COMMENT | Conspiracy theories - can you tell truth from lies anymore?

Martin Vengadesan
·8-min read
COMMENT | Conspiracy theories - can you tell truth from lies anymore?
COMMENT | Conspiracy theories - can you tell truth from lies anymore?

COMMENT | One of the greatest "conspiracy theories" of my lifetime is climate change - that the planet was and is heading for environmental destruction if we don’t change our ways.

Now, this really is no conspiracy theory but a stone-cold reality. Yet for most of my life, it has deviously been challenged by wealthy and powerful interests who wish the public to be confused on this most important of matters – and who will also pay lobbyists and opinion shapers to do just that.

But this “conspiracy theory” plays itself out whether we believe it or not – in interlinked tragedies of transboundary haze, vanishing rainforests, glacial retreat, ozone depletion, plastic islands on our oceans and record-breaking temperatures.

A second one is the “benign” nature of capitalism and its “essential” role in societal development.

Due in part to the failure of despotic and cruel Communist regimes around the world, it seems to be unchallenged wisdom that capitalism is the best system we have and must be persisted with.

Somehow, despite the humanitarian achievements of welfare states in Scandinavia, New Zealand, Canada and the like, the message that has been driven home – and often blindly accepted – is that unfettered capitalism is the key and that even the mildest forms of socialism (heavy taxes/free healthcare/free education) are to be avoided.

Meanwhile, human beings are toiling in abominable conditions on near-starvation wages so that other humans living lives of luxury can enjoy larger returns on their stock market investments.

That’s what’s wrong with capitalism. However, unlike climate change, the answer isn’t so simple. What should be clear is that the system we have now needs some reform.

Under capitalism, the way we’ve allowed it to evolve, it is always the needs of big business and political elites that take priority over the well-being of the masses and the planet.

There’s a third pervasive hoax involving life after death, but I won’t go into that today.

What I will say is, while we were growing up, a number of my contemporaries were attracted to/distracted by variations of materialism, religiosity, racism, nationalism and escapism, and I do not recall them being troubled by exposure to the aforementioned “truths” which were self-evident to me.

What is really startling right now is the extent to which the climate of mistrust of the establishment has turned seemingly logical people into staunch and willfully blind defenders of leaders and ideals who quite clearly are not representing their interests.

In the last few weeks, I’ve been exposed to an amazing amount of conspiracy theories, many of which centred around the defeat of US President Donald Trump in his attempt at re-election.

“Now that Biden has won, believe me, Covid-19 in the US will just disappear. The numbers were artificially high just to make Trump look bad,” said AK, a life-long buddy who teaches in Houston.

“Great, Trump has lost. Now Isis and China will make inroads into the USA. Good luck to them,” said CG, a musician/DJ from PJ. The same guy incidentally was peddling the theory that last year’s Christchurch terror attacks were justified because the mosque was a front for a terrorist training centre. With zero evidence to back it up.

“It took the largest turnout in history to stop Trump. Plus the 1.8 million ghosts who voted for Biden. Now the left will run riot,” said RT who is apparently horrified by left/liberal values like equality.

“The news is in between. Fox is right-wing and says Trump is good, CNN is left-wing and says he’s bad. So the truth must be in between,” said CK, obviously unaware than even Fox is not always obedient enough for Trump.

“Your logic is flawed,” I replied to the last feller. “Sometimes truths are absolute. For example, if I say Mahatma Gandhi is dead and you say he is alive, the truth does not lie in between.”

Similarly, if Adolf Hitler blames the Jews for Germany’s defeat in World War I and uses this as a premise upon which to argue that they should be exterminated, and Albert Einstein argues the opposite, this does not mean the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

“Also, Fox is pretty far to the right, and CNN is a centrist pro-business operation. Your perception of what is the centre is skewed largely because you have never taken an interest in ideology. If you say the Guardian is left-leaning, that I can accept,” I said.

But I was already talking to myself. And grouped in a new category derisively referred to as ‘woke’.

The bizarre thing is that I’m a journalist who went to college in Virginia and most recently visited Trump-led USA in 2017, whereas the rest of my newfound expert friends (with the exception of the teacher in Houston) have never even been there.

I do feel this lack of ideological awareness is much the same when applied to Malaysia, by the way. All my life it has been the right-wing that holds the reins and control of the narrative while the centre tugs away half-heartedly.

There is, in fact, no equal and opposite force to the onslaught of race and religion-driven bile that surrounds us. One side is entrenched in institutions of state power, the other is a few mavericks raging against the wind.

But back to the American farce - honestly this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to fake news and conspiracy theories running rampant in WhatsApp groups, Facebook posts and in the hearts and minds of an astonishingly large number of people there.

None of the above examples is remotely close to the rubbish spewed by my QAnon-believing friend Jose Escobar, who is the only other person in the world who graduated from the International School Bangkok and began college at Virginia Tech in 1990.

This guy has a Masters and runs a successful design firm in Costa Rica.

He also believes that Trump is a white knight in a heroic battle against a sinister cabal of Democratic politicians and celebrities who abuse children. Hillary Clinton is evil. Michelle Obama is really a man. Barrack Hussein Obama is a foreign born-Muslim spy. And the moon landings never happened. They couldn’t because the Earth is flat.

Arguing with him is impossible because he just discredits the source of any data you provide. And after a while, you realise that the bar is too low if, at 47, you have to prove to someone else that the world is round.

Or that the media, if indeed it has a sinister agenda, is largely owned by state-friendly companies or vast conglomerates, neither of which are likely to have some demonic liberal world domination plan.

It’s annoying that journalism is one of the professions where the laypersons think they are experts at.

If you are a neurosurgeon or a car mechanic, not everyone assumes they can operate on brains or fix cars, but if you can make an angry Facebook post and share a controversial WhatsApp message, then you are a fully qualified analyst already, it seems?

Much like politics, armchair experts abound and keyboard warriors have a field day dismissing the work and worth of media practitioners. How I wish these Malaysian Trumpers, who have spent many years as part of the do-nothing brigade, have been stirred into action over some genuine social injustice over here.

I feel angry when I think that another journalist was shot dead this week. Two gunmen on a motorcycle shot dead radio journalist Virgilio Maganes outside his home in the Philippines last Tuesday, police said, four years after the broadcaster survived a near-identical assassination attempt.

That’s 579 journalists killed around the world in the last 10 years for doing their job.

I certainly am not one of those heroes and maybe most of us in Malaysia aren't putting our lives regularly, on the line, to tell the truth. I have managed a quarter-century in the profession without ever seriously being in harm's way – three encounters with the Special Branch when I went to see the late Chin Peng in southern Thailand in December 2009, and a couple of interviews at Bukit Aman were about as dangerous as it’s gotten.

I fully empathise with the need to go through reports by state-sponsored media organisations with a discerning eye.

I also understand why we should question historical events such as the November 1963 assassination of John F Kennedy (even as a kid I found it suspicious that Lee Harvey Oswald was shot dead in plain view of TV cameras days after), and the Sept 11, 2001, Twin Tower attacks (I had some suspicions that the fourth plane UA93 which never reached its target might have been shot down in a legitimate defensive manoeuvre).

But I truly have not been prepared for the sheer amount of willful disinformation I have come across this year. I can’t help noticing, by the way, that a lot of the most outrageous fake news items usually come from religious-based community groups (in which faith is prioritised over science) and also neighbourhood groups.

Indeed, to me, a Cold War kid who grew up with the US vs USSR propaganda, it’s clear that cool heads are going to struggle to remain as such in an increasingly polarised world in which one side is more offended by a cartoon than by beheading and the other thinks that bombing abortion clinics is the lord’s work.

MARTIN VENGADESAN is a Malaysiakini team member.