Or, how powerful people get away with doing bad stuff.
In general, I don’t believe in conspiracy theories. I don’t believe that the moon landings were faked, that the attacks of September 11, 2001 were a ‘false flag’ operation planned by elements within the U. S. government, or that there are remains of extraterrestrial visitors in a secret government warehouse.
My reasoning is simple: as a general rule, far-reaching conspiracies don’t work. At least, they don’t work very well.
Moreover, conspiracies generally aren’t necessary. Oligarchs are able to act against the public interest on a regular basis, without the need for a conspiracy to conceal their actions. And in fact, as I will argue, a conspiracy would actually be a hindrance to this activity.
But before I dive in to how and why conspiracies function so poorly, I want to define what exactly a conspiracy is, and what it is not. Here’s the definition of the word “conspire”, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary:
to join in a secret agreement to do an unlawful or wrongful act or an act which becomes unlawful as a result of the secret agreement.
Thus, in order to be a conspiracy, several conditions have to hold true:
- There has to be an agreement.
- The agreement has to be secret.
- The subject of the agreement has to be an unlawful or wrongful act.
Let’s examine these three conditions in more detail. While it may seem overly academic to parse the fine details of dictionary definitions, I will show how this approach can yield some useful insights. I will do this by comparing conspiracies with other, related types of human activity, where one of the three conditions given above is not true.
One quick disclaimer: what I say about conspiracy theories is, well, a theory. It’s my opinion, based on cultural and political observations. Evidence proving my thesis would be hard to obtain, since it would involve proving a negative, as well as knowing how many large, successful conspiracies exist.
I don’t think I’m wrong, but I am willing to consider that I might be.
Conspiracy vs. Classified Information
Governments have a need to keep certain matters secret; usually this is information that an enemy government or rival might exploit. What makes this different from a conspiracy is that the secrecy is, by it’s very definition, legal.
When the details of a conspiracy are revealed to the public, the conspirators are typically charged with a crime, while the person who uncovered it is often regarded as a hero. But when classified information is revealed, it’s the leaker that goes to jail.
Of course, it does happen that material is wrongly classified. There’s a tendency for government officials to “play it safe” and over-classify material. But in the vast majority of cases, the people keeping these secrets are sincere in their beliefs — they are not intentionally harming the public or acting “wrongfully” in their own opinion.
What happens when an official uses the classification system to intentionally hide facts that should be made public? That is when classification crosses the line into conspiracy. Unfortunately for such would-be conspirators, these kinds of secrets have a high probability of leaking out anyway.
The problem for government conspirators is that many of the people working for government agencies, who are handling these secrets on a day-to-day basis, are highly dedicated, ethical, and have taken an oath to uphold the Constitution (or whatever national laws are appropriate).
Thus, you get people like Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, Reality Winner, Daniel Ellsberg, Mark Felt, and many others. People who are willing to suffer the severe consequences of exposing this information to the public, because it is their sincere belief that the public has a right to know it.
A would-be conspirator is perfectly aware of the high probability of leakage, and that their misdeeds will likely be exposed in time. They also know that the fact that this information was intentionally covered up is often much more damaging than the revelation of the information itself.
Knowing this, a potential conspirator wouldn’t use the classified information system to hide the details of their conspiracy; that would be foolish. Instead, they would only share that information with a tiny number of co-conspirators, and such information would have to be kept “off the books”. But as we’ll soon see, this brings its own set of problems.
Conspiracy vs Public Misdeeds
It’s true that powerful people can commit acts of evil. It happens all the time. But most of the time, there’s nothing secret about it — the evil happens in plain sight of everyone.
Brutal dictators like Daniel Ortega, Robert Mugabe, Bashar al-Assad, and Omar al-Bashir are able to violently repress dissident elements in their country, and even kill their own citizens with impunity.
Closer to home, we see examples of corporations and politicians behaving badly. But most of the time, these behaviors are obvious to anyone who takes a close look. A company whose products cause cancer, or who undermine civil rights or privacy, might not go out of its way to advertise that fact, but that doesn’t keep the truth from being widely known eventually.
Companies do hide information under non-disclosure agreements and trade secrecy law. But like classified information, if the secrets are explosive enough, and the people handling this information feel that the public has a right to know, the information will leak. How many leaked memos have we seen from Facebook and other tech giants? A bunch.
If you are a powerful individual or corporation who wants to minimize the PR damage resulting from actions which harm the public, a conspiracy is a poor defensive strategy. A much more effective tactic is to confuse the issue, explain it away, to convince the public that it’s “no big deal”, or that the people who were harmed deserve it anyway. Overwhelm the concerned citizens with so much noisy information that eventually they give up in exhaustion.
Weaknesses of Conspiracies
As Benjamin Franklin famously said, “Two people can keep a secret if one of them is dead”.
In order for a secret to be kept secret, it has to be limited to a small number of people. If there is an incentive to reveal the secret (such as the patriotic feelings of a whistleblower, or merely someone who wants to get paid for a book deal), then the secret has to be restricted to a tiny group, whose members are known to have strong and lasting counter-incentives against such revelation.
Unfortunately, individuals and tiny groups don’t have much power on their own. Powerful people are powerful because they have influence over others. Dictators have armies and police forces at their command. As succinctly stated in Rules for Rulers, “no man rules alone”.
Being able to command other people gives you power in two ways:
- It enables you to gather information; your underlings act as your eyes and ears.
- It enables you to take action, to make changes in the world more broadly and powerfully than you could by yourself.
But in order for you to command effectively, your agents have to have some understanding of your intentions. They are not robots that only obey orders literally, unquestioningly; such robots would be nearly useless. Your agents need to improvise, to interpret, to make judgments.
The more information you give to your agents, the more effective they will be. Agents who are kept in the dark are incompetent. They will miss details that you might be interested in. They will misinterpret their orders and take actions that you did not want. Worse, they might even inadvertently reveal what you are trying to do.
Thus, a conspirator is caught between Scylla and Charybdis: too few people “in the know”, and the conspiracy is bumbling and ineffective; too many, and there is a greater chance that someone will spill the beans.
Conspiracies have a similar problem with keeping records. Obviously, you don’t want to leave written evidence lying around that could be used to convict you. But imagine trying to run a business using only the information in your head, with no one allowed to take notes. How successful do you think such a business would be?
Secrecy imposes a huge overhead on any organization.
Let’s consider, as an example, the “9/11 truther” theory. One variation maintains that explosives were planted in the upper floors of the twin towers before the attack. How many people would have had to be in on the secret in order to carry out this plan? I would think hundreds, if not thousands, spread across several countries.
Is it possible that every truck driver, forklift operator, security guard, office manager, janitor, language translator, and explosive manufacturer involved was kept in the dark? And how would you prevent them from connecting the dots afterwards? How would you stop them from revealing the truth? When it would clearly be their patriotic duty to do so? Their chance for national fame? To be honored as a hero?
How do you know that there won’t be a Snowden or a Manning somewhere in your organizational hierarchy?
No mastermind, no matter how clever or diabolical, would trust that many people to keep a secret. Nor would they risk their position and reputation on such a hare-brained scheme.
So far we have examined two of the three elements that make up a conspiracy. We have explored what happens when we negate the secrecy condition (public misdeeds) and what happens when we negate the unlawful condition (classified information).
However, there is another kind of conspiracy, one which I find quite plausible, which I call the “unconscious” or “implicit” conspiracy. This is a conspiracy where the members don’t know that they are in a conspiracy.
In this case, the individuals are engaged in wrongful action, and they coordinate in secret, which satisfies two of our three criteria. But the remaining condition is lacking; there is no explicit agreement between the conspirators.
There are two kinds of implicit conspiracy: first, there is the unspoken conspiracy, where the perpetrators know that they are doing something of which the public would not approve, and are coordinating with other people in this process, but they never actually discuss their agenda. The strategy in this case is to maintain plausible deniability. If one of the members of the conspiracy is subpoena’d and placed under oath, they can truthfully say that they never requested or advised anyone to engage in unlawful behavior.
The second, and more interesting, variant is the unthought or unconscious conspiracy, in which the perpetrators don’t even realize they are doing something wrong, even though they are. How is this possible? Because they are all lying to themselves.
Unconscious conspiracies are a form of groupthink — an irrational decision making process motivated by the desire for group harmony and collaboration. Here’s one possible scenario:
- It starts with a close-knit group of people — possibly colleagues in a work environment, or advisers to a political figure.
- The group mostly communicates with themselves; information from outside the group is either assigned a lower trust value or dismissed entirely. (“Our product is the best in the industry — our CEO told me so!”)
- Thus, self-reinforcing beliefs begin to grow, ungrounded and unhampered by a lack of evidence — the “hall of mirrors” effect.
- The members of the group, holding beliefs that are incompatible with the general consensus, will naturally tend to keep certain information to themselves, knowing that other people “wouldn’t understand”. Discussions involving this information are limited to insiders only, further isolating the group.
- Thus, without any explicit instructions or intention to keep secrets, more and more of the thought processes of the group are kept hidden.
- These false beliefs in turn motivate action. Certain potential threats loom large, creating fear. The members of the group feel justified in taking extreme action to avoid a pending disaster.
- But the actions cannot be revealed to the public, because (it is believed) that the public doesn’t know or doesn’t understand the true situation, and would take steps to suppress or hinder those actions.
- The decision to keep things secret is made by each individual separately; there’s never an explicit group discussion where someone says “hey, everyone, we need to keep quiet about this”. (There may, however, be rules of confidentiality that are a normal part of that working environment.)
While I have never witnessed a conspiracy like this first-hand, I have witnessed the process of groupthink more than once, particularly in tech startups. And what I have learned is that human beings have awesome powers of self-deception; and that our need for social connection and interaction can easily outweigh our good judgement and ability to seek the truth.
How do unconscious conspiracies avoid the weaknesses of normal conspiracies? Well, they do suffer from some of the same problems: the people carrying out the orders can still make mistakes because of incomplete or imperfect information. And because the conspiracy is hidden even at the innermost level, this lack of information can affect the “inner circle” as well. This means that an unconscious conspiracy is incapable of intricate, detailed plots and schemes; it is only capable of relatively simple goals, such as “suppress black people from voting”.
However, an unconscious conspiracy can scale up without worrying about people “spilling the beans”, because there are no beans to spill — everyone in it believes that they are acting rightfully. As any writer of fiction will tell you, the villain never thinks that they are the bad guy.
Scaling up an unconscious conspiracy means finding people who have like-minded beliefs, who would naturally behave in ways that are compatible with the group, without anyone having to tell them to act that way. “You should hire Phillip, he knows how to get the job done.”
Unconscious conspiracies also need to be subtle. The beliefs and behavior which distinguish the group can’t be too sensational or divergent from the popular consensus, and whatever differences there may be must be easily rationalized away. It’s a lot easier to keep a secret if the secret isn’t particularly newsworthy.
A prime example of this kind of rationalization is Facebook. If you have been following the tech news at all, you know that Facebook has been the subject of one devastating scandal after another; yet we see little evidence of any substantive change in their behavior.
Or course, Facebook is a for-profit company, and profit is a strong motivator, and a distorter of the reasoning process. But that’s not the whole story. During the entire history of Facebook, there has been a single, consistent element to their messaging about their corporate mission and values: the idea that connecting people, bringing them together is a social good.
You see? No matter what Facebook does wrong, the people who run Facebook believe that their core mission is so great and so noble that it makes all their transgressions forgivable.
Those of us who have worked in the field of social networks and online games (as well as social scientists and economists) know that this is utter nonsense. Merely connecting people is not a social good; in fact it can lead to some fairly nightmarish scenarios, lynch mobs and “Lord of the Flies” kind of stuff. Facebook’s leaders are victims of their own self-serving propaganda.
And I would argue that Facebook’s behavior is more than merely corporate groupthink; the fact that they have violated the public’s trust and kept it secret moves it over into the realm of conspiracy. Whether that conspiracy was conscious or unconscious I can’t say. But it would not surprise me if the people in charge genuinely fail to understand the harm that they have caused and are likely to cause in the future.
I’m not claiming that conspiracies don’t exist; of course they do. People are indicted for criminal conspiracy all the time. But mostly these are small-scale conspiracies, both in terms of number of members and the size of the stakes.
Rather, my argument is that conspiracies that are large, far-reaching, long-lasting, and successful are extremely rare. Certainly the vast majority of popular conspiracy theories are fantasies. They don’t logically hold up.
At the same time, I also argue that it is possible for powerful people to commit evil, and this happens frequently. Evil is all around us if we know where to look; real-world evil is banal and boring, which makes it harder to fight. To defeat it, we need to be clear-eyed, grounded in evidence, and not deluded or mislead by fanciful cloak-and-dagger stories.
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