Are conspiracy theories destroying democracy? (New BBC hit piece) - Printable Version

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Are conspiracy theories destroying democracy? (New BBC hit piece) - drummer - 10-27-2013

By Brian Wheeler Politics reporter, BBC News, 27 October 2013

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The more information we have about what governments and corporations are up to the less we seem to trust them. Will conspiracy theories eventually destroy democracy?

What if I told you I had conclusive proof that the moon landings were faked, but I had been told to keep it under wraps by my BBC bosses acting under orders from the CIA, NSA and MI6. Most of you would think I had finally lost my mind.

But, for some, that scenario - a journalist working for a mainstream media organisation being manipulated by shadowy forces to keep vital information from the public - would seem entirely plausible, or even likely.

We live in a golden age for conspiracy theories. There is a growing assumption that everything we are told by the authorities is wrong, or not quite as it seems. That the truth is being manipulated or obscured by powerful vested interests.

And, in some cases, it is.
'Inside job'

"The reason we have conspiracy theories is that sometimes governments and organisations do conspire," says Observer columnist and academic John Naughton.

It would be wrong to write off all conspiracy theorists as "swivel-eyed loons," with "poor personal hygiene and halitosis," he told a Cambridge University Festival of Ideas debate.

They are not all "crazy". The difficult part, for those of us trying to make sense of a complex world, is working out which parts of the conspiracy theory to keep and which to throw away.

Mr Naughton is one of three lead investigators in a major new Cambridge University project to investigate the impact of conspiracy theories on democracy.

The internet is generally assumed to be the main driving force behind the growth in conspiracy theories but, says Mr Naughton, there has been little research into whether that is really the case.

He plans to compare internet theories on 9/11 with pre-internet theories about John F Kennedy's assassination.

Like the other researchers, he is wary, or perhaps that should be weary, of delving into the darker recesses of the conspiracy world.

"The minute you get into the JFK stuff, and the minute you sniff at the 9/11 stuff, you begin to lose the will to live," he told the audience in Cambridge.

Like Sir Richard Evans, who heads the five-year Conspiracy and Democracy project, he is at pains to stress that the aim is not to prove or disprove particular theories, simply to study their impact on culture and society.

Why are we so fascinated by them? Are they undermining trust in democratic institutions?

David Runciman, professor of politics at Cambridge University, the third principal investigator, is keen to explode the idea that most conspiracies are actually "cock-ups".

"The line between cock-up, conspiracy and conspiracy theory are much more blurred than the conventional view that you have got to choose between them," he told the Festival of Ideas.

"There's a conventional view that you get these conspirators, who are these kind of sinister, malign people who know what they are doing, and the conspiracy theorists, who occasionally stumble upon the truth but who are on the whole paranoid and crazy.

"Actually the conspirators are often the paranoid and crazy conspiracy theorists, because in their attempt to cover up the cock-up they get drawn into a web in which their self-justification posits some giant conspiracy trying to expose their conspiracy.

"And I think that's consistently true through a lot of political scandals, Watergate included."
'Curry house plot'

It may also be true, he argues, of the "vicious" in-fighting and plotting that characterised New Labour's years in power, as recently exposed in the memoirs of Gordon Brown's former spin doctor Damian McBride.

The Brownite conspiracies to remove Tony Blair were "pathetically ineffectual" - with the exception of the 2006 "curry house" plot that forced Blair to name a departure date - but the picture painted by Mr McBride of a "paranoid" and "chaotic" inner circle has the ring of truth about it, he claims.

And Mr Brown - said to be a keen student of the JFK assassination - knew a conspiracy when he saw one.

"You feel he sees conspiracies out there because he has a mindset that is not dissimilar to the conspiracy theorists," said Prof Runciman.

He is also examining whether the push for greater openness and transparency in public life will fuel, rather than kill off, conspiracy theories.

"It may be that one of the things conspiracy theories feed on as well as silence, is a surfeit of information. And when there is a mass of information out there, it becomes easier for people to find their way through to come to the conclusion they want to come to.

"Plus, you don't have to be an especial cynic to believe that, in the age of open government, governments will be even more careful to keep secret the things they want to keep secret.

"The demand for openness always produces, as well as more openness, more secrecy."

Which brings us back to the moon landings. I should state, for the avoidance of any doubt, and to kill off any internet speculation, that I am not in possession of any classified information about whether they were faked or not. My contacts at Nasa are not that good.

But then I would say that wouldn't I?

Conspiracy theories through the ages:
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Secret societies': Paranoia was rife in the 19th Century in the wake of the French revolution. British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli (pictured) warned of "secret societies which have everywhere their unscrupulous agents, and can at the last moment upset all the governments' plans"
Freemasons: A secret society tracing its roots back to the 14th century, freemasonry has been accused of everything from controlling the judiciary to faking the moon landings.

Illuminati: Initially referred to the Bavarian Illumaniti, a secret society founded in 1776 to oppose religious influence over public life. Outlawed in 1785 but name now linked to alleged conspiracies to create New World Order.

Dreyfus affair: A young artillery officer of Jewish extraction, Alfred Dreyfus, was wrongly convicted in 1894 of treason and sent to Devil's Island in a case that divided France. Nationalists believed there was a Jewish conspiracy against Catholicism.

Protocols of the elders of Zion: An anti-semitic hoax supposedly describing Jewish plans for world domination. Publicised by the Nazis despite already being exposed as fraudulent.

McCarthyism: Named after Senator Joseph McCarthy who led a witch-hunt against suspected communists in American public life in the first half of the 1950s

RE: Are conspiracy theories destroying democracy? (New BBC hit piece) - fujiinn - 10-28-2013

It's not the actions of politicians that shape the public perception about democracy, it's the people noticing that politicians are compulsive liars. The famous British scientists...

RE: Are conspiracy theories destroying democracy? (New BBC hit piece) - thokling - 10-28-2013

(10-27-2013, 07:09 PM)drummer Wrote: It would be wrong to write off all conspiracy theorists as "swivel-eyed loons," with "poor personal hygiene and halitosis," he told a Cambridge University Festival of Ideas debate.

They are not all "crazy". The difficult part, for those of us trying to make sense of a complex world, is working out which parts of the conspiracy theory to keep and which to throw away.

With the presence of misinformation and disinformation generated by various interests, it becomes especially vital to have the necessary skills to sift through the data to arrive at a conclusion that is the most probable without completely denouncing the less probable conclusions. Sometimes, additional information comes along that can swing the balance further toward information that had previously been determined as improbable.

RE: Are conspiracy theories destroying democracy? (New BBC hit piece) - SirBustaBear - 10-29-2013

Is "democracy" defined as unconditional trust into the ruling class and the established system – even when this system is obviously deteriorating into some form of global dictatorship?

Contrary to this study conspiracy researchers are quite concerned about the tendency towards a centralized power structure, a.k.a. world government – or the infamous „New World Order”. This tendency is the total opposite of true democracy, which most of our countries have never experienced to begin with. Our form of democracy is called "representative", those two terms in reality constituting an oxymoron. The "rule of the people” always has been only very indirect, with politicians being obliged to obscure liabilities which have nothing to do with the will of the people. This has been worsened over time with the mentioned tendency towards centralized power.

In reality conspiracy researchers are quite concerned about the destruction of civil liberties for example. They see through the (now) empty phrase of "democracy", which is becoming more and more a label not fitting its content anymore.

But on the other hand there are quite some things one can legitimately criticize when it comes to a some forms of conspiracy research. That would be cognitive dissonance, confirmation bias, cherry picking of facts, clinging to a fixed ideological belief system and a lack of certain scientific or journalistic standards to prevent one from those traps. In that regard conspiracy research sometimes is no different or even worse than the allegedly inferior "mainstream", which at least by times tries to give a fair and balanced presentation of certain topics. If I learned one thing from conspiracy research over all the years then it is that you can "prove" anything to be "the truth" just by leaving certain facts out of the presentation.

RE: Are conspiracy theories destroying democracy? (New BBC hit piece) - thokling - 10-29-2013

I find myself agreeing with your overall point, SirBustaBear, that conclusions are most malleable and subjectively based when certain portions of an available data set are omitted. Of importance is having a methodology that's effective in processing data and eliminating inconsistencies. With this comes the need, in my opinion, to put aside one's established paradigm to consider the information openly. The hazard in this is not returning to one's point of view, and instead choosing to remain within the "mindset" relating to the data. (Getting "stuck" in the paranoia is particularly nasty.)

Centralised authorities are problematic due to their nature of allowing "power" to direct to only a handful of individuals. This is why it's necessary for all humans in general to become effective leaders of society, or their respective societies, and pass off certain tasks to individuals who have the experience to handle those tasks with the best interests of humans in mind.

Sadly, the term "best interests" is highly subjective, and can define anything from ultimate liberty to ultimate enslavement.