Conspiracy Theories in the Post-Truth Era

A reader asked my opinion on a conspiracy theory currently doing the rounds that a number of high-profile suicides, such as Chris Cornell and Chester Bennington, who I mentioned in my post Suicide Isn’t Painless, were, in fact, murdered. The theory, an offshoot of the Clinton Body Count and Pizzagate conspiracies, is that they were murdered to prevent them exposing a paedophile ring led by the Clintons and Jeffrey Epstein and composed of numerous politicians and celebrities. She asked why I thought people were so keen to believe celebrities were murdered, rather than committed suicide. This is my response.

I’ll start with the general and then move to the specific.

I think there are four main reasons people prefer to believe celebrities were murdered than that they killed themselves. The first is that fans tend to feel a kind of ownership of our heroes. We’ve had their songs, their movies, their images in our hearts and our living rooms for so long, and our lives have been so shaped by their words and philosophies, they’ve become our personal gods. So how could they do this to us? They wouldn’t.

The truth that we never knew them and they were never perfect and never owed us anything or actually cared about us is far too hard to accept, so we decide they didn’t leave us, they were murdered. That way, we pass the blame to an innocent party and our hero remains perfect and blameless. It’s the reason so many people claim Kurt Cobain was murdered. I mean, why would a guy obsessed with suicide, who told his mom as a kid that he wanted to join the 27 Club and wrote a song called ‘I Hate Myself and Want To Die’, go ahead and kill himself? Instead of hating Kurt Cobain and holding him responsible for the hurt he caused us, we can hate that evil Courtney Love, who had him killed because she’s a talentless hack (actually, I think there’s a lot of misogyny in these theories – it’s always the wives who are blamed, never the men themselves. Yoko Ono ended the Beatles, not John Lennon; Sharon Osbourne ended Black Sabbath, not Ozzy; Max Cavalera’s wife ended Sepultura, not Max Cavalera, etc.). And if your favourite celebrity was murdered to stop them revealing a paedophile gang, it transforms a suicide into a heroic martyr, so that’s even better.

The second reason is that, as vulnerable biological organisms, we’ve evolved to spot cause and effect in order to protect ourselves. While this has mostly served us well, we’ve developed an erroneous, instinctive belief that big effects must have equally big causes. The destruction of the Twin Towers was too big to be caused by a bunch of Palestinians armed with box cutters and led by a man in a cave, so it must have been a massive conspiracy; Diana was far too important a person to die in a simple car accident, so it must have been an assassination; our hero was too rich and famous and successful and talented to hang himself in a hotel bathroom, so it must have been murder. We don’t like to believe that our heroes are as vulnerable as ourselves, and that no matter how big and successful you are, you’re just as frail and insignificant as the next man, and could just as easily die from slipping in the shower as having a noteworthy demise.

The third reason, related to the previous and applicable to most (if not all) conspiracy theories, is that we’re terrified of chaos. Since the year dot we’ve invented gods to explain the mysterious workings of the world – why this volcano erupted or that year’s harvest failed. We want to believe that things happen for a reason, and if we can spot the signs, we can control our fate – if only we sacrificed more virgins, we could have prevented that flood, and suchlike.

I think the rise in modern conspiracy theories correlates with the decline of our belief in God – we’ve replaced a mysterious, invisible, vengeful deity with a mysterious, invisible, vengeful cabal, whether we call it the Illuminati, the New World Order or the Bilderberg Group. It’s more comforting to believe that someone, even someone bad, is controlling things – that it’s possible to control things – than accept that shit happens, there’s no grand plan behind it all and there’s nothing we can do to protect ourselves. Sometimes one man with a rifle can kill a president; sometimes the biggest luxury liner in the world can hit an iceberg and sink; and sometimes the people we look up to can kill themselves with little explanation. Conspiracy theories give meaning to the meaningless, and the illusion of control where none actually exists.

And fourthly, and most simply, I think believing in conspiracies makes people feel special. ‘You other idiots think they killed themselves, but know the truth, because I’m more intelligent, and more perceptive and better informed than you.’ You see this smug, superior mindset all the time with conspiracy theorists as they cherry-pick their evidence and twist facts to suit their political agenda – that’s why they always shout, ‘Wake up, sheeple!’ – because they’re better than us ‘sheep’. Reducing the complexity of the world into good vs evil, and aligning yourself with the forces of good, makes you a hero, and not a schmuck who lives in his mother’s basement. I can understand the appeal.

On the specifics of Cornell and Bennington, I have no doubt whatsoever that they killed themselves. You just have to look at their songs, statements, substance-abuse problems and mental health issues, and the massive death-rate among rock musicians and vocalists, to realise that their committing suicide is not particularly unlikely.

One of Cornell’s best friends, Andrew Wood from MotherLoveBone, died of drugs in 1990 (the survivors went on to form Pearl Jam), while the numbers of dead musicians surrounding the grunge scene, and therefore known to him, is staggering: Mia Zapata (The Gits), Kurt Cobain (Nirvana), Kristen Pfaff (Hole), Shannon Hoon (Blind Melon), Bradley Nowell (Sublime), Jonathan Melvoin (The Smashing Pumpkins), Layne Staley and Mike Starr (Alice in Chains), and Scott Weiland (Stone Temple Pilots), to name but a few. It was a self-destructive, nihilistic movement. Cornell wrote loads of songs using death and suicide as metaphors, like ‘Pretty Noose’, ‘Like Suicide’, ‘Your Time Has Come’ and ‘Nothing Left To Say But Goodbye’, so his suicide isn’t that unbelievable.

Chester Bennington was similarly troubled. Most Linkin Park songs are about struggling with depression and addiction and self-loathing. From what I’ve read, it seems that Cornell was the rock that Bennington leaned on, a hero and a friend who helped him through the hard times, so when Cornell killed himself, there was little hope left for Bennington. He sang at Cornell’s funeral, then killed himself on what would have been Cornell’s 53rd birthday. Again, listening to Bennington’s lyrics, it’s not necessarily surprising that he killed himself.

Of course, the fact that their autopsy reports and inquests are a matter of public record should put this subject to bed, provided, of course, you trust the police, coroners, pathologists and jurors involved. You’d need a pretty good reason to doubt the institutions and mechanisms we’ve developed to make sure murders can’t be passed off as suicides, and you’d have to believe in an all-powerful and infallible group of people that can manipulate crime scenes, witnesses, family members, multiple law enforcement officials, medics, coroners, pathologists, courts, jurors, and the press, without leaving a single trace of themselves anywhere. I don’t think such an organisation, or even the capability, exists outside movies and the imaginations of conspiracy theorists.

Which brings me to the whole Pizzagate rubbish and the proliferation of online conspiracy theories. Back in the past, there were gatekeepers standing between nuts and a mass audience, and rightly so, because not all ideas are of equal merit or value. In the past, the crazy guy down the road who lives in a caravan and wears a tinfoil hat to stop the CIA from stealing his thoughts would just have been a harmless eccentric; now, with a keyboard and an avatar, that person can do some real damage.

The internet has been celebrated for being ‘democratic’, in the sense that nobody can monopolize discourse, the little guys disseminating their ideas alongside the big boys, but that freedom is a double-edged sword. People have been conditioned to believe that what they read is true, and this conditioning acts against them. While many content creators are conscientious, dedicated to reasoned argument, fact-checking and accuracy (I like to think of myself in this category, or rather, I aspire to it), many are not. Some are insane, some don’t realise what they’re doing, and some are deliberately untruthful. As is often the case, the extremists ruin it for the rest of us.

If you met someone in the pub who claimed that the first African-American President was actually born in Kenya, and was therefore ineligible to be President, you’d probably conclude you’re talking to a racist and dismiss it out of hand. However, if you put that in black-and-white on the internet, with some spurious but official ‘evidence’ taken out of context, people are going to believe it, particularly if it reinforces their prejudices about the kind of people they don’t like, and more so if it is ‘something The Establishment doesn’t want you to know!’

And then it snowballs. People copy and repeat the lie. They add more ‘evidence’. They link to other sites that support the same lies, making it seem as though a consensus has been reached. Then the mainstream media picks it up. Refuting it just makes you sound guilty. Like a game of Chinese Whispers, the lie takes on a life of its own. It gets so big, it seems impossible to deny.

That’s how you end up with Pizzagate. A white supremacist pretending to be a New York Attorney ‘leaks’ that the police are investigating evidence from Clinton’s emails that point to Hillary being at the centre of a paedophile ring. Before you know it, the internet is positive, without a shred of evidence, that there is a vast conspiracy of (Democrat) politicians and (liberal) celebrities running a child-trafficking paedophile ring using pizza restaurants as fronts to carry out Satanic rituals. All fun and games, until a man walked into the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria in Washington DC with an AR-15 and fired three shots while attempting to rescue non-existent sex slaves.

That’s why conspiracy theories aren’t harmless fun. They destabilise society and have real world consequences. They breed an atmosphere of mistrust. Large swathes of the Arab world deny the Holocaust happened, and accuse Jews of blood libel (murdering children and using their blood to bake holy bread). Anti-vaxxer hysteria is bringing back diseases that we’d almost wiped out. Second Amendment activists harass the parents of murdered children because they think high school shootings are performed by ‘crisis actors’ so the government can take away their guns.

And what happens? You no longer know who to trust. You no longer know what’s true and what isn’t. We live in a Post-Truth era, an age of Fake News, where people will believe and share whatever rubbish they’re told on Twitter and Facebook without checking a single fact. And when you no longer trust the government, the politicians, the media, who do you turn to?

You turn to populists. You turn to people like Trump.

The sitting President of the United States is the greatest example of the dangers of conspiracism. This is a man who kickstarted his political career with the birther conspiracy, who ran his campaign on the idea of combating a nefarious ‘Deep State’ that secretly runs America (in league with the ‘enemy-of-the-people’ news media, of course), and claimed Ted Cruz’s father murdered JFK. This is a guy who lies through his teeth while calling truth ‘fake news’, who claims that climate change is a hoax, vaccines cause autism and the Clintons murdered Jeffrey Epstein. When the head of the country tells you conspiracy theories are real, the truth goes walkabout.

And why? Because knowledge is power, and destroying the basis of knowledge – truth – destroys the currency of opposition. In a kingdom without truth, the best liar is king. And we all know Donnie’s the best of the bunch.

To quote the Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels,

If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.

So what’s the solution? I honestly don’t know. I’m not in favour of censorship, and I think it’s too late for that anyway. On the other hand, I think more could be done to separate reputable news sources from the blatant liars. Perhaps there could be some body set up that you can submit your work to for fact-checking, and they could provide you with a tick or a digital certificate you can put on your website that shows your article has been verified. That way, you’re not blocking anyone, but you’re creating a two-tier system of verified and unverified data. Sure, there’d be flaws in the system, but I’m just spit-balling here. Wikipedia, once an incredibly unreliable source of information, has definitely become more trustworthy over the years, so perhaps crowd-sourcing is the way to go, although such an approach tends to prioritise consensus, mainstream interpretations over equally valid but less popular ones. I’m smart enough to know I’m not smart enough to solve this.

But three things I do know: nobody is infallible; three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead; and the Clintons had nothing to do with the deaths of Chris Cornell and Chester Bennington.

4 thoughts on “Conspiracy Theories in the Post-Truth Era

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