Profiles of flat earthers: report from the front lines of weaponized media literacy

Tom Usher went to a flat earth conference in Birmingham, England; he met an array of people who believe that the Earth is flat, because they believe that powerful people have conspired to control the information they receive in order to secure benefits for the elite, and this belief (which has a wealth of evidence to support it!) has been weaponized by crackpots and cynical manipulators to convince them the world is flat (despite the wealth of evidence against this!). Read the rest

DHS dismisses critics of its plan to assemble a hostility-sorted list of journalists and commentators as "conspiracy theorists"

When Bloomberg spotted a Department of Homeland Security RFP for a database of journalists and sources, classified by how friendly or hostile they were to the DHS, it struck many of us as sinister, especially under an administration whose official, on-the-record position is that the free press is an enemy of the USA. Read the rest

Flat earth-preaching rocketeer finally gets off the ground

You likely read about "Mad" Mike Hughes in the news last year – you know, when you weren't busy stockpiling canned goods and potassium Iodide tablets to help deal with the existential dread that's currently gripping the planet. Hughes is the flat-earth loving, paradoxical science-hating DIY rocket designer who stated that he'd blast himself into the sky in a steam-powered, homemade rocket to prove that the earth isn't round.

That was a mouthful, but there's a lot going on here.

The first time that Hughes attempted to fire himself into the air in a blaze of Darwinism, the Department of Land Management shut him down, as his flight path would have taken him into the airspace over public lands. So, Hughes scrubbed the launch. Yesterday, he took another go.

According to the Associated Press, Hughes's steam-powered death chair was able to carry him to a distance of 1,875 feet into the air before he and his capsule floated back to earth, in relative safety, via parachute. When questioned about how he was feeling after surviving his flight, Hughes seemed happy that it was over and done with, citing that his back hurt, but over all he felt relieved that it was over.

No matter what you believe about Hughes' beliefs about the shape of the earth, of the lunacy it takes to strap yourself to the tip of a homemade rocket, you've got to respect that he pulled it off. Maybe he didn't gain as much altitude as he'd wanted. Read the rest

Good reality check: Conspiracy Theories and Secret Societies For Dummies

The authors of the entertaining 388-page Conspiracy Theories and Secret Societies For Dummies make short work of debunking a bunch of popular tinfoil hat bugaboos, like Roswell, Area 51, underground government installations, chemtrails, faked moon landings, 911 truthers, Illuminati, etc. They also have a good section explaining why some people are attracted to conspiracy theories, and tips for being a good skeptic. The paperback version is just $8.42 and according to the decription, it was was required reading in a 2010 course on conspiracy at Harvard University. My kids are at the age when they are wondering about conspiracy theories, because it is a appealing but flawed filter for understanding a complicated world. I'm hoping they'll read it. I wish I had this book when I was a teenager.

Background image by Adamgasth - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link Read the rest

In California, an underground network of anti-vax doctors will write your kid a medical exemption letter to get them out of their vaccinations

After an outbreak of measles at Disneyland, California lawmakers had enough and passed SB277, banning kids from attending the state's schools unless they were fully vaccinated, and eliminating the waiver that let parents put their kids and others' in danger by signing a form stating that "immunization is contrary to my beliefs." Read the rest

YouTube "actively promoting" Vegas conspiracy theory videos

"It's an algorithm" was never a good excuse, but YouTube's had plenty of time to fix this one, and they don't even pretend to care anymore, even after media began to set quotes from anguished victims against those of smugly indifferent anonymous spokespeople.

The Guardian:

YouTube is promoting conspiracy theory videos claiming that the Las Vegas mass shooting was a hoax, outraging survivors and victims’ families, in the latest case of tech companies spreading offensive propaganda. ... YouTube told the Guardian that this footage and other specific conspiracy videos that appeared after a generic search did not violate its standards.

It is a sewer, the search results a fatberg of fake news and fury.

We can only suppose why Google (and Facebook, for that matter) refuse to deal with the problem, but it looks like they want their tracking and interaction-optimizing bullshit to do its work with the absolute minimum of dataset-polluting editorial moderation. They will only interrupt it when force--legal, regulatory, media, and public protest--is applied. And, frankly, the first three aren't working. Which leaves it to... you?

UPDATE: YouTube "tweaked" the search results to remove the high-ranking conspiracy videos, reports the WSJ. Read the rest

John Oliver reveals Alex Jones's woo-empire of overpriced, terror-fuelled quack remedies

Alex Jones is the self-described "performance artist" whose four-hour-per-day show mixes odious conspiracy theories (like the idea that Sandy Hook was a hoax and the grieving parents are paid actors) and aggressive pitches for foul-tasting, evidence-free "remedies" that are often just the same shit Gwenyth Paltrow sells through her Goop empire, repackaged for easily confused right-wingers. Read the rest

Crowdfunding a pro-vaccination bus to follow the anti-vaxxer bus

Jack writes, "Craig Egan has been a thorn in the side of the anti-vaccination movement for years. Now he's taking that passion for truth and facts on the road, following the Anti-Vaccination people in the Vaxxed bus. He's crowdfunding the tour and donating excess proceeds to a pro-Vaccination charity." Read the rest

NBC to go ahead with Alex Jones interview

Megyn Kelly, formerly of Fox News and now at NBC, interviewed Alex Jones, erstwhile conspiracy theorist and Sandy Hook truther. It hasn't been broadcast yet, but posted excerpts suggest a smarmy effort to elevate Jones to mainstream attention, an amoral stunt posed as casting sunlight on darkness. NBC's deployment of Jones' nasty brand of bullshit, where the parents of slaughtered children are liars working to destroy Americans' right to own guns, is not going down well, but Kelly has little patience for critics.

The spectacle has many on the internet wondering where the bottom is. Spoiler: there is no bottom.

Read the rest

Trump tells America's attorneys general that Jews might be desecrating their own cemeteries to make him look bad

After a wave of anti-semitic attacks swept America, Donald Trump convened a meeting of state Attorneys General, and repeated a conspiracy theory posted hours before to a neo-Nazi website that suggested that Jews had perpetrated the attacks as a false-flag operation to make the Trump administration look bad. Read the rest

Obviously fake "paid protester" site sets right wing media aflutter

Demand Protest, a service that bills itself as providing "deliver[ing the appearance of rage] at scale while keeping your reputation intact" purportedly pays protesters $2500/month plus $50/hour for left-wing protesters to take to the streets, and claims to have run 48 campaigns, despite having only registered its domain last month (it also displays a copyright notice that spans 2015-2017). Read the rest

Antarctica's massive gravity anomaly explained by UFO enthusiasts

This extremely informative video describes in detail how scientists discovered a huge gravity anomaly under the Antarctic ice. Even better, they slowly draw viewers in to their theory that the likely impact basin is part of a larger UFO conspiracy. Read the rest

Idiocraski: the apocalyptic situation in Poland after a year of trumpism

It's been a year since the Law and Justice Party won the Polish election, on familiar-sounding promises to drain the swamp and restore Poland to its former greatness: now school textbooks are being redesigned to downplay evolution and climate change and to recount a fanciful version of Poland's history; the government is mooting giving hoteliers the right to turn away customers based on sexual orientation or skin-color; a minister rejected an international accord against wife-beating because it subverted traditional gender roles; Parliament is about to get the right to choose which journalists may report from its debates; the guy in charge of national sex-ed curriculum believes that condoms give women cancer; a proposed law will virtually end opposition protests; and disloyal journalists at the "independent" state broadcaster have been purged. Read the rest

Beyond fake news: the "constructed realities" of the polarized world

Gilad Lotan -- our favorite fake-news sleuthing data-scientist -- writes about the problem of not-quite-fake news, which is much more pernicious than mere lies: it's news that uses attention-shaping, one-sided "news" accounts that divide their readers into their own "constructed realities." Read the rest

Anti-vaxx conspiracy leaders back Donald Trump, claim it's mutual

Donald Trump has a long history of promulgating anti-vaccine conspiracy theories (contrary to received wisdom, the anti-vaxx movement draws most of its support from the political right, not hippie liberals), and the tireless leaders of the anti-vaccine movement now claim to have met with Trump and received his promise to ban the most efficient and effective vaccination techniques (nevermind that the president doesn't have the authority to do this). Read the rest

Mysterious "Men In Black" spotted in Iowa

In recent weeks, several people have reported strange "men in black" standing on the side of roads in Muscatine County, Iowa. Some have witnessed the unusual trenchcoat-clad figures stepping into the roadway just as vehicles pass. In UFOlogy and conspiracy circles, Men In Black are thought to be threatening government agents or perhaps extraterrestrials.

“My son has experienced this and it’s no joke,” said Beatrice Wilson Strong. “It was really a frightening experience to him.”

The Muscatine County Sheriff's Office requests anyone who encounters these creepy characters to call 911.

“We do take this seriously," says the Sheriff's Office on their Facebook page.

(KWQC via The Anomalist) Read the rest

Trump's conspiracy theory catchphrase: "There's something going on"

Little-mentioned but often-said is Trump's other catchphrase: "there's something going on." It's used to insinuate a conspiracy, to trigger feelings of paranoia and fear in his audience without committing to specifics. He screwed up over the weekend and attached it to a too-concrete suggestion that President Obama was somehow involved in the Orlando nightclub massacre.

In the fallout, he ended up withdrawing the Washington Post's credentials to cover his rallies and press events after the newspaper reported plainly on his remarks. So who better than them to explain that now-obvious phrase's meaning?

That phrase, according to political scientists who study conspiracy theories, is characteristic of politicians who seek to exploit the psychology of suspicion and cynicism to win votes.

The idea that people in positions of power or influence are conspiring to conceal sinister truths from the public can be inherently appealing, because it helps make sense of tragedy and satisfies the human need for certainty and order. Yet politicians hoping to take advantage of these tendencies must rely on vague and suggestive statements, since any specific accusation could be easily disproved.

"He's leaving it to the audience to piece together what he's saying," said Joseph Uscinski, a political scientist at the University of Miami, in a recent interview.

Read the rest

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