A theory of “conspiracy theories” and “conspiracy theorists”?
“They who have put out the people’s eyes, reproach them of their blindness.” John Milton (English poet 1608 – 1674 )
The proliferation of conspiracy theories – the growth of distrust against elites
The proliferation of conspiracy theories can therefore be seen as sign of a generalised deterioration in trust within civil society which has made it increasingly difficult to have coherent dialogues about important environment, economic and social issues. But this is because an increasing number of people are doing something that rarely happened before – they have begun to start suspecting the elite itself – and the people who advise or guide the policies of the elite – their “expert advisers”.
An example of one area in which conspiracy theories have flourished is with contrarian understandings of climate change science – so perhaps it is no surprise that two cognitive scientists in the field of climate change communications, Stephan Lewandowsky and John Cook, have recently published a handbook describing what they see as the main features of conspiracy theories – or rather what they see as the main cognitive failings of conspiracy theorists. This appears to be in the hope that understanding these cognitive failings – which they call “traits of conspiratorial thinking” – will aid in the de-bunking of conspiracy theories and theorists – and, indeed, serve to “pre-bunk” such interpretations and to “inoculate” people against this way of thinking.
I must admit I feel a little ambivalent critiquing what they have written because their interest in the topic of conspiracy theories arises from the communication of climate science and how climate science findings are rejected by many people who respond with denialist arguments that are often connected to “conspiracy theories”. For that reason on first impression I ought to be supporting Lewandowsky and Cook (hereafter referred to in this essay as “L and C”. ). However having read their text I find that I disagree with it on so many points that I have made these a substantial part of this essay.
For one thing the main conspiracy in climate change communication does not originate with climate contrarians – it originates in the fossil fuel sector itself which has been running a campaign against climate science since the 1970s despite a full knowledge of the truth about climate change.
“….for decades, fossil fuel interests have done just that, running a sophisticated and sprawling network of well-funded think tanks and front groups with one goal: Stop any real climate action, no matter the cost to billions….”
This very real conspiracy is barely mentioned at all in their text – merely hinted at with these words – “denialist rhetoric is an effective political strategy to delay climate action by undermining people’s perceptions of the strength of scientific evidence”.
Yes, indeed it is – and this “effective political strategy” has been organised in a conspiracy by the main fossil fuel companies. Why is this not in the list of conspiracies that L and C acknowledge as happening for real? And why do they not discuss the implications for their own theories?
I ask not because I believe that L and C have left this out for any malign reason – but because I think is is important to their theme. Here we have a “handbook” which includes ideas of how to debunk probably some of the most important genuinely wrong headed conspiracy theories – those about climate change – and they don’t even get round to mentioning that this is above all a paid for campaign by the sleaziest part of the public relations industry. There is not a word in their handbook about taking on the fossil fuel companies or the PR industry.
In this respect L and C apparently set out to debunk “conspiracy theorists” but don’t describe who they are talking about clearly – are the “conspiracy theorists” the people paid by the PR industry to write articles and organise campaigns for a superficially plausible account– or are they people who get duped by these articles and re-post them on facebook and twitter but don’t think about the issues in depth anyway?
The way L and C write makes it feel as if they think that the chief problem is muddled headed members of the public feeling paranoid and disempowered and thus misinterpreting things – which is quite different from where there are systematic efforts to dupe people organised by highly sophisticated spin doctors in the pay of powerful vested interests.
Might it not be that some “conspiracy theorists,” who actually write some of the stuff, are not dis- empowered, incoherent dupes – but cynical ruthless sociopaths whose game in life is to prove themselves smarter than everyone else and earn lots of money from corporate clients as intellectual “hired guns” who don’t give a fig about the consequences for humanity? If so, what are the “psychological strategies” to “inoculate” these actors – that’s to say the people creating conspiracy theories and the corporate actors paying them to do so? Here we have an elaborate model of wrong headed people who think the wrong way, according to L and C, but no model in which some people do what they do because they are cynical and paid to write what they do – perhaps knowing very well that they are writing bullshit. Certainly the fossil fuel company executives knew very well about the truth of climate change and they paid people to throw doubt on that.
How much should we be be distrustful?
This is connected to the question of how much it is appropriate in general to be distrustful of the agendas of powerful people (not just about climate change alone). It is one thing to claim, as Lewandowsky and Cook do, that conspiracy theories are not typically supported by evidence – another thing entirely to claim that suspicion about official narratives is inappropriate. After all if there is one thing that you can say for sure about conspiracies is that great lengths are often taken to keep them secret. It is therefore hardly surprising that there would be a lack of evidence.
There are official narratives, official secrets and secret services. When official secrets are declassified it turns out that many “big events” were not as they appeared in the news media. For example, in his book Web of Deceit historian Mark Curtis draws on government files to show British complicity in the killing of a million people in Indonesia in 1965, the coup against the democratic government of Iran in 1953 organised by MI6 and the CIA, the removal of the people of Diego Garcia from their homeland in defiance of international law and repeated international court judgements by the British government to make available a base for the US, the overthrow of the government of British Guinea in 1953 and brutal colonial policies in Kenya, Malaya and Oman…
There are business secrets too – and secrecy jurisdictions (aka tax havens) in which to keep these secrets hidden. As a matter of fact an extraordinary large proportion of world trade and world investment is routed through secrecy jurisdictions. I have not the time to find more up to date figures so these figures are ten years out of date but they serve my purpose well enough – ten years ago 80% of international loans were routed through secrecy jurisdictions, more than half of world trade passed (on paper) through these same jurisdictions and virtually every major European company and the majority of American companies use secrecy jurisdictions for a variety of unspecified purposes. Also, at least $21 trillion of unreported private wealth was owned in tax havens by private individuals in 2010 – equivalent to the size of the United States and Japanese economies combined. 
The Conspiracy Theory Handbook Model – the alleged traits of conspiratorial thinking according to Lewandowsky and Cook
Now let me turn to the L and C “model”: According to the two “cognitive scientists”, what characterises the thinking of conspiracy theorists is that it is
“(1) Contradictory – Conspiracy theorists can simultaneously believe in ideas that are mutually contradictory.
(2) Overriding suspicion – Conspiratorial thinking involves a “nihilistic degree of skepticism” towards the official account. This extreme degree of suspicion prevents belief in anything that doesn’t fit into the conspiracy theory.
(3) Nefarious intent – The motivations behind any presumed conspiracy are invariably assumed to be nefarious. Conspiracy theories never propose that the presumed conspirators have benign motivations.
(4) Something must be wrong – Although conspiracy theorists may occasionally abandon specific ideas when they become untenable, those revisions don’t change their mind over a conclusion that “something must be wrong” and the official account is based on deception.
(5) Persecuted victim – Conspiracy theorists perceive and present themselves as the victim of organized persecution. At the same time, they see themselves as brave antagonists taking on the villainous conspirators. Conspiratorial thinking involves a self-perception of simultaneously being a victim and a hero.
(6) Immune to evidence. Conspiracy theories are inherently self-sealing—evidence that counters a theory is re-interpreted as originating from the conspiracy.
(7)Re-interpreting randomness, The overriding suspicion found in conspiratorial thinking frequently results in the belief that nothing occurs by accident.”
“It’s also important to remember that real conspiracies do exist. But the traits of conspiratorial thinking (CONSPIR) are not a productive way to uncover actual conspiracies. Rather, conventional thinking that values healthy skepticism, evidence, and consistency are necessary ingredients to uncovering real attempts to deceive the public.”
Reservations with the Lewandowsky and Cook Model
Before I proceed with my critique let me confess that I don’t know L and C or where they are coming from. I don’t know their motives for writing this text; however my critique is not that they are part of a conspiracy, but that when it comes to politics they appear to be naive and innocent.
They are also engaged in what is a kind of ad hominem – sometimes they are writing about “conspiracy theories” and sometimes they are writing about “conspiracy theorists” – people who they think have the wrong kind of thinking.
In common with medically trained psychiatrists some psychologists do this – they group together a number of what they perceive as “psychological traits” and give the collection a psychological label which is then used to manage the person who is judged to have this collection of traits. Usually this is done to invalidate the thinking of the individual and designate them as an appropriate subject for “treatment” or “therapy”. In this case we have a certain type of person judged to have a collection of psychological traits that means they are in need of a kind of “psychological inoculation” to bring their thinking back in line to what is judged to be healthy and normal.
At this point I think I should say that I do not at all deny the right of people to disagree with the specific ideas of people judged to be wrong-headed conspiracy theorists – or the need to look critically at what they have to say and to judge the evidence for their ideas. What I object to is stereotyping people, “pigeon holing” them in an invented category and attacking them for being in that group – because once anyone does this they have found a reason not to take them seriously, to ignore them…
Note the procedure – something similar happens in a typical psychiatric diagnosis. You disagree with someone. This someone appears to think in a particular way about a situation and about themselves. Instead of addressing their ideas as they present them you see their ideas as being the result of them having a particular kind of condition which they and some other people suffer from. You give that condition a label – they are a part of a group called “conspiracy theorists” people who think in the wrong way about official narratives and other situations involving the elite. You try to cure them of this “disorder” in a procedure very similar to a therapy. Whether or not they are right or wrong in some of their ideas the result of this procedure is that other people, like journalists or like the people of whom they are making accusations, can ignore what they have to say. The net result is that L and C are academics who have helped to reinforce the term “conspiracy theorist” as a thought stopper by giving it academic credentials. They help create a kind of informal censorship of criticism of the corruptions of the elite…
In a standard psychiatrist diagnosis many symptoms may turn out to be the incoherent and confused emotional and cognitive response to abuse – the psychiatrist does not know of this abuse and sees a distressed and confused person and identifies “the” problem in being inside this person – and delivers them back to over controlling and abusive parents or relatives who appear calm, collected and good at hiding and/or justifying their actions – which is always, in their minds, in the best interests of the apparently crazy person, always doing them a favour.
The realisation that this is too often the real situation throws up the question: who is it that actually needs to change and how? The victim or the abuser? Often enough there will be parallels here to the business with conspiracy theories. What needs to change – the institutional, judicial, media and political environment which needs to become more transparent and operate in a fair fashion or is it the people trying to make sense of what is happening, often behind their backs, and sometimes misinterpreting?
In two paragraphs about “Empowerment” L and C write about how “When people feel empowered, they are more resilient to conspiracy theories.”
The conclusion they draw from this is that in their “quasi therapy” it is important to ensure that people have that feeling of being empowered. However they have two quite different approaches to evoking the feeling:
1. Really empowering people – “Citizens’ general feeling of empowerment can be instilled by ensuring that societal decisions, for example by government, are perceived to follow procedural justice principles. Procedural justice is perceived when authorities are believed to use fair decision-making procedures. People accept unfavourable outcomes from a decision if they believe that procedural fairness has been followed.”
Here here! And what about ending secrecy jurisdictions? Dealing with misleading PR strategies? Ending official secrets? Prosecuting companies for funding the sowing of doubt about climate change or smoking when they are well aware of the truth? Dealing with the root causes of mass suspicion in the actions of elites?
2. Another way to evoke the feeling of being empowered described by L and C is “cognitively empowering” the people who apparently need their thinking adjusted. One way to do this that they describe is “If people’s sense of control is primed (e.g., by recalling an event from their lives that they had control over), then they are less likely to endorse conspiracy theories…..” Note how “recalling an event from their lives that they had control over” is a manipulation of people’s mood and the effect of their mood on their thinking. Why that should be described as “cognitively empowering them” is not immediately evident – because it does not do anything to adjust the lived environment of the person concerned.
So here are a few questions and issues to express reservations…
There’s another way of thinking about ‘conspiracy theorists’ that is not in this text – which is strange – because Professor Lewandowsky has researched and written about this idea before, in 2013 when he published “The Role of Conspiracist Ideation and World Views in Predicting Rejection of Science”. This was an article published in the journal PLOS ONE . Lewandowsky gave an interview about this in the Guardian at the time:
“I cannot be sure of the causality, but there are multiple lines of evidence that suggest that the
involvement of worldview, such as free-market principles, arises because people of that worldview feel threatened not by climate change or by lung cancer, but by the regulatory implications if
those risks are being addressed by society. Addressing lung cancer means to control tobacco,
and addressing climate change means to control fossil-fuel emissions. It’s the need to control
those products and their industries that is threatening people with strong free-market leanings.”
(a) Why are the implications of world views not considered and discussed in this text?
(b) Why, in their approach, is conspiratorial thinking counterposed to what they call “the official narrative”? There are lots of kinds of conspiracy in and by a part of the elite and not all of them involve “the official narrative”.
(c) Does a person have to display all these features of conspiratorial thinking or of just some of them to qualify as a “conspiracy theorist.”?
What is the problem – beliefs or doubts?
(d) Is “the problem” one of beliefs or is it a problem of doubt? In their point number one their reference is to conspiracy theorists holding contradictory beliefs.
However, to take the example of climate change, many people appear to doubt the official narrative about climate change and are encouraged to suspect that climate scientists and climate institutions are academics making careers for themselves – and then their suspicions are fueled and kept alive by superficial and erroneous ideas which are not checked against evidence.
In this regard the strategy of contrarian organisations, funded by the fossil fuel industry, has not been to promote beliefs but to promote doubt which is then used as a rationalisation not to take the climate crisis seriously.
Incoherence and incoherent thinking
(e) Here’s a reminder – conspiracy theories are theories. Is it not perfectly coherent to hold two mutually contradictory theories in one’s mind as possibilities, even if neither theory is eventually found to be supported by evidence?
Conspiracy theories are interpretations of events arising out of situations where there is usually an element of secrecy (or assumed secrecy) and as such it is not incoherent or inconsistent to hold in one’s mind alternative explanations as possibility because of one’s suspicions. In that sense is it true that the cognitive state of a conspiracy theorist is mainly one of erroneous beliefs or is it one of suspicions? If it is of suspicions then are not suspicions compatible with holding open the possibility of alternative hypotheses?
Or are conspiracy theorists actually intellectual “hired guns” who don’t care about incoherence and inconsistency, who are well aware of the scientific evidence and are just churning out lots of theories for cynical reasons? Alternatively are they people sincerely trying to understand events? I think it legitimate to ask these questions as L and C have created “conspiracy theorists” as a conceptual category which implies there are psychological traits that these people all have in common.
What are we looking at if we find that the thinking of “conspiracy theorists” is inconsistent, incoherent and contradictory? Is this particular to “conspiracy theorists” or something that we find more generally among people who are trying to interpret events and situations outside their ordinary frame of reference, outside their ordinary experience, their day to day life, routines, training and expertise? If so does it tell us anything very meaningful and significant?
Where does one go to to get a training and academic grounding in how to think coherently about the topics where people are uneasy and suspicious? Where does one go to get evidence? Even experts in economics and politics do not get a training that would help them understand or evaluate the extent and nature of elite crime. Mainstream economics implicitly assumes that all the actors in the economic drama are, or will, act honestly. According to William Black, who as we have seen is an expert on economics and criminology, economics as a taught subject is extremely weak when it comes to thinking about crime, particularly fraud.
“Economic theory about fraud is underdeveloped, core neoclassical theories imply that major
frauds are trivial, economists are not taught about fraud and fraud mechanisms, and neoclassical
economists minimize the incidence and importance of fraud for reasons of self-interest, class and
Thinking fast and slow
Is it any wonder that thinking about hidden elite crime is often incoherent? According to psychologist Daniel Kahnemann thinking can be of two forms – fast or slow. Fast thinking is more in the nature of quick impressions and judgements made without deep reflection. Slow thinking is the type an academic might resort to – involving undivided attention, deep concentration, drawing on deep knowledge. Slow thinking is what happens when you write things down with a view to others reading what you write or as in the preparation of a lecture presentation.
How many “conspiracy theorists” are theorising in an academic style of deep and slow thinking? If they do are these not most likely cynics that earn money by creating conspiracy theories to function as “effective political strategies”. On the other hand I would imagine that in their audience are people who are called “conspiracy theorists” but not really “theorists” at all – they are being stigmatised with a “boo phrase” but actually they are not really theorising. They are helping by circulating or re-posting the suspicions of the social network to which they belong or of a website that they have read. Perhaps it would be better to say that they are repeating as best they can the conventional prejudices (ie pre-judgements) of their social networks.
I write this not to condemn or approve such “conspiracy theorists” but because I find the writings of L and C to be too pat, too banal and “too neat”. It is quite likely that the group that they label as “conspiracy theorists” is quite varied in its characteristics, in what they do with the ideas they have and how deeply they think about them.
So where do these gut feelings of distrust and suspicion come from?
(f) According to L and C conspiracy theorists are capable of abandoning particular ideas but what really matters is what L and C call a “nihilistic degree of scepticism about the official account” – so it is not particular beliefs that are the central issue, it is the doubt about what officialdom wants us to believe. It is the break down in trust.
Immune to evidence – and yet prepared to abandon particular ideas – isn’t that a contradiction?
(g) The fact that conspiracy theorists are occasionally prepared to abandon particular ideas – point 4 – means that they are NOT “immune to evidence” – which L and C claim in point 6. It also means that L and C are themselves capable of believing contradictory things – or perhaps they are just sloppy in their thinking.
(h) The assumption that in a conspiracy “something must be wrong” and that the intentions of official actors are nefarious seems an entirely sensible one. . When intentions are not nefarious why would they be hidden? If they are benign and open how can they be described as a conspiracy at all?
I suppose that now and then that people ‘conspire’ to organise someone else a surprise birthday party but I struggle to think of examples of situations described as conspiracies where the intentions of key actors are benign. There would be no need to maintain secrecy and thus no conspiracy.
Motives for conspiracies – like constructing a false flag casus belli (the Gulf of Tonkin incident) or a cover up of official mistakes (Hillsborough), or electoral fraud and wrong doing (Brexit cases judged as wrong doing by the Electoral Commission), or deaths (like the one found to be unlawful killing by a jury at the inquest verdict of Diana, Princess of Wales) without exception involve things that were not open.
The war on terror and conspiracy theories????
(I) Given the carnage brought about by US and UK policy in the countries of the Middle East and North Africa it would not be surprising to me if the average person in those countries had a conviction that “something must be wrong” because something is wrong – the imperial and interfering character of US foreign policy. Yet L and C opine on attempts to debunk “conspiracy theories” in predominantly Muslim countries and write these words:
“Analyze what is being targeted before attempting a debunk. U.S. Government attempts to debunk “conspiracy theories” have repeatedly backfired in predominantly Muslim countries. One example is the failed attempt to blame the absence of Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq after the invasion of 2003 on Iraq’s history of concealment. A more productive approach would have been to focus on the American inflation of poor intelligence.”
I can hardly believe that L and C wrote such a ridiculous idea. The very idea of attempting to debunk conspiratorial thinking about the war on terror is an absurdity because as demonstrated in Part 1 of this essay by quoting General Wesley Clark and Roland Dumas, the war on terror has been a conspiracy in the sense used at the Nuremberg trials – and the most appropriate action would be to deliver the leaders responsible for it to the Hague for trial. There is a prima facie case – let a court decide!
There are in fact small steps to begin that process under way. In March of this year the International Criminal Court found a reasonable basis to believe that U.S. military and CIA leaders committed war crimes and crimes against humanity in Afghanistan, Team Trump threatened to ban ICC judges and prosecutors from the U.S. and warned it would impose economic sanctions on the Court if it launched an investigation and has ordered a formal investigation of U.S., Afghan and Taliban officials for war crimes, including torture, committed in the “war on terror.”
Not surprisingly the Trump administration is threatening the International Criminal Court. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has declared, “This is a truly breathtaking action by an unaccountable political institution, masquerading as a legal body.” He added, “The United States is not a party to the ICC, and we will take all necessary measures to protect our citizens from this renegade, so-called court.”
(j) Nor is the idea that people are persecuted when they try, and sometimes succeed, in exposing conspiracies so surprising.
People who expose official wrong doing are called whistle blowers and they often are persecuted. One can find evidence for this in an article in Psychology Today on Whistleblowers by Ken Eisold:
“Fred Alford researched this over ten years ago for his book, “The Whistle blowers: Broken Lives and Organizational Power”, concluding: “the reality of whistleblowing is grim. Few whistle blowers succeed in effecting change; even fewer are regarded as heroes or martyrs.”
The essential reason he found is that co-workers do not want to know what the whistle blower reveals. If they acknowledge the exposed truth, their careers will be jeopardized. At the very least, their comfort and sense of security is undermined.”
Is this the reason that most journalists turned against Julian Assange? If anyone is an example of the persecution of people who expose official narratives, and of their heroism, then it must surely be Julian Assange together with Wikileaks.
An example of the many stories revealed by Assange and wikileaks (with the assistance of Chelsea Manning) is the Collateral Murder video revealing serious US military war crimes. Considering that the persons who committed these crimes have never been prosecuted, whereas Assange has been relentlessly pursued, is it any wonder that more people are sceptical about official narratives?
The Assange case, and that of Bradley, then Chelsea, Manning, raises serious questions about how much one should be suspicious of states like the USA, the UK and Sweden – especially when the UN’s Rapporteur on Torture, a distinguished professor of law, Melzer, was horrified by what he found out when he took up the Assange case as an example of torture and abuse of human rights.
(k) L and C do not say so in so many words but, while they are prepared to acknowledge that states may be involved in conspiracies against citizens, their chief aim appears to be to discourage the notion that it is reasonable to be usually suspicious of powerful state actors. I disagree with them on this. I think a default position of suspicion of powerful actors, whether part of the state or not, is fully justified and below I give yet more reasons.
In the face of conspiracy theories I doubt many people have the time or the skills or the inclination to do a lot of digging to get at the facts – the point about a phrase like “conspiracy theorists” is that used, for example, as a phrase in a newspaper article it signals a taboo interpretation where one is discouraged from investigating deeper.
In a recent case in the UK an article described how a shadow minister had repeated an allegation that Israeli forces trained American police in the action that killed George Floyd. This was claimed to be a ‘conspiracy theory’ and led to the sacking of the shadow minister.
It may or may not be true that this particular form of restraint is taught by the Israeli forces. For many people, that may be all that they know – what is not in doubt is that Israeli forces regularly do train American police forces including the police force in Minneapolis. Three sources of evidence can be found here, here and here.
Paranoid thinking – not seeing impersonal causation – not everything happens because it was intended to happen
(l) Where I do agree with Lewandowsky and Cook is their argument that conspiratorial thinking frequently results in the belief that nothing occurs by accident – though whether this is the result of the “overriding suspicion” or not I do not know.
I would reformulate this slightly as suggesting that there are people who, when seeking explanations and interpretations for why things happen, favour explanations in which things happen because one or more people intended that they happen. In their minds impersonal causations for events do not figure prominently. It is as if all events must have been decided somewhere and by someone (or by some some entity or spirit being with personality and will ).
Clearly people think in different ways. For example, it has been common for much of the history of humanity for many people in particular cultures to believe that things happened because there was one or more conscious beings that willed these things to happen. Thus things happened because God or the Devil willed them to happen because the universe was organised rather like human society was. In this style of thinking causation is theorised as intentional action from out of a spiritual realm.
How one interprets situations will depend a great deal on what experience one has to call on. Sometimes people may have a strong sense that something is not right but lack the skills or knowledge to put into words what is wrong. For example, many elite crimes will require a knowledge of accountancy or economics to follow. Of course people who are suspicious are not helped in this if and when elite actors use commercial and official secrecy to cover up their actions. In these circumstances one needs inside knowledge and must have time to uncover what is going on.
Gut feeling without the language or skills to interpret – resorting to metaphorical interpretations
(m) In circumstances like this a “gut feeling” may be felt which can only be expressed very inarticulately – for example by using metaphors. The idea that members of the elite are shape shifting lizards is completely wacky and crazy if believed literally yet as a metaphor for the personalities of psychopathic leaders it seems pretty appropriate. That’s because we are often dealing with what are called “high functioning psychopaths” who do not have feelings like empathy (although they can fake it very well) but are essentially calculating and ruthless for what they conceive to be in their individual interests .
As it happens this calculation attitude by an individual who is indifferent to the feelings of others sounds very much like the model for human beings to be found described in many economic text books.
The problem with Lewandowsky and Cook’s model is that while they attack what they think is a “nihlistic” degree of skepticism they do not calibrate what that means – what is an appropriate level of skepticism when it comes to covert elite wrong doing? The only way that you can calibrate that is to do a survey of elite wrong doing – which is what I tried to do in Part One of this study. L and C don’t attempt anything similar so their term “a nihilistic degree of scepticism” is nothing more than their opinion. (And in my opinion their opinion is very poorly informed. If they were historians, political scientists, economists or accountants or criminologists – or ethicists – they might have done a better job).
Attitude to the press and media
(n) Further comments are necessary about L and C’s apparent lack of understanding of the press and the media. There’s what they say about about a method to discourage people sharing conspiratorial climate denial ideas seen on Facebook. In particular L and C suggest that people ask themselves:
“Do I recognize the news organization that posted the story?
Does the information in the post seem believable?
Is the post written in a style that I expect from a professional news organization?
Is the post politically motivated?”
The first thing to say here is that I agree in this case with their specific goal –discouraging the circulation of climate denial ideas. What I question is the general applicability of their proposed methodology of discouragement.
It appears to imply that mainstream news organisations are reliable sources of information on contentious topics including climate science. Yet for years many news organisations have not been at all reliable – with a misrepresentation of climate science by the journalistic practice by insisting on “balance” – having two opposing points of view on climate science when the number and proportion of genuine climate scientists with a contrarian viewpoint is vanishingly small.
More generally in regard to other contentious topics, this idea that there is “a style that I might expect from a professional news organisation” …..if this is meant to imply objectivity it is completely naive. It completely ignores the points made in the Herman and Chomsky analysis.
The indignant claims of reporters that “no one tells me what to write” and that they are striving for objectivity miss (or evade) the point. The chances of radical left wing journalists getting a job with establishment papers are slim and if they were to get a job then expressing and researching their views to write articles would make for a difficult life and usually to a short period of employment. Newspapers are mainly dependent on advertising and attacking their values and practices is not going to make any independent minded journalist popular with the management of their employing organisation. Also, if a journalist wants access to official news releases, and even unofficial “leaks”, they will not and do not bite the hand that feeds them.
Far better for the career advancement of the ambitious young journalist to make the most of official leaks – even if such “leaks” are nothing of the sort – but are smears of left wing politicians, or insinuations about foreign powers that, many months later have still not been proven….like the Russiagate claim that virtually the entire US media ran with and yet has not led to any charges sticking.
Or enthusiastically running with reports of events that later appear to have been staged – and then not admitting the deception.
You don’t need a conspiracy theory to explain why this happens. What happens is systemic and structural – basically if you want to get ahead as a journalist in current conditions you embrace the group think in the news room that just happens to be very similar to elite group think generally.
1. Mark Curtis Web of Deceit Vintage Books 2003
2. Henry, J. S., Christensen, J., & Mathiason, N.Revealed: global super rich have at least $21 trillion hidden in secret tax havens. Retrieved January 2nd, 2014, from Tax Justice Network
3. “The Role of Conspiracist Ideation and World Views in Predicting Rejection of Science”, PLOS ONE, Lewandowsky, Gignac, & Oberauer, 2013.
4. Oreskes, N., & Conway, E. M. (2010). Merchants of Doubt. New York: Bloomsbury Press.
5. Black, W. K. (2010, May 13). “Neoclassical Economic Theories, Methodology and Praxis Optimize Criminogenic Environments and Produce Recurrent, Intensifying Crises“. Retrieved January 2nd, 2014, from Social Science Research Network.
6. See “Demasking the Torture of Julian Assange” by Nils Melzer – https://medium.com/@njmelzer/demasking-the-torture-of-julian-assange-b252ffdcb768
7. See for example “Do Psychopaths Cry or even have feelings?” by Tanja J Peterson.
Note: Feasta is a forum for exchanging ideas. By posting on its site Feasta agrees that the ideas expressed by authors are worthy of consideration. However, there is no one ‘Feasta line’. The views of the article do not necessarily represent the views of all Feasta members.
Brian Davey graduated from the Nottingham University Department of Economics and, aside from a brief spell working in eastern Germany showing how to do community development work, has spent most of his life working in the community and voluntary sector in Nottingham particularly in health promotion, mental health and environmental fields. He helped form Ecoworks, a community garden and environmental project for people with mental health problems. He is a member of Feasta Climate Working Group and former co-ordinator of the Cap and Share Campaign. He is editor of the Feasta book Sharing for Survival: Restoring the Climate, the Commons and Society, and the author of Credo: Economic Beliefs in a World in Crisis.