“[C]ensorship now defines America’s public conversation. We spent an awful lot of time complaining about that on the show. We probably don’t spend enough time asking what is this all about? Why are the authorities suddenly so intent on controlling our words? Why are they so afraid of free speech? … [T]he answer is pretty simple. It’s an act of self-preservation.” ~
Revelations of a Recreant Republic
While searching for a thread to begin unraveling the fabric of prevailing propaganda, a patchwork quilt sewn by a consortium of expert yarn spinners, a member of one of my professional sewing circles handed it to me just before Christmas Eve of 2022. When members of that group clicked the shared link, we were met with the always lively singsong-spoken phrase, “Good evening, and welcome to Tucker Carlson Tonight!” Surprisingly enough, somebody in that group shared material from Fox News, but what really shook us up was the who, not the what: “Tucker Carlson questions whether the CIA had a role in JFK’s death.”
Speaking for myself, I doubt I would meet much resistance if I, or anyone in the group, defended the conspiratorial side of the JFK assassination debates. Much turmoil ensued, though, as we (alleged) newsmongers tangled ourselves in debates about the merits and pitfalls of taking Tucker Carlson seriously, a phrase I’ve borrowed from a not-unrelated favorite book of mine, Taking Conspiracy Theories Seriously. Taking advice from the book’s editor and author, Matthew R.X. Dentith, a foremost expert on the philosophy of conspiracy theories, any legitimate approach to investigating conspiracy theories and conspiracy theorists should not rely on overgeneralized labels and narratives arising from hierarchical authority structures concentrated in society’s key legitimating institutions.
In general, I’m interested in the nature of (anti-)conspiracy discourse, i.e., talk and text (and denial) of conspiracy, conspiracy theories, and conspiracy theory theories. You can read Part I and Part II of my series on the conspiracy label as a propaganda tool for reference. You might also read Chapters Two and Five of my doctoral dissertation for my more scholarly analysis. “Conspiracy theory/ist” is a discursive propaganda tool that allows its issuer to be held to a different set of standards than those targeted with such labels. As a dismissive and derogatory label, it enables its issuer to avoid producing straightforward, empirically-based answers to disturbing questions about historically significant events.
The centers of power and authority in society are often the very targets of accusations by so-called “conspiracy theorists,” and so their “conspiracy theories” are or can be dismissed offhandedly, sometimes by the very people who rely on or operate within the very institutions and organizations suspected to be part of a conspiracy and/or its cover-up. For example, one could be labeled a “conspiracy theorist” for proposing that the CIA helped popularize “conspiracy theory/ist” as a tool of propaganda. In essence, anti-conspiracy arguments can be quite circular. (Part II of this series continues this line of reasoning.)
Prior to his piece on the CIA link to the JFK assassination, factcheckers had labeled Tucker Carlson’s claims about FBI involvement in inciting the events at the U.S. Capitol on January 6th, 2021, as “conspiracy theories,” and state-affiliated news outlets had framed stories about how “Tucker Carlson used his prime-time Fox News show — the most-watched hour on cable news — to inject a dark strain of conspiracy-mongering into Republican politics.” So, I was surprised by the lack of factchecks on Tucker Carlson’s piece, concluding that, “Yes, the CIA was involved in the assassination of the president.” An entire Wikipedia page is dedicated to that claim, and dozens of factcheckers use the conspiracy label on Tucker Carlson. Yet, there are relatively few, if any, factchecks on that particular segment. Why? It’s a question I would like to address, but one that is inherently unanswerable. (Part III of this series takes up that question.)
To form a more accurate understanding, interpretation, or opinion of information we perceive as true or false, we must question whether that information has already been corrupted or distorted before entering our sensory organs. Then, we must question our own personal biases and realize that our background assumptions are not all that personal, but rather, they are often products of narratives crafted by society’s legitimating institutions and power structures. Broadly, my concern is with what the wool blindfold for the mind’s eye looks like to various stakeholders and how it is spun through the machinery of modern propaganda mills.
As President John F. Kennedy once said, the millworkers operate “a tightly knit, highly efficient machine that combines military, diplomatic, intelligence, economic, scientific and political operations.” That tightly knit machine continued to sew itself deeply into the fabric of American society long after they killed Kennedy. This machine is what Kennedy’s predecessor, four-star wartime general and U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, called the military-industrial complex. Similar to Kennedy’s multi-institutional analysis and warning to the public of a “monolithic and ruthless conspiracy,” and likely rooted in a similar value set and philosophy of self-governance, Eisenhower stated the following in his farewell address:
“The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every state house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society. In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”
The meandering stitchwork of this essay series is about the meaning of Tucker Carlson in society and those who would have you believe “Tucker Carlson” is synonymous with “conspiracy theorist,” “bigot,” or “liar.” This seems to be more than an ideological conflict. The constellation of vested interests Tucker Carlson outlined in his nightly shows at Fox News, which he continued on Twitter, now 𝕏, brings into view a relatively new sociological sign in the Zodiac pantheon of propaganda, the factcheck industry, or what Michael Shellenberger calls the censorship-industrial complex.
Whatever this arm of the Establishment is called, it has an Ouroboros–hydra, Rod of Asclepius nature. It is manifestly concerned with maintaining the veneer of a trustworthy flow of information, yet it functions to reinforce the cultural hegemony of the narratives guiding the world to je ne sais quoi. Even if you could or would name it publicly, you’d more than likely end up in the same category as all others who espouse counternarratives against the official, authorized accounts of events catalyzing the ever-changing world order: Conspiracist, spreader of mis-, dis, or worse still, malinformation.
Government agencies, networks of university faculty, news outlets, and a global consortium of factcheckers constitute an anti-disinformation industry that carefully polices public discourse. These organizations ostensibly operate to protect the well-being of society, but as I discussed in my presentation for the Whistleblowers Summit (see the video at the end), they add to a growing recreancy in society, i.e., a mass loss of trust in social institutions that threatens to tear apart our social fabric. Much of the public already mistrusts or distrusts key social institutions and the Establishment narratives, and if these trends continue, we can expect more people to join the ranks of so-called “conspiracy theorists” and others who question the legitimacy of the reigning social order.
For example, Gallup reported in July 2022 a new record low of U.S. confidence and trust in major social institutions, including government, the justice system, business, the medical system, organized religion, and news media. In the year prior, Gallup recorded a deep partisan division in trust of mass media. While Pew Research shows a general decline of trust in national news media, it also has recorded a growing partisan divide. A May 2023 Harvard Harris Poll shows majorities do not trust federal law enforcement or national news media to accurately or fairly address issues of historical significance, such as the Durham Report, the Trump-Russia hoax known as Russiagate, or Hunter Biden’s “laptop from hell.” Only about a fifth of U.S. citizens believe the federal government will do what is right most of the time, and nearly two-thirds, “65% say most political candidates run for office ‘to serve their own personal interests’.”
Prediction: As recreancy grows, as more people start disbelieving in official accounts and Establishment narratives, the machine’s defense mechanisms will go into overdrive. Millworkers will issue the “conspiracy theory/ist” label to the extent that growing numbers of people question more and more what they are told about any significant event or goings on in the halls of power. Labelling people as “conspiracy theorists” or dismissing claims as “conspiracy theories” is insufficient grounds for establishing truth or dispelling falsehoods. The strongest empirical claims must be rigorously scrutinized as presented, i.e., not as a strawman but as a steelman, and evaluated with attention to the best available evidence. Otherwise, rhetorical sophistry signifies an ulterior agenda or hidden motive, conscious or unconscious.
Truth shines and glows. Lies, deception, and falsehoods are formed in shadows, swept under rugs, and hidden behind curtains and closed doors. Derogatory labels like “conspiracy theorist” are designed to shut people out of publicly questioning the Establishment narrative. It’s a propaganda tool that incites self-censorship via fear of being censored, like those who speak out against the noble lies of officialdom. “We’re now in this situation where without free speech, democracy just withers and dies. Free speech is the fertilizer; it’s the sunlight; it’s the water for democracy,” said Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. to Breitbart News Sunday host Joel Pollak: “There is no time in history where the people who were censoring speech were the good guys. They’re always the bad guys because, of course, that is the first and last step of totalitarianism: silencing critics.”
Deplatforming in Defense of Democracy
This essay series is neither a defense of nor a contribution to slander against Tucker Carlson. At least, it’s not intended to be. It’s not even really about Tucker Carlson, the man. I began drafting this in December of 2022 with the intention to briefly address how or why one of the most popular television news show hosts ever would, in the words of Tucker Carlson circa 2006, “suggest, imply, or help other people come to the conclusion that [elements of] the U.S. government killed” President John F. Kennedy. In the interim, I either could not or would not set aside the time to finish the piece, and every delay opened time for Tucker Carlson to say something or interview someone I wanted to add to this perpetually deepening investigation. And I’m glad I stalled as long as I did! After all, who could have predicted that Monday morning, on the 24th of April, 2023, it would be officially announced that “FOX News Media, Tucker Carlson part ways?”
For starters, Alex Jones had predicted it, apparently. (I found that reference in the avalanching bevy of post-departure analyses I’ve been tracking.) Apparently, now “we all have to put a few more dollars in the ‘Alex Jones was right jar’,” says Mark Dice, a self-described “independent media analyst and bestselling author.” Mark Dice, whom Wikipedia exhaustively cites as “an American YouTuber, right-wing conservative political commentator, author, activist, and conspiracy theorist” [emphasis mine], used to work with, or for, Alex Jones, but it’s difficult to research the topic due to how search results are cens… er… tailored and how possibly-informative YouTube videos have been cens… erased and deleted. For example, on December 15, 2016, I shared a link and posted about Tucker Carlson doing an interview with Alex Jones and discussing WTC 7, but that video was removed from YouTube — apparently, this has been common enough for a “far-right backlash” to occur, says The New York Times,* but that means it was the right thing to do, apparently.
Concerning central matters in this essay, namely truth, legitimacy, and the power of propaganda mills to use the illusions of the former to construct the Establishment narrative, look to this passage published by The Washington Post in December 2021 titled, “Tucker Carlson and the right’s embrace of Alex Jones-style politics.” The context is that Representative (R) Matt Gaetz was quoted as saying that “a member of Congress should not grace [Alex Jones’s] platform and legitimize it.”
“Legitimizing Jones, though, is something that works for the likes of [Tucker] Carlson. The conservative movement has increasingly been defined in the Trump era by its embrace of conspiracy theories and the discounting of accepted facts for which there is actual evidence. When people believe there is no real settled truth, it favors those who can best exploit that setup, even if their track record is awful. Supporters can pick and choose what they believe is a serious claim — i.e. taking Trump ‘seriously rather than literally’ — and legitimize even spurious claims as ‘just asking questions,’ which has become a fixture of Carlson’s show. It was only a few weeks ago, after all, that Carlson released what many labeled an Alex Jones-esque documentary on the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, exploring the debunked idea that it was a false flag operation. Praising Jones as a serious journalist, though, takes things to a whole new level, especially coming from the highest-rated conservative cable news host.” [emphasis mine]
The point of the above passage is to delegitimize Alex Jones, Tucker Carlson, and Donald Trump as incredible, unserious, and dangerous. Throughout this essay series, I take to task the central logic and rhetoric used in the above passage. For example, the author of that passage uses the “just asking questions” trope of anti-conspiracy discourse. In my past essays for Propaganda In Focus and in my doctoral work (see p. 182), I have already addressed the absurd notion that we’re not allowed to “just ask questions.” For the purposes of this essay series, note from the above passage the explicit warning and the way that warning was constructed, i.e., that we are not to take these men or what they say seriously.
We should take pause and consider the one man who called it ahead of time. If you don’t recall or didn’t know, “[Alex] Jones, a serial conspiracist and fabulist, was kicked off almost all major internet and social media platforms in 2018 after he threatened then-special counsel Robert Mueller … ” says the once-labeled “state-affiliated,” “government-funded” NPR. However, nowhere do their sources say Jones threatened Robert Mueller (check for yourself). One of the links (”kicked off”), sourced to The Washington Post, begins with the following:
“Major technology companies including Apple, Facebook and YouTube this week deleted years of content from conservative conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and his Infowars shows over allegations of hate speech, a sudden clampdown that is fuelling the growing debate over the degree to which technology companies block those who spread objectionable material.” [emphasis mine]
The other link goes to another NPR story discussing Jones’s defamation trial, which includes the following passage:
“Jones is not the first person to grift off conspiracy theories, but Infowars harnessed the power of the internet to do so on a massive scale — a model that’s been imitated by anti-vaccine advocates, COVID-19 deniers, and champions of baseless claims that former President Donald Trump won the 2020 election.” [emphasis mine]
The takeaway is that Alex Jones is a bad man with bad motivations, and his influence has led to bad consequences: Something has to be done about the bad man. Some might agree, but that’s not the point here.
Later in that same article, Alex Jones’s Infowars is connected to Donald Trump:
“Jones has also left a mark on conservative politics. When Barack Obama was president, Infowars and Donald Trump both promoted the racist lie that he was not an American citizen. Infowars was also a big spreader of the Pizzagate conspiracy theory, which falsely accused Hillary Clinton and other Democrats of running a child sex trafficking ring out of a Washington, DC pizzeria. Days after Jones urged his audience to investigate, a man who told the New York Times he had listened to Jones’s radio show, entered the restaurant and fired a rifle. (Jones later apologized to the restaurant owner for promoting the lie.) In late 2015, ahead of Republican primaries, Trump called into Infowars for a mutually fawning interview with Jones. … The early years of Trump’s presidency may have been the peak of Jones’s mainstream influence. By 2018, pressure mounted on tech companies to crack down on hate speech and harmful falsehoods. Jones and Infowars were kicked off Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Apple’s app store.” [emphasis mine]
Connecting the dots between conservative politics, racism, lies, false accusations, conspiracy theories, Republicans, Donald Trump, hate speech, and harmful falsehoods, not to mention the anti-vaccine advocates, COVID-19 deniers, and Trump Wonners — to coin a term, we see clearly the picture of Alex Jones drawn for us. From that framing of Alex Jones, we should assume he was deservedly de-platformed, justifiably canceled, legitimately cens… er… delegitimized. As noted by the once-labeled “government-funded media” outlet, PBS, deplatforming is not technically censorship, legally speaking. Possibly, this is why NPR promotes deplatforming as a means to “stem the flow of disinformation,” but notifies their audience upfront that deplatforming is, apparently, “not a First Amendment issue.”
To substantiate their claims, NPR informed its audience of how the matter was handled concerning Donald Trump, former President of the United States of America:
“After the U.S. Capitol riot, Twitter permanently suspended Trump for inciting violence. He’s also currently off Facebook and YouTube and many other social media services. This is called de-platforming. Experts say de-platforming can be an important first step in cutting off the oxygen to disinformation and violence, which seemed to be confirmed when a company called Zignal Labs announced a 73% drop in misinformation after Trump had been de-platformed. We asked University of Washington professor Kate Starbird about that study.”
For context, Zignal Labs, detects and alerts customers about “narrative threats in real time.” Regarding its analysis, it “took a measure of misinformation that was essentially just looking at keywords related to claims of election fraud.” Apparently, it was difficult to know if the reduction in claims of election fraud was due to deplatforming Donald Trump or the roughly 70,000 other account holders who made claims that Trump won the 2020 election. So, you might question the veracity of Zignal’s claims, and it’s your right (and responsibility) to do so.
One question might be, “How did Zignal, NPR, or any other organization know by January 25, 2021, that claims of election fraud were misinformation or disinformation?” Another question should naturally follow: “What were the conclusive, in-depth investigations conducted to substantiate that claim?” They, nor The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Hill, Huffington Post, Newsweek, and Business Insider, do not say. But, hey, as a social scientist and concerned citizen sleuth, I’m “just asking questions.”
Within a week after the 2020 election, factcheckers debunked select “viral vote claims” contesting its results. In the months after, factcheckers continued debunking 2020 election “conspiracy theories.” Within a month, YouTube started removing videos alleging fraud in the election. But within weeks before the election, YouTube was already removing accounts accused of spreading misinformation, an action for which they were sued by account owners:
“Plaintiffs have created seventeen individual news channels and published those channels on the YouTube platform. Plaintiffs’ channels were categorized on YouTube as ‘News’ or ‘News and Politics.’ Plaintiffs’ commentaries, channels and videos have had an enormous audience reach both in the United States and throughout the world. On October 15, 2020, Plaintiffs’ reach was so widespread that they collectively had more than 4.5 million subscribers to their channels and had attracted more than 771 million views. Taken together, these subscriber counts far exceed the individual viewership of the YouTube accounts maintained by legacy cable, journalism, and news networks such as C-SPAN (806K subscribers), The New York Times (3.21M subscribers), Fox News (6.52M subscribers), MSNBC (3.62M subscribers), NBC News (4.1M), and CBS News (3.06M subscribers). Although it is clear that millions of Americans get their news, information and commentary on issues of national importance from the Plaintiffs’ conservative channels, YouTube excised them and their political viewpoints off the YouTube platform without notice, just days 19 before the 2020 Presidential Election.” (p. 3)
On June 2, 2023, YouTube announced that it would unban videos discussing possible election fraud in the 2020 U.S. presidential election because “[t]he ability to openly debate political ideas, even those that are controversial or based on disproven assumptions, is core to a functioning democratic society — especially in the midst of election season.” Apparently, YouTube was promoting a healthy democracy by deplatforming accounts that were spreading misinformation it now deems necessary for a functioning democracy. A CNN headline soon read, “YouTube will now allow election denialism content, in policy reversal.” Apparently, it’s not censorship when it comes to silencing (allegedly) harmful speech spoken by (actually) hated individuals. In this universe of twisted logic, silencing dissent is a defense of “our democracy,” apparently, until after the dissent does not matter.
In a Democracy, Everybody Gets to Speak
Regarding the banning of Alex Jones, caution was warned: “Censoring Alex Jones will only make him stronger,” read a headline in USA Today. Removing him from popular social media pushed Jones to form his own alternative media sources, like Banned.video, just as James O’Keefe formed OMG, O’Keefe Media Group, in the wake of his ousting from Project Veritas. So, too, Tucker Carlson found his new home on Twitter just six weeks after his eviction from Fox News. One popular user of the platform formerly known as Twitter, ALX, reposted a segment of Ep. 21 of Tucker Carlson’s show, “Tucker on 𝕏,” in which “@TuckerCarlson reveals that within an hour of his firing from Fox News, Elon Musk reached out to his producer @JustinBWells and suggested they should start a show on 𝕏.”
Another, more popular influencer on 𝕏, Wall Street Silver, observed that “Tucker Carlson is setting the standard that all video creators should consider. Bring your content to X and avoid the other social media networks censorship [sic], while getting paid at the same time.” So far, Tucker Carlson has amassed hundreds of millions of impressions on Twitter, having interviewed former, current, hopeful, and would-be world leaders, among many other highly influential individuals. Boasting his success, Tucker Carlson said in a promo for his then-upcoming interview with former President Donald Trump that “when Trump approached us about having a conversation for a far larger audience than he would receive on cable news, we happily accepted.”
After his first show on Twitter, there was little doubt that Tucker Carlson could draw as big or bigger audiences as he had in his former seat at Fox News. As reported by The Epoch Times,
“Former Fox News host @TuckerCarlson’s first #Twitter show on Tuesday night went viral, generating more than 85 million ‘views’ in less than 24 hours. Carlson also suggested he would leave the platform if @Twitter opts to censor him.”
Though discernment is needed when figuring the total view count on Twitter, Ep. 1 of Tucker Carlson’s new show raised to 98 million “views” 48 hours after it was posted (with 200.7K Retweets, 22.1K Quotes, 755.7K Likes, and 43K Bookmarks). Some speculate that the popularity of Tucker Carlson’s first monologue after exiting Fox News is a signpost for the coming urban decay in the dying landscape of legacy news media. For example, here are the current (Sept. 3, 2023) stats on Tucker Carlson’s interview with former President Donald Trump, as copied from his post: 264.1M Views, 210.9K Reposts, 20.7K Quotes, 853.5K Likes, 68.5K Bookmarks. And here’s how one media outlet reported on the interview during the week it was posted:
“On Carlson’s interview post on X, the views metric displayed 236 million views, as of the time of publishing, since it went live 21 hours ago. However, the metric on X is not how many views Carlson’s video actually received. Mashable can report that, as of the publication of this article on Thursday evening, Carlson’s Trump interview has received 14.8 million video views on X. On X, it’s not entirely clear to most users what the views metric refers to — many people believe, falsely, that the video of Carlson’s Trump interview received 220 million views more than it actually received.”
So, what is happening to the Press and news media, foundational for a self-governing society? Allegorically, imagine an aging neighborhood with an increasing crime rate in which the community forms a watch group to aid local law enforcement and hold accountable those officers whose ostensible duty is to serve the community by protecting instead of harming it. Imagine further that a member of the watch group discovers corruption within and between members of the watch group, local law enforcement, government, and organized crime syndicates. What should they do? What could they do?
Short of vigilantism, their choice would be to recluse into silence or inform others. But inform who? Who can you trust? If silence is compliance, it’s not an option for people who want to protect their community. They must take a risk. Whistleblowers willingly paint a target on their backs, and Tucker Carlson has been a walking, talking bullseye for the factchecking industry for several years. Now that his vigilante status has grown to that of a superhero in the eyes of his devoted audience, his detractors have more reason than ever to attempt to bring him down. As President John F. Kennedy once said, in a self-governing society, the Press has “the tremendous task of informing and alerting the American people” to potential threats, both foreign and domestic. Should the Press function as propagandists, what then?
Watching the watchers is obligatory for obtaining the transparency and accountability that is necessary for a self-governing society to attain justice in the face of systemic corruption. To hold accountable parties who might abuse their power, authority, wealth, or fame for, well, more power, authority, wealth, or fame (or sex), We the People must be able to investigate, report on, and openly discuss what goes on behind closed doors in the halls of power, even if some of what we discuss is factually incorrect or a misinterpretation of facts. After all, news and peer-reviewed publications get retracted occasionally, so why can’t citizens and others in the public domain discuss and debate matters they believe to be true? This is especially important considering that even strong critics accept that there are actual conspiracies, that some “conspiracy theories” turn out to be true, and that Big Tech cens… bans those “conspiracy theories” from popular social media sites.
Like the Press, factcheckers are supposed to operate as watchdogs, such as when Newsweek investigated whether Tucker Carlson testified under oath that he believed Trump did not win the 2020 election (the jury is still out). Certainly, Tucker Carlson has, for example, stated that “[t]he 2020 presidential election was not fair, and no honest person would claim that it was,” but has Tucker Carlson ever claimed Trump won the 2020 election? Even if he did, should any self-respecting, rational adult take Tucker Carlson seriously?
Before answering those questions, consider that, according to Vanity Fair, in 2020
“lawyers for Fox News successfully asked a judge to throw out a defamation case against primetime host Tucker Carlson brought by former Playboy model Karen McDougal, whom Carlson had accused of extortion on-air, arguing that the cable star ‘cannot be understood to have been stating facts’ by any ‘reasonable viewer’.” [sic]
This was the same line of defense Vanity Fair noted at the beginning of that same piece:
“[t]he conspiracy-addled lawyer Sidney Powell is apparently trying to wash her hands of months of baseless election fraud claims by arguing no one with common sense would have taken her comments at face value. ‘No reasonable person would conclude that the statements were truly statements of fact,’ her attorneys wrote Monday in a court filing attempting to dismiss a $1.3 billion defamation lawsuit brought by Dominion Voting Systems, the election technology company that Powell repeatedly invoked in her attempt to undermine the 2020 election results on behalf of then-President Donald Trump by claiming, without evidence, that there was widespread voter fraud.” [sic]
Generally, I’m suspicious of people and organizations that claim to have “found no evidence” to justify a claim because, first and foremost, “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” But maybe that’s just the critical social scientist in me. At a more basic level, direct attention to central claims, and direct responses to those claims, avoid rhetorical pitfalls, i.e. a steelman vs. strawman argument. If Party A claims they have evidence of wronging by Party B, but Party B dismisses the proffered “evidence” as a mere conspiracy theory, conjecture, or misinterpretation of the facts, outside parties need to adjudicate the matter by testing the claims against reality.
But therein lies the problem: In our current postmodern world, reality itself is hotly contested. Returning to the simple thought experiment, imagine Party B conspires with cohorts to throw a surprise birthday party (p. 6) for Party A. If Party A claims that Party B stole their birthday balloons, but Party B claims there never were any birthday balloons in the first place, somebody is assuredly lying. The fundamental problem is that neither party agrees on the base reality of the situation. And what if Party C, the adjudicator, sides with Party B even though Party A can produce receipts, photographs, testimonials, and other corroborating evidence? This should indicate bias by Party C, but what if a cohort of onlookers share Party C’s biases and claim ownership over the balloons? Intersubjective agreements can pass for objectivity, especially if those agreements are shared by parties who control the narrative about the events, not to mention claim ownership of key evidence.
My thesis is that the primary social problem we currently face is the inability or unwillingness of significant sizes of social groups to agree upon what the root of social problems actually is. (It would be paradoxical to name what I think is the root, but suffice it to say, some institutions own a material basis of society.) Furthermore, I suspect this Gordian knot of a paradox has been carefully and craftily tied and disguised by hands made to appear to work in opposition and disconnected from a singular corpus. “There are no conspiracies,” said a scholar of secrecy and power. There are no men behind the curtain, say the men behind the curtain.
One way to approach the problem is to catch somebody in a lie by examining the consistency of their claims. If a person makes contradictory claims publicly and privately, the lack of consistency means they’ve lied to at least someone. For example, some social media influencers gloated that Tucker Carlson had been caught doing a “complete 180 from his publicly stated opinions, in private correspondence.” This seems to be the impetus behind Rolling Stone reporting that Tucker Carlson
“texted his colleague Laura Ingram to gloat that he’d caught [Sydney] Powell in a lie [about election fraud], and at one point texted his producer to complain that Trump was a ‘demonic force, a destroyer,’ who threatened to destroy the network with his election lies.”
Rolling Stone goes on in that article to make known that, apparently publicly contradicting his private communications, Tucker Carlson
“claimed that there were still many ‘unanswered questions’ about the election, and sarcastically asked how President Biden got ‘15 million more votes than his former boss Obama? Was the 2020 election a miracle?’ While Carlson may tell viewers that the 2020 election was a ‘scam,’ the only people having the wool pulled over their eyes are Fox’s own audience.”
It is precisely that wool, and how it is spun, that I am interested in investigating, and investigations start with simple questions. For example, does Tucker Carlson need to have believed Sydney Powell’s claims about the 2020 election to sincerely promote as truth his November 23, 2020, Fox News segment: “Yes, the election was rigged for Joe Biden. How Democrats, Big Tech and the mainstream media waged an unfair fight in 2020?” [sic]
According to corporate-run and state-affiliated media, you are not to trust Tucker Carlson at all, ever. Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, NPR, PBS, Time, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and many other “mainstream media” outlets have all generated stories that frame Tucker Carlson in disfavorable light, apparently in efforts to defend democracy (while in pursuit of profits). Tucker Carlson played that game, too, airing segments like “Mainstream media disinformation more powerful and destructive than QAnon: The mainstream media’s focus on race is a smokescreen to hide America’s biggest problem.” [sic] So, who do we believe, the lockstep media-industrial complex that tells their audiences in unison that Tucker Carlson is the bad guy, or do we trust the “bad guy?”
So here’s where we’re at: Private companies and governmental agencies, sometimes working in partnerships, monitor and cens… er… curb online speech. For nearly a hundred years, social scientists and professional propagandists have refined techniques to manipulate public opinion to “set the agenda.” Today, powerful companies’ most sophisticated computational systems automatically flag, demote, and delete content considered offensive, which tends to run in one direction along the political-ideological spectrum. This has manifested into the censorship industrial complex.
“The censorship industrial complex is a network of ideologically-aligned governmental, NGO, and academic institutions that discovered over the last few years the power of censorship to protect their own interests against the volatility and risks of the democratic process. They are not ‘defending democracy,’ as they claim. Rather they are defending their own policy and pecuniary interests against democracy.”
News outlets and factcheckers, as the Department of Homeland Security was forced to admit over ten years ago, constantly monitor keywords and keyphrases used online, and reports from such organizations are used to deplatform individuals and manipulate speech. (As a sidenote anecdote, and probably a coincidence, writing this essay series was made more difficult due to my laptop instantly shutting down only when working on this piece. Maybe something, probably nothing, right?)
Concerning how deplatorming manipulates free speech, at least one sitting U.S. government official, Congresswoman (D) Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, has cast doubt on these types of claim while celebrating Tucker Carlson’s departure from Fox News, asserting that “Deplatforming works and it is important.” What is important to her critics is that she respects the U.S. Constitution and its First Amendment, which she swore an oath to defend. Some speculate that long-time Senator (D) Chuck Schumer is the reason Fox News parted ways with Tucker Carlson, who took Schumer to task on his favorable comments about the intelligence community’s efficacy at achieving retribution on elected officials, namely former President Donald Trump. So, a consortium of individuals, organizations, and institutions have taken part and/or sanctioned the cens… er… deplatforming of not just one of the most well-known, influential, and powerful conspiracy theorists in the world but also Alex Jones.
All jokes aside, the implications about who has the power to decide who gets to associate with whom, in what ways, and what we are allowed to say to one another are profound. Tucker Carlson was not deplatformed, at least not in the manner of Donald Trump and Alex Jones, but by their examples, he no doubt could be. So can you and I. Many others have been, and however abhorrent or offensive you or anyone might find them or their views — or anybody’s for that matter, with a few exceptions, we all have a Natural Right to speak our minds and associate with whomever we please. As Bill Maher put it, garnering agreement from Glenn Beck,
“If you’re a liberal, you’re supposed to be for free speech. That’s free speech for the speech you hate. That’s what free speech means. We’re losing the thread of the concepts that are important to this country. Either you care about the real American shit, or you don’t; and if you do, it goes for every side. I don’t like Alex Jones, but Alex Jones gets to speak. Everybody gets to speak.”
I have long understood that freedom of speech and association are preconditions for a free society. But, you have to value liberty for that point to matter at all. Underlying all of this is the heart of the issue, which is really about who gets to decide what the truth is of any given issue, and this digs into an even deeper question: What is Truth, and how do we arrive at it? But again, you would have to value truth for that question to matter in the first place. And, just as we most assuredly know that liars exist and that “there are a lot of people who lie and get away with it,” “We know truth exists because we know liars exist.” ~Michael Parenti, May 12, 2007
In what follows in this series, I first establish my theoretical framework, which illustrates how we can conceptualize the operations of power and propaganda concerning conspiracy discourse in society. In a free society where we hail journalists and laud scientists for their commitment to exposing the truths of power for what they are, we must be wary of the wool pulled over our eyes and cotton stuffed in our ears that stifles our senses. When we see or hear “conspiracy theorist” or any other pejorative label designed to persuade us, we must engage our critical faculties. We might consider further that trusting the legitimating institutions, and the institutions they legitimate, have garnered unwarranted trust, that there is a conflict between the Establishment and the People it governs.
Many people have begun to distrust the government, corporations, universities, mass media, and other arms of the Establishment. As of May 2023, 59% of U.S. voters agreed that the news media is “truly the enemy of the people.” If the Establishment Press can be said to be “the enemy of the people,” something for a good reason 58% of U.S. adults agreed with back in 2021, without resorting to reactive claims that it smacks of totalitarianism, what do we make of an individual who both occupied a position in that power structure and who routinely criticized it? Among the type of “left, liberal media” Tucker Carlson criticized, they have cited him as “the most prominent vessel for white supremacist talking points” and linked to a racist-motivated mass shooting.
I doubt that is the case, but it is worth investigating further. I take that up in Part III. Like members of the group who debated and discussed the merits of taking him seriously, I have my own doubts and concerns about Tucker Carlson, which I stitch throughout my analysis in this series. My main concern is how and why we are moving toward a recreant society and what the role of people like Tucker Carlson and their detractors play. Since my guiding metaphor so far is about fabrics, I’ll state my concern this way: If a man’s living depends on producing spotless white fabrics of trust and truth, what might compel that individual to risk permanently staining the otherwise pristine condition of his products, thus losing his benefactors and customers? Why risk his reputation, income, and influence by spinning disprovable lies night after night?
The simple answer, some might say, is that this man sells anything but pure white linens to people who either don’t know or don’t care about the difference; that Tucker Carlson and his audience are bad people with bad motives and, if left unchecked, will bring about bad consequences for a society otherwise driven toward a much “Greater Good.” When whistleblowers, conspiracy theorists, and investigative journalists expose the public to the lies of powerful, trusted organizations and institutions that have harmed the public’s interests, recreancy ensues (p. 2). Whether this is good or bad depends on your location inside or outside the Establishment power structure.
Another answer is that Tucker Carlson shows his audience how the fabrics of the curtains hiding the actions of the deceitful, corrupt, and powerful are woven by the machinery of society’s propaganda mills, i.e., its key legitimating institutions and organizations. From that perspective, Tucker Carlson shows his audience what those fabrics really are and what they are really used for, not for security and warmth, like a child’s favorite blankie, but as patchwork quilts of propaganda serving as curtains and blindfolds used for division and deception. In doing so, Tucker Carlson is asking his audience to adventure behind the curtain and down the proverbial rabbit hole. I pick up this metaphor in Part II.
(Featured Image: “Tucker Carlson (50752282481)” by Gage Skidmore from Surprise, AZ, United States of America is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.)