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.

Fake news: how much CAN you trust?

In my previous post, The media doomsday cult, I argued that the news media caters to our basest instincts and drives a wedge between people in order to generate more sales and clicks. In this post I’m going to demonstrate with a real life example how the media can drum up a controversy where none actually exists. Indeed, what actually happened in this case is less important than the political mileage to be made out of it.

Does that make the news ‘fake’? That’s a hard question to answer. Certainly, anyone who believes that ‘the facts don’t lie’, or that journalists are objective, impartial, unbiased recorders of the truth, is simply being naive. By selecting what they report, and what they leave out, their allegiance to ‘the truth’ can be complicated at best. I’ll leave it up to you to decide how unethical their reporting can be.

The case in question is the conviction and sentencing of Cheshire teenager Jamie Griffiths for sexual assault, which has been covered by the usual tabloids but also inspired an opinion piece in no less a newspaper than the Sunday Times. As a case that was heard in a single day in a local magistrates court, the ‘facts’ should be pretty simple, and indeed they are.

If you haven’t been following the story, this Daily Mail headline should bring you up to speed:

‘Shy and awkward’ student, 19, is convicted of sexual assault and told to pay £250 to a schoolgirl after he touched her arm and waist while ‘trying to talk to her’ in the street after googling ‘how to make friends’

The essence of the story, or rather how it has been presented, is this: a lonely, socially-awkward teenage boy twice encountered a fellow pupil on a quiet path in Knutsford. Trying to make contact with her, he reached out and touched her on the arm, but she dodged away and told him to stop. A second time, he bumped into her at the same place. He smiled at her, put his hand on her waist, but couldn’t get his words out, so turned and walked away. By the girl’s testimony, his hand was on her waist between three and five seconds.

As a result of the second encounter, the girl broke down in tears and called her mother, and the boy was reported to the police and arrested. The girl said that if she hadn’t moved she ‘thought he would have touched her breast’, and that the ‘unwanted touching’ had such a severe impact on her life that she was too distressed to revise or sit her mock exams and thus unable to apply to Oxford University. Despite his claims he was only trying to make a friend, the JPs said they could think of no motivation for him to touch her other than sexual, and sentenced him to a twelve-month community order, 200 hours of community service, £250 victim surcharge and £735 costs.

To the press this is a heinous miscarriage of justice. Here’s the headline from The Mirror:

Student who searched ‘how to make a friend’ then touched girl on arm faces jail.

And from the Daily Star:

‘Shy’ teenager convicted of sex assault for touching fellow pupil’s waist.

And from The Sun:

‘Shy’ student, 19, on sex offenders register after touching teen girl’s waist ‘in bid to chat’.

All of the articles and opinion pieces, such as Jan Moir’s in the Daily Mail, follow the same line: that it was ‘a rather harsh price to pay for a bumbling, adolescent attempt at friendship’. The boy was vulnerable; the crime trivial; the girl oversensitive; and the magistrates unfeeling.

But why has this relatively unimportant case been thrust into the national press? I mean, people are convicted of sexual assault every day in magistrates courts up and down the country – what makes this one particularly noteworthy?

Because of the currency to be gained from it. It speaks of a judiciary out of touch with the modern world, the loneliness and social isolation of children raised on the internet, and the unhealthy relationship between the sexes in the wake of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements.

Here’s what else Jan Moir had to say:

Today, fear and mistrust flourish among the sexes like never before. What our grandparents innocently called courting is now a war zone, full of traps, pitfalls and suspicions…

This is a sorry tale of our times and another indication that it is time for a complete overhaul of sex offence prosecutions.

In real life, important nuances exist between flirtation and assault, between affection and attack. And that should be reflected in the courts, too.

The comments on these articles reflect this same narrative. They focus on the boy’s vulnerability; they minimise the crime; they mock the victim as a snowflake; they pour scorn on the judiciary; and they wonder how future generations will procreate in such a hostile environment. There are multiple debates about the complexities of law, about intent and the point at which common assault becomes sexual assault. There are numerous threads arguing the boy should have been dealt with informally, with a stern talking-to instead of recourse to law. They can’t understand why he has his face plastered over the papers but his so-called victim keeps anonymity. They blame young people, women, the police, the judiciary. The modern world is just wrong, they shout.

Rebutting these comments are those calling the boy’s supporters rape-apologists, claiming men no longer have the right to touch women’s bodies with impunity, and the boy should be sent to prison as an example. The world is wrong, they say, because people like you are allowed to have an opinion. This case is being used by both sides of the argument as proof that society is unfair to men and that it is unfair to women.

But if you choose not to be whipped up into a frenzy, and apply a modicum of rational thought, you start to realise that something is off about this story. Such an obvious miscarriage of justice cannot be true, or rather it makes no sense unless certain facts have been omitted. So I went searching to see what was not contained in the sensationalized national news reports. Since most nationals simply copy regionals, I checked if there was anything in the local news sources that was missing from the tabloids, and oh boy, there was. I came across two notable facts that cast this case in a whole different light.

  1. Several other women of various ages had been assaulted in the same area by someone jumping out of bushes, grabbing their bottoms and running away, a person whose description matched that of Jamie Griffiths. After discussing the first assault with these women on a local Facebook group, the girl responded to a police appeal for information and reported Griffiths to the police before the second incident.
  2. After house-to-house inquiries led the police to Griffiths’ door while searching for the bottom-grabber, he deleted some text messages to a relative confessing what he’d done and claiming he wasn’t going to do it anymore. This, from Cheshire Constabulary’s own press release:

He wrote: “It wasn’t just one incident but I’m done now. Please I have uni to think about. I was just so lonely.”

A message sent to Griffiths from the family member read: “So you grabbed her butt and then ran immediately?”

And with these facts in mind, let’s reflect on one of the things that people have taken issue with: that if she hadn’t moved, he would have touched her breast. How could she possibly know that? Is it beyond the realm of possibility that he was reaching for it and, as she said, if she hadn’t moved, he’d have grabbed her breast instead of her arm? Doesn’t sound so innocent now, does it?

And when, on a second occasion, he stepped out in front of her and grabbed her hip while smirking, in light of his confession about grabbing bottoms, the ‘I was lonely and just trying to make a friend’ argument sounds far less plausible.

And her subsequent bursting into tears when grabbed in an isolated place by somebody she suspected of assaulting women and had already reported to the police is no longer ‘oversensitive’ but a genuine reaction to a real sense of threat.

Regardless, as I said before, this particular case is not the issue. What matters is that between the story being reported in the local press and its arrival in the national press, two factors that led to Griffiths being convicted as a sex offender and that were addressed in the court, and thus are a matter of public record, disappeared.

Why? Why would you deliberately remove two key facts to make a sex offender look innocent? Why would you choose to make the victim of a sexual assault look hysterical and hypersensitive? Exactly which direction does your moral compass point, because it certainly isn’t north?

As I was not in that court, I don’t know what was said. But journalists do. And they have consciously decided, in a pretty unremarkable case of a man being convicted of sexually assaulting a teenager, to twist it to fit an agenda: that #MeToo is bad, that women are snowflakes, and that innocent men are being sacrificed on the altar of political correctness. It generates clicks and shares and likes. It’s used as ammunition to further polarise society: men vs women, young vs old, left vs right. So what if they cast a sexual offender as a hero and his victim as the villain? The public will lap it up.

And how. I’ve seen this case being discussed as far afield as the US, Australia and even Pakistan. The most popular comments on the Mail article are:

  1. ‘I am truly gutted for the boy being I was a shy teenager too.’
  2. ‘I hope this is appealed. It is totally disproportionate. Terrible sentence. The kid has done nothing wrong in my eyes.’
  3. ‘He has a life sentence of loneliness. He’s never going to start a conversation with a female again, is he? Absolutely ridiculous decision.’
  4. ‘The Police should be ashamed of themselves for even entertaining this as a serious complaint.’

Plus ‘world gone mad!’, ‘so the judicial system has gone mad along with our political system’, and ‘Draws to the males attention that there are lots of very dangerous females about, and very few worth the rubys or pearls!’ [sic]

Wow. Spare a thought for the poor girl who, after being sexually assaulted and having that assault verified and confirmed in a court of law, is thrown to the wolves by The Sun, the Mail, the Star, the Express, the Mirror and even The Times, who give her attacker the benefit of the doubt by quoting his defence in their headlines and portraying him as the innocent victim of her paranoia! It’s heartless, and immoral, and cruel, but then, I guess we should expect nothing less from an industry that hacked a dead girl’s phone.

So why am I making such a big deal of this really minor case? Two reasons. Firstly, because I was originally sucked in by the deception – as a socially-awkward autistic guy, I understand what it’s like to be lonely and depressed and struggle to understand boundaries and personal space, and I felt sorry for him. And secondly, because it shows how an incredibly simple story – guy sexually assaults girl – can so easily be twisted by the gutter press into something the opposite of ‘the truth’, with no regard for the actual people involved.

Which brings me back to my original question: is the news ‘fake’? The answer is rather troubling. If a simple case such as this one can be so badly manipulated, what about things that are far more complex, such as murder trials, international politics, terror attacks or wars? Far too many people blindly accept whatever the media tells them, whether it’s the latest insider scoop from the Palace, or a proven hoax. There’s nothing unhealthy in maintaining a certain scepticism towards what the media is telling you.

How, then, can we ever know what’s true and what isn’t? The only way is to consult multiple sources from both ends of the political spectrum, look at something from multiple angles, and see if we can’t separate the reality from the spin.

Of course, we can’t do what I’ve done here with every story, so a good place to start would be to ask ourselves a lot of questions about what we’re told. Which facts are brought to the fore, and which ones are pushed into the background? Is this what really happened? How do we know? Could there be any information missing or perhaps another perspective? Is this simply a reprint of someone else’s story or is it being reported on directly? How neatly does it fit into a particular political ideology or agenda? And how does it make you feel?

If you read a story and find yourself becoming angry, or afraid, or bitter, or helpless, odds are it’s deliberately pushing your buttons. The casualty in this is the truth.

Now I’m going to contact Jan Moir to tell her that important nuances do exist between flirtation and assault, affection and attack, and that perhaps if her newspaper hadn’t edited out the most important details, we could make that distinction for ourselves.