly inaccurate.  Yet, this isn’t caused, as the authors state, by a rational understanding of false or incomplete information.  As I summarized in several of the preceding posts, using anti-Semitism as an example, when conspiracy hypotheses go off the rails its often because of such irrational human traits as prejudice.  Bigotry, hatred, fear and other highly emotional states, to some degree, filter out the information that one can perceive.  While this would seem to affirm the idea of crippled epistemology, note two things: (1) this doesn’t really reflect the core of conspiracy research, and (2) filtering doesn’t necessarily leave one with a knowledge deficit.  What it does instead is lead to a more deliberate ordering of data that can in turn lead to inaccurate or seriously flawed conclusions. 

Fourth, when one takes even a perfunctory look at conspiracy stories, she or he will often have at the center, or close to it, someone who claims direct knowledge of the events.  In some cases (e.g. MPD Det. Ed Reddit in the MLK assassination; NYPD Det. Lt. Arthur O’Connor in the murder of John Lennon) we can confirm that those offering this direct knowledge have the legitimate standing and basis for doing so. 

Taking a close look at what Profs. Vermeule and Sunstein have written, one comes to a rather fascinating irony.  Judging from their footnotes, one can see citations to copious journalistic and academic sources.  On the other hand, we see considerably fewer references to actual conspiracy texts, most of them in the first few pages when the authors give their definition of ‘conspiracy theory.’  One therefore gets the impression that the authors are far more versed in anti-conspiracist arguments in commercial and professional literature than in conspiracism itself.  What they consequently describe is a rather cartoonish view of conspiracy and those who consider conspiracy explanations, one that anyone who actually knows the subject would see as grossly inaccurate.  While the authors can tell us what such persons as Mark Lane, Dr. Alan Cantwell and William Pepper generally have to say, one has less confidence that they have actually read or honestly critiqued the arguments of these authors.

In short, when it comes to talking about the subject of conspiracy, Profs. Vermeule and Sunstein seem to exhibit a crippled epistemology on the subject.  To those of us who have examined conspiracy, the authors don’t appear to know very much about conspiracy research or conspiracy researchers.  The entire examination of crippled epistemology thus reads as a psychological projection. 

But that’s not the only part of the paper that reads as psychological projection. 

*To put it simply, ‘epistemology’ is the study of knowledges, or meta-knowledge, if you will.

**We’ll get to the proposal in a couple of posts. 

***While legitimate national security purposes do account for some official secrets, they most likely don't account for the amount engendered by political security.  Other reasons for not having access to information would include privacy concerns (sometimes the public doesn't have legitimate reason to know something), or the physical deterioration of media. 

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Wednesday, April 01, 2015

The Year in Paranoia

Jim Bunting, a former reporter for one of Cincinnati's thriving local papers, The Knottinhaur Times, has now given up all pretense of journalism and embarked upon a new career writing clickbait.  Although that sort of thing usually annoys me, I recently found one post that I just had to share.

Countdown of the Year’s Top 10 Paranoid News Stories

Got your tinfoil suit ready?  Here’s a list of last year’s best conspiracy/paranormal/bizarre reports from all over the country. 

10.  First the National Security Agency said that they didn’t collect information from, on or about law-abiding American citizens.  Then they claimed that they only collected metadata of law-abiding American citizens.  Now, they claim that they’re not selling the personal information of loyal citizens to third-party vendors for extra funding and the occasional kickback.

In an unrelated item, the most popular car among NSA senior officials: the Maserati GranTurismo MC.

9.  CIA spokesperson Will Getzsche denied that the recent changes in the Smith-Mundt Act will lead to disinformation and harassment campaigns against dissidents, conspiracy buffs and liberals.  In order to clear up any misunderstandings, the Agency has taken to social media to explain the necessity of updating the law passed by Congress in 1948.  You can find their Twitter feed at:


8.  On 1 January 2015, FBI spokesperson Collette Rousseau called a press conference to announce that she always wears a blouse and skirt while on the job, and denied that her attire had anything to do with celebrating J. Edgar Hoover’s 120th birthday.  She declined comment on why her male colleagues were also wearing skirts and blouses (along with two-inch pumps and matching accessories). 

7.  The Association of All-American Psychics (AAAP) issued a statement declaring that the Anti-Christ is alive and living in Florida.

Former Governor Jeb Bush was unavailable for comment.

6.  According to host Sarah Koenig, Season 2 of Serial will focus on the JFK assassination.  The podcast will feature top-level physicists, engineers and other experts to explain the scientific reality of magic bullets.  Executive producer Ira Glass hopes to prove that President Kennedy was actually slain outside of a west-Dallas Best Buy by Adnan Syed, who acted alone.

5.  In recent news of the dead, former Clubbo country-and-western artist Sandee Saunders teamed up with Robert Palmer and John Lennon to record a new CD titled Rockin’ after Rigor Mortis.   In a publicity blitz the week before its release, Palmer once again confirmed that he was Linus van Pelt of Peanuts fame.  He also expressed dismay about the comic strip’s decision to secretly replace him with a double.  Lennon and Saunders agreed to put “clues” in Rockin’ after Rigor Mortis to alert astute listeners about the “Faux-Linus” (or Flinus, for short).

4.  NASA dispelled rumors of a massive UFO invasion, last July.  The Agency offered irrefutable proof that the flying saucers reported by thousands of eyewitnesses were actually flying cups.

3.  North Korean intelligence officials concluded, after a year of combing through the material they hacked from Sony Pictures, that none of the company’s films and television shows were worth watching.  Moderators at Rotten Tomatoes responded, saying “We’ve known that for years.”

2.  Department of Homeland Security spokesperson Nge Kotcher stated that the nation’s Fusion Centers will monitor all conspiracy lists of eleven or more.

1.  Breaking news!  Marilyn Monroe is alive and living in Chris Christie!

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Monday, March 23, 2015

The Protocol of the Protocols

I used to drive an old friend of mine –and by old, I mean someone who was actually a beatnik – to the Veteran’s Administration in South Orange, NJ.  He (let’s call him K.) required constant medical care for injuries he suffered during the Korean War.  Once, we were on needles and pins when these ancient war wounds, suffered over fifty years earlier, came close to doing him in.*

If you asked him to talk about his most defining experience in the military, it wouldn’t be the mortar blast that continues to plague him to this second.  Rather, it was an incident in basic training.  He woke up in the middle of the night, and saw the soldier in the next bunk staring intensely at him. 

“What’s wrong?” asked K.

“You’re Jewish, ain’t ya?” asked the stranger.

“Yeah, so what?”

“We learned that Jews have horns, tails and cloven hooves,” he explained.  “That they come out when you’re asleep.”

“Oh,” K. responded in his best deadpan.   “We don’t show them to the goyim.”

Before he had joined the Army, K. had come across whispered gossip concerning blood libel, But a guy staying up all night because he really thought my friend would turn into Beelzebub?  That struck me as utterly daft.  I mean, we’re talking about 1951, for crying out loud.  You’d think that people wouldn’t be so ignorant by the mid-Twentieth Century. 

As it turns out, much of that same ignorance persists well into the Twenty-First Century.  After the events of 11 September 2001, and the subsequent attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq, the anti-American sentiment espoused by some Middle East Muslims became almost inextricably linked to anti-Israeli rage.  This led to the belief that Jews were manipulating the US to commit atrocity after atrocity against innocent Muslims. 

This anger found expression in the re-emergence of a nineteenth-century literary tract.   It’s original author had written it as a joke, a sharp commentary on political power and corruption, Later authors would plagiarize the initial satire and present it to the public as fact.  Although discredited and thoroughly debunked over the years, it has once again become a universally revered text for those who hate Jews.

According to many sources, among them the Holocaust Museum “The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion made its first appearance as such sometime between 1897 and 1903.  Its author, Pyotr Rachovsky, served as the chief of foreign intelligence in the Okhrana, one of the most brutal spy agencies that ever existed.  The book purported to be the actual minutes of a meeting of an 1897 international Jewish congress that met in Russia.  Supposedly, these elders met to discuss their plans for taking over the world. 

Rachovsky stole the bulk of his material from other sources, among them Hermann Goedsche’s  1868 novel Biarritz.  Admittedly fiction, this book contained a chapter titled “At the Jewish Cemetery at Prague,” in which twelve elders, each representing a Hebrew tribe, meet in a graveyard to discuss plans for global dominion.  Goedsche in turn ripped off several other sources.  The first was the 1848 Alexandre Dumas Sr. novel Joseph Balsamo.   The second was an 1797 letter circulated by a French Jesuit, Abbe Barruel, who blamed the French Revolution on a Masonic conspiracy, and nebulously connected the subsequent political tolerance of Jews by Napoleon III to the plot.**

The third source is one that also heavily influenced Rachovsky, and is considered by virtual consensus to be the most direct ancestor of the Protocols.  Satirist Maurice Joly wrote The Dialogue in Hell between Machiavelli and Montesquieu in 1864 to poke fun at the stupidity of realpolitik.  One can easily notice parallels between the Joly novel and Rachovsky’s work.  In fact, some passages are almost verbatim.  For example, the following, appears in the Joly work:
Like the god Vishnu, my press will have a hundred arms, and these arms will give their hands to all the different shades of opinion throughout the country.
This corresponds to the following passage from “Protocols”:
These newspapers, like the Indian god Vishnu, will be possessed of hundreds of hands, each of which will be feeling the pulse of varying public opinion.
The Joly book didn’t mention Jews at all.  It instead consisted of a dialogue between the title characters.  The machinations discussed wasn't attributed to Jews, but to power in general.  In that light, one can see Joly as insightful with respect to how the ruling class sees the rest of us.  And in some ways the story’s reminiscent of Antonio Gramsci’s analyses of power.  The problem here is that in his retelling of Joly’s novel, Goedsche replaced the abstract notion of scheming aristocracy with a specific Jewish plot.  Yet, Goedsche didn’t claim that the work reported an actuality.  That was done by Rachovsky, who depicted these tales as real sometime around the turn-of-the Twentieth Century. 
From there, a number of Russian papers began to report on or serialize the tract, in each instance characterizing it as fact; as if this 1897 Jewish congress on world domination actually happened.  

As you probably have surmised by now, the malleable nature of the villains’ identities became one of the more horrific attributes of “Protocols.”  This was a point not lost on Dr. Umberto Eco (Humanities, University of Bologna), who in his 1988 novel Foucault’s Pendulum noted that someone had arbitrarily introduced Jews as the masterminds behind Joly’s tongue-in-cheek plot, most likely to divert attention from real conspirators.***

The malleability doesn’t end there, either.  While the main focus in the “Protocols” has been the international Jewish conspiracy since 1903, copious textual changes have cropped up over the years, each demonizing various political outliers as useful idiots, or harbingers of the plot’s success.  Indeed, most versions of the “Protocols” one can find on the web bear little resemblance to the direct 1920 English translation done by Victor Marsden.**** For example, one passage that one finds in online editions:
The people who make up society (voters) are lame-brained numskulls who never achieve anything.  They spend their time following astrology charts and football.  They obviously can’t think logically.
“The Protocols” as originally written and translated by Marsden don’t actually contain the character string “lame-brained numskulls.”  There aren’t any references to astrology or football, either.  Obviously, this is a means by which writers have “updated” the cultural context of the original.  But in doing so, they clearly changed it.  Likewise, some items that can loosely translate as the same thing, can become even further distorted by the addition of editorial comments that don’t appear in the original.  For example, the above cite quotes the “Protocols” as saying:
3.  People are basically evil by nature.  The bad people in this world far outnumber the good.  So the best form of government is not one that holds reasoned discussions with its people, but one that uses tyranny.
The original says:
It must be noted that men with bad instincts are more in number than the good, and therefore the best results in governing them are attained by violence and terrorization, and not by academic discussion.
Note that the original doesn’t have bulleted or numbered points, as do the later editions.  Second, the addition of the line “People are basically evil by nature” is an extrapolation that again doesn’t appear in the original.  Also, you’ll find the term ‘academic discussion’ replaced by ‘reasoned discussions,” which is especially meaningful when you realize that many who hold these beliefs today are at the core anti-intellectual.  In the US and Europe, they tend to also be quite right-wing, and use the “Protocols” to rally a bigoted political base to support neo-conservative agendas.

And it gets worse.  A passage in the original, “This task [of crushing benign, caring monarchies and other autocracies]  is infected with the idea of freedom, so-called liberalism,” often appears as “using liberalism,” or in some cases “using socialism,” or “using leftism” as a means of weakening a population.  Here, the implication is stark.  Such writers deliberately omit the extent to which the original equates liberalism (a despised concept among contemporary “Protocols” fans) to freedom (a principle they highly cherished).  In doing so, propagators of this tract can create boogeymen out of people they see as ideological enemies.

That’s not to imply that the original is any less insidious.  At the same time, it does show just how reactionary, adaptive and manipulated this text is.

The degree to which “Protocols” has influenced contemporary conspiracy culture is small, but (admittedly) significant.  A minuscule sampling of researchers will actually refer to such thing as ZOG (Zionist Occupational Government), or the “Jewish banking conspiracy.  More will refer to anti-Semitic in more coded, generic ways such as “The Israel Lobby,” “The Rothchilds,” or “The Illuminati/Masonic conspiracy.”  And some will broadly deny that the vast majority of Jews have anything to do with the “International Jewish Plot,”  but they believe in that plot all the same.

The reason why I brought this topic up is several-fold.  For starters, it’s an invalid argument that can gum up any legitimate queries by dumbing down the underlying mechanics of power to a highly isolated group of meanies.  Second, it’s useful in rationalizing the bigotry that many have held against Jews for (literally) millennia.   

Third, it ironically negates a core belief within anti-conspiracism.

*Relax.  He’s fine at the moment.  That reminds me, I have to get back to him on our fantasy baseball league..

**In a 1993 paper titled “Commentary on the Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” Dr. Daniel Keren points out that the bulk of French royalty and nobility were themselves Freemasons at the time of the Revolution. 

***And no, Eco isn’t serious about there being actual conspirators.  He just wanted to show how identities in such tracts can change back and forth to whomever one hates.

**** As I said in the previous post, I really don’t want to link to these sites, many of which are supported by Klan, fundamentalist Christian and Nazi groups and leaders.  But in order to verify the comparison, you can find the one alluded to in the above passage here

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