Conspiracy – Fact or Fiction? Part 2: The Hunger for Truth and the Role of the Media

Part 1: Games People Play

So what is it that makes the conspiracy theories continue to be fascinating, why is there so much official and mainstream media fear of them, and why are they again so much in the public eye? In the second of this series of articles I shall look at some factors I believe to lie behind the fascination of so-called conspiracy theories.

The Hunger for Truth

If you look at any of the conspiracy websites, it is quite clear that what motivates and guides those who create and maintain them is a passionate search for truth. Passionate may not always be right, but it certainly is highly motivated.

In some cases that search is all the more passionate because they themselves have previously been government employees, or in the armed forces or secret services. Being honest, open-hearted, and possibly idealistic, and having become aware of the nature of what they were engaged in, their spirit has rebelled: they have tried to do something about it, and then have become whistleblowers. In some cases they may have resigned voluntarily, in others they may have been hounded out by those whose comfortable positions and privileges in the bureaucracy would be undermined by their revelations.

This situation is understandable if one recalls that public service in the forces or in the government is marketed to young people from an early age as an idealistic career path to embark on. Many who do so go into it with the best of intentions to help their fellow men, or to promote what they see as the common good, or to serve their country. It is often precisely because they have high ideals and a sense of honour that they cannot live with the realities they find.

Becoming a whistleblower often entails a very high price to themselves, involving a combination of severe doubts, conflicting loyalties, loss of income and status, ridicule, and later on personal suffering, harassment and even – have no doubt about this – the risk of assassination. Many who may sympathize with the whistleblower are constrained from doing the same thing – for many reasons, perhaps because of family commitments, a mortgage to pay, a yearning for a quiet life, stability, fear of reprisals.

u2018Whistleblower' is a word laden with ambiguity, and this is often exploited by government and media alike, for while it conveys on the one hand admiration for the person who may have stuck up for his principles or for universal ideals, and uncovered corruption, malpractice, exploitation or abuse of power, it also leaves, on the other hand, a none too subtle hint that in blowing the thing open, the whistleblower perhaps ratted on former friends and colleagues, or betrayed an explicit oath of loyalty or implicit conspiracy of silence. These things are calculated to make him feel really bad, whatever his conscience may have told him about u2018doing the right thing.'

The truth, to put it mildly, is not a guiding passion for professional politicians and bureaucrats. Truth is subversive, and inconvenient to those who hold and manipulate power. They will invent all sorts of rational arguments as to why it is unnecessary. Or, worse still, why it should be withheld from the people for their own benefit. It is "better that they do not know." As Al Martin has said:   "I’m reminded of the words of George Bush who said, u2018The truth will get you broke.' Or I am reminded of the words of Oliver North who said, u2018The truth is useless. You can’t deposit it in the bank. You can’t eat it. It’s absolutely useless.' And anyone who is interested in the truth doesn’t have any money."

So, there is a ready community of opposition (from the left and right of the established political spectrum and from the career bureaucrats who service their purposes) to what is perceived as being too much delving into the truth. To reveal the truth not only undermines those who temporarily hold positions of power and influence, and shows them up in front of the people they have been bombarding with propaganda about how well they are performing their duty, either as democratically-elected representatives or as public servants: it also puts in question the very legitimacy of the two-party rotation system which enables them to take their turn at the trough, the myth of disinterested public service, and all the cultural baggage of u2018democratic participation' that goes with these things. In opposition to all this, the search for truth and the struggle for liberty posits a world where the highest value is put on individual moral responsibility.

In the population at large, there are certain psychological factors at play in the search for truth, involving a spectrum of degrees of ignorance and deception (or self-deception). At one end of this spectrum you have those who remain blissfully ignorant of what is going on. In the vast middle range of the spectrum you have the state's entitlements clientele, and others in various stages of denial or wishful thinking – from those who are afraid, to the well-meaning innocents who feel that all those disagreeable things can't possibly be true, or are just too horrible to contemplate, and those who are in deeper denial – they know certain things are true but don't want to admit it, or are likewise afraid to do so.

At the opposite end of the spectrum you have those who are actively engaged in the cover-ups and the disinformation, tacitly aided by the countless numbers of faceless people in government and party politics who maintain a conspiracy of silence. These conspirators – for that is what they are too – have an interest in hiding the truth because, when it does come out, it reveals how shoddy and immoral are their machinations for staying in power and abusing power, to say nothing of how inefficient they can be at accomplishing their own plans, and indeed any plans by the state to regulate the natural order of human activity by forcing good intentions down people's throats. People rightly get angry when those who have told them they could be trusted turn out instead to have been engaged effectively in thievery and deception.

In summary, is it any surprise that whistleblowers' revelations are labelled crazy conspiracy theories or lies by those who have a vested interest in preserving the evils those whistleblowers are denouncing? And is it any surprise that they should continue, for these very reasons, to be intriguing and fascinating as vital elements in our understanding of history as it is being made?

The Media

Of course not all conspiracy websites are owned and maintained by whistleblowers. Whistleblowers have a particularly strong sense of mission to reveal the truth, but there are others belonging to a strong American tradition which profoundly mistrusts the central (federal) government and the officially sanctioned versions of events. They include mavericks, independent-minded people who unwaveringly remain true to their principles, some libertarians, some protectors of civil liberties, leftists, ultra-conservatives, perhaps reactionaries – you name it, everyone with just the tiniest sprinkling of political and economic incorrectness is probably in there somewhere.

However, it is this very diversity of potential conspiracy theorists which enables the media to have a free rein in labelling, at its own convenience, any particular view as being eccentric or conspiratorial, and therefore as something which serious-minded people ought not to take into consideration.

There is a common misperception of the nature of the media, and of the journalist's position therein, namely that the media are somehow fearless in pursuit of the truth. It arises from a delayed collective reaction to the fact that intrepid journalists, and especially radio commentators, some of them the stuff of legend like Ed Murrow, used to have the courage and the freedom to venture much further in their investigative reporting and to reveal much more of the truth than they can today. That sort of intrepid journalist no longer exists, or if he does, his range and scope for in-depth investigative reporting are much more severely curtailed. How did this happen?

I am no expert on the media, but in the historical context it is obvious that regulation, and crucially the introduction of the need for broadcasting stations to be licensed by the government, had the effect of restricting the operation of free markets in media. In any society the first effect of such regulation, through so-called u2018competition' for licenses, is that licenses become a largesse to be distributed by the government, implicitly or explicitly in return for u2018favourable' reporting and undertakings not to criticize the established order which enables that government to exist, on pain of having your license revoked.

In the more modern, partially de-regulated (but now consolidated) media world, there is a similar constraining effect from commercial advertising, on which the media depend for their revenue (and ultimately the journalists for their jobs). A journalist may not stick his or her neck out too far in reporting contentious issues, for fear of offending the advertiser, who will promptly take away his custom. If he does so, the TV network may very easily punish the journalist with dismissal. Naturally this has little to do with how good or bad the reporter is at the job, or even whether what he or she has to report is true or false, but merely with whether he or she has overstepped the mark of acceptable discourse in the context of the politics of the advertiser. At best, this makes for anodyne television. At worst, it produces blatant propaganda in the interests of those who hold on to and manipulate power or who have a particular agenda (or product line) to promote.

Thus it is that individual writers and reporters in the mainstream media, however well-established their reputation, become unable or unwilling to speak the full truth of all that they know – for the simple reason that they are likely to lose their job if they do so. Increasingly, they learn to become more and more cautious, and so lose the earlier cutting edge which made their reputations, and the mainstream media news programmes become virtually devoid of substance, failing to explain events in depth and to provide real information.

Once this happens, it is a just a short step to the media's function being only to fulfill a propagandizing role, using above all the techniques of self-censorship – in other words, omitting information which the editors know in advance is likely to be critical of the established political and economic order, and so confining debate to those topics which will not seriously undermine key facets of that order – such as the electoral system which favours two-party rotation in power, conventional economic and monetary theory or, in more recent times, politically correct discourse.

Where omission fails – and it sometimes does, particularly where competing economic interests are at stake – the mainstream media may resort to the tactic of rushing in to damn a PC heresy as u2018wacky' or an inconvenient truth as u2018conspiracy theory,' once again to exclude it from debate and narrow the range of argument to politically and economically acceptable ideas.

This is nothing more than a tactic in the game of manipulation of power, but because it is carried on the voice of a medium which advertises itself as being authoritative, it is initially highly effective with the often mesmerized and barely conscious u2018audience.' It is used to discredit the person of the originator of a particular interpretation of events in the minds of the audience, rather than to attack his argument – the classic ad hominen attack which casts doubt on certain personal attributes (intelligence, sanity, motivation), and does not even begin to enter into a discussion of the arguments or admit that what he has to say might have some substance of truth to it.

This u2018denial of entry' effect is enhanced by subtly creating in the minds of the audience the notion that not only is the conspiracy theorist somehow an oddball – through the use of such pejorative terms as ‘fruitcake’ and ‘nut’ (is it significant that these are edible things?) – but also that the members of the great TV audience should not want to be associated with the conspiracy theorist because it will make them look silly too.  So it plays on people’s fear of contamination by association, and of looking stupid in the eyes of others, as in ‘Hey, you’re not one of those who believe all that conspiracy stuff, are you?’

All this is effective, and often mind-numbing stuff, but the appeal of character assassination for its own sake is very limited and short-term. In the end, when the content has no substance, and when viewers, who are not fools, see and hear the same official or approved line constantly rammed down their throats, they do eventually rebel: some switch off, others zap to something else. How many times did you have to watch the twin towers fall, or read "America strikes back" in the lower left-hand corner of the TV screen, before it made you sick enough to switch permanently away from, or just switch off, the major u2018news' channels? Others still, who want information and have critical intelligence, have long since started to look elsewhere, and if they want to read really interesting stuff, and indeed challenging or subversive stuff, and hear the truth, they find the only place to be these days is the Internet.

Which is why – at least for the moment – the Internet is now the home of what the mainstream media love to call u2018conspiracy theories.' But, subject to the caveat that readers must carry out for themselves a critical evaluation of the information they find on those websites, it is today far more likely that the true facts, and indeed the history and background to current events, will be found in among those conspiracy theory websites rather than in any mainstream news bulletin or documentary report. Internet usage has grown exponentially over the last few years, so there is correspondingly much more general exposure to that essential history and to those truths. And, as the records of increasing traffic for websites such as show, people are all the time getting hungrier for even more truth.

November 20, 2002

Richard Wall (send him mail) is a freelance translator, specializing in the social sciences, who lives in Estoril, Portugal. This article is the second in a 3-part series on the subject of “Conspiracy – Fact or Fiction.”