How Conspiracy Theorists Distort Reality

Sep 12th, 2011 | By | Category: Conspiracy Theories

Though media in Pakistan is filled with half-baked conspiracy theories, such non sense is by no means a Pakistani invention. Actually, many of the most popular anti-American conspiracy theories are connected with tales concocted by America’s own conspiracy theorists. In an ironic twist of rhetorical convenience, conspiracy walas who term every American journalist a CIA agent will just as quickly grasp onto their American counterparts and treat them as more honest than Pakistani journalists who do not help perpetuate their illogical stories.

On the anniversary of 9/11 this year, American news website Slate published a guide to understanding how American conspiracy theorists constructed their own tales about the 9/11 attacks. While this piece is about American conspiracy theories, though, the ingredients are easily identified as the same for our own homemade conspiracy theories. See if you can recognise them.

Step One: Don’t Spare the Melodrama

In the past 10 years, a new genre of film has proliferated on the Web: the 9/11 conspiracy documentary. Aided by the rise of YouTube and some not-so-subtle propaganda techniques, these feature-length films have become the movement’s No. 1 recruitment tool, often attracting the devotion of college and high-school students. Their makers use several methods to elicit maximum emotional impact, whether the film is presenting the zaniest possible theories, like the online hit Loose Change, or merely implying that the Bush administration took part in a cover-up of some generic sort, like Michael Moore’s record-breaking documentary Fahrenheit 9/11.

First, as dramatic and horrifying as the events of that day were, 9/11 conspiracy documentaries will always attempt to dramatize them further. The 2004 film 911: In Plane Site opens with slow-motion footage of the Twin Towers being hit and coming down over intense orchestral music. Slow-motion disaster shots and melodramatic music are two key components in the agitprop toolbox.

Step Two: Offer a Historical Recap

Because most Americans are disinclined to imagine that the government is capable of perpetrating something like 9/11 on its own people, 9/11 conspiracy documentaries have to convince them that this is indeed a realistic possibility. The history lesson is a standard plot device of such films as the anti-Semitic Missing Links and Alex Jones’ 2006 film TerrorStorm. These films usually cite historically revised accounts of what they see as government conspiracies and false-flag attacks. JFK’s assassination, the USS Liberty incident, and the claim that FDR knew about Pearl Harbor in advance are three of the most popular narratives, as is the infamous-in-conspiracy-circles Northwoods Memo. For good measure, the films usually throw in widely accepted cases of government deception, such as the Gulf of Tonkin incident and the Reichstag fire. Loose Change 9/11: An American Coup, the fourth edition of Dylan Avery’s blockbuster, covers most of these and throws in the alleged fascist plot to overthrow FDR in the 1930s. As an added bonus, Avery is able to tie everything back to the Bush family.

Step Three: Frame Reality

A key claim of the 9/11 conspiracy theorists is that the media are taking part in the cover-up, either maliciously or inadvertently. At the same time, conspiracists rely on mainstream media reporting for most of their clues as to how an inside job possibly occurred. Their films have found a clever way to bridge these contradictions. Both Loose Change 9/11: An American Coup and the lighter conspiracy film 9/11: Press for Truth take mainstream media reports and frame them within television sets. This gives the segments an otherworldly, Big Brother quality when trying to convince the viewer that the mainstream media present nothing but corporate propaganda. At the same time, for news reports that add credibility to the conspiracy theory, the framing device plays to the idea that if it’s on TV, then it must be true.

Step Four: Make Bush Look Really Evil

Another key to any good 9/11 conspiracy film is to make George W. Bush and his Cabinet members look as sinister as possible. Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 is not a conspiracy film, but it does spend the first 45 minutes throwing out a wide net of potential conspiracy theories involving Afghan oil pipelines, a cover-up of Saudi complicity in 9/11, and something about the Carlyle Group. Most conspiracy films ham fistedly make Bush appear evil by juxtaposing shots of the former president with shots of the attacks themselves, but Moore is far subtler. The Fahrenheit 9/11 opening credits depict the Skeletor-like Bushies getting their makeup done over creepy acoustic guitar strings, or “third-world atrocity music,” as the Weekly Standard put it. Spooky!

Step Five: Connect the Dots

In his excellent look inside the world of conspiracists, Among the Truthers, Jonathan Kay coined the term “flowchart conspiracism” to describe the phenomenon of conspiracy theorists connecting the dots between disparate ideological elements in a vast web beneath some overarching evil force, like the Illuminati or the reverse vampires. The anti-Semitic film War by Deception spends most of its time connecting the 9/11 attacks back to Israel and Jews in the Bush administration, but this flowchart ties a 9/11 Commission cover-up back to Bush himself. The shaky shots of a flowchart on a chalkboard add to the sense of danger: This information is so explosive that we’re nervous even showing it to you.

We highly recommend watching the full slideshow at the Slate website which includes additional links and video clips that demonstrate each step. Even though the examples are only 9/11 conspiracies, the different elements are easily recognised from all variety of conspiracy media.

As you can see, just as poets, dramatists, and songwriters have developed forumulas for creating entertaining pieces, conspiracy theorists have developed formulas for manipulating the emotions and the senses of the masses to convince them of their tales. These formulas can be used by political forces to promote a particular agenda or ideology, or they can be used to create sensational dramas that boost ratings. Whatever the reason, though, conspiracy theories use these ingredients to create one specific product – a false perception of reality in the minds of the public.

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