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Conspiracy And The Threat To Democracy

Politics / Propaganda Nov 02, 2013 - 04:29 PM GMT

By: Andrew_McKillop


The deluge of news, views, opinions, theory and spin about everything from the weather – weather now means climate change – to why the price of gold is low and Facebook shares are high, or the outlook for economic growth in the US, Europe or Japan is what passes for 24/7 democratic open access information. Everybody has a right to too much bent information, but for the BBC's Brian Wheeler, October 26, the dark side of information – conspiracy theories – are destroying democracy. He says:

The more information we have about what governments and corporations are up to the less we seem to trust them. Will conspiracy theories eventually destroy democracy?

Wheeler also says we live in a golden age for conspiracy theory and a bad time for democracy, and gives us one of the main reasons why. The growing belief, or fear that most of what we are told by “the authorities”  and their vetted outlets for information is wrong or distorted. We have the terms for what comes out of those vetted outlets: politically correct, economically correct or scientifically correct, and the suspected goal is simple  – dumbing down. Keeping people credulous and government-friendly.

Journalists are sure and certain prime targets and fair game for disinformation. Working for mainstream media organisations, they are high profile targets by always-shadowy but sometimes identifiable forces to hold back vital information and substitute it with credible-seeming nonsense. The desired result is to make the denial of “official news” difficult. A secondary aim to to create a diffuse web of public paranoia, forcing the public back to dependence on “the authorities”.

Wheeler cites David Runciman, professor of politics at Cambridge University, and one of the directors of its “Conspiracy and Democracy”  project who says we have to explode the idea that most conspiracy theories are in reality "*****-ups". Runciman says  "The lines between *****-up, conspiracy and conspiracy theory are much more blurred than the conventional view that you have got to choose between them". In other words hardcore conspiracy theorists are what Runciman calls “on the whole paranoid and crazy”. When they stumble on the work of the real conspirators they make a *****-up of what the “sinister and malign” conspirators were really doing. Their cocked-up conspiracy theory then gets added to the “information mix”, further disinforming both journalists and the public.

This process can itself be treated as a conspiracy, that is “too much information kills the real truth”, burying it deep in a snowdrift of half-baked, or quarter-baked conspiracy theories. The public soon gets tired of digging into the swath of partly true, but also part-false theories on offer. September 11th, the deaths of John Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe, Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, the Syrian civil war and its chemical weapons, the new world order, global warming and even the 1969 Moon landings are all examples where the attempts to prove or disprove any particular conspiracy theory shows the somber but complex impacts of “conspiracy culture” on society – and democracy.

Sir Richard Evans who heads the Cambridge University five-year project on the linkage and relation between conspiracy and democracy says it would be wrong to write off all conspiracy theorists as "swivel-eyed loons," with "poor personal hygiene and halitosis", because they are not all crazy. They are exposed like everybody else to a constant war of information. Market and business news is a classic example, where the disinformation cult has reached such extremes that many ordinary persons think that stock exchange index moves are “the economy”.  Media owners and operators play this distortion to their own advantage, for example major financial news outlets, on their Internet editions have a daily photo gallery of desirable housing and apartments, presented as “travel and leisure news” without an explanation they are doing it for and with real estate promoters.

The internet is generally assumed to be the main driving force behind the exploding number of conspiracy theories and the loss of public confidence in what comes out of mainstream media, political parties and official spokespersons. Even this theory is controversial however, turned on its head by “alternate media” as another attempt by the powerful to reinforce their propaganda power by making the public suspect or disbelieve anything they hear or read on internet.
What is certain about internet sources is the sheer quantity plays in favour of official disinformation by offering such a massive range of news and views. Totally different explanations of the same event are available at the click of the mouse. Confusion is therefore almost certain when it concerns any specific major theme. Either the public “turns off”, or drifts back to the official explanation – which could have been the desired result by the “sinister and malign”.

Brian Wheeler's piece for BBC cites a researcher delving into the conspiracy world who says: "The minute you get into the JFK stuff, and the minute you sniff at the 9/11 stuff, you begin to lose the will to live". Separating facts, half-truths and total fiction is hard, perhaps just not possible, because of the quantity of stories and theories built on the same events that have accumulated, year-in, year-out.

Internet and modern media are both similar to, but probably more powerful than the traditional and historical disinformation methods and processes, mainly focused on print media and word of mouth. To what extent the power of internet and modern media to create belief is in fact a double-edged sword, is however a subject of major dispute by communication analysts and historians. As we know, the sheer quantity of Internet sites and sources covering 9/11 or global warming, public debt and the economic crisis, the Syrian war and other major themes blunts their impact on the public mind, making them diffuse rather than sharp. The ability of 'schemers' to use the Internet to foment a revolt or revolution is probably lower than it was for schemers of the 19th and early 20th centuries, only having print media, public speechmaking, posters, wall graffiti and word of mouth to spread their conspiracy.

Internet sites and sources can identify and describe (or create) any number of 'secret societies', agencies or powers and criminals working to cause mayhem or crisis. The problem is the sites and sources will not get the public confidence and support that mainstream politicians could get for their conspiracy theories as recently as the 1950s and 1960s – as shown by the Cold War, the Atom spies, the Cuban missile crisis or the John F. Kennedy killing, and other propaganda projects designed to move public opinion in one single direction. It can be argued by some analysts that simply due to Internet, the 9/11 “conspiracy” is now so multi-layered that it could take decades to have a single coherent storyline of the event and who did what – or in fact this may never be possible.

Public outrage, and mobilization of public opinion using that outrage will also not be possible.

Conversely, the meat of past traditional conspiracies – creating public paranoia – will be sure and certain, and already exists concerning 9/11. Many researchers who have studied 9/11 with relation to public policy and politics say that one enduring result has been a loss of public confidence in political deciders and official information sources – without any clear consensus identification how the outrage was organized. The end result is diffuse public paranoia, which would certainly not have been the goal of any close-knit group of US politicians wanting to create an outrage to better control public opinion. In other words the 9/11 conspiracy surely weakened democracy, in part due to Internet.

Creating public paranoia was rife in the 19th century. The goal was often to foment international or civil wars and revolutions. In the wake of the French revolution, British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli heavily used the theme of  "secret forces and societies” linked with or sponsored by French revolutionaries who were constantly at work to undermine his government's action at home and abroad. Using this pretext, Disraeli could claim he was not able to disclose anything but minimal information to parliament about his projects. Whenever a project failed, the explanation of revolutionary schemers at work could be wheeled out.

Disraeli surely and certainly did not accept, or possibly did not know that by using “French revolutionaries” to throw a cloak over his government's projects, and have a ready-made excuse for failure, he was wielding a double edged sword. French politicians could and did use the same propaganda line to bolster their own repressive action, on the basis that if the British say they have French-backed secret societies at work in the UK, they must be doing the same thing in France.

This also applied during the Cold War of 1948-1989, most surely and certainly feeding the industrial-military complexes of both the USSR and USA and certainly creating a potential for global nuclear annihilation, several times over. We can argue it also applies to al-Qaeda, which previous to 9/11 was a minor entity completely limited to the Arabian peninsula. After Sept 11th, it became a global reach organization, simply because of the news coverage and al-Qaeda's role in the official 9/11 conspiracy theory.

We do not need Internet to fear or expect witch hunts, in fact it is arguable that the sheer volume of information and disinformation on the Web, about any subject, acts to slow or prevent witch hunts from emerging and building. Here again there are dangers with the Internet obsession – because it is now the supposed major or unique source of any conspiracy, the emergence of ground-up conspiracies “off the radar screen”, or Internet screen will be sidelined or dismissed as being any threat. The post-2008 global economic crisis, for example, is surely a prod for new ground-up challenges to the political order, but due to this ground-level action not yet having a conspiracy handle, it has no news coverage.

By Andrew McKillop


Former chief policy analyst, Division A Policy, DG XVII Energy, European Commission. Andrew McKillop Biographic Highlights

Co-author 'The Doomsday Machine', Palgrave Macmillan USA, 2012

Andrew McKillop has more than 30 years experience in the energy, economic and finance domains. Trained at London UK’s University College, he has had specially long experience of energy policy, project administration and the development and financing of alternate energy. This included his role of in-house Expert on Policy and Programming at the DG XVII-Energy of the European Commission, Director of Information of the OAPEC technology transfer subsidiary, AREC and researcher for UN agencies including the ILO.

© 2013 Copyright Andrew McKillop - All Rights Reserved Disclaimer: The above is a matter of opinion provided for general information purposes only and is not intended as investment advice. Information and analysis above are derived from sources and utilising methods believed to be reliable, but we cannot accept responsibility for any losses you may incur as a result of this analysis. Individuals should consult with their personal financial advisor.

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