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WE LIVE in an era where paranoid political fantasies are not just commonplace but consequential.
In the US, Donald Trump swept into the Oval Office on a wave of outlandish narratives — demonising Hillary “lock her up” Clinton and Barack “born in Kenya” Obama.
The latest iteration, spilling out unmasked onto British and US streets, is a conspiracy theory called Qanon in which a cabal of Satanic paedophiles is said to control the economy through the manufacture of a bogus virus.
The mainstream has recently clamped down hard on fringe theories.
In 2017, Google’s Project Owl aimed to relegate “post-truth” stories in its search results.
Sites like the World Socialist Website consequently plummeted down the search lists, while words like “imperialism” and “inequality” led users to corporate instead of independent outlets.
By 2018 the repeal of Federal Communications Commission rules ended so-called “net neutrality.”
That same year, the BBC launched a range of programming designed to counter “fake news” and, in summer 2020, the warning label “state-affiliated” began appearing across social media channels, meaning that those channels will not be recommended or amplified.
On October 6, Facebook outright banned Qanon.
It is perfectly sensible to help media audiences identify poorly sourced or scientifically discredited arguments and to defend the victims of paranoid vigilantes.
Nevertheless, this fretful focus on the fringes misses the point on conspiracy theories.
The labelling of social media has been slapped on without proper regard to content.
In September, Twitter falsely labelled the left-wing French newspaper Ruptures as “Russian state-affiliated” – less than an hour after the small but fiercely independent title had published a critical article debunking Democrat claims that Trump was a puppet of the Russian state.
Twitter has yet to even reply to its complaint. While it remains early days, it also appears that these measures are prejudiced against official enemies of the West.
Such clampdowns also potentially stymie news stories that desperately deserve airtime.
In front of our very eyes — though scarcely seen because the BBC apparently thinks it “repetitive” — we witness the cruel and unusual treatment of Julian Assange in London, who, as editor-in-chief of Wikileaks, was sufficiently reckless and principled to publish reams of data implicating authorities worldwide in corruption, illegal surveillance, false flag attacks, and much more.
In separate developments, in 2011, British PM David Cameron was forced to admit that British security services had colluded with Ulster terrorists to murder an Irish lawyer, Pat Finucane.
In 2012, Cameron had to backpedal over another criminal conspiracy, when the Hillsborough Independent Panel published its report exposing a police campaign to blame Liverpool football fans for 96 deaths at the stadium.
The government hit on Finucane and the “unlawful killings” at Hillsborough had both occurred in 1989, but each conspiracy took more than two decades to unravel, when the suspicions and dedication of the victims’ families forced reviews by the House of Commons.
The lead author on the piece you’re now reading has himself authenticated wild conspiracy theories, including the preposterous-sounding notion that thousands of films, TV shows, and videogames have been secretly rewritten by the US national security apparatus.
In short, journalists should hunt out conspiracies and no-one should welcome precedents on curtailing journalism, whistleblowing or free speech.
Interestingly, one of Ruptures’ editors, Laurent Dauré, told us that no outlet reported what happened to his newspaper, except RT, but we noticed that even RT pulled its video report a few hours after it was uploaded — it’s easy these days for a channel to get the jitters even over something relatively minor like censure from Twitter.
It is also notable that, although almost everyone in the Western establishment gets off scot free doing anything whatsoever anyway, the Westminster Parliament has passed the “Licence to Kill” Bill just to make sure any future cover-ups pass off without even the patchy opposition and exposure of the past.
But perhaps the most important thing to recognise is that the conspiracy theories with the most deleterious political consequences typically come, not from the moronic street preachers, but from the heart of the Establishment itself.
Modern history furnishes plenty of examples of Western governments which have promoted falsehoods: that Iraqi president Saddam Hussein had allied with al-Qaida boss Osama Bin Laden at the turn of the century or that Libya’s Colonel Muammar Gadaffi was plotting to massacre his own people in 2011.
These narratives were crucial in justifying disastrous US-British military interventions that killed and displaced millions of people.
Nor was this just the product of an idiosyncratic environment post-September 11 2001.
Way back in 1964, government officials falsely claimed the Vietnamese had conspired to bomb a US warship in the Gulf of Tonkin, leading to a drastic escalation of the Vietnam war.
And for nearly 30 years now, top US and Israeli officials have been out on a limb in alleging that Iran is a year or so from building a nuclear weapon, which never emerges but remains an allegation that may yet trigger a terminal conflagration in the Middle East.
Perhaps the most prominent conspiracy theory to have arisen during the Trump administration is that Russian premier Vladimir Putin “hacked” the 2016 election in Trump’s favour.
The book Collusion, by Guardian journalist Luke Harding, supposedly best laid out the case against Moscow but in an interview when asked for actual evidence of collusion, the author repeatedly changed the subject, shifting the goalposts in the same way one might expect from an anti-masker in the conspiracy theory bargain basement.
With Russia framed as such a villain, the US has, incredibly, wound up just weeks away from abandoning the very last of its arms control commitments and the risks of open war between the old rivals — maybe over Ukraine or Turkey — are greater than they have been in decades. (Harding, incidentally, was also caught out making up stories that smeared Julian Assange — without consequence, of course.)
“How many deaths were caused by grassroots conspiracy theories about 9/11? None,” Dauré commented to us, aptly.
“And how many have been caused by conspiracy theories about foreigners?” He leaves the point hanging.
Winston Churchill famously said that history is written by the victors. He stole the line. History is indeed determined by the victors and, crucially, so are the conspiracies.
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