Selective skepticism

Facebook has a weird “related” stories function when people share news stories. While the original story your “friend” shared might be from a reputable source, the recommended links almost always seem to be from conspiracy nut sites. Recently I saw what looked like a rather idiotic link and clicked on it.

The article is basically a conspiracy theory about a car bomb attack in Syria which apparently left some Russian military personnel dead. Apparently some folks are saying the Russian KIA were generals, but I doubt it. In any case, the conspiracy article claims that “dozens of Russian generals” were killed by a US missile. It also claims, with no evidence whatsoever, that Putin was “supposed to be” at this base, which is reminiscent of the initial MH17 conspiracy theory that Ukraine shot the airliner down believing it to be Putin’s plane.

What evidence do they provide? Well this is from the ridiculously short “article:”

” Even though camera footage made it appear like a car bomb, it’s suspicious because how could a huge bomb like that get into a secured Russian Base without it being noticed?”

Conspiracy theorist logic at its finest, folks. Confronted with actual video evidence, they say that the footage “made it appear like a car bomb.”  And it’s suspicious because the author, arguing from ignorance, cannot figure out how they could get the bomb into the Russian base. Then it’s followed up with a video rant from a man who would make an excellent “political analyst” on RT.

Obviously the story is bullshit. There are stories online about “US missiles” killing Russian military personnel, but this is about front-line action involving US-made TOW missiles. So why am I highlighting it at all?

Well you see, Russian state media loves conspiracy theories. Ukraine supposedly shot down MH17 with a Buk, an Su-25, and Su-27, and they had a bomb on board just for good measure. They were using American mercenaries, then Polish mercenaries, then African mercenaries, and finally, they started using Turkish mercenaries, conveniently right after Turkey shot down an Su-24 over Syria. And of course the bloodthirsty Nazi junta army is slaughtering civilians left and right in the Donbas, even shelling people on their own side! Ever notice anything missing though?

In the Kremlin narrative, “NATO” legions always inflict civilian casualties, even against their own populations in “false flag” attacks. But what you don’t see are defeats inflicted on the Russian military or its proxies. Instead their successes are always inflated, often to laughable extremes. ISIS was devastated in 24 hours. Ukraine lost 3,000 armored vehicles in the Debaltseve (this is more than the entire Ukrainian army had at the time, and keep in mind the rebels claim all their armor was captured from Ukrainian motor pools), an Su-24 unleashed some kind of EMP on a US ship and shut down its electronics. Of course in real life things are a bit different. For one thing, when American made technology met the Su-24 it blew the latter out of the sky. Russian technology has proven just as vulnerable on the battlefield as any other nation’s arms.

So when I saw this story I began to wonder if the Russian state media or sites like Fort Russ and Russia Insider would cover it. I mean sure, it’s a great conspiracy theory if you want to claim the US is deliberately trying to sabotage Russia, right? Well no. The story tells us that the US can wipe out a dozen Russian generals in “their” base, in a hostile country, and basically get away with it since Putin didn’t have a word to say about it in spite of supposedly being a target for assassination.

For those reasons, you can be the pro-Kremlin expats and staff writers will suddenly turn into critically thinking skeptics. They may point out that the base in question was actually under Syrian control, whether that was actually the case or not. They could suggest that cars enter and exit the base all the time, and the security staff are too overworked to thoroughly search each car. They might claim the rebels found a turncoat on the inside. Whatever the excuse, I doubt there’s any pro-Kremlin hack out there who wants to openly suggest that the US can wipe out dozens of Russian generals at a time without any repercussions whatsoever. Alright, to be fair, you can no doubt find plenty of such people who insist that the CIA/SBU/Praviy Sektor was able to assassinate a Russian political figure on a bridge just outside the Kremlin and totally get away with it, but this only points to the total incompetence of a number of Russian security agencies. You can do that, but you mustn’t ever suggest the same about Russia’s military.

Of course this wouldn’t be the only conspiracy theory that turns pro-Kremlin people into temporary skeptics. The 1999 apartment bombings give us another such example (to be sure, I’ve never been really convinced about the false flag explanation myself). They’d probably even attack this more detailed explanation, which apparently saddles Yeltsin and Berezovsky with a lot of the blame for masterminding the attacks. There was also a false flag theory about MH17 that said the Russians deliberately shot it down thinking it was an Aeroflot flight to Larnaka, Cyrpus. How much you want to bet you can turn the usual 9/11 truthers into rational thinkers on a dime with that little theory?

In truth this is a funny thing about all conspiracy theorists. There are so many conspiracy theories often backing different narratives. I’ve often noticed that backers of a particular theory tend not to argue against one another regardless of political alignment, the alleged culprit (e.g. Zionists vs. Illuminati), or even differing explanations (e.g. bombs planted in towers before 9/11 vs. towers built with explosives pre-planted). Generally you can choose any theory you like so long as it’s not “the official story.”

Of course conflict is inevitable at some point, because people who adhere to such theories typically have their own political agenda. The neo-Nazis and fellow travelers who believe these conspiracies are aimed at advancing the Zionist, Cultural Marxist agenda will inevitably clash with the vulgar left-wing populists who believe in hidden Nazi conspiracies that go back to Operation Paperclip. A Ukrainian, Baltic, or Polish conspiracy theorists may buy into the same Western conspiracy theories about Cultural Marxists, but they’re going to be more inclined to believe anti-Russian conspiracy theories rather than pro-Kremlin ones.

Unfortunately I don’t see much progress in the direction of critical thinking and combating conspiracy theories. If anything it seems things are moving in the opposite direction. A lot of think tank types like to blame this on the Russian media offensive, but in reality even America alone is so adept at producing conspiratorial bullshit that a lot of the Russian media, both foreign and Russian-language, relies on Western sources for many of their conspiracy ideas. The subject of this post is an example of a home-grown conspiracy theory that the Russians probably won’t touch.

As for solutions? Well I’ve said before that teaching critical thinking makes a lot of people nervous, because the same logic you can use to take down a conspiracy theory can also take down more “respectable,” mainstream theories on economics, society, crime, and politics. Some people actually explicitly oppose the teaching of critical thinking.

One thing I can recommend is for people to stop referring to conspiratorial thinking as “crazy.” Yes, it is true that there are many conspiracy adherents who are actually certifiably mentally ill, but if this kind of thinking were limited to such people it would never be so prevalent in mainstream society. These theories are in fact simple explanations for complicated issues, they smooth over contradictions that are hard comprehend and fill in the gaps left by ignorance about the world. On the latter point, better history education would be a major step forward. More education on how the government works would be useful too.

Another possible solution is to take some advice from and examine the influence of pop culture on our perceptions. Movies influence behavior, and movies where heroes explore vast conspiracies and attain esoteric knowledge have a major impact. Most readers have probably heard something about the so-called “Red Pill” community, but in fact The Matrix was inspiring conspiracy theory peddlers almost from the time of the theatrical release. Using the movie as an analogy, con-men like David Icke and Alex Jones offer their marks a way to feel like a real-life Neo, taking the red pill, waking up in the real world, and then reentering “the Matrix” with superior knowledge than that of the mindless drones around them.

It reality of course, this is bullshit. In virtually every debate with a conspiracy theorist I’ve found that they actually possess less knowledge, sometimes no knowledge, about the subject they’re discussing. If it’s 9/11 they’ll incorrectly quote “the official story,” getting the most basic details wrong. Maidan conspiracy theorists don’t seem to know when Maidan started, nor do they know anything about the parties involved or the internal conflicts within the movement. Basic chronology tends to be a major problem.

What can be done about that? Well I think that burden falls on the media. Unfortunately very few people seem to have any idea how the news is made. What is more, they don’t seem to know why the news looks the way it does. Lastly, a lot of news coverage is oversimplified, and it also wouldn’t hurt if news outlets stuck with a story a bit longer, so that people get the most basic details about a story.

I also know from personal experience how difficult journalism can be, but it also might be helpful for journalists to cover angles of major stories that aren’t getting a lot of attention. This way it would be harder to make allegations of a deliberate cover-up, or at least those allegations would look that much more stupid. In this era of “information war,” failure to cover certain topics effectively cedes the battlefield to other actors, who fill in those gaps with their own narratives.

Of course there’s one thing we cannot help, and we may just have to basically evolve as a species in order to overcome this obstacle. Here I’m referring to the deluge of information we face on a daily basis. It’s quite possible that the prevalence of conspiratorial narratives is in some part a natural reaction to being overwhelmed by information our ancestors never had access to. Not only are we hearing about global news stories, but we’re hearing about them constantly, from the TV, the radio, newspapers, magazines, and our mobile phones. When millions of otherwise educated people have zero experience in the Middle East (or anywhere outside their country in many cases), and have never read any serious examination of the politics of radical Islamic terrorism, how are they to understand that Al Qaeda and ISIS are mortal enemies? With their poor historical knowledge about the history of US involvement in Afghanistan and a righteous distaste for US policy in Iraq, is it not a lot easier to believe that the US created both groups and lump this into a larger conspiracy theory?

That’s what it’s all about- what is easier. Make the truth easier to comprehend than the convoluted conspiracy theories, and it will probably go a long way toward putting con men like Alex Jones out of business.

15 thoughts on “Selective skepticism

  1. Paul Canning (@pauloCanning)

    The minute that conspiracy theories become enabled as ‘just another view’ is when we’ve lost. And unfortunately that has become more common. Just look at how Trump has been treated. Yes, I realise that facts bounce off these people but if the mainstream really rejected conspiracy then why is anyone endorsing him? Same goes with my experience of the left. There are a number of left politicians, movements and key figures who either flirt with or outright propose conspiracies. This is accepted as a legitimate viewpoint when it should not be. The mainstream does not do a good enough job of debunking.

  2. Callum C.

    Hey Jim, did they cover car bombs on your military training?

    On my basic officer training, there was a scenario on the final exercise where somebody tries to sneak a car bomb into the FOB and blow up the platoon commander. Most trainees either failed to find the bomb and let it in, or gave the driver time to detonate it at the check point. I only heard of one candidate who managed to get rid of the driver without any casualties. Real soldiers would obviously be better than Officer Cadets, but the fact remains that a car bomb is a pretty effective weapon system.

    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      Car bombs? No way. I was in pre-9/11. But I can handle a bayonet!

      But yeah as for the thing with car bombs, you remember that scene in Zero Dark Thirty where a source they needed managed to set off a car bomb in the CIA area of a fortified camp in Afghanistan (forget which, might have been Kandahar)? Well that actually happened.

      1. Jim Kovpak Post author

        I guess. I don’t remember being issued one after getting out of training, though it wouldn’t have mattered then because my duty weapon was the M249 SAW.

      2. gbd_crwx

        Yes who needs a knife when you have got a saw 😀 Personally we were only given bayonets when guarding the king’s Castles (Ain’t monarchy great)

      3. gbd_crwx

        Continuing on the offtopic, how much ammo were you supposed to carry into battle for your light machine gun?

      4. Jim Kovpak Post author

        Honestly that’s hard to say. I was never deployed and was only in a couple of short field exercises, during which we weren’t issued ammo. I think it’s reasonable to believe that they’d have probably given me at least one box with the 200-round belt, and maybe we would have had one or two in our shelter (it’s like a big camper on the back of a humvee that held our radios).

        Part of the problem is that not only were we not deployed, but nobody expected to be deployed, even after 9/11, so we didn’t really operate according to any realistic scenario. At least this was the impression I got.

        Someone who was an automatic rifleman in say Iraq or Afghanistan could probably say more about that, particularly if they were infantry. Being signal, we would be fighting defensively in order to protect the node center that consisted of part of our platoon. We’d set up a perimeter of double concertina wire, dig fighting positions, and set up a guard point where we put our Mk.19 grenade launcher. Sadly I narrowly missed the opportunity to go to the range with that. Anyway, we had at least one more 249 in the node center and maybe one or two M203 grenade launchers. I was told we had M60’s some time before I arrived, but they got rid of them and they apparently didn’t have the replacement M240B’s.

      5. gbd_crwx

        Thanks for the detailed answer, very informative. So you were basically relaying information from forward positions backwards and vice versa?

        Btw, that concertina wire (barbed wire), how do you get it back again when moving?

      6. Jim Kovpak Post author

        Yes, the node center we set up would collect the signal from something called MSRT’s which would be closer to front line units. Their signal would come in through our truck, known as a RAU (Radio Access Unit). This was what I was assigned to. In the same node center we had other trucks with LOS (Line of Sight) antennas and as I remember they were for transmitting and receiving from other node centers. Luckily I wasn’t assigned to one of those because as the name implies, after you set up the antenna you have to then properly align it and get the signal, which is a little bit like the signal on your cell phone (the technology is very similar). The RAU antenna is a broadcast antenna so it doesn’t need to be aligned or anything.

        This whole system is supposed to support not only radio communication but also a field telephone network as well.

        If the node center has to move, it’s called “jumping,” and it’s a colossal pain in the ass because everything needs to be broken down and stowed away to move as quickly as possible. For one team this would mean the tent and everything in it, the grounding stakes, guide wires for the antenna, the antenna itself, and then you’ve got to take down the massive camo netting that is set up over your humvee/shelter and pack that on top. The concertina wire needs to be untangled, compressed back into rings, and IIRC we would store those on top of the generator trailer that each truck has. Setting up or breaking down concertina wire is a horrible pain in the ass as it will stick to pretty much anything it even slightly touches, and you will inevitably end up with lots of little holes in your BDU’s.

        Luckily I never had to do any jumps in the field problems I was on. We were supposed to do one during this one exercise, but a random fire in one of the humvees (called a switch, like a telephone system) meant that we had to pack everything up and return to the motor pool. Our stuff was still set up as though we were in the field, and we had to sleep in the company orderly room even though our barracks were a three-minute walk away.

      7. gbd_crwx

        Like this: ?

        Hmm, tanks again for a detailed answer, resulting in even more questions. but I won’t ask them as I think I have derailed the thread enough already. AlsoI feel a bit like one of the guys in “Four Yorkshiremen” (“Cardboard box, you were lucky….”), but only a Little 🙂

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