How the Web Spreads and Amplifies Conspiracy Theories
It began earlier this year,when WISC-TV anchor Sarah Carlson, back on-air just four months after brain surgery, began garbling her words. As she continued, her face grew taut and her words no more than gibberish before the director could switch to her alarmed co-anchor.
A few weeks later, entertainment correspondent Serene Branson was covering the Grammy Awards for the CBS-TV affiliate in Los Angeles. The anchor threw her an easy question live on-air, but Branson didn’t get very far.
“Well, a very very heavy…bertation, tonight,” she stumbled. And like Carlson before, Branson’s words rapidly slid into nonsense before the director could switch to something else.
Then, during a live segment on Libya, Global News Toronto’s Mark McAllister became disoriented, struggling to make sounds that were even words. And just last week, syndicated TV-judge Judith “Judge Judy” Sheindlin began speaking what was called “nonsensical language” during a taping of her program.
That’s when the conspiracy theorists pounced.
The Pentagon is testing “…psychotronics technology known as Silent Sound Spread Spectrum (SSSS) that has been fully operational since the early 1990s,” writes “A. True Ott” at the website wariscrime.com.
“We found an exact match of what is now occurring when a demonstration of U.S. Military microwave technology was demonstrated on a live television news programme,” writes “deca” on another Internet forum.
Very quickly a theory gained traction: the spate of bizarre TV reporter missteps is proof the U.S. Army is testing a secret mind-control device using microwave technology. That, or radio waves. Or perhaps it’s the Marine Corps, using HDTVs. Or something. Whatever it is, it’s definitely a conspiracy.
This despite all facts – and reason – to the contrary. Carlson suffered a surgery-related seizure. Branson likely experienced a minor stroke. McAllister had been battling severe migraine headaches earlier, and Sheindlin said she was just exhausted. And there is no mind-control ray.
But facts rarely get in the way of a good conspiracy theory.
“Conspiracy theory is pornography for lazy researchers,” notes Chip Berlet, senior research analyst with the Boston-based firm Political Research Associates. “It’s basically people who don’t bother to read into the social science and history and political struggles of a society deep enough to understand that things are very complicated.”
Listen to our complete interview with Chip Berlet:
Berlet has studied conspiracy theories and those who propagate them for years, compiling his findings in the recent report “Toxic To Democracy.” His research tracks supposed conspiracies back to the founding of the U.S. Republic – and even before:
“Freemasons, Illuminati, Papists, Catholics, Jews, cabals of anarchists, the Red Menace – it’s the same basic conspiracy story in the U.S., just the evil-doers being changed. Everything gets recycled.”
The difference these days isn’t so much in what the conspiracy theories allege, but how quickly they spread and get amplified. And that, says Berlet, is directly attributable to one cause: the Internet.
“The Internet has all but erased the distance between somebody pushing a shopping cart and somebody with a program on a major network,” he says, referencing what he calls the conspirator tone of American cable programs such as “The Glenn Beck Show.”
For example, Berlet tracks so-called “truthers” – those who question the basic elements of the established story of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks – and how just a few people’s theories were spread virally over the Internet. In fact they continue to do so, reaching many millions of people, despite the fact that there were never more than a handful of “truthers” at the outset:
“It’s absolutely true that the Internet and other electronic media that are relatively recent has allowed conspiracy thinking to spread to a much broader audience, and much more quickly. Previously, conspiracists were limited to books, pamphlets, handouts, little seminars, and the like. What’s changed now is the ability of one individual claiming special knowledge to reach a very large unfiltered audience.”
In this way, he says, the Internet becomes something like a “conspiracy factory” that allows a very small organization to produce millions of digital copies and spread them freely across the web. And while not everyone will believe any particular theory, Berlet worries their amplification and proliferation are having a corrosive effect on civic life.
Consider: a substantial percentage of Americans believe President Obama is a Muslim. 27% of Americans doubt Mr. Obama was born in the U.S. And 14% of New Jersey Republicans say they actually believe the President is the Antichrist.
Those are just the unflattering theories about Mr. Obama. Berlet says it’s difficult, if not impossible, to count the growing number of websites proposing Congress, the Supreme Court, the states, the Federal Reserve, or just about any other public institution is controlled by a secret, elite group of conspirators bent on world domination:
“None of these things are true, but they’re believed widely by groups of people who paint themselves as warning the rest of society against this upcoming battle against the forces of evil. These people see themselves as heroes, sounding the alarm against a certain doom.”
Berlet says he doesn’t blame the Internet so much as people’s willingness to believe “nutty” ideas and sloppiness in conducting their own research:
“If you track down all of these claims, it’s not that some of the facts aren’t correct – they are. But there’s simply no relationship between the set of facts and the allegations that these conspiracy theorists develop from them.
Conspiracy theories are fabulous for in fact assembling mountains and mountains of facts and then basically nodding and winking and saying ‘well you connect the dots.’
These are charlatans. They’re basically saying they’ve just discovered this new information and any 11-year-old with a library card could go and say ‘Well this isn’t new at all. This is the same allegation that goes back to the late 1700’s. You just changed the characters in the script.”
However, much as author Joseph Heller noted earlier, Berlet admits that sometimes even paranoid conspiracists can be right:
“Look, there are conspiracies in the world. We know that from vice squads and scandals. But conspiracism is a world-view that analytically looks at politics, the economy and culture, and says that all major events are controlled by a handful of secret elites plotting how events will unfold in our world.”
In the end, the world is a complex, often messy place that’s difficult to understand. The appeal of a conspiracy theory is that it purports to explain a great deal with the simplest of explanations. In time, says Berlet, people will learn to be as skeptical about information they get via the Internet as they are about what they read or see on television:
“Over time people develop a much better understanding of how to evaulate information, and I think we’re still not there with online communications. But I think we will be.”
Until then, the conspiracy factory will likely continue production.