Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Truth Decay: Conspiracy Theories and Hoaxes Are Blurring Reality


Conspiracy Theory: Image from Flickr
How about some accountability for the false prophets, gross opportunists, and irresponsible rumor-mongers who threaten society with truth decay? 

After his End Times prediction failed last week millionaire radio prophet Harold Camping eventually came up with an excuse.  During his show "Open Forum" in Oakland on May 23, he explained that the world will still end in October. It’s a process and we’re just getting started. That’s a relief. At first I thought millions of people had just wasted days of time and energy fussing over some hairbrained idea.

There are so many theories out there. Obama is a secret Muslim – millions of people believe that, secular humanists want to repress religion, and liberals are plotting to confiscate people’s guns and push a “gay agenda.” At the opposite end of the political spectrum, there's the assertion that 9/11 was an inside job and all that this entails. No offense meant. I’ve been called a “conspiracy nut” myself, specifically for saying that we should know more about the attack on the Twin Towers. Still, a modern-day Reichstag fire at multiple locations does qualify as a radical conclusion.

I usually resist the urge to challenge the controversial theories of fellow travelers, at least in mixed company. The other night, for example, during a discussion about Al-Qaeda after Osama, a speaker casually asserted that President Roosevelt knew about the attack on Pearl Harbor in advance and let it happen. No one said a word. I considered questioning the notion but let it pass.

Anything’s possible, right? Why be rude? But some theories and predictions are too important. They are widely accepted as indisputable and part of an overall world view, usually linked with an anti-establishment ideology. They have practical consequences for social action, can spark deep divisions, and influence how people see and treat others. In some groups, if you question the conclusions of a prevailing theory you’re either a dupe or a collaborator.

Deep skepticism is often at the root, a good thing in general. After all, so much of what we once believed has turned out to be a lie, or at least a very selective version of reality. But still, shouldn’t there be standards? Also, why do some theories get all the attention while others, perhaps more credible ones, get buried? And can’t we at least call people to account when their claims repeatedly lead down false trails?

In 2004, when friends claimed that George W. Bush would invade someplace – probably Cuba – before the election, I was skeptical but said nothing. Four year later, when colleagues embraced the idea that either a) there would be a pre-election invasion – Syria this time, or b) federal troops would be used to install Bush as dictator and block Obama’s election – in short, Martial Law was imminent – I took bets.

Last October word spread in activist circles that the rise in US Drone strikes and NATO helicopter attacks inside Pakistan were harbingers of something bigger. The war was going to be extended into Pakistan with the ultimate goal of seizing that nation’s nuclear weapons. Turns out they went after Osama, although many people believe that is also a lie and bin Laden was killed years earlier. These death conspiracies sound like the classic one about a fake moon landing – we never went there, right? – including phony video and a staged photo of the National Security brain trust looking at…what? Seal Team Six on a Top Secret movie set?

People were also predicting last year that Billionaire Mayor Mike Bloomberg would run for president (as an independent) in 2012, peeling off enough votes and states to hang the electoral college and deliver the White House to Sarah Palin. But while we now know that the prediction about Bloomberg's run (and Palin's victory) was based on nothing people can still plausibly claim that the US is preparing to invade Pakistan. Unfortunately, too many rumors of war begin to sound like crying wolf. On the other hand, by next year who will remember?

It’s easy for an extreme, often paranoid theory to circulate these days. In January, for example, the Federal Aviation Administration issued a press release to pilots saying that the Department of Defense would be testing the GPS system off the southern Atlantic coast. Cyberspace soon erupted with rumors that the Defense Department was hiding something, perhaps maritime war games, scientific experiments in the Bermuda triangle, or a plot to make GPS more accurate for government to track people in cars.

What actually happened? GPS is an outgrowth of space exploration and became public in 1983. The Defense Department remains in charge of software upgrades and satellite maintenance, and the Air Force has experienced some signal losses. The tests were part of an upgrade and took 45 minutes, followed by a 15-minute blackout. That’s basically it. Yet for some it was evidence of a secret government plot.

Speaking of plots, depopulation has been getting some attention lately, specifically related to the use of covert technology to allegedly cause earthquakes and tsunamis. The High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program, known as HAARP, is a joint military program involved in classified experiments involving the ionosphere. The basic claim is that it has been involved for decades in developing various types of weather-based and environmental warfare capabilities. It doesn’t help that the military has a name for this kind of thing – weather modification.

Still, using HAARP to cause earthquakes, wipe out regions and thin the herd is something else. Supporters of the depopulation theory say Haiti was a transparent example, claiming as evidence that a US task force was ready to invade before the earthquake occurred. Before that came the Indian Ocean tsunami, where people weren’t warned as soon as possible. Afterward came Fukushima, a full-scale assault not only on Japan, but on the oceans and atmosphere.

“The established pattern, with disasters and invasions, is incremental escalation,” explains a friend who supports the theory. Nuclear reactors in the US are therefore sitting ducks, just waiting for a HAARP attack. “And they have made it clear that an 80% reduction in world population is their goal,” he writes. Who made it clear? The overseers of the New World Order. Oh, Them.

Just before last Thanksgiving came news that China had briefly hijacked the Internet. I was skeptical at first, maybe burned out by too many theories and rumors. But there was evidence that the People’s Republic had cyber attack capabilities. No less than The Christian Science Monitor had reported that a Chinese group was linked to attacks on several US oil companies. The companies themselves didn’t realize the severity of the problem at first. The hijack rumor came from a report to Congress that said 15 percent of global Internet traffic had been briefly routed through Chinese servers earlier in the year. This included encrypted government mail.

Dmitri Slperovitch, a threat analyst at McAfee, called it “one of the biggest” hijacks ever. Somehow, for a brief period, all that digital information was re-routed at a small Chinese ISP and passed on to China Telecom. Nothing definite yet on how, why, or if it matters. For some reason, however, this story didn’t have legs, perhaps not resonating sufficiently with the current narrative of either the Right or the Left.  Maybe it’s too abstract a problem, or too scary to consider for long.

Early in 2011 a rumor began circulating that Wikileaks is a CIA plot. The idea was that the leaks actually supported the US imperial agenda around the world. In short, Wikileaks was a big US intelligence con job that would be used to crack down on the Internet and advance a long-standing anti- civil liberties agenda. Evidence used to support this idea included the shutting down of Wikileaks servers in the US and the 2009 introduction of S. 773, The Cybersecurity Act, which if passed would give the president the power to disconnect private-sector computers from the Internet.

The problem here is that, while the Wikileaks-CIA plot looks like a distraction, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has begun to seize and shut down web domains without due process or trial. The initial focus has been sites that supposedly “violate copyrights” but the risk is that cyber censorship may be extended to, let’s say, combat alleged cyber terrorism.  It’s a slippery slope.

Last Monday, after several more websites were shut down, DHS held a hearing on the move to give the President more authority over the Internet during an emergency. Senate Homeland Security Committee Chair Joe Lieberman noted that China “can disconnect parts of the Internet in case of war and we need to have that here too.” Similar discussions are underway in Europe. In this context, the Wiklieaks-CIA story was most likely an attempt at disinformation, one that didn’t go viral.

In early February the FCC voted to require that TV and radio stations, cable systems and satellite TV providers participate in a test involving the receiving and transmitting of a live code including an alert message by the president. It’s part of an update of the Emergency Alert System and complements other warning systems, including FEMA’s Integrated Public Alert System and a Commercial Mobile Alert System. In the future people will be able to get alerts through smart phones, blackberries, and so on. Personally not a priority, but many people want to be informed in the event of real crises.

For some, however, the test is proof positive that the President will soon commandeer every phone any time he wants, and for any reason the government deems necessary. If they want to scare us about a bombing, goes the logic, someone will call your cell phone or appear on your TV, no matter what you are watching. It boils down to this: Do you believe that Obama (or the National Security State, if you prefer) is “taking over” the Internet?

Here’s some background: The Broadcast Message Center, created by Communications company Alcatel-Lucent, will allow government agencies to send cell phone users information in the event of an emergency. Under the Mobile Alert System phones will apparently receive emergency alerts. Meanwhile, the FCC is looking at how wireless broadband can enhance emergency announcements. Does that represent a government plan to break into computers and wireless devices at will? In the end, the answer depends mostly on your level of distrust.

Perhaps the strangest development lately is Homeland Security’s “If you see something, say something” campaign. It’s a new public-private partnership between DHS and hundreds of Walmart outlets around the country. Seriously. What’s worse, it sounds ominously like asking people to inform on each other. There you have it – a big government, big business surveillance merger, and worse yet, a giant threat, the Walmart-Intelligence Complex. I’m kidding, but not entirely.

In short, some theories may be distractions or even deliberate deceptions, but others are worth considering, as long as we stipulate that they aren’t necessarily facts and resist exaggeration. The problem is that it’s becoming more difficult to tell the difference in an era when facts have been devalued. There are so many possibilities, the standard of proof appears to be getting lower, and theories tend to evolve, expand and mutate rapidly in unexpected ways as they circulate through cyberspace. As yet, there is little follow up to see whether new facts reinforce or discredit a particular idea or prediction. Corruption of truth meanwhile contributes to social division and civic decay. Yet there are apparently no consequences for stoking paranoia, intentionally confusing speculation with fact, or perpetrating a premeditated hoax.

So, how about some accountability for the false prophets, gross opportunists, and irresponsible rumor-mongers who threaten society with truth decay? Here’s a suggestion: Call them out publicly, post their names on some Wall of Shame, and then stop listening – it only encourages them.

This is adapted from Greg Guma's Rebel News Round Up, broadcast live on The Howie Rose Show at 11 a.m. Fridays on WOMM (105.9-FM/LP – The Radiator) in Burlington. Greg lives in Vermont and writes about politics and culture on his blog, Maverick Media (http://muckraker-gg,blogspot.com).

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