Conspiracy, What Conspiracy?

If I were a young man starting out in life with nothing but ambition and a sandwich in my rucksack, I think I would become a conspiracy theorist. It’s a growing field, requires no particular qualification, is open to all comers, and has no professional body to keep out or expel those malcontents who break its regulations, of which, incidentally, there aren’t any.

In other words it’s a branch of journalism which, as it happens, is what all the surplus graduates in cultural and media studies were striving to enter until recently—so much so that conspiracy theorising was becoming a disturbingly competitive occupation. That led to its developing the sure hallmark of a desirable career—camouflage. Its most gifted practitioners now try to persuade anyone who is thinking of a life devoted to conspiracy theorising to do something else.

John O’Sullivan appears in every Quadrant.
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“There really aren’t any conspiracies worth investigating these days, old boy, and those who want to do so are mainly cranks, extremists and other no-hopers. Try coding.”

My first advice to my younger self, therefore, is not to go to the classified ads in newspapers looking for vacancies in conspiracy investigation. There won’t be any. Work of that kind is very much frowned on in principle—but not necessarily in practice.

As the cognoscenti know, however, much the same trade now goes under the heading of “Disinformation” or in full, as we shall see later, “Disinformation, Misinformation, and Malinformation”. And a leading principle of disinformation studies is that since conspiracies don’t exist, investigating them is spreading disinformation.

Hence, those who peddle such “far right” conspiracy theories as QAnon or Pizzagate (according to which Satan worshippers and paedophiles are joined with Democrat elites in a vast anti-Trump conspiracy) are easily dismissed as rubes. And worse. But that’s quite a different exercise from when the Washington Post and the New York Times are countering the Kremlin’s disinformation that helped Trump get elected in 2016.

Which was? Well, isn’t that the only possible explanation of his election? Oh, and surely it explains Brexit too.

To unravel this riddle, we must begin by distinguishing between disinformation’s original meaning and its new usage. Originally, it referred to a tactic of Soviet agitprop: namely, planting anti-Western fictions in Third World media and then citing them in Western media as other people’s scoops. Simple, easy, straightforward. You proved the disinformation by tracing how the original story spread and was accepted (even if it lacked supporting evidence) because it came from an independent or “neutral” source.

New-style disinformation requires even less evidence. You don’t have to show the origins of a fake report and how they are linked to the crime. No, you infer the crime itself (for example, of fraudulent and undue public influence) from the fact that something undesirable has happened and then attribute it to someone you think benefits from it.

A few years ago, my own organisation, the Danube Institute in Budapest, joined others in diagnosing the disinformation that was allegedly pushing Central European countries into pro-Russian or at least anti-anti-Russian attitudes. That drift was certainly happening; opinion polls showed it clearly. But it wasn’t clear that the Russians had a great deal to do with it, though it certainly suited their book. There were other possible drivers of it too, such as popular resentments over the harsh side-effects of economic “shock therapy”.

It wasn’t possible to separate out all these various influences, and not many people tried to do so. It was too easy therefore to blame local politicians for “spreading Russian disinformation”—especially if you disliked them on other grounds—and thus acting as bad actors in the political game. From there it’s a short step to accusing them of being “Russian assets”. Or worse.

At the time, I imagined that these disinformation exercises were confined to encouraging European governments to maintain support for NATO in areas close to Russia. That would be a legitimate aim even if its methodology was suspect. But two recent events have shown conclusively that “countering disinformation” went far deeper and covered much more territory throughout Western countries, above all the US, than most of us felt even in nightmares.

The first was that Elon Musk, having bought Twitter, opened up its files for examination by three journalists, Matt Taibbi, Bari Weiss and Michael Shellenberger, all of whom began as progressives but who have migrated slightly rightwards in response to the woke Left’s cancel culture, at times directed against them. Musk’s choices were obviously dictated by the need to have independent-minded judges from undeniable journalistic backgrounds untainted by conservative or Republican sympathies in order to ensure that the media couldn’t ignore whatever they found.

And their findings were sensational, starting with Taibbi’s discovery that one media outlet, Hamilton 68, which was devoted entirely to “countering disinformation” from Russian sources, was recommended without reserve by high intelligence officials, and was treated as authoritative by all the mainstream media, was a fraud from start to finish. Twitter officials themselves noticed that, as Taibbi found in the files, “instead of tracking how Russia influenced American attitudes, Hamilton 68 simply collected a handful (actually several hundred) of mostly real, mostly American accounts and described their organic conversations as Russian scheming”.

As early as 2017 Twitter’s head of trust and safety, Yoel Roth, told his colleagues in an email that this was “bullshit” and that they should expose it. In the end they kept quiet—and so, incidentally, did most of the mainstream media when Taibbi revealed that they had been gullibly transmitting a pack of disinformation that slandered innocent Americans and gave a false picture of successful Russian manipulation of US opinion.

Why did they keep quiet? About America’s mainstream media we can only speculate, but about Twitter we know. For the second event that greatly expanded our understanding of the character and range of “disinformation” was the publication in the Tablet of “A Guide to Understanding the Hoax of the Century”, by its associate editor, Jacob Siegel, a former US intelligence officer who had seen the early development of these electronic and social science techniques in his service in Iraq.

On the narrow point of Twitter’s inaction over Hamilton 68, Siegel reveals that a Twitter executive, Emily Horne, advised against revealing the fraud. The Big Tech giant knew that the think-tank behind Hamilton 68, the Alliance for Securing Democracy, was guilty in his words of “the charge it made against others: peddling disinformation that inflamed political divisions and undermined the legitimacy of democratic institutions”. She thought Twitter should be careful about pushing back against ASD publicly.

Again, why exactly? Might Ms Horne’s judgment have reflected her previous experience and interests as director of strategic communications in President Obama’s National Security Council only months before? Siegel evidently thinks so; in the course of writing his 13,000-word study (which includes a major scoop on almost every page) he sees the gradual merging of four major national institutions and their interests into a new over-arching system of government: “the political goals of the Democratic party; the institutional agenda of the intelligence and security agencies; the narrative power and moral fervor of the media; and the tech companies’ surveillance architecture”.

All these came together to launch and protect the first massive project of the Disinformation Age: namely, the attempt to depict President Trump as an agent and friend of Vladimir Putin, who had even placed him in office. Among the techniques used were an official Intelligence Community Assessment, issued by the Obama administration just days before Trump took office, that purported to record the joint conclusion of seventeen US intelligence agencies that Putin had intervened to help Trump’s election, when in fact it was a political document written without the input of the officials usually assigned to this task and supervised by a CIA director who was deeply hostile to Trump.

Though that attempt ultimately failed after two years of disinformation about disinformation, it hobbled the Trump administration for all four years. It also inflicted serious damage on the practice of democratic politics by, as Siegel argues, conflating the anti-establishment politics of domestic populists with acts of war by foreign enemies. And, finally, it went beyond its initial techniques of simply making things up by expanding its definition of thought-crimes from disinformation and misinformation to “malinformation”—now defined as statements that are “true and factual but … intentionally conveyed in order to inflict actual harm or cause the imminent threat of actual harm on a person, organisation or country, sometimes by taking quotes out of context”.

And the disinformation censors now have a new target, namely right-wing extremists (who can be easily identified by taking quotes out of context). It seems we can’t rely on the mainstream media to protect us. So I take off my hat to Matt Taibbi, Mike Shellenberger, Bari Weiss, Jason Siegel, Jeff Gerth of the Columbia Journalism Review who held the media to account for being AWOL on this, and Glenn Greenwald of Substack who was an early defender of traditional journalistic curiosity. More power to their elbows.

For myself, you may have thought I wrote above that I was becoming a conspiracy theorist? Are you sure? It doesn’t sound like me, you know? My guess is that you have fallen victim to malinformation. Are you perhaps a right-wing extremist?

Anyway, I would never dream of becoming a conspiracy theorist. No, I’m doing an apprenticeship as a Disinformation Specialist. It’s a growing field, requires no particular qualification, is open to all comers, and has many professional bodies to keep out or expel those malcontents who break their regulations of which, incidentally, there are as many as there are algorithms in the metaverse, all unknown.

5 thoughts on “Conspiracy, What Conspiracy?

  • ianl says:

    >”Musk’s choices were obviously dictated by the need to have independent-minded judges from undeniable journalistic backgrounds untainted by conservative or Republican sympathies in order to ensure that the media couldn’t ignore whatever they found.” [quote from J O’S within the article above]

    Yep, exactly. The lefties squealed at 3000dB (or thereabouts) initially, then suddenly went dead quiet. One can easily tell the truth of a deeper story through the rapidity with which the MSM drop it.

    Now we have a new category of thought crime: MALinformation, where something that is factually true (such as the Twitter files) is to be smashed upon if the lefties dislike it. We have spiteful adolescents running the various Deep States and MSM now. True Spite …

  • rosross says:

    I would have thought we could safely assume that most nations with any power would be playing the disinformation game. Surely that is a given. The US certainly does, the UK continues to attempt to do so, and therefore, why would not Russia, China and other players?

    However, the reason why it is all far more dangerous is that, as you touch upon, we do not have real journalism with integrity, let alone curiosity. When I entered the field in the Seventies, there were still good journalists and respectable media, trained and held to ethics of balance, as much objectivity as possible, and fact-based statements. That has all gone with a few valuable exceptions, including Quadrant.

    However, what is also clear is that information must be sifted because all media, even the better ones, have blind spots on certain topics. I have no problem with anyone publishing clear agendas which amount to propaganda, as long as they do it for all sides.

    And, as we see, citizen journalism, which also has agendas, has grown and provides perspective for mainstream media and the few media outlets which continue to strive for facts, integrity, ethics and balance.

  • pgang says:

    More or less off topic, but I have to say that I’ve never been more disgusted with the media or politics than over the latest commentary on the Ben Roberts Smith saga. Who would send their children to war for this nation, when all you can expect is hate in return?

    • Lo says:

      Thank you. My gentle husband was in the army for 6 years and is very clear that the members of the SAS have to march to the beat of a very different drum. War is cruel, brutal, unpredictable and we in our domestic comfort and safety cannot relate to it and neither should we be able to sit around and comment on it with hate and envy.
      A true hero, not a football or other media hero. How dare we even comment on how he and his team survived to do what we’d required.

  • Peter Marriott says:

    I agree with pgang and Lo. It’s not over yet though I read , as there may be an appeal and the SAS man has Stokes of Channel 7 backing him I think.
    This issue makes me warm to Channel 7 and go cold on Channel 9 I’m afraid, and I never expected any support for the SAS from the ABC.

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