The cost of conspiracy
It’s been quite a month for conspiracies.
The so-called Birther conspiracy took a serious hit among the larger public after President Obama released his long-form birth certificate on April 27. According to a recent Washington Post poll, most people – other than 14 percent of the most hardcore conservatives – have given up this nonsense.
Still, the hystericals over at World Net Daily, the leading purveyor of Birther propaganda, are out already with a story claiming the birth certificate is a forgery. So far the media and Americans (who can be sure about the order these things happen in?) have been ignoring the story.
Locally, the media has not been so disciplined about Jim Harbison’s outlandish U.N. Agenda 21 conspiracy charges. For example, on April 28 the Las Cruces Sun-News ran a front page story that I’m sorry to say offered wider exposure to his claims. The Sun-News is just the latest example of media outlets mistaking the claims that people are making for actual news.
We’ve seen this before, of course, with Sarah Palin’s death panel claims, and the ugly “swift-boat” rumors about then-presidential candidate John Kerry’s military service. The Sun-News needs to be more careful. They hurt their own credibility when they report on conspiracy theories like Harbison’s as though they are based on more than just insinuation and fear.
Furthermore, when they place those claims on the front page, they aren’t reporting the news – they are making it. I hope they’ll be more responsible in the future.
And finally, with the killing of Osama Bin Laden, a new conspiracy has been spawned: whether special operations forces actually got him. As reported by the watchdog group Media Matters, Wall Street Journal Columnist Peggy Noonan is all too eager to blame President Obama’s decorum, rather than conspiracy theory fanatics, for the flourishing of this conspiracy theory. Here’s what she says, as quoted by Media Matters:
“People believe nothing. They think everything is spin and lies. The minute a government says A is true, half the people on Earth know A is a lie. And when people believe nothing, as we know, they will believe anything. We faked the moon landing, there was a second gunman in Dallas, the World Trade Center was blown up in a U.S.-Zionist conspiracy, Hitler grew old in Argentina.
“There will always be people who believe conspiracy theories, and with the Internet there will be more. They are impervious to evidence. But people who care about the truth need to be armed with evidence to refute them.”
However, as Media Matters points out, most people do believe that Bin Laden was killed - to the tune of 90 percent of Americans, according to a recent Gallup poll. Here’s what Media Matters says about those who don’t believe:
“The skeptics Noonan describes are the ones camped out in the right-wing fever swamp and the ones whose common sense has been so clouded by hatred for the president that they’re forced to cling to any illogical claim about him. That’s who Noonan’s describing, but she pretends that’s how mainstream America thinks today. (i.e. The darn Internet!).”
The way Noonan (and U.S. Representative Ron Paul on the Diane Rehm show, and many of the guests on recent Fox News shows) frame this discussion creates the false sense that many people are worried that he might not be dead, which creates news and fuels conspiracy theories.
But why do people fall for conspiracies?
Much interesting research has been done on this topic. According to a recent New York Times article, UC-Davis history professor Kathryn Olmstead argues that the attacks on President Obama are “essentially about race.” I think racism is an important component, but I think that there is a larger force at play.
According to conspiracy scholar Timothy Melley, in his book Agency Panic and the Culture of Conspiracy:
“…the recent surge in conspiracy narratives… cannot be explained as a response to some particular political issue, social organization, or historical event, such as Watergate, or the Kennedy assassination, or even the Cold War… It stems largely from a sense of diminished human agency, a feeling that individuals cannot effet meaningful social action.”
Melley argues that this reduced sense of one’s capacity to have an impact on the world results in what he calls agency anxiety. People suffering from agency anxiety are especially susceptible to the conspiracy theories purveyed by “conspiracy entrepreneurs” (as conspiracy scholar Professor Goldberg calls the mostly men who either concoct or propagate conspiracies).
Conspiracy entrepreneurs – ranging from Glenn Beck to Las Cruces’ own Jim Harbison – offer a simplified map of the world where all the pieces fit just so. It little matters that the picture that is revealed when all the pieces are put together is logically hard to accept.
As Charles Stewart in his insightful article, “The Master Conspiracy of the John Birch Society: From Communism to New World Order,” which shows how the John Birch Society intentionally pivoted their propaganda away from communism conspiracies to New World Order conspiracies like U.N. Agenda 21, says: “There are no accidents, no coincidences, no stupid acts or decisions. In an abstract and complex world, there are no ambiguities, no mysteries, no loose ends.”
For people who are overwhelmed by an increasingly complex world, and who are feeling less in control of their lives, conspiracy theories like Harbison’s U.N. Agenda 21 offer a simple system that helps them make sense – even if it’s only really nonsense – out of the world.
Conservatives and conspiracies
From the John Birch Society to the Birthers to U.N. Agenda 21, it seems like conservatives are more prone to buying into these conspiracy theories than other political groups. A recent study by Ryoto Kanai at University College London that examined how liberals’ and conservatives’ brains differ offers some tantalizing hints about this phenomenon. Here’s how a newspaper article about the study (which is not available for free online yet) summarized the findings:
“Researchers found that those holding conservative views tend to have larger amygdale, the almond-shaped organ in the center of the brain that’s linked to fear, anxiety and emotion; and a smaller-than-average anterior cingulate, a region of the brain linked to sorting through conflicting information and maintaining a more optimistic outlook.
“The opposite was true for subjects identified as liberal.
“Many psychological reports published over the years have also shown conservatives to be more sensitive to threats in the face of uncertainty, while liberals tend to be more open to new experiences.”
The emerging evidence – and listening to Glenn Beck’s radio show – indicate that conservatives might have brains built for being afraid, which would increase their agency anxiety, and thus their tendency to fall for conspiracy theories.
The impossible refutation
Brain differences between conservatives and liberals aside, the problem with many conspiracies is that they rely on such vague theories and general language – Harbison’s U.N. Agenda 21 is a prime example of this – that they are often impossible to directly refute, especially among those who would prefer to believe them. As conspiracy scholars Sunstein and Vermeule point out:
“A central feature of conspiracy theories is that they are extremely resistant to correction, certainly through direct denials or counterspeech by government officials; apparently contrary evidence can usually be shown to be a product of the conspiracy itself. Conspiracy theories often display the characteristic features of a ‘degenerating research program’ in which contrary evidence is explained away by adding epicycles and resisting falsification of key tenets.”
Since anyone who disputes a conspiracy is seen to be in on it, conspiracies are extremely durable, which only underscores how irresponsible it is for news outlets like the Las Cruces Sun-News to report on them as though they were factual. They should leave this sort of “reporting” to websites like NewsNM.com, which tries to hide its conservative ideology behind threadbare claims to being a legitimate news organization.
The real work ahead
I have such little patience for these conspiracies because they play on our anxieties in such a way that makes it more difficult for us to solve the big problems we face. By pitting small groups of us against one another, it is harder for us to work together.
A large portion of the history of American progress is based on our ability to overcome fears and prejudices, and to come up with pragmatic solutions. Conspiracy theories like the Birthers and U.N. Agenda 21 only distract us from the real work ahead of us.