Jewish World Review June 28, 2007 / 12 Tamuz, 5767
When we let conspiracy theory masquerade as news, we fall prey to much more than deception
By Rod Dreher
http://www.JewishWorldReview.com | Seven years ago, I was walking on the road from Jerusalem to Bethlehem with a Catholic priest, an American who served a Palestinian parish in the area. We got to talking about the ongoing political crisis among the Palestinians. The priest said the most confounding thing about Palestinian politics was the power of rumor and conspiracy theory over the people.
"Last week after Mass, my parishioners were telling me that Arafat is really a Jew," the priest said. "This is what they'd heard, and they believed it completely."
Yasser Arafat a Jew? Really, they believe that?
Yes, said the priest – and next week, he said, they'll have heard the complete opposite and will believe that just as fervently. The priest reflected sadly that the susceptibility of the Palestinians – Christians and Muslims both – to rumor made it appallingly easy for corrupt politicians to exploit the common people.
I thought about that story recently as I peered into a window of an Istanbul bookstore and saw on display a title purporting to explain how the leader of Turkey's ruling Islamist party is really a "son of Moses" – that is, a Jew. As preposterous as that sounds – as preposterous as that is – there are plenty of people in Turkey prepared to believe it.
Given Turkey's current political struggle between Islamists on one side and military-backed secularists and nationalists on the other, rumors that take on the weight of fact can tip the balance of power.
The power of rumor is perhaps nowhere more destructive in the current moment than in the Muslim world. At a recent journalism conference in Istanbul, Boston University international relations professor Husain Haqqani cited several recent examples of ridiculous rumors that swept portions of the Islamic world, frightening millions:
•In April, terror gripped Pakistanis convinced that the nation's cellphones were serving as vectors for a deadly biological virus that was transmitted by cellular calls originating from a particular number. The rumor was believed by rich and poor, educated and illiterate alike, and caused crowds to turn off their cellphones for fear of being struck dead by a lethal call.
•Also in April, a rumor that the Israelis had smuggled a million HIV-infected melons into Saudi Arabia swept the kingdom, sparking speculation that the Zionists had opened a bold front in biological warfare on Muslims.
•In recent years, Islamic leaders in northern Nigeria have warned believers against accepting polio vaccinations, advising that the medicine is part of a Western plot to sterilize Muslims. Though public health authorities have since made progress in calming people's worries, hundreds of Nigerian children became infected with polio in the meantime, and the disease, which had been virtually extinguished in Africa, has made a comeback in at least 10 nations on the continent.
"Conspiracy theories have been popular among Muslims since the twilight years of the Ottoman Empire as a way of explaining the powerlessness of a community that was at one time the world's economic, scientific, political and military leader," said Dr. Haqqani, co-chairman of the Islam and Democracy Project at Washington's Hudson Institute.
A weakness for conspiracy theory goes hand in hand with willingness to credit rumors as fact. Both, he said, are part of a psychological strategy that helps Muslims cope with their own humiliation and lack of economic, technological and educational development relative to the rest of the world. Yet the inability to deal straightforwardly with facts not only makes relations between Muslim nations and the rest of the world unnecessarily difficult, it also perpetuates the knowledge deficit and weakness pervading the Muslim world.
While cultures of developing nations – and not just Islamic ones – can be rumor-prone for therapeutic reasons, in some instances rumor culture thrives as a result of despotic government.
"During the dictatorship of Pinochet, the Chilean public got used to the fact that the official story delivered by the media was always manipulated and missing the truth," said Mauricio Avila, information editor of Publimetro Chile, a Santiago daily. "This feeling is still alive today, and there is skepticism that the media tells the truth. Because of that, rumors [are] much more credible than the facts themselves."
Similarly in Uganda, government control of the news media – which didn't end until 1992 – trained the public to rely on rumor and word of mouth to learn what was really going on. David Sseppuuya, a veteran Ugandan newspaper journalist, said that a glorified grapevine called Radio Katwe – a rumor mill that has never been a real radio station – became a trusted source of news and information under the dictatorship of Idi Amin.
Though Radio Katwe clearly mixed myth, rumor and fact, said Mr. Sseppuuya, Ugandans, who have a long history as an oral culture, even believed outlandish stories it circulated about talking animals portending political change. After one of these rumors involving a conversational serpent made the rounds in 1981, "there was pandemonium and some shooting," said Mr. Sseppuuya. Radio Katwe outlasted Mr. Amin and is now available on the Internet (www.radiokatwe.com).
Americans who read stories like this might smile, shake their heads and give thanks that they don't live amid such gullible people. They can only maintain that pose of superiority if they ignore the destructive role rumor played in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The moral panic surrounding Katrina, stoked in part by media rumor-mongering, had serious, perhaps even lethal, consequences for stranded New Orleanians.
As The Times-Picayune later proved, most of those hysterical early reports of rapes, snipers firing on rescue helicopters and general anarchy in the streets were groundless – even though city officials like Mayor Ray Nagin and Chief of Police Eddie Compass helped propagate the bad information.
For example, multiple reports of sniper fire against helicopters caused authorities to shut down rescue efforts for hours. These myths left hundreds of sick and elderly people stuck atop hospital and nursing home roofs, in mortal danger.
The news media and the electronic grapevine passed these and other unverified stories on, and they shaped the wider public's image of a city out of control. In turn, this created the impression that victims were actually dangerous. In one infamous case, police officers from the suburb of Gretna refused to let New Orleanians walking out of the drowning city pass into their town for fear that they carried the contagion of anarchy.
The difference between truth and rumor became a matter of life and death.
Though electronic technology – cellphones, blogs, e-mail, text messaging – makes the rapid spread of rumors possible, it also helps quash them. An examination of how the information environment became polluted during the Katrina aftermath found that the breakdown of telephone communication made it easier for malicious rumors to thrive.
Similarly, technology made it possible for journalists to cover the April elections in rumor-prone Nigeria more accurately. "In the old days, we would have had to wait until the end of polling for reporters to file stories to the newsroom in the head office," said Emeka Izeze, editor in chief of The Guardian in Lagos. "This time, through the use of mobile phones, some reporters were required to send in their minute-by-minute update by SMS or physical phone calls."
The result, said Mr. Izeze, was that editors quickly developed a clear picture of what was happening around the country and deployed resources to report thoroughly and accurately on instances of election fraud.
In the United States, the proliferation of information technology has empowered not only journalists, who use the Internet for research, but also ordinary people who read, watch and listen to journalists' work. Bloggers aggressively critique media accounts, challenging facts, logic and bias at every turn. Perhaps most famously, bloggers shot down a potentially devastating 60 Minutes story in 2004 on President Bush's National Guard record, and in so doing prematurely ended the national journalism careers of CBS anchor Dan Rather and veteran producer Mary Mapes.
Because technology has broken down traditional informational hierarchies, people no longer have to depend on the usual authorities to tell them the truth. The Catholic sex-abuse story, for example, broke in an unprecedented way across the country, precisely because bloggers and others using the Internet aggregated information on their own and from traditional journalistic sources and constructed a more complete version of the truth than ever would have been possible before. The world before the Internet and other information technology was a simpler place, but it's hard to say it was a better one for truth-seekers.
On the other hand, as the examples from places as diverse as Pakistan and New Orleans show, lies travel as quickly and as far as the truth across the vast global telecommunications web. The chief challenge the new information environment poses is not, ultimately, technological but philosophical. And as usual, the pace of technological change is outstripping our ability to think our way clearly through.
The idea that there is a fundamental difference between fact and rumor presupposes that there is a difference between truth and falsity. So far, so good. But in our postmodern era, all of us – rich and poor, educated and uneducated, American and foreign – are dangerously predisposed to a radically subjective stance that philosophers call emotivism but which fans of TV satirist Stephen Colbert call "truthiness."
Truthiness, in Mr. Colbert's definition, refers to the tendency to accept something as true not on the basis of facts, logic or evidence, but rather on intuition – that is, because it feels right.
To be sure, truthiness is part of the human condition. One reason many were quick to believe the worst about New Orleans is that the horror stories fit what people in south Louisiana, at least, had been conditioned for years – and not without good reason – to believe about the Crescent City's social dysfunction. Similarly, it was easy for emotionally distraught Americans to believe that New Orleans was turning into Mogadishu because that story line played to deep fears and stereotypes about poor black folks. Any American who wants to stand in judgment of hysterics in Islamabad, Riyadh or Lagos has to confront Katrina first.
It's not news that people are prone to believing things that confirm their biases. What is news, I think, is that people are losing the sense that truth is knowable and that one has a moral obligation to seek the truth, no matter how difficult it may be to deal with. Truth is often painful, but truthiness is therapeutic.
True story: I had a political argument not long ago with a reader, about the Iraq war. She made a rather outlandish claim, which I disputed with facts. She then said, "Well, you're entitled to your own opinion, and I'm entitled to mine."
I should have said, following Sen. Moynihan, "Yes, madam, but you're not entitled to your own facts." But I didn't because I know these discussions are often futile. She wasn't interested in reconciling her opinion with the world of facts, or reconciling my own. In fact, she was resentful of me for judging her opinion.
What stayed with me about that argument was not that the reader was wrong about some aspect of the war. Rather, it was the astonishing (to me) notion that the factual correctness of the matter was beside the point. It suited the reader to believe her story, and as far as she was concerned, that was all that mattered.
Truth to tell, I've met more than a few journalists who were quite as self-satisfied and incurious about their own sacred cows. Indeed, I was that journalist myself for a while, on the very issue that brought me into conflict with that reader: the Iraq war.
We all must learn to be more vigilant about seeking the truth as we become aware of our own biases. But we cannot do that if we don't believe that objective truth exists and can be known. If we come to believe, consciously or unconsciously, that there is no such thing as Truth, but rather truths – my truth, your truth, their truth – then our minds will be, paradoxically, both closed airtight and so open that our brains fall out.
Rumors we will always have with us. We wait in vain for the day when all people everywhere prefer the boring or discomfiting truth to the exciting or pleasing lie. The only way to make sense of the increasingly wide-open information environment is to cultivate a deep respect and love for the truth and suspicion for the popular idea that emotions are a reliable guide to reality.
Granted, it is not given to any one man or woman to know the truth in all its fullness (and beware those arrogant enough to claim that they do). But to believe that truth exists, and that it can be known to a great degree, is not only the foundation for moral inquiry, democratic political debate, honest scholarship, good government, robust journalism, inspiring preaching and other things vital to a prosperous and civil existence. It is also the minimal standard for living in sanity.
As the great lawyer Clarence Darrow put it, "Chase after the truth like all hell and you'll free yourself, even though you never touch its coattails."
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Rod Dreher is assistant editorial page editor of the Dallas Morning News and author of the forthcoming "Crunchy Cons" (Crown Forum).
Rod Dreher is assistant editorial page editor of the Dallas Morning News and author of the forthcoming "Crunchy Cons" (Crown Forum).
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