Thursday, August 8, 2019

People’s Republic # 5: Conspiracy Theories

In this episode, Greg examines the FBI’s new focus on conspiracy theories, beginning with the threats posed by QAnon and “deep state” paranoia. But he also goes deeper, questioning the government’s current response strategy, looking at some questions raised about HAARP and Wikileaks, and offering suggestions on how to navigate in an era of truth decay.

Listen to "The People’s Republic #5: Conspiracies" on Spreaker.

Conspiracies — They used to be good fun, at least sometimes, provocative dinner table conversation and the focus of action movie plots and pulp fiction. They were like certain parts of the body. Everybody had them and, most of the time, no one seemed to get hurt. But that’s no longer true. Now conspiracy theories can get people killed, or cause havoc at the very least.  

According to the FBI — itself the focus of considerable theorizing these days —  “conspiracy theory-driven domestic extremists” associated with the QAnon conspiracy theory are now officially a “domestic terror threat.” What’s QAnon? Also known as The Storm, it’s a secretive network that believes in a deep state conspiracy against President Trump, and also in Pizzagate, the theory that a pedophile ring including Clinton associates was run out of the basement of a Washington, D.C., pizza restaurant — which didn’t actually have a basement.

Forget Jeffrey Epstein. These are the real perverts, you see. And Epstein’s just another deep state victim. That’s how it works.

Back in reality meanwhile, supporters of QAnon have been linked to multiple threats, attempted acts of violence, even murders. And Trump has amplified its messages more than 20 times on Twitter. 

In October 2017,  QAnon jumped to the mainstream in the form of shirts and signs that were prominently visible at a Trump campaign rally in Tampa, FL. 

Since then Trump has met with several supporters of the conspiracy theory — at the White House. And get this: A supporter of QAnon is co-chair of a coalition group for Trump’s reelection campaign.



WELCOME TO CONSPIRACYLAND

Are more people buying into conspiracies today? Or is it mainly just more media coverage? Consider this:  For most of the last 50 years, between 60 and 80 percent of the country has believed in some form of JFK conspiracy theory. They’re obviously not all  conspiracy nuts.

On the other hand, in 2016 conspiracy thinking did cross over — with some outside help — from Internet chat groups to mainstream news coverage. For example, a Yahoo News podcast, aptly named "Conspiracyland,” recently revealed that Russia’s foreign intelligence service was the origin of a hoax report that tied the murder of Seth Rich, a Democratic National Committee staffer, to Hillary Clinton. Washington police believe that Rich was killed in a botched robbery, and there is no proof that his murder had any political connections. But many people still believe there was.

Among the violent conspiracy theories cited in the recent FBI document is one involving a man who thought Transportation Security Administration agents were part of a New World Order elite. Another focused on the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP), a government-funded facility in Alaska that has been linked to everything from death beams to mind control. I’ll come back to that later. 

Whatever the truth about HAARP, two men were recently arrested for “stockpiling weapons, ammunition and other tactical gear in preparation to attack” the Alaska facility. They believe it is being used “to control the weather and prevent humans from talking to God.”

In response to the spread of conspiracy-motivated violence, the FBI appears to be applying the same radicalization analysis it uses against foreign terrorism. Basically they focus on the ideological motives. Now FBI Director Wray claims that the Bureau is only concerned with violence, not what people believe. But the number of extremist categories is growing. 

And according to Michael German, a former FBI agent, now with the Brennan Center for Justice, “It’s part of the radicalization theory the FBI has promoted despite empirical studies that show it’s bogus.”

“They like the radicalization theory because it justifies mass surveillance,” the former agent claims. “If we know everyone who will do harm is coming from this particular community, mass surveillance is important. We keep broadening the number of communities we include in extremist categories.”

But that argument is also, basically, a conspiracy theory, isn’t it? And that’s the real problem. It’s increasingly hard to tell which ones to accept.

THE SLIPPERY SLOPE 

Let’s be clear: Not all conspiracy theories are dangerous. Even the FBI admits that much. Some are even benign. But others have led to either attempted or successful violent attacks. The Pizzagate conspiracy, for example, led a 28-year-old man to invade a Washington, D.C., restaurant to rescue the children he believed were being kept there and fire an assault-style weapon inside.

Or the related, over-arching Deep State conspiracy theory. The FBI cites an unnamed California man, arrested last December after being found with what appeared to be bomb-making materials in his car. He was allegedly planning to “blow up a satanic temple monument” in the Capitol rotunda in Springfield, Ill. Why? To “make Americans aware of Pizzagate and the New World Order, who are dismantling society.” 

The FBI’s intelligence bulletin doesn’t mention Alex Jones or InfoWars by name. But it does mention some of the conspiracy theories frequently associated with him, especially the New World Order theory. 

Jones claimed the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, in which 26 children were killed, was a hoax, a false flag operation intended as a pretext for the government to seize or outlaw firearms. The families of a number of victims have sued Jones for defamation, saying his conspiracy-mongering contributed to death threats and online abuse.

But let’s follow the conspiracy trail a bit further. President Trump certainly pushes a number of theories. I made a short list: He often talks about the Deep State, and he frequently retweets news from QAnon. He’s the godfather of Spygate, which involves Obama and others wiretapping him, and a big pusher of the voter impersonation lie — millions of phantoms voters, right?. There is also white genocide theory, well-baked into his daily output, and of course, the Obama citizenship theory — which launched the movement that launched his presidential candidacy.

Yet somehow I don’t see the FBI investigating Trump for peddling conspiracies. Instead, Michael C. McGarrity, the FBI’s assistant director of the counterterrorism division, told Congress in May that the bureau now classifies domestic terrorism threats into four main categories: 
  • racially motivated violent extremism, 
  • anti-government/anti-authority extremism, 
  • animal rights/environmental extremism, and
  • abortion extremism,” a term used to classify both pro-choice and anti-abortion extremists.
The new focus on conspiracy theories falls under the broader category of anti-government extremism. And that’s a very slippery slope.

REALITY CHECK

Let’s keep things in perspective — if that’s possible in such a confusing world — with a look back. Less than a decade ago, the biggest right wing conspiracy theory involved Obama as a secret Muslim. Millions of people believed it. Also, that secular humanists wanted to repress religion, and liberals were plotting to confiscate people’s guns and push a “gay agenda.” That’s all part of the reason Trump was elected.

At the opposite end of the political spectrum, however, there was the idea that 9/11 was an inside job — and all that entails. In the past, I’ve occasionally been called a conspiracy theorist myself — ten years ago, for saying that we should know more about the attack on the Twin Towers. Still, I also think that a modern-day Reichstag fire at multiple locations qualifies as a radical and somewhat implausible conclusion.

In other words, ten years ago it was already too easy for an extreme, often paranoid theory to circulate. Here’s a bit of what I observed on the radio (WOMM in Burlington) back then: 
I usually resist the urge to challenge the controversial theories of fellow travelers, at least in public. Years ago, during an after-dinner discussion about Al-Qaeda after Osama, someone casually asserted that President Roosevelt knew about the attack on Pearl Harbor in advance and let it happen. No one objected or said a word. I thought about it, but let the moment pass.

Anything’s possible, right? Why be rude? But some theories and predictions are just too important. They are widely accepted as indisputable and part of an overall world view, usually linked with an anti-establishment ideology. They have practical consequences for social action, can spark deep divisions, and influence how people see and treat others. In some groups, if you question the conclusions of a prevailing theory you’re either a dupe or a collaborator.

Deep skepticism is often at the root, a good thing in general. After all, so much of what we once believed has turned out to be a lie, or at least a very selective version of reality. But still, shouldn’t there be standards? Also, why do some theories get all the attention while others, perhaps more credible ones, get buried? And can’t we at least call people to account when their claims repeatedly lead down false trails?

In 2004, when friends claimed that George W. Bush would invade someplace – probably Cuba – before the election, I was skeptical but said nothing. Four year later, when colleagues embraced the idea that either a) there would be a pre-election invasion – Syria this time, or b) federal troops would be used to install Bush as dictator and block Obama’s election – in short, Martial Law was imminent – I took bets.

In 2011, word spread in activist circles that the rise in US Drone strikes and NATO helicopter attacks inside Pakistan were harbingers of something bigger. The war was going to be extended into Pakistan with the ultimate goal of seizing that nation’s nuclear weapons. Turns out they went after Osama, although many people believe that is also a lie and bin Laden was killed years earlier. 

These death conspiracies sound like the classic one about a fake moon landing – we never went there, right? – including phony video and a staged photo of the National Security brain trust looking at…what? Seal Team Six on a Top Secret movie set?

But speaking of plots, depopulation has been getting some attention, specifically related to the use of covert technology to allegedly cause earthquakes and tsunamis. (Which bring me back to HAARP — The High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program, a joint military program involved in classified experiments involving the ionosphere.) 

The basic claim is that it has been involved for decades in developing various types of weather-based and environmental warfare capabilities. It doesn’t help that the military has a name for this kind of thing – weather modification. (That’s why the two men were stockpiling ammunition for an attack.)

Still, using HAARP to cause earthquakes, wipe out regions and thin the herd is something else. The theory went like this: Supporters of the depopulation theory say Haiti was a transparent example, and claimed as evidence that a US task force was ready to invade before the earthquake occurred. And before that came the Indian Ocean tsunami, where people weren’t warned as soon as possible. Afterward came Fukushima, a full-scale assault not only on Japan, but on the oceans and atmosphere.

“The established pattern, with disasters and invasions, is incremental escalation,” explained a friend who supported the theory. Nuclear reactors in the US are therefore sitting ducks, just waiting for a HAARP attack. “And they have made it clear that an 80% reduction in world population is their goal,” he explained. Who made it clear? The overseers of the New World Order. Them.

Early in 2011 a rumor also began circulating that Wikileaks was a CIA plot. The idea was that the leaks actually supported the US imperial agenda around the world. In short, Wikileaks was a US intelligence con job that would be used to crack down on the Internet and advance a long-standing anti-civil liberties agenda. 

Evidence used to support this idea included the shutting down of Wikileaks servers in the US and the 2009 introduction of S. 773, The Cybersecurity Act, which, if it had passed, would have given the president the power to disconnect private-sector computers from the Internet. We dodged a bullet there.

The problem was that, while the Wikileaks-CIA plot looked even then like a distraction, the Department of Homeland Security had actually begun to seize and shut down web domains without due process or trial. The focus was sites that supposedly “violate copyrights.” But the risk was that cyber censorship could be extended to, let’s say, combat alleged cyber terrorism.  A very slippery slope.

After several more websites were shut down, DHS held a hearing on the move to give the President more authority over the Internet during an emergency. Senate Homeland Security Committee Chair Joe Lieberman noted that China “can disconnect parts of the Internet in case of war and we need to have that here too.” In this context, the Wiklieaks-CIA story may have been an attempt at disinformation, one that didn’t go viral.

BATTLING TRUTH DECAY

Back to the present... and summing up: Conspiracy theories may be distractions or even deliberate deceptions, but some are worth seriously considering, as long as we stipulate that they aren’t necessarily 100 percent accurate, and therefore resist exaggeration or total buy-in. But some theories definitely pose a real and present threat as incitements to violence. 

The problem is that it has become more and more difficult to tell the difference — between the strange and the dangerous — in an era when facts have been so seriously devalued. There are so many possibilities, the standard of proof appears to be in decline, and the theories tend to evolve, expand and mutate rapidly in unexpected ways as they circulate through cyberspace. There is often also too little follow up to see whether new facts reinforce or discredit a particular theory. 

For several years, corruption of truth has been contributing to social division and civic decay. Yet there are apparently few consequences yet for stoking paranoia, intentionally confusing speculation with fact, or perpetrating a premeditated hoax. Instead, more actors are weaponizing these things to expand or hold power.

So, as I argued almost a decade ago, how about some real accountability for the false prophets, gross opportunists, and irresponsible rumor-mongers who threaten society with truth decay? We know who many of them are. So here’s a suggestion: Call them out publicly, post their names on a Wall of Shame. Or wall of liars. And then stop listening – it only encourages them.

(Edited from the August 8, 2019 podcast) 

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