In which I get irked by the tone of an Ian Dunt tweet, then try and explain why.
On Twitter, Ian Dunt did a version of the adult-in-the-room / realistic / common sense (delete as applicable) argument that too many of us subscribe to conspiracy theories, when the actual cause is incompetence. His tweet has attracted many approving comments about Hanlon’s razor etc.
I can understand not wanting to give credence to conspiracy theories, but the simplistic certainty in his tone is annoying. The media often repeats the “incompetence, not conspiracy”argument too quickly, without sufficient analysis.
I just want to note that he’s glossing over quite a lot. Including
- Conspiracies do happen
- Incompetent people can be very useful to malicious conspirators
- The competent will often use incompetence as a tactic (strategic ignorance etc)
Conspiracies do happen
Of course we should “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”. However, conspiracies do happen. A lot. Even in Britain.
And depending on how you define conspiracy, it’s all around us.
“our problem: the truest conspiracies meet with the least opposition.
“Or to put it another way, conspiracy practices — the methods by which true conspiracies such as gerrymandering, or the debt industry, or mass surveillance are realized — are almost always overshadowed by conspiracy theories: those malevolent falsehoods that in aggregate can erode civic confidence in the existence of anything certain or verifiable.”
“Recognizing that [the elites] will organize in defence of their interests, or those they represent, is not paranoid conspiracy theory but a basic political reality, and one we need to confront.”
“[some of 4Chan / Anonymous beliefs] about the dysfunction of the world… boiled down to the world is controlled by an unaccountable elite, which has its elements in QAnon. And they’re not wrong. The world is controlled by an unaccountable elite.”
“If you look at it literally, it [QAnon] is kind of mad. But if you take it as a parable, well, yeah – the world is controlled by an unaccountable elite.”
“The satanic paedophile stuff is grafted on top to give it an emotional punch.”
“I would say in a sort of mea culpa mainstream media, we managed to make a whole series about a conspiracy theory about how a cabal of satanic paedophiles was running America, and we didn’t once mention Jeffrey Epstein. Why is that? Is it because, as they believe, we are part of the cabal? It’s not I can tell you that. We have our blindspots, and our biases, even at the BBC.”
Incompetent people can be very useful to malicious conspirators
For example, many believe that former British Prime minister Liz Truss “didn’t know what she was doing”. But she made it to the highest political office and she appeared to repeat press releases handed to her by opaquely funded think tanks. She may have been incompetent. She may not have known what she was doing. But the opaquely funded lobbying groups found a use for her, to further their agendas.
Importantly, the malicious are aware that the ‘it’s incompetence, not conspiracy’ argument exists and can be used as a distraction.
The competent will often use incompetence as a conspiratorial tactic (strategic ignorance etc)
A recent interview tactic used by Conservative politicians is to say they’re unaware of their own brief, or to claim they don’t believe the evidence.
For example: “I don’t accept the premise that Brexit will make us poorer,” says Jeremy Hunt, chancellor.
“Deliberate ignorance has been known as the ‘Ostrich Instruction’ in law courts since the 1860s. It illustrates a recurring pattern in history in which figureheads for major companies, political leaders and industry bigwigs plead ignorance to avoid culpability.”
Annoying and potentially harmful
It’s unfair to highlight a Dunt tweet in isolation. But his tweet encapsulates an argument prevalent in British media.
Sure, powerful people will often not know what they’re doing – but it’s a nuanced topic. Baseless conspiracy theories should be dismissed, but conspiracy does happen. The media’s reliance on the ‘it’s incompetence, not a conspiracy’ argument can project false reassurance.
Just be thankful I didn’t go down the “is the media’s simplistic treatment of conspiracy theories actually a conspiracy….” rabbit hole.