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Published: Wed, 18 Jan 2017 00:00:00 -0500

Last Build Date: Wed, 18 Jan 2017 02:53:10 -0500


BuzzFeed's Dossier Was Both Flimsy and Newsworthy

Wed, 11 Jan 2017 13:45:00 -0500

Is there a good defense of BuzzFeed's decision to publish the Urinegate memos last night? Glenn Greenwald's analysis of the story makes the best argument I've seen, though there are so many caveats here that I don't think it quite qualifies as a defense: It's almost impossible to imagine a scenario where it's justifiable for a news outlet to publish a totally anonymous, unverified, unvetted document filled with scurrilous and inflammatory allegations about which its own editor-in-chief says there "is serious reason to doubt the allegations," on the ground that they want to leave it to the public to decide whether to believe it. But even if one believes there is no such case where that is justified, yesterday's circumstances presented the most compelling scenario possible for doing this. Once CNN strongly hinted at these allegations, it left it to the public imagination to conjure up the dirt Russia allegedly had to blackmail and control Trump. By publishing these accusations, BuzzFeed ended that speculation. More importantly, it allowed everyone to see how dubious this document is, one the CIA and CNN had elevated into some sort of grave national security threat. Whether or not that's a defense, the basic argument here is true: Once I read what BuzzFeed had, I saw CNN's story in a rather different light. Now, that still leaves plenty of room to criticize BuzzFeed, which noted some errors in the dossier at the outset but could have done much more to report out its claims before publishing it. (To give the most obvious example, they should have asked Michael Cohen for comment on whether he had been to Prague at the time the file said he was there, rather than letting us wait til after the piece dropped to see Cohen deny he'd ever been to the city at all. BuzzFeed later updated its story to note his denial.) But even if BuzzFeed could have done a much better job of setting the context for the document it was printing, its report in turn supplied some valuable context for CNN's story. Beyond that, if this dossier, or a summary of it, has shaped the ways influential people in Washington have been behaving, the document itself is clearly newsworthy. On the other hand, I can't co-sign this part of Greenwald's column: There is a real danger here that this maneuver can harshly backfire, to the great benefit of Trump and to the great detriment of those who want to oppose him. If any of the significant claims in this "dossier" turn out to be provably false—such as Cohen's trip to Prague—many people will conclude, with Trump's encouragement, that large media outlets (CNN and BuzzFeed) and anti-Trump factions inside the government (CIA) are deploying "Fake News" to destroy him. In the eyes of many people, that will forever discredit—render impotent—future journalistic exposés that are based on actual, corroborated wrongdoing. Don't get me wrong: Trump's fans will certainly do this. But if this dossier didn't exist, they'd just point to something else. There's already enough kooky stuff out there for Trump's defenders to handwave about "fake news" whenever something legitimate comes out. This is, in fact, a pretty standard political maneuver. (Think of how many allegations against Barack Obama, credible or not, provoked a chorus of liberals making Benghazi jokes. And the standard Benghazi theories were a lot less far-out than the stuff in the BuzzFeed dossier.) In any event, a ton of Trump exposés have appeared since he entered the presidential race in mid-2015, some of them convincing and some of them not. It should be clear by now that many Trump loyalists are already perfectly capable of finding reasons to reject even the most well-sourced stories. To judge from some of the tweeters I saw taking the dossier's claims at face value last night, some people are perfectly capable of embracing even the most poorly-sourced allegations as well. It can be remarkably easy to believe the things you already want to believe. Bonus audio: Nick Gillespie recently interviewed Greenwald for the Reason podcast: src="https://w.soundcloud.[...]

Let's Be Clear About Who Drained the Meaning from the Phrase 'Fake News'

Mon, 09 Jan 2017 13:45:00 -0500

(image) A new take on "fake news" had been bubbling for a while, and now it has the imprimatur of a Washington Post columnist. Here's Margaret Sullivan:

Fake news has a real meaning—deliberately constructed lies, in the form of news articles, meant to mislead the public. For example: The one falsely claiming that Pope Francis had endorsed Donald Trump, or the one alleging without basis that Hillary Clinton would be indicted just before the election.

But though the term hasn't been around long, its meaning already is lost.

So far, so good. The phrase "fake news" has been getting plastered willy-nilly on anything that's false, and sometimes just on something that someone wants to suggest is false. I've been complaining about that for more than a month.

But then the column starts to go off track:

"The speed with which the term became polarized and in fact a rhetorical weapon illustrates how efficient the conservative media machine has become," said George Washington University professor Nikki Usher.

Wait. The conservative media machine? Did you think they came up with this?

Let's be clear about the chain of events here. A year ago, "fake news" had a pretty specific meaning: clickbait sites that publish hoaxes. The hoax of the hour might be political, but it could as easily be a fraudulent report of a celebrity death or a weird-news story that's too good to be true. Over time the term was also applied to aggregation sites that don't specialize in hoaxes so much as they simply don't care whether the stories they're promoting are hoaxes. Not exactly the same thing, but you still had that basic model of a click-driven indifference to truth.

But when the opinion-spouting class grabbed the phrase en masse right after the election, they used it much more broadly. They applied it to sites with a heavy ideological skew. They applied it to conspiracy theories cooked up by people who might not know what credible evidence looks like but sincerely think they're chasing a real scandal. (Sullivan's column alludes twice to "PizzaGate," a theory that owes its origins not to hoaxsters but to nuts.) Conservatives played a part in this, throwing the words "fake news" at mainstream-media stories that might be better described as "bad reporting" (or, sometimes, as "perfectly fine reporting that uncovered facts I don't like"). But they didn't invent the practice. They took what the center-left was doing and bent it to their own ends.

Once you've started slapping the "fake news" label on anything that looks like sloppy reporting or ideological bias in the alternative press, you've pretty much guaranteed that people will start flinging it when they think they've spotted sloppy reporting or ideological bias in the mainstream. No media-machine efficiency was required. Ask the right who taught them how to do this stuff, and they can look up from their bed and tell you: You, all right? I learned it by watching you!

Russia Isn't Our Friend, but That Doesn't Make the Democrats' Conspiracy Theories True

Fri, 06 Jan 2017 00:01:00 -0500

Here are two positions an intellectually honest person can hold simultaneously: First, Russian President Vladimir Putin is an authoritarian who, though no Josef Stalin, subverts human rights and is generally antagonistic to the idealistic aims of the United States. When Republicans cozy up to this sort of person, as President-elect Donald Trump has done, they undermine the stated beliefs and values of conservatism. Second, though there's little doubt he wishes he could, Putin did not hack the American election. In fact, there's no evidence whatsoever that the Russians had anything to do with Trump's victory. Now, I understand why so many on the left want to force Republicans to choose between these two statements. They'd like to delegitimize the democratic validity of Trump's presidency (in much the same way they did with President George W. Bush) and smear those who don't join them in this endeavor as unpatriotic Putin-defending lackeys. Considering their own past and Obama's accommodating attitude toward the Russians (and the Cubans, the Iranians, Fatah, Hamas and other illiberal regimes), this seems an uphill battle. Many in the media, though—which has spent considerable time lamenting its deteriorating influence and the rise of fake news—also decided to start the new year by internalizing a partisan-driven fantasy about the Russians electing Trump with incessant coverage, deceptive headlines and misleading stories. One recent CNN tweet read, "US officials say newly identified 'digital fingerprints' indicate Moscow was behind election hacking." The number of times I've seen a reputable news organization use terms like "election hacking" is now incalculable. It is a lie—every time. By "election hacking," reporters and editors mean there might be evidence that Russians successfully phished a Democratic operative named John Podesta, who used the word "password" as his password. Although we should thoroughly investigate foreigners who illegally access American emails, this is not tantamount to infiltrating an election or undermining its legitimacy. In November, the Washington Post ran a flimsy piece purporting that the "flood of 'fake news' this election season got support from a sophisticated Russian propaganda campaign." Last week, it reported that a Russian-backed computer hacking operation had been found inside the system of a Vermont utility company and had penetrated the U.S. power grid. If true, this would be genuinely scary stuff. But it wasn't true. A few days later, the Post—after much effort to save the piece—had to finally admit that "authorities say there is no indication of that so far." To say there is no indication that Russia tried to infiltrate the grid "so far" almost seems like someone is hoping the story might one day turn out to be true. In any event, everyone makes mistakes. But it's difficult to imagine these sorts of pieces—hampered with numerous problems from the start—didn't have something to do with partisan narratives about Russian influence infecting newsrooms. These kinds of pieces only weaken the impact of genuine foreign-hacking stories. Many in the left-wing punditry have already taken to speaking about the stolen 2016 election. "The NSA Chief Says Russia Hacked the 2016 Election," says David Corn in a headline. New York's Jonathan Chait asserted that not only was there "evidence that Russian intelligence carried out a successful plan to pick the government of the United States" but it was "probable that the hacks swung enough votes to decide a very tight race," and the latter could not be "proven." In politics, proving something isn't nearly as important as feeling it. So it's not surprising that a recent Economist/YouGov poll found that 52 percent of Democrats believe Russia "tampered with vote tallies"—not that it leaked real emails to the public but that it altered the outcome of the ballots in the presidential election. There is no proof of this happening, or that it was even attempted. The fact is, Democrats are [...]

John Carpenter to Nazis: Dammit, Stop Treating They Live As a Metaphor for The Jews

Wed, 04 Jan 2017 13:12:00 -0500

John Carpenter—director of The Thing, Escape from New York, and other entertaining genre flicks—is sick of seeing anti-Semites trying to adopt one of his movies as their own: THEY LIVE is about yuppies and unrestrained capitalism. It has nothing to do with Jewish control of the world, which is slander and a lie. — John Carpenter (@TheHorrorMaster) January 4, 2017 They Live, for those of you who haven't seen it, is a science-fiction film from 1988 about a drifter, played by the late Rowdy Roddy Piper, who acquires some sunglasses—"Hoffman lenses"—that let him see the true reality lurking behind the surface world. Ads and other items are revealed to be subliminal commands ("OBEY," "CONSUME," "CONFORM," "STAY ASLEEP"), and many of the people around him are exposed as extraterrestrial impersonators. Turns out those aliens secretly run the world. As often happens with stories like this (see also: The Matrix), They Live has been embraced by people with their own ideas about just who the hidden rulers of the planet are. It can't be fun to have a bunch of bigots reading their worldview into your work, and I can't object to the Nazi Punks Fuck Off spirit of Carpenter's tweet. But his problem was probably inevitable. Audiences are constantly adapting texts for their own ends, as any devotee of Kirk/Spock slashfic could tell you. And conspiracy stories are easily restructured to replace one fear with another. Carpenter wants his viewers to resent yuppie capitalists rather than Jews, but viewers sometimes have their own stubborn notions about how they're going to perceive things. (Google "Jewish Capitalism," by the way, and you'll get yourself some bigots who can do both.) Jonathan Lethem's excellent little book about Carpenter's film, also called They Live, pointed out way back in 2010 that an anti-Semitic website had tried to link those "Hoffman lenses" to the Holocaust-denying writer Michael A. Hoffman II. Lethem's conclusion: "setting your open-ended conspiracy metaphors loose upon the world, they become (like anything) eligible for manifold repurposing. Free your mind and an ass may follow." Or as my colleague Nick Gillespie wrote in the antediluvian days of 1996, when They Live was more likely to be taken as a metaphor for Corporate Rock Still Sucking: What is on the screen or on the stereo...matters far less than one might suppose. Individuals interpret and reconstruct what they see and hear the way they want to. In a classroom, interpretations can be graded as better or worse, depending on the instructor's criteria. But there is no analogous oversight in the real world and people are free to spin out their own interpretations and cross-references. Reductio ad absurdum: Mark David Chapman read The Catcher in the Rye as legitimizing his murder of John Lennon. Clearly, this is not an A+ interpretation of the novel, but it is an interpretation nonetheless. And it points to a simple truth: The most relevant interpretive context is not the producer's but the consumer's. Since most of those consumers are not Nazis or assassins, their interpretive freedom has had a lot of fun or thoughtful or just enjoyably strange results, as anyone who's encountered a bunch of fans having an argument could tell you. (Sometimes the fans even use that freedom to make compelling art of their own.) If there are times when the results are offensive or stupid instead—well, that's the price we pay. Better that than a world without creative reinterpretation, where audiences numbly OBEY and CONSUME some Single Correct Meaning of a story.[...]

The Other Way the Debate About Russian Hacking is Like the Debate About WMDs

Tue, 03 Jan 2017 14:45:00 -0500

The debate about Russia's alleged hackscapades has a lot in common with the debate about Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction. That's not just because, as Scott Shackford pointed out today, in each case we've been asked to put our faith in government sources who may not deserve it. It's because both disputes focused relentlessly on the wrong things. During the run-up to the Iraq war, I doubted those claims that Saddam Hussein had a secret stash of WMDs. But I also thought those weapons were beside the point. The more important question was whether Hussein was a threat to Americans, with or without weapons of mass destruction in his arsenal. Whatever ambitions he had were confined to his corner of the globe, so he didn't really have any reason to target us—except for Washington's sanctions and sabre-rattling. The focus on WMDs distracted from the deeper case against the war. Indeed, it led even some antiwar voices to speak as though those sanctions and sabre-rattling were appropriate. (Hence all the references to "containing" Saddam.) Just as it was conceivable to me then that Saddam was lying about WMDs, I think it entirely possible now that Russian agents hacked the Democratic National Committee. That may not have been proven, but it's plausible—certainly more plausible than that rapidly-crumbling story that they hacked Vermont's electrical grid. Yet vast swaths of the center-left wing of the establishment seem to think this would mean Russia "installed" Donald Trump as president. (I'm quoting Paul Krugman, but he's hardly alone in using words like that.) Trump's lack of interest in investigating the question has led some pundits to start slinging around the term "treason." Meanwhile, in the news pages, headlines routinely describe the intrusion at the DNC as "election hacking," a habit that helps explain why half of Hillary Clinton's supporters believe that Moscow interfered with the actual vote count, according to a December YouGov poll. Now, if Putin was working to help Trump become president—or even just to spread doubt about American electoral integrity—that's certainly worthy of note. But in terms of its actual impact, that would basically mean he was among the many forces spreading oppo over the course of the campaign. I'd be hard pressed to name a presidential election where various groups didn't publicize embarrassing information. Releasing the DNC emails wouldn't even be the most egregious way the Russians have messed with our information ecosystem. The Kremlin is known to spread actual disinformation, as in stories that aren't true. That seems more destructive than releasing authentic documents, but it doesn't have that spooky word "hacking" attached to it, so I guess it's harder to work people up into a fever about it. Needless to say, it's hard to name a recent presidential campaign that didn't contain any disinformation either. Even here, Putin's electoral "interference" amounted to being one of the goons spraying signals into the ether. So keep Putin in perspective. He's a repressive thug with nuclear weapons, but he's not a grand puppetmaster moving American voters like chess pieces. And keep your eye on the ball. Just as focusing on WMDs yielded too much ground to the argument for war, focusing on Russia's alleged election antics yields too much ground to Trumpism. We may be entering an ugly age of paranoid nationalism. If you want to fight that, you shouldn't put paranoid nationalism at the center of your critique of the new order.[...]

White Slavery: The Movie

Fri, 09 Dec 2016 13:25:00 -0500

(image) In my post about PizzaGate earlier today, I mentioned the "white slavery" scare of the Progressive Era, when wild stories circulated of vast conspiracies coercing young women into prostitution. Forced prostitution did exist, of course, but these tales greatly exaggerated both how common and how organized it was. As is often the case, the moral panic manifested itself at the movies.

The white-slavery film cycle began with George Loane Tucker's 1913 hit Traffic in Souls; the second major entry was Frank Beal's The Inside of the White Slave Traffic, released the same year. The latter is embedded below. Unfortunately, some scenes from the movie are lost, so additional intertitles have been inserted to describe what happens in the missing sections.

In brief, the picture tells the story of a girl who is tricked into a fake marriage with a procurer for a sex-trafficking ring, who then ships her off to be a whore in New Orleans. She tries to break free, fleeing to Denver and Houston, but everywhere she goes she is tracked by the enormous sex syndicate. Unable to find any other job, she finally submits.

One of the odder twists comes when she then falls into a conversation with a potential john. A policeman interrupts them, lets the man walk away, and hauls our heroine off to jail. The film disapproves: A placard says, "One law for man—Another for woman." But it just disapproves of the man walking free: The arrest appears to be a good thing, since it leads to the woman's rehabilitation. After her imprisonment, she finally gets a respectable job. (Then she slides back into prostitution and dies. Not a cheery movie!)

Like many other "educational" films over the years, The Inside of the White Slave Traffic opens with an earnest-sounding declaration of serious intent before proceeding to the salacious story. The reaction was similarly bifurcated: Anti-vice activists promoted it, but police shut down some screenings on the grounds that the picture was obscene. Judge for yourself:

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The opening includes a list of people who have endorsed the film, ending with a dubious invocation of "every Sociologist of note from Atlantic to Pacific." If you know your Progressive Era history, some of those names may be familiar to you. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, a prominent feminist, was the author of Herland, a utopian science fiction novel in which an all-female society reproduces parthenogenetically. And Frederic Howe had a long career as a reformer, at various stages becoming everything from a Henry Georgist to a New Dealer; his 1906 book Confessions of a Monopolist has a small libertarian fan base. For the purposes of this picture, though, his most relevant credential may be that he was director of the National Board of Censorship.

(For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here.)

Sherri Papini Sex-Trafficking Evidence Almost as Flimsy as PizzaGate Proof

Fri, 09 Dec 2016 12:30:00 -0500

I first learned about Sherri Papini, the 34-year-old California woman who went missing for 22 days in November, from a Today Show headline asking: "Was Sherri Papini kidnapping linked to sex trafficking?" In People magazine's December 9 issue, John Kelly, "a noted serial killer profiler," said Papini's abduction had all the hallmarks of human trafficking, with her mistreatment typical of the "shaming and degrading" of victims that traffickers deploy. Other wide-reaching media outlets—NBC News, ABC News, Us Weekly, the Sacramento Bee—have likewise floated the idea that the mysterious duo of Hispanic women Papini fingered may have been part of a sex-trafficking ring. Yet there is almost nothing to support the idea that Papini's disappearance was related to sex or prostitution. The whole theory hinges on the fact that Papini was "branded," as her husband Keith initially put it. Police later confirmed that Sherri did have something burnt into her skin, specifying only that it was not a "symbol" but a "message." But even accepting the premise that sex-traffickers frequently "brand" their victims—a common claim also utterly lacking in evidence—Papini's burns could just as easily have been an act of torture or a way to relay a message to Papini, police, or the public. And the latter explanations certainly make more sense than the former when taken with the facts that nothing else about the abduction belied an intent to force Papini into commercial sex and, in fact, Papini's assailants eventually just let her go, according to what she told police. Who is Sherri Papini? For those unfamiliar with the case, Papini—a stay-at-home mother of two living with her husband in Shasta County, California—disappeared on November 2 while Keith was at work and the kids were in daycare. The case came to a happy ending on Thanksgiving day, when Papini was found on the side of a rural road a few hours from her home, malnourished and knocked around but not severely injured. She has since been reunited with her family, the Shasta County Sheriff's Department is investigating, and the Papinis are taking some time away from the spotlight in an undisclosed location. Papini's disappearance, and subsequent return, earned ample national attention. The story seemed to have legs both because of the mystery surrounding Papini's disappearance and because of who Papini is: a pretty, young, white woman with a photogenic family and a Pinterest-perfect collection of hobbies: crafting, baking, exercise, home decorating, party-planning, and prayer. She was quickly dubbed a "supermom" in headlines. California State Police found Papini roadside in Yolo County, near Sacramento, with one hand chained behind her waist. She was "taken to an area hospital, and treated for non-life threatening conditions," according to Shasta County Sheriff Tom Bosekno. Keith Papini has said that his wife's captors beat her, cut off her hair, and "barely fed" her. When she was discovered, Keith said, Sherri was bruised, had lost 15 percent of her body weight, and had a broken nose, "severe burns, red rashes, and chain markings." Police, however, have been less forthcoming with details about Sherri Papini's condition. Whatever injuries she suffered, overnight hospitalization was not required, and by Thanksgiving night she was back at home with her family. Sherri told police that her abductors had been two Hispanic women driving a dark SUV. She said they wore masks over their faces and spoke almost exclusively in Spanish. Upon first questioning, she provided police with little detail, which Bosenko attributed to her still recovering from the experience. But if she has since provided more information, Shasta County authorities aren't admitting to it. And they say they've yet to determine a possible motive. Authorities have "no reason not to believe" Papini, Bosekno told People magazine. But "abductions are rare in themse[...]

Hillary Clinton’s Call for Congress to Do Something About Fake News ‘Epidemic’ Is a Reminder of How Bad Her Presidency Would Have Been on Free Speech

Fri, 09 Dec 2016 11:40:00 -0500

Hillary Clinton has not been seen much since the election, except up in the woods near Chappaqua in her favorite hiking sweater. Sadly, that streak ended yesterday, when she used an appearance at the retirement ceremony for Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to rail hyperbolically against "The epidemic of malicious fake news and false propaganda that flooded social media over the past year." "It's now clear the so-called fake news can have real-world consequences," Clinton warned, referencing the gunman who arrived at Comet Pizza to investigate a nonsensical conspiracy theory. "Lives are at risk—lives of ordinary people just trying to go about their days, to do their jobs, contribute to their communities….It's imperative that leaders in both the private sector and the public sector step up to protect our democracy and innocent lives." Watch a snippet of the alarmist sanctimony here: src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="340" frameborder="0"> This is the classic Hillary Clinton progression toward the (often unconstitutional) government restriction of speech. Step 1: Declare something that is not remotely an epidemic is, in fact, an "epidemic." As in this hysterical speech Clinton gave in front of the Kaiser Family Foundation in March 2005: [T]he evidence is conclusive that on balance the exposure to this much media and particularly to the violent content of it is not good for children and teenagers. And so what I'm hoping is that all we can come together. If there were an epidemic sweeping through our children of some kind of SARS of some other kind of infectious disease, we would all band together and figure out what to do to protect our children. Well, this is a silent epidemic. Step 2: While the headline-making incident is still fresh in everyone's minds, insist that the epidemic (which, remember, isn't remotely an epidemic) must be confronted "urgently" by both the federal government and California-based media companies. Here she was just after the December 2015 San Bernardino terrorist attack: I know that Americans are anxious and fearful, and we have reason to be. The threat is real. The need for action is urgent....We're seeing the results of radicalization not just in far off lands, but right here at home fueled by the internet. It's the nexus of terrorism and technology, and we have a lot of work to do to end it....They are using websites, social media, chat rooms, and other platforms to celebrate beheadings, recruit future terrorists, and call for attacks. We should work with host companies to shut them down. It's time for an urgent dialogue between the government, and not just our government, government and the high tech community to confront this problem together. [...] [W]e're going to have to ask our technology help us on this. You know, the government is good in some respects, but nowhere near as good as those of you who are in this field. Right now the terrorists communicate on very ubiquitous sites: YouTube, Twitter, Facebook. The woman jihadist in San Bernardino posted her allegiance to Baghdadi and ISIS on Facebook. According to the timing we know so far, she did it either shortly before or shortly after the attack, I'm not sure which. We're going to have to have more support from our friends in the technology world to deny online space. Just as we have to destroy their would-be caliphate, we have to deny them online space. And this is complicated. You're going to hear all of the usual complaints, you know, freedom of speech, et cetera. But if we truly are in a war against terrorism and we are truly looking for ways to shut off their funding, shut off the flow of foreign fighters, then we've got to shut off their means of communicating. If you are not familiar with the startling words in that passage above, it's probably because Donald Tr[...]

The PizzaGate Gunman's Paranoid Rescue Fantasy Comes from a Long American Tradition

Fri, 09 Dec 2016 11:25:00 -0500

On December 4, Edgar M. Welch carried a rifle into the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria in Washington, D.C. Welch had stumbled on the "PizzaGate" conspiracy theory, which claims that the restaurant is part of a sex-trafficking ring tied to Hillary Clinton and her associates; children are supposedly being held prisoner and transported through secret tunnels beneath the business. Welch was armed because he wanted to rescue the kids. He didn't find any prisoners there, but he wound up firing his weapon anyway. No one was injured, fortunately. You've probably heard about that, since it's been all over the news this week. What hasn't been all over the news is the long American tradition that Welch belongs to. This is hardly the first time someone has filled up on fantasies that a conspiracy was holding innocents captive and exploiting them. It isn't the first time a fantasist has set off on a potentially bloody rescue mission either. Take the mob that burned down the Ursuline convent and boarding school in Charlestown, Massachusetts, in 1834. The resentments toward that institution had very specific local roots, but the rumors that prompted the riot took an oft-told form: Girls were being held prisoner, and they needed to be saved. These stories were spread not just orally but via anonymous placards and handbills—if a pundit from late 2016 were somehow sent back to 1834, he'd probably call them "fake news"—that said things like this: GO AHEAD! To Arms!! To Arms!! Ye brave and free Avenging Sword unshield!! Leave not one stone upon another of that curst Nunnery that prostitutes female virtue and liberty under the garb of holy Religion. When Bonaparte opened the Nunnerys in Europe he found cords of Infant sculls!!!!!! That wasn't the only Catholic institution to be raided by would-be heroes. Throughout the era, paranoid Protestants became convinced that convents contained sex slaves, secret tunnels, and other staples of the modern pizzeria; more than once, they invaded intending to liberate the nuns. Nor was Catholicism the only faith to be afflicted by captivity rumors. A couple decades before the Ursuline Convent riots, for example, a youngster named Ithamar Johnson was "rescued" from a Shaker community in Ohio. He promptly returned the next day, and remained a Shaker until he died in his eighties. Much more recently, the cult scare that took off in the 1970s produced a whole profession of "deprogrammers," some of whom felt the best way to liberate a cultist was to kidnap and torture him until he declared himself cleansed of the religion's worldview. The cult scare helped shape the Satanic panic of the 1980s and '90s, when the notion took hold that a web of devil-worshippers was raping, kidnapping, and even killing children. In this case, it wasn't vigilante deprogrammers who would browbeat an alleged victim into saying what they wanted to hear. It was agents of the state. In the most infamous case, the authorities embraced the idea that the McMartin Preschool in Manhattan Beach, California, was run by a coven of child molesters. Interrogators badgered the preschoolers into confirming their suspicions, and the children's imaginations then produced still more lurid details. Naturally, there were tales of secret tunnels beneath the day care center. You'd think it was a convent or a pizza joint or something. Not every captivity fantasy involved unpopular religions. In the white-slavery panic of the early 20th century, a flood of exposés—there's that "fake news" again—made lurid claims about prostitution, greatly exaggerating both the number of women coerced into the profession and the extent to which the trade was controlled by a centralized conspiracy. (In his 1914 book The Girl Who Disappeared, a former Chicago prosecutor called this sex syndicate a "hidden hand," claiming that "behind our city and state govern[...]

NPR Does Alex Jones

Tue, 06 Dec 2016 21:13:00 -0500

All Things Considered's David Folkenflik did a report today on the conspiracy-chasing talk-show host Alex Jones. Because I wrote a book about conspiracy theories, I was one of the people Folkenflik interviewed. You can listen to it here:

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Folkenflik's story leads with last weekend's PizzaGate shooting, in which an Alex Jones fan fired a rifle in a D.C. pizza joint because he believed child sex slaves were being held there. But Folkenflik interviewed me on Friday—two days before the incident—so I didn't say anything about that. Instead I'm quoted on the general contours of Jones' worldview. The written version of the report extends my cameo a little longer than it lasts on the radio, adding a line that contrasts my thoughts on Jones' politics with the Southern Poverty Law Center's views on the topic.

When I was chatting with Folkenflik, I mentioned that if I ever write a profile of Jones, the two people I'd most want to interview for it are the filmmakers Richard Linklater and Mike Judge. Linklater put Jones in his 2001 movie Waking Life, and it's a rather interesting scene to watch now that Jones has attracted national notoriety. Jones is generally understood as a "right-wing" guy, and I understand why that's so. (He certainly isn't a leftist.) But he slips easily into the Phildickian film's countercultural worldview, condemning "dehumanization," "classism," "systems of control," and "this corporate slave state" as he drives through a dreamscape:

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And Judge? Jones conducted a chummy interview with the Beavis and Butt-head and King of the Hill creator back in 2013. It's a pretty fascinating conversation, especially when the talk turns to Dale Gribble, King of the Hill's resident conspiracy theorist. Dale, Judge chuckles, "probably gives you guys a bad name":

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It's not easy to imagine, say, Rush Limbaugh delivering the rant in the first video or the interview in the second. Any accounting of Alex Jones' worldview—and of the place he occupies in our cultural terrain—needs to consider the question of what people like Linklater and Judge see in the man, and vice versa.

Obligatory advertisement: As I said at the top, I wrote a book about conspiracy stories. It's called The United States of Paranoia, and if you find this stuff interesting you may find the book interesting too. But I should probably note upfront that it mentions Jones just once, and only fleetingly at that.

The Successful Progressive Conspiracy to Burn a 'Climate Heretic'

Mon, 05 Dec 2016 17:20:00 -0500

The politics surrounding the science and policy of climate change is really, really nasty. Name-calling and ad hominem attacks are rampant. The recent wikileaks release of John Podesta's emails (Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign manager) uncovered a remarkable effort by minions at the Center for American Progress to silence University of Colorado political scientist Roger Pielke Jr. whose research suggested that climate change has not yet caused any discernible uptick in property damage. Pielke details his ordeal in an op-ed "My Unhappy Life as a Climate Heretic" over at the Wall Street Journal. As Pielke explains: Much to my surprise, I showed up in the WikiLeaks releases before the election. In a 2014 email, a staffer at the Center for American Progress, founded by John Podesta in 2003, took credit for a campaign to have me eliminated as a writer for Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight website. In the email, the editor of the think tank's climate blog bragged to one of its billionaire donors, Tom Steyer: "I think it's fair [to] say that, without Climate Progress, Pielke would still be writing on climate change for 538." The only acceptable narrative for the activists over at the Center for American Progress is that climate is making the weather worse resulting in ever more property damage and anyone questioning the politically correct story must be drummed out of polite society. So what did wikileaks reveal? Among other things, an email from ThinkProgress chief editor Judd Legum to major Democratic donor (and climate warrior) Tom Steyer bragging about how he had successfully trolled FiveThirtyEight statistical analysis website proprietor Nate Silver into getting rid of Pielke. Why go after Pielke? Because he had published an article at 538 based on his research daring to point out that so far climate change had not boosted "normalized" property damage. Normalized basically means taking into account the fact that as a result of economic and population growth there is more property and lives at risk from bad weather. Pielke's conclusion elicited fury from activists and some climatologists. Silver published a rebuttal to Pielke by MIT hurricane expert Kerry Emanuel. Interestingly, Emanuel's rebuttal did not actually question Pielke's data showing that normalized damages had not been increasing. Instead, Emanuel cited studies in which climate models projected, among other things, that future warming would generate more powerful hurricanes that would cause more damage. Emanuel made an interesting distinction between trend detection and event risk assessment. He offered an illustration in which researchers report that the number of bears in a forest had just doubled. In this case, mauling statistics (trend detection) based on earlier bear populations would not be a reasonable guide to the mauling risks (event assessment) forest strollers would now face. "When it comes to certain types of natural hazards, there are more bears in the woods," wrote Emanuel. "For example, there is a clear upward trend in overall North Atlantic hurricane activity by virtually all metrics, over the past 30 years or so, though the cause of this is still uncertain." Emanuel's claim was written in 2014. But are there in fact as a result of climate change more hurricanes lurking in the North Atlantic woods? A recent analysis looking at historical changes in Atlantic hurricanes and tropical storms by researchers at NOAA's Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory finds that "the historical tropical storm count record does not provide compelling evidence for a greenhouse warming induced long-term increase" in the North Atlantic. Emanuel and other modelers believe that warming will strengthen hurricanes. In other words, bigger bears will roam the woods. However, a September, 2015 study [...]

When Everything Is 'Fake News'

Mon, 05 Dec 2016 10:15:00 -0500

Yesterday an idiot fired a rifle in a D.C. restaurant because he was trying to investigate "PizzaGate," the latest, dumbest variation on the decades-old series of rumors that the country is governed by secret pedophile rings. (Fortunately, no injuries have been reported.) Since the gunman was inspired by a false story, his crime was promptly blamed on "fake news." Then some pundits tried to link his assault to Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, Donald Trump's pick to be national security adviser, on the grounds that Flynn had promoted the PizzaGate story. But it turned out the general had actually been alluding to a separate conspiracy theory, so naturally the accusation against Flynn was then dubbed "fake news" too. In the long-gone days of early 2016, fake news mostly meant clickbait sites that publish hoaxes, some with a satiric veneer and some just flatly aimed at tricking people; the stories could involve anything from Willie Nelson dying to a woman trying on tampons in a WalMart aisle. These days "fake news" still means that, but it also gets applied to highly partisan outlets that may be sloppy with their facts; and content factories that just don't care about their facts; and Russian disinformation campaigns, real or alleged; and pretty much any conspiracy theory that finds a foothold online. (Like PizzaGate.) Even a police sting got the "fake news" label last week because the operation included a deceptive press release. And of course it's also a phrase that people throw back in the mainstream media's faces any time the press botches a story. In other words, "fake news" has become a catchall term for saying something false in public, otherwise known as the human condition. This does not bode well for people who think they can find a fix to "the fake news problem," given that clickbait and rumors and disinformation and sloppy reporting and so on are all different things. They overlap, sure, but they're not the same phenomenon, and you're not going to find a one-size-fits-all solution to them—not unless your solution is "Introduce a little more skepticism to your media consumption habits." Of course, that's a good idea whether or not the news is fake.[...]

Robert Ford Killed Jesse James—Or At Least That's What They Want You to Believe

Fri, 02 Dec 2016 14:30:00 -0500

(image) Ever since word went out that Robert Ford shot Jesse James, there have been legends that the dead man was really someone else and that the outlaw secretly survived. Alan Lomax ran into one of those tales when he toured the South with a tape recorder in 1959. Neal Morris (*), an Arkansas banjo player, told Lomax that the James brothers had often hid out at his grandfather's place ("because nobody expected them down in Arkansas, don't you see") and that grandpa had given him the scoop on the robber's alleged death. Jesse James wasn't even in that part of the country when Bob Ford supposedly shot him, Morris claims; instead, "Quantrill was the man that the Ford boys killed."

Morris presumably means the Confederate guerrilla William Quantrill, who had fought alongside James in the Civil War. Historians say Quantrill died at the end of the war, but there were rumors that he survived his reported demise too. So Morris has managed to combine two secret-history stories into one: Quantrill didn't die in 1865, and then in 1882 he died in Jesse James' place.

Morris wraps up his account by singing the ballad "Jesse James," which presents the more familiar tale of Ford blasting James in the back. "That's the story that's been told, don't you see," he says at the end, "but us people, a lot of these people in the mountains, don't believe it."

I'd call this "fake news," but the whole thing is so wonderfully strange that I'd like to hold out a tiny smidge of hope that against all odds it's true:

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In 1948, an Oklahoma man called J. Frank Dalton claimed that he was really Jesse James and that the fellow killed by Robert Ford had been a Pinkerton named Charles Bigelow. You can read all about that here. The body of the man shot by Robert Ford was exhumed for DNA tests in 1995; you can read about that here. To listen to Woody Guthrie turning that "Jesse James" ballad into a song about Jesus, go here. For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here.

(* It's spelled "Neal" on the Association for Cultural Equity's online archive of the Lomax recordings. When Atlantic Records released a selection of those tapes as an anthology called The Sounds of the South, they spelled it "Neil." I have no idea how Mr. Morris himself spelled it, or if he cared.)

Trump Says Millions Voted Illegally but Any Recount Would Be Pointless

Mon, 28 Nov 2016 11:15:00 -0500

Any hope that the prospect of occupying the White House would dampen Donald Trump's fondness for conspiracist crap seems to have been misplaced. Likewise the hope that he would prove gracious in victory. After a brief burst of magnanimity on election night, he has reverted to form. "In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide," he bragged on Twitter yesterday, "I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally." Trump says any recount of votes in the presidential election is "a scam," since it will not affect the outcome. Yet he also claims "millions of people" voted illegally. Can both propositions be true? Only if you assume, as Trump apparently does, that millions of illegal voters 1) exist and 2) favor Hillary Clinton. A couple of weeks ago, Politifact found no evidence to back up reports by websites such as InfoWars, Milo, The New American, and Freedom Daily that more than 3 million votes were cast by noncitizens in this month's election. The source of that claim, Republican activist Gregg Phillips, said it was based on an "analysis of [a] database of 180 million voter registrations," but he declined to say where the information came from or how he had analyzed it. Rick Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California, Irvine, told Politifact "the idea that 3 million noncitizens could have illegally voted in our elections without being detected is obscenely ludicrous." Here is what Hasen told Politico about Trump's claim that "millions of people" voted illegally: There's no reason to believe this is true. The level of fraud in US elections is quite low....We're talking claims in the dozens. We're not talking voting in the millions, or the thousands, or even the hundreds. Politifact's Allison Graves noted that claims about widespread voting by noncitizens got a boost from a 2014 study estimating that 6.4 percent of noncitizens voted in 2008 and 2.2 percent voted in 2010. But the survey data on which that study was based were flawed because some respondents accidentally gave the wrong answer to a question about their citizenship. Three researchers who reinterviewed participants in the survey found that a small percentage changed their answers to that question. "It appears as though about 0.1-0.3 percent of respondents are citizens who incorrectly identify themselves as non-citizens in the survey," they explained in The Washington Post last month. "With a sample size of 19,000, even this low rate of error can result in a number of responses that appear notable when they are not."[...]

'Fake News' Is Easier to Trace and Debunk Than Ever Before

Tue, 22 Nov 2016 14:45:00 -0500

As pundits search for a scapegoat they can blame for Donald Trump's victory, one increasingly popular target is "fake news." Most of the discussion proceeds as though groundless stories transmitted from friend to friend are something invented in the Facebook era. You're lucky if people remember the dubious email forwards of a decade ago, let alone the orally transmitted tales of earlier generations. But when I hear the phrase fake news, I think of the Eleanor Clubs. Don't feel bad if you've never heard of those: It's been seven decades since anyone was abuzz about them, and even then they were as fictional as the pope's endorsement of Donald Trump or that photo of a bare-chested, gay Mike Pence. But in the early 1940s, quite a few people believed in them. They were even investigated by the FBI. The clubs—named for First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, a vocal supporter of civil rights—were supposedly a subversive network of black servants working to overturn the racial caste system, so that one day whites would work for blacks instead of the other way around. Howard Odum, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina, collected versions of this story from across the South (and sometimes from other parts of the country too) in his 1943 book Race and Rumors of Race. The details varied, but the core idea, in the words of one of his informants, was this: "I hear the cooks have organized Eleanor Clubs and their motto is: A white woman in every kitchen by Christmas." Mrs. Roosevelt was supposed to be the clubs' secret chief. Did the Eleanor Club story injure Eleanor's husband at the polls? No: He kept carrying the South, as the Democrat usually did in those days. But then again, no one—as far as I know—tried to weaponize this particular tale against him. Other rumors were deliberately engineered to hurt particular public figures. These were known as whispering campaigns, and they have been deployed in political fights for eons. In 1928, Irving Stone writes in They Also Ran, a host of rumors dogged the Democrats' Catholic nominee, Al Smith: "he was building a tunnel which would connect with the Vatican; the Pope would set up his office in the White House; the Catholics would rule the country, and no one could hold office who was not a Catholic; Protestant children would be forced into Catholic schools; priests would flood the states and be in supreme command; Smith would set himself up at the head of a Catholic party which would supersede the old Democratic party!" (These were transmitted not just orally but through the fake-news organs of the day: "A flood of letters, pamphlets and anonymous newspapers swept across the South, rehashing the worst libels against the Catholic church that had been circulated in the United States during the period of 1840–60. One Democratic chairman of North Carolina reported that the anti-Catholic literature that poured into the state must have cost at least half a million dollars.") Smith didn't just lose the election; he managed to lose several Southern states. Did the rumor-mongering swing many votes? Quite possibly. The point isn't that this is the same as the fakery that flows through Facebook. We live in an entirely different media environment, with possibilities that hardly anyone could imagine in the '20s or '40s. If you told Al Smith that one day there would be Macedonian content farms targeting Trump fans because that's what brings more clicks, he would say, "No offense, my fellow American, but I don't know what the hell that means." 2016 is not 1928, and I'm all for careful efforts to see how this era's rumor transmission belts differ from their many, many precursors. But that requires you to acknowledge [...]