Archive for the 'Conspiracy Theories' Category

Jun 18 2021

How Predictable Are We?

Magicians, marketers, and politicians all count, to some degree, on the belief that people (at least collectively) behave in fairly predictable patterns. Each has their own subculture and, history, and research as a guide, but the core phenomenon is the same. Magicians are probably the easiest to demonstrate – if you have ever been to a quality magic show you have likely been amazed at what you saw. This is because magicians exploit predictable patterns in how people direct their attention and process information, knowledge built over centuries of trial and error. Politicians, rather, seem to go on personality and social instinct, with the good ones rising to the top. Although they are increasingly supported by a campaigning industry which is very data driven.

Political campaigns, therefore, are increasingly like any marketing campaign, which is intensively data and research driven. Not only do marketers read and benefit from the psychological research, they have their own research, complete with their own scientific journals. All of this is premised on the notion that people are far from the unique snowflakes we like to think, and are more like predictable sheep that can be herded. Research generally supports this latter view.

Now of course anyone can rise above the herd with knowledge, critical thinking, and consumer savvy. We can learn the tricks, read reviews, learn something about cognitive biases, and take more control of our own purchasing decisions. While I highly recommend all of this, the result is partly an arms-race where marketers try to get more and more subtle with their manipulation, trying to fly under our critical thinking radar. With the advent of big data, social media, and artificial intelligence (AI) their ability to do so is getting frighteningly powerful. This is not something we should underestimate.

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Jun 07 2021

Fauci’s E-mails

A few years ago I was sued for libel, in a case I ultimately won in summary judgement where the other side had to pay for some of my legal costs because the judge deemed it unreasonable. But the case did proceed to discovery, which means each side gets to request information from the other. This included me turning over something like 40,000 e-mails. Search tools allow for sifting through these e-mails to find those that may be relevant. And of course, the other side was able to find e-mails that they could twist to create the impression of something sinister. Fortunately, in a court of law, there are rules of evidence and logic, and there was time to dig down to see if the e-mails in fact were evidence of anything. They weren’t.

In the court of public opinion, however, there are no rules. FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) can serve as a mechanism for discovery, and many academics, scientists, and public servants have been on the receiving end of them. Released e-mails can then be picked over with the zeal of a prosecuting attorney, but without ever facing the burden of legal protocol or a trained judge. In fact the purpose of this exercise is not to dig down to the truth but to cherry pick for anything that can be taken out of context to fuel conspiracy theories or to tarnish the other side. The purpose begins and ends with the twisting to create a sinister impression, and the results of any actual investigation are irrelevant (at least to many).

The first high-profile case of such an “e-mail gate” was with hacked e-mails from the Climate Research Unit.  Investigations ultimately found no evidence of any deception or anything nefarious going on, but the damage was done. The fact is, in any scientific process scientists will discuss many things with each other. A lot of crap will be thrown against the wall, and it’s very easy to take casual conversations out of context. Anti-science activists saw this as a template, and began using FOIA requests to harass scientists and hunt for similar gotchas.

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Feb 15 2021

We Are All Conspiracy Theorists

Published by under Conspiracy Theories

I have often said, we all have a little conspiracy theorist inside of us. By this I mean that we all have some common psychological features that can lend themselves to believing in conspiracies. Some, of course, more than others. Going down a conspiracy rabbit hole is a tendency we may have to fight against. There has to be a point where we say to ourselves, wait a minute, can this actually be true? What is the evidence? Am I just fooling myself, giving in to my prejudices, or going along with my tribe? We all have a little skeptic inside of us as well, and at some point one wins over the other.

Conspiracy researcher Asbjørn Dyrendal, a professor in NTNU’s Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, agrees. He has found that if you ask subjects about enough conspiracies, everyone eventually endorses belief in some conspiracy. But there is, of course, a matter of degrees. Dyrendal thinks everyone believes in a conspiracy “a little”. Not everyone believes in a so-called grand conspiracy, or has made one or more grand conspiracies the center of their beliefs.

There is a general tendency, however, to accept some beliefs not based upon rigid logic and evidence, but because it fits with our biases:

We are all more vulnerable to believing what we think is right, especially when our identity is at stake and emotions are strong. It can be a bit like the emotions associated with football.

By “football” he means soccer (for my American readers), but it doesn’t matter for the analogy. Any sports fan has experienced this – your team is better and more deserving. The other team is lucky, playing dirty, and the referee’s are unfairly calling things in their favor. It’s not absolute, but it is clearly a bias, and the more of a fan you are of your team, the more your identity and emotions are attached to their victory or loss, the more biased you are likely to be.

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Jan 25 2021

Anomaly Hunting and Boris Johnson’s Phone Call

The latest internet conspiracy theory involves a phone call between President Biden and Boris Johnson’s. Johnson is the first world leader that Biden has called as president, and the moment has been captured in photographs. What I find most amazing about these pictures is that it is 2021 and the phone at No 10 still has a cord. Perhaps there is a security reason for this. But what “the internet” found most interesting was the lack of cord – in the reflected images in the mirror, that is. This observation even confused journalists:

Even ITV political editor Robert Peston admitted he was left bemused by the image.

He tweeted: “This is flipping weird. The phone cable should be visible in the mirror descending from Boris Johnson’s watch, in this official Downing St picture. It’s not. What is going on?”

This may become the latest blue dress – gold dress internet sensation. When I look at those pictures I absolutely see a phone cord, no problem. But – I can see how someone might, at first, be confused. There is a mild optical illusion created by the angle of the cord in the reflection vs the primary picture. While this is likely to blow over quickly as just a silly internet phenomenon, it does reflect (pun intended) a couple of phenomena worth pointing out.

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Jan 22 2021

Q Shows How Pernicious Conspiracy Theories Are

In the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, in the Restaurant at the End of the Universe, we find faithful adherents who have been waiting literally to the end of time for the return of their prophet. Now that’s dedication – but more on point, that is some extreme motivated reasoning. It turns out, the prophet does return to usher in a new age of utopia, literally with 1 second left to the universe.

While this is humorous fiction, it does highlight a reality of human psychology. Over the centuries there have been many doomsday or other cults who instilled their followers with the firm belief that something dramatic would happen at a specific time. This could be the second coming, the apocalypse, the rapture, or beaming onboard alien spaceships. The point is that something undeniably huge was supposed to happen, something you cannot pretend did happen when it didn’t. Cult followers who likely gave up their lives, all their worldly possessions, their relationships outside the cult, and often their reputations – all for that one glorious event – then have to face the reality that it did not happen. Often the cult leader will say something along the lines of, “Oops, I forgot to carry the 2, the world will end next Tuesday. But this is only a temporary reprieve, and does not change the fact that the leader was wrong, and can no longer claim infallibility.

When smacked in the face with undeniable reality, what do most people in these extreme situations do? Our initial instinct (probably from imagining ourselves in that situation) is that, as painful as it may be, reality will finally settle and they will have to admit the whole thing was a scam. But of course that is not what typically happens. Most people in that situation double down, dedicate themselves even more fanatically to the cult’s core beliefs, and go on a recruiting drive. Psychologically it is clear why they might do this – the fantasy is easier to deal with than the harsh reality. What really surprises people is the nimbleness of the mental gymnastics necessary to maintain false belief directly in the strong headwinds of reality. This is where motivated reasoning comes in.

We are now witnessing this moment of reckoning with another cult – Q-anon. Make no mistake, this is a conspiracy theory based cult. Believers in Q have been lead to believe absurd things, the core being that the world is being run by a ring of Satan-worshiping pedophiles (we known them as Democrats). Perhaps even more improbable is the claim that Trump is secretly a genius who has been tirelessly working to save the world. Everything that has happened over the last four years, from the Mueller investigation to the impeachment, was a false flag hiding Trump’s true agenda. And like the Cylons – Trump had a plan, even if we did not know exactly what it was.

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Nov 23 2020

Weaponizing Conspiracies

Published by under Conspiracy Theories

In 2019 PopSci published a flow chart they called “How to Start a Conspiracy Theory.” It’s not really about conspiracy theories themselves, but rather how to popularize an extreme idea. Many extreme claims are conspiracy theories, or at least incorporate conspiracy thinking as a way to justify themselves, so there is a lot of overlap.

What the chart really reflects is how to use social media and other outlets to weaponize disinformation. Let’s take a look at what I think are the main features, and then we can see how they apply specifically to conspiracy theories. The process starts by coming up with an idea that “resonates” with the public. This is probably the hard part as there are lots of ideas out there, and it is difficult to just invent something that will go viral. This is more like winning the lottery than an engineered result. But essentially the flow chart reflects an iterative process by which you keep tweaking the idea until it takes off.

If your goal is to manufacture viral misinformation, there are a few ways to almost guarantee this will work. The first is to already be plugged into a major information outlet, like a news network, a political party, or a celebrity. This is no guarantee, but it magnifies the chances of success by orders of magnitude over just being a member of the general public. This can also work indirectly if you have the resources to push your idea through those outlets (such as lots of money, or the resources of a country).

You can also crowd-source the iterative process. This is essentially what happens when there is an existing information ecosystem surrounding an ideology. For example, anti-vaxxers are already well established enough to have their own social media ecosystem, and they can collectively iterate ideas in their internal incubator, and then push those that seem to work best. Extreme political ecosystems work the same way, pushing all kinds of crazy ideas internally with their loyal base, and then trying to export them to the mainstream media. Occasionally an idea will hit.

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Sep 08 2020

QAnon and Other Conspiracies

I previously wrote that the flat Earth movement is the mother of all conspiracies – it essentially is the ultimate conspiracy in that, if you believe that the world is actually flat then you also have to believe that there has been a massive conspiracy involving millions of people all of the world over centuries. If “they” can lie to us about the shape of the world, then they can lie to us about anything. Once you have been convinced that the spherical nature of the Earth is a grand conspiracy, then you can believe anything. Facts, expertise, authority all cease to exist. And that, I think, is the point. That is the appeal of flat Eartherism – it gives you permission to believe anything you want, to reject any claim, any fact, out of hand. You have the freedom to construct reality the way you wish, and can dispense with the tedious part of having to deal with actual reality.

Recently another conspiracy has been getting more attention, and may have eclipsed the flat Earth theory as the most extreme conspiracy. This one is more of a politically-based rather than science-based conspiracy, but that is not as critical as you might think. Phenomenologically they are the same, and the subject matter is actually secondary. But in any case, the Q conspiracy holds that Hillary Clinton and other prominent Democrats are part of a world-wide cabal of Satan-worshiping cannibalistic pedophiles who are trying to secretly take over the world. Further, Trump is actually secretly a genius who is working behind the scenes, with Mueller and in some incarnations with JFK Jr. who is secretly still alive, to uncover this cabal and bring them to justice (an event they call the “Storm”), and when he does he will usher in a golden age.

As with the flat Earth, the first reaction someone might have to hearing these conspiracies is that they are incredibly dumb. They are epically stupid, in a childish way. That may be true, but if you stop there then you miss what is actually going on. Also, it is very tempting to conclude that because the conspiracy theories themselves are mindbogglingly ridiculous, that people who believe them must be themselves “epically stupid”. But I don’t think that’s true, and that conclusion misses the actual phenomenon at work.

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May 07 2020

Skeptical of Plandemic

A promotional video on YouTube for a new documentary, Plandemic, is making the rounds and promoting quite a response. The video features Dr. Judy Mikovits, and is basically an interview with her. Unfortunately this is a slick piece of utter nonsense and conspiracy mongering. Mikovits has zero credibility in any of her claims, but they are combined with music and clips of videos to create the impression that there is some reality behind her outrageous claims. Let me focus on a few claims to show how low her and the filmmaker’s credibility are.

In her introduction the narrator states that she authors a study in Science that “sent shockwaves through the scientific community” because it showed that fetal and animal tissue in vaccines was causing an epidemic of chronic illness. This is straight up lie, but that is the narrative of this video – that she is a courageous fighter going against the establishment, which is killing people for profit and trying to destroy her for calling them out.

Here is the original Science paper. It alleges to have found the XMRV virus in patients with chronic fatigue syndrome. This did make a splash when it was published because it purported to find a possible cause of an otherwise mysterious illness. It has nothing to do with vaccines at all (although you could argue, falsely that the virus came from vaccines, but that is not what the research was on). But then, here is a retraction of the paper by Science. Was it retracted as part of some global conspiracy against Mikovits? No – it was retracted because:

“Multiple laboratories, including those of the original authors, have failed to reliably detect xenotropic murine leukemia virus-related virus (XMRV) or other murine leukemia virus (MLV)-related viruses in chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) patients,” says the retraction notice. “In addition, there is evidence of poor quality control in a number of specific experiments in the Report.”

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Apr 06 2020

COVID-19 Is Not Due to 5G

What do the following things have in common? A train engineer deliberately derails his train trying to crash it into a hospital ship in port to relieve overstressed hospital. In 2016 a man entered a pizza parlor and began shooting his assault rifle. And in the last few days several cell towers in the UK were the victims of apparent arson. These strange acts were all apparently motivated by bizarre conspiracy theories. Conspiracy thinking can be dangerous on many levels. It creates an alternate view of realty, one insulated from facts and refutation. Grand conspiracy theories also commonly create a narrative in which the enlightened few are struggling against a powerful and dark secretive cabal. It can motivate people to think they must do something – something desperate, dramatic, and heroic. The train conductor sums up this mind set:

“You only get this chance once. The whole world is watching. … I had to. People don’t know what’s going on here. Now they will.”

But let’s get back to this notion that 5G networks are somehow responsible for the coronavirus pandemic, or at least making it worse. This claim occurs in the context of general fear of the health effects of 5G. As I discussed at length in this SBM article, these concerns are not valid and are confusing the implications of the science. Here’s the quick version – 5G is operating at a relatively low frequency and low energy level, too low to cause direct harm to tissue. This is what is called non-ionizing radiation, because it is too low power to break chemical bonds. 5G critics make much of the fact that 5G is at a higher frequency than 4G or 3G , operating in the 28 and 39 gigahertz range. But as I and others point out, as you go higher still in EM frequency you get to visible light. Visible light has a frequency rage of 430–770 THz – that’s terahertz, which is 1,000 gigahertz – so visible light is at a frequency about 12,000 times higher than 5G. 5G networks are also low power, in the tens or at most hundreds of watts. In other words, that computer screen you are looking at right now is bathing you is much more powerful and higher frequency EM radiation than any 5G network.

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Aug 08 2019

QAnon – A New Kind of Conspiracy

Published by under Conspiracy Theories

The details of the conspiracy theory itself are not the most interesting thing about QAnon. The core of this particular conspiracy is that Trump is secretly very competent, that he is investigating a world-wide sex-trafficking, demonic pedophilia ring run by the Democrats, and that Robert Mueller is secretly working with him and the whole Russia investigation is just a cover for this. Further, JFK Jr. faked his death in order to join Trump’s efforts, and is now the real person behind Q, the insider who is leaking information to the public in order to summon the faithful in this epic struggle.

This is all transparent nonsense, but it is no more nonsensical than the notion that the entire Apollo program was faked, that 9/11 was an inside job, or that the Earth is actually flat.

Some have argued that what is different about QAnon is that the deep state faction secretly running the government is this fantasy are the good guy, when is most conspiracies they are the bad guys. But this, I think, is a superficial narrative point. In grand conspiracies the conspiracy theorists are part of a small “woke” army of light trying to expose an even deeper malevolence, and QAnon fits that mold perfectly.

What’s different about QAnon is that it appears to be an evolution of the conspiracy theory into a new kind of phenomenon, one that combines elements from social media, video games, and live-action role playing. Like all conspiracy theories, QAnon offers an alternate version of reality. But in this case believers are more actively engaged. They are just reading and talking about the conspiracy, they are actively engaging in it. The mysterious person Q (not sure if it is actually one person at this point) will drop hints to followers about what is going on or what is about to happen. The Q conspiracy theorists then have to decode these secret messages. But further, Q will give tasks to its followers. These are usually small tasks, such as posting something on Facebook or Tweeting a message. But they could be bigger. They could involve action in meat-space, and even involve violence.

This is part of a more general phenomenon, called internet role-play. This is just another form of fantasy role-playing using a new medium. In the 1970s and 80s table-top roleplaying became popular, with five or so people sitting around a table rolling dice. Then live-action roleplaying took off, with tens to hundreds of people gathering at a camp site or other venue, dressed as their characters, for a weekend of immersive roleplaying. Now, you can engage in a roleplaying game without leaving your computer chair.

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