Right-wing conspiracy theories dominate the news these days, but conspiracy-mindedness comes in other flavors too. It was left-wingers who once accused me of conspiracy — and made me skeptical of all varieties.
According to Adam Enders, a professor who studies conspiracy theories and politics, "powerlessness and anxiety and uncertainty" are helping to fuel what a Politico story on living in the "golden age of conspiracy theories" calls our current "pandemic of misinformation." But years ago my own experience showed me, at a micro-level, how easy it is to fall into conspiratorial thinking.
At the time I was co-editorial coordinator of the Linewaiter's Gazette, the biweekly newsletter of the Park Slope Food Coop in Brooklyn, New York, whose prices are kept low by a member-labor system where everyone does a few hours of work each month. The Coop is run on cooperative, democratic principles, and many of its members are passionate about those principles.
As the Coop's main organ of information, the Gazette was at the center of many fierce disputes that arose, and my workslot as coordinator included advising the editors on knotty issues. While our reporters had to write objective features and news articles, contributions from members were often heated and disputatious. We published everything we received, except for certain exclusions specified by Coop policy, including hearsay, vague or unsubstantiated accusations, and odious comparisons, like calling someone a Nazi.
The inevitable errors and miscommunications became sources of suspicion.
But we were not a very efficient publishing operation. Editors, reporters, layout team and proofreaders worked in four rotating teams, almost entirely without supervision. Like all Coop workslots, Gazette jobs were essentially volunteer, done well or poorly depending on who did them and what problems life threw at people the week they did their workslot. The inevitable errors and miscommunications became sources of suspicion.
My co-coordinator and I believed the newsletter must include all voices, but we also had to follow the policy and were frequently called on to help editors decide, say, whether a member's attack on someone was printable. We had no trouble rejecting a letter that called someone a modern-day Hitler, a thug or a racist. But most problematic submissions were less clear-cut, and even though many Gazette editors were publishing professionals, these were often tough judgments. Certainly, we made mistakes, but we tried earnestly to be fair.
I was startled to find how frequently we were accused of deliberately conspiring to squelch democracy.
Usually, member-contributors just got angry because they didn't like our decisions. But I was startled to find how frequently we were accused of deliberately conspiring to squelch democracy. People often saw the Gazette as a cabal plotting against their side in whatever the current dispute was by rejecting submissions, making insidious edits or changing headlines or subheads. Even errors by the layout team, often nonprofessionals impatient to spend their Saturday doing something else, were interpreted as deliberate editorial interference aimed at undermining a writer's argument.
One letter missed its issue because the Coop office mislaid it and never sent it to the editor. We printed it in the next issue, and I explained to its aggrieved author that the editor could not have deliberately censored it because he never knew it existed. But for years she waylaid me on the street to complain and raised that incident at meetings to prove the editors connived with the paid Coop staff to prevent pro-democracy voices from being heard.
Another frequent problem arose because the software used to lay out the issues stripped all the formatting from the copy and the team often didn't bother to put it back in. Members whose italics vanished in this way saw not a lazy person skimping on their work slot but a calculated attempt to undermine whatever argument they were making — an argument that they considered crucial to the well-being not just of the Coop but of society as a whole. I tried to explain the nuts and bolts of production to a few people but no one wanted to hear.
In time I got used to being "Princess Stephanie" who ran the newsletter "like Pravda."
This level of passion and righteous indignation made the prospect of rejecting yet another letter for violating the spirit of "cooperation" extremely wearisome, though in time I got used to being "Princess Stephanie" who ran the newsletter "like Pravda," as one frequent correspondent whose letters we often rejected put it. More importantly, I learned how easy it is to fool yourself into perceiving a pattern where none exists — a phenomenon called apophenia, "the condition of seeing or imagining patterns in random occurrences."
Pattern recognition is evolutionarily useful and hard-wired into our brains to help us make sense of the world. But it's also subject to misperception. That's how intelligent people with good principles and upright intentions can put together a string of completely unrelated events to create an entirely plausible assumption of malign intent that just happens to be totally wrong. According to Enders, the conspiracy expert, conspiracy-mindedness isn't partisan: "The political and psychological and social motivations that fuel beliefs in conspiracy theories are shared among all people." And in fact, even to me, the Coop members' suspicions would have seemed plausible — except I knew the actual causes were poor judgment, incompetence, lousy communications and carelessness instead.
Other research on the psychology of conspiracy theories suggests that one reason people turn to conspiracy as an explanation for events is they feel powerless — those "on the losing (vs. winning) side of political processes also appear more likely to believe conspiracy theories." I suspect the conviction that the Gazette deliberately suppressed their speech appealed to Coop members who had high principles but no power to implement them, and felt frustrated that other people either didn't agree with them or didn't care.
This type of misapprehension is common in arenas of far greater significance. "Any historian of warfare knows it is in good part a comedy of errors and a museum of incompetence," historian Richard Hofstadter writes in Harper's, "but if for every error and every act of incompetence one can substitute an act of treason, many points of fascinating interpretation are open to the paranoid imagination." As Enders' study explains, often "beliefs … are self-reinforcing"; "each … serves as evidence for each of the other beliefs."
Errors and incompetence make it hard to actually carry out a conspiracy.
In my experience, though, errors and incompetence make it hard to actually carry out a conspiracy. Even if I'd tried, I couldn't have organized acts of censorship because I had no real authority over the eight editors, who made their own decisions about what to put in their issues and could not be corralled into a united front. I didn't supervise the layout team, nor could I fire anyone for doing a bad job.
Of course not all conspiracies are imaginary. It's well documented that the FBI carried out an extensive campaign to undermine and destroy civil rights, Black Power, antiwar and other activists between 1956 and 1971. President Nixon was part of the conspiracy to cover up the Watergate break-in. Oliver North and three other men were charged with conspiracy to defraud the U.S. in the Iran-Contra affair. And right now, the House committee investigating the January 6 attack on the Capitol is uncovering what they term "a criminal conspiracy" to overturn the results of the 2020 election.
But before jumping on any conspiracy bandwagon, it's best to investigate. "One of the most important things we can do" when we come across something that disturbs us, says Whitney Phillips, an expert on disinformation and media manipulation, in an interview with The Sun, is to "take a moment and be mindful of what we're not seeing, what we don't understand, what we don't have context for. You see one image, not the whole news story that frames the image."
Just such an image was that of a mysterious man holding a black umbrella above his head who appears in photos and films of the Kennedy assassination, standing at the curb in Dallas as JFK's motorcade rolls by. The oddity of the open umbrella in the bright sunshine, and especially the man's position right at the spot where the shots hit the limousine, generated its own conspiracy theories — that the umbrella was fitted out as a weapon that fired a poison dart at the president, that opening the umbrella was a signal to someone else — which have been refuted and then counter-refuted.
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In 2011, filmmaker Errol Morris made a short video intended to "nail down" the "one little factoid" of the Umbrella Man. It tells how a man called Louie Steven Witt came forward to say that he was the Umbrella Man. In 1978 Witt testified before the House Select Committee on Assassinations that he stood at that spot to protest the policy of the president's father, Joseph P. Kennedy, who as ambassador to Britain had supported Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's appeasement of Hitler at Munich in 1938. Photos of Chamberlain returning from Munich show him carrying a black umbrella, which became an image of appeasement in many political cartoons. Witt, a Republican, had heard that the umbrella was a "sore spot" with the Kennedy family, so he wanted to do "a little heckling."
Morris lets Josiah "Tink" Thompson, author of "6 Seconds in Dallas," who spent years studying the evidence, deliver the conclusion: Witt's explanation "is just wacky enough—it has to be true. And I take it to be true. What it means is, if you have any fact which you think is really sinister… forget it, man! Because you can never, on your own, think of all the non-sinister, perfectly valid explanations for that fact. A cautionary tale."
Just so did my Coop experience teach me, as Phillips puts it, to be mindful of what I'm not seeing. Wherever you are on the political spectrum, you'd be wise to make sure you're in touch with reality before drawing conclusions. You may not like what you find, but at least it's real.
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