In the first part of this series, I described my interest in embarking on an effort to conceptualize “denialism” using a rigorous and systematic framework. From readings of literature on Holocaust denial, I gleaned a common thread also located in other forms of genocide and atrocity denial. More specifically, the second part in this series applied a framework for conceptualizing genocide denial to the denial of the Bosnian genocide conducted by the Serbs during the early-mid 1990s. In this, the final piece in the series, I will pivot slightly from strictly conceptualizing genocide denial in accordance to an analytical framework to assessing denialism in the context of conspiracy theories.
Suffice it at this point to say that denialism here refers to a metanarrative that denies real world phenomena in opposition to the “official narrative” presented by experts and scientists, for the sake of denial, itself. In this sense, the denial offers the creation of a wholly delusional narrative (e.g., “the Nazis were the good guys who the warmongering Jews viciously attacked” or “the peaceful Serbs fell victim to globalist forces that compelled Bosnian jihadis to force the hand of NATO by shelling themselves”). This kind of metanarrative flattens contradictory evidence and complex socio-economic phenomena in order to create us-versus-them oppositions that cast the “good people” against the “evil elites” and their hallucinatory propaganda efforts.
This populist tendency of denialism, along with Shermer and Grobman’s description of comparisons with “fringe groups,” discussed in my second blog post, opens the door to a general cross-referencing between denial communities and conspiracy theory communities. Of course, in many cases these two are one-and-the-same, as with a website committed to a self-described “PaleoChristian Shaman” also producing content denying chemical weapons in Syria. However, in some particular cases they may not overlap (for instance, a flat-earther may not believe that Mossad engineered 9/11). So we have to correct for nuance in complexity before generalizing conspiracy theorists as all the same, or overlaying all conspiracy theories onto a populist framework. Indeed, some conspiracy theorists might be elitists, in so far as they believe themselves above the “sheeple.”
At the same time, denialism tends to be both populist and conspiracy theory driven, because denialists assert that the rejection of the elite’s “official narrative” is naturally a political duty of “the people” and their representatives in the fourth estate. Thus, I combine my previous effort to hybridize Shermer and Grobman’s denial detection with David Neiwert’s systematic approach to conspiracy theories in his recent book Red Pill, Blue Pill. By using Neiwert’s framework with reference to Shermer and Grobman, we can breakdown conspiracy theory community traits, which appear to dovetail with denier communities.
Toward these ends, I will examine Neiwert’s list using the case study of the denial of Bashar al-Assad’s war crimes in Syria, specifically focusing on the April 7, 2018, chemical weapons attack in the Syrian city of Douma that killed some 40-50 people. The attack was investigated by the Organization for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (OPCW), which determined that chemical weapons were used—specifically chlorine gas. Since the attack came from a cylinder dropped from a helicopter, and Assad’s opposition has no such capabilities, the strongman’s Syrian Arab Army became the obvious culprit. However, immediately after the attack, an extensive effort to deny the Assad regime’s culpability fell into action, producing a remarkable number of conspiracy theories on what might have actually happened.
The “alternative hypothesis” that eventually became hegemonic, which came to its progenitor in a dream about undead goats induced by an anchovy pizza, claimed that the dead had not been killed on site but gassed in a separate chamber and moved to the site of the building (in which the canister had been similarly placed) by rescue workers called the White Helmets. According to this theory, far from investigating the incident, the OPCW worked overtime to cover up the fact that, like the Bosnians before them, the Syrian opposition had attacked themselves to bring on international outrage and air strikes from the US and NATO. Of course, the theory goes, this was not the mere work of the White Helmets but a cabal of interests backing the White Helmets involving a cluster of international elites understood as “the Deep State.” Now let’s see where these positions fall on Neiwert’s list of conspiracy theory traits:
- The conspirators—i.e., the “cabal”—are singularly evil and demonic. Neiwert directly points to the demonization of George Soros, whom many deniers accuse of forcing humanitarian intervention on foreign countries through, for instance, activist training courses run by an anti-Milosević activist group. However, in the case of Douma, deniers make much of Soros’s funding of the Violations Documentation Center, which reported the gas attack with eyewitness testimony from the White Helmets. Of course, Soros’s involvement hardly needs to be explored further, as it is self-evidently discrediting in the minds of conspiracy theorists, despite their tendency to draw from think tanks that might maintain the same funding source.
- The theorists are persecuted by the cabal of conspirators. We see this with denier communities insisting that they are ignored or criticized by the mainstream not because they are off-base but because of extensive censorship. When Wikipedia deprecated leading Douma denial website Grayzone as a source, for instance, the site launched an extensive, two-part tirade against the online encyclopedia as part of a neo-conservative “online cabal.” This trend overlaps with Shermer and Grobman’s elucidation of how deniers end up in self-referential echo-chambers with other deniers (i.e., experts in other fields with clear political bias or mere political operatives weighing in on the findings of experts in their own fields).
- “A nihilistic kind of selective skepticism arises in which any simple or clear explanation is disbelieved, while, conversely, any odd ‘fact’ or alternative interpretation that supports a conspiracy narrative is seized upon with avid gullibility.” This is obviously a central factor in denialism, as discussed in both the previous posts, but it bears repeating that those who believe what is often referred to smugly as “the official narrative” are criticized as “credulous” and “naive.” On the other hand, explanations from authoritarian states and even testimony given under torture are accepted and repeated, sometimes back to their state media, completing the circle. In the Douma case, the testimony of an OPCW “whistleblower” is taken as an explosive finding, despite the OPCW insisting that he did not go to Douma or participate in the investigation, due to lack of training. At the same time, the details of the investigation, itself, and its findings are eagerly dismissed. This also overlaps with Shermer and Grobman’s exposition of the misuse of official statements and the use of few out-of-place details to denounce troves of evidence as fabricated.
- “Nothing is accidental,” and everything fits neatly into a general plan. This is the most flattening aspect of denialism, as it transforms complex relationships and interactions into a simplified version of reality. Most importantly, the lack of accident also implies the notion that everything is connected in one general truth—namely, that “we” are fighting the hallucinations of the “global elites.” Meanwhile, the agency of people engaging in political rebellion is generally denied or shut out of the conversation, because they’re deemed, at best, “dupes” of the globalists, “cabal,” or “Deep State,” etc.
- While some theories may be ultimately abandoned, the main framework remains consistent. As described above, deniers can present a plethora of theories and while some stick and others fail, the favoring of one or another framing is irrelevant to the system in which they engage. The dozens of theories that came as an avalanche after the Douma chemical attack have been carefully documented by Patrick Hilsman on Twitter, for instance. And while theorists eventually abandoned some of those theories, they never quite criticized the practice of simply conjecturing theories without any evidence. That most denialists now agree that the White Helmets, under orders from the global elites, gassed the victims off site, carefully placing their bodies and the canister at the site, does not particularly matter in the grand scheme of things. The structure is the important thing, and incidentally explains the remarkable similarity to Karadžić’s explanation of the Markale attacks described in part two of this series, that the Bosnians supposedly shelled themselves, placing bodies from the morgue at the site in order to bring on international intervention.
- “[Attempts to present contrary evidence is inherently proof that the conspiracy exists[.]” This is a feature of community formation, whereby community members accuse those who argue against the community of being de facto supporters of the outsiders, or elites—for example, “establishment democrats,” “neocons,” and so on. In the context of Douma, when deniers were shown eyewitness accounts from survivors, they were willing to dox the survivors. One denier encouraged a presumed “Russian agent” (actually a sting operation) to spy on the journalist who located the witnesses rather than simply report on evidence that contradicted his own claims. Since he located eyewitnesses that contravened efforts to expose a purported “false flag,” the journalist opened himself up to suspicion that he, himself, was in on the conspiracy.
I agree with Neiwert that these are all key features of conspiracy theory communities, and also find it fascinating how closely they overlay onto generalizable features of denial communities. To be clear, again, that does not mean that all deniers believe all denials, or that all deniers share all the traits of conspiracy theorists. However, it does appear that denial communities are generally engaged in a process so commensurate with conspiracy theories as to render the two not only compatible but harmoniously combined in the main.
Alexander Reid Ross is a Doctoral Fellow at the Centre for the Analysis of the Radical Right and a PhD candidate in Portland State University’s Earth, Environment, Society program. See full profile here.
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