Blogs - Clock - Confessions of a Disinformation Agent! Chapter 4
Author: Clock (Show other entries)
Date: Jul 03, 2013 at 13:59
I am not Muertos and I do not know him. I am simply reposting these articles because I had found them on the Internet Wayback Machine. Do not contact me when it comes to this blog, I am not its author and my views are not necessarily his. REPEAT: I AM NOT MUERTOS.
Chapter IV: The Heart of Darkness--The Conspiracy Cults.
By 2007, when the insidious Zeitgeist: The Movie reared its ugly head, I'd deleted my MySpace profile. Blogspot was now my main platform. I churned out a couple of blog posts a week, some of them about debunking, but many about politics and other subjects too. Invariably, the debunking posts were the most popular and got the most comments. It bothered me a little bit that my conspiracy audience wasn't really transferrable to other subjects. All people wanted to hear from me, it seemed, was arguments with Truthers.
In 2007 another conspiracy movie began to seep into the underground. At first I thought Zeitgeist was just another Loose Change clone. Most of the buzz I heard about it in the early days centered around its assertions that 9/11 was an inside job--all the same tropes that were debunked long ago and debunked again when Loose Change came out. But Zeitgeist had another element. The anti-Christianity section predictably freaked out the very religious, but it struck an even deeper chord in the conspiracy underground, many of whose members were hard-core atheists. I was a hard-core atheist too, at least at that time (I have since become religious), but Zeitgeist's egregious inaccuracies about religion and ancient history were galling, especially when the Truthers, who were the movie's first core audience, accepted them as gospel truth. Loose Change, as insidious as it was, had been about one main conspiracy theory. Zeitgeist upped the ante by wrapping several conspiracy theories together and selling them as a package. That made it resonate more among the paranoiacs in the conspiracy underground, and thus, made it far more dangerous.
I didn't appreciate the impact of Zeitgeist at first. For one thing, it was a terrible film, poorly made and shamelessly manipulative. No rational person could possibly take it seriously. It was junk food for the woo crowd, a bag of high-carb potato chips soaked in Jolt Cola being eagerly gobbled up by gluttons ravenous for conspiracy nonsense. How naïve of me to think this would limit its appeal! I should have known better. It wasn't until I saw fans of the movie beginning to appear with regularity on the heavy metal forum I posted on that I realized we were dealing with something new.
2008 was probably the low-water mark of my debunking years. Now that MySpace was dead and its replacement, Facebook, was less conducive to hard-core debunking, I didn't do as much of it, and in any event most of my attention, blogging and otherwise, was focused on politics. I still argued with the occasional Truther, but I didn't really return to debunking until 2009. By then Zeitgeist had spawned a sequel--the dreadfully talky Zeitgeist: Moving Forward--and, more ominously, a movement.
The rise of the Zeitgeist Movement was, to me, deeply alarming. By 2009 Truthers were in full retreat. Barack Obama's birth certificate was the big conspiracy theory that year, and that one didn't have quite the same legs that 9/11 Truth had. Yet these Zeitgeist people kept popping up everywhere. They spammed YouTube. They spammed Huffington Post. They spammed the Steven Colbert forums. Everywhere you looked they were splattering their dogma all over the Internet like paint on a Jackson Pollock canvas, shrieking that Jesus never existed and 9/11 was an inside job, and prattling on about something called a "Resource Based Economy." A friend of mine who was exasperated by seeing Zeitgeisters troll the Internet remarked that they were like fundamentalist Christians. They embodied Winston Churchill's definition of a fanatic, who is someone who can't change their mind and won't change the subject.
The Zeitgeist Movement at once astonished and fascinated me. Here was an entire social movement driven by conspiracy theories. Peter Joseph--he managed to keep his real name secret until 2010, when it came out that his true name was Peter Merola--had channeled his inner Dr. Frankenstein to patch together a bizarre gene splice between a conspiracy theorist fan club and an activist political organization. Evidently sometime in 2008, while I was busy blogging against John McCain and Sarah Palin, he had become enamored with an obscure neo-utopian organization called the Venus Project, which wanted the world to be run by robots and computers, and which existed nowhere except in the mind and the Florida garage of 90-something-year-old Jacque Fresco.
Merola sold the archaic Venus Project ideology of circular cities and magical robots to the fans of his movie as the supposed "cure" for all those terrible conspiracy theories that had scared the shit out of his audience. You must appreciate how alarming this was. This was more than just a couple of Truthers posting on MySpace and YouTube. Here was a veritable army of conspiracy theorists, who decided they were going to remake the world in their own image--or at least Peter Merola's. Now you not only had conspiracy nuts who were convinced they were right, but who had convinced themselves they were saving the world. For a high-commitment debunker, could the stakes get any higher?
Furthermore, the Zeitgeist Movement illustrated in stark detail the next frontier of conspiracism: the founding of conspiracy-based cults. Using the viral Internet movie as bait, the Zeitgeist Movement slyly advertised itself to disillusioned youngsters who were already predisposed to reject anything mainstream by stressing the traumas that mainstream society had caused them. "Hey, we know the truth about religion, 9/11 and evil bankers. Join us!" Join them they did. In 2009 Peter Merola boasted the Zeitgeist Movement had 500,000 members, obviously a grotesquely exaggerated figure evidently based on the number of raw registrations on their Internet forum. In truth, only a tiny fraction of those people who registered ever had anything significant to do with the movement, and the turnover rate was very high--few Zeitgeisters lasted more than six weeks. From my own admittedly unscientific observations I estimated the strength of Zeitgeist at about 2,000 high-commitment members worldwide at its peak. Not a lot, but despite their tiny numbers these people made a hell of a lot of noise.
The one redoubt on the net for skeptics opposed to Zeitgeist was a forum I discovered in late 2009 called "Conspiracy Science," run by a fellow called Edward Winston who had compiled the most comprehensive debunking of Zeitgeist on the Internet. ConspiracyScience.com, as it was then known, sought to be a clearing-house of online conspiracy theories, and the Zeitgeist debunking was the jewel in the crown. I began posting on the ConspiracyScience.com forum. When I joined there had already been numerous ferocious and desperate battles with 9/11 Truthers and Zeitgeisters who simply couldn't accept that the rest of the world knew instantly that the movie was false and fraudulent.
ConspiracyScience.com certainly was not perfect. Some of its regulars were a little obsessive--a few were apostates from the Zeitgeist religion, who were naturally bitter and ax-grinding--but on the whole its heart was in the right place, and at least they were giving Zeitgeisters the what-for they so richly deserved. At this point I figured that the enemy of my enemy was my friend.
My first blog about the Zeitgeist Movement went live in March 2010. This blog was interpreted by the Zeitgeisters as a declaration of war, and immediately I was classified as a dangerous and mortal threat. Within hours after my blog's first publication high-commitment supporters of the Zeitgeist Movement descended into the comments section, deploying their canned rebuttals and accusing me of all manner of depravities. "Introducing the troll blog!" screeched one fellow. "Do wish you had some real information to share instead of spewing your rage and destructive nonsense!" The person who posted this called himself "Joseph Matthew," an obvious play on Zeitgeist leader Peter Joseph Merola's convenient (and ironically Biblical) truncation of his own name. I remember being so blown away by that. These people were so deeply under the thrall of their leader that they even imitated his name.
This tendency toward imitation got even worse. Once I joined Facebook and began hanging out among the debunkers there, I was routinely harassed by people I didn't know who had the word "Zeitgeist" in their screen names, like one guy I remember in particular named "Andrew Zeitgeist Gilberds." Was there no limit to how far these people would go to demonstrate loyalty to their leader, their cause and his movies? Did they not realize how utterly creepy they were, and how badly they frightened away normal and reputable people who might otherwise have embraced some of the tenets they purported to advance?
I did not, at the outset, believe that the Zeitgeist Movement was truly a cult. In 2009 and 2010 I didn't yet appreciate how much legitimate controversy there was over the definition of the word "cult" and how that word can be misused, both innocently and deliberately. Yes, Zeitgeist was certainly cult-like, but it wasn't really a cult, at least at first. When I posted on ConspiracyScience.com I was careful to maintain this distinction, as if it meant anything. I had no idea the channel that subsequent events would take.
In December 2010, after I'd been active in debunking the Zeitgeist Movement for nine months, a high-level member of the group--a moderator on their forum, and self-proclaimed spokesperson for the organization--issued a fatwa that listed numerous people as official enemies of the Zeitgeist Movement. My name was on the list. The ostensible reason for the enemies list was, according to the Zeitgeisters, a "warning" to their brethren that the people on the list were seeking to friend Zeitgeisters on Facebook and steal their personal information. I had never once attempted to friend anyone from Zeitgeist, much less steal any information from anyone. Yet, one day not long after the enemies list appeared, I saw a topic on the Zeitgeist Movement forum (which I monitored periodically) where a high-level Zeitgeister asserted, as if it was fact, that I had once been a Zeitgeist Movement member who had posted frequently on their forum and had subsequently become disgruntled for one reason or another, the obvious implication being that I was an apostate out to ruin them for revenge. The Zeitgeist orthodoxy was that critics of the movement frequently employed "sock puppet" accounts to infiltrate their forums and harass them. Nothing could have been further from the truth in my case. But no one cared about the truth. The Zeitgeisters had no regard for who I was or what my reasons were for debunking their movies or their movement. I criticized them, so therefore I was an enemy. Why I did what I did--my own history of debunking, my own motivations that had brought me into conflict with them--could not have been of lesser interest to anyone. This was the beginning of my realization that the world of conspiracy theories was quite a bit more depraved and dog-eat-dog than I'd previously appreciated.
A month later, in January 2011, Jared Lee Loughner, an insane conspiracy theorist, attempted to assassinate U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, Arizona, killing several people in the process, including children. As it turned out, Loughner's delusional worldview was heavily influenced by his favorite film--Zeitgeist: The Movie. Instead of trying to distance themselves from the negative publicity occasioned by the Tucson massacre, many Zeitgeist Movement members embraced it, assuming (erroneously) that there was no such thing as bad press. Not long thereafter, Douglas Mallette, yet another self-proclaimed spokesperson for the movement, was outed by an anti-Zeitgeist blog called Zeitgeist Movement Exposed (a blog I had nothing to do with) for an appearance on an Internet radio show where Mallette expressed--with evident and blood-chilling relish--his viewpoint that anyone who disagreed with Zeitgeist's "resource based economy" model should be "annihilated" and was a "waste of skin." Mallette retracted his bloodthirsty statements, but the reaction to his retraction among the rank-and-file Zeitgeist members demonstrated that very few of them saw anything wrong with what he'd originally said. My blog from February 2011 about this incident expressed my astonishment at this development. I had bent over backwards to avoid labeling Zeitgeist as a destructive cult, but here they were validating the most shrill criticisms leveled at them. By the end of the first quarter of 2011, I had no hesitation in labeling the Zeitgeist Movement a cult.
Just at the point when the Zeitgeist Movement started to become dangerous, they quite fortunately committed seppuku, validating Napoleon's old maxim: "Never interfere with the enemy when he is in the process of destroying himself." The Zeitgeist Movement, headed by Peter Joseph Merola, and the Venus Project, headed by Jacque Fresco, fell out in April 2011 in an acrimonious dispute over how the group's feeble trickle of donations should be used. Either organization without the other was largely useless. Venus went on to try to achieve some modicum of respectability, while Zeitgeist descended into the depths of radical, frightening paranoia; in August, for instance, one of their members publicly aired a plot to assassinate 1,000 of the conspiratorial "elite" that they blamed for screwing up the world. By then no one cared. Zeitgeist: The Movie was old news. Everyone had already seen it, and it had been debunked many times over. Most of the movement's high-echelon members, many of whom seemed intractable when I'd argued with them a year before about their devotion to the group, jumped ship and never looked back. Merola, tired of debunkers seizing upon every stitch of dirty laundry aired publicly on the group's forum, shut down the forum entirely, whilst hissing vituperatively that his detractors (including me) were "paid disinformation agents" out to ruin him. By November 2011 the Zeitgeist Movement had, for all intents and purposes, ceased to exist. A tiny burned-out core of true believers remained, smoldering faintly into the blogosphere, but Zeitgeist in 2011 was a pale and feeble shadow of the conspiracy juggernaut it had been in 2008.
In the spring of 2011 a friend of mine, active in debunking circles, forwarded me some links to YouTube videos generated by another organization called Desteni. Whatever naïve notions I'd once had about conspiracy theorist cults melted away in the first few seconds I heard the raspy accented voice of Desteni founder and guru Bernard Poolman, a (white) South African ex-cop who worshipped Adolf Hitler and had founded a Charlie Manson-like nucleus of twenty-something chicks, most with shaved heads, who milled about on his South Africa ranch ready to do his bidding. If Zeitgeist was mildly disturbing, Desteni was deeply alarming. Desteni's main shtick was reptilian conspiracy theories, such as those promoted by world-class nutbar David Icke. Desteni sought to recruit new members mainly through YouTube, where the cult carpet-bombed potential recruits with endless hours of videos jammed-packed with conspiracy propaganda, New Age tropes and utter incomprehensible nonsense so impenetrable it could only be unraveled by the sage gospel of Bernard Poolman himself. You could waste away for years listening to recordings of Poolman's prattlings or watching videos of the "portal," cult member Sunette Spies, who looked like Anne Heche circa 1998 and pretended to channel the spirits of everything from L. Ron Hubbard to a piece of toilet paper. As I stated in my first blog about the group, Desteni was so wack-job out there that they made the Zeitgeist Movement look like the Rotary Club.
In addition to being stunningly bizarre, Desteni was incredibly aggressive at retaliating against its critics--far more so than even the criticism-averse Zeitgeist Movement. It took me ten months to get on Zeitgeist's enemies list; I was on Desteni's within two weeks. In addition, one of Desteni's high-profile members created a blog specifically dedicated to refuting, line by line and word by word, my first article about the group. Sadly that blog was only active for a few weeks.
In addition to being a cult, Desteni was also a scam. Poolman's main means of financial support appears to have been a very crude multi-level marketing outfit called the "Desteni I Process." This fascinated me because it brought me full-circle back to the starting point of my fascination with conspiracy theories, that being "organized deception." To me there are three kinds of organized deception: scams, cults and conspiracy theories. The Zeitgeist Movement was an organization that embodied two out of the three types of organized deception, but Desteni, by using an MLM scam, hit all three. Poolman's bizarre New Age conspiracy religion was the perfect subject for my study--the living embodiment of deception in the 21st century.
In August 2011, Desteni and its main officers were banned from YouTube, which prohibits the use of its service to advance multi-level marketing scams. This essentially atomized Desteni, at least insofar as recruiting new members, but unlike Zeitgeist they did not effectively meet their extinction. I checked back in on Desteni a couple of months later and found them, if not thriving, at least recovering from the YouTube fiasco. This group was never very large; even the most generous estimates of the cult's membership never put it higher than about 200. But unfortunately they're still out there. Desteni's image is far too tarnished and strange to attract any sort of meaningful mainstream support, but they continue to exist as a particularly noteworthy example of what happens when New Age and conspiracy theories cross-breed with one another.
As I researched Desteni I began to be bothered by the great darkness that lay at the heart of these conspiracy cults. The deeper I plumbed these waters, the more cynical I became. The core membership of Zeitgeist and Desteni consisted of disillusioned young people, most in their twenties, who yearned for a better world and honestly wanted to make it happen. But their optimism and enthusiasm had been hijacked and manipulated by others with far less pure motives. I saw in these groups and their members a mirror of the classic social narrative of the 60s, where the hope and youthful promise of the hippie generation was soured and squandered by a series of epic bummers like Vietnam, Altamont, Charles Manson and Watergate. What I saw in Zeitgeist and Desteni was the cancer of conspiracy theories eating away at an entire generation of young people. This profoundly depressed me. It got to be that I dreaded switching on my laptop in the morning. How much farther into this darkness could I go?
The ticket to my final foray into the darkness of conspiracy theories arrived by email one evening in November 2011. "Hey, have you heard of this new movie that's about to come out?" said one of my debunker friends. "It's called Thrive."