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TPM Live Chat Guest Says ‘Information Can’t Be Fully Controlled’: Read The Convo

Law professor and conspiracy theory expert Mark Fenster joined TPM Prime members in the Hive on January 15 to chat about the powerful grasp conspiracy theories hold on U.S. culture. Fenster, the author of “Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture,” studies how and why conspiracy theories circulate. He talked to Prime members about everything from the JFK assassination to Sandy Hook “truthers.” Read snippets from the conversation below:


“What about real government conspiracies: the Manhattan Project, Bay of Pigs invasion, Area 51, etc.); how effective were they in keeping themselves ‘secret’? Do the real government conspiracies support the possibility of the popular conspiracies we hear about or are large scale conspiracies actually impossible?”


“Over the long term it is indeed incredibly difficult to keep secrets within the government bureaucracy—not only for the obvious reason that information leaks from whistleblowing dissidents, political opponents, gloryseekers, and the like, but as a result of existing laws like FOIA (remember those Iraq Oil Field Maps?) and simply by means of bureaucratic errors. If I might plug the book I’ve just completed (tentatively titled The Transparency Fix), I make the argument there that complete secrecy proves an improbable goal given all the ways that information escapes the government, which is generally a good thing, because information can’t fully be controlled.”


“I’m curious how you think the Internet has played into the prevalence and currency of conspiracy theories… The Elite has much less ability to act as gatekeepers. And by and large I think most of us would say that is a good thing. …But that reality also makes it much easier for baseless claims, narratives, etc. to proliferate and live on in a kind of digital afterlife long after they are discredited. How does that fit into the mix?”


“The existence and proliferation of digital texts is not the same as belief and effects, and here I’m more skeptical that the Internet has changed everything. …I think we notice C/Ts more, whether in blogs, websites, comment sections, on Twitter, etc. C/Ts are also — and this predated the Internet by several decades — a more observable part of mainstream culture… We might be more willing to discuss them, might know them better, and might use them to make jokes with friends — all in ways different from the pre-Internet era. But it’s not clear to me that people believe them more strongly or in greater numbers.”


“I’m curious as to when a particular ‘theory’ about an event or sequence of events becomes a ‘conspiracy theory’ rather than something worth actual investigation. Is this completely dictated by the powers that be, putting forth the ‘accepted’ reasons, motives and details of the events in question?”


“They can be characterized broadly to include any understanding of power that views its exercise as secret and control to be in the hands of a few people. Try finding any elected official or ideologically identifiable op-ed writer—or, really, anyone who says anything interesting about contemporary politics—who hasn’t said something like that! Viewed this way, we are all conspiracy theorists, both because the US has a deeply populist suspicion of concentrations of power (and good for us) and because power is unevenly distributed.

C/T can also be characterized as the belief in a universal, singular entity that controls everything — the master of a totalizing system. Here, the universe of those who articulate that view is much smaller, though still much larger than zero. The slipperiness of that definition makes it difficult to agree on precisely what we talk about when we talk about C/Ts, other than that which is out of bounds and crazy. Unless you self-identify as a conspiracy theorist — and lambaste as naive anyone who believes foolishly in ‘coincidence.’

And this slipperiness also makes who gets to identify the conspiracy theorist really important. Identifying the other as a conspiracy theorist is a key rhetorical strategy in political arguments that can be effective in defining down the opposition. At the same time, identifying the conspiracy can be a pretty effective strategy, too! Take that, Right Wing Conspiracy!”


“We heard a lot from Ben Carson and Rick Santorum about the “threat” of an EMP attack and how it would devastate the country in last night’s GOP debate. Ted Cruz and Mike Huckabee didn’t bring up EMPs at the debate, but they have at various events in recent months. Any insight into how EMP attacks, which strike me as something that’s more the territory of science fiction or conspiracy theory outlets like Infowars and WND, worked their way into the GOP candidates’ rhetorical arsenal on national security?”


“If you follow the Google trail on this you will see simpler, more familiar explanations than C/T: EMPs are viewed by a core, concentrated group of individuals and institutions committed to expansive military programs and aggression as an existential technological threat that needs powerful, expensive programs for our defense. Look out: Iran, terrorists, ISIS! Jim Woolsey – who must surely be part of a conspiracy somewhere, even though he often seems to be railing against whoever is in power for insufficiently following his advice – seems to play an outsized role in promoting the threat and offering legislative and expensive solutions. I agree though that the fringey nature of the EMP threat and proponents’ intense commitment to EMPs as a threat make it seem akin to a conspiracy theory.”


“What’s your reaction to the James Tracy situation? Are his methods (I’m thinking here of his direct challenge to the parents of one of the Sandy Hook victims to produce evidence their child ever really existed) within the bounds of professional responsibility for an academic studying conspiracy theories? Should the norms of academic freedom protect his activities?”


“If he was doing his job in a manner equivalent to his tenured colleagues and this was simply something he did on the side, then it’s deeply troubling, even if I find the conspiracy theory he espouses meritless and loathsome… He crossed a line from espousing a theory to actively disrupting people’s lives if, as has been reported, he was calling victims’ families — one has to also be sympathetic to his university and its administration, if only because they are facing a situation where academic freedom conflicts with the dispassionate inquiry that the academy expects… I hate the slippery slope metaphor, though, since it’s overused and explains nothing. Can I just say that the broad principle of academic freedom, strictly enforced, creates issues when academics engage in troublesome, unpopular activities? That way I don’t get in trouble.”

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