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The Islamic State, Ebola, and the Appeal of Conspiracy

08/10/2014 12:06 BST | Updated 07/12/2014 10:59 GMT

This week, the famous feminist and formerly respected thinker Naomi Wolf took to Facebook to voice her concerns about an issue of vital importance. She, like many others, was concerned with the Islamic State, and the video evidence it likes to create in order to document its brutality. Unlike many others, however, her message was not one of shock or commiseration. Instead, and under the guise of innocently 'check[ing] and confim[ing] a story' - an excuse for credulity disguised as scepticism which is common among the conspiracy-minded - she 'strongly impl[ied] that the videos had been staged by the US government and that the victims and their parents were actors,' in the words of Middle East writer Max Fisher.

In reacting to this suggestion, the declarative is warranted. Such accusations of fakery are just as credulous and just as ill-informed as those levelled at events of historical fact, like the moon landings or the terrible events of September 11th, 2001. What these new ravings involve, though, is a degree of nastiness which is not normally associated with crackpot ramblings of this sort. Neil Armstrong didn't meet his death on camera; Buzz Aldrin's family did not have to go through the grieving process in public - and certainly not under the ever watchful eye of self-proclaimed 'experts' eager to declare their sorrows insincere and their emotions illegitimate.

For some, Wolf's intervention appeared to mark a departure from the normal output of a famous face and an important literary figure. Sadly, this is not the case. This rot spreads far further than that; she has voiced similar sentiments before. In an article for The Guardian in 2012, Wolf suggested that there exists in America a 'totally integrated corporate-state repression of dissent'. To such a proposition, the obvious question practically leaps, fully formed, from the tongue: If such a system exists as you say it does - one in which legitimate and popular protests are crushed by an tangle of corporate and governmental interests - why are you allowed to point it all out so publicly and, dare I say, so hyperbolically?

To this question, there is no serious answer. If one attempts to deflect the probe, one would look as absurd as Alex Jones, who was skilfully cornered on the BBC's Sunday Politics by Times columnist David Aaronovitch last year. If Jones's ramblings are correct, it was stated, an interesting question is raised. He is allowed to say these things and remain alive, Aaronovitch said. What other conclusion can be drawn than the one which states that he must therefore be part of the conspiracy?

Ebola, another terrifying story shaping the world's media, has also served as the focal point for a fair few ideas too outlandish and un-evidenced to deserve the term 'theory'. Ebola is a disease, a contagious malady which is sweeping West Africa. It has also been spotted in the United States and Spain. Diseases often cause panic; feelings tend to run high when fearsome contagions can supposedly spread silently and undetected, bringing death and misery in their wake. This swamp of fear, therefore, becomes the ideal and perpetual breeding ground for conspiracy. The febrile climate is ruthlessly and cynically exploited by individuals and websites too disreputable for me to wish to endorse by using their names.

Finding them isn't hard. Reading their litanies of untruth, so concocted as to spread the maximum terror and mistrust and discontent, is not an arduous undertaking.  I would advise against it. (For the record, Wolf also used her Facebook presence to opine on the Ebola crisis and the response of the US government. She theorised that the sending of US troops to fight the disease was part of a plan for a 'militarized Africa'. I can only hope that such remarks are self-discrediting)

This conspiratorial mindset comes in many guises. It can be mild or acute, insane or insidious, good-natured or ill-tempered. It includes the belief that national terror threat levels are the tool of big government, desperate to keep us afraid and subservient - even though such indicators are decided by an independent agency. It fixates upon material and natural resources - 'war for oil' being a favourite slogan - and those in thrall to a similar worldview made elaborate claims about Scotland's oil wealth when seeking to offset the acknowledged costs of independence.

The facts, figures and justifications behind individual conspiracy theories are almost immaterial; it just doesn't matter what convinces you that the Middle Ages never really existed or that Barack Obama is a secret Muslim or, heaven forefend, a foreigner.

What are interesting, however, are the reasons why people are willing to attach themselves uncritically to insane hypotheses and unorthodox interpretations.

The desire for knowledge is a basic human trait, and a strong one at that; and it does not manifest itself purely in a wish to absorb information. When there is a hint of official obfuscation or the telltale tantalising promises of 'the real story,' people will be interested in anything which claims to tell them the truth. This instinct is not an inherently negative one, although it can be supplemented by a slightly more selfish desire to be ahead of the mainstream and, therefore, ahead of the competition. That character flaw can be seen, for example, in any high-handed dismissal of 'the mainstream media' and anyone who is unfortunate enough to believe the lies of this supposed monolith.

Conspiracies and the instincts which drive their survival are understandable, even interesting. But this understanding does not in any way depreciate the tremendously negative effects their propagation, especially by someone as well known and even respected as Naomi Wolf, can have on the way we see important events, and even the world at large.

What this episode should remind us is that scepticism, real scepticism, means exercising true judgement with regard to gathering news and information. Critical thinking is the key, and not the promises of the lone website, or celebrity, or individual, which claims to have all the answers available for anyone who will simply sit back, suspend their judgement and listen.

James Snell is a Contributing Editor of The Libertarian