In the opening episode of this new show we explore the question of conspiracy theories and the roles they can play and effects they can have, both good and bad. We examine the case study of a documentary about a teenager who tried to incite his own murder through an internet chatroom, and draws out some parallels between that story and how people engage with conspiracy theories. We also explain a little about what to expect from this show as it progresses, and ask for your opinions and answers to this question.
Are Conspiracy Theories a Good Thing? I ask this question because I truly do not know the answer. Obviously conspiracies are real, and to a certain extent our political system encourages conspiracies to form. The intelligence agencies in particular are very secretive, which not only allows for criminal conspiracies like false flag terrorism, but actually inspires and encourages this sort of behaviour. None of that is in dispute, for me.
But theories about such conspiracies can serve a lot of different purposes, can inspire a lot of different mindsets, depending on various factors. How well evidenced is the theory? Is the theory flexible enough to be refined and adapted to new evidence as it emerges? Is it scientific, and can at least theoretically be falsified if certain evidence emerges? Is the theory of any political relevance? Is it of any relevance whatsoever?
When investigating a major crime, you cannot avoid such theories. You have to develop hypotheses, multiple theories of what might have gone down and who was responsible. You then test those against available evidence, or ask what kind of evidence should there be if such and such is true, and go and see if that evidence exists. So conspiracy theories are a vital, if largely unacknowledged, part of criminal investigation. Inasmuch as investigating and resolving crimes is a good thing, which most societies think it is, conspiracy theories are actually a necessary part of a well-functioning society.
But then you’ve got the crazy stuff. For example, you’ve got your flat earth conspiracy theories and the people who think the moon is our enemy because it’s full of raelians spying on us and so the obvious answer to earth’s problems is to destroy the moon. These are mostly people who’ve just watched too many sci-fi movies, probably while high, and have got a bit carried away. They mean no harm, so I’m not going to get angry about them, but the existence of such theories and in particular their association with tangible, real world conspiracies is very damaging. It creates a lot of obstacles for people like me, not least because you get nutters trying to waste your time. But more obviously via ridicule by association – because I exist in the same realm as these crackpots, I get associated with them whether I like it or not, and however much I dissassociate myself from such fools, the connotation still lingers.
Then you’ve more realistic but still quite problematic and damaging conspiracy theories, like the ‘all terrorism is fake and no one really dies’ theory. This became very pronounced in the wake of the Sandy Hook spree killing and then the Boston marathon bombing. We also saw it recently with the Charlie Hebdo and associated attacks in France. Now, I’m not disputing that the technical capability to fake a terrorist attack exists – crisis actors, fake blood, pyrotechnics, pre-planted journalists – all these things exist. But the obvious question is ‘why go to such lengths, why not just blow up a bunch of people?’ And I’ve never heard an answer to that question that is remotely plausible. It just needlessly expands an operation from being tightly compartmentalised into being much larger, much more open to being exposed, and with no obvious advantage gained by doing so. From a black ops point of view it makes no sense at all.
This theory is extremely damaging, and is one of the reasons I shifted my focus away from false flag terrorism. It just wasn’t a area of investigation that I wanted to take part in, it had got so crazy. But it is damaging because if you’re trying to have a conversation with someone, or more realistically if someone who is curious goes and looks on the internet for what’s being said about this or that event, they will come across a load of nihilistic, alienating garbage about how nothing is real, everything is fake and there’s nothing you can do about it. I can think of no better way of putting off those curious people, who after all are exactly the sorts of people we should be having reasonable conversations with in the hope of finding common ground. I’ve said it before, I think this ‘it’s all fake’ nonsense is classic counter-intelligence practice. I think it is pure poison to serious investigation, and that is exactly how it has been deployed and the effect it has had.
So I’m sure you understand by now, if you didn’t before, where I’m going with this question. As an unrepentant conspiracy theorist and researcher, I have a problem with most popular conspiracy theories, if not all of them. And so I’d like to present to you a case study that explains some of the psychology that I think is behind why people believe ridiculous, dangerous conspiracy theories that don’t accomplish anything.
The example comes from a 2005 documentary called Kill me if you Can. I saw this when it was first on TV, and it is available in full on dailymotion. I’m going to play about 20 minutes of it, but the full thing is about 50 minutes long, it is worth watching the whole film.
It tells the story of a normal, slightly lonely teenager called Mark, who was growing up in Manchester who in 2003 became obsessed with an internet chatroom. Over the following months he became close friends with two people – a girl named Rachel and a boy named John. Mark and Rachel had an online romance via the chatroom, and though they arranged to meet up several times, one of them always chickened out. Mark and John became close friends, and did sometimes meet up.
Then a new person turns up in the chatroom, a guy called Kevin who claims to be a gay stalker. He says he has kidnapped Rachel and gets Mark to do various things, including masturbating in front a webcam, in the name of trying to free her. Kevin then says he has freed her, but when Mark goes to meet her she once again doesn’t show up. Kevin then says he has raped and killed Rachel, which Mark is initially very upset about but he gets over it quite quickly. After all, he’d never actually met this girl in real life.
So you get the idea – it was the other boy, John, who had invented all of these characters in the chatroom so he could manipulate Mark, ultimately into giving him oral sex and then into stabbing him. My best guess about this is that John was a homosexual psychopath, though there are other possibilities too, of course.
But what does this have to do with conspiracy theories? There are a few things I want to highlight for you:
1) This was all taking place online, and while this story is unique (as far as I know – please tell me if you know of similar events) it is an object lesson about how the internet works. It connects people, but none of it is real in the same way that physical, spatial connections are real. When people are engaging with a digital reproduction of a person they treat it differently, and respond differently to it, than if it was a real person. It’s the same with events like Boston. It is easy to sit there looking at a digital image on the internet and decry it as fake, but I bet none of these spineless keyboard warriors would dare say the same thing if they were actually confronted with such a scene in real life. Why? Because they aren’t responding to a real event, they are responding to the digitial reproduction which, of course, cannot satisfy ones sense of reality like a real sensory experience can. Hence, retreating into ‘it’s all a hoax, it’s all fake!!!’ It’s just intellectual cowardice, at heart, but the internet absolutely encourages such cowardice.
Conversely, because people’s sense of what is real and what isn’t has become so messed up, not just through the internet, it means they are more likely to believe something when they have no reason to believe it. Such as that the Boston bombing was faked.
2) The security services shroud themselves in such secrecy and mystery that it creates a vacuum, a knowledge gap, and into that gap pour people’s imaginations and theories and hopes and fears. So this kid John, the manipulator, used the perfect lure – something that Mark would have no way to prove it wasn’t true, because he just couldn’t know. The absence of knowledge makes us vulnerable. And this affects people in two ways – either people just follow orders, like this kid Mark did with horrible consequences, or their opposition to following orders becomes obsessive and paranoid. The absence of knowledge, or rather the mental state of knowing that you don’t know, does funny things to a lot of people. The lack of clear limits, distinctions and boundaries means that their reactions often run wild. Either way, you end up seeing the security services as an absolute power, whether to be trusted or to be feared. Whether you are focused on their authority, or their corruption, they can be an all-consuming spectacle.
And while a lot of you will no doubt tell me that this was a young, somewhat gullible kid, and to draw a parallel between him and you is somewhat patronising to you, I would counter that by saying I’m not suggesting you would fall for someone in an internet chat room saying they are recruiting you to be in MI5, but you might fall for, just to take an example, this very common idea that the intelligence services are behind everything, that there’s no escape, that they have absolute power. Or if not the intelligence services, whoever. Because your imagination is the limit when it comes to how important and powerful secret power could be. And that is a very dangerous trap, because in according absolute power to your opponent, or to your ruler, you accord absolutely no power to yourself. Which is utterly stupid. I know this, because when I’ve gone down that road it has just made me feel hopeless and depressed. And, factually speaking, it just isn’t true.
Maybe you haven’t fallen for such ideas, maybe I’m lucky and I’m talking to a bunch of sceptical, mentally disciplined people who haven’t been fooled by the hucksters. I hope so. But in any case I’m sure you recognise a lot of people out there who have got caught up in some pretty ludicrous ideas, partly because of the weird relationship they have to these ideas coming at them through the internet, partly because of the tendency to believe anything, absolutely anything, when it comes to the question of conspiracy, of secret power.
And so, on balance, I don’t know whether conspiracy theories are a good thing or not. I think for a lot of people, a lot of the time, they are a bad thing. I think if they are wielded by good people, in the right way, they can be a very good thing. Like any weapon, I suppose.
One last thing I want to highlight, and this is perhaps the solution to this problem and what we will be discussing in more depth in the next episode, and that is the concept of ‘Negative capability’ a term probably coined by the poet John Keats, and which he described as ‘when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’. He is talking about the ability to stare down the barrel of uncertainty without losing your mind.