Providing plots for hit TV shows and dark material for online chatrooms, conspiracy theories are gaining more and more credence, particularly in the Middle East. Why?
Conspiracy theories around the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington run rampant in the United States. Nicholas Kamm / AFP
On the night of January 7 this year, hours after the terrorist attack on the Paris offices of satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, a senior French police officer shut himself in his office and shot himself in the head.
The French media reported that Helric Fredou, the 45-year-old deputy director of police in Limoges, a town 350 kilometres to the south of Paris, was single, childless and depressed. His death was a melancholic but irrelevant footnote to a black day on which 11 people were murdered.
To the denizens of the digital world of conspiracy theorists, however, his suicide was something else entirely. Fredou was not, as countless conspiracy websites have suggested, “one of the lead investigators” on the case. Nevertheless, to them it was obvious that he had been “suicided” – because he knew the truth.
That “truth” is that the Charlie Hebdo attack was a “false flag” operation, carried out not by two radicalised Muslim brothers but by agents of Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, or the CIA.
Within minutes of the news of a foiled attack on a train in France last Saturday, websites such as Project Avalon, Blacklisted News and Crimes of Empire were confidently declaring the incident a “false flag” operation that had gone wrong.
As with Charlie Hebdo and the French train attack, so with aliens at Roswell, the multiple assassins of John F Kennedy, the faking of the Moon landings, the creation of HIV by the CIA and, of course, 9/11 – the ultimate “false flag” operation.
Welcome to the evidence-lite world of the conspiracy theorist, where mysterious forces are at work and nothing is as it seems.
We all love a good conspiracy. Homeland, 24, American Odyssey – even The X-Files is returning to our screens. To most of us, conspiracy theories are just harmless fun. But there is a dark side to them, as governments around the world are beginning to recognise as they struggle to stem the rising tide of destabilising propaganda threatening to carry off society’s more credulous members.
In the borderless world of social media and smartphones, Jonathan Swift’s observation that “falsehood flies and truth comes limping after it” has never been more true.
Last month, the British prime minister David Cameron attacked the “ludicrous conspiracy theories of the extremists” that were enticing young British Muslims onto the path to radicalisation.
The Arab world has no shortage of conspiracy theories. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, many feature Israel or the United States as the sinister puppetmasters behind many of the region’s woes.
For example, Coca-Cola maintains a “Middle East rumors” section on its website, to counter often-repeated claims that its beverages contain ingredients unsuitable for Muslims and that anti-Islamic messages are hidden in its trademark logo.
Middle East governments are not above muddying the waters. In 2010, for example, Egyptian officials suggested that Mossad agents might somehow be behind a series of shark attacks on tourists in the waters off Sharm El Sheikh.
In August last year, the US ambassador was summoned to the Lebanese foreign ministry to explain false allegations that former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton had conspired with the Muslim Brotherhood to create the terrorist organisation ISIL. Gebran Bassil, Lebanon’s foreign minister, stoked the flames of speculation higher by tweeting details of the meeting to his 65,000 followers.
Psychologists say different people have different reasons for being susceptible to conspiracy theories. Personal circumstances certainly play a part, says Michael Wood, a Canadian lecturer in psychology at the University of Winchester in the United Kingdom, who specialises in the psychology of conspiracy theories. “If you feel like you’re not in control [of your life], you are more likely to believe them.”
In September 1999, exactly two years before 9/11, the journal Political Psychology carried a study by researchers at New Mexico State University, who concluded that “beliefs in conspiracies are related to feelings of alienation, powerlessness, hostility, and being disadvantaged”.
In these circumstances, says Wood, the brain faces two psychological possibilities: “Either somebody else is controlling what’s going on, or nobody is.”
People are more likely to believe that someone else is controlling what’s happening, he says, “because then, at least in principle, the world is a knowable and controllable place, and not random. Someone is in control, even if it’s not the right person.”
Azeem Ibrahim, a British Muslim who is a research professor at the US Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute, believes that the widespread belief in conspiracy theories in the Arab world is a substitute for people taking responsibility for their own destinies.
Needless to say, having expressed this view on Al Arabiya, Ibrahim is now the subject of his very own conspiracy theory in which he stars as (you guessed it) an agent for the CIA.
“Conspiracy theories are a serious problem in the Muslim world,” says Ibrahim. “The British prime minister is absolutely right ... conspiracy theories are an integral part of the radicalisation process.”
And, he says, they are “a symptom of intellectual laziness. It is very easy to blame outside powers for all your problems, because that alleviates your responsibility for doing anything about them, your own corruption and your own communities”.
But for political scientist Matthew Gray, an associate professor at the Australian National University’s Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies, Canberra, that view ignores the wider political and historical contexts of the Arab world, where the causes of conspiracy theories go “beyond the basic or pathological explanations”.
Anti-western and anti-modern views, he wrote in his 2010 book, Conspiracy Theories in the Arab World, were “more a source than an outcome of conspiracism”. In a region undergoing radical changes, there was “a contest between traditional values and the changes brought by modernity”. Such an environment, “where earlier political ideologies have become redundant or stale ... and subsequent ideologies have been inadequate to the task of filling the void”, was a fertile breeding ground for conspiracy theories.
For a western government such as Cameron’s to tackle such theories head-on, he says, would be to play into the conspiracists’ hands. “If you hire some moderate Muslim leaders to go out and spread the word about moderation and peace in Islam, the conspiracy theorists will just say: ‘See? The West is co-opting these people and turning them against the true religion. The only answer is our more radical interpretation’.”
While no quick fix, be believes the best solution probably lies in a return to absolute transparency.
“The US government has probably been less transparent in the past 14 years than it was in the post-war period up to 2001,” he says. “The argument now is that it should be returning to as much transparency as it can – shining a light into the dark corners where conspiracy theories thrive.”
For western governments to concentrate solely on shutting down extremist Islamic websites peddling anti-western propaganda is to overlook the enemy within – the home-grown conspiracy theorists for whom their own leaders can do no right.
In the US, the events of 9/11 triggered fantastic speculation about “what really happened” on the day that 19 terrorists hijacked four aircrafts and killed 2,996 people – speculation that, as the 14th anniversary of that day approaches, shows no sign of abating.
The common, wholly unproven, theme among the various organisations searching “for 9/11 Truth” is that the American government either carried out or condoned the attacks to justify invading Muslim countries.
All three of the buildings that fell in New York say groups such as Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth were felled not by the impact of the aircraft, or by the resultant jet-fuel fires, but by controlled-demolition explosives, secretly planted in all three of the buildings that fell.
Other “truthers” even believe no aircraft were involved in the attacks. The world and its media were fooled, either by digitally manipulated footage or by missiles equipped with holograms that made them look like aircrafts.
Consider, for a moment, the impossibility of keeping such a complex and widespread conspiracy secret. And then dismiss it. The lack of leaks and moles, truthers will declare triumphantly, shows only how well the conspiracy is working.
It’s one thing for someone living in Gaza to believe such theories. But what is the attraction of this stuff to the comfortably well-off lawyers, pilots and engineers, living free and without much obvious oppression in the US, who are at the core of the 9/11 truth movement?
Perhaps the US establishment has shown itself to be too untrustworthy, too many times. Watergate, Bay of Pigs and – a favourite touchstone on conspiracy websites – Operation Northwoods, a scheme cooked up by senior US military chiefs in the Sixties to justify invading Cuba by covertly carrying out acts of terror on US soil and blaming Castro. JFK rejected the plan.
But whatever the possible logical justification for fearing the worst about one’s own government, psychologists say certain people are simply hardwired to assume conspiracy is afoot.
A recent paper published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science concluded that political extremists of any kind, wedded to “simple political solutions to societal problems”, were attracted to conspiracy beliefs. And according to a 2008 paper by psychologists at the University of Texas, some types of people are just mentally predisposed to “signal detection” – spotting “illusory patterns” where none exist, “including seeing images in noise, forming illusory correlations in stock-market information [and] perceiving conspiracies”.
Of course, none of the three key organisations – Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth (AE911truth), 911Truth.org and Pilots for 911 Truth – accepts it is peddling conspiracy theories.
AE911truth “doesn’t have theories”, says Andrew Steele, the group’s public relations manager, “but rather evidence that supports the need for a new investigation ... supported by those with the professional expertise to know that the US government’s own theories are unsound”.
Likewise, Mike Berger, media co-ordinator for 911Truth.org, says his organisation is merely filling the vacuum created by “the inability of journalists” to ask “the tough questions demanded by the absurd fabrications presented by the government as fact”.
All three groups also indignantly reject the suggestion that their ongoing campaigns help to fuel hatred of the West and the radicalisation of some young Muslims.
It is “easy, simplistic and convenient to blame conspiracy theories for fomenting Muslim violence”, says Berger. In fact, “the West’s persistent hypocrisy provides more power to foster Muslim rage and undermine the credibility of America and her allies”.
Closer to home, for Cameron, is British 9/11 conspiracy theorist Michael Aydinian, whose website features a series of angry on-camera monologues insisting 9/11 was “an inside job”.
It may be wild, unsubstantiated stuff, but it certainly has a following. On August 18, Aydinian celebrated more than a quarter of a million hits and 66,000 shares for one recent post. In an email exchange, Aydinian also rejects the suggestion that he is peddling baseless and dangerous conspiracy theories. “The only conspiracy theory,” he says, “is the official explanation, because the only people who could have committed 9/11 were dual national [sic] Zionists ... Cui Bono – Israel is the only country to gain.”
The Latin phrase cui bono – who benefits? – crops up a lot on conspiracy websites. This is the invisible glue used to stick random facts and conjecture together, and translates as “OK, we have no evidence – but come on!”.
Wherever they stand on a spectrum that ranges from suspicious at one extreme to downright deluded at the other, together the “truthers” are broadcasting a disturbing and pernicious message that is being heard loud and clear around the world.
A poll carried out by Ohio State University five years after 9/11 found that a third of Americans believed the US government was behind the attacks.
By 2013, a YouGov poll found that 50 per cent of Americans doubted the official account – 46 per cent suspected World Trade Center Building 7 had been brought down by planted explosives, as many “truthers” insist.
Scepticism is similarly rife in the Middle East. In 2011, a decade after the attacks, a poll by the non-partisan Pew Research Center in Washington, found that the majority of Muslims in seven Middle Eastern countries did not believe Arabs had been involved in 9/11. Scepticism was strongest in Egypt (75 per cent), Turkey (73 per cent) and the Palestinian Territories (68 per cent).
In fact, the Pew Center reported that there was “no Muslim public in which even 30 per cent accept that Arabs conducted the attacks”.
For some who believe in such shadowy plots against them, says Ibrahim, the next logical step is to support those who are taking up arms, apparently in defence of Islam.
And that, he says, is where the dangerous weapon that is the conspiracy theory comes full circle and stabs its believers in the back.
“The number one killer of Muslims around the world is neither the Americans nor the Israelis. It is other Muslims.
“But once you subscribe to these conspiracy theories, all of this is ‘justifiable’. Everybody, even other Muslims, become part of this imagined plot to subjugate Muslims and to enslave them.”
Jonathan Gornall is a freelance journalist based in London.
From Roswell to the secret Pentagon programme: How the UFO myth persists
Each one of the official US investigations since 1947 has concluded that while the causes of sightings of UFOs may have included 'misinterpretation of various conventional objects', mass hysteria and deliberate fabrication by hoaxers, they were most definitely not attributable to little green men or women
A sign off route US 285, north of Roswell, New Mexico, points west to the alleged 1947 crash site of a UFO.
The Roswell Daily Herald’s front page splash headline on July 8, 1947, was unequivocal: “RAAF captures flying saucer on ranch in Roswell region”.
The RAAF was the Roswell army air field in the United States’ south-western state of New Mexico.
The “flying saucer”, according to a correction printed in the same newspaper the next day, was nothing more than a collection of broken sticks, tinfoil, rubber and paper – better known, collectively, as a crashed weather balloon.
Those two articles and the presumed “cover-up” instigated by the US military form the bedrock of what over the past 70 years has become the world’s most popular and persistent conspiracy theory: that the bodies of at least two aliens were recovered from Roswell and transferred to Area 51, a “secret” air base in the Nevada desert, where they remain to this day.
The US department of defence even has a secret programme investigating apparent UFO sightings, the Advanced Aviation Threat Identification Programme. The revelation, reported on Saturday, appears among an archive of CIA papers that was recently declassified showing that it spent US$22 million (Dh58.7m) between 2007 and 2012. The programme’s backers say that despite loss of funding, it remains in existence.
The Roswell Incident was the first in a long line of modern-day conspiracy theories, which include the Kennedy assassination and the 9/11 attacks, all of which have been granted a fresh lease of life by the internet.
But Roswell is not where the great UFO myth took off.
The phrase “flying saucer” is believed to have originated on June 24, 1947, less than a month before the Roswell incident, when a private pilot claimed to have spotted nine mysterious aircraft flying in formation in the vicinity of Mount Rainier, Washington.
After Kenneth Arnold described them as flying like saucers skimming across water, the headline phrase “flying saucers” was born. All eyes turned to the skies and Roswell was a sighting just waiting to happen.
A study published by a scientist at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in 2000 identified 13 “waves” of UFO sightings around the world between 1896 and 1987, each one of which had been triggered by a single “eyewitness” report.
After Arnold’s story came out, wrote Diana Palmer Hoyt, “reports of sightings swept the nation and Arnold’s story encouraged everyone who had ever seen something strange in the sky to come out into the open. Sightings spread to Europe and grabbed headlines worldwide.”
In fact, the US military had been logging reports of UFOs since at least the Second World War, when sightings by aircrew of strange goings-on began to proliferate.
The term “Foo Fighter”, believed to have been coined by members of a US night-fighter squadron during the battle for Europe, came to be the accepted term in official reports of sightings by the US forces during the war.
The Robertson Panel, a US government committee convened in 1953 to investigate 23 UFO sightings in the US between 1950 and 1952, concluded that while the “exact cause or nature” of the Foo Fighters was never defined
, almost certainly they had been nothing more than “electrostatic or electromagnetic phenomena, or possibly light reflections from ice crystals”.
As for the flurry of post-war UFO sightings, none was attributable “to foreign artefacts capable of hostile acts, and that there is no evidence that the phenomena indicates a need for the revision of current scientific concepts”.
Between 1947 and 1951 the US air force initiated no fewer than three studies of the UFO phenomenon – projects Sign, Grudge and Twinkle – and in 1952 launched Project Blue Book, which lasted until December 1969.
Although all of these investigations concluded that the truth almost certainly wasn’t out there, their very existence, concluded Hoyt, “gave rise to the public’s suspicion of existence of a government-military cover-up and, in the end, only piqued public interest”.
That interest shows no sign of waning. In one poll conducted by a British newspaper in July to mark the 70th anniversary of the Roswell incident, 82 per cent believed that the US government was continuing to hide the remains of a UFO that crashed in 1947.
Each one of the official US investigations since 1947 has concluded that while the causes of sightings of UFOs may have included “misinterpretation of various conventional objects”, mass hysteria and deliberate fabrication by hoaxers, they were most definitely not attributable to little green men or women.
Regardless, thanks to countless books, sci-fi films, long-running TV sci-fi series The X Files and fringe denizens of the internet, the persistent fascination with UFOs continues unabated.
The Advanced Aviation Threat Identification Programme came no closer than any other official investigation to proving that Earth has ever been visited by aliens.
But then, as Fox Mulder might observe, they would say that, wouldn’t they?
In his memoir, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, King shares valuable insights into how to be a better writer. The book was first published in 2000. In 2010, a special anniversary edition of this million-copy bestseller was republished. Here are a few great pieces of advice from the memoir:
1. Stop watching television. Instead, read as much as possible: If you're just starting out as a writer, your television should be the first thing to go.
2. Prepare for more failure and criticism than you think you can deal with: Not only will you doubt yourself, but other people will doubt you, too. Oftentimes, you have to continue writing even when you don't feel like it. And when you fail, King suggests that you remain positive.
3. Don't waste time trying to please people: Rudeness should be the least of your concerns. "If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered anyway," he writes.
4. Write primarily for yourself: You should write because it brings you happiness and fulfilment. As King says, "If you can do it for joy, you can do it forever."
5. Disconnect from the rest of the world: Put your desk in the corner of the room, and eliminate all possible distractions, from phones to open windows.
6. Don't be pretentious: One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you're maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones, says King.
8. Avoid adverbs and long paragraphs: King believes "adverbs are worst after "he said" and "she said" — those phrases are best left unadorned. Also pay attention to your paragraphs, so that they flow with the turns and rhythms of your story.
9. Don't get overly caught up in grammar: Writing is primarily about seduction, not precision. The object of fiction isn't grammatical correctness but to make the reader welcome and then tell a story, he says.
10. Master the art of description: Description begins in the writer's imagination, but should finish in the reader's," writes King. The important part isn't writing enough, but limiting how much you say. Visualise what you want your reader to experience, and then translate into words. The key to good description is clarity, both in observation and in writing. Use fresh images and simple vocabulary to avoid exhausting your reader. "In many cases when a reader puts a story aside because it 'got boring,' the boredom arose because the writer grew enchanted with his powers of description and lost sight of his priority," notes King.
11. Don't give too much background information: There's a difference between lecturing about what you know and using it to enrich the story," writes King. Only include details that move your story forward and persuade your reader to continue reading. If you need to research, make sure it doesn't overshadow the story. Research belongs "as far in the background and the back story as you can get it," says King. You may be entranced by what you're learning, but your readers are going to care a lot more about your characters and your story.
12. Tell stories about what people actually do: Bad writing is more than a matter of shit syntax and faulty observation; bad writing usually arises from a stubborn refusal to tell stories about what people actually do — to face the fact, let us say, that murderers sometimes help old ladies cross the street," writes King. The people in your stories are what readers care about the most, so make sure you acknowledge all the dimensions your characters may have.
13. Take risks; don't play it safe: First and foremost, stop using the passive voice. It's the biggest indicator of fear. "Fear is at the root of most bad writing," King says. "Try any goddamn thing you like, no matter how boringly normal or outrageous. If it works, fine. If it doesn't, toss it," he adds.
14. Realise that you don't need drugs to be a good writer: Substance-abusing writers are just substance-abusers. "Any claims that the drugs and alcohol are necessary to dull a finer sensibility are just the usual self-serving bullshit," believes King.
15. Don't try to steal someone else's voice: When you try to mimic another writer's style for any reason other than practice, you'll produce nothing but "pale imitations." This is because you can never try to replicate the way someone feels and experiences truth, especially not through a surface-level glance at vocabulary and plot.
16. Understand that writing is a form of telepathy: All the arts depend upon telepathy to some degree, but I believe that writing is the purest distillation, says King. An important element of writing is transference. Your job isn't to write words on the page, but rather to transfer the ideas inside your head into the heads of your readers.
17. Take your writing seriously: You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or despair, says King. If you don't want to take your writing seriously, he suggests that you close the book and do something else. As writer Susan Sontag says, "The story must strike a nerve — in me. My heart should start pounding when I hear the first line in my head. I start trembling at the risk."
18. Write every single day: Once I start work on a project, I don't stop, and I don't slow down unless I absolutely have to, says King. "If I don't write every day, the characters begin to stale off in my mind ... I begin to lose my hold on the story's plot and pace." If you fail to write consistently, the excitement for your idea may begin to fade. When the work starts to feel like work, King describes the moment as "the smooch of death." His best advice is to just take it "one word at a time."
19. Finish your first draft in three months: King likes to write 10 pages a day. Over a three-month span, that amounts to around 180,000 words. "The first draft of a book — even a long one — should take no more than three months, the length of a season," he says. If you spend too long on your piece, King believes the story begins to take on an odd foreign feel.
20. When you're finished, take a long step back: King suggests six weeks of "recuperation time" after you're done writing, so you can have a clear mind to spot any glaring holes in the plot or character development. He asserts that a writer's original perception of a character could be just as faulty as the reader's. When you do find your mistakes, he says that "you are forbidden to feel depressed about them or to beat up on yourself. Screw-ups happen to the best of us."
21. Have the guts to cut: When revising, writers often have a difficult time letting go of words they spent so much time writing. But, as King advises, "Kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler's heart." Although revision is one of the most difficult parts of writing, you need to leave out the boring parts in order to move the story along. In his advice on writing, Vonnegut suggests, "If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out."
22. Stay married, be healthy, and live a good life: King attributes his success to two things: his health and his marriage
So much for empathy.
Members of opposing political groups clashed Tuesday inside a so-called "empathy tent" on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley.
At least four people were arrested, police said.
The empathy tent was reportedly in place to offer protesters a calm place to unwind amid the chaos around them. But the tent ultimately offered little respite -- and nearly toppled during clashes between conservative students and leftist activists, the Los Angeles Times reported.
“It’s tough, but we do what we can to foster dialogue,” said Edwin Fulch, who reportedly used the tent for talks about the virtues of meditation and the Occupy Wall Street movement.
The protest was led by Joey Gibson, leader of a group called Patriot Prayer. Gibson had called for a rally after student organizers canceled a planned "Free Speech Week.”
Counterprotesters determined to shut the event down got into shouting matches and scuffles with Gibson and his supporters inside the tent and later in a city park.
Left-wing activist Yvonne Felarca was arrested for battery and resisting arrest, police said. Three men were arrested on charges including possession of body armor, carrying a banned weapon and participating in a riot.
Berkeley's reputation as a liberal bastion has made it a flashpoint for the country's political divisions since the election of President Donald Trump.
Four protests have turned violent on campus and in the surrounding streets in recent months, prompting authorities to tighten security as they struggle to balance free speech rights with preventing violence.
David Marquis, who identified himself as a senior at the school, said he was tired of the protests on campus. Marquis was outside the protest area and described the scene.
“If you look at them, it’s ridiculous,” Marquis told the Los Angeles Times. “You’ve got a guy with purple hair with a f---ing lightsaber talking about Hitler. It’s hard for me to take any of this seriously.”
Find what you love and let it kill you.
Let it drain you of your all. Let it cling onto your back and weigh you down into eventual nothingness.
Let it kill you and let it devour your remains.
For all things will kill you, both slowly and fastly, but it’s much better to be killed by a lover.
Find what you love and let it kill you.
Let it drain you of your all. Let it cling onto your back and weigh you down into eventual nothingness.
Let it kill you and let it devour your remains.
For all things will kill you, both slowly and fastly, but it’s much better to be killed by a lover.
~ Falsely yours”