Conspiracy Theories on TVO's The Agenda
I was intrigued to see Barrie Zwicker being interviewed on TVO’s The Agenda on Wednesday night (13 February 2008). Author of Towers of Deception: The Media Cover-up of 9/11, he is a talking head in the 9/11 conspiracy theory movement. The host, Steve Paikin, a typically well-researched, intelligent and down-to-earth interviewer, was lobbing softball questions at Zwicker and only challenged him occasionally with incredulous requests to confirm his position. Of course, Zwicker’s breathless style of spouting half-truths, linking non-sequiturs and speculating with innuendos did make it difficult for Paikin to get a real fact in edgewise.
But, all was not lost. The format of The Agenda is a half-hour interview, followed by a half-hour panel discussion, and Zwicker, who was absent from the second segment, “Conspiracy Anyone?”, was effectively set up as Exhibit A in the panel’s consideration of conspiracy theories. Although he did not say the words, Paikin gave himself the opportunity to open the panel segment with, “And what do you make of all that?” Of course, the show is never that blunt. Even the tagline for the second segment, “Why do some people see things that most don’t? The rising popularity and seductive logic of conspiratorial thinking,” is somewhat non-confrontational. Nevertheless, the well-chosen panel of academics provided some excellent psychological, sociological, historical and philosophical insights into the motivation and rationale of conspiracy theorists.
[Note (20 Feb 08): When you link to the program’s webpage, the Video link shown is for the Barrie Zwicker interview. To see the panel discussion video, click the “Conspiracy Anyone?” tab and then click the Video link.]
The panel was constituted by:
Steve Bailey, associate professor in Humanities at York University
Ian Dowbiggin, professor of History at the University of PEI and author of Suspicious Minds: The Triumph of Paranoia in Everyday Life
Tim Melley, associate professor of English at Miami University of Ohio and author of Empire of Conspiracy: The Culture of Paranoia in Postwar America
Paikin did not, in fact, lead in with Zwicker. Instead, he began the segment with a clip from Zeitgeist, a two-hour Internet video that reveals a meta-conspiracy theory of hidden powers who, in case you didn’t get the memo, have controlled the world by economic, religious and geopolitical means across the breadth of civilized history. Paikin claimed that this video about the mother of all conspiracy theories has been “downloaded more than anything on the web.” (Perhaps that’s just what the Illuminati want you to believe.) He also pointed out that conspiracy theories have become far more popular in the last 10 to 15 years than for most of recent history, referring through the segment to 9/11, HIV/AIDS, and the deaths of JFK and Princess Diana.
The following summary paraphrases the discussion:
Conspiracy theories often originate from the socially disempowered. From the bottom looking up, it is had to know how the system works and what the limits of power are. People do not have sufficient access, experience and knowledge to do this analysis properly and so find it difficult to discriminate between fact and fiction. (Peterson)
Conspiracy theories are often rooted in legitimate economic, political, religious and social concerns (Bailey), and so they act as social theories that explain how power works in society. The theories, often based on valid observations, start as worthwhile sociological projects, but for conspiracy theories, these projects go one step too far by attributing intention to some central, malicious agency. (Melley)
To complicate matters, there exists a covert sphere of government, and authorities are often required to be deceptive about it. These aspects inspire people to suspect what is occurring behind the scenes. (Melley) Occasionally, powerful people are caught conspiring to act secretively and inappropriately, which sows mistrust in the population. (Peterson) As a result, people have come to distrust news coming from authorities and from people who represent the elite. (Dowbiggen)
Violent events invade people’s everyday lives, causing them fear and insecurity. (Dowbiggen) In order to deal with the threat, people need a causal model because chaos and randomness are more terrifying than causality. If people cannot find a cause for an event, then they cannot begin to control the event. Even hypothesizing a malevolent agent brings the promise of potential control (Peterson), and when an agent is identified, the idea that a single person or small group can inflict a significant, destructive impact is more frightening than a large conspiracy being the cause. (Bailey)
On a more abstract level, some people believe that they are living in an apocalyptic age, evidenced by catastrophes like 9/11, and so they find it easy to imagine history as a struggle between opposing groups, one oppressing the other. (Dowbiggen) It is comforting to believe that the world is decaying because other, bad people are conspiring to do evil. People externalize the responsibility to a justifiably hateable group, which exonerates themselves in the process. (Peterson)
People have a need for completion and have relied on totalizing theories, typically religious theories, to explain everything. But when those theories fall apart, the consequence is not necessarily an uptake in rationalism but a proliferation of alternative theories that have not been subjected to critical evaluation or historical winnowing. (Peterson)
The Existential “They”
It seems to be in human nature to animate the external world and presume that it has intention, especially to presume an agent (deity, enemy or sorcerer) is at work if something bad happens. As social creatures, people are sensitive to the idea that we are constantly being watched and evaluated by the social group. The “they” are those people who are always out there watching, evaluating and, perhaps, plotting. (Peterson)
There is an aspect of paranoia in the way humans think (Melley), and there is certainly a segment of the population who are disagreeable and suspicious in nature. People who are low in baseline trust. (Peterson) People who want to look beyond the evidence, who are gripped by the story behind the scenes, and who want to know the truth behind the facade. When suspicion becomes cynicism, these people do not accept that what they are told is the truth, especially by authority figures, and set themselves the task of decoding or deconstructing the message. (Dowbiggen)
Lack of Autonomy
Individuals are influenced by their surroundings. People are sensitive to the implicit messages that institutions put forward. (Peterson) Humans are far less autonomous and more susceptible to behaviour and thought control by social agencies and institutions than originally believed. (Melley) The boundaries between self and society are breaking down. People fear their privacy is being endangered. Identity theft, surveillance cameras and security screenings impress on the public the institution’s message that there is a real, omnipresent threat out there. (Dowbiggen)
Internet Access and Digital Technology
The Internet has increased access to the sources, amount and tempo of information. Critical safeguards used by the media in the past can no longer keep pace and can now be bypassed. In order to compete, standard news sources focus on more sensational stories, which cause people to overestimate the dangers they face, despite contradictory evidence, and inspire a culture of fear. In the process, the media’s lowered standards result in a decline in credibility. (Peterson)
Though the Internet has made information more accessible, the ability to use that information properly has not improved in parallel. For example, there is a host of medical knowledge on the web, and by consequence, people can now diagnose themselves. However, in reality, many people are misdiagnosing themselves because they don’t have the clinical expertise and training to know how to interpret their symptoms in a meaningful way. The same dynamic applies in conspiracy theories. Although people can access a wealth of information, they lack the training in how to analyze it rigorously or interpret it rationally, and so lots of strange theories result. (Melley)
The Internet has spread authority and authorship very broadly. (Melley) Years ago, there were many publishing barriers for authors. Theories had to be submitted to the scrutiny of critics, and only those that sustained intense questioning would reach the mass audience. (Peterson) Today, any idea can be offered to an audience of over a billion people instantaneously from a home computer, and user-friendly, widely-available publication technologies can make that message look sophisticated. In the past, conspiracy theories were circulated by smudgy, duplicated newsletters that betrayed their questionable sources. Now, anyone can create sophisticated websites with audio/video files and digital images that are far more persuasive and that can even mimic the mainstream media. (Bailey)
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