Truthers on parade: When the “disinfo shill” gambit backfires
Any conspiracy worth its salt contains a certain amount of paranoia. There’s always the worry that They are watching from the shadows, trying to deflect public awareness away from the conspiracy at hand – whether we’re talking about UFOs, 9/11, chemtrails, lizard people, or the vaccine-autism link. So it’s inevitable that debunkers are sometimes characterized as paid shills, COINTELPRO psyop plants, or disinformation agents (and as a disinformation agent myself this is a topic that’s near and dear to my heart).
But sometimes the shill gambit, as it’s called, backfires – and then we start to see ugly spats like those between the regular 9/11 truthers, who think that the World Trade Center was destroyed by controlled demolition, and the “no-plane” truthers, who think that the planes were holograms or cloaked missiles or computer-generated fakes designed to cover up the fact that the attacks were perpetrated using laser microwave rays from space. Each side accuses the other of being disinformation operatives – many vanilla truthers claim that the no-plane people were planted by the conspirators to discredit the movement by making them look crazy (a similar criticism has been leveled at lizardman-theory proponent David Icke by more mainstream New World Order conspiracists):
This is what the no-plane disinfo artists do. This is why they’re called disinfo artists. To take several news programs, chop them up into pieces and paste them together to make them say something they never did, and then post it as PROOF like the OP did with this thread is blatant deception and disinfo.
They have no proof and that’s why they resort to such unbelievable tactics.
Meanwhile, the no-plane truthers insist that their version is correct, and that the mainstream 9/11 conspiracy movement is actually a government operation to cover up the US government’s use of holographic cloaking microwave laser-missile technology. Judy Wood, one of the most widely known no-plane truthers, hosts an article on “ways to spot a spook” at truther meetings:
7) Method of destruction. Controlled Demolition by thermite/thermate. No other theories are allowed to be discussed. You will hear a great deal about thermate’s glow and how the military uses it in their controlled demolitions. Open and shut case. The jury is out. Further discussion is neither entertained nor welcomed. It matters not that this individual has not even studied other theories. This individual has made up his mind without the necessity of examining other information.
The shill gambit is most often used as a defensive mechanism against debunkers – a way of poisoning the well. If your opponent in a discussion has been hired by the Powers That Be, their arguments against your position are both invalid (since they have a vested interest in a particular outcome) and proof of a conspiracy (why are They hiring disinfo agents to cover up a conspiracy if there’s nothing there?). But it can turn very, very ugly when people within a conspiracy community disagree on major points – circular firing squads start to crop up, and the movement loses cohesion, with paranoia running rampant and everyone accusing everyone else of being in on the conspiracy. And really, isn’t that what a real disinfo operation would try to make happen?
To their credit, many conspiracy theorists realize that not everyone who disagrees with them has been hired by the cabal to do so – and so we get attempts to systematize the shill gambit, like H. Michael Sweeney’s influential list of common tactics and traits of disinfo agents. The problem, of course, is that without a gold standard for judging who is a shill and who isn’t, there’s no way to evaluate how good any of these criteria are – the predictions made by the list can only be evaluated against themselves, which is quite circular.
In fact, a close examination of the list reveals that many of its guidelines could be applied to nearly anyone. For instance, here’s one supposed trait shared by paid disinformation agents:
2) Selectivity. They tend to pick and choose opponents carefully, either applying the hit-and-run approach against mere commentators supportive of opponents, or focusing heavier attacks on key opponents who are known to directly address issues.
This trait is surely seen in regular people as well – one can deal with something on a deep level by constructing arguments in depth, or simply try to refute smaller points without delving into great detail. Almost any pattern of behaviour on an Internet forum would result in someone exhibiting this trait – except for indiscriminately replying to everyone, and that would no doubt be judged as even more suspicious.
6) Artificial Emotions. An odd kind of ‘artificial’ emotionalism and an unusually thick skin — an ability to persevere and persist even in the face of overwhelming criticism and unacceptance. [...] With respect to being thick-skinned, no amount of criticism will deter them from doing their job, and they will generally continue their old disinfo patterns without any adjustments to criticisms of how obvious it is that they play that game — where a more rational individual who truly cares what others think might seek to improve their communications style, substance, and so forth, or simply give up.
So, one common trait of paid shills is a refusal to give up in the face of opposition. While a normal person would give up and go home, a shill will stick around and continue to argue. This makes sense, as I’ve had the shill gambit pulled on me with this justification – “Why do you care so much?” “What are you trying to cover up?” “If you’re trying this hard to prove me wrong I’m obviously on to something!”
Compare this with disinfo tactic #6 from the same list:
6. Hit and Run. In any public forum, make a brief attack of your opponent or the opponent position and then scamper off before an answer can be fielded, or simply ignore any answer. This works extremely well in Internet and letters-to-the-editor environments where a steady stream of new identities can be called upon without having to explain criticism, reasoning — simply make an accusation or other attack, never discussing issues, and never answering any subsequent response, for that would dignify the opponent’s viewpoint.
So a paid disinfo agent will decline to engage at length, and will instead run away. In this sense, contrarians are between a rock and a hard place – if they continue to argue with a community of conspiracists then it’s good evidence that they’re being paid to do so, while if they stop posting it’s a “hit and run,” similarly proving that they’re in the pay of the cabal.
These guidelines are basically Barnum descriptions – they can be fruitfully applied to almost anyone involved in an online discussion. The supposed telltale signs of disinformation, through their vagueness and nonspecificity, have amplified the already considerable paranoia of online conspiracy communities, leading to a witch-hunt mindset in which anyone with a contrary view is immediately suspect and dissent is met with accusations of collaboration.
Conspiracy is often used as a justification for unscientific or pseudoscientific beliefs, and the pseudoscientific mindset of the conspiracy crowd comes out in laundry-lists of supposed disinfo tactics – without external validation they are little more than lists of “stuff that someone on the Internet thinks looks suspicious,” and in the long run may do much more harm than good to the communities they seek to protect.