Proper Gander – Mindsets And Misinterpretations
Questioning what we hear and see in the news and asking why events are presented to us in the way they are is a worthy response when so much of the mass media deliberately or unwittingly supports the interests of the minority who own it. But there’s a big difference between reasonable scepticism and rejecting what must have happened because it doesn’t fit with a distorted worldview. The latter was the subject of an edition of Panorama titled Disaster Deniers: Hunting The Trolls (BBC One), presented by Marianna Spring, the BBC’s ‘Disinformation Correspondent’. Frustratingly, watching the documentary is like catching highlights of a longer, better programme. Half an hour wasn’t enough to comprehensively cover the issue of people who broadcast their views that some of the most shocking tragedies of recent years didn’t take place.
Alongside interviews with researchers and survivors of terrorist attacks, the programme focuses on two conspiracy theorists: Alex Jones and Richard Hall. Hot-headed Alex Jones owns the far-right Infowars website, and on his radio show claimed that the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in America didn’t really happen. His view was that the massacre was faked by the authorities to create a scenario that would push people to want stricter laws about gun ownership. This fitted in with his overall perspective that there’s a secret elite acting to exert more control over people. He was subsequently sued for defamation by families of the victims, who won their case in court. A red-faced Jones ended up accepting that the attack took place and faced paying out almost a billion dollars, leading Infowars’ parent company to file for bankruptcy. In Britain, shifty Richard Hall publishes books and DVDs and posts online to promote his view that the bombing of the Manchester Arena in 2017 didn’t occur. The documentary doesn’t examine whatever reasons he has for this belief, although a shadowy elite is probably involved. He’s somehow decided that footage of the bombing shows ‘crisis actors’ who have all conspired to act out a tragedy and its continuing after-effects. Part of his approach has been to seek out and spy on survivors of the attack with the intention of proving they have faked their injuries.
Although both Jones and Hall’s views on the incidents are, at the very least, eccentric, this doesn’t mean that they are shared by just a handful of weirdos. Conspiracy theories used to be a fringe interest, but now they are more mainstream, according to Sasha Havlicek of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue think-tank. The programme quotes findings from a survey carried out by King’s College in London on the prevalence of alternative views about what’s in the news. It found that as many as one in seven people doubt that incidents such as the Manchester Arena bombing or the 2017 Westminster Bridge killings took place. Almost one in five people surveyed say that survivors of these attacks haven’t been truthful about what happened. Spring interviews some of the victims who have received distressing and abusive messages from people they don’t know accusing them of being ‘traitors’ and part of a conspiracy.
The ease of using social media to throw around abuse anonymously is one of the less attractive consequences of the internet age, with its near-limitless opportunities to have our say. Opinions and analysis can be published online without having to adhere to the editorial policy of a traditional news outlet with its own agenda. But because this is happening in capitalism, news and views are a market, and money can motivate some people to use their stance to build a brand and attract consumers. The most bizarre opinions can get the most traction, according to one of the interviewees on the programme. The debate then gets played out online in echo-chamber web forums and social media. According to Sasha Havlicek, ‘as we’ve seen the rise of these kinds of internet subcultures we have at the same time seen the plummeting of trust in institutions, of trust in mainstream media and we’ve actually seen a complete decrease in support for democracy as a concept’. Her argument is that democracy relies on ‘the idea of shared reality’, which has been undermined by the polarisation between fringe theories and mainstream explanations. Declining faith in capitalism’s structures would be welcomed, but the conspiracy theorists’ mistrust has gone astray from reasoned criticism into paranoia and narrow individualism. And to reach that point they have to selectively misinterpret the evidence to match their mindset.
Unfortunately, the documentary doesn’t explore further how society’s divisions fuel conspiracy theories or the tragic events which prompt them. While the BBC is often critical of the effects of capitalism, it wouldn’t promote the idea that the capitalist system itself is ultimately at fault. As this programme was produced by the BBC’s own ‘Disinformation Correspondent’, it would naturally keep the explanations to within BBC limits.