Conspiracy Corner – The Shutdown Effect

Every Thursday, about 8:15am, Matthew talks with Zac on 95bFM’s “Breakfast Show” about conspiracy theories.

Today’s show was a phoner and I have to say I don’t like phoners: not being able to a) see your interlocutor is frustrating (especially when one has speech disfluency) and b) when you are live in studio there are subtle visual clues as to when the segment is going to end you just don’t get over the phone.

The reason why today’s show was a phoner was due to my alarm deciding not to work: technology was at fault and thus I hate it. However, I don’t think there was any conspiracy in it: I wasn’t allowed to have a minor sleep-in because a cartel of evil app developers secretly wanted me to deliver the latest Conspiracy Corner over a crackly phone line.

That was meant to segue into the provision of this link, a Reddit thread about how some notable conspiracy theory sites shutdown the day the US government did. However, try as I might, I was never able to finesse the move from a buggy alarm clock app on my phone to a claim of government malfeasance and control over the internet.

I think I might need my second coffee now.

If you bother to read the link I just provided, you’ll find that on the day Congress decided to play hardball with Obamacare a number of conspiracy theory sites, like Godlike Productions went down. This lead some Reddit commentators on the always interesting “Conspiracy” thread to ask “Are these sites actually run or funded by the Establishment?”, a theory which has been doing the rounds for a while and whose credentials are somewhat extraordinary, since it’s not just the dream of people like Alex Jones and David Icke, but has been promoted by people like Cass Sunstein and Adrian Vermuele (in this article).

The Sunstein and Vermuele paper suggests (some would say “advocates”) that the Government should infiltrate conspiracy theory fora and correct (some would say “subvert”) the debates that go on there. Of course, should the Government follow through on Sunstein and Vermuele’s suggestion (and some say they already have), then the fear some conspiracy theorists have, that there is a large scale, Establishment-lead conspiracy to derail conspiracy talk will be matched to an actual large scale, Establishment-lead conspiracy to derail conspiracy talk: if Sunstein and Vermuele really want to take the sting out of conspiracy theories, then they probably shouldn’t advocate conspiracies against conspiracy theorists.

If Sunstein and Vermuele’s arguments were taken seriously by members of some State apparatus, then that would add grist to the mill of the conspiracy theorist who is worried the government is out to get them. Certainly, it makes renders rational at least some ruminating about the possibility that sources of conspiracy talk online are inauthentic. However, any such conjecture needs to take into account other possibilities, such as the fact that just because some users couldn’t get to some conspiracy theory sites on the day of the shutdown, that doesn’t necessarily show said sites are taxpayer-funded.

For one thing, as the Reddit thread shows, not everyone agrees the sites were inaccessible that day, which suggests a DNS issue with certain users rather than grand conspiracy. For another, the shutdown in the US isn’t an all-or-nothing event: some federal agencies continued to work because they still had money in reserve; they just weren’t going to get any more until Congress voted on the new budget. As such, sites shutting down on the day of the shutdown looks a bit coincidental.

And, of course, there’s a the big “This isn’t how the internet works, anyway!” Sites are not funded on a day-to-day basis: hosting and domain names tend to be funded per annum. They wouldn’t just go down because Congress didn’t pass a budget: they’d go down sometime after Congress didn’t pass a budget because the hosting fees would not have been paid. ((Also, many sites continue to be accessible if hosting fees haven’t been paid: what you tend to find is that the site admins can’t do anything to modify their sites until they stump up the cash.))

So, the Reddit thread does end up being not much of a conspiracy theory, but it’s still interesting, in that the kind of suspicion that thread is a symptomatic of is… Well, the jury is out on its plausibility but it’s somewhat more plausible than maybe conspiracy theory skeptics believe.

[Thanks to an Israel-based correspondent for the link to the Reddit thread, which inspired this segment.]