In part 1 of this series we examined trust and distrust in conspiracy theories. Undermining trust in the official explanation is the first of three necessary elements required to advance a conspiratorial explanation.Trust and distrust are central to conspiracy theories. If an individual trusts the official sources they are more likely to trust the official explanation. When one trusts the official explanation they will look no further for an explanation and will reject alternate explanations from less trustworthy sources. On the other hand if an individual distrusts the official source they will distrust the official explanation, which leads them to seek an alternate explanation of events.
This piece will evaluate the second element which is challenging the believability of the official explanation. Then in part 3 we will look at how to put forth an alternate conspiratorial explanation. But before getting directly into believability I think it is important to repeat the following quote since it sets a good foundation for discussion of conspiracy theories.
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
Believability of Official Explanations
When putting forth an alternate conspiratorial argument one must undermine the trust in the official source, next one must challenge the believability of the official explanation and finally one must put forth an alternate explanation. When trust in the official source is eroded then it is much easier to challenge believability of the official explanation for events. Yet when the official source is trusted then contradictory explanations will be distrusted. Thus challenging the official explanation is heavily dependent on trust and distrust.
Conspiracy persuaders challenge the believability of an official explanation by ridiculing the characterization of an event as an accident, mishap, or coincidence. They express surprise and dismay that the institution has failed to follow up on obvious explanations and evidence, and they attack the extreme simplicity of the official explanation – the same tactic institutions use to debunk conspiracy arguments.
– Persuasion and Social Movements pg 269
The first method of challenging the plausibility of an official explanation is by challenging the plausibility of labels used in the official explanation. Persuaders will hone in on specific words and phrases then attempt to show those to be ridiculous or deceptive. They will try to demonstrate words like ‘accident’, ‘malfunction’ and ‘coincidence’ are being used to deceive the public and skew the explanation. A prime example is the Benghazi attacks on September 11th 2012. The official explanation said that a ‘protest’ was present then turned violent. The challengers have constantly harped on the word ‘protest’ since there was no protest at the consulate in Benghazi. If the individual trusts the Obama administration then they are more apt to write off a single word as being a mistake or inadequate information. That makes the choice of words unimportant and irrelevant; it is simply a mistake. To somebody who already distrusts the Obama administration the use of ‘protest’ to explain Benghazi is an outright lie. It is a clear demonstration of the administration’s attempt to deceive the public.
The idea here is to hone in on a small element that can be challenged successfully. If any part of the official explanation is challenged or refuted successfully then it undermines belief in the whole explanation. If the official source is lying about one part of the explanation then what else are they lying about? This leads many to question the official explanation and questioning is inherently distrustful. Questioning can create greater distrust in the official explanation which in turn makes one more open to alternate explanations.
The next tactic used to challenge the plausibility of an official explanation is the failure to considered alternate explanations and/or evidence. Here the conspiratorial persuader is attempting to show that the government either failed to fully evaluate all explanations and evidence OR that the government is intentionally ignoring evidence to cover up something. The idea is that if the official explanation does not address or account for all possible explanations and/or evidence then the government must be incompetent or malicious. Both implications erode distrust even further and bolster the ability for a conspiratorial persuader to put forth an alternate explanation.
In the explanation of the Benghazi events officials asserted that they had no ability to provide support to consulate staff. Challengers to the official explanation point out that there were US aircraft (such as an AC-130) in Italy which could have gotten there since the Benghazi attack took place over a 13 hour period. Challengers also question why a Foreign Emergency Support Team (FEST) was not deployed to aid the consulate staff while they were under attack. These challenges lead those who distrust the official explanation to question the situation even more which creates even greater distrust in the official explanation and thus bolster attempts to offer a conspiratorial explanation for the events. Why would the government ignore vital evidence and/or explanations unless they have something to hide?
Lastly conspiratorial persuaders will challenge the simplicity of the official explanation. They argue that the official explanation is too simple to be true. Having rejected the simple official explanation conspiratorial persuaders are often left with explanations which are more complex. Furthermore the conspiratorial persuader may have already argued that the official explanation ignored pertinent evidence. The conspiratorial explanation of events has to become more complex than the official explanation in order to account for all of the pertinent facts. Thus challenging the simplicity of the official explanation is closely linked to demonstrating that the official explanation fails to account for all the evidence. Conspiratorial persuaders assert that the government did not appropriately address specific pieces of evidence and therefore is too simplistic to account for the entire body of evidence. Instead a more complex theory is necessary to explain everything adequately.
Thus Conspiratorial persuaders utilize distrust in order to challenge the believability of the official explanation. In doing so they challenge the official explanation based on the implausibility of labels, the failure to consider alternate explanations / evidence and the simplicity of the explanation.
The Official Explanation: We Aren’t Spying on You
Listen to President Obama, Congressional members and intelligence officials and you will hear that the NSA surveillance is not directed toward citizens. Obama, Clapper, Alexander, Fienstein and many more state that surveillance is focused on terrorists and stopping terrorist plots. They assure the public that our rights are not being violated and will not be violated. We should all just forget about it because it doesn’t effect us.
When asked about the scope of the NSA surveillance programs officials respond by saying the program is classified so they can’t tell us. Officials assert that telling the public details about the surveillance programs will result in terrorists learning our secrets too. That in turn will endanger ‘National Security’ since terrorists will know how to avoid detection by the intelligence community. Thus it is not possible to share details with the American people.
Though NSA director Alexander did ask Congress about the possibility of declassifying some information for the public, unfortunately until that information is made available we are all left in the dark. Google, Yahoo and Facebook have all come forward requesting permission to share more information about the surveillance programs with the public so as to quell public concerns about the companies providing the NSA with access to their servers. IF the government allows Alexander, Google, Yahoo and others to share more information about the program that could go a long way to easing the worries of the people.
The Counter Argument: How Do I Know You Aren’t Spying on Me?
The government says it is not spying on citizens or violating their rights but how do we know? Every detail about the program is classified to the point where even revealing the program’s existence is classified. If everything is classified then there is no way for the public to know the truth, we either have to trust the government or not.
The first means of attacking the official explanation is by challenging the labels being used by government officials. The program is classified and every detail is classified. I think we all can agree that classifying surveillance makes sense because you can’t have the target of surveillance aware they are being watched. But the administration can’t even give us meta-data on the program. They won’t tell us how many people they are gathering information on, they won’t tell us how many FISA court orders have been obtained or rejected, they won’t tell us anything. Should all of that information be classified? Not everything is necessary to protect the program so that it can catch terrorists. They could give the public plenty more without endangering operations. High level meta-data about the amount being collected, number of FISA court orders and number of individuals being watched could be given out with very little risk at all. How do we know that it isn’t classified so prevent the public from seeing how many citizens are being spied upon? We don’t know and that is the problem.
Also the administration asserts that it is only watching terrorists, yet we don’t know that. They won’t even tell the public how many terrorist plots have been foiled. Officials simply declare that the NSA is only watching terrorists. We don’t know that; we don’t know if they are watching terrorists or citizens. How do we even know if a terrorist is a terrorist? With everything classified the government could just declare those they watch as terrorists with no need to demonstrate the claim. Then they can tell us they only spy on terrorists. Without any knowledge of how they decide if an individual is a terrorist we can’t tell. Simply put they ask us to trust them.
The problem is that the government has violated our trust in the past. The government says it is not spying on us. But Obama was not forthright about targeting citizens with drone strikes. News media had to find out about the IRS reading our emails. The government never let the public know that it had programs of this nature. In fact the government has been extremely active in trying to prosecute leaks and news organizations. All of this additional evidence would indicate the government is not trustworthy.
Also if the NSA is not spying on citizens then why is the Verizon court order for all their information. It was not specific about any individuals, groups or anything. The court order was for all meta-data. If they are not spying on citizens then why do they need the meta-data from everybody. If they are only focused on terrorists then why aren’t specific people being identified in the court order. It is hard to rectify the idea that the NSA is only spying on terrorists while ordering Verizon to provide data on everybody. Their explanation does not fit the evidence.
On top of that Snowden has stated that the NSA can pull up any phone call or email on anybody at any time. The government disputes that claim yet they can’t show their case because it is classified. So we are asked to believe the government not Snowden. Well, Snowden chose to risk his life, freedom and career to share this information with the country. The government has been busy pulling phone records on AP and Fox while trying to locate leaks of information like Snowden’s. To me it sound more like Snowden is more trustworthy than the government since the evidence shows the government will do about anything to prevent the public from knowing their secrets.
Finally the government’s explanation is very simple, “We are catching terrorists and protecting citizens”. If you trust the government then that simple explanation is persuasive. But if you are skeptical about the government then it is not persuasive. It leaves you wondering what the government is really up to. Maybe they are spying on everybody. Maybe they are spying on political opponents. Maybe they are blackmailing the wealthy for campaign donations. Who knows what they are up to? But the simple assertion that they are only watching terrorists seems lacking when the government won’t provide evidence and there is other evidence to the contrary.
Is the Official Explanation Believable?
Conspiratorial persuaders need to attack the plausibility of official explanation in order to be capable of putting forth an alternate explanation. This can be done by challenging labels used by officials as being deceptive or ridiculous. The believability of the official explanation can also be challenged with additional evidence or explanations that it does not account for. Lastly conspiratorial persuaders can challenge the simplicity of the explanation.
The government has offered a very straight forward and simple explanation; they are combating terrorism and protecting the public. Yet many have a hard time accepting that. Not only is there reason to distrust the government but also there is evidence contrary to their explanation. This leave plenty of room for offering alternate explanation since many may be willing to accept another version of the truth.
In part 3 of this series we will examine how conspiratorial persuaders are able to offer a better explanation for events.