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Rumors, Conspiracy Stories & Disinformation

My colleague and friend Todd Leventhal has written a paper about conspiracy theories and disinformation, which I include at this link.  I recommend you read it.   Todd is one of the foremost experts in this field and unlike many who study it only academically; Todd has been in the trenches. 

I first became aware of Todd in the 1980s when I was assigned to Brazil.  Those were still Cold War years and despite – maybe because of – glasnost the KGB was particularly active in spreading lies and planting stories in media worldwide. I  had to address lots of Soviet disinformation in the my local media.  Todd’s information helped me smack down at least some of the silliness.  

Especially troubling and pervasive was the story cooked up by the by KGB that the U.S. had created the AIDS virus as a bioweapon. The story still resurfaces from time-to-time.   It was fairly easy to debunk, since there were so many inconsistencies in the time-lines and the biology involved, but most of those who pass along conspiracy theories are not very bright or they are malicious, so that facts have less impact on them than you might imagine.  Nevertheless debunking these things early and often limits their spread.  It is like pulling weeds in a garden. It is not much fun and you are never done, but you have to do it.

Read the paper.  Todd discusses why and how rumor spreads.   Of course, false information often proliferates in the same ways that accurate information does and we have to be self-aware enough to understand that much of what we believe at any one time is not accurate.  So just thinking about these things in the way Todd does is a useful therapy for the hubris that we self-designated smart guys (wise guys?) often suffer.  It is also useful to recall that false information often seems to make more sense than truth, since the lies can be modified to make a more coherent narrative.

There is a consistent human tendency to believe that big results must have had big causes. When a great leader is killed by a lone-gunman, we almost instinctively inflate the assassin to the size of his target.  This kind of mental matching is usually unwarranted and it is not harmless, since it elevates little villains to iconic status and helps make political violence more successful.

Anyway, I will pass along to Todd any comments you want to make.   It is worth reading his paper.

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Interesting article. Thanks for the link.

I think Todd could have included other examples, such as the "Moon landings were faked" or the "MMR causes autism" rumors. But as it is, his list will already anger those who believe one or more of his examples to be true.

He discusses why people believe conspiracy theories, but not why and by whom they are started. Obviously this is hard to discover in most cases.

The MMR "conspiracy" is a case where the origins are now clear: Wakefield stood to make money from lawyers who planned to sue the drug companies.

It wouldn't be surprising to find that the 9/11 conspiracy rumors were started by someone with a strong political hostility to the Bush administration; but it seems the originator was Mathias Bröckers, who makes a good living from conspiracy theories generally.

So in both cases, the motive was financial gain.

One should remember that organisations such as the CIA and Mossad _are_ conspiracies: that is, they are a group banded together to achieve certain aims, with secret plans. It is not surprising that outsiders make wild guesses about their secrets.


The conspiracy theory that we can trace very well is the AIDS as bio-weapon. The Soviets supplied the spark and most of the details. But once these things are launched, they start to develop their own personalities.

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