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Blogs - Clock - MUERTOS BLOG: Confessions of A Disinformation Agent, Intro and Part 1

Author: Clock (Show other entries)
Date: Apr 02, 2013 at 18:14

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.


By: Muertos


The Internet is a strange and confusing place. It's a place where truth is not always self-evident, where facts are not always what they seem to be, and where, virtually by definition, the whole story is rarely told. It's also a place where people can pretend to be more important than they really are. Since that is, in some ways, the moral of this story, I thought that was as good a place as any to begin.

I am Muertos, and for seven years now I've been a debunker of conspiracy theories on the Internet. In my real life--my non-Internet life, that is--I am, among other things, a writer, and one of the rules that we writers have is, you probably shouldn't write about your own life, because most peoples' lives are boring. Well, in the true Internet spirit of pretending to be more important than you are, I'm ignoring that rule and writing this--a "memoir" of sorts--about my experiences and observations debunking conspiracy theories. Perhaps you may learn something, as I did, about knowledge, about belief, about human nature, and perhaps even a little about truth.

I hesitate even to use that word, truth. Thanks largely to conspiracy theorists, truth has become something of a charged term. Something you might learn from my story is that an attempt to find truth in today's world--especially on the Internet--is a fool's errand right out of Don Quixote. So let's not talk about truth. Let's settle for fact instead. I do think you can find fact in today's world, even, astonishing as it may sound, on the Internet. The problem is, you may not always know it when you see it. That was certainly my story in the early days, and in a way it's what led me to the whole subject of conspiracy theories.

This story is going to be a history of my experiences with conspiracy theories, including the time when I used to believe them myself. I'll explain what got me into them, why they fascinated me, and eventually why I became a debunker. I have a very strange and complicated relationship with debunking. Sometimes I love it and look forward to it; at other times it's something I hate and want to be finished with forever. Therefore, this piece is a very personal journey.

Before we get on with it let me tell you what this story is not. I am a debunker, but this is not a debunking. This is not an attempt to refute any of the individual bits of stinking offal that bob along in the tidal wave of idiocy that's drowning our world--everything from "9/11 was an inside job" to delusions of fake moon landings, global warming denial to the New World Order, from Barack Obama Birthers to Osama bin Laden Deathers. This is not a laundry list of conspiracy nutjobbery followed by the appropriate antidotes of facts that refute them, like pharmaceutical prescriptions. Nor is it a handbook on how to debunk the silly crap that people believe in. After being at this for seven years now I'm not even sure I can persuade anyone to believe anything. No; this is a personal journey, a personal story. If it interests or enlightens you, great. If not, I really couldn't care less.

So don't waste your time sending me emails or posting angry comments telling me that I'm a shill or a sheeple, that I've been brainwashed by fluoride or aspartame, that I swallow unquestioningly everything the government tells me or that I must love the deaths of billions. What, you think after doing this for seven years that I haven't heard all of that before--multiple times? And yes, as the title suggests, many people over the years have accused me of being a "paid disinformation agent." As soon as you put a toe into these waters, that's what you're signing up for. It just goes with the territory.

Let's get on with it, shall we?

Chapter I: In The Beginning: JFK and TWA.

My story begins in the year 1991. Twenty-two years ago I was in college, studying history at a large state university. I'd been interested in politics and history since my early teens. In 1991 I was very politically aware. Mostly I was aware that I really hated George Bush--that's George Bush the First. To me, everything wrong with the world was the fault of George Bush. I thought he was without a doubt the worst president in the history of the United States. If you'd told me that ten years later his son would turn out to be so bad that he'd make Bush the First look like FDR by comparison, I probably would have hanged myself right then and there.

Two things happened to me in 1991 that are relevant to this story. The first was that one day I happened to read a book that my roommate left lying around. It was called The Encyclopedia of Unsolved Mysteries, by Colin and Damon Wilson. It was full of fascinating short articles on everything from the Yeti to the Loch Ness Monster, UFOs, the Bermuda Triangle, and doubts about the authorship of the plays of Shakespeare. I found myself intrigued most by the historical mysteries, such as the women who pretended to be Anastasia, the murdered daughter of Czar Nicholas II, and the Money Pit, a supposed pirate treasure hoard buried on a remote island in Nova Scotia. I later bought my own copy of this book, and I still have it. I love it, even though I know now that its assertions are very shaky and its authors are not known for their rock-solid scholarship. When I was nineteen I didn't know better. I accepted most of what was in this book as fact.

The second thing that happened in 1991 was the release of this movie--Oliver Stone's JFK. Today's generation of Internet-reared conspiracy theorists can't really understand the impact that this movie had at the time of its release. JFK is a three-hour epic about the investigation of New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison into the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The movie is wildly inaccurate--several high-profile conspiracy theorists, including Jim Marrs, collaborated on the script--but it presented what I thought at the time was a slam-dunk case that there was a massive conspiracy in the assassination of Kennedy. In fact, I walked out of the theater convinced that Oliver Stone had solved the JFK case. How could people be so gullible to believe the Warren Commission? Thus, JFK was my very first conspiracy theory.

The dark days of the early 90s had a happy ending for me. The next year, Bill Clinton defeated the hated George Bush. To me, Bill Clinton was the second coming of Christ. I didn't appreciate at the time that he won because of a spoiler vote, the third-party candidacy of big-eared Texas oil guy Ross Perot. For those of you who weren't around in 1992, Ross Perot was sort of like a less ferocious Ron Paul. Except with bigger ears.

Fast-forward four years. In the summer of 1996, I was working my way through law school. On cable that summer--I believe it may even have been the History Channel--I was enthralled by a multi-part British documentary called The Men Who Killed Kennedy, directed by Nigel Turner. The series was made in the late 80s but didn't reach the U.S. until years later. This documentary spun a number of inconsistent and self-contradictory conspiracy theories about the Kennedy assassination. The most high-profile one, and the one I remember being utterly convinced by, was the theory that Kennedy had been taken out by a team of Corsican mafia snipers, hired by the Chicago mob. One of the snipers was himself interviewed for the show. Very much like the Stone movie, I thought this was a slam-dunk. It didn't even bother me that the conspiracy theories in The Men Who Killed Kennedy, which I eagerly believed, were different than, and inconsistent with, the conspiracy theories in JFK, which I also believed. After all, the plot to kill JFK must have been a very tangled web. Was there anyone alive who could understand it all?

I certainly believed in the JFK conspiracy, but it was very dry and dusty. After all, it was 33 years in the past. Later that summer, though, conspiracy theories got some very personal hooks into me.

On July 17, 1996, a Boeing 747 designated TWA Flight 800 exploded shortly after takeoff from JFK International Airport in New York. 230 people were killed, some of their remains washing up on the shore of the Long Island beach community called East Moriches. This disaster hit home for me. One of my best friends was almost on it. That very same day, July 17, my friend was flying to Europe to see a mutual friend of ours who was living in Paris. My friend reached JFK Airport on July 17, and found his flight to Paris was canceled. He was put on another flight at the last minute. For several hours we--my friend's family, my family, and me--thought there was a very good chance that he'd been transferred to TWA 800, which was headed to Rome after a stopover in Paris. The fact that my friend did not resurface for nearly twelve hours after the disaster only heightened our fears. That was a grim and sleepless night for me, imagining my friend burning up in that inferno. In the morning we received good news. My friend had called his mother from Paris. He hadn't been on TWA 800. In fact he hadn't even heard of the disaster until after he reached France. I was relieved, but the incident shook me deeply.

What shook me worse were the media reports that several witnesses in East Moriches reported seeing a streak of light ascending into the sky shortly before TWA 800 exploded. The speculation was that it had been a missile of some type. I remember seeing on cable news lots of reports of rumors about military exercises being conducted off Long Island that night. Had the U.S. Navy shot down TWA 800? I remembered vividly the day when a U.S. Navy vessel in the Strait of Hormuz accidentally shot down an Iranian airliner in 1988. Conspiracy theories about TWA 800 were rampant at the time, and they seemed to gain some credence when the NTSB and the FBI investigated foul play as a potential cause of the TWA 800 explosion--which seemed inexplicable by any other means. After all, 747s just don't blow up in midair for no reason at all.

By 1996, I was already well-versed in using the Internet. When I went back to school in the fall I had free use of the computers in the office where the Law Review was published, and I used the Internet to keep up with the TWA 800 investigation religiously. The web was pretty primitive in 1996--and it's easy to forget that from the vantage point of 15 years later. Over the course of my own following of the case, I found many examples of stone-age websites that espoused TWA 800 conspiracy theories. The central feature of all of the theories was the witness testimony of the ascending streak of light. The fact that there was no evidence the military was conducting maneuvers, or had any presence at all, in the vicinity of East Moriches didn't bother me. It was clearly a cover-up. The whole thing was very certain in my mind. The U.S. Navy had shot down TWA 800 accidentally, in the course of a training exercise; then, fearing exposure and embarrassment, they covered up all traces of the military maneuvers and hoped the NTSB would conclude that the plane just blew up spontaneously. This was the theory of Pierre Salinger, a former White House press secretary, who called a press conference in November 1996 to say he had seen a secret document that proved it. What did this secret document turn out to be? An email chain that somebody forwarded him. There was no evidence at all.

I remained a believer in the TWA 800 conspiracy theory for several more years. In the late summer of 2000, the NTSB released its final report. Its conclusion: the 747's central fuel tank blew up in midair as a result of a short circuit igniting an unusually rich mixture of air and fuel. The plane had had problems with short circuits of this nature before. What about those witnesses who said they saw a missile? It turned out they were observing the actual break-up of the plane after the explosion. In fact, the NTSB conducted test firings of missiles in the same vicinity to see if a real missile launch could match what the witnesses said they saw. They couldn't. There was simply no evidence of a missile--no explosive traces, no wreckage consistent with a missile strike, no military maneuvers. The idea that TWA 800 had been felled by a terrorist bomb had slightly more to commend it than the missile hypothesis, but there was scant evidence of it, and what evidence there was turned out to be explainable by other means.

I read the NTSB report on the Internet. When I read it, I remember feeling something I did not expect: disappointment. I was actually disappointed that the crash wasn't some sort of conspiracy. This was a frightening moment for me. I realized I had become emotionally invested in the conclusion of conspiracy in the case of TWA 800. My friend could have died on that flight, and here I was feeling disappointed that the people who really did die on that flight had not been murdered. What sort of a monster was I? This made me question not only my conclusions, which I had lived with comfortably for the last four years, but why they meant so much to me.

You may ask: why did I choose to believe the NTSB report in the first place? After all, why didn't I do what most conspiracy theorists would have done in that situation--denounce the report as a fraud, as "disinformation," and in fact cite it as evidence that the government was indeed covering something up?

The answer is that by 2000 I was already seriously questioning other conspiracy theories. Namely, JFK. In fact, my recovery from conspiracy theories began with that very same movie I'd been watching the summer TWA 800 crashed, The Men Who Killed Kennedy.

I was still a firm believer in a JFK conspiracy. I wasn't an activist, mind you--I didn't subscribe to newsletters or anything of that sort, and I didn't read conspiracy books. But when I heard The Men Who Killed Kennedy series was available on video, I rented it. I guess part of me was ready to begin questioning my assumptions about JFK. That second time I saw it, several years after the first, I watched it with more of an open mind. And guess what? I learned something.

The clincher came in a segment of the show where a pathologist was talking about the wounds to JFK's head. I wish I could show you the clip, but I don't want to get sued for copyright infringement, so I'll just have to describe it as best I can. The doctor--I do not believe he was present at the autopsy in 1963, but I don't know for sure--claimed that he saw the lower right quarter of Kennedy's head all mangled and destroyed, inconsistent with a shot from behind, where Oswald was supposed to be. However, the diagram that he held up on-screen--a diagram he was supposedly using to illustrate his point--did not match what he was saying. The diagram showed a wound to the top of Kennedy's head, not the lower right quarter. This puzzled me so much I went back, rewound the tape and freeze-framed it. My eyes hadn't deceived me. The diagram on-screen told a different story than the doctor's words.

This got me thinking: this guy doesn't know what the hell he's talking about. Did the director of this movie, Nigel Turner, not realize that the doctor's diagram didn't support his story? If you're making a so-called factual documentary, how could you let something like that slide? I began to wonder what else the movie got wrong.

This was the key point in my transformation from a conspiracy theorist to a skeptic. Can you guess what happened next? Yes--I went to the Internet.

This was before Google, so I don't remember what search engine I used. It might have been HotBot. Does anybody remember HotBot? No matter--anyway, in a few minutes--I remember, this was very late on a Wednesday or Thursday night, in the summer I think--I had brought up several web pages that told a very different story about The Men Who Killed Kennedy than I had believed.

For one thing, the doctor had no credibility. He wasn't there, and he wasn't even a pathologist. Oh, and all that jazz about the Corsican hit-men? Totally made up. Several independent investigations determined that the hit men all had alibis. Even the French mafia kingpin that the movie said was the source of the whole story denounced it. There was such a furor over The Men Who Killed Kennedy when it was shown on TV in England that the British censors refused to run the movie without a disclaimer proclaiming that it was false. Naturally, that disclaimer didn't appear in the versions of the film sold to the History Channel. In short, The Men Who Killed Kennedy was garbage.

This was my moment of awakening. In about five or ten minutes of searching on the Internet, I had debunked the movie that had me believing for years that three Corsican hit-men had rubbed out the President. Not long after that, when I began to look into claims in Oliver Stone's JFK movie, I found that many of those were false too. A pattern was emerging: people, like Nigel Turner, Oliver Stone, and Pierre Salinger, were pushing sensational allegations--conspiracy theories--on the basis of very flimsy evidence. The telltale signs of these flimsy claims were becoming more and more apparent to me. Every time I checked a conspiracy theory against the facts, I found two things. First, the facts held up very well. And second, the conspiracy theories all hung together on very slender reeds. If those supports were questioned, the whole theory collapsed like a house of cards.

This is why I recognized the NTSB report on TWA 800 as truth--reluctantly--when I read it. Having analyzed my own thinking, I realized that the entire conspiracy theory hung on one tiny hook: the assumption that what those witnesses off Long Island saw was in fact a missile headed upwards to strike the plane. If what they were in fact seeing was something else, the whole theory collapsed. The NTSB report explained what the witnesses actually saw, and how what they saw differed from what they would have seen if there had been a missile fired that night. Once I got past this, all the other evidence--the radar evidence, the maintenance problems with the fuel tank, the lack of evidence of military maneuvers, everything--fell instantly into place.

Thus I knew that, astounding as it seemed, as reluctant as I was to believe it, TWA 800 went down because its center fuel tank spontaneously exploded in midair. I know, it sounds crazy. It sounds impossible. But if you look at the evidence--and I encourage you to do so--you will see that it is the truth. I no longer believed in a TWA 800 conspiracy. And I was rapidly beginning to question my virtually lifelong certainty that Oswald was part of a conspiracy to kill JFK.

Then came 9/11.