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
In part 1 of this series we examined the role of trust and distrust in conspiratorial arguments. If the audience trusts the official source they will likely accept the official explanation without looking any further. When the audience distrusts the official source then they are more apt to seek out an alternate explanation.
In part 2 the tactics for calling into question the plausibility of the official explanation were examined. If the audience finds the official explanation believable they may accept it even if they distrust the source. Characterizing the official explanation as implausible is required to make the audience open to an alternate explanation.
If the conspiracy persuader can cause audiences to lose trust in institutional ability and willingness to be open and truthful and to raise doubts about the believability of official explanations, audiences may be willing to consider a competing story centered on a conspiracy.
– Persuasion and Social Movements pg 263
Offering an Alternate Explanation
Conspiratorial persuaders are well aware that they start with an inherent disadvantage. Conspiracy explanations are formed after official explanations are diseminated and found wanting, thus official explanations have a head start on conspiratorial explanations. That means that officials sources will have already convinced many of the official explanation before a conspiracy theory is even presented for evaluation. Additionally, official sources are viewed as more legitimate and credible than conspiratorial sources. Most people will accept an official explanation until they have good reason to question it. Whereas, very few if any conspiratorial persuaders are perceived by the public as being respectable and credible. Even individuals with credibility may be disregarded when espousing a conspiracy. Being that conspiratorial persuaders start from a position of distrust in the official explanation they expect others to initially distrust the conspiratorial explanation.Often times they attempt to counteract these disadvantages by using cold, hard, verifiable facts.
a basic truism of argumentation – burden of proof – maintains that we must prove claims. Normally, we reject arguments that shift the burden of proof to others by challenging them to disprove an unsupported claim.
Conspiracy advocates attempt to fulfill rather than shift the burden of proof. They are noted for carefully accumulating and arranging large amounts of evidence, some say “overwhelming proof,” to establish claims.
– Persuasion and Social Movements pg 264
If a conspiratorial persuader can demonstrate their case utilizing publicly available and verifiable facts they may convince people that the conspiracy explanation is more plausible than the official explanation. In order to do this conspiracies are frequently supported by a vast amount of evidence. They can be very meticulous about citing sources, presenting articles, linking to videos and showing all the connections between the evidence. This allows the conspiratorial persuader to put forth a case for an alternate explanation based on the evidence available. By doing so they gain a couple of advantages. First the strength of their argument can rely on the credibility and trustworthiness of their sources rather than themselves. The conspiratorial persuader is well aware that they personally carry very little credibility with the public so their sources can provide the authority needed for the public to accept their evidence. Second conspiracy theorists are acutely aware of the distrust created by secrecy and mystery thus they present their case in a very transparent manner. This can protect them from the distrust created by secrecy while they work to undermine trust in official explanations using secrecy.
But there is more to proving a conspiracy than just piling on the facts. A conspiracy must utilize those facts to weave a compelling and coherent narrative. An incoherent explanation will be rejected no matter how much support is provided. When people can’t follow the explanation they will not accept the explanation. A conspiratorial persuader must take the evidence they have compiled and show how the conspiracy theory better accounts for all of the facts and evidence. It must provide an understandable step by step explanation since any unexplained steps in the conspiracy will be targets for challenging the plausibility of the conspiracy. If a conspiracy is internally coherent and externally verifiable then it can appear as a plausible explanation for the events.
Though a plausible explanation is not enough to convince people of a conspiracy. There must be a reason ‘Why’ there is a conspiracy, there must be a motive for the conspiracy. A well supported coherent argument can make a good case for the alternate explanation being possible but it takes a motive to make the explanation reasonable. The conspiratorial persuader must be able to show a motive for the existence of a conspiracy. If there is no motive then there is no reason why anybody would go through so much to hide a conspiracy. There is no point in a conspiracy if there is no motive for it.
Furthermore the motive must be malicious, self-serving, or deceptive; in essence the motive must be evil. That is because a benevolent motive invites the public to empathize with the official explanation since it would portray officials as acting benevolently. So the conspiracy must center around an evil motive such as exploiting the population or hiding wrong doings or manipulating the system for personal gain. This not only provides the reason for a conspiracy but also the motivation for the public to challenge the official explanation. The evilness of the acts can energize and motivate people to spread the conspiracy theory to others in order to spread the truth. It also create motivation to use the conspiratorial explanation as a basis for taking action.
Thus, conspiracy arguments are carefully crafted mosaics of facts, examples, signs, causes, associations, and claims. The accumulation of large bodies of evidence meets the counterarguer’s burden of proof and attempts to overwhelm the competing institutional argument. A coherent pattern and an abundance of evidence help to establish motive and the evilness of the alleged conspiracy. The persuader attempts to establish that the conspiracy had both substantial reason for and the capability of committing unspeakable evil.
– Persuasion and Social Movements pg 270
The Official Explanation: We are Protecting You
The overall explanation given by the government for their surveillance programs is protecting American lives and national security. Government officials state that the programs are not spying on citizens rather they are for investigating terrorists. Officials assert that “dozens” of terror plots have been prevented due to the surveillance programs. The secrecy surrounding such programs is absolutely necessary in order to make the programs effective which is why the public was not told about them earlier. Also the necessity of secrecy prevent the government from disclosing too much about the programs now or else such disclosures will impact the efficacy of the programs.
The government is able to rely on less evidence and more assertions since they start from a position of legitimacy and credibility. Most people are willing to accept the government’s explanation unless presented with good reason to question it. The simplicity of the government’s explanation bolsters plausibility since there is little explanation is needed to create a coherent narrative. The government is simply trying to catch ‘bad guys’ which is their job so what else is there to explain? Furthermore the motive presented by the government is that of a benevolent protector. They are trying to do right by the public even if it requires a bit of secrecy and surveillance.
The Counter Argument: Nothing is as it Seems
The government’s explanation does not account for all of the details. First off why couldn’t the public be informed about the program while keeping critical details secret so the program would be effective? We the people would like to know when the government is collecting information on millions of people. Second if the government was only targeting terrorists then why is the court order to Verizon for ALL meta-data on EVERYBODY? Targeted warrants and surveillance are not a problem. People know that the government must investigate criminal activity including terrorism. But the current program doesn’t seem to specify any individuals, groups, plots or anything. Instead the NSA is collecting vast amounts of data on EVERYBODY. Third, if the program has prevented ‘dozens’ of terrorist plots why can’t we the people know about them? Publishing accounts of terrorism that are prevented could go a long way in convince the people that the program is really about catching ‘bad guys’. Yet the government isn’t offering us any details on plots thwarted by NSA surveillance, why not?
This may leave one feeling that the official explanation does not account for all available information. It also may leave people questioning the motives of the government. If they are not being forthright in their explanation then how do we know they are being honest about their motives. So what is the government up to?
Well if you consider that our rights have been under constant attack since 9/11 one may question if this is yet another means of taking our rights. The government is spying on us without warrants or direct suspicion in violation of the 4th amendment. Also they are making all of this classified to prevent the people from challenging it which violates the 1st amendment right to redress of grievances. Next consider that the government has been prosecuting and pursuing leaks and reports like never before. They clearly want to keep all their secrets hidden, so what else are they hiding from us? Then consider how the Occupy movement was handled by the government. Many were violently attacked by police for voicing their discontent with the government. Speaking out against the government can result in facing violent retaliation by the authorities. Also there is the Department of Homeland Security buying immense reserves of hollow point bullets which are primarily used against unarmored personnel. Hollow points are far less effective against any opponent wearing armor like police and military thus DHS must be concerned about fighting against large numbers of non-law enforcement, non-military targets. Then look at how the government handled the Boston bombing. In the wake of the bombing government troops using full military equipment, armor, weapons and vehicles searched houses without individual search warrants to find the bombing suspects. Next consider how hard the government pushed to control guns in the wake of Sandy Hook. Though they failed, the government fought hard to disarm the public.
All of this points to a government which is preparing to defend against or instigate a revolution. They have been slowly removing our rights in the fight against terrorism. All the while the government has been restricting the ability of the press to provide information to the public. The government is classifying more and more as secret so that they don’t have to allow the public to know what they are up to. At the same time they are collecting vast stores of ammunition for use on large number of unarmored individuals. Finally at every opportunity the government has tried to disarm the public.
The NSA surveillance is clearly being used in support of such a goal. Surveillance of electronic information can provide countless benefits should the government turn on the people themselves. Data mining emails, Facebook and financial transactions could show who is armed and who is not in the population . It would not be hard to identify gun owners through their communication and comments in social media. They can also identify citizens who may stand up to the government based on their comments, views and actions. Those who participate in protests and anti-government rallies could easily be spotted then dealt with first. Those that are outspoken about government intrusion and violations of rights can be identified and eliminated before they can create problems should the government decide to crack down on the population as a whole. NSA surveillance is just another step in the government plan to re-appropriate the power of the people to the government itself.
What on the surface may appear as a ‘crazy’ conspiracy theory may not appear the same when you dig deeper into it. Trust and distrust are central to conspiracy theories. If one trusts the official explanation then conspiracies may look absurd. Yet if the official sources are distrusted then an alternate explanation may seem to be rational. Official explanations may seem satisfactory yet with a little digging it may become clear that they do not account for all of the evidence available. When the simple official explanation is implausible then a more complex explanation could become more plausible. The complexity of an alternate explanation may even make it seem more rational in light of all the evidence. Where as a simplistic explanation may seem implausible by ignoring critical facts. Finally a conspiratorial explanation may become appealing by offering large amounts of evidence organized into a coherent explanation of the events. When the conspiratorial explanation not only accounts for the evidence but provides a motive for the conspiracy then it can be quite persuasive to those who are seeking an alternate explanation.
The most fascinating aspect of conspiratorial explanations is that depending on your perceptions they may appear insane or completely rational. Much of that is depending on whether you accept or reject the official explanation as well as whether you trust or distrust the official source. Next time you see a conspiracy theory step back for a moment and think about how your perception changes based on your trust or distrust of the official explanation. Ask yourself if you would judge the conspiracy differently if you altered your level of trust or distrust. You may find that the other side seems more rational than before.
I hope y’all enjoyed reading this series as much as I enjoyed writing it. It was a lot of fun to write both conspiratorial ideas and non-conspiratorial ideas next to each other while looking at current events.