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“THEY” ARE COMING …And other maddening media manipulations

Updated: Sep 17, 2020

When I was a child, my mother’s Aunt Blanche liked to talk about what “they” were and were not wearing this year. I remember asking her to tell me who “they” were. “They” seemed to know so much about fashion’s mercurial rules. Who could “they” be? Aunt Blanche’s answer was vague. She said “they” were “the beautiful people who wore designer clothes and knew everything about fashion.” Her answer didn’t satisfy me then and many years later I am still asking the same question. Just who are “they” and why are so many people willing to believe what “they” have to say about issues of much greater consequence than passing fashion trends?

Case in point: Several recent conspiracy theory videos (I refuse to call them documentaries) all using the portmanteau “Plandemic” in the title. The first, produced by former model and actor Mikki Willis, attempts to convince viewers that the COVID-19 virus was manipulated in a lab and then released to start a pandemic so that vaccine patent holders and manufacturers can reap astronomical profits. Willis’ film is basically just an interview with Dr. Judy Mikovits, a discredited virologist with a checkered past who makes a number of hair-raising claims including that Dr. Anthony Fauci killed millions in 1984 by holding up her scientific paper on the AIDS virus, that he has conspired with the Wuhan lab to manufacture and release COVID-19 for profit from mandatory vaccinations, that wearing a mask inhibits the immune system and that sheltering in place reduces bacterial flora needed to fight off the virus. Oh yes and she also claims there are healing microbes in the sand and water at the beach. Really?

Dr. Mikovits’ ludicrous claims have been widely debunked. Within days of its early May release, YouTube and Facebook deleted “Plandemic,” but the proverbial cat was already out of the bag. The video continues to be spread across the Internet, according to an LA Times article, by everyone including “vaccine skeptics, right-wing media and conspiracy theorists of every stripe, signal-boosting nefarious narratives about the pandemic among pro-Trump lockdown opponents and anti-Chinese-government outlets like the Epoch Times.”[1]

The second video I’ve come across, also called “Plandemic” was released by a company called Stranger THAN Fiction. They have a fund-raising page on Patreon but I have been unable to uncover anything more about them. This almost 2-hour mishmash of TV clips and I-phone videos informs us that “The signal for the Corona Operation was Kobe’s death” because the Hebrew translation of Covid is Kobe and he is buried in Corona Del Mar. But the real plan is to use a mandated Covid19 vaccine to secretly inject biometric ID chips into everyone on earth so we can be CONTROLLED. Uh, sure. There are multiple handheld phone videos shot outside hospitals showing empty lobbies and parking lots to “prove” the pandemic is a hoax and that the patient shown in many television news clips is actually a life-size doll. Not to mention the dire warnings that 5G technology absorbs oxygen, causes cancer and/or makes you fall down dead on impact. And that’s just a limited selection of a whole lot of crazy.

Yet, people still believe and continue to spread this literally life-threatening nonsense widely.

What I want to discuss here is exactly how this sham information is spread. The producers of these employs a number of classic propaganda techniques that are insidiously effective.

Just a note about “propaganda” before I get into specific examples. The word “propaganda” is derived from Latin and originally referred to the advocating of church doctrines; hence the term “propagation of the faith." “Propaganda” has not always had the pejorative meaning it has today. It was not until the 20th century that it came to mean lying or dissembling for the purpose of advancing a political or social agenda. Movies have been used since the earliest days to spread propaganda. One of the first things Vladimir Lenin did after the Russian Revolution in 1917 was set up a Film Division tasked with educating the masses about the goals and ideals of Soviet Communism. The basic language of cinema, including the manipulation of time, unique to film among all of the arts, was pioneered by Soviet filmmakers including Dziga Vertov (Man with a Movie Camera, 1929) and Sergei Eisenstein (Battleship Potemkin, 1925). Vertov’s filmmaking credos, “Life As It Is” and “Life Caught Unaware,” and his complete rejection of actors and linear narrative make him one of the progenitors of documentary film. But as revolutionary fervor hardened into state-approved Social Realism, Vertov’s increasingly experimental work was shunned by Soviet apparatchiks. What began as “the people’s art” had devolved into propaganda, in the sense of the word when we use it today.

So how do conspiracy videos influence people? Why do people believe these nutball theories? Here are a few of the techniques they employ:

A. Lack of Transparency: Willis and Mikovits are identified but the names and affiliations for most of the people appearing in these videos are withheld. Conspiracy theorists are fond of saying “do your own research” but how do you investigate the credibility of nameless people? This also pertains to research and studies that are cited but never identified and so cannot be challenged or authenticated.

B. Demeaning Expertise: Viewers are told they intuitively know more than highly trained doctors, scientists, engineers, etc. or many years, Americans have been encouraged to resent and distrust anything that smacks of intellectual speech or accomplishments. Conspiracy theorists are reaping that harvest, convincing people that a degree and verified experience don’t make you more of an expert on a given topic than anyone else.

C. Appealing to the Reptile Brain/Ignoring the Intellect: These videos use scare tactics (You’re going to die! Everyone you live is going to die! There’s a secret cabal of people who will control your every move!) to bypass the rational, thinking brain. The fear response invoked by these videos appeal directly to the primitive, reactive portion of the brain that is responsible for instinct and survival. While the Reptile Brain theory is a vast oversimplification in its own right, the fear response invoked by these videos do not elicit calm, rational, critical thinking. The underlying message is always: Panic, now!

D: The Invisible Enemy: This relates to Technique C. It is impossible to prove or disprove the existence of negative. Any rational argument against the existence of an invisible enemy is met with the irrational argument that the Enemy is just that good at keeping it all a big secret.

E: Oversimplification: Reducing complex problems and ideas to simple phrases. When Mikovits claims that the Flu Vaccine increases the likelihood of getting Covid19 or that wearing masks and that sheltering in place weakens the immune system, the scientific arguments countering her statements cannot be understood without a basic understanding of science and how it works.

F: Scapegoating: After all, we can always blame “Them.” Whoever they are.

At a time when millions of people are facing a mysterious virus, stuck in their houses, if their jobs haven’t been eliminated and they can afford to keep them, when almost 200,000 people have died and we have no immediate cure, aren’t there enough demonstrably real things to be afraid of? Maybe secret plots and elaborate hoaxes are easier to deal with.

Whaddya think now, Aunt Blanche?

[1] “Meet the Ojai Dad who made the most notorious piece if coronavirus disinformation yet” by Josh Rottenberg and Stacy Perman, LA Times, May 13, 2020

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