Last week the pro-Russian hactivist group, CyberBerkut, released footage that they claimed to have lifted from the laptop of one of US Senator John McCain’s staffers. The video purported to show a staged Islamic State execution.
The scene had clearly been modeled on James Foley’s execution, with a black-clad ‘jihadi’ holding a knife to the throat of a kneeling ‘prisoner’ dressed in an orange jumpsuit. The footage is shot from above the set, so one can see the light and sound people applying their trade in front of a green screen.
It was posted online with this message:
We CyberBerkut received at the disposal of the file whose value can not be overstated! Dear Senator McCain! We recommend you next time in foreign travel, and especially on the territory of Ukraine, not to take confidential documents. In one of the devices of your colleagues, we found a lot of interesting things. Something we decided to put: this video should become the property of the international community!
The internet’s conspiracy theorists took this as further evidence of American guilt in creating and pulling the strings of the Islamic State. They employ an inverse of the Socratic method to come up with these crazed theories; rather than examining the evidence to illuminate ideas, they come up with a theory and then look for any circumstantial or doctored evidence to prove their thesis.
Anyone who challenges them is dismissed as naïve, duped by a compliant media who is also under the spell of the political overlords. When you challenge them on the credibility of their evidence, you are inevitably told that you’re asking for too much. Conclusive evidence to prove their conspiracy theory is never forthcoming, since those doing the covering-up are infinitely more powerful and better resourced than those doing the digging. Rest assured, one’s always promised, the evidence will one day surface and all the humble conspiracy theorists will be vindicated.
But it’s 14 years since the Twin Towers came down, where is the evidence the 9/11 ‘truthers’ speak of? Since then, Wikileaks and Edward Snowdon have revealed secrets about the United States and other governments that has exposed widespread spying, illegality, incompetence and a general disregard for the rule of law and the people they govern. But nothing on 9/11 being an ‘inside job’.
The Wikileaks and Edward Snowden revelations demonstrate that there are good, moral people in the US administration-military-intelligence system that are prepared to risk everything for the greater good. There are many who rightly admire the courage of the whistleblowers to came forward and have felt galvanised by their actions and followed their example.
One only has to look at some of the incredible work published every week by The Intercept. Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who broke the Snowden story, regularly publishes articles using documents that have been leaked to him anonymously through the website’s SecureDrop server. (They also regularly publish these documents in full.)
Wikileaks and Edward Snowden are not just important because of what they have released; they have also changed the culture of secrecy and notions of accountability among individuals within these organisations. They have empowered people who don’t want to be complicit in the immoral actions of their government.
With this in mind, ask yourself: how many people would have to be in on a John McCain’s plot? There are nine people on set, McCain himself and the staffer whose laptop it was supposedly stolen. In a rare case of bipartisanship, presumably the president’s in on it too. And his most senior staff? The vice-president? What about all the people that star in the other execution videos? There were twenty-one Coptic Christians executed earlier this year: that’s forty-two actors. It would have to be big operation. One would want to be sure each individual was on board before revealing this top-secret plan, lest they squeal.
Clearly no thinking person can possibly believe this nonsense. Yet one-third of Americans now think that 9/11 was an inside job. Unfortunately these conspiracy theorists are overwhelmingly left-wing and represent a sad decline in progressive intellectualism.
The Right’s conspiracy theorists approach the world from an different perspective and, therefore, have different obsessions. Racism, for example, more commonly predominates: the idea that Jews control global finance, that halal food funds terrorist, that migrants are taking ‘our’ jobs, that President Obama is a closet Muslim or that dark Islamic forces are working to implement Sharia law.
The Left’s conspiracy theorists are an altogether different beast.
Many seem to have taken the sensible leftist injunction ‘always be skeptical about what you see in the media’ and run with it. Now, if you believe what they say, everything you read and hear in the media is a lie. Unless, of course, it’s produced by some nerd with a blog who happens to share in your conspiracy theories. He’s alright.
The wise advice to follow the money trail has become proof that the United States is waging war against the Islamic State in the Middle East to ensure corporations can keep cashing cheques. It is true, of course, that some corporations benefit from perpetual war and that some politicians have links with these businesses. All of this is on the public record and should be the basis for a critical analysis of the relationship between the public and private sector, capitalism and the cult of US-style small government. It’s certainly not proof that what’s currently happening in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen is all part of the United States’ grand plan.
To have these crazed conspiracies at the centre of one’s ‘analysis’ undercuts one’s credibility and ignores and downplays what are serious systemic problems with the politico-economic system.
Unfortunately it doesn’t appear as though this leftist lunacy is subsiding.
Another consequence of this recent phenomenon is that the Left’s capacity to organise and mobilise large segments of the community has been diminished at a time when it’s needed most. Never before has liberal democracy and neoliberalism enjoyed such favour throughout the world. Under the United States sole superpowerhood, these two principles have become prerequisites for governments who want to join ‘the community of nations.’
As the philosopher Slavoj Zizek is fond of saying, it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Nevertheless, change does happen and the most significant change happens from below. It’s activists and agitators and people in the street that force reform and revolution. But it takes a tremendous groundswell of popular momentum. And, although they may not realise it, the reactionary conspiracy theorists are pulling in the other direction.
(This was originally published in Spook Magazine on 21 July, 2015.)