Conspiracy Theorists, YouTube and Anti-Intellectualism
By Muertos (firstname.lastname@example.org)
If you argue with conspiracy theorists on the Internet for even a short period of time, you'll notice one thing very quickly: they love YouTube. It's extremely rare to carry on any sort of "debate" with a conspiracy theorist of any stripe--9/11 Truther, moon hoaxer, global warming denier, what-have-you--and not see the CT post at least one, and usually more, links to videos on YouTube supposedly validating their position. In fact, in terms of sheer volume of the "evidence" posted by conspiracy theorists, YouTube appears to be their primary
source of information. Furthermore, most of them simply can't understand why not everybody is immediately persuaded by something on YouTube, and if you push back against their arguments, you'll invariably get still
more YouTube links. In the paranoid world of conspiracy theories, YouTube is evidently the ultimate oracle of all knowledge. This blog will attempt to examine why conspiracy theorists love YouTube so much, and how their passion for this website relates to a strong and disturbing undercurrent in the conspiracist worldview: anti-intellectualism.
Don't get me wrong, YouTube is a great communication tool. With the ubiquity of video cameras these days, it's a fine way to connect with people, get the word out about various things, and also have fun. (ConspiracyScience has a YouTube channel here: http://www.youtube.com/user/conspiracyscience
and I have a personal YouTube channel myself, here: http://www.youtube.com/user/buffalofetus
) But while most people use YouTube for light entertainment, more often than not involving cats doing funny things (such as this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J---aiyznGQ
), conspiracy theorists are watching stuff like this (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=POUSJm--tgw
) and this (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MwSc7NPn8Ok
), full of "free fall collapses," quotes taken out of context, and other so-called "evidence" that they use to "prove" that various events were in fact massive conspiracies. For conspiracy theorists, YouTube isn't fun at all. It's deadly serious business. Also, for them, bizarrely, it is the first
line of information. Despite the vast information resources that are out there, not just on the Internet, conspiracists usually turn to YouTube before they go anywhere else--almost as if other sources don't exist. In fact, conspiracy theorists usually credit YouTube videos as more
credible than other forms of evidence.
Take, to wit, this recent conversation on the ConspiracyScience forum (in this topic: http://conspiracyscience.com/forums/topic/woow-im-not-banned/page/3
) in which this exchange occurs between "Casey," a conspiracy theorist and 9/11 Truther, and various debunkers including myself:
Casey: "point me in the direction of these scientific rebuttals...but not this load of shit please (http://www.debunking911.com/pull.htm) or anything like it...Somthing actually scientific, i might be dyslexic but i do have a chemistry degree, and i do like my physics"
Muertos: "Casey, you want something "actually scientific" that proves that the WTC was not a controlled demolition? Here you go. (http://wtc.nist.gov/NCSTAR1/PDF/NCSTAR%201.pdf) Another one: (http://sites.google.com/site/wtc7lies/Bazant_WTC_Collapse_What_Did__Did_No.pdf) And another: (http://www.911-strike.com/BazantZhou.htm) All scientific peer-reviewed materials. Enjoy your reading."
Edward: "lol, collapsed into their own footprint, as if that even happened, only conspiracy theorists claim it did, no one else does."
Casey: "this is bone totally bone! (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=POUSJm--tgw) (http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xa5m8b_wtc-7-falls-symetrically-into-its-o_news) The vidio footage on this one is pretty good (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8W0N-qH0ac4)"
Muertos: "Casey, I posted 3 scientific rebuttals of the controlled demolition theory. It seems you did not read them, even though you specifically asked us for them. If that's true, why did you not read them? If you did read them and found them persuasive, please say so. If you did read them and did not find them persuasive, please tell us exactly what portions of them were faulty, in your view."
Casey: "In fairness chick i havent read them all thu yet... Muertos but you do know it didnt happen the way thay explained it dont ya?"
Casey: "Muertos: (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=POUSJm--tgw) [Note: the same video he's posted before) Muertos Watch it and look for more real evidence!! its out there!!
welll i was sitting in a school house in floria.... (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KlWSv0NZBRw&feature=related)... The bottom line is i have seen footage of the bombs going off in the base of the buildings there is documented reports by fire fighters police and civilians of bombs going off!! People that were caught in the blasts were treated at hospital!!! So a plane hitting the top of the building made that happen!!! Not fucking likely!! Wake up and smell the coffee, its not dificult its not rocket science!! Alot off people have over complicated this thing to death, but its simple...."
And so forth and so on. In this case, the CT specifically asked
for evidence rebutting the controlled demolition theory. When three peer-reviewed studies were presented, he admitted he had not read them and continued to argue based on YouTube links, and cited as the centrality of his argument "I have seen footage of the bombs going off
" and because he has seen this any evidence to the contrary must
be erroneous. Where did he see this footage? YouTube, of course!
Why do conspiracy theorists love YouTube so much? There are a number of possible answers, all of which interlock to one extent or another. But in analyzing conspiracy theorists' passion for YouTube we must get to a deeper core of the conspiracy mindset, and that is a desperate need to explain away contrary evidence, usually by denying its legitimacy (because its accuracy
is usually much harder to attack).
So, why do conspiracy theorists love YouTube?
1. In most cases, it's honestly the best they can do.
Conspiracy theories are, by definition, fringe beliefs. The most common shopworn theories these days--9/11 was an inside job, global warming is a hoax, the Illuminati is out to impose a "New World Order" on us, etc., etc.--are completely unsupported by empirical evidence. No reputable scientists or engineers believe that 9/11 was a "controlled demolition." (Steven Jones and Judy Wood are not a reputable scientists, and Richard Gage is not a reputable engineer). The only studies "showing" that climate change is not happening or is not caused by humans are tainted by association with energy lobbies or other political agendas, and the supposed scientific bases for these viewpoints are not accepted in mainstream science. Therefore, by definition, you will not have pieces of peer-reviewed scholarship to point to that support conspiracy theories. The only support you can find is from some source where content is user-contributed, and thereby not vetted by any type of editorial process whatsoever--meaning, an open and unregulated community of ideas, which is the definition of what YouTube is.
Example: you can't find a legitimately peer-reviewed scientific paper claiming that the World Trade Center towers were blown up. Papers of that nature simply don't exist. But type in "9/11 controlled demolition" into YouTube and you'll bring up thousands of hits. Anybody can put up a YouTube video about anything. Unless it flagrantly violates the terms of service enough to be taken off the net, it will remain there for as long as the contributor wants it there, with no factual vetting of any kind. This is great if you think your cat playing the piano is really funny; chances are others will find that funny too. It's not great when you're trying to prove a scientific or factual point. Conspiracy theorists don't have much "evidence" to choose from, and the richest bed of that sort of material is going to be an open source, user-contributed interface. Ergo, YouTube is custom-made for them.
2. Most conspiracy theorists are unaware of, or do not appreciate the importance of, non-Web-based, factually vetted sources of information (put another way, the difference between primary sources, secondary sources and tertiary sources).
It sounds like a cliché, but it is largely true that most conspiracy theorists, at least those active on the Internet, are white males between the ages of 18 and 30 who either don't have or are not yet finished getting college degrees. Let's face it, the term peer-reviewed journal
doesn't come up much in this demographic, and far be it from most of these people to set foot into a respected university library. For these people, the Internet with its ease of information retrieval is the paradigm source of knowledge. Need to find something? Google it. Need to learn something about a particular subject? Type it into Wikipedia. That's not to say that Google, Wikipedia and other web-based sources are not fantastically useful. Clearly they are. But they are indices
of information--not information itself. This is an important difference.
Let's take an example. It is accepted fact that George Washington was the first president of the United States, and was sworn into that office on April 30, 1789 in New York City. In the real world, long before the Internet existed, this historical event was established by (among other things) the eyewitness accounts of the thousands of people who witnessed Washington's swearing-in, the multitudes of documents dating from 1789 documenting the event, papers that Washington signed as President, letters, correspondence, paintings, financial records, oral stories from people who knew him, etc. The conclusion that George Washington was the first President of the United States is inescapable and absolutely unimpeachable--and those sources I described, which are primary sources
, are definitive on the subject.
You can also find numerous history books that reference George Washington's presidency. These books, whose authors have researched the primary sources and verified the conclusions drawn from them, are themselves secondary sources
--you, the reader, decide to take their word for the fact of George Washington's presidency because they can demonstrate that they have looked at the primary sources and interpreted them correctly. (This is the entire point of history as an academic process). Secondary sources are usually reliable, but they can sometimes be faulty; in almost all cases, though, secondary sources have gone through some sort of factual vetting and verification, such as through the editorial process of book publication, or in the academic realm, peer-review.
Then you have materials that cite secondary sources, collect them, restate them or otherwise work from them. These are tertiary sources
, and their main function is to organize
information, not to present it as fact. Classic example: Wikipedia. Look up the Wikipedia page on George Washington (it's here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Washington
). After the statement that George Washington was the first President of the United States, you'll see three footnote links, 4, 5 and 6. At the end of the article those footnotes read:
"^ Under the Articles of Confederation Congress called its presiding officer "President of the United States in Congress Assembled". He had no executive powers, but the similarity of titles has confused people into thinking there were other presidents before Washington. Merrill Jensen, The Articles of Confederation (1959), 178-9
^ "George Washington". Library of Congress. Retrieved June 27, 2009.
^ "Rediscovering George Washington". Public Broadcasting Service. Retrieved June 27, 2009.
These footnotes are all citing secondary and other tertiary sources: a book about the Articles of Confederation published in 1959, a Library of Congress website, and a PBS website. This is not original research, or even secondary research. It's a rehash of work others have done. In fact, Wikipedia doesn't even allow
you to post original research! This is extremely different than going to the National Archives and looking up the official electoral vote ballots from 1789 that indicate George Washington was elected president in that year.
Note, however, that even Wikipedia has a gatekeeping function. There are editors and moderators who constantly view and vet the articles that are posted there. So even a tertiary source like Wikipedia has some
Here's the point: open-sourced Web services like YouTube don't even rise to the level of tertiary sources!
YouTube lacks even the minimal gatekeeping functions that Wikipedia has. I can post a video claiming that Ringo Starr was the first President of the United States. As long as it doesn't violate the terms of service, which have nothing to do with factual accuracy, no one will take it down.
Conspiracy theorists, however, typically don't understand the hierarchy of various source materials. The difference between YouTube and the National Archives is completely lost on most of them. Consequently, YouTube is a "source" as equally credible as the National Archives--in fact, possibly even more
credible because the gatekeeping function of source materials is often mistaken, in conspiracy theorists' eyes, with conspiratorial meddling or other chicanery.
3. Conspiracy theorists cannot distinguish between credible and non-credible sources.
This point is closely related to the above one. Because there's no difference in a conspiracy theorist's eyes between any two sources based upon the nature of those sources, they have no way of telling whether a source is true or false. David McCullough, a respected academic historian with decades of credentials, is no more reliable a source than David Icke, an ex-football player who believes that the world is controlled by reptilian shape-shifting aliens. John Maynard Keynes, one of the most influential economists in recent history, is no more credible than bloviating radio talkshow host Alex Jones on matters of economics. This is why conspiracy theorists generally interpret any questioning of the credibility of their sources as an "ad hominem" attack, because to them credibility is irrelevant. Taken to an extreme, this idea results in the bizarre belief that a YouTube video can be just as true and credible as a peer-reviewed scientific paper published in a nationally-respected journal.
However, because the world (and especially the Internet) is filled with tidal waves of contradictory information, as human beings we must necessarily have a mechanism that separates truth from bullshit. No one believes absolutely everything
they hear, even people who are extremely gullible; it's just that the truth-versus-bullshit mechanism of gullible people is out of whack compared to that of the non-gullible. In evaluating the credibility of a particular piece of information, conspiracy theorists do not ask the questions that most of us would ask--"Where did this information come from? Who did it start with? What supports it? Is the source credible?"--because their shallow understanding of epistemology does not result in that sort of analysis. Too often, conspiracy theorists' thought processes center around the content
of a particular piece of information--"Does it support the 'official story' or does it support my theory?"--or a set of associations, usually negative, with the disseminator of the information itself--"Is it a government spokesperson saying this?"
The first process, the discrimination by content or outcome, usually far more powerful than the second. Simply put, conspiracy theorists will generally treat as credible any
piece of information that supports their conspiracy theory or undermines a conclusion they dislike, regardless of its source. Popular Mechanics is telling you that 9/11 conspiracy theories are unsupportable; therefore, because
the magazine is telling you this, it must
be an unreliable source. (Sometimes conspiracy theorists will search for a reason to discredit a particular source, such as the oft-repeated but false claim that Popular Mechanics's editor was related to a Bush administration appointee, but this is all post-hoc justification). Because Steven Jones says that thermite was used to destroy the World Trade Center towers, Steven Jones must be credible. See? Discrimination by content
, not by credibility
The second process, associations with the disseminator of the information, comes into play only where it doesn't conflict with the first process. Example: when speaking in generalities, conspiracy theorists will usually claim that the "mainstream media" is not reliable, because generally mainstream media outfits like CNN, ABC, BBC, etc. do not regard conspiracy theories as fact. However, if a mainstream media outlet happens to report something that conspiracy theorists think supports their claims, suddenly that specific report is treated as unimpeachable. The prime example of this is a September 2001 story on the BBC website reporting on mistaken identity of the 9/11 hijackers (link: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/1559151.stm
), which is the main item cited by conspiracy theorists who want to believe that the 9/11 hijackers are still alive (the subject of a ConspiracyScience article here: http://conspiracyscience.com/blog/wiki-911-hijackers-still-alive/
). Normally, conspiracy theorists would denounce BBC as an unreliable source. But if BBC says something they like, suddenly it is
a reliable source, at least on that specific point.
How does this relate to YouTube? Conspiracy theorists' opinions of YouTube videos will always
follow these two rules. They will always
like videos that support conspiracy conclusions. If their videos happen to contain clips from mainstream media sources, as they often do, conspiracy theorists will suspend their disdain for mainstream media because they think a particular item supports them. The inconsistency between these two rules is simply ignored. The only good source is one that supports a conspiracy theory; a bad source is, by definition, one that does not. Hence, David Icke is more credible than David McCullough, and Alex Jones is a better economist than Maynard Keynes. Such are the twisted thought processes of conspiracy theorists.
4. Presenting an argument in video format is much more emotionally satisfying than presenting an argument in any other way.
Motion pictures have been used for propaganda purposes since the technology was invented. The phenomenal success of movies to make a political, social or racial statement was demonstrated first with D.W. Griffith's 1915 film The Birth of a Nation
, and the extraordinary power of movies to persuade people continues today. The two greatest booms to the conspiracist movement in the latter half of the 2000-2009 decade were both movies: Dylan Avery's Loose Change
and Peter Joseph Merola's Zeitgeist: The Movie
. It's not surprising that the power of the motion picture to make a point is harnessed quite naturally and completely by conspiracy theorists using YouTube.
Let's face it, movies get noticed. If I made this blog as a vlog on YouTube (which isn't a bad idea), it would probably get more hits than the written page will. Packaging an argument in a video format, especially if it has interesting visuals and a good soundtrack, will carry your argument further and faster than it would travel by any other means. Conspiracy theorists are always
recruiting, and using video is one of their most powerful tools. Consequently, it makes sense that their weapon of choice would be YouTube.
To a large extent, conspiracy theorists probably don't even realize the immense power of the medium that they seem to choose (unconsciously, perhaps) as their preferred means of communication. Witness the exchange with Casey above. He claims the "bottom line" is that he has personally seen
footage of "bombs going off" on 9/11. Thus, it is video alone
which seems to have convinced him that 9/11 was a conspiracy. Since he probably honestly believes this is the truth and wants to "save" people from being "sheeple," he will attempt to use the same medium that evidently swayed him--YouTube videos--to convince others that conspiracy theories are true. He doesn't care about the NIST report or peer-reviewed papers because they aren't interesting, flashy, attention-grabbing and can be digested in 30 seconds or at most a few minutes. It was YouTube that convinced him, and as far as he's concerned, there is no need to look farther than YouTube for that damning evidence.
5. Conspiracy theorists often exhibit an anti-intellectual bias, and because of their positions are forced to attack, ignore or explain away the legitimacy of expertise. YouTube plays into these biases perfectly.
Here is the real meat of this blog: conspiracy theorists are usually anti-intellectual. They have no patience for the opinions of experts--usually because those experts do not support conspiracy theories--and they're often contemptuous of credentialed experts in the first place. Consequently, conspiracy theorists invest a tremendous amount of thought and effort into denigrating or explaining away the views of those who know more about the subjects they're talking about than they do.
Anti-intellectualism is the ugly truth in the conspiracist underground, but it's extremely pervasive. Sometimes it's more overt than others. Just this week we had an exchange on the ConspiracyScience Facebook forum, from a conspiracy theorist named Joe Lowes who posted the following:
Topic title: "I Like This Guy." Joe Lowes: "This guy tells the truth about the scam that is known as college. Watch some of the vid. and learn the truth. (http://www.youtube.com/user/DontGoToCollege#p/u/17/T8lcADCW6ew)"
This conspiracy theorist is heavily interested in economic collapse scenarios, which he predicts with regularity. When confronted with the fact that no
economists support these claims, Lowes denounces the possibility that any
economists know what they're talking about. Here is an exchange in this regard:
Joe Lowes: "We are going to crash this year and it will be bigger then the last one. And all these econimists who cleam that this is not to happen are idiots or are being paiod to lie."
Muertos: "So, you're trashing the entire discipline of economics, which is a very complicated science."
Joe Lowes: "They said the same thing about Alchmy. But you can't turn lead into gold."
Anti-intellectualism at its finest: economics is here equated with alchemy, the implication being that it is worthless and its practitioners just charlatans. With his atrocious spelling and proletarian contempt for the educated Joe Lowes is obviously small potatoes, but anti-intellectualism finds its way even into the "big guns" of the conspiracy movement. For example, Peter Joseph Merola, creator of the Zeitgeist
films and leaders of the pro-conspiracy Zeitgeist Movement, recently denounced "the credentials argument" in a video documentary about himself and his positions (posted, guess where, on YouTube! It's here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CIINgQ1TooE
). In this video, Merola identified as the number one argument people use against him the fact that he has no official academic credentials in the fields he opines on (economics and sociology, chief among them). He's right--Merola is an art school drop-out--but more important is the vein of anti-intellectualism that he is tapping into quite consciously. This is carefully calculated to appeal to both the prejudices and the vanity of conspiracy theorists, and it's a key reason why YouTube is their preferred medium.
Conspiracy theorists hate experts and intellectuals mainly because they are forced to. Few if any real experts in anything--engineering, economics, metallurgy, political science, or history--agree with conspiracy theories, and conspiracy theorists know that this is a major obstacle in their attempts to gain mainstream acceptance. Honestly, if one structural engineer with questionable credentials says that the World Trade Center towers were dynamited and 99 real
structural engineers say that theory is bullshit, which side are most people going to believe? Consequently, conspiracy theorists have
to tear down experts. They do this mainly by denigrating the real value or relevance of expert opinion, which usually means casting aspersions on expert status in the first place. This has two effects: first, they think it blunts the attacks of experts on their theories, and second, it elevates non-expert opinion into the same realm as expert knowledge.
This is closely related to the other reasons conspiracy theorists like YouTube. Because they can't tell good sources from bad, and because credibility attacks are usually lost on them or misinterpreted as "ad hominems," they tend to view the cachet of academic credentials or expert consensus as misguided, arbitrary or (at worst) deliberately deceptive. In the world of conspiracy theorists, you get to be an "expert" on something solely by being a member of the club, pressing palms and saying things that your peers like. Training, education, and demonstrable competency are not part of this equation so far as conspiracy theorists are concerned. Because they're ignorant of the processes by which someone becomes an expert, they see it as largely a symbolic gesture: you put on a cap and gown and go for a diploma and that alone makes you an "expert," where "real people" who aren't so easily "duped" can do just as well in any field without having to shell out the money for a diploma or demean themselves to get into an "old boys' club." This cuts another way too. Those who do
decide to go through the meaningless ritual to become an "expert" are cast by conspiracy theorists as gullible dupes who are willing to sell their souls, and thus their positions are easily criticized or explained away by claiming, "Well, they have
to say that if they don't want to piss off the Powers That Be."
However anti-intellectual they are, however, deep down conspiracy theorists are in fact desperate for expert endorsement. If that was not the case, charlatans like Steven Jones or Richard Gage would not be nearly so lionized in the 9/11 Truth movement as they are, because they are seen as figures who can plausibly pass for "experts" that are willing to endorse conspiracy theories regarding 9/11. So conspiracy theorists are being hypocritical in the final analysis. They hate experts because most of them won't agree with them, but deep down they really wish the experts would
agree because they know it would translate into convincing gains for their side. Out of one side of their mouths conspiracy theorists damn experts to hell, and out of the other they whisper how much they wish they could persuade some.
Again, how does this relate to YouTube? Because YouTube is open-sourced and there is no editorial control on content, it's uniquely attractive to people who want
to look like experts but who are not. A former pest control technician in a suit and tie giving a Power Point presentation on how the WTC towers were destroyed by thermite bombs looks no different than a credentialed peer-reviewed structural engineer in a suit and tie giving a Power Point presentation on why the towers fell from airplane impacts combined with fires. Again, the production values are the main thing: if you look
like you know what you're talking about, many people will assume that you do. Peter Merola is a master at giving lectures on his Zeitgeist Movement ideology, and he looks extremely credible while doing so. Do you care that he's not a real sociologist or has no training in economics or ancient history, two subjects that he opined on at length in his Zeitgeist
films? No. All you care about is that he looks good and speaks well. YouTube and Google Video made him a star. That's the whole game. Content is secondary.
Furthermore, YouTube provides conspiracy theorists with sort of a home-field advantage. There really aren't that many anti
-conspiracy videos available on YouTube. Occasionally debunkers will get into the act and try to fight fire with fire (here's an example: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zs5jWvu4tR8
) but those videos don't get nearly the hits that conspiracy videos do, and they usually get denounced in the comments by conspiracy theorists who claim debunkers are spreading "disinformation" or "lying." There aren't a lot of credentialed, peer-reviewed experts out there making YouTube videos, probably because they've got more important things to do. Therefore, YouTube looks like friendly territory for conspiracy theorists, which for the most part it is. It's one of the few arenas of public discourse where they can spout their claims and not be immediately hammered down, denounced and ridiculed. Therefore it's natural that they'd want to preserve that advantage.
Conspiracy theorists suffer from a number of profound misconceptions regarding how the world works, how knowledge is gathered and verified, and what constitutes proof and evidence. If they did not suffer from these misconceptions, they would not be conspiracy theorists, because the fantastic and unsupportable nature of their theories would be self-evident upon careful review of the real evidence. YouTube, being open-sourced user-generated content with no editorial or "gatekeeping" function, has become conspiracy theorists' prime source of information precisely because
it's open-sourced with none of the gatekeeping functions, such as peer review or editorial processes, that make other sources of information reliable. This coupled with an inability to tell good sources from bad ones plays directly into conspiracy theorists' conceits that they have "special" knowledge, that expert opinion is overrated or irrelevant, and that they can "change the world" simply by spreading a couple of YouTube links and "opening people's eyes."
YouTube is not going away, nor should it. I like YouTube. And, for all my criticism here, I'm actually glad that conspiracy theorists rely on YouTube as much as they do, because it makes their spurious arguments much easier to spot and debunk. But conspiracy theorists' reliance on YouTube is yet another illustration of why their worldview is intellectually bankrupt and incapable of attracting serious mainstream attention. When your "evidence" regarding something is a YouTube video from Prison Planet or Infowars, you're telegraphing to the world that you've got nothing better to support your position. Don't be surprised when people don't take you seriously.