I've read and blogged a bit on conspiracy theories, and the basic conclusion I've come to is that they are like weeds in a garden. Without careful tending and ample sunlight in the public sphere, they are all too easy to sprout up -- and next to impossible to eliminate once rooted in the soil.
They're really hard to eliminate if they turn out to contain a nugget of truth, however:
For more on how this particular scandal is not limited to an Internal Revenue Service field office, click here.
Nor does it address the fact that the same IRS office that inquired into Tea Party organizations also apparently investigated groups with ties to Israel:
The same Internal Revenue Service office that singled out Tea Party groups for extra scrutiny also challenged Israel-related organizations, at least one of which filed suit over the agency’s handling of its application for tax-exempt status.
The trouble for the Israel-focused groups seems to have had different origins than that experienced by conservative groups, but at times the effort seems to have been equally ham-handed.
Look, there's no easy way to say this: The U.S. government has just given intellectual cover for every paranoid group in the country to articulate why their conspiracy theory has been validated. The thing is, now everyone else must give some patina of plausibility to those beliefs, no matter how bats**t crazy they sound at first glance.
As Politico reports, the Obama administration's political levers at the IRS are near infinitesimal. That really doesn't matter, however. This is now a political problem. Unless the White House finds a way to indicate that it's taking these scandals seriously and fixing the problems, this will be the defining meme for Barack Obama's second term.
The passing of Hugo Chavez has prompted the usual 21st century cycle of news coverage and commentary that follows the death of a polarizing figure: the breaking news on Twitter, followed by the news obits, followed by the hosannahs from supporters, followed by denunciations of the figure, followed by official statements, followed by mealy-mouthed op-eds, followed by hysterical, unhinged criticism of standard diplomatic language.
Now that the first news cycle has passed, we can get to the more interesting question of assessing Venezuela's future. There was always a fundamental irony to Hugo Chavez's foreign policy. Despite his best efforts to chart a course at odds with the United States, he could never escape a fundamental geopolitical fact of life: Venezuela's economic engine was based on exporting a kind of oil that could pretty much only be refined in the United States.
So, with Chavez's passing, it would seem like a no-brainer for his successor to tamp down hostility with the United States. After all, Chavez's "Bolivarian" foreign policy was rather expensive -- energy subsidies to Cuba alone were equal to U.S. foreign aid to Israel, for example. With U.S. oil multinationals looking hopefully at Venezuela and Caracas in desperate need of foreign investment, could Chavez's successor re-align foreign relations closer to the U.S.A.?
I'm not betting on it, however, for one simple reason: Venezuela might be the most primed country in the world for anti-American conspiracy theories.
International relations theory doesn't talk a lot about conspiracy thinking, but I've read up a bit on it, and I'd say post-Chavez Venezuela is the perfect breeding ground. Indeed, the day of Chavez's death his vice president/anointed successor was already accusing the United States of giving Chavez his cancer.
Besides that, here's a recipe for creating a political climate that is just itching to believe any wild-ass theory involving a malevolent United States:
1) Pick a country that possesses very high levels of national self-regard.
2) Make sure that the country's economic performance fails to match expectations.
3) Create political institutions within the country that are semi-authoritarian or authoritarian.
4) Select a nation with a past history of U.S. interventions in the domestic body politic.
5) Have the United States play a minor supporting role in a recent coup attempt.
8) Finally, create a political transition in which the new leader is desperate to appropriate any popular tropes used by the previous leader.
Venezuela is the perfect breeding ground for populist, anti-American conspiracy theories. And once a conspiratorial, anti-American culture is fomented, it sets like concrete. Only genuine political reform in Venezuela will cure it, and I don't expect that anytime soon.
Oh, and by the way: Those commentators anticipating a post-Castro shift by Cuba toward the U.S., should run through the checklist above veeeery carefully.
Am I missing anything?
Over the weekend WikiLeaks pulled a pretty silly prank. Through a combination of some savvy Web design and hacking, the organization managed to convince some people that former New York Times executive editor Bill Keller had written an op-ed column. In the fake column, fake Keller claimed the Times was under threat of a financial blockade for publishing the Wikileaks cables -- a blockade that Wikileaks itself is experiencing (hence the motivation).
The prank managed to fool some of the people for a short time, including the New York Times' chief technology reporter. Just as quickly, however, the fact that the column was a hoax also spread. For Glenn Greenwald, this is evidence that the Internet is actually a superior fact-checking entity than the traditional mainstream media used to be:
[E]rrors and frauds have a very short life-span on the Internet. The power to tap into collective knowledge and research is so much more potent than being confined to a single journalistic outlet. The ability to have one’s work take the form of a mass dialogue, rather than a stagnant monologue, is incredibly valuable. It is true that the Internet can be used to disseminate falsehoods quickly, but it just as quickly roots them out and exposes them in a way that the traditional model of journalism and its closed, insular, one-way form of communication could never do....
For anyone who still believes that traditional journalism is inherently more reliable than the Internet, just follow the excellent suggestion this morning from Alexa O’Brien: just compare the duration and seriousness of the frauds and fakes enabled by the model of traditional journalism. Long before the Internet — in 1938 — a dramatized radio broadcast by Orson Wells (“The War of the Worlds”) of Martians landing on Earth spawned mass panic. More recently, consider the fraud of Iraqi WMDs and the Saddam-Al Qaeda alliance propagated by the nation’s leading traditional media outlets, or the fraudulent story they perpetrated of how grateful Iraqis spontaneously pulled down the Saddam statue,, or the fraudulent tales they told of Jessica Lynch engaging in a heroic firefight with menacing Iraqis and Pat Tillman standing up to Al Qaeda fighters before they gunned him down. And that’s to say nothing of the Jayson-Blair-type of rogue, outright fabrications.
Those frauds were vastly more harmful than anything the Internet has produced. And they took far longer to expose. That’s because they were disseminated by stagnant, impenetrable media outlets which believe only in talking to themselves and trusting only government sources. Nobody can get away with that on the Internet. The voices are far more diversified, the scrutiny is far more rigorous, the feedback is much more rapid, and the process is much more democratized. Yes, the Internet enabled a fake Bill Keller column to fool some people for a few hours, but — through the work of journalists, experts, and anonymous, uncredentialed users alike — it also immediately exposed the hoax, documented how it happened, and drew rapid lessons from it. The prime lesson is not that Internet journalism is more prone to errors; it’s that it is far more adept and agile at detecting and banishing them.
I've made arguments like this one in the past on the blog, so I'm pretty sympthetic to Greenwald's thesis that the Internet snuffs out "errors and frauds" just as quickly as they are created. I'd also agree than in a pre-web era, the negative ramifications of mainstream media errors were far greater.
There is another category to consider, however, which is "myths" -- and here the Internet has juuuust a bit of a problem. Despite copious amounts of evidence, for example, a disturbingly large number of people believe that Barack Obama was not born in the United States -- and the web is a friendly place for their beliefs. The same could be said with arguments about whether global warming is a hoax or vaccines cause autism. Furthermore, simple rebuttals aren't always so simple. Consider this Conservapedia entry on Barack Obama:
Obama claims to have been born in Hawaii to Stanley Ann Dunham and Barack Obama Sr. - who had married just six months prior - on August 4, 1961 in Honolulu, Hawaii. Some contend that this story is a complete fabrication. After many leading conservatives including the leadership of this site and Donald Trump called for Obama to release his birth certificate he did on April 27. Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County in Arizona conducted an investigation of the Obama's eligibility and alleged that the "birth certificate" was a fake; however, no charges have been filed. Obama was reportedly assigned a social security number whose area code was assigned to applications coming from zip codes in Connecticut.
Barack Obama Sr. was not a citizen of the United States. At the time of Obama's birth, Kenya was a British colony, meaning that Obama Sr not only held British citizenship, but passed it on to his son. When Kenya gained independence, Obama and his father both lost British citizenship and gained Kenyan citizenship. Barack Obama was a dual citizen of the United States and Kenya until his Kenyan citizenship automatically expired in 1984, as he had failed to renounce US nationality and swear loyalty to Kenya. Despite having been born with US citizenship through his mother, it has been argued that as he was born with dual nationality, he is not a natural-born citizen of the United States, and thus constitutionally ineligible to become President.
Now, to my knowledge, there is nothing factually incorrect with those two paragraphs. Rather, it's factually incomplete -- there is little discussion of facts in evidence that prove Obama is a natural-born U.S. citizen. It's simply written in such a way to allow those individuals predisposed to believe Obama is not an American to draw that conclusion. This is consistent with Cass Sunstein's argument that the Internet allows people to selectively filter the information they acquire such that their ideologies do not face a rigorous challenge.
This kind of information problem existed before the internet, as anyone familiar with Ron Paul's newsletters could tell you. What the Internet permits is an amplification of conspiracy theories that can attract pockets of people that otherwise would never bother to organize. In a traditional mainstream media environment, it was possible to shoot down any zany conspiracy theory that bubbled up to the surface through more authoritative reporting. Some people were likely to persist in believing the myth -- but they were less likely to articulate those beliefs to a wide audience.
I suspect -- and let me stress that this is nothing more than an untested hypothesis -- that speed of transmission is the key variablesthat determines whether the Internet acts as a myth buster or a myth booster. For "facts" that spread like wildfire, the Internet should work well as a fact-checking engine. In these moments when there is a great demand for verification, the information ecosystem responds to the "fire alarm" by taking the data point and examining it to within an inch of its life. The more pervasive the "fact" appears on the web, the greater the supply of people who can likely fact-check it.
The problem comes with slower-moving facts -- those arguments or statements that are so "out there" that no significant online media would bother to check out until and unless it attracts a large number of devotees. Myths and conspiracies that spread unchecked for a significant period of time are likely harder to root out. If myths are given time to grow, then devotees to those myths can also develop defense mechanisms to rebut attempts at fact-checking. Paradoxically, this kind of myth is more likely to take root if it spreads slowly, requiring a "police patrol" of the Internet to find it. By the time it is doused with "the truth," there are people who have bought into the myth with sufficient psychological investment that they can tolerate a fair amount of cognitive dissonance.
So , to repeat myself, I agree with Greenwald that the Internet snuffs out "errors and frauds" just as quickly as they are created. The problem isn't with the fast-moving memes, however -- it's with the slow-moving ones.
What do you think?
Your humble blogger went to see Contagion over the weekend for two reasons. First, Slate movie critic Forrest Wickman concluded his review by calling it, "the most believable zombie movie ever made." He's not the only one to make the zombie connection, and well, now I've got some skin in that game. Second, the FP editors have asked me to review other disaster scenarios, so I figured I'd just pre-empt their request and join the legions of moviegoers who
get their ya-yas seeing Gwyneth Paltrow die on film be entertained.
So, let me provide the MASSIVE SPOILER ALERT klaxon here and get to the assessment. How well did Steven Soderbergh and company portray what would happen if a lethal pandemic were to break out?
OK, good news first: in terms of both accuracy and suspense, Contagion is a far, far better film than, say, either Outbreak or The Andromeda Strain. The first reason is that Soderbergh does not bother with the anti-government paranoia that those earlier films possessed in their DNA. Instead, the treatment of the Centers for Disease Control, Department of Homeland Security, and World Health Organization officials is fair. They are depicted as flawed but well-meaning bureaucrats, getting some decisions right and some wrong. They also speak in jargon, a surprising amount of which makes its way into the film. I fully expect to see the term "R-0" bandied about by news anchors the next time a flu bug breaks out. A CDC official utters the two most chilling words in the entire movie -- "social distancing" -- to describe the necessary freak-out by citizens to avoid human contact with other humans as a way of slowing the spread of the virus. That's the perfect dash of bureaucratese.
The second reason is that Soderbergh almost perfectly nails the first stage of the pandemic. Unlike, say, most zombie or other apocalyptic films, Soderbergh doesn't get to the breakdown of social order in the first reel. He takes his time, which helps to amp up the pressure and make it seem all the scarier when things do seem to break down (Matt Damon's character is the perfect vessel here; Damon's best work is in his reaction shots to other people behaving badly). He also deftly demonstrates in the first ten minutes how globalization would abet the spread of any kind of superbug.
Despite this slow ratcheting up, I haven't seen a director kill off so many Hollywood starlets since Joss Whedon.
The third reason is that the movie, intriguingly enough, does not end in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Consistent with the arguments I made in Theories of International Politics and Zombies, humans prove to be just as adaptable as the biological threats to humans.
That said, here are my beefs:
1) Really, the blogger is the Big Bad in the movie? Really? The villian of the piece is Jude Law's crudely-named Alan Krumwiede, who detects the spread of the virus early but hawks a homeopathic remedy to enrich himself. Exactly how he gets rich doing this is not entirely clear -- he has some shady meetings with a hedge fund manager, but it's not entirely clear why, after gaining fame and fortune, he doesn't start acting differently as more attention gets paid to him. It's also presumed that Krumwiede has the monopoly of blogging on the issue -- I'm pretty sure that as he gained popularity, a few other health bloggers would try to cut him down to size.
Neither Soderbergh nor his screenwriter Scott Z. Burns like bloggers, like, at all. At one point the virologist played by Elliott Gould tells Krumwiede, "Blogging is not writing. It's graffiti with punctuation." Hah! That shows what Soderbregh knows -- us bloggers are lucky if we remember to use commas, much less semicolons.
Look, as a founding member of the International Brotherhood of Policy Bloggers, I can't claim that actors like Krumwiede don't exist. My skepticism is over whether they'd really wreak as much havoc as Soderbergh thinks. Myths and rumors can spread on the Internet, but so can the corrections of those myths. In the end, someone like Krumwiede would affect a very narrow, already paranoid subculture -- the larger effect would be minimal.
Even if Krumwiede is an absurd villain, I also didn't buy it when the DHS official let him go free once he made bail. At a minimum, they'd hold this guy for 48 hours without charging. I'd also wager that they'd try to deport him too.
One final note: I'd love to see Lee Siegel hire Sodebergh to direct and Aaron Sorkin to write a movie about the Internet, just to see the final dystopic product.
2) Where the hell is the Chinese central government? The most absurd subplot is when a WHO official gets abducted by her translator as collateral to protect his infected village. She's held hostage for at least six months -- during which time she goes native -- until the WHO barters some (fake) vaccine for her life.
Apparently during this entire time, the Chinese central government does not bother to intervene to try to rescue her. This seems juuuuuuust a bit implausible. It also leads to the next problem....
3) Where the hell is the rest of the WHO? Beyond Marion Cotillard's character, the WHO does not really appear in the film. It's the CDC's show, and only their show . They act in Contagion pretty much how they promised they would act if the zombies arrive. Maybe that's how things would play out, but I suspect other governments and IGOs would still matter more than this film suggests. Given that the movie virus started in China, and that the head of the WHO is also from China, they might be useful in this kind of situation.
4) Few second-order effects. The virus leads to looting, crime, and other social ills, but I wish they had said something about the total economic devastation that would have occurred. At one point after a vaccine has been developed, Matt Damon's character walks through a mall to buy his daughter a prom dress -- and 80% of the mall looks to be closed. Soderbergh suggests a bunch of unions going on strike because they don't want to ge sick. I'm curious what happens once they find themselves unemployed as well.
Forget the domestic discord however, there's also...
5) No international conflict whatsoever. After the first 15 minutes, almost all of the action takes place in the USA. Once a vaccine is discovered, there is no discussion of the international wrangling that would take place over scarce supplies. No diversionary wars happen. And so forth. Soderbergh doesn't really address possible problems in world politics. Because of this, the film implicitly assumes a liberal institutionalis kind of a world. I hope he's right, but I'm not so sure myself.
To be fair to Soderbergh and his collaborators, I'm not sure it's possible to get everything right in such a film. Unless it's a television series I'm not sure it's possible to get all the nuances and complexities right. Given these limitations, Contagion is a movie worth seeing. Just bring your own Purell.
Today was a big American foreign policy news day. Hamas and Fatah seem to have kissed and made up under the aegis of the Egyptian caretaker government; there's a national defense reshuffle as Leon Panetta is moving from CIA to SecDef and David Petraeus is moving from CENTCOM to the CIA; the FEderal Reserve's Ben Bernanke held the Fed's first-ever press conference.
These are all big stories, and yet the lead of the day is the fact that Barack Obama showed everyone his long-form birth certificate. There's something really sad about the fact that this needed to be done, but there it is.
Today's spectacle prompted Slate's David Weigel, who has followed the varieties of birtherism with an eagle eye, to ask honestly when enough is enough:
Here's the thing. I've spent a lot of time writing about conspiracy theories. I think they're darkly amusing....And if we're being perfectly honest, conspiracy stories do gangbusters traffic. If I were an advertiser, I wouldn't tell a writer to knock off writing about conspiracy theories.
But this is an honest question: How far can people take this stuff? Is there absolutely no downside to using your celebrity to make the wildest accusation you can and watch reporters fight like the monkeys at the start of 2001: A Space Odyssey for the right to cover them first? In the past, rabbit hole chases for stuff that would blow the lid off some conspiracy or another have backfired, wildly. (Google "Dan Rather" and "National Guard documents.") And in the past, things that have caused a lot of amusement for a lot of people have gotten predictable and boring, pointless. This has to happen at some point. Tell me this happens at some point.
I'm fascinated by conspiracy theories too, and I'm afraid I have some bad news for Weigel. The truly scary thing is that conspiracy theories do even better gangbuster business outside of the United States. Hear the one about the Mossad being behind the 9/11 attacks? How the United States caused the earthquake in Haiti? It's quick, cheap and easy to create a conspiracy, especially when the truth is usually banal and/or mundane.
As I wrote in The Spectator last year:
What is clear is that, thanks to the technological and globalising revolutions of the last two decades, modern life has become infinitely more complex. The world has become far less easy to understand in terms of its economic and social organisation. Yet humans remain hard-wired to look for patterns in a chaotic universe. As David Aaronovitch recently observed in Voodoo Histories, conspiracy theories offer the comfort of a narrative, no matter how crazy it sounds....
Will anger and distrust be a permanent fixture in the politics of affluent countries? A global economic rebound should lead to increased trust in both business and political elites. Beyond trying to revive their economies, however, there must be something that governments can do to earn back the trust of some of their people. The most obvious first response would be to offer more information to persuade angry and distrustful people that their worst fears will not be realised. Unfortunately, such a policy might backfire. Political scientists Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler conducted experiments to see whether correct information could erase misperceptions. They discovered that ‘corrections actually strengthened misperceptions among the most strongly committed subjects’. The very attempt to correct erroneous beliefs simply causes the most extreme adherents to put themselves into a cognitive crouch. This might explain why, even though an image of Barack Obama’s Hawaiian birth certificate can be accessed on the web, many ‘birthers’ still believe the President was not born in the USA.
This has nothing to do with intelligence, either -- a few weeks ago I
wasted spent 15 minutes explaining to a Fletcher student that, in fact, Julian Assange was not a CIA agent. This sounds laughable, except that at least one head of government said the same thing.
As long as trafficking in these questions draws eyeballs, the media will continue to act as an amplifier for these kinds of crazed worldviews.
There is a downside for those who care about their reputation -- ask Pierre Salinger. For heads of stare and almost everyone else, however, these costs likely seem negligible compared to the political and psychological gain that comes from belief.
Think of conspiracy theories like internaional institutions -- they don't actually explain much, but they never go away either. Even global governance structures that have longed outlived their usefulness do not disappear -- they just persist with fewer adherents. Popular conspiracy theories work the same way, because there will always be a hard core of believers who can sustain their belief regardless of things like "facts" and evidence." Indeed, scorn from the mainstream just fuels their conviction that they must be onto something.
I, for one, am glad that the foreign press is brave enough to cover what America's mainstream media is not -- the U.S. government's complicity in causing the Haitian earthquake. Never mind that the foreign media echo chamber aparentluy started with a false rumor -- with luck, our MSM will now start asking the tough questions.
Why, you might ask? What is America's motivations to trigger Haiti's earthquake and then intervene with massive aid in the hemisphere's poorest country? Well, there are different theories bandied about.
Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez suggests that this was a practice "drill," designed to test the earthquake weapon before targeting Iran (though see the update below). Very clever!! It is unclear whether Chavez believes that this is a test of the "demonstration effect" variety or not. It is also unclear just how such an earthquake would actually destroy Iran's nuclear program -- the 2003 Bam earthquake certainly didn't.
This Canadian-based Centre for Research on Globalization's Ken Hildebrandt offers the following ingenious explanation:
You've likely guessed my suspicions about recent events. I'm not saying this is what occurred, though it's sure a possibility to be considered in my view.
This could hardly have happened at a more convenient time. The president's ratings are plummeting, and his bill to subsidize the insurance industry has essentially divided the nation in two.
What better way to lead the people into believing we're one big happy family than to reunite former Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush along with Obama in a joint humanitarian effort?
This is so convenient... and brilliant!! It makes perfect sense that the Obama administation would try to kill upwards of 200,000 Haitians in order to bring the country together as one! Because, clearly, in recent years, natural disasters have bolstered the standing of U.S. presidents!! Certainly, a calamity in Haiti would work even better! If only Rush Limbaugh had played ball....
What I love about conspiracies like these is the careful balancing of smart and stupid that the key actors have to possess in order for the plan to work as described.
Question to readers: how far and how wide will this meme travel?
UPDATE: I just received the following from a atrategic communications advisor to the Venezuelan Embassy in the United states:
In response to your recent post on Foreign Policy’s website, I just wanted to clarify that President Hugo Chavez never associated himself with the theory that a
U.S.weapon had caused the earthquake in . Haiti
The claim was made by a blogger on the website of a state-run yet independent television station. At some point thereafter, someone jumped to the conclusion that President Chavez had agreed or repeated the claim, which is absolutely not true. President Chavez did argue against an increased
U.S.military presence in , but at no point did he question what had caused the earthquake or aligned himself with any conspiracy theories to that effect. Haiti
I have a confession to make -- last week this blog was not manufactured in the U.S. of A. No, your humble blogger outsourced his blogging to... well, himself, overseas.
In an example of real hardship duty, I was teaching U.S. Foreign Policy at the Barcelona Institute for International Studies to a truly international collection of students -- Spaniards, Germans, Brits, Americans, Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, Ghanaian, Kenyan, Turkish, Belgian, Mexican, Nicaraguan... you get the idea.
One mildly surprising finding from surveying my stidents was the extent to which many of them believed that the United States government was consciously manipulating every single event in world politics. Ironically, at the moment when many Americans are questioning the future of U.S. hegemony, many non-Americans continue to believe that the U.S. government is diabolically manipulating events behind the scenes (For example, the Ghanaians in the crowd wanted to know why Obama visited their country last week. The standard "promotion of good democratic governance" answer did not satisfy them, They were convinced that there had to be some deeper, potentially sinister motive to the whole enterprise).
As a result, I spent much of the week trying to point out the possibility of fundamental attribution error and the like. But I don't think I did a terribly good job. Trying to prove people convinced that conspiracies exist -- with some justification, to be fair -- that sometimes what you see is what you get is not an easy enterprise.
Going forward, the persistence of anti-Americanism in the age of Obama might have nothing to do with the president, or his rhetoric, or even U.S. government actions. It might, instead, have to do with the congealed habits of thought that place the United States at the epicenter of all global movings and shakings. The tragedy is that such an exaggerated perception of American power and purpose is occurring at precisely the moment when the United States will need to scale back its global ambitions.
Question to readers: how can the United States defalate exaggerated perceptions of U.S. power?
P.S. Just to be clear, I'm not saying that this kind of conspiracy theorizing in world affairs is only the product of non-Americans. For a good example of ludicrous American conspiracy-mongering about other countries, click here.
There is a lot of talk about in Pakistan media that American think tanks have issued a map about dividing Pakistan. I have read some where that you were on that team. If you have made such a report can you kindly send me a copy of that report and map, I ll also like to know about the research mathodolgy of that report. If I am wrong about that can you kindly give me any whereabouts from where I can get that report.Based on press reports, I suspect that this query was about the Pakistan Policy Working Group, which did release a report in September about Pakistan. I have no idea why it took three months for this to permeate the English-language Pakistani press. Anyway, for the record, I was not a part of that report. Indeed, the only way I would ever be a part of a report on Pakistan is if a crackerjack terrorist group managed to knock off the plethora of economists, political scientists, and sociologists who actually know something about Pakistan. That is all.
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.