December 5, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: Online Conspiracies and Real World Ramifications

• On December 4, a man armed with a gun walked into a Washington, D.C. restaurant to ‘self-investigate’ an utterly baseless conspiracy theory related to the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

• Once relegated to the fringes of the cyber universe, false geopolitical micro-conspiracies are now creating their own centers of gravity in real-world policies.

• Global armed conflicts and political debates alike are increasingly difficult to resolve when there are no commonly agreed upon facts or reality to base discussions.

• The wars in Syria and Ukraine face multiple competing realities regarding the endless level of suffering on the ground and the relentless virtual distortions by all sides.

Not long ago, few things were more ephemeral and less consequential than a tweet—a deliberate feature of Twitter’s platform evident in its design. In recent years, however, the platform’s comments of 140 characters or less have taken on an entirely new significance in the national and international discourse. There has been a shift in how social media is popularly interpreted, in which the most outlandish comments—especially those involving conspiracies—are now seen either as confirmation of or a threat to one’s suspicions or beliefs. The impact of this shift has become highly consequential as it relates to defining and addressing domestic and global issues of enormous importance.

On December 4, a man walked into a Washington D.C. pizzeria with a gun reportedly to ‘self-investigate’ a conspiracy that he had seen online. The details of what has become known as the ‘#PizzaGate’ conspiracy theory do not merit mentioning; the issue itself would be laughable were it not being driven from the fringes to the forefront by prominent figures associated with national security. The #PizzaGate conspiracy, which has disrupted businesses, prompted death threats, and now come close to resulting in bloodshed, has been retweeted and specifically promoted by individuals in positions of authority in the incoming U.S. administration, despite the indisputable lack of evidence and completely baseless nature of the claims. In doing so, such officials provide an utterly false conspiracy theory with a fragment of legitimacy; even after the December 4 incident, those who have bought into the conspiracy were posting that it was ‘true until proven otherwise’. Even after a real-world near-miss situation, the perpetuation of the conspiracy on a forum such as Twitter—which has clearly shown itself to be immune to facts—magnifies the impossibility of ‘proving’ baseless allegations to be false.

The demonstrated effectiveness of campaigns of misinformation warfare on social media will ensure such conspiratorial efforts are repeated and replicated for any range of issues. Only recently have tweets been taken seriously or literally as political statements or possible policies—a development unlikely to be rolled back. In global conflicts in SyriaIraqUkraine, and elsewhere, tweets and social media posts have long been used as ‘weapons of mass distortion’. The level of misinformation running through the fighting and posturing in Ukraine is staggering, but pales to the level of online fighting in the Syrian civil war.

Despite sustained attempts to deny the facts on the ground, there is a reality in Syria: one of massive suffering, upheaval, lost opportunity, destruction, and death. Unlike the nonsense of the #PizzaGate conspiracy, which lacks even the flimsiest of foundations, the Syrian civil war provides all-too real horrors with which to fuel conspiracies. Recycled photographs of earlier bombings are used to either decry or deny the latest outrage; hashtags are used to categorize or minimize sieges and their accompanying war crimes. There is no shortage of first-hand accounting, yet no one can agree as to what is happening in places as large as Aleppo. The twitter account of a young girl reportedly in the eastern rebel-held part of Aleppo has become a vicious online fault line, with the rebel supporters promoting and regime supporters denying the accuracy of the @alabedBana account—and the reality and fate of the people behind it. This single account is a microcosm of a regional conflict being fought on countless battlefields.


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