Fiction and the Language of Conspiracy

Maybe it’s getting worse, maybe we’re just hearing about it more. In the wake of the recent bombings at the Boston Marathon and the ensuing manhunt, the weird part of the Internet has been more excitable than usual.

In a previous post, I alluded to some of the conspiracy theories that have sprung up surrounding the recent bombings at the Boston Marathon. Some time has passed, but the theories and their proponents are not going away.

Alex Jones has gone one better on his initial paranoia. Once information came out that Boston bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev was a fan of his show, a kind of martyr complex kicked into full gear. The Boston Marathon bombing was no longer just a government conspiracy, but a government conspiracy to get him, Alex Jones, personally. I wouldn’t spend another word on Alex Jones, except there are people out there who consider him to be a legitimate journalist, including, apparently, some congressional Republicans.

Glenn Beck claimed to be exposing the Saudi connection to the Boston bombings (even though he conflated two completely different Saudi guys–one who was injured in the blast at the marathon and one who had an expired visa–because Saudis are inherently scary). There is absolutely no evidence for this theory, though Beck went as far as saying that the US government and Saudi Arabia had some secret alliance (in reality, the USA and KSA have a not-so-secret alliance and a friendship as chilly as gazpacho soup). Despite the lack of evidence, Beck never said he was wrong.

James Tracy, the Florida Atlantic University professor notorious for questioning whether the Sandy Hook shooting ever took place, has his own very similar, erm, theories about what happened in Boston. You would think that a professor who studies conspiracies and teaches classes on hoaxes would know how to distinguish a hoax from a true event, but Tracy is apparently the exception that proves the rule (side note: I’ve never understood that phrase–if a rule has an exception, it’s formally no longer a rule).

The above three are not the only conspiracy theorists out there, and not the only ones with an, shall we say, unusual attitude toward evidence surrounding the Boston bombings, but they are three who are inexplicably granted credence by some. One feature stands out: they all stick to the narrative they initially established against mounting evidence until it becomes clear their paranoia machine is stalling, in which case they drop it and pretend they never said those things (Tracy) or just maintain they were never wrong, either quietly (Beck) or really, really loudly (Jones).

Born out of some desire to connect and make sense of it all in the wake of tragic events, conspiracy theories are, understandably, a very attractive framework through which to view the world. The world is a scary, complex place where things happen for no reason, or for reasons so arcane and deeply buried that the chain of cause and effect is more like a Halloween cobweb. For most people, the self and people on “our” side are the good guys, because most people, with the possible exceptions of some serial killers and the Operative from Serenity, see themselves and theirs as having right and proper motivations for what they do. So, in the conspiracy theory world, where things become black and white, bad things can only happen because bad people intended to make them happen from the very start. The Man (in whatever form that might take) or “them” is pitted against the individual or “us.” As a conspiracy theorist, you get the added benefit of being superior to all the proles who are too blind to see the truth.

Conspiracy devotees seem to display a religious-like conviction toward the conspiracy theory of their choice–again, this is just my own qualitative assessment of what I’ve read recently, but I’m not alone.

“It almost becomes an article of faith, and as with any theological belief, you can’t confront it with facts,” said Kenneth D. Kitts, a professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke who has written extensively about presidential commissions that looked into events that have generated some of the biggest conspiracy theories of the last century — the attack on Pearl Harbor and the assassination of John F. Kennedy, among others.

Let me define my use of “conspiracy theory” here. It is a loaded term.

Past government lies have given Americans reason to distrust their leaders, which is why I stress out over rampant speculation in the wake of any event–if there is a coverup, unquestioningly accepting every coincidence or oddity as a piece of evidence for it makes it that much harder to distill what evidence would actually point toward lies and deceit. It’s pretty simple classification problem: if your categories are “conspiracy” or “not conspiracy” and your data points are your pieces of evidence, but so many of them are false positives, you’re going to get way more pieces of evidence that appear to fit into the “conspiracy” category than actually do. And if some of the pieces of evidence that actually do point toward a conspiracy are much more subtle than what you do count as a positive, the real evidence is not going to look like evidence.

Now, if a conspiracy theory is proven to be true, it is no longer a conspiracy theory. It’s fact—it’s a failed coverup a la Watergate or Iran Contra. When I say “conspiracy theory” below, I’m referring to an explanation of the event that ran counter to the available, verifiable evidence in the immediate aftermath of the event and, if the event took place in the significantly remote past, still runs counter to the verifiable evidence that has emerged since. That verifiable is important. And that’s all I’m going to say about that.

As a linguist, I tend to pay close attention to the language used in any piece. Whether conscious or not, I tend to focus on word choice, phrasing, ambiguity, and potential for possible misinterpretation. And as a guy who loves fiction, reading, storytelling in general, and history, I also tend to look for the connections the writer of any piece of media draws between the events they describe, whether true or fictional. So in the intersection of these two interests, I’m drawn toward the language used to make those connections.

A key feature of both conspiracy narratives and… narrative narratives is the significance assigned to apparently innocuous objects or events. In storytelling, it’s called Chekhov’s Gun. In conspiracies it’s called… I don’t know–Don’ttakemy Gun or something. In any case, there appear to be a number of frames that wrap neatly around both conspiracy narratives and purely fictional narratives. Here’s a few (I’ll take my examples from Boston, as the conspiracy theories are relatively new, and it personally hits close to home):

NOTE: Since I’m citing examples from fiction, there may be spoilers below.

The frame: Evidence shows that someone clearly knew about the event before it happened.

In fiction: In A Storm of Swords by George R. R. Martin, Lord Tywin Lannister sends a letter of unknown contents to Lord Walder Frey. It later comes out that this letter was part of a plot to kill Robb Stark at his uncle’s wedding.

In conspiracy: Facebook memorial pages for victims of the bombing were created before the event. This means that someone on Facebook knew the attacks would take place.

The explanation: Facebook’s page start dates are user customizable. Even if you put the page for your organization on Facebook in May 2013, you can set the page start date to 1994 if that’s when you founded the organization. In addition, Facebook pages that have less than a certain number of likes (200, I think) are allowed to change their names at will. Thus, someone might have a page created in March 2013 that they don’t do much with and decide to change the name to “In memory of the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing” or something like that on April 15, 2013. The creation date of the page will not change from March.

Next please.

The frame: Someone present at the event is supposed to be dead.

In fiction: This is basically your boilerplate “faked death” trope, so there are tons. In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Peter Pettigrew fakes his own death at the hands of Sirius Black and resurfaces 12 years later.

In conspiracy: Slain Sandy Hook Elementary School principal Dawn Hochsprung was supposedly also sitting at the finish line in Boston and was killed. A picture’s going around the internet showing side-by-side screen caps of Hochsprung’s picture in a TV spot about Sandy Hook and one about Boston, which refers to the name “Donna”.

The explanation: No, she wasn’t in Boston. Dawn Hochsprung was murdered at Sandy Hook. Per Snopes, the woman who succeeded her as principal was named Donna, and a number of Newtown residents ran the marathon to honor the 26 victims of Sandy Hook. One of them may have mentioned “Donna” or Dawn Hochsprung, which is possibly where the connection comes from.

Frankly, whoever first advanced this one is kind of a sick bastard.

The frame: The event was staged by the government to have an excuse to better control its people.

In fiction: V for Vendetta has the British government stage a biological attack on the London Underground in order to consolidate their power.

In conspiracy: Well, it’s basically the same as the frame. The “false-flag” theory states that the US government staged the bombings in Boston to have an excuse to curtail the freedoms of Americans, pointing to everything from Navy Seals present at the marathon’s finish line to the notion that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was an FBI informant.

The explanation: You can’t really point to any one thing to disprove this. In fact there’s no saying that the government wouldn’t use an attack as an excuse to curtail freedoms–9/11 gave us warrantless wiretaps, for example–but to say that they would stage an entire attack and cover up their involvement in order to overreach goes to a whole new level. The Friday after the bombings, during the manhunt for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in Watertown, the National Guard came in along with Boston and local police, did their jobs and got the guy and then, instead of instituting martial law, went home. Not to say the state of civil liberties in America is shiny today, but it doesn’t seem to have gotten any worse after Boston. It’s like they’re not even trying to be drooling fascists.

These are just a few I’ve been able to come up with on short notice, but they already seem to suggest something. A well-written thriller or mystery (or even fantasy or science-fiction) novel or movie has all the misdirections and “false-flags” (if you will) of a modern-day conspiracy theory, all laid out in a connected fashion, wrapped up inside a little fictional universe where they all make sense together.

Fiction is fun. Conspiracy theories are fun for, I think, similar reasons. But it can be, as the Brits say, a cock-up, instead of a conspiracy. In our chaotic world, these are far more common than shadowy men plotting in dark rooms. With every tragedy, there are failures in security, and failures in investigation, and these are the things that need to be looked at.

No one should tell you not to be suspicious of the media or politicians or law enforcement agencies. There are tons of reasons to be, not least of which are the aforementioned cock-ups in security or the speculation running around like a Jack Russell terrier on smack. There have been actual government conspiracies in the past (the Tuskeegee experiment, in which US health officials knowingly prevented African American men from getting treatment for syphilis, and the Iran-Contra affair, wherein profits from weapons sold by the Reagan administration to Iran went to fund the Nicaraguan contras, come to mind). But for a particularly tragic situation like a bombing, which is more likely–a hugely coordinated operation and coverup requiring the involvement of multiple governmental agencies all working together to end the lives of American citizens, or a series of oversights and security failures? To me, the former seems to presuppose that people in positions of power can be made to act like some monolithic block without individual motives, which 5000+ years of recorded human history has shown is rarely possible.

The problem with conspiracy narratives is not just that they’re fiction–they’re bad fiction that falls apart with each new piece of verified information. Good fiction keeps you guessing until the end. Conspiracy theories are basically the idea that the powers that be are trying to apply retcons to real life, like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle resurrecting Sherlock Holmes.

In this respect, our knowledge of fiction should allow us to train our bullshit detectors, because there is a crucial difference between the world of fiction and the world of conspiracy theory: A work of fiction exists in a world where the plot has to make sense, and the twists and turns of the plot are necessarily shaped to fit within that world. A conspiracy theory purports to exist in the real world, and the twists usually don’t fit that box.

A project I’ve been considering doing over the summer is to actually gather and analyze some data on the statistics of overlapping types of language and event structures used in conspiracy theories and in fiction (and possibly propaganda campaigns as well). I’m not sure how to gather and format the data yet, but I have a suspicion that there are more overlaps than people might realize. I don’t know if it’ll actually go anywhere–I don’t have a lot of free time–but my hope is that maybe I can put some science to all this noise.

About nkrishna

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One Response to Fiction and the Language of Conspiracy

  1. Bunny says:

    “We solve crimes, I blog about it… and he forgets his pants.”

    Very nice entry. 🙂

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