On 21 November 1963, only hours before the assassination of President John F. Kennedy set off a firestorm of conspiracy accusations, one professor kick-started a rapidly growing anti-conspiracy movement.
On that date, Dr. Richard Hofstadter (History, Columbia University) gave a lecture at England’s prestigious University of Oxford. He would later publish it as an article titled “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”* In this essay, he examined the degree to which irrational beliefs caused some special interest groups to accuse their political opposition of scheming to gain power, or otherwise get their way.
Not surprisingly, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” became an important document for self-described cynics, skeptics and anti-conspiracists. I have read very few anti-conspiracy books or tracts that don’t give it some mention, if not an in-depth review. While many anti-conspiracy works have some mild criticism or disagreement with Dr. Hofstadter, they reverentially depict him as an intellectual grandfather for a school of thought that’s highly critical of conspiracism and conspiracy researchers.
By now, you’re probably waiting for me to trash “Paranoid Style,” or Dr. Hofstadter in the way I did “Conspiracy Theories” by Professors Adam Vermeule and Cass Sunstein. Truth is, I have no such inclination. As shocking as it might sound, I have tremendous respect for this paper. I think it’s f-ing brilliant. While I obviously disagree with some of what Hofstadter says (here and in other works), I would say that most of it is so spot-on as to be prescient. I highly recommend taking ten minutes out of your life and reading it.
Since my disagreements with “Paranoid style” are in large part minor, I’ll shove them aside for now, and maybe get back to them in a later post. My actual point of contention isn’t with the article per se, but rather the context in which anti-conspiracists cite and present it. In looking at this work, one has to keep in mind not only the actual content, but the circumstances that compelled Dr. Hofstadter to write it.
If you haven’t clicked on the above link, I’ll summarize “Paranoid Style” as briefly as I can. In the introduction, Hofstadter immediately took pains to define what he meant by “paranoia.” He stressed he wasn’t speaking in a medical sense, but in a metaphoric one. This is important because, as he posits, if we were merely looking at actual mental illness, than conspiracism in and of itself wouldn’t be much of an issue.
I have neither the competence nor the desire to classify any figures of the past or present as certifiable lunatics. In fact, the idea of the paranoid style as a force in politics would have little contemporary relevance or historical value if it were applied only to men with profoundly disturbed minds. It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant.
The second thing that Hofstadter does in the intro is to give several brief examples of paranoid political thought: McCarthyism of the 1950s, the gold conspiracy of the 1890s, and anti-Catholicism of the 1850s. Although he mentioned in passing that the political left occasionally engaged in the same specious reasoning (e.g, the US slave conspiracy of the mid-1800s), he saw more systematic, widespread and dangerous use of the paranoid style persisting in the hardliner-right wing faction of American politics.**
In the next two sections, Dr. Hofstadter illustrated political paranoia and subsequent actions with examples of several venerable conspiracy pariahs: the Illuminati, the Freemasons, and the Roman Catholic Church. Each of these, he points out, contain a specific narrative in which Americans presently have some unspecified power that a shadowy outside force wanted to take away from them. For example, Illuminism, an historic attempt with Freemasonry to reform itself in accordance to rationalist principles developed during the Enlightenment, was seen by some Americans as an attempt to replace religion with science. In this instance, religion is already the establishment, and its trying to protect itself from what it considers a foreign influence, coming directly from Europe via the ultra-liberal heathens inhabiting the northern East Coast.
Similarly, the vast majority of Americans were Protestant. In fact, to this day, JFK remains the only non-Protestant US President. But from the Nineteenth Century up to Kennedy’s election in 1960, the fear remained that the Church wanted to control the world through one universal government headed by the Papacy. The church would wield this control through puppet leaders, as it allegedly did during the days of the Holy Roman Empire. This fear of a Vatican Candidate, openly expressed by such notables as Norman Vincent Peale and Rev. Billy Graham, forced Kennedy to bend over backwards to show that his allegiance was to the established American government, not to a foreign outside party that wanted to take it away.
The next two sections, IMHO, are the most important. In describing how paranoia influences contemporary politics (i.e., the 1950s and early-1960s), he noted an historical shift in the overriding conspiracy narrative that began after World War II. The new story hold that Americans used to have power, but have now lost it to some hostile party. In this vein, Sen. Joseph McCarthy would claim that 49 (or 100, or 77, or whatever) communists have infiltrated the US State Department. In this tale, we have an institution of power (State Department, US Army, FBI, CIA, Hollywood, etc.) that once did the bidding of the American people. But now, after infiltration by hostile agents, these institutions were now corrupt and behaving atrociously. Hence, there’s a certain “Take Back Our Country” attitude among those who adhere to this philosophy.
The remaining part of the paper is arguably the weakest, and its vitriol in some measure undermines some very valid criticisms of conspiracism that I have mentioned before. Again, I would prefer to look at those issues later, and focus on its strengths.***
Before examining “Paranoid Style’s” content further, we have to understand the context of Dr. Hofstadter and his times. Born in 1916, he became intimately involved with leftist politics at an early age, joining the Communist Party of the USA in 1938. He left CPUSA the following year, realizing he could never adjust to the party’s insistence on orthodoxy. He realized that going in. But, as he explained, “I join without enthusiasm but with a sense of obligation... my fundamental reason for joining is that I don't like capitalism and want to get rid of it.”
Thus, it’s no surprise that the he levels his criticism in “Paranoid Style” almost exclusively at the far-right of American politics. This paper was specifically a reaction against what he saw in McCarthyism and later in the emergence of the John Birch Society, which by 1964 had seriously radicalized the right-wing faction of the GOP.
And this leads to another issue: namely the applicability of Dr. Hofstadter’s observations to what we have come to know now as “conspiracy theory.”
You see, Hofstadter really does talk about paranoia in the same way that most of us would understand the term applying to "conspiracy theories," but only to a limited degree. That’s by no means the primary focus of this paper. For the most part, he isn’t talking about an outre “parapolitcal” movement on the part of those with limited means to propagate a cause–a political fringe, so to speak. Rather, he’s talking about a mainstream point of view, that has ample access to public attention and elected officials.
In other words, what Dr. Hofstadter described in “Paranoid Style” wasn’t so indicative of the work exemplified by Mae Brussell. Rather, we can see it more readily in such commentators as Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Matt Drudge, and others populating the talent pool of Fox News. Here, we have a similar narrative concerning the dispossession of power by so-called “liberal elites” that have somehow co-opted the nation in an ill-defined way.
That Dr. Hofstadter is making this observation specifically about mainstream right-wing politics is not lost on political pundits, who aren’t shy about criticizing him and/or “Paranoid Style.” As George Will wrote in a Washington Post op-ed piece dated 15 April 2008:
The iconic public intellectual of liberal condescension was Columbia University historian Richard Hofstadter, who died in 1970 but whose spirit still permeated that school when Obama matriculated there in 1981. Hofstadter pioneered the rhetorical tactic that Obama has revived with his diagnosis of working-class Democrats as victims -- the indispensable category in liberal theory. The tactic is to dismiss rather than refute those with whom you disagree....
Hofstadter dismissed conservatives as victims of character flaws and psychological disorders -- a ‘paranoid style’ of politics rooted in ‘status anxiety,’ etc. Conservatism rose on a tide of votes cast by people irritated by the liberalism of condescension. ****
To say this paranoid style has nothing to do with “conspiracy theory” as we understand it would simply be dishonest. We can point to such conspiracists as Rayelan Allan, Alex Jones and Fritz Springmeier, and say that they completely embody the paranoid style described by Hofstadter. Yet, it’s not the paranoia of these individuals and their followers that set them apart in this regard, but rather their unabashed right-wing partisanship. Ironically, most of what such notables publish on their sites, or talk about in radio interviews, maintains and defends a power that Hofstadter and his friend, Dr. C. Wright Mills (Sociology, Columbia University), would call the “ruling class.” Looking closely, one can see the narrative spouted by such conspiracists as not that different than what is on Fox or other News Corp media in substance. The difference is not the core belief, but rather the extremity to which such a belief is taken.
Regarding the extent to which Dr. Hofstadter would see a similar thinking on the left, we could point to some of the commentators on MS-NBC, or the ill-fated Air-America. Hofstadter would probably agree with a substantial deal of their viewpoints. What would irk him about these two entities is their tendency to--like their right-wing counterparts-- demonize opponents as evil, dangerous, or at best completely clueless. Of course, one could point out that the polemic of right-wing media preceded more limited liberal expressions of this type in the mainstream. Consequently, liberal polemics were a reaction against this very iteration of the paranoid style. But Hofstadter, in other writings, stressed the need for consensus within a democracy. As the our-way-or-the-highway approach to determining public policy has shown, especially in recent years where government has literally shut down because of refusals to compromise, extremism and inflexibility keeps the public from exercising any power at all.
In hindsight, it would appear that Hofstadter’s main beef wasn’t really with conspiracism itself, but rather the utilization of conspiracism in fostering the type of extremism that threatened consensual government.
Conspiracism is probably as old as our species. At the very least, it’s as old as written history. We’re the creatures that we are, after all. We not only collude with each other for some type of misdeed/transgression, but we suspect that others might do that very thing to us (how dare they!).
On the other hand, anti-conspiracism is relatively new. Trust me. I think that this is coincidence and nothing more. But I do find it fascinatingly ironic that one of the most potent and seminal expressions of anti-conspiracism occurred less than twenty-four hours before arguably the grandest conspiracy in US history.
A conspiracy rooted in the same political paranoia described by Dr. Hofstadter.
*First published in the November 1964 edition of Harper’s magazine.
**Later during the 1960s, Dr. Hofstadter would accuse student anti-war activists of a similar simplistic mindset. While I believe he was somewhat short-sighted/narrow-minded/just-plain-wrong on this point, again, that’s perhaps a discussion for another time and place.
***Just a brief summary of that remaining part: after prudently and carefully refusing to ascribe psychological/sociological diagnoses to those involved with conspiracism, Hofstadter regrettably engages in a bit of armchair psychoanalysis and sociological theory that ascribes personality, intellectual, or moral defects and machinations among the politically paranoid. Chief among them is a description of what most of us now would recognize as Narcissistic Personality Disorder:
...Norman Cohn believed he found a persistent psychic complex that corresponds broadly with what I have been considering—a style made up of certain preoccupations and fantasies: “the megalomaniac view of oneself as the Elect, wholly good, abominably persecuted, yet assured of ultimate triumph; the attribution of gigantic and demonic powers to the adversary; the refusal to accept the ineluctable limitations and imperfections of human existence, such as transience, dissention, conflict, fallibility whether intellectual or moral; the obsession with inerrable prophecies…systematized misinterpretations, always gross and often grotesque.”
While I, and perhaps most of you, might feel some vindication or validation from these words, directed as they are to McCarthy and others of his ilk, we should note that this is a diatribe, and highly emotional. And that’s the source of their true appeal, I’m afraid.
****Interestingly, Will put the term “status anxiety” in quotes, as if this were the point of “Paranoid Style.” Hoftstadter actually used these terms together in other writings, but not here.
Below is part one of five brief YouTube videos documenting Mark Lane’s interview with former Dallas police officer Roger Craig. Craig had a fascinating story to tell. And he didn’t mind sharing it, despite the danger of doing so. As I have written earlier, numerous attempts were made on his life in the years following the JFK assassination. In fact, this particular interview took place in 1975, shortly after Craig survived an ignition bomb that blew him up in his car. Although he survived (obviously), the incident left him paraplegic. He would die from two gunshot wounds to the chest only weeks after this conversation.
Lane, an attorney by trade, applied to represent Oswald during the Warren Commission proceedings. The Commission denied the request. Lane nevertheless continued to investigate the case, and managed to film interviews with numerous witnesses, among them Craig.
If you’re wondering what made Officer Craig such a compelling witness, the title of this post pretty much sums it up.
Seven years ago today, I posted the following passage in my first list of JFK Assassination casualties.
14, Dorothy Kilgallen (1913-1965)
Who the hell is she? Gossip columnist, journalist, television personality, and a personal friend of President Kennedy.
What could she say? Kilgallen was an early skeptic of the lone-nut hypothesis and a sharp critic of the Warren Commission. Disturbed by what she saw as very, very wrong, she decided to investigate the case herself, which led to a meeting with Jack Ruby in his cell. She only managed to write out some of the details of what Ruby claimed privately to her, but among the juiciest was the fact that several weeks prior to the assassination, Ruby met at the Carousel Club with a man named Bernard Weisman, officer J.D. Tippit and a fourth person whom she referred to in her notes cryptically as the ‘ferret man’ (obviously David Ferrie) to discuss the upcoming assassination of the President. She obviously knew more than she published. Although it might have presented some validity problems, Kilgllen might have been able to drop a nuke on the JFK assassination investigation just by publishing what she thought, and what she had learned through her network of informants. In fact, days before she died, she confidently asserted that she was “about to blow the JFK case wide open.”
How did she die? No one’s really sure. Her friend and hairdresser Marc Sinclaire discovered her body the morning of her death, sitting up in bed, an open book in front of her. Police speculated at the time that she died from a lethal combination of barbiturates and wine. Some suspect that she might have had a heart attack while reading in bed. Still, others believe that she might have been dosed with an untraceable poison administered to the glass of wine she was drinking at the time.
As it turns out, there continues to be great disagreement regarding how Broadway gossip columnist Dorothy Kilgallen died. So, again, no one's really sure. But since I posted that item, I happened, by chance, to come across the following YouTube video. It is an episode of E! Television’s Mysteries and Scandals that first aired 31 January 2000.. The talking heads, and therefore program, gave an unequivocal explanation for how she died.
Though brilliant, and beautiful in her own quirky way, Kilgallen wasn’t a pretty woman, and she knew it. Keenly. It ate at her self-confidence for many years. She longed for male attention, which she apparently couldn’t get from her husband Richard Kollmar, who, according to many, had a preference for other women. So naturally, she enjoyed the company of good-looking men as often as circumstances would permit.
It was around the time of her interview with Jack Ruby when an enigmatic, unnamed stranger came into her life, and swept her off her feet. Filmmaker Jean Bach was one of her closest friends. Her husband, Robert, had several drinks with Dorothy on the night of her passing. Per her request, Bob dropped her off at the Regency Hotel, presumably so she could engage in an illicit tryst with her mystery boy toy from Ohio. Witnesses confirm her presence in the hotel lobby sometime after. They might have been the last people to see her alive.
In 1978, noted biographer Lee Israel managed to get forensic tests done on Dorothy’s stomach contents. Israel reported the results in a 1980 biography simply titled Kilgallen. As it turns out, four things were in her system that weren’t supposed to be there. For starters, Dorothy had high levels of nicotine in her bloodstream at the time of death. She didn’t smoke.
The other three items this pathologist found were sodium amytol, Seconal, and Nembutal. That’s a pretty interesting combination of drugs. These aren’t just barbiturates. They can put you to sleep, all right. Sometimes for good. But they can also catalyze hypnosis.
There’s no real reason I can think of that would explain why someone would take three different sleep aids, instead of simply upping the dosage of one, or switching over to another one completely. And it’s not clear to me, at this point, if she even had a prescription for this stuff, or if any doctor in his right mind would have put her on a daily three-barbiturate regimen.
What I am clear about is if this description is true, then Kilgallen was highly suggestible when she left the Regency that night. If true, then there’s only one reasonable explanation for her death: murder.
Note: I said “if this description is true.” Problem is, the original source, Ms. Israel, faced credibility issues a dozen years or so after she published Kilgallen. Although a respected author at the time of Dorothy’s bio, Israel would achieve her greatest fame as a literary forger, specifically of letters supposedly penned by such authors as Noel Coward, Dorothy Parker, Lillian Hellman and Edna Ferber. When she died earlier this year, her New York Times obituary quoted Israel as saying: “I still consider the letters to be my best work.”
Since I haven’t watched much TV over the past twenty-odd years, I’m not surprised that I missed this episode of Mysteries and Scandals. But in researching Kilgallen’s life for earlier posts, I missed the Israel biography. Usually, I find sources through other sources. That leads me to think I missed this one because most contemporary sources do not cite it.
I can even imagine that very few would want to support the integrity of a controversial datum by citing an author who was literally discredited in federal court.*
Yeah, the above is speculation. I wouldn’t really know to what degree Israel’s reputation overshadowed her work. What I can say, however, is that many haven’t taken her contention seriously.
*Israel pled guilty in 1993. The court sentenced her to five months house arrest, and five years probation. The court also ordered her to attend alcohol rehab.
Just Sit Right Back, and You’ll Hear a Tale about Peep Shows
I have often said, and oftener think, that this world is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel.
–Horace Walpole, letter dated 16 August 1776 to Countess Anne of Ossory
When it comes to the more extreme conspiracy theories (reptile aliens etc), it’s hard to imagine governments really caring one way or the other.
–Our friend Brownrice commenting on the previous post.
For the past couple of years, a particular “conspiracy theory” has gained currency around the Internet, especially in social media and YouTube. It purports to expose the actual meaning of a popular 1960s television show.
Some contend that Gilligan’s Island has a secret hidden meaning. Ostensibly, it’s a show about seven castaways marooned on a deserted island. But it's really about evil and condemnation.
Each member of the cast apparently represents one of the seven deadly sins. Millionaire Thurston Howell III represents greed. His wife, who never seems to lift a finger, epitomizes sloth. Ginger inspires lust because, well, she’s Ginger Grant the glamorous celebrity. The only other nubile female on the island, Mary Ann, envies Ginger’s fame, beauty and success. Professor Roy Hinkley, who knew everything except how to fix a boat, envisioned himself an intellectual badass and thus embodied pride. Skipper Jonas Grumby, a rather large naval veteran with a comparatively short fuse, was big enough to exhibit the remaining two sins: gluttony and wrath. Willie Gilligan, dressed in red, is Satan, the character whose diabolical actions, disguised as incompetence and buffoonery, condemn them all to the island, which is in fact Hell.*
Wouldn’t you know, this "conspiracy theory" begat others. An alternative narrative says that the real meaning of the series centered not on its bumbling protagonist (Gilligan) but on Mr. Howell. According to this story, Howell chartered the Minnow in order to execute a massive drug deal. That explains why he seems to have an endless supply of thousand dollar bills. He has to pay cash for that kind of transaction. That also explains why he and Mrs. Howell brought along a rather large wardrobe; they took along their clothes in case they got busted, and couldn’t go back to the US. The Skipper and Gilligan were two military men who were there to provide muscle (which is where, I guess, the comedy comes in). Ginger was a desperately addicted starlet who bought her way onto the tour so she could have the first crack (so to speak) of the goods. The Professor was the chemist Howell hired to check for quality. Mary Ann, posing as a tourist from Kansas, was actually an FBI, CIA or DEA agent set to infiltrate the bust.
This phenomenon neither stops nor ends with Gilligan’s Island. Other posters have expanded the concept to include a number of other television shows and movies. Many give special attention given to children’s programming.
I find such fare curious for a couple of reasons. First off, those spinning these tales often identify them as “conspiracy theories.” Yet, there isn’t anything conspiratorial in these narratives (although they can be quite theoretical, in a post-modern academic way). Here, we have no crimes or transgressions that require collusion between two or more parties. At best, we might have a subtext generated by the producers of these stories. But given the simplicity of popular entertainment, subtexts are usually pretty transparent.
What these stories really illustrate is the nature of folk culture--i.e., the tendency to filter old stories through the prism of modern life. As such, they’re quite similar to any other folk tale, with the exception of having a concrete origin preserved by electronic media.
So why call them “conspiracy theories”?
That brings me to the second reason why I find these stories curious. As we all know, language evolves. Oftentimes, terms combine multiple concepts that somehow become associated with each other. In order to understand why people refer to such tales as ‘conspiracy theories,’ we must first understand the multiple roles conspiracy plays within our society.
That’s not a small point. Those of us engaging in these topics have been keenly aware of the entertainment value of conspiracy stories. If you looked at my stat counter, you’d see that the top draw to this site is any content concerning celebrities: Marilyn Monroe, Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, and so on. Never mind that the bulk of people mentioned on this blog aren’t famous at all. The glitter is what gets most of them here.
Lt. Col. L. Fletcher Prouty derisively referred to this phenomenon as a “parlor game” in his correspondence with Orleans Parish D.A. Jim Garrison. Mae Brussell indignantly called it a flat out “peep show,” consequently implying a prurient interest in these stories, many of which contain elements of wealth, power, moral decadence and lots and lots of sex.
At the same time, we can readily see why conspiracism might be entertaining, even without any salacious elements. The thrill of drama hinges on conflict. Conspiracy narratives depict the unyielding struggle between official power and some outside force. In the Martin Luther King assassination, for example, the outliers–i.e., those who feel that King died as a result of conspiracy–are the protagonists, whose quest is justice. The outsiders could be either hero or villain, depending on one’s political beliefs (e.g., the Birther Movement). Other times, the outside force serves as the antagonist, as in the McCarthy/HUAC investigations of the 1950s.
Of course, the narrative pull of conspiracism extends far beyond American culture. One need only to look at the work of Shakespeare to see that the political instability and resultant intrigue of Elizabethan/Jacobean politics spoke deeply to contemporary audiences, who, like their twenty-first-century counterparts, enjoyed such conspiracy tales as Othello, Hamlet, Julius Caesar, Macbeth, and King Lear.***
It’s here where the drama of alleged intrigue overlaps with the cultural function of entertainment. The more extreme, or bizarre the conspiracy narrative, the more entertaining or amusing the experience of sharing it. And this begins to explain why someone would associate and begin to conflate the notion of conspiracy with anything that’s mysterious or otherwise highly amusing.
One could speculate that what Mae and Prouty found so distasteful about the idea of conspiracy as entertainment would be the tendency to marginalize real issues related to power disparities (between the ruling class and the rest of us), or confound efforts to give information the public needs for effective civic stewardship. Mae felt deeply that the purpose of conspiracy research was to inform political activism. So the trivialization of questions pertaining to the abuse of power struck her as horrific.**** She wondered what’s the worth of such information if its only function is amusement.
Most important, Mae saw the entertainment potential of conspiracy research as defanging it, rendering it powerless to effect real or concrete social change. It might be a blast to ruminate about shape-shifting reptilian aliens at a party, or at one o’clock in the morning while ordering that fifth scotch at the local watering hole. But such banter hardly challenges power, especially since there’s no activity that follows it.
Brownrice astutely noted that power seems indifferent to extreme conspiracy hypotheses. In fact, these stories can find institutional backing, from time-to-time, most notably in media–from the History Channel’s UFO Hunters to the 1997 Mel Gibson vehicle Conspiracy Theory. And why shouldn’t corporations promote these stories? They’re money-makers. They don’t change anything. They’re hard to take seriously. And for the most part, these productions feature little political insight. I mean, can you imagine NSA or CIA opening up a file on a blogger just because she or he might believe that Gilligan is the Devil?
So I can see Mae’s concerns about pop-culture conspiracy as valid, and to a large extent I agree with her assessment of its downside. Yet, I’m not quite as negative as she. I see a minor upside to this trend.
Intertwined with her views on conspiratainment were Mae’s views on political humor. I only have a clue about how she was in real life. On the air, however, I could tell you that Mae was deadly serious most of the time. Yet, she managed to show flashes of gentle mirth, on average about once every ten minutes. So she wasn’t exactly a humorless individual. She nevertheless felt that political humor could have a similar effect on political discourse as the peep-show aspect of conspiracy research. Reducing information to entertainment robbed it of its purpose, in her view. For example, she mentioned her upset with comics who made jokes about Richard Nixon. She saw nothing funny about the man, or his tenure. Considering his criminal activities in office, his reckless escalation of the Vietnam War, and his attempts to quash political dissidence through such things as the Huston Plan, I kinda see her point.
On the other hand, I’m a firm believer in the power of humor to express dense ideas and to enlighten. Maybe whimsy is unseemly. Maybe it’s coarse. Yet, it sometimes fosters awareness, and can, for better or worse, effect political change–as recent events would indicate.
Likewise, pop-culture conspiracy, while often ineffectual in and of itself, and perhaps even detrimental to more profound political understanding, nevertheless maintains a critical meta-truth: that unequally distributed power threatens most of us.
As the above Walpole quote illustrates, whimsy is the province of the thinker. It’s clear that the people making these so-called “TV conspiracy lists” aren’t very serious about their claims. They’re mostly doing it for a laugh.
Maybe I’m a Pollyanna, but that gives me hope that at least someone’s still thinking.
At least a little.
*You can find numerous iterations of the above story by Googling the term “Gilligan’s Island conspiracy theory,” or by typing the same in YouTube.
**First published in 1999.
There are other topics to examine in this book, and I plan to come back to them at a future time. But for now, I thought it best to table that discussion, and concentrate on one theme within the book, namely the entertainment function of conspiracy.
***For that matter, we can also throw in such works as Catiline written by Shakespeare contemporary Ben Jonson.
****In fact, there were times where Mae openly expressed on her radio show that she found this quite discouraging, to the point where she considered ending her broadcasts.
“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.
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.
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.
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.