Digital trickery and conspiracy theories

25 augustus 2022Leestijd: 6 minuten
Kristi Noem, gouverneur van Zuid-Dakota. Foto: AP Photo/John Raoux File

This spring and early summer several people in the Netherlands and the United States relayed to me dire apocalyptic warnings or offered complex schemes about world events. Whether it is believing that the FBI is actually behind many of the recent mass murders in the U.S. or that the CIA assisted freedom struggles in Georgia, Ukraine and Belarus, many of the explanations I heard centered on a powerful but corrupt U.S. government.  The disconnect between these conspiracies and my own experience of watching a patriotic, smalltown 4th of July parade, with a good deal of candy thrown my way, is stark.  Why are so many people currently spouting so many conspiracy theories on both sides of the Atlantic?

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Outrage pays

We all heard the phrase, “if it bleeds, it leads.”  Much of what is presented as news today is an updated version of this tactic—to get audiences to pay attention and to provoke in ways that ensure future interest. Social media platforms, cable news and now podcasts want to sell advertising, the more eyes and ears that tune in the greater the revenue. For example, Telegram, the messaging service that has become the go-to platform for conspiracy theorists and disinformation merchants, is now offering a paid service in an effort to make money from its more than 700 million users.  Newsmax offered to send my mom a free “Day of Outrage, January 6: The Real Story” DVD, which apparently shows “the shocking truth” and “exposes the Left’s Twisted Agenda,” if she would buy their magazine subscription for $99.

Today, America is reaping the results of the Federal Communications Commissions’ (FCC) 1987 ruling to eliminate the fairness doctrine, a policy that required broadcasters of opinionated programming on controversial issues to offer an array of viewpoints rather than one, often-slanted, interpretation.  Unfortunately, the cashing-in by talk radio and cable news produces echo chambers filled with politicized content that in turn affects electoral outcomes and attitudes towards political figures and even feelings towards fellow Americans.

When the absence of the fairness doctrine is coupled with our modern attention economy the mix is potent. In one rewarding conversation I had with a fellow academic in South Dakota, (who knows more about the attention economy than I), it was pointed out that the modern tools of data science, such as predictive analytics and data harvesting, not only facilitate echo-chamber-confirmation-bias material, but further provide the means to make sure an audience does not receive any contradictory information that might lead it to other platforms. Thus, the hyper-capitalist pursuit of making money at all costs, results in the most effective barrier to broad information dissemination the world has ever conceived.

U.S. midterm elections

Add to these facts the upcoming U.S. midterm elections. Since at the moment, Republicans are slated to take back both the House and the Senate, we are subjected to a tidal wave of political advertising, online hate speech and digital trickery that is now coming full blast at voters. Already in the primaries, Republicans were savaging each other with slander. I found postcards on my mom’s kitchen table that accused a fellow Republican House of Representative candidate of voting with the hated Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi, of voting to confiscate guns, and of backing RINO (Republican In Name Only) Congresswoman Liz Cheney and “her claim that the election fraud was nothing more than a ‘big lie.’”

This summer, South Dakota Republican Senator John Thune wrote to donors that he wanted money to help “flip the Senate” while millions of Roe v. Wade ads are currently targeting almost exclusively women. It is clear that politicians on both sides of the proverbial aisle are employing wedge issues to galvanize their supporters.

In another example, the Governor of South Dakota Kristi Noem, sent out an “Emergency Renewal” letter for donations to stop the “radical left” from winning “this critical election.”  Interestingly, Noem acknowledged that Roe v. Wade is a rallying cause for Democrats, telling her donors that it is a “pet ‘culture war’ issue”—she really did call it a pet issue. I even looked up the word pet, to see what she might have meant by this (to be honest, I am still not quite sure). Whatever the precise definition she wants to convey, she undoubtedly wants to say that the other side of the argument is not substantial or that voters who do not like forced-birth laws are weak in their convictions. Hints that political gain is at stake for Noem, and not a commitment to life, come by way of related statistics: under Noem’s governorship South Dakota has some of the nation’s worst rankings in the number of uninsured women and the number of infants that die.

An inverse ratio to the truth

Another anecdotal observation is that it seems that the more the letters, pamphlets and newspapers declare to be telling the truth, the more outrageous their claims. In the case of the Republican material I read, truth was mostly linked to “socialist elites” or “Marxist crosshairs” on a candidate’s back. While I am not sure where some of the people that I chatted with got their information, I was told that the 6th of January attack on Capitol Hill was Pelosi’s fault because she would not allow the 20,000 National Guard troops President Donald Trump had at the ready, to respond to the attack.  Apparently, the Democrats and “the Rothschilds” were actually in charge of everything when Trump was the Commander-in-Chief of U.S. armed forces. I have not figured out whether this explanation (given to me at a wedding reception where it felt totally at odds with the people and the scene around me) defends Trump or undermines him.

Of course, the tactic that the more one lies the more that truth is declared, is not new.  Pravda, which means truth in Russian, was the title of the Soviet Union’s main daily newspaper.  And the fact that today so many people are enthralled with so many conspiracy theories, is also partly linked to the rise of Russian disinformation and Vladimir Putin’s attempt to win the war he started in February. Ukraine-related disinformation increased considerably in the media that was known to have a pro-Russian bias, but it also increased substantially with local conspiracy theorists around the globe who were previously flooding social media with disinformation about the Covid-19 pandemic.

Freedom of Speech!

What is ironic of much of what I heard and listened to over the summer is everyone’s conviction to be able to say and believe what they want while at the same time censuring or “cancelling” opposing views. I previously experienced mild aspects of academic orthodoxy and the lack of intellectual inquiry at my own liberal arts college in Maastricht. But, when Kristi Noem says that teachers are “replacing reading, writing, and arithmetic with a curriculum designed to indoctrinate our kids with critical race theory,” she is not only actively distorting investigations and discussions on how to deal with imbedded discrimination in society, she is politicizing education and creating a hostility towards educators.  Since I know many educators in South Dakota, most of whom work tirelessly and humanely on the Yankton Sioux Native American Reservation, I find Noem’s campaign worrying.

Ultimately, Noem is accusing her opposition of using its power to corrupt children. Perhaps this is the most important reason why so many people are currently spouting so many conspiracy theories on both sides of the Atlantic.  It is that Western liberalism—a political theory founded on the natural goodness of humans and the tolerance of others’ independent thought—appears to be failing before our eyes. As an educator myself, who strives to promote open inquiry, viewpoint diversity and constructive disagreement, I deplore the tactics currently used by too many politicians today for their own political gain. Such methods are ultimately tearing down community spirit and breeding conspiracies.