The best tin foil hat on the Internet. Image Source: Etsy.
If only Julian Assange's cat could talk, I mean, really talk. If she could, the poor little thing would probably go the way of Tobermory, and be sacrificed in the name of silence. She is known by fans of WikiLeaks as 'Embassy Cat' and by the mainstream press as 'James,' who seem not to have bothered to understand that she is female. If she could talk, maybe she would tell us about the worst conspiracy theory of 2016, which is the subject of this post.
Assange received the kitten, descended from European wildcats, from his children in May 2016. Image Source: LinkTV. The Washington Post and other outlets frowned when the cat got its own Twitter account and started quoting Shakespeare in relation to current events.
Embassy Cat with Italian Marxist theorist, Franco Berardi.
Image Source: Getty Images.
Image Source: Evening Standard.
Image Source: Twitter.
Image Source: PBS.
Cat-related counter-purrveillance quips circulate on Twitter at hastag #whiskerblower. The cat plays with an NSA pen on a letter from the GCHQ, addressed to Assange at 3 Hans Crescent, London. Image Source: Twitter.
This has been a year of sky-high conspiracy theories. I will admit, this year, I checked Amazon and eBay to see if someone has started a real business selling tin foil hats. On eBay, I could only find one, which was disappointing. Etsy was better, with minimalist and elegant, knitted tin foil hats. In London UK, Shield: Signalproof Headwear makes anti-radiation hipster touques and caps to protect your brain from waves transmitted by electronic devices. The business was fully funded on Kickstarter in 2016 and they started an e-shop.
A faked report on Embassy Cat. Image Source: News Biscuit.
One of the reasons I studied history in university was the desire to see all sides of an issue, aware of, but above political bias, secrecy, or confidentiality. Until WikiLeaks appeared, only top officials, followed by historians, had access to the full range of closed documents and private diaries and letters, which would allow one to see as close to a whole picture as possible of how state and private affairs were run, when read alongside mainstream press and contemporary intellectual and cultural examples. Government documents are not opened generally until 30 years after events have taken place, and sometimes 50+ or 100+ years. That convention is now shifting to a 20-year rule. But governments routinely hold back sensitive documents, until all involved people are dead.
With WikiLeaks, Julian Assange changed that. He began to release historically-important, secret, and diplomatic documents into the public sphere nearly immediately. There is no historical distance from the material, no space to be politically unbiased. No historians' professional methodology stands in place to ensure that the way documents are analyzed is systematic and the argumentation around them is peer-reviewed. The whole body of secret information is thrown freely, without any regard for how to understand information in a logical way, to the masses.
Not only that, but at no other time previously in history was there an apparatus for the global spread of information, and at the same time, a mass public who were literate and politically engaged enough to read the material. With the exception of the Netherlands and the UK, mass literacy was not even a given in developed nations until the period 1900 to 1950. According to a graph from Our World in Data, in 1950, only 36 per cent of the world's population could read; in 2010, 83 per cent of the world's population could read. Technology has spread hand-in-hand with literacy, and with the exposure of formerly exclusive information.
This phenomenon is transforming politics, because the free access to information is becoming a political rallying cry among the online masses, who simultaneously demand anonymity so that states and corporations cannot use exactly the same rationales to spy on them.
Assange, a Gen Xer, is a child of the past and present. Unlike members of other contemporary generations, he exactly spans both worlds. He exposes the hidden world of the past to the accessible world of the future. Again, because of WikiLeaks, there is no removed space, as there once was, for high level officials through their training, or for historians through their professional standards, to access and assess government information. Post-Assange, in some circles, even to suggest that access should be limited is an outrage and heresy. This is Assange's historical significance and contribution to online life, even more than the data he and his organization are leaking.
While I am arguing here that confusing and false information is gaining ground in the online environment that Assange helped create, I do not like the 'fake news' meme, because I think it could be a form of disinformation in itself, a politicized excuse to suppress inconvenient truths. Beyond the fake news accusation, it is a great irony that vast freedom of information generates myth-making, because Assange is an advocate of the whole, 'real truth.' He was certain that one could know true history if one only had all the information; and as a journalist, he believed that that information should be democratized. Those were his premises. In those convictions, Assange betrays the tendency of Generation X to have some remaining faith in the old ways of thinking. The idea that there was a real, irreducible truth behind the smoke and mirrors of a corrupt system stands at odds with real whistle-blowing outcomes.
Initially, the principle worked: secrets were brought to light, and it looked like corrupt perpetrators and conspirators would be brought to justice. However, the other side to the coin is that information which was once exclusive, secluded and treated with great care is now nearly immediately released directly into the wild, where it can be infinitely interpreted and changed.
No one can distinguish fact from fiction. Tell people the truth, and they don't believe it. Tell them lies, and they do. There is no moderating education or training on how to contextualize information historically, or on how to separate truth from falsehood, or on how to distinguish fact from opinion. This means that reality is becoming more and more subjective and unsubstantiated, more of an emotional experience with others who share one's favourite lights and colours, than an engagement with confirmed facts.
Well beyond WikiLeaks, strange information is circulating everywhere on the Internet; it is manipulated and weaponized. It can be collected and altered to build totalitarianism. Or it can be shifted to turn politics and elections upside down. Because sources, documents, leaks and rumours increasingly cannot be confirmed, the Internet is transforming researched history into a subjective journey into fantastical quasi-reality.
An example from FBI files leaked online, purportedly demonstrating the existence of child sex rings related to top officials in the Department of Defense. The leaks are not coming from WikiLeaks, rather from the Pete Santilli Show. Image Source: imgur.
Cyber-missions turn into cyber nightmares! The above page is currently circulating with other material in one so-called 'pedowood' file to 'prove' the 'fake news' scandal, Pizzagate, about which I have already blogged, here. The document refers to high level officials accessing child porn. The page appears to come from an FBI report, dated 24 January 2008, regarding events from 2007.
The entire leak comprises unconfirmed, cropped and/or altered FBI reports, US Department of Treasury documents, police files, and British Foreign Office secret reports. This material concerns child trafficking and pornography rings, juxtaposed with images of artworks supposedly owned by Hillary Clinton's campaign manager, John Podesta, or artwork somehow associated with James Alefantis, the lobbyist and restaurant owner at the heart of the Pizzagate rumour.
The file includes top secret reports on British brain-washing techniques in Iran in the 1950s, and the CIA Bluebird hypnosis project from 1952. More: Operation Cuckoo (1964); Operation Guillotine (1964); Operation Mockingbird; Operation Siren; Project Artichoke; MKUltra; MKDelta; MKNaomi; MKOften.
There are news reports about dead children and creepy photographs in the pedowood file of room 322 at Hotel Zaza, Houston Texas, USA, which for some reason, has been an object of conspiratorial fixation since 2013. The room has chains attached to its bed, a mirror that looks like a one-way glass, nasty art, and bare cement floors. VICE reported on the room; and conspiracy theorists gossip about the Monarch restaurant downstairs. The room has a photograph of Jay Comeaux on the wall, a former Houston investment broker accused of helping to run a USD $7 billion Ponzi scheme. The matter was settled out of court. The hotel dismisses all the rumours, stating that room 322 is just a "concept suite" and "a playful spin on a jail experience." An unrelated VICE report from 8 November 2015 stated that Houston is a hub of human trafficking.
This is the kind of 'evidence' which is mish-mashed with clips from conspiracy theorists' chatter to connect documents which have no confirmed connections, and to bolster crazy rumours. Some rumours in this information are substantiated, like the DynCorp/UN/Kathryn Bolkovac whistle-blowing scandal, which confirmed that child and sex trafficking are serious problems in conflict and post-conflict areas. That 2002 case inspired a UN statement on best inter-agency practices for protection against sexual exploitation and abuse, finally declared on 29 September 2016. Similar problems persist. Reports confirm that the civil war in Syria has given rise to human trafficking, sexual slavery, child slavery, and organ trafficking.
Some of the documents in this so-called 'pedowood' trove are watermarked the Pete Santilli Show, a Youtube shock and rumours leak channel, related to the Guerilla Media Network (sic); Santilli was arrested by the FBI in January 2016. The federal conspiracy case against him was dismissed in September 2016, before it went to trial. Santilli claims he is a member of the "non-conforming press." The conspiracy theorist was indicted for being a conspirator.
Click to enlarge. Excerpt from an uncited paper, explaining 1980s' Soviet tactics of psychological warfare against western powers; the latter were far behind in terms of informational design, propaganda, and mass manipulation. Part of the problem with conspiratorial leaks dumps on the Internet is the lack of citation, the replacement of logical, consistent, vetted argumentation with loosely jumbled documents to serve imagined hypotheses and confirmation biases. Image Source: imgur.
Click to enlarge. Underground chatter in the same file about Le Cercle, a foreign policy security think tank, founded in 1953. In 1997, The Independent called Le Cercle one of the "most influential, secretive, and ... exclusive political clubs in the West." Conspiracy theorists see it as an anti-Russian spy group. Image Source: imgur.
I view conspiracy theories as quasi-histories and meta-fictions. They are powerful propaganda narratives. They are sometimes believable because they contain grains or threads of truth, and as a result, they can cause enormous damage to civil society. What is important here is not to believe or prove the alleged conspiracies, but to stand back from the phenomenon, and to see it for what it is, a symptom of Internet mimetics - and memetics. See my earlier posts on Internet memes and mimesis: Meet the Memes; Post-Apocalypse Rehab; and The Economist Predicts the Year 2017.
The so-called Cult of Kek lauds the Internet's mimetic ability to repeat and re-repeat information, with increasingly dynamically-manipulated details. That manipulation moves through anonymity and virality, and alters collectively-perceived, data-sourced reality in the name of darkness and disinformation. The end result on group psychology is a dark mirroring, a wavering representation reflected back upon the uncertain Self. Image Source: Know Your Meme.
As of 2016, the value and power of memes is taking on fake spiritual significance. This semi-satirical idea is called 'Meme Magic' or 'kekkism' (with 'kek' and 'kekking' having various meanings, ranging from the rude cucking (cuckolding), to 'LOL,' to 'darkness' in the form of Kuk, the Egyptian frog god). Know Your Meme:
Meme magic brings me to the absolutely worst conspiracy theory of 2016. This is the most vile, most frightening conspiracy theory I saw all year while conducting research for this blog. I will not link to the source, because it contains vicious anti-Semitism and anti-African American sentiment. It confirms the stereotype about the alt-right in that regard; yet I believe that that the racist content is secondary to the larger meaning. The conspiracy theory concerns World War III."'Meme Magic' is a slang term used to describe the hypothetical power of sorcery and voodoo supposedly derived from certain internet memes that can transcend the realm of cyberspace and result in real life consequences. Since its coinage on the imageboard 8chan, the fictitious concept has gained popularity on 4chan’s /pol/ (politically incorrect) board and been heavily associated with several in-jokes and shitposting fads on the site, including Ebola-chan, Baneposting and Donald Trump. Some have compared it to the occult concept of the egregore, an autonomous psychic entity which influences the thoughts of a group of people."
On 22 July 2016, VICE journalist Jason Leopold summarized the effort to discover what classified material was on Clinton's private server. Video Source: Youtube. Leopold took the case to court on 26 September 2016 and won, ensuring the release of more suppressed information, but not the most classified information.
This terrible conspiracy theory originated in two narratives. First, it involved a real VICE investigation into Hillary Clinton's private server, particularly 22 e-mails. These messages to three aides from 2011 and 2012 were deemed so sensitive that even their subject matter could not be divulged to the public in any way. All we know is that there were 22 e-mails, written by Mrs. Clinton to her deputy chief of staff, Jacob Sullivan, her chief of staff, Cheryl Mills, and Deputy Secretary of State William Burns.
Video upload date 7 July 2016. Video Source: C-Span. Part 2 is here, with Special Access Programs discussed in part 2 starting at 42:11: "the most sensitive information the government has."
The second part of the theory explains what was in the 22 e-mails. This rumour came from a purported anonymous FBI agent's post on 4chan on 2 July 2016. It maintains that the FBI discovered the contents of the e-mails and was prevented from recommending prosecution of Mrs. Clinton to the Department of Justice, and from investigating the Clinton Foundation. To do so, the anonymous FBI source said, would pit the FBI against the entire American government, and would cause a civil war.
Given that this was at the height of the most ugly American election in modern history, one may wonder about the real message and aims of this 4chan whistle-blower, especially in light of what he or she said next. I will assume the person is male to make it easier to describe. A lot of what the person said was strange and inconsistent. To me, those inconsistencies had enormous historical resonance and they read more like a textbook straight from the academy for secret police in Czarist Russia.
The whistle-blower claimed to be an FBI Russian analyst, who stated absolutely, yes, the Russians did hack Clinton's private e-mail server. Oddly, he admired this. I wondered why a self-proclaimed FBI guy, supposedly working on anti-Russian strategy (?), would be pro-Russian?
While he insisted that the public should demand investigation into the Clinton Foundation, he filled his account with very strange, racist and outlandish remarks. At one point, he hinted that these remarks gave him "plausible deniability"; that is, he could deny having leaked anything, because no FBI analyst would acknowledge weird material, as he did, including confirming the existence of aliens. He also made subtle spelling errors that I doubt an FBI analyst would make.
The most tell-tale element of his exposé, however, was a fully-fledged reproduction of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a hoax created and spread by the Russian secret police in 1903. In this 4chan form, the hoax has been updated and globalized, to include the Clinton Foundation; and it places investor philanthropist George Soros at its centre. The 4chan discussion was also peppered with negative comments about African Americans, presumably to appeal to its politically incorrect (racist), Underground audience. It read like an old story, reworked to hit the right notes in an alt-right American forum, with American fears and problems replacing the Russian ones from the fin-de-siècle.
At the heart of the discussion lay the whistle-blower's condemnation of Hillary Clinton and her 22 confidential e-mails to her aides. What was in them? He maintained: talk of Special Access Programs, sold, or promised to be sold, via the Clinton Foundation to the highest foreign donors or bidders. What are Special Access Programs? They can include, among other things, the programs to operate America's nuclear weapons.
This is the breath-taking size and scope of the conspiratorial accusation leveled in the Underground against Hillary Clinton. It describes treason so shocking that it defies imagination. What it reveals, however, from a whistle-blower who was almost certainly not an FBI analyst, and was more likely a Russian spy-troll, was Russian awareness of the propagandistic power of mimesis on the Internet. Here was the incredible psychological sway of a terrifying idea, sure to gain traction and virality. And it did. This so-called 'leak' also hinted - perhaps with more truth - that Vladimir Putin was genuinely afraid that Hillary Clinton would start World War III between NATO and Russia, and he did everything in his power to prevent that possibility. His people commandeered the Internet Underground, and he got Julian Assange on side in the name of 'real' history.
Is it true? Is it real? The legacy of 2016 is that we just cannot know, even if we had the real documents and the 22 e-mails in front of us. In Meme Magic, the point is that something has jumped from one state of being to another, from myth into reality, from cyberspace into meatspace, from the virtual experience into actual existence. That means that Meme Magic actually changes reality from how it was before. If the hoax was not real before, it is real now, and the Internet made it so.
ADDENDUM (29 December 2016): Later on 27 December 2016, the investigation into the Clinton e-mails was reopened through an appeals court. I have added the C-Span video above and relevant hyperlinks to reflect that.