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Russiagate and Beyond: How the ‘Conspiracy Theory’ Concept has Weakened Journalism
Himself prosecuted for a criminal conspiracy for investigating the conspiracies of intelligence agencies, Barrett Brown looks at the way complex investigations are dismissed and discredited
There has emerged in recent years an entire genre of op-eds and feature pieces purporting to explain why some segment of the public is prone to believing in what are inevitably termed "conspiracy theories".
As some of the beliefs so designated are taken up by prominent elements of the far-right with often visible consequences, such articles have become increasingly insistent in citing the problem as among the central threats to functioning democracy; hence The Economist’s recent “special edition” on the subject, itself just the latest of countless efforts by the basic media to explain the phenomenon and solve the underlying problems.
“Conspiracy theories are dangerous - here’s how to crush them,” runs one particularly exciting headline.
Taken together, this sort of media output would seem to represent the consensus of thinking within the mainstream English-speaking press on the subject. So we would not be remiss in taking a closer look at some representative samples of such thinking just to make absolutely sure that the commentators who are effectively setting the terms in the battle against disinformation are not entirely out of their depth, as one can see why this might be a problem.
The articles in question tend to share four key attributes:
The term “conspiracy theory” is never actually defined.
In the absence of any such explicit definition, the reader is left to guess at this based solely on an array of examples provided by a given author.
Between halfway and two-thirds through the article, a psychologist or other subject matter expert is quoted providing a purely pathological explanation for belief in such conspiracy theories.
The apparent rise of belief in conspiracy theories is most always attributed largely to “the internet”, and rarely to the legacy press outlets of the sort that employ the author.
One early specimen of this increasingly recognizable brand of trope feature appeared in the Atlantic in 2015 and lays out the problem thus:
But the Internet has changed the packaging and distribution of conspiracy theories in ways that weren’t previously possible. With the democratization of publishing power, more people are more easily able to share fringe ideas across wider networks and in a variety of formats. For example, YouTube is a hugely popular platform for conspiracy theorists, who make good use of ominous music, dramatic close-ups, and slow-motion replays.
We are not told whether YouTube conspiracists pioneered these dubious practices or simply adapted them wholesale from the presumably respectable TV news outlets that invented them decades ago, but then the answer is obvious and at any rate we’re now to be treated to the customary examples:
When you start looking for conspiracy theories online, they seem to be everywhere. Dave Matthews, Nostradamus, Donald Trump, and the typeface Wingdings all predicted 9/11, according to various websites. Elsewhere, you’ll find reports that America is on the brink of a second civil war, and that Elvis and Michael Jackson are still alive.
What makes this set of examples particularly illustrative is that one of the claims thus dismissed would soon be widely adopted by this very magazine as not merely plausible, but in fact amongst the most credible central threats to the continued existence of the United States.
In 2019, just a few years after comparing the idea to Elvis sightings, The Atlantic dedicated an entire issue to the prospect of a second civil war. But by that time, the notion had been elevated from “conspiracy theory” to a primary concern of the American establishment (and remains so today, as evidenced by former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich’s 2022 Guardian op-ed headlined “The second American civil war is already happening”). The contributor who dismissed the same notion out of hand in 2015, Adrienne LaFrance, has since been elevated to the position of executive editor – and not only continues to write about why people believe in conspiracies, but also gives talks on the subject.
This sort of outcome is typical of the slapdash manner in which the 21st-century press tends to assign expertise and credibility on fundamental subjects – and thus happily relevant to our inquiry into whether we may safely rely on it to define the parameters by which these subjects should be approached.
New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman won the Pulitzer Prize for his 2001 columns wherein he praised Vladimir Putin as an admirable democratic reformer (“So keep rootin’ for Putin,” ran the majestic conclusion) and proclaimed in December of that same year that the war in Afghanistan had already been won, assuring us that “the Taliban are gone.” He would go on to advise the public that China would not seek to censor its people’s access to the internet not long before it did just that to an extent without precedent.
In 2013 he assured Americans that they had nothing to fear from mass surveillance programs overseen by agencies like the National Security Agency (NSA) in conjunction with the array of global private sector intelligence firms that were now coming into public view. He would go on to hail the incoming crown prince of Saudi Arabia as another promising reformer a few years before the monarch had Friedman’s friend Jamal Khashoggi dismembered with a bone saw; it later turned out that the kingdom’s agents tracked his cell phone with the help of a private-sector surveillance firm. Friedman was appointed to the Pulitzer Prize Committee in 2004. By the establishment’s own implicit accounting, he represents the best it has to offer.
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Consensus and Conspiracy
It is in this light that we must evaluate what we’ll gradually find to be the de facto, semi-conscious definition of “conspiracy theory” as used by the sort of people who consider it a useful framework: it is any idea that departs from the consensus thinking of the establishment press at a given point, and it usually involves the prospect that two or more parties possessed of relative power and influence are conniving behind the scenes. This second defining factor is no more tenable than the first, as it implicitly leads to writing off even mundane notions with historical precedent as somehow fanciful and perhaps dangerous.
But if the establishment press is unable to reliably sort through the endless array of competing narratives that we must somehow contend with if we are to base our judgements on anything at all, does this necessarily imply that the alternative is to trust random internet commenters or Alex Jones? That truth cannot be readily determined via democracy is the establishment’s only viable argument in favor of its own relative credibility; hence The Atlantic’s swipe at the “democratization of publishing power”, which echoes other articles of the conspiracy analysis genre and is at least partially justified in the sense that some portion of what the demos puts out will of course be wrong and in some cases harmful.
But then truth also cannot be readily determined via oligarchy, even if elements of meritocracy sometimes manage to prevail here and there, and this would seem to be the equivalent status of the press as it stands today.
To paraphrase The Atlantic, “when you start looking for” instances of the press dismissing as “conspiracy theories” notions that will later turn out to be acceptable on the press’s own amorphous terms, “they seem to be everywhere”.
A frighteningly significant portion of journalists and their editors have decided that it is somehow virtuous to publicly dismiss certain hypotheses as “conspiracy theories” without bothering to investigate them
One may seek these out more or less via blunt force by searching any particular outlet’s archives for subjects that one knows to have been the subject of shifting official narratives and public speculation, and then comparing the resulting articles for discrepancies. But a far quicker method involves knowing something about the subject matter in question and being in a position to document the relevant facts; this is easy if you happen to be a subject of “conspiracy theories” yourself, including some put forward by the press. This is where my own background may prove helpful.
I’m a former columnist for the Skeptical Inquirer and contributor to Skeptic; my first book was an examination of pseudoscience and Evangelical politics as viewed through the turn-of-the-century Creationism trojan horse known as “intelligent design”. Yet I’ve also been denounced by at least one major outlet, Der Spiegel, for distributing “conspiracy theories” (at least until I reached out to ask for an example, at which point both the article and subheadline were quietly changed to remove this odd accusation).
I’ve also been charged with “conspiracy” by the US Department of Justice (DOJ), which shares with its equivalent law enforcement outfits around the world what would seem to be a unique dispensation from the press to theorize about conspiracies without being written off as conspiracy theorists (but then reporters of limited talents rely on such officials for scoops). In fairness to Der Spiegel, I do indeed theorize about conspiracies, often in the course of exposing them – for instance, the Pentagon’s Romas/COIN surveillance, data mining, and disinformation apparatus that my Project PM research collective made public in 2011 via an article I wrote for The Guardian; you can read all about it in the Der Spiegel piece that later summarized our findings without going so far as to credit us. And in fairness to the DOJ, I also engage in conspiracies, most of which have been directed towards Peter Thiel and his growing influence network - itself a subject for another day.
And this brings us to the key point, one which every educated person that lived prior to the popularization of the twentieth-century neologism “conspiracy theory” would have blushed to think might need to be articulated, much less argued: that people conspire in regard to every conceivable matter for a variety of reasons and to varying degrees of success, and that it is among the foremost duties of a journalist to identify, investigate, and reveal such conspiracies, whether they involve legislators acting on behalf of donors or corporate intelligence firms acting to discredit troublesome activists.
In a manner that has virtually no precedent among historians and thinkers prior to the 1960s, a frighteningly significant portion of journalists and their editors have decided that it is somehow virtuous to publicly dismiss certain hypotheses as “conspiracy theories” without bothering to investigate them, usually on the implicit grounds that they’re too plainly absurd to warrant investigation or that they’ve been “debunked” by what are unaccountably and arbitrarily deemed to be credible sources – a category which, in a monstrous reversal of every conceivable democratic tradition, has insensibly come to include the police and intelligence community.
This would be less of a problem if so many media professionals had not proven themselves incapable of determining what is and isn’t absurd and who is and isn’t credible, sometimes when the stakes are unimaginably high and this is the only fact on which a divided civilization can actually agree.
At this moment, claims that the possibility of Russian intelligence intervention in Western elections amount to nothing more than “conspiracy theories” are mostly relegated to far-right outlets and tankie Twitter accounts. But in the halcyon days of 2017, news consumers had far more options, including The New Republic (TNR), CNN, and our old friend The Atlantic, just to name a portion of the center-to-left outlets that dismissed my old friend, veteran LGBT activist and journalist Leah McElrath, as a leading “conspiracy theorist of the left” for taking this possibility seriously before it was adopted as the consensus position of those very same outlets and the establishment as a whole.
The TNR piece in particular – or rather, one of the two separate pieces TNR ran in which McElrath is attacked for holding a position that TNR itself would later run far more pieces supporting – is worth a closer look. Says contributor Colin Dickey:
When someone like Leah McElrath, a senior writer for the liberal web site Shareblue, can describe an unhinged Twitter rant from Trump as “Russian active measures” it’s clear that the fantastical elements of conspiracy have overtaken any objective consideration of the data before us.
To his credit, Dickey links to the tweet in question that we might see these fantastical elements for ourselves – and perhaps notice that McElrath is in fact approvingly quoting testimony provided to Congress by someone else to the effect that ‘active measures’ is a term that includes certain propaganda tactics and that some of what Trump had done up to this point would seem to qualify.
McElrath then adds the example of recent tweets in which Trump threatens the director of the FBI. Why Dickey has chosen to focus on McElrath here rather than her male colleague whose Congressional testimony she was simply agreeing with and expanding upon with comparable instances is unclear. Without going further into the question of what constitutes active measures and how these might be potentially identified as such, it suffices for our purposes to note that such things would come to be regarded as decreasingly hilarious by the press, Congress, and the intelligence community as time went on. This doesn’t necessarily mean that Dickey was wrong to dismiss this, as all three of these institutions are just as prone to incompetence and groupthink as feature writers for The New Republic. It simply means that I’d happily pay a thousand dollars for Dickey to revisit this subject in light of what else has emerged since, including in just the past few weeks.
Presumably, so would author and analyst Sarah Kendzior.
“For Kendzior,” Dickey explains elsewhere in the same piece, “virtually every action taken by the Trump administration is evidence that we’re in the throes of an authoritarian takeover.”
Thankfully, those concerns turned out to be unfounded when Trump’s efforts to nullify the 2020 election failed after a mob reinforced by elements of military intelligence and avowed fascist gang members was turned back before it could succeed in killing the vice president and abducting Speaker Nancy Pelosi; more recently a partisan of the apparently non-authoritarian Trump did manage to smash Pelosi’s husband’s skull open with a hammer at their home as police rushed in, which bodes well for an energized GOP turnout at the polls in 2024 and, failing that, in the halls of Congress in January 2025.
Dickey later cites the inevitable subject matter expert to explain why these and other, uh, ‘conspiracy theories’ to the effect that Trump is an authoritarian and potentially in league with Putin, are purely the result of a pathology: in this case, such hysterical notions are attributed to the conspiracy theorist tendency to disregard the maxim that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence and so on and so forth.
With exquisite lack of self-awareness, he elsewhere presents the notorious disinfo artist Louise Mensch as a “leftist” without providing evidence of either the extraordinary or ordinary variety, though this is understandable given that it’s false by every imaginable accounting (Dickey notes that Mench is a former MP, but fails to note that she was a Conservative).
As CNN later noted in the course of reporting on what was then considered a scandal, McElrath ended up resigning as communications director for a Texas Democratic congressional candidate in the face of the ridicule.
Does any of this matter? That depends on whether journalism itself matters. Many of my traditional opponents in the law enforcement, intelligence, and information technology communities seem to believe that it does; otherwise, they would not have taken such trouble to make so many outlets complicit in discouraging entire lines of legitimate inquiry into their own activities.
In the early hours of March 6, 2012, the FBI announced via a Fox News exclusive the coordinated arrests of participants in a ring of radical left activist hackers in both the US and UK who had spent the prior year exposing a variety of illicit surveillance and disinformation programs run by the governments of both countries in coordination with such outside firms as Peter Thiel’s Palantir Technologies.
Some of the programs thus made public had targeted journalists, activists, and labor leaders using means that would be familiar to historians of the FBI’s COINTELPRO program and similar efforts against leftists across the Western world; the revelations were serious enough that Democrats in Congress, led by Rep. Hank Johnson of Georgia, sought to launch a formal inquiry only for this to be shut down by an oddly bipartisan alliance of House Republicans and the Obama DOJ, which itself proved more interested in coming after those involved in bringing these things to light, including me. Indeed, I’d been raided by the FBI the same morning in support of a search warrant pursuant to the very same firms we’d caught overseeing the, er, conspiracy.
Far more surprising was that one of the most prominent of the hackers involved turned out to have been secretly arrested and turned by the feds the previous summer, such that every hack he’d overseen since – including the one targeting the intelligence firm Stratfor, for which I was later charged with “conspiracy” over my role in calling the firm and offering to arrange appropriate redactions – had actually been monitored and even participated in by the FBI.
As the implications became clear to those reporters across the world who had followed this saga and the issues that had come to the fore, there was suddenly a push to make those implications seem less than respectable. Enter New York Times reporter Nicole Perlroth, one of an assortment of then-green journalists for major outlets whom police and intelligence officials have found to be useful mediums for useful narratives:
Conspiracy theorists across the Internet surmise that federal agents sat back and let the Stratfor attack occur to collect evidence, or perhaps net a juicier target — say, Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, which later released the five million internal e-mails that hackers obtained in the Stratfor hack.
“That’s patently false,” said one F.B.I. official, who would speak only on anonymity because the investigation was continuing. “We would not have let this attack happen for the purpose of collecting more evidence.”
Conspiracy theorists wonder why, with ample evidence, the F.B.I. waited three months to arrest Mr. Hammond after the Stratfor breach. Some suggest that the F.B.I. purposely waited to net a bigger fish: Mr. Assange.
But F.B.I. officials said it simply took that long to collect the evidence to support their case.
To our makeshift list of behaviors that legacy news outlets now use to identify conspiracy theorists, we may now pencil in the mere act of “wondering why” the FBI acted in a particular manner in a particular case. Anyway, Perlroth was wrong – and not just in regard to the obvious falsehood that the FBI was somehow unable to intervene in a hack it watched play out over weeks. A few years later, discovery from the criminal case of hacker Jeremy Hammond revealed something far more nefarious than what those silly “conspiracy theorists” had been “wondering” about:
“Sealed court documents obtained by the Daily Dot and Motherboard, however, reveal that the attack was instigated and orchestrated not by Hammond, but by an informant, with the full knowledge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).”
The same documents showed that Hammond had been brought into the ongoing hack by the other key FBI cooperator involved, Hector Monsegur – and that the entire group of hackers, including at least one of the FBI cooperators, also discussed setting me up on charges of credit card theft, which sounds shocking unless you’ve spent much time dealing with hackers. The result was that the DOJ later charged me with 11 counts of credit card fraud before being forced to drop those charges and others due to further revelations. Oddly enough, none of those discovery documents ever made their way into the hands of my defense attorneys.
Again: does any of this matter? And does it matter that the public and press at large were also dissuaded from inquiring about the contents of those millions of emails stolen from Stratfor via a smattering of articles that appeared in The Atlantic and outlets of similar caliber, in which the very notion that the contents may be worth investigation is itself portrayed as one big conspiracy theory?
That depends on whether it matters that the emails revealed Stratfor’s top executives held meetings on unknown subjects with General Michael Flynn, who would go on to play key roles in a variety of international plots in service to Trump, Russia, and Turkey; whose intelligence firms Flynn Intel Group and White Canvas Group played a still-mysterious role in the overlapping information operations in support of Trump’s election; and who’s been credibly tied to the deployment of the QAnon mythos that has done so much to degrade the public discourse and inspire far-right terrorism.
Whether these things matter depends largely on you – because if you’re an American or Brit, the odds are good that you have strong opinions on Russia, Trump, Wikileaks, Julian Assange, the CIA, the FBI, Putin, Ukraine, the Democratic Party, Brexit, “the media”, and the other major elements of our unfortunate age. And the odds are better that, over the past decade in particular, you’ve gotten into the habit of discounting anything that may be semi-consciously perceived as giving aid and comfort to the other side on one or more of these issues, such that you’ve become an easy mark for those who have noticed how these things work and who know perfectly well that anything can be knocked out of the public consciousness if reporters get the vague sense that it’s a “conspiracy theory”.
As for me, I’ve received temporary asylum status in the UK in connection to these issues and others – but only after the section of the Home Office that threw me into an immigrant removal center last year for immediate removal back to the US was stymied by another section of the Home Office that ordered my release pending the resolution of my asylum bid.
As it turns out, the same FBI that let the Stratfor hack occur knowing that certain elements of the press could be conned into covering for this also let the 6 January insurrection occur; as revealed by recordings made by my former associate Deutsche Bank whistleblower Val Broeksmit before his unusual death last year, a cadre of FBI agents from field offices across the country spent the months leading up to the Capitol attack focused on those of us who have been investigating some of the very same parties who went on to perpetrate it.
There are solutions to these fundamental issues, which is just as well given that no other problem can be effectively addressed so long as our basic mechanisms for identifying and assessing threats to the polity are left in the hands of an establishment led by the likes of Thomas Friedman on the one hand and a counter-establishment led by the likes of Alex Jones on the other.
Like the problems themselves, they’re complex, and require a public conversation that is effectively divorced from the vague associations, broken heuristics, and obscurantist disinformation warfare that have led us to the present point.
Such a conversation will require us to look beyond the incompetence and opportunism that have been allowed to shape our informational landscape; we must also take any available opportunity to peer into the methods by which this landscape has also been intentionally degraded over the past fifteen years.
To be successful in this, we will have to look at how conspiracies actually work, using documents stolen, leaked, and compiled by dozens of my colleagues in the press and activist sectors over the last decade, some relating to operations that are ongoing as of now but yet to be exposed. And so that is what we will do.
Barrett Brown is a journalist, activist, and media critic whose work has appeared in Vanity Fair, The Guardian, The Intercept, Huffington Post, Wired, Vice, The Daily Beast, al-Jazeera, and dozens of other outlets. In 2011 he began overseeing an investigation into the private intelligence contracting industry via his research collective Project PM, which the Department of Justice subsequently labeled a “criminal organization”; in 2012 he was arrested and charged with a variety of offenses that Reporters Without Borders and other entities denounced as retaliation for his work. He served four years in federal prison, from which he won the National Magazine Award for commentary and other awards. He lives in London pending an ongoing political asylum claim. His upcoming memoir, My Glorious Defeats, is set to be released from MacMillan in October 2023.
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