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It just happens that the book I have been reading (Persuasion and Social Movements) has an entire chapter dedicated to “Argument from Conspiracy in Social Movements” and I finished that chapter last night. Due to the recent events with Snowden and the NSA it seems like a good time to share what I read along with some parallels to current events.

Conspiracy argument is understood best when viewed as a process in relation to competing argument. Conspiracy argument usually appears after an official or accepted explanation of a phenomenon has been widely disseminated in the media and has attained an aura of credibility and legitimacy. Some find the official explanation unsatisfactory and determine to set the record straight by revealing a sinister conspiracy as the driving force behind the phenomenon….

To make conspiracy arguments palatable to audiences beyond small numbers of true believers, persuaders must create arguments with three essential ingredients: they must undermine trust in an institution to locate and tell the truth; they must challenge the believability of the official explanation or story; and they must offer a more believable explanation that establishes both motive and evilness of the conspiracy.

– Persuasion and Social Movements pg 269


Trust and Distrust in Conspiracies

Though each of the three elements (undermine trust, challenge believability, offer alternative) are all necessary to make a conspiracy argument the real key to it all is distrust. When people trust in the official sources and explanations then they will look no further. In fact they will view alternate explanations with distrust since they conflict with a trusted explanation. That makes it necessary to create and capitalize on distrust when putting forth a conspiracy or any alternate explanation of events.

Often persuaders must create distrust in institutional explanations of phenomena, and the key to undermining trust is the claim that an institution is attempting “to thwart the search for the truth.”…

Institutions fuel such claims by classifying information as secret or top secret, by refusing to change secret classifications even after credible sources challenge their necessity or legality, and by refusing to reveal some or part of the classified information that might verify the official explanation or undermine a growing conspiracy theory. An institution may refuse to reveal sources or to explain how information was discovered that formed the basis for its case. Protestors ask, “What are they hiding anyway?”

– Persuasion and Social Movements pg 258

Secrecy and transparency are major elements when dealing with trust. The more transparent an individual, institution or group is the more trust they invite. They appear to have nothing to hide since they are freely exposing themselves to public scrutiny. On the other hand secrecy breeds distrust; the failure to fully explain a phenomena leaves many wondering about the gaps in the official explanation. When presented with a lack of information on something perceived as important people have a tendency to fill in the gaps themselves.

Darsey theorizes that the “combination of power and mystery” that surrounds so many of the decisions and actions that affect our lives in the new technical-scientific age practically invites suspicion. He observes that “increasingly, issues of public importance are decoded from shadowy traces and decided in darkened rooms by the technically initiated. Arenas for conspiratorial activity abound, and the opportunity for sinister conspiracies multiply.”

– Persuasion and Social Movements p 257

On a careful reading of the quote above you will notice the distrust in the language itself. Words like decoded, shadowy, darkened, initiated, sinister all demonstrate distrust. Conspiratorial persuaders can use these subtle but effective words to set a tone of distrust. The manner in which a proposition is framed can significantly impact how people react to the proposition. By characterizing the official explanation as mysterious, suspicious or unexplainable the conspiratorial persuader primes the audience’s mind for distrust since those words carry a connotation of distrust. Repeatedly using such words can leave the audience wondering and questioning the situation, which can subtly influence the audience to be more accepting of an alternate source and an alternate explanation.

Another manner of creating distrust is through association. Though guilt by association is a logical fallacy it is also a powerful tool of inference used by all people. It is true that an association technically means nothing more than an association; without evidence it is not rational to assume one party is guilty of the another party’s sins simply by associating with each other. Instead logic would require that you demonstrate the guilt of each party individually. But the reality is that people tend to associate with those like themselves thus if you associate with guilty parties you may well be guilty yourself. Yet this is not a guaranteed inference, which is why it is considered a logical fallacy.

Conspiratorial persuaders can utilize guilt by association by connecting official explanations with distrusted agencies, institutions, organizations, groups, individuals or ideologies. By connecting the official explanation to distrusted associations the distrust can bleed over from the association and impact trust in the official explanation.

The creation of mistrust enables persuaders to employ one of their most effective tactics when presenting and defending conspiracy arguments, the principle of reversal. “To trust appearances is naïveté,” they claim, because “everything is the opposite of what it appears to be.” When “confronted with potentially dissonant information,” the persuader merely applies the principle of reversal “to arrive at a conclusion different from that of” one who believes or espouses the institutional version of events. There is no need to refute or distort evidence to reach or maintain conspiracy claims. Denial of conspiracy confirms its existence because whatever conspirators claim is not what they believe, and appearances are not real because they are “always and without exception the exact opposite of what they appear to be.”…

Mistrust enables the persuader to employ the principle of reversal to address all sorts of unpleasant questions. If proof of a conspiracy is elusive, that shows how powerful the conspiracy is. If investigators cannot locate conspirators, that proves they are everywhere. If accused conspirators do not appear to be evil or part of a damnable plot, that proves how clever they are.

– Persuasion and Social Movements pg 260

At first glance this seems outrageous, how can non-evidence be evidence? How can denial be confirmation? But if you start with the premise of distrust this becomes much more reasonable. If you do not trust the official sources then you already assume that they are lying to begin with. This is exemplified by the story of the boy who cried wolf. After destroying the trust of the towns people by crying “wolf” repeatedly the boy was unable to get anybody to believe the truth. It was not as much the boy’s story that was untrustworthy as the boy himself who was untrustworthy.

Yet when you look at the principle of reversal from the perspective of trusting the official explanation it seems downright insane. The idea that you can reverse anything the opponent says and then claim the opposite is irrational to most people. Yet many of us have done this in certain circumstances. Think about somebody in your life that has destroyed all trust you had for them. When that person gives you an explanation you are unlikely to accept that instead you will likely look for alternative motives. You hold so little trust for that person that you expect everything they say to be false so you assume it is and then try to explain their behavior in another manner.


The Official Explanation of NSA Surveillance: Just Trust Me

Reading through the official responses to Snowden revealing details of NSA surveillance has shows a single primary theme connecting the official responses; Just trust me. So officials give more detail others less but the overall theme is to simply ask the public to trust the government. As I mentioned yesterday there is a long standing cultural mistrust of government in American society. So this is a hard sell to begin with.

In order to bolster their case some officials have explained the checks and balances present in the system. They explain that the NSA surveillance programs are legal under the PATRIOT act. It is true that the PATRIOT act authorizes such surveillance so the program is in fact legal. The intention here is to imply that if something is legal then the public should not be concerned with it. The government took no illegal actions so its all OK. Next officials will point out that there is oversight of the program. The court order is approved by a judge. This is intended to reassure the public that it is ok and we can trust their judgement. Overall judges are considered pretty trustworthy by people so this associate helps their case. Then officials inform the public that there is Congressional oversight. Both the Senate and House are briefed on the NSA surveillance programs regularly. The implication is that if there were a problem Congress would have already dealt with it. Since Congress is fine with the NSA surveillance programs then the public should be fine with them. Finally some officials state that the surveillance programs have in fact stopped terrorist acts and protected the public. By invoking terrorism the officials hope to invoke a threat from which the government must protect the public. This creates trust in the government due to the extreme fear and distrust of terrorists. The government is on the public’s side and we all need protection from the threat out there.

At the same time the government tries to destroy trust in Snowden who leaked the information. Snowden is a treasonous traitor to the US. He has revealed the secrets of the government even though he swore an oath to never reveal such secrets. How can you trust somebody who is a proven liar? Snowden only has a GED and never graduated college, how can he know what is best for everybody? Snowden’s actions have endangered National Security by revealing our surveillance methods to terrorists. How can you trust somebody that puts you in danger? So while officials try to create trust in their explanation they try to destroy trust in Snowden so we will not accept his explanation. Thus the central theme of the government response is “Trust me and don’t trust Snowden”.


The Counter Argument: What If I Don’t Trust You?

Depending on how much you trust or distrust the government you may accept or reject part or all of the official explanation. If you already trust the government then the official argument of “Just trust me” is rather persuasive. It is based on your preexisting disposition toward the government. But if you don’t trust the government (even if you don’t distrust the government) then you are likely to reject at least part of their argument. The more you distrust the government the more of their argument you are apt to reject.

Government officials point out that the NSA surviellance programs are legal under the USA PATRIOT act. This is in fact true, but for many the fact that Congress passed a law does not mean the law is right. It takes some trust in Congress to accept that. Back in 2001 I was personally crying out against section 215 of the PATRIOT which allows the collection of business records and is the basis of the court order to Verizon and internet giants like Google. I do not trust the government to collect data on individuals using secret courts and secret court orders. To me the fact that it was made LAW did not make it RIGHT.

The fact that it took a leak like Snowden to reveal that such collection of data was taking place creates more distrust. The surveillance has been so secret that they have been doing it for an unknown amount of time and we were none the wiser. The government wasn’t going to tell us about this but Snowden did. The mystery and secrecy surround the NSA programs creates fertile ground for distrust. That is amplified by the reluctance of officials to disclose more information now that the secrecy has been broken. When the government won’t allow Google to provide more information about the scope of the surveillance one can’t help but wonder “What are they hiding?”

Next we are told that there is judicial oversight so we can trust them. Now oversight is good and it does create an atmosphere of greater trust. But oversight by secret courts on secret court orders that nobody is allowed to talk about doesn’t foster much trust. The amount of secrecy surrounding the programs leaves the official declaration of oversight less than persuasive. Maybe if they detailed how these court orders are decided then there might be more trust. Maybe if they could tell us how many requests are made for court orders and how many are granted it might be easier to trust the government. Maybe if they could tell us how many Americans have been spied on and how much information they have gathered on citizens it might be easier to trust the government. Alas we don’t know the scope of the programs, nor the procedures for obtaining court orders; simply put the public is in the dark. That does not create trust it creates the opposite.

Then officials tells us that there is Congressional oversight. Again on the surface this sounds good until you question it. There have been several Congressional members speaking out in support of the NSA surveillance programs. But there have also been Congressional members who have warned about the NSA surveillance programs. On top of that people as a whole don’t trust Congress. When the public holds a higher opinion of cockroaches than Congress it is hard to see how Congressional oversight creates more trust.

After that we are informed by government officials that the NSA surveillance program has prevented terrorist attacks and saved American lives. Now this argument could go a long ways in building trust. Many people are pragmatic at the core, so if the spying is protecting us then many would accept the spying as legitimate. Unfortunately we only hear assertions of foiled terrorist plots, no evidence, no verification. It is hard to accept an assertion without evidence unless you already trust the source making the assertion. I honestly don’t know if the program has saved lives or if that is a lie. There is no way I could even determine that because everything is secret. Though for me I don’t care if it did prevent a terrorist attack, the NSA surveillance programs are unconstitutional. The court order for Verizon data is far too broad, search warrants are supposed to be very specific about the person, places and things to be search and/or seized. Yet the NSA is allowed to collect ALL metadata from Verizon with no specific target, threat or evidence. That is well beyond the scope of the Constitution.

Lastly the government attacks on Snowden can create distrust in the government. If you don’t trust the government in the first place then the attempts to discredit Snowden can backfire on the government. The government clearly wants to shut him up as quickly as possible, which leaves you wondering what else Snowden might reveal. The shift of focus from the NSA surveillance programs to Snowden also creates questions about the programs. The government doesn’t want to focus on their own behavior they want to focus on Snowden’s behavior. Yet the outrage is centered around the government’s behavior. The redirection from the NSA to Snowden operates in the same way as secrecy does. It is the lack of open and forthright explanation that leaves people wondering what is going on.

Thus if you don’t trust the government then the official explanations are not satisfying at all. Without trust then the legality, judicial oversight and Congressional oversight are meaningless. You have to trust those overseeing a program in order for oversight to create trust.


Distrust Creates Fertile Grounds for Conspiracy Theories

As I have shown trust and distrust are central features to the acceptance or rejection of an explanation. If you trust a source you are less likely to question the source and more apt to accept an explanation. If you distrust a source you are unlikely to accept an explanation and more apt to question the source. Secrecy and mystery create an atmosphere of distrust, the hidden and clandestine nature of it leaves many questions unanswered. This can be enhance by using questioning and distrustful words like suspicious, unexplainable, weird, strange which subtly prime ones mind to question and distrust. Distrust can be further enhance by association with distrusted groups. Finally with enough distrust it is possible to employ the principle of reversal. That is where you assume the opponent is being false about everything so you can inverse their statements to prove yourself correct.

The NSA surveillance programs revealed by Snowden are fertile grounds for conspiracy theories. There is an inherent mistrust of government that is ever-present in US society. Then the extreme amount of secrecy surround the programs, the court orders and Congressional oversight leaves many wondering what is going on. Finally the zeal with which the government is pursuing Snowden makes one question what else Snowden might reveal in the future. All of this combines to create an ideal situation for speculation and conspiracy theories.

Next time in part 2 we will examine how conspiratorial persuaders challenge the plausibility of an official explanation. Then in part 3 we will evaluate how conspiracy advocates can put forth an alternate explanation.