We are posting two related articles. The first is from Media Lens and is about their book, Propaganda Blitz, which addresses the issue of corporate control of the mainstream media. The second is written by Thomas Klikauer and looks at the connection between ‘fake news’ and the far right.
There is a connection between the two. The mainstream media’s promotion of the fake news story about Saddam Hussein’s “weapons of mass destruction” contributed to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in the Middle East and the ‘suicide’ of Dr. David Kelly. The AltRight has built on this fake news precedent to develop their own on-line communities, addicted to conspiracy myths, amongst isolated individuals. Their longer tem aim is to mobilise these communities for their own Far Right ends.
1. PROPAGANDA BLITZ
When we started Media Lens in 2001, our guiding aspiration was that independent, web-based activism would have a profoundly positive impact on public discourse.
Hard to believe now, but we nurtured hopes that the greater honesty and compassion of thousands of non-corporate media activists would force traditional media to improve. ‘Mainstream’ outlets that continued to sell elite bias as objective Truth would be relentlessly exposed, become a laughing stock – they would simply have to raise their game. We even had a notion that decent, or half-decent, people working within corporate media might secretly welcome these pressures and quietly embrace change out of enlightened self-interest. Why? Because corporate executives love their children, too. As was very obvious then, and is even more obvious now, the prioritising of profit over people and planet must be reversed.
But, of course, human beings and human societies are not that reasonable and rational. It was never going to be that easy. What has actually happened is that, as non-corporate media have increasingly exposed the limits and failings of corporate media, the latter have adopted a bunker mentality, shutting out inconvenient truths, shutting out dissent, shutting down communication with critics. When we started sending media alerts, BBC and Guardian journalists regularly responded with quite rational, reasonable responses. Now, we mostly receive stony silence, or abusive sneers.
Make no mistake, there has been change: corporate media have been grievously wounded by web-based activism. Their response has been to retreat into an ever more extreme fantasy world that in many ways exceeds the madness even of the McCarthyite era. They have actually become much worse, not better.
In the 1950s, the West really had recently faced down a genuinely existential Nazi threat; Stalin was an utterly ruthless dictator who did in theory (if not in reality) head a party and state bent on global class war and revolution. East and West did find themselves facing a perceived enemy armed with weapons that could wipe us all off the face of the planet, if only by accident. The hysteria, lying and propaganda were preposterous; but they did have some basis, however tenuous, in the real world.
Now, by comparison, we have the same or worse levels of hysteria and intolerance directed against Iraqi, Libyan, North Korean and Iranian ‘threats’ that exist only in the crazed crania of state-corporate propagandists for whom war is just profit-maximising by other means, just another marketing plan. We have claims that omnipresent Putin is seeking to undermine Western democracies at every turn, influencing everything from Brexit to the election of Trump, and of course Corbyn.
And yes, Corbyn – a life-long anti-racist campaigner, a rare compassionate human being in British politics – has been found suddenly to be posing an ‘existential threat’, no less, to Britain’s Jews on the basis of exact truth reversal and pure invention. The Five Filters website recently collated a list of 107 Guardian and Observer articles – all but three of them published this year – promoting this completely fake scandal. As Noam Chomsky commented to us earlier this month:
‘The charges of anti-Semitism against Corbyn are without merit, an underhanded contribution to the disgraceful efforts to fend off the threat that a political party might emerge that is led by an admirable and decent human being, a party that is actually committed to the interests and just demands of its popular constituency and the great majority of the population generally, while also authentically concerned with the rights of suffering and oppressed people throughout the world. Plainly an intolerable threat to order.’ (Noam Chomsky, email to Media Lens, September 9, 2018)
It takes someone of Chomsky’s integrity and standing to help us all to, in effect, pinch ourselves and recognise that the 107 Guardian articles really are fake and really have been published in a corporate newspaper that endlessly rails against ‘fake news’. We ask you, does it take more than a glance at this separate list of Guardian and Observer attacks on Corbyn published between 2015-2017 to understand that the antisemitism ‘scandal’ is just the establishment throwing the ethical kitchen sink at Corbyn having thrown everything else? Could it be more obvious that Corbyn’s mild socialism is simply not allowed as an option for voters?
More incredible even than all of this is the impossible, the unimaginable, the completely insane response to looming climate catastrophe. Set aside this summer’s staggering extreme weather events in the UK, Europe and right around the world. Set aside the giant hurricanes and typhoons that will soon, scientists warn, exceed the category 5 maximum-level strength, such that there will be ‘superstorms capable of taking out cities like Dubai or Tampa. They are here, right now’. Why would that not happen? CO2 levels are rising inexorably. Temperatures are rising inexorably. And last year, as energy analyst Barry Saxifrage reported:
‘humanity set another fossil fuel energy record of 11.4 billion tonnes of oil equivalent (Gtoe). A decade ago we were at 10 Gtoe of energy. In 2000, we were at 8 Gtoe.’
But these smaller scale disasters and warnings are dwarfed by the fact that the governments of the world have already sat back and watched the loss of Arctic ice guarantee climate mayhem – a loss already dramatically impacting the jet stream, which has become weaker and wavier (key factors enhancing the destructiveness of the recent superstorms) – without any perceptible sense of emergency. As former Nasa climate scientist James Hansen makes clear, the claim that leaders have done much of anything to address this genuinely existential threat is ‘bullshit’, a ‘fraud’.
There is no alarm, no sense of crisis. Our leaders have done nothing. Beyond platitudes, they have said nothing. Why not? Because they don’t exist. It is clear enough now that we, the people, in fact do not have representatives or leaders: we have puppets selected to respond to the needs of corporate interests for war and growth, and yet more growth. But if we are looking to someone in the cockpit to steer us away from the mountain of evidence of looming climate cataclysm, then there is no-one flying the plane. If we are looking to corporate media to recognise and respond to truth, then forget it – they have battened down the hatches, have excluded all but the most tepid dissent and have buried their heads in the sand.
So it’s up to you and us. Can anything be done? We genuinely do not know. But we do know that we cannot give up on everyone and everything we know and love; we cannot accept defeat. To give up on hope is to guarantee there is no hope. As the historian Howard Zinn said so well:
‘There is a tendency to think that what we see in the present moment will continue. We forget how often we have been astonished by the sudden crumbling of institutions, by extraordinary changes in people’s thoughts, by unexpected eruptions of rebellion against tyrannies, by the quick collapse of systems of power that seemed invincible.’ (Howard Zinn, A Power That Governments Can’t Suppress, City Lights, 2007, p.267)
2. THEORIES THAT KILL
On October 28, it was reported that within 72 hours three hate crimes killed two African-Americans in Kentucky, nail bombs were send to Democrats and to people who criticised Donald Trump. Finally, a man shouting anti-Semitic slurs opened fire inside a Pittsburgh synagogue, killing 11 people attending Jewish services. The men who committed these acts had one thing in common: they believed in conspiracy theories.
It is in this context that Christian Alt and Christian Schiffer have published their German-language book, Angela Merkel is Hitler’s daughter published by Carl Hanser Press. We have entered the age of “half-truths, fake news, paranoia, resentment and irrationality”, they write – and the age of conspiracy theories. The hallucination that Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, is “Hitler’s daughter” is one of the more laughable – albeit obscene and very dangerous – conspiracy theories. As a matter of fact, conspiracy theories are not really ‘theories’ at all.
Neither are they scientific. They are not a confirmed type of explanation about nature and society made in a way consistent with scientific methods. Conspiracy theories do not produce provable knowledge. As a consequence, they would better be labelled ‘conspiracy beliefs’ – or, even better, ‘conspiracy myths’. Their advantage, however, is that they appear to provide broad, internally consistent explanations that allow people to preserve beliefs in the face of uncertainty and contradictions.
With the rise of Facebook, etc, conspiracy myths seem to have developed their very own digital reality, which exists quite apart from analogue reality. Inside this digital space, a “large amount of bullshit” has been invented. In Germany it is no longer uncommon to hear conspiracy myths, such as “Secret forces created the refugee avalanche that is destroying our homeland”. There never was an avalanche. There are no secret forces. And refugees will not destroy our homeland.
Still, these are more than just dangerous misbeliefs. They are early signs of a rising fascism. Historically, the Nazi hallucination of a Jewish world conspiracy paved the way to Auschwitz. Today, conspiracy myths are high currency for nearly all rightwing politicians – and perhaps a few leftwing politicians as well. A clear indication of their ascendancy is the current occupant of the White House. Donald Trump is known to be a ‘birther’: ie, someone who believes that presideent Barack Obama did not have an American birth certificate.
Slightly less nuts but equally dangerous was the ‘Pizzagate’ conspiracy. No, Hillary Clinton did not run a child pornography network in the back room of a pizza shop. Yet conspiracy mythologists claimed that ‘CP stands for Cheese Pizza, but it also means child pornography’. Perhaps – as one of the world’s key demagogues, Steve Bannon, says – “The story is more important than reality”. Existing separate from the mainstream press, conspiratorial stories are distributed widely through the internet without fact-checking, counter-arguments, editing, etc. With quality journalism being increasingly eliminated, ever more people seem to believe what they read on Facebook.
Conceivably, every new authoritarian regime comes with a new form of communication. Hitler had a radio called Volksempfänger (People’s Receiver). His ideological successors – today’s populists – have the internet (Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, etc), via which “truthiness” (Stephen Colbert) is broadcast. One of the most hideous ‘truthinesses’ is the idea that ‘Obama was born in Kenya’. Today, many Americans still believe that.
In many cases, conspiracy myths work particularly well when they target individuals and small groups: Obama, Hillary Clinton, ‘witches who eat children, and Jews who poison wells and create Aids’. Conspiracy myths also mix well with romantic novels and sell millions of books. Today, many are created and broadcast by “bullshit factories”. These result in some Facebook users only seeing ‘truth’ as “echo chambers” or “mirror” of their own world view.
This is largely the case inside Germany’s crypto-Nazi party, the AfD (Alternative for Germany) – referred to by some as ‘A Fucking Disgrace’. The party has “by far more Facebook fans than party members” – 400,000 of them, compared to just under 30,000 members. A relatively high usage of Facebook was also found in the case of so-called Reichsbürger (sovereign citizen) Wolfgang P, who shot dead a policeman in 2016. Wolfgang P believed that “World War III was on the way, civilisation was breaking down and he had to defend his home”. His own particular conspiratorial hallucination had deadly consequences.
Here are a few other examples of conspiracy myths:
• Vaccination causes autism and smoke detectors listen to what we say.
• Che Guevara is the cousin of Ariel Sharon.
• Princess Diana only pretended to be dead.
• Michael Jackson had to die because he ‘rejected those in power’.
• The World Trade Center was blown up on George W Bush’s orders.
• 9/11 was a false flag attack organised by Dick Cheney.
• Israel and George Soros planned the war in Syria.
• Jews control the world.
• The holocaust never happened.
• The Rothschilds have already moved their gold to China.
• Anne Frank’s diaries are fakes.
The authors claim:
… women are more likely to believe in conspiracies compared to men and religious people are more likely than non-religious people to believe in them. Secondly, an increase of income comes with a decrease in believing in conspiracy theories.
While conspiracy myths have existed since feudal times and most likely even before that, one gets the impression that today, “whenever and wherever something exists, there is some sort of conspiracy myth” about it. Almost all conspiracy myths come with a hefty dose of paranoia as well as a circle-the-wagon feeling of “If you are with them, you cannot be with us”. Already those who utter the slightest possibility of disbelief are assessed as being “with them”.
What nearly all conspiracy myths have in common is their attempt to reduce complex social, economic and political issues to simple, black and white explanations. They explain them in a way that is easily understood. On the other hand, there are also some more elaborate conspiracy myths – and ‘Angela Merkel is Hitler’s daughter’ is among the best examples of those. Here it is:
Adolf Hitler died in a plane crash in the 1950s. But before that Hitler donated his sperm to Gretl Braun, the sister of Eva Braun. Eva Braun was the lover of the Führer. The insemination was successful and Gretl Braun gave birth to a girl called Angela. Angela is named after Eva Braun’s niece, Angela Maria ‘Geli’ Raubal.
This might sound laughable (actually it is), but, on the other hand, “more bullshit is always possible”, enriching the world of conspiracy theories on a daily level. Much of this applies to the motto, “Whatever excites and is outrageous will lead to more clicks … this is the e=mc2 of the internet.” Secondly, “‘True’ is whatever is good for us and our group.” A prime example was another particular conspiracy myth, one of the most hideous and dangerous examples: the infamous Protocols of the elders of Zion. Although shown to be a fake by the New York Times in 1921, its afterlife continued when Germany’s “Nazis distributed it massively during the 1920s”.
This conspiracy theory had extremely bitter consequences, ending in Auschwitz. Even today, “the protocols are still read and believed”, as the recent case of an AfD parliamentarian shows.
All this indicates that, as ridiculous as many such myths seem to be, “conspiracy theories have to be taken enormously serious”. Obviously, the people behind them never refer to themselves ‘conspiracy theorists’. They call themselves “truth seekers dedicated to enlightenment”. To be a conspiracy myth inventor, it is important to know that facts do not matter at all. What matters is the believability of a conspiracy.
Perhaps one of the true “masters of conspiracy theories was Adolf Hitler. He also believed in the protocols … similar tendencies can be detected in Donald Trump”.