Tuesday, October 03, 2006

“The Impact of Disinformation on Journalists”

We post Todd's contribution on disinformation:

“The Impact of Disinformation on Journalists”

by Todd Leventhal
Counter-Misinformation Officer
U.S. Department of State

Prepared for the September 14, 2006 London conference on “Xenophobia and Disinformation in the Media”

I have been asked to address “the impact of disinformation on journalists.” I would like to address this issue by placing it in a broader framework.

Four types of false stories

First, there are four broad types of false stories, which I refer to as disinformation, misinformation, urban legends, and conspiracy theories.

By disinformation, I mean a deliberate falsehood, spread for a political purpose by a government, individual, or group. The Soviet Union’s disinformation campaign that falsely claimed the AIDS virus had been invented in a Pentagon lab is a classic example, and some disinformation continues, by individuals and others.

By misinformation, I mean unintentional falsehoods. Whether due to deadline pressure, insufficient research, bias, or other causes, journalists – just as people in all walks of life – can make mistakes, which can become self-perpetuating, even if they are noticed and corrected, which doesn’t always happens.

The third type of false story is what folklorists refer to as an urban legend – a false story that is widely believed because it speaks to some fear, hope or other strong emotion, and gives voice to these emotions by putting them in story form. My favorite example is the widespread myth about microwave ovens, which was popular in the United States when microwaves began to be a mass consumer product. There was natural concern about this strange new technology, which heated substances invisibly, as if by magic. If it could heat food without any visible mechanism, what else might it be doing in an unseen way? Could it cause cancer or sterility? These types of fears seemed awkward to address directly, so they were expressed in the urban legend about the person who tried to dry their wet cat in a microwave oven only to have it explode. The story was almost certainly without any foundation, but it was widely repeated because it gave voice, in readily memorable story form, to widespread fears about this mysterious, new technology.

The fourth type of false story is the conspiracy theory. In this popular tale, powerful, evil forces are secretly manipulating events behind the scenes, but the veil covering these secret machinations has been pierced by an unsung, lowly hero, who divines all, is not intimidated by the evil forces despite their seeming omnipotent power, and promises to reveal all to us, so that we may be free from the clutches of the evil powers. This is a very powerful, seductive narrative. It has all the elements of myth, heroism, and a dramatic struggle against evil that people seemingly yearn for, but which are so absent from everyday life. So, one simply has to supply a devil figure suitable to a particular audience, a preposterous but menacing theory of secret machinations, and large number of people will believe this nonsense.

Of course, in the real world, not everything breaks down cleanly along these neat conceptual lines. Ascertaining whether someone is spreading a story out of malice, bias, stupidity, or a combination of factors is often impossible to determine, but I think it is useful to delineate these four broad types of false stories.

Journalism as antidote to conspiracy theories

Although such false stories can fool journalists, they usually don’t. I’ve found that most journalists are actually quite good at separating fact from fiction, much better than the general public. Indeed, a recent poll finds that mainstream journalism is actually an antidote to belief in conspiracy theories.

In July 2006, the Scripps Survey Research Center at Ohio University polled 1010 Americans. It found a widespread belief in conspiracy theories, as has long been the case, but also found that people who read a daily newspaper, listen to a radio broadcast, watch network television, or access mainstream media on the Internet are significantly less likely to believe in conspiracy theories than people who don’t use the mainstream media.

The French media provided an example of this in 2002. At that time, French conspiracy theorist Thierry Meyssan wrote a book, 9/11: The Big Lie, in which he put forward the novel proposition that no plane had hit the Pentagon on September 11; instead, it had been a cruise missile with a depleted uranium warhead launched by elements in the U.S. government in order to pave the way for an adventurist policy in the Middle East.

Meyssan, of course, was unable to explain how – if American Airlines flight 77 did not hit the Pentagon – the remains of its passengers and crew and its black box containing the cockpit voice recorder were found at the site, the human remains painstakingly identified by DNA. The book’s thesis is transparently absurd, but this did not prevent it from becoming a bestseller in France, and it has been translated into 19 different languages.

But, in contrast to its enthusiastic embrace by the public, the book was roundly savaged in the French press. The French newspaper Liberation called the book “The Horrifying Confidence Trick” – a play on its title in French, The Horrifying Fraud – and characterized it as “a tissue of wild and irresponsible allegations, entirely without foundation.” The rest of the French press severely criticized the book in the same tone.

Journalists – who research and write news stories for a living –spotted the obvious falsehoods in Meyssan’s book immediately, but the public – and not just in France – found the book much more appealing.

When Disinformation or Misinformation Succeeds

There are some instances, however, in which disinformation or misinformation does succeed in fooling at least some journalists.

First, there are a small number of extremist journalists who are, in essence, professional disinformers. They “want to be fooled” because they are committed to a paranoid view of the world for ideological or other reasons.

Second, there are a number of “hot button” issues that provoke widespread fears and unease, which make people – including some journalists – more prone to accept conspiracy theories.

The Soviet Disinformation Apparatus

Thankfully, the days are past in which we had to contend with the Soviet disinformation apparatus, which practiced disinformation on a truly industrial scale. Although this is only of historical interest, I think it is useful to sketch an idea of the breadth and depth of the Soviet’s disinformation activities, if only to contrast it with the present.

The KGB’s Service A had perhaps 60 or 80 professional employees dedicated to making up and spreading false stories, many of them aimed at the United States. False stories would be planted in the media, such as the claim that AIDS had been invented in a Pentagon lab; the KGB would prepare forgeries of U.S. government documents, and all this occurred on a regular, bureaucratized basis in dozens of countries throughout the world.

Ladislav Bittman, who served as deputy director of the disinformation department of the Czechoslovak secret service from 1964 to 1966 – before he defected in 1968 – has given some idea of how this worked. In testimony before the U.S. Congress in 1980, Bittman said the Czechoslovak disinformation department, which worked closely with the KGB, had 20-25 operatives, and conducted some 115 “active measures” operations in 1965, about half of them based on forgeries either leaked to the press or provided to foreign governments, the latter known as “silent forgeries.”

Bittman stated that President Nasser of Egypt was a major target of Soviet Bloc disinformation operations. He said Soviet, Czechoslovak and East German intelligence had heavily penetrated Egyptian intelligence and that many intelligence reports reaching Nasser were fabrications formulated in Moscow or Prague lying about alleged American policy toward Egypt, alleged U.S. plans to overthrow Nasser – anything that would undermine the U.S. position in Egypt.

Bittman said he ran a similar campaign in Indonesia in 1964 to 1965 that escalated anti-American feelings to the level of “political hysteria.” This led to a situation where the Indonesian Communist Party, which was not aware of the clandestine Soviet Bloc campaign, decided to exploit the situation and launched a coup that failed and led to the subsequent deaths of some 500,000 Communists and communist sympathizers. So, the active measures and disinformation campaigns that the Soviet Bloc organized could have enormous consequences, often not perceived at the time.

Bittman also said that during the mid-1960s the Czechoslovak intelligence service had several agents on its payroll who were members of the British parliament, although he did not know their names.

Bittman was one of the co-authors of the 1968 book Who’s Who in the CIA, which was published by Julius Mader in Berlin in 1968. Julius Mader was an East German intelligence officer. The book claims to expose some 3,000 CIA officers. Bittman said about half of them were actually CIA officers and the other half were just American diplomats or other officials. For example, one of the alleged CIA officers was then-Vice President Hubert Humphrey. This was an excellent way to cause all sorts of problems for U.S. diplomats.

What was probably the most successful form of Soviet disinformation was never made public. This was allegations – and forged documents – shown to leaders of various countries falsely claiming that the United States was planning to overthrow or assassinate them. Such allegations, or forged documents, are easy to prepare; their shocking nature can make them quite believable, and the KGB was able to stir up vast amounts of anti-American sentiments this way, for several decades. The costs of such systematic spreading of hatred and lies are considerable and long-lasting.

Communist Remnants

So, the disinformation spread by the Soviet Union and its satellites was formidable, and we’re all better off without it. But there are some remnants from this era, in several forms.

First, there are the splinter communist parties and individuals, who were unimportant as long as the Soviet Union was dominant on the left, but which have expanded their influence in the vacuum on the communist left that opened after the Soviet collapse. They continue to spread disinformation.

For example, there is an Arab communist named Muhammad Abu Nasr, who writes for a Web site called the “Free Arab Voice.” The “Free Arab Voice” publishes such newsworthy material as speeches by Arab delegates to the 1935 meeting of the Communist International, which championed what are known as “popular front” tactics.

Nobody but communists and scholars studying communism read such esoterica. By publishing these speeches, Muhammad Abu Nasr is advertising, in code, his message that contemporary Arab communists should also adopt “popular front” tactics and try to advance the cause of communism not by openly advocating communist ideology – which is a non-starter – but by seizing upon popular causes that have mass appeal. In today’s Arab world, this means anti-Israel and anti-U.S. policies.

So, the “Free Arab Voice” spreads disinformation about the United States, particularly with regard to Iraq, usually repeating false stories created by others. Occasionally, these stories reverberate widely.

For example, on March 1, 2005, the Arabic-language “Islam Memo” Web site, a pro-Iraqi insurgency Web site that frequently runs disinformation, falsely claimed that U.S. forces had used mustard gas in Iraq.

As he usually does, Muhammad Abu Nasr translated this phony report into English and posted it on the “Free Arab Voice” Web site.

It was then picked up by “Jihad Unspun,” a Web site with a much broader audience run by a Canadian woman who became convinced, after September 11, that al Qaeda was right, converted to Islam, and launched a Web site to allegedly counter what she perceived as the false Western “spin” about “jihad,” hence the name “Jihad Unspun.”

Aljazeera.com picked up the phony story from “Jihad Unspun.” Aljazeera.com is not the Web site of the Qatari satellite television station Al Jazeera, which has a “dot net” website. Aljazeera.com is a look-a-like, copycat Web site that apparently seeks to fool people into believing that is the Web site of the well-known Al Jazeera.

Aljazeera.com publishes all sorts of conspiracy theories and disinformation allegations, including the one about mustard gas.

The Aljazeera.com “mustard gas” story was picked up by Prensa Latina, the Cuban news service. And then Hugo Chavez, president of Venezulea, repeated the false claim, perhaps on the basis on the Prensa Latina story, at a press conference in India. This generated a huge number of media stories, by the Associated Press and others.

This entire process, from the obscurity of Islam Memo, through the Free Arab Voice, Jihad Unspun, Aljazeera.com, Prensa Latina, and Hugo Chavez, to the Associated Press and newspapers worldwide, took just five days, from March 1st to March 5th, 2005. So, even the most seemingly obscure disinformation can occasionally reach a worldwide audience quickly.

Saddam’s “Widows and Orphans”

There are remnants of other disinformation apparatuses as well, in particular what Adel Darwish has noted have been referred to as “Saddam’s widows and orphans” – those journalists in the Middle East who were formerly on Saddam’s payroll, and who continue their mischief, perhaps at the behest of other paymasters and/or out of spite, ideological conviction, or other motives.

There may be dozens of such “widows and orphans,” but I will mention only one of the most infamous – Mustafa Bakri, the editor of the Egyptian newspaper Al-Usbua. In 2003, Abbas al-Janabi, who had been the personal secretary of Saddam’s son, Uday, told me that Bakri had long been on Saddam’s payroll and was “very loyal” to him. Bakri and his newspaper have made numerous disinformation claims. One of the more inflammatory ones was the false claim that the United States and Israel have conspired to produce a new Quran called The True Furqan. Furqan is another word for Quran.

There is a real book called The True Furqan. It was written by evangelical Arab Christians who wish to convert Muslims to Christianity. It’s addressed “to the Arab nation specifically and the Muslim world collectively,” written in English and Arabic, and has a format similar to that of the Quran, but contains the Christian Gospel message. The book and its authors have nothing to do with the U.S. government. But a number of Muslims are outraged by The True Furqan and thus Bakri’s disinformation claim falls on fertile soil.

Mustafa Bakri’s brother Mahmoud is also active in disinformation. In January 2005, just after the South Asian tsunami, he claimed in Al-Usbua that the tsunami had been set off by a joint underground nuclear test by Israel, the United States, and India. This grand conspiracy claim was total nonsense, but it did make headlines in Turkey and presumably other places.

“Hot Button” Issues

A number of issues seem to set off “hot buttons” in the human brain and are particularly likely to be the subject of disinformation, misinformation, urban legends, or conspiracy theories. Several of the most inflammatory issues in recent years have been:

• Organ trafficking allegations
• Drug use
• Depleted uranium
• The September 11 attacks


AIDS, of course, is an extremely scary disease. In addition, when it first arose, it was not well understood how it spread or how it had originated. We now understand these issues much better than we first did, but it is only very recently that science has narrowed in on a particular species of West African chimpanzee, Pan troglodytes troglodytes, as the likely cause of HIV in humans, an event that probably occurred around 1930, plus or minus 20 years.

The diligent Soviet disinformation apparatus wasted no time blaming AIDS on United States, falsely claming that the disease had been created when medical experiments in the 1970s in the Pentagon went awry. A small number of fringe-group conspiracy theorists also came up with their own novel ideas, blaming the U.S. government, the Soviet Union, the United Nations, or other powerful “devil” figures, according to their respective worldviews, ideologies, and paranoias. Fear about the disease and the mystery of how this scourge had suddenly appeared, as if from nowhere, contributed to the ease with which disinformation stories and conspiracy theories spread, sometimes thrusting the story into the mainstream media:

• In 1987, CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather repeated the Soviet disinformation on air,
• In late 1986, the London Sunday Express ran a story based on conspiracy theorists’ musings on this topic.

Organ Trafficking Allegations

From 1987 to 1996, I spent literally thousands of hours countering what I call the “baby parts” story – the false allegation that Americans or others are adopting or kidnapping Latin American children in order to use them for organ transplants. Organ transplantation is a wonderful modern medical breakthrough, which has saved thousands of lives. But it also conjures up fears that perhaps our vital organs – or those of ones we love – will be stolen by others. There was a popular fictional movie on this theme in the mid 1980s – “Coma” – in which doctors placed people in comas and then removed their organs to sell them on the black market. This was a thrilling but entirely implausible scheme, if you examine the medical requirements. Nevertheless, it made a compelling movie.

Similarly, an urban legend arose in which a person who travels to a big, faraway, reputedly dangerous city (e.g., New York, Las Vegas, or Bangkok) is drugged at a bar and awakens in his hotel room to discover a scar on his back and a note explaining that he should go to a hospital as soon as possible because one of his kidneys has been stolen. Of course, there is no evidence that any such event ever occurred, but that did not stop this rumor from circulating widely and wildly by word of mouth during the 1980s and 1990s.

The international version of this rumor was the “baby parts” story, which involved adoption or kidnapping. Disturbingly, variants on this story won the most prestigious journalism prizes in France in 1995 and in Spain in 1996 – despite the fact that there was no truth to the story whatsoever. But there was plenty of hysteria and many people believed the story to be true, including the mother of a peasant child who went blind from disease in Colombia. She thought her child had had his corneas stolen – which he hadn’t – but her story was enough for credulous journalists, who knew a “good” story when they saw one. Their instinct for a saleable story was vindicated when they won prestigious prizes for false stories.

Drug Use

In 1980, Washington Post reporter Janet Cooke authored a dramatic front-page article “Jimmy’s World,” in which she told the shocking story of an eight year-old heroin addict. The story was the talk of the town and won the Pulitzer Prize. I read it more than 25 years ago, but still distinctly remember its final line, in which Jimmy’s mother’s supposed live-in boyfriend helps Jimmy shoot up, and then says, “Pretty soon, man, you got to learn how to do this for yourself.”

The totally fabricated story led to a futile citywide search for Jimmy. After Cooke won the Pulitzer Prize, falsifications in her biography came to light and she admitted that she had fabricated the story. She was immediately fired from The Washington Post.

Other Fabrications and Misinformation

Several other U.S. journalists have also engaged in fabrication and also been fired.

• New York Times reporter Jayson Blair was fired in 2003 for fabricating quotes and entire interviews and plagiarizing from other newspaper accounts.
• Boston Globe columnists Patricia Smith and Mike Barnicle were fired in 1998, after it was discovered that they had fabricated or plagiarized several stories.
• In 2004, USA Today writer Jack Kelly was fired for fabricating stories.

In 1998, CNN was forced to retract a story on “Operation Tailwind,” which had alleged that the U.S. military had used nerve gas in a mission to supposedly kill American defectors in Laos during the Vietnam War. An independent investigation found that these allegations could not be supported, and that CNN had “broadcast accusations of the gravest sort without sufficient justification and in the face of substantial information to the contrary.” Two key producers were fired. Peter Arnett, who was the correspondent on the story, left CNN shortly afterwards.

In 2004, CBS News apologized for a program and fired a producer for a story on President Bush’s National Guard service that relied on documents that appear to be forgeries. The turnabout damaged the reputation of CBS News anchor Dan Rather, who was the correspondent on the story. He retired as anchorman and managing editor of the CBS Evening News six months later.

The first amendment to the U.S. Constitution states that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press ….” Thus, the media is the only commercial enterprise that is specifically protected by the supreme law of the land in the United States. But such privileges are accompanied by tremendous responsibilities. The media and the public in the United States take the responsibilities of the press very seriously and journalists who have violated the public trust by fabricating stories or failing to meet reasonable expectations of objectivity have been dealt with very severely by the media organizations that employ them.

Depleted Uranium

Another “hot button” issue is depleted uranium, abbreviated as DU.

Depleted uranium possesses a number of qualities that make it uniquely well suited as an anti-armor munition. It is 1.7 times as heavy as lead; it is self-sharpening upon impact –its point actually becomes sharper when it strikes a hard object, rather than flattening out, as other anti-armor munitions do; and it is pyrophoric – it causes a fiery explosion. All these qualities make it unsurpassed as an anti-armor munition.

Of course, anything with the unfortunate last name “uranium” conjures up fearsome images in people’s minds. Uranium is inextricably associated with such disturbing thoughts as “the atomic bomb,” “fallout,” “radiation,” “radiation sickness,” “cancer,” and “birth defects.”

In reality, depleted uranium has little to do with any of these things. Depleted uranium is referred to as “depleted” because it is the byproduct of the process that occurs when natural uranium – which is only mildly radioactive – is enriched to make fuel for nuclear plants or weapons-grade uranium. In order to make these substances, the highly radioactive but rare isotopes of uranium are concentrated, leaving behind, as a byproduct, uranium that has been depleted of about 40% of its natural radioactivity, hence the name, depleted uranium. This substance is very mildly radioactive, and actually more dangerous to humans because of its chemical properties rather than its residual radioactivity. Uranium is a heavy metal, like mercury or lead, and it is not something you would want to scrape into your breakfast cereal. But, barring such reckless acts, its harmful health effects are far less than are popularly imagined.

Perhaps the most striking evidence of this is the lack of medical symptoms associated with uranium poisoning in 20 U.S. veterans from the 1991 Gulf War who were struck by shrapnel from depleted uranium shells that hit the armored vehicles in which they were riding, in “friendly fire” incidents. Some of these veterans have DU shrapnel pieces up to 20 mm long still embedded in their bodies. They have very high levels of uranium in their urine samples, but not one has developed leukemia, bone cancer, lung cancer, or any kidney abnormalities, despite the fact that they are literally walking around with pieces of depleted uranium inside their bodies. In addition, none of the children born to any of these men has any reported birth defects.

But these facts are not well known and, in any case, would be overwhelmed by the general hysteria about uranium. This is why it was easy for Saddam, Slobodan Milosevic, or anti-DU activists to stir up fears about depleted uranium. People naturally associate uranium with cancer and birth defects, so it’s very easy to convince people – with absolutely no evidence and simply by making unfounded assertions – that DU causes cancer and birth defects. In fact, the cancers and birth defects blamed on DU in Iraq were more likely caused by Saddam’s use of chemical weapons or his regime’s heavy industrial pollution, but DU was blamed as the easy culprit.

September 11 Conspiracy Theories

The latest conspiracy theory craze surrounds the September 11 attacks. There have been a number of books, DVDs, and a great many Internet articles alleging various conspiracy theories, many of them originating in the United States.

Occasionally, there is also a disturbing case in which professional journalists, who should know better, spread these theories. This happened last year in a series of documentaries about September 11 that aired on Al Jazeera.

The programs interviewed Thierry Meyssan, author of the book that claimed that no plane hit the Pentagon, and gave credence to this claim. It also repeated the equally absurd claim that United Airlines flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania after the passengers revolted and assaulted the cabin, had been downed by a missile. The 9/11 Commission Report contained a summary of the comments made during the final minutes of the flight, as recorded by the cockpit voice recorder. The hijackers can be heard debating whether to deliberately crash the plane due to the passenger revolt; the passengers can be heard trying to storm the cabin, and the hijackers can be heard deciding to crash the plane and then steering it into the ground. The actual tapes themselves have now been released – they were being held as evidence in the trial of Zaccarias Moussaoui and were not released previously because airing them could have prejudiced potential jurors.

The tapes also establish conclusively what The 9/11 Commission Report stated: the U.S. military did not learn that flight 93 had been hijacked until four minutes after it crashed. You can’t shoot down a plane if you don’t know it has been hijacked. In addition, the tapes show that U.S. military authorities never gave permission to the interceptor pilots to shoot down the flight. So, there’s absolutely no doubt about what happened, but the Al Jazeera programs unfortunately ignored the facts and instead publicized groundless conspiracy theories.

So, “hot button” issues that arouse deep-seated fears, such as AIDS, organ transplantation, drug use, depleted uranium, the September 11 attacks, and other similar such issues can lead to disinformation or misinformation being repeated by mainstream journalists, although this is, by far, the exception rather than the rule.

Widespread Belief in Conspiracy Theories

Despite the sophistication and commonsense of most journalists, recent polls indicate the disturbing degree to which the American and other publics embrace groundless conspiracy theories. For example, the July 2006 Scripps poll found that:

• 36% of Americans polled thought that it was either “very likely” or “somewhat likely” that the U.S. government “either assisted in the 9/11 attacks or took no action to stop the attacks because they wanted the United States to go to war in the Middle East.”
• 16% thought it was very or somewhat likely that “the collapse of the twin towers in New York was aided by explosives secretly planted in the buildings.”
• 12% thought it was very or somewhat likely that “the Pentagon was not struck by an airliner captured by terrorists but, instead, was hit by a cruise missile fired by the U.S. military.”
• 40% thought it likely that “officials in the federal government were directly responsible for the assassination of President Kennedy.”
• 38% thought it likely that “the federal government is withholding proof of the existence of intelligent life from other planets.”

I hope you find these numbers as appalling as I do, but – appalling or not – they are quite real and consistent with similar surveys of Americans and others that have been done in the past.

These numbers give us what might be called the baseline of popular credulity. Some 35% to 40% of the public, in the United States and, I think, elsewhere, are inclined to believe conspiratorial notions that are totally divorced from reality.

For example, a Pew global attitudes poll released in June 2006 revealed that from 53% to 65% of respondents in Jordan, Turkey, Egypt, and Indonesia do not believe that “groups of Arabs” carried out the September 11 attacks.

Rational vs. Rationalizing

Why do so many people believe such nonsensical things?

I don’t have a definitive answer to this very interesting question, but I do have some ideas.

I suspect that the main root cause of the tendency to believe conspiracy theories is closely linked to primal negative emotions such as fear, suspicion, hatred, and xenophobia – and the mind’s need to create a rational, or seemingly rational counterpart narrative that “proves” that these inchoate fears, suspicions, hatreds, etc. are justified. Just like the story of the wet cat that exploded in a microwave oven was spontaneously conceived and repeated in order to give voice and story form to our free-floating fears of new, frightening microwave technology, in the same way, I believe that conspiracy theories arise to give voice, story form, and “rational” “proof” that our elemental fears, suspicions, and hatreds are justified.

An anecdote related by Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, in his book How The Mind Works, illustrates how the mind may work in creating conspiracy theories.

Dr. Pinker relates the story of how “the brain blithely weaves false explanations about its motives:”

Split-brain patients have had their cerebral hemispheres surgically disconnected as a treatment for epilepsy. Language circuitry is in the left hemisphere, and the left half of the visual field is registered in the isolated right hemisphere, so the part of the split-brain person that can talk is unaware of the left half of his world. The right hemisphere is still active, though, and can carry out simple commands presented in the left visual field, like “Walk” or “Laugh.” When the patient (or actually, the patient’s left hemisphere) is asked why he walked out (which we know was a response to the command presented to the right hemisphere), he ingenuously replies, “To get a Coke.” When asked why he is laughing, he says, “You guys come up and test us every month. What a way to make a living.” (How The Mind Works, p. 422)

So, in this instance, the mind is more rationalizing than rational. Or, at least, when it lacks a knowable reason, it is extraordinarily supple at making one up.

I suspect that a similar process is at work in constructing conspiracy theories. A primal emotion, such as hate, fear, xenophobia, or suspicion exists – for whatever reasons – and the mind accommodates this emotion by constructing a seemingly rational model to support and justify it. “I got up to get a Coke,” or “You can’t trust the government – or some other powerful authority figure – because it hides the existence of alien life, or assassinated President Kennedy, or was involved in the September 11 attacks.” The mind applies its extraordinary rationalizing powers to come up with explanations that fit primal emotional needs.

Seeming Anomalies

The mind’s apparently urgent need to rationalize its foregone conclusions leads to one of the main arguments used by conspiracy theorists: the seeming anomaly.

Stripped down to its raw essence, the false reasoning behind many conspiracy theories follows this general pattern: “The fact that I can’t explain a seeming anomaly means that the government, CIA, or some other devil figure did it.”

French conspiracy theorist Thierry Meyysan uses such logic – or illogic – to powerful effect in his book 9/11: The Big Lie. Meyssan points to a seemingly impenetrable anomaly: if a plane crashed into the side of the Pentagon, then why didn’t it leave a black mark in the shape of a plane, with a recognizable shape of the fuselage and wings.

At first blush, this seems like a very powerful argument – why not, indeed! But, as it turns out there are reasons – known and unknown. The video surveillance camera footage of the plane hitting the Pentagon was released recently. It was being withheld from the public so that playing it would not prejudice any potential jurors in the Zaccarias Moussaoui case, but once he had been tried, it could be released. Unfortunately, it is time lapse, not continuous, photography; it shows a succession of still photos taken every second, so the nose of the plane is only visible in one frame entering the camera’s frame of reference, while the next photo was taken after the bulk of the plane impacted the building. But it does seem to me that the photos show that the plane hit the ground before it hit the Pentagon, which might explain why it did not make a shadow-like imprint on the building. Also, an eyewitness, Pentagon employee Frank Probst, saw the right wing smash into a portable generator outside the Pentagon, shearing off part of that wing prior to impact with the building. Probst also saw the left engine strike a ground-level external vent just outside the Pentagon walls. So, both wings were damaged prior to impact, although this information is not widely known.

Also, of course, we are not very familiar with the marks that planes leave when they hit buildings. I doubt that few of us have seen many such instances, so although we have an idea in our minds about what such an impact mark should look like, these ideas may not be very realistic.

By focusing on seeming anomalies – and many of them can be conjured up – conspiracy theories often succeed in planting doubt about the “official” version of events. Then, they rely on the mind’s suggestibility and the fact that some, if not all, of us are prone to conspiracy thinking, to make their unsubstantiated assertions.

My wife recently received an e-mail from a friend titled “500 Questions about 9/11.” It asks a lot of stupid questions, some of which are easy to answer, some of which take more time, and some of which may remain unknowable. But the implicit message of the e-mail is that “there is no answer to these questions” and if there supposedly is no answer to them, then “something must be up” – the “bad guys” – whoever they might be – must be up to their tricks again.

In real life, there are some anomalies that have never been adequately explained. One of the most mundane but inexplicable ones is the familiar conundrum: what happens to the socks that are lost in the dryer? No one I know seems to have a satisfactory answer to this problem, which is widespread, at least in the United States. And, I have seen an Internet advertisement for British-made “Soklok” devices that promise to solve this problem, so it seems to be an international affliction.

This would seem to be a relatively straightforward issue. The house is a “closed system,” at least to extent that we do not expect socks to be able to independently escape from its confines. Various theories have been put forward on where the socks go, but none of them are satisfactory, so this unexplained anomaly persists. Yet, we do not suppose that there is a government conspiracy to steal our socks – or, more plausibly, one by the sock manufacturers – instead, we seem to accept this minor annoyance for which there seems to be no explanation with good humor and no great sense of alarm.

In short, there are some things in life that are inexplicable, but their existence does not constitute evidence for postulating a vast conspiracy.

When our socks are missing, we are annoyed, but not scared. So, we do not invent conspiracy theories. In fact, we joke about this inexplicable fact. On the other hand, things like the September 11 attacks, the Kennedy assassination, the possibility of alien life, AIDS, organ transplants, depleted uranium, chemical weapons, and similar phenomena are scary. When we get scared, we tend to look for threats, for enemies, to be on our guard, to look for anomalies – things that are wrong or out-of-place in our environment. And we see them, even when they’re not there. And we build fantastic conspiracy theories that are entirely imagined, because this is what our fear tells us to do.


So, in summary, state-sponsored disinformation on a global scale, as practiced by the Soviets, is gladly a thing of the past, with some remnants carrying on this nasty tradition.

Like the poor, misinformation will always be with us. The advent of the Internet does provide a superior way of checking facts quickly, but the foibles of human nature dictate that there will always be a market for a story that’s “too good to check,” as the saying goes.

Conspiracy theories and urban legends are, likewise, unfortunate constants of human perception and misperception, for reasons that psychologists are better suited to address than me.

Journalists, as a group, are much less prone to be fooled by conspiracy theories, urban legends, disinformation, and misinformation than the general public.

There are exceptions, including “Saddam’s widows and orphans,” other fringe-group activists and fabricators, and occasional unfortunate endorsements of mistaken allegations about “hot button” issues, but these remain the exception rather than the rule. Indeed, when it comes to disinformation, I see the vast majority of journalists as part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

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