The shift of communications from Mass Media to Networked Media has now made it possible for one voice to reach millions. Many of these voices create useful and entertaining content that is thoroughly researched, fair and designed to add value, one of the many benefits of networked media. However, not all Internet users promote positive ideas or messages. Some marginal viewpoints can aggregate and grow from seemingly innocuous opinions and easy to ignore conspiracy theories into full-blown political smear campaigns, hate propaganda and dangerous misinformation.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, hate groups and antigovernment organizations have continued to grow. The number of groups whose ideology is organized against specific racial, religious, sexual or other characteristics has risen steadily since 2000, when 602 were identified. Now the center tracks 1, 018 different groups. So-called patriot and militia movements have also increased from 824 to 1,274 in 2011 (Severson, 2012). Southern Poverty Law Center Hate Map
Rachel Maddow clip on militia fringe groups
Although fringe groups have been around for a long time, the Internet has the unique ability to launch conspiracy theories or fringe messages into the mainstream, much easier today than even five years ago (Zernike, 2011). For example, most segments of the media did not report on the so-called “birther” movement when it emerged in the early months of Obama's presidency. By then, legal proof of Mr. Obama’s birth had already been released and groups like FactCheck.org had verified its authenticity (Zernike, 2011).
But rumblings on Internet forums led to talk radio. Some hosts shrugged it off, but other conservative personalities like Rush Limbaugh and Lou Dobbs, questioned why the long-form birth certificate had not been released (Zernike, 2011). The "birther" story had now become a major topic for the news media (Zernike, 2011).
The properties of the Internet --little or no oversight and a global audience along with a wealth of online information that can be used to create, manipulate or support an idea, cause or argument --are beneficial to fringe groups. When used effectively, these Internet "benefits" give fringe groups the ability to attract mainstream attention, audience and media. The shift from mass communication to networked communication has changed culture by providing fringe groups unprecedented access to the public and necessary tools to build content and woo mainstream audiences.
In this paper, I will explore four different types of fringe groups and analyze the strategies they use to recruit a mainstream audience. I will also discuss how human behavior participates in facilitating belief in the fringe's often-untrue messages.
Case Study #1 - The Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization
This is an example of how the beliefs and actions of a fringe group can be relatively harmless. The Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization, (BFRO) is "the only scientific research organization exploring the bigfoot/sasquatch mystery." The BFRO website includes: a sightings database, 2012 expeditions to find bigfoot across North America and Canada, tips on how to collect evidence, photographs, audio, video and a forum. This website and other bigfoot websites, along with YouTube and Facebook are examples of how networked communications can bring bigfoot enthusiasts together from all over the world to share information, organize expeditions and build a community. The ability to bring people together with unusual beliefs is now easier than ever with networked communication.
Quote from member of a recent bigfoot expedition, "This was the first time in four years of investigating this subject that I actually got to hear one." Mark Harrison - Roanoke, VA
Hear a bigfoot howl, http://www.bfro.net/avevid/mjm/Howl.mp3
White bigfoot sighting caught on video and analyzed, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T7_m0U4cNOA
Case Study #2 - Loose Change 9/11: An American Coup
This website is an example of how a fringe group can selectively use existing documentary evidence to create a message and recruit an audience. The creator, Dylan Avery, cherry picks the Internet to find information to prove his theory that New York's Twin Towers were destroyed by the United States government (Manjoo, 2008). Avery changes his theories and corroborating evidence and as a result has several versions of the Loose Change 9/11: An American Coup film. Avery's first film used Philip Jayhan's claims that the second plane was not a commercial plane but a military plane that carried a bomb into the Twin Tower. In Avery's second edition of his movie, he changed his theory from a plane carrying a bomb to remote control drones programmed to hit the towers (Manjoo, 2008). Avery convincingly pieces together existing footage to match his theories. This website shows how independent fringe video clips, articles and interviews can be compiled into a significant piece of fringe messaging capable of receiving mainstream media attention.
View the trailer to the latest version of his movie.
Case Study #3 - Committee for Open Debate on the Holocaust (CODOH)
CODOH is an example of how the beliefs and actions of a fringe group can have a potentially harmful effect on a group of people and on the history of one of the great atrocities of contemporary society. Their group represents a union of radical right-wing hate groups “ranging from Ku Klux Klan segregationists to skinheads seeking to revive Nazism to radical Muslim activists seeking to destroy Israel.” (Holocaust Encyclopedia. 2010). They dwell mainly in online forums, in which they air their views to a like-minded audience.
The Internet is a relatively free space with limited media and political constraint (Scherker, 2010)." While most media outlets would condemn Holocaust revisionists, the Internet allows them to construct their own image and message, with next-to-no mediation. This enables them to pursue their two goals: recruiting a mainstream following and fostering a sense of group identity amongst current members.
Case Study #4 - Generation Rescue
This is an example of how the beliefs and actions of a fringe group can have a potentially harmful effect on a larger population. This group also illustrates the power of celebrity.
JB Handley, a businessman whose son was diagnosed with autism, founded the Web site Generation Rescue. This autism advocacy site has been highly effective in organizing a community of parents concerned about an autism-vaccine link. The celebrity Jenny McCarthy found the site and the theory gained national media attention and traction. Myths about vaccine dangers have resulted in significant numbers of children who are at risk for serious contagious diseases, and they have also diverted research attention and dollars from the REAL causes of autism and other serious disorders (Interview, 2012).
http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/vaccines/interviews/handley.html - ixzz1sCMkZWNm
http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/vaccines/etc/synopsis.html - ixzz1sotcm500 The networked communication of Generation Rescue shows how a fringe group can grow to effect larger populations and public health. The movement is mainstream and health workers must now deal with parents unwilling to vaccinate despite established scientific consensus about vaccine safety (Interview, 2012).
It's clear that fringe groups are growing and thriving on the Internet but why is the Internet making fringe groups so successful at spreading their messages and attracting new members?
What Does Networked Media Offer Marginal Viewpoints?
A Place to Hide - Some fringe groups crave outside attention while others prefer to remain in the shadows. There are literally thousands of Internet sites maintained by militias, white supremacists, secessionists, conspiracy theorists and neo-Nazis (Scherker, 2010). These groups can literally hide among their peers on the Internet where they can reach out and recruit without attracting the attention of print, radio or television media (Scherker, 2010).
Anonymity - The Internet also offers anonymity. One of the most prolific hosts of foreign racist sites is Gary Lauck of Lincoln, Nebraska, a former Chicago resident who claims to head the American branch of the National Socialist German Workers Party (Working, 2007). Lauck, who spent time in a German prison for racial hatred, hosts about 80 German, Swedish and other foreign Web sites. Clients often approach Lauck through anonymous e-mails, so that even he doesn’t know their identity (Working, 2007).
The anonymity of the Internet can cast a cloak of mystery around the group. The website could be run by a lone person but portrayed as many, or perhaps, feature a cast of scientists that in reality only have a high school education. The Internet has the power to mask the true identity of its users and many fringe groups find this to be of great value.
Access to a Global Audience - The Internet provides unprecedented opportunities for exchanging information and for deliberation among a large number of people of different backgrounds. The ability for minority voices and political outsiders to "find each other" has never been easier.
Easily Manipulated Medium - Groups have the ability to construct their own image and message, complete with a fake name, doctored videos, manipulated photos and even audio files. For example, among the articles in the CODOH Revisionist Library, under the seemingly benign title “Consequences of the Holocaust”, lies “The Portrait of a Zionist.” Listed characteristics include: “Name-Calling and Labeling, Irresponsible Sweeping Generalizations, and Inadequate Proof for Assertions.” (CODOH, 1997). "Laird Wilcox, an academic with a focus on fringe and extremist groups, is cited as the author of the article. A visit to lairdwilcox.com reveals this same article; only here it is titled "Laird Wilcox on Extremist Traits (Wilcox, 1997)." By attempting to portray Jewish people as a fringe group through the manipulation of evidence, the CODOH has merely confirmed that they are the true extremists, or at least they correspond remarkably well with Wilcox's list of characteristics (Scherker, 2010)." This is one example of deniers doctoring of evidence to support an unfounded argument (Scherker, 2010).
Cheap and Efficient Tool - For the first time in history, fringe groups can globally recruit members and spread their message at a low cost.
Limited Media and Political Constraint - Fringe groups can be difficult to monitor on the Internet, due to their large numbers. As a result, most fringe group activities are not monitored.
Also, in the United States through the First Amendment, the right to free speech is protected. So, fringe groups from around the world, have their fringe sites maintained on servers in the U.S. In their own countries, some of their fringe activities including hate speech would be against the law.
Fringe groups employ specific strategies that enable them to spread their message and recruit new members. Many strategies revolve around a fringe group's attention to image and the use of media. Groups that carefully construct a "mainstream" appearance often attain an aura of legitimacy.
Experts that aren't really experts - Credentials on the Internet are becoming ever more difficult to discern. For example, Arthur Butz, a prominent Holocaust denier, constructs his academic persona on his CODOH webpage by referencing his published work and his position as a professor at the prestigious Northwestern University. Yet, his expertise lies not in the field of history, but in chemical engineering (Scherker, 2010).
Likewise, the BFRO website describes its organization as "a virtual community of scientists, journalists, and specialists from diverse backgrounds." The names and specific credentials for these professionals are not listed and are nowhere to be found on their website.
In the movie, Loose Change 9/11: An American Coup, Avery uses clips of eyewitness accounts and clips from "experts" describing details of 9/11. It is difficult for the viewer to judge the validity of these opinions when viewing the fast moving film. There aren't any credentials of anyone involved in the film project listed on the Loose Change website.
Truth Seekers - Many fringe websites including BFRO, CODOH, Loose Change 9/11 and Generation Rescue proclaim that are simply seeking the truth. By claiming, as in the case of BFRO, that they are trying to dispel bigfoot hoaxes and investigate every sighting, the visitor concludes that BFRO has taken it upon itself to dispel the fakery and only present the "real thing" to their members. Fringe groups also often present themselves as victims of an oppressive and close-minded society. For example, CODOH members are presented as martyrs: crusaders for our democratic “right to free speech." "George Orwell is quoted on Campus Project page: 'If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear (Scherker, 2010).' The visitor concludes that CODOH has taken upon themselves the unpleasant burden of dispelling Holocaust mythology (Scherker, 2010)."
Pseudo-Academic Façade - Along with promoting fringe members as academics, libraries are another useful tool to establish credibility. Many groups such as CODOH claim to have inclusive online libraries but in reality only have works that promote their views. The CODOH website states that it has resources on "every aspect of the Holocaust (CODOH, 2012)." In reality, the CODOH website only promotes one view of the Holocaust which happens to be the denial of its occurrence. "The CODOH's attempt to disguise this goal exemplifies the holocaust denier strategy: to present a facade of broadmindedness while advancing their anti-Semitic agenda (CODOH, 2012)." When fringe groups are associated with an academic facade, the visitor often is convinced that the writings are a rational and fair-minded piece of work.
Pseudo-Scientific Façade - "The researchers who compose the BFRO are engaged in projects, including field and laboratory investigations, designed to address various aspects of the bigfoot phenomenon. As a result of the education and experience of its members and the quality of their efforts, the BFRO is widely considered as the most credible and respected investigative network involved in the study of this subject (BFRO, 2012)." Many fringe groups invoke the pseudo-scientific facade stating that they are dedicated to research, use the scientific method and are supported by a team of scientists. Often, these claims are not supported.
Celebrity - A famous celebrity endorsing a fringe theory is the stamp of mainstream approval. Generation Rescue benefitted from Jenny McCarthy's endorsement gaining instant access to media, their cause featured in her books and credibility (Frontline, 2011).
Aren't We Smarter Than That?
Surely, the Internet viewing public is smarter than these fake facades and thinly veiled lies. Why are these fringe groups so successful?
According to Robert Alan Goldberg, a history professor at the University of Utah and the author of “Enemies Within: The Culture of Conspiracy in Modern America,” the fact that many Americans, especially Republicans, doubt the president’s citizenship is not very surprising when you consider the number of Americans who subscribe to other conspiracy theories (Stelter, 2011).
Goldberg states that eighty percent of Americans believe that President Kennedy was killed by a conspiracy, not a lone gunman, as indicated by a government commission. Thirty percent believe that the government covered up aliens’ landing in Roswell, N.M., and a third of American blacks believe that government scientists created AIDS as a weapon of black genocide (Stelter, 2011). September 11 has been the inspiration for many conspiracy theories — much like Loose Change 9/11: An American Coup.
A conspiracy theory is a belief that forces are seeking to bend history to their will, provoking terror attacks or economic calamity to move the world in the direction they wish, said Goldberg (Stelter, 2011).
The birther conspiracy as a typical example, “This is far beyond the issue of whether this is a legitimate president. The real issue for them is this belief that this is a ploy by this hidden group to get power, to move Americans toward socialism or globalism or multiculturalism using Barack Obama as a pawn, said Goldberg (Stelter, 2011).”
Believers are a stubborn lot. When evidence surfaces that disproves a conspiracy, it is "revised" to provide new evidence — "as with the Obama doubters who quickly claimed that the administration had used computer manipulation to create a false birth certificate" (Stelter, 2011). Of course the doubters argue that the government claims the conspiracy doesn't exist because the government is complicit in the conspiracy.
Human beings are a curious bunch. As a group, we don’t loose our grip on our beliefs easily, if at all. “It almost becomes an article of faith, and as with any theological belief, you can’t confront it with facts,” said Kenneth D. Kitts, a professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, (Stelter, 2011). "If you try to argue with a person who is committed to a completely illogical premise, then you're lost
to begin with - you're already sucked into their world of fantasy, stated Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt (Scherker, 2010)."
How We Participate in Our Own Deception
"In a way, it is human nature to want to construct a narrative to resolve anxieties, to be drawn to mystery or the perception of it, Kitts (Stelter, 2011)."
Selective Exposure - This phenomenon explains why truth doesn't always prevail. Selective exposure is when people ignore facts that contradict their current beliefs or passions. Instead, they seek out information that is in agreement with their beliefs and passions.
"The Internet, where you never have to confront an idea you don’t like, allows these theories to grow deeper and wider" (Zernike, 2011).
The phenomenon of selective exposure makes it very difficult to debunk fringe messages and conspiracies. When people engage in selective exposure they are not seeking out information that isn't agreeable to already established beliefs and passions. So, if a story is untrue, the believers are unlikely to come across or investigate information that may prove their belief or passion to be incorrect. The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth is a good example of selective exposure.
Social Reality - When many people around us feel that a certain thing is right or true, that group belief becomes for each of us, an idea that we, too, take as fact (Manjoo, 2008). "Reality is not absolute. It differs with the group to which the individual belongs (Manjoo, 2008)." In today's networked society instead of getting together with those in close proximity to us, we can now access any group we choose via the Internet. We can now choose to be associated with people who are close to us ideologically, emotionally, physically and aesthetically. In other words, we can now find our social groups and our social reality through selective exposure. Selective exposure is important not only because it allows you to choose the information you agree with but also the people that you agree with.
Selective Perception - When two people of opposing ideologies overcome their tendencies toward selective exposure and watch the same thing, they may still end up being pushed apart from one another. This happens because they really aren't experiencing the same thing. Each person will have seen, felt, heard and understood the "thing" differently from others.
The Dreyfus affair is a concise example selective perception in regard to the nature of conspiracy theories. Alfred Dreyfus, a young Jewish artilleryman, was wrongly imprisoned in France in 1894 on accusations of treason.
Military officers argued that his handwriting appeared on incriminating documents, writes Louis Begley in a book on the subject. When one expert doubted the handwritings’ similarity, the government produced another to argue that dissimilarity was proof of his guilt — Dreyfus had altered his writing to throw people off his trail.
More evidence doesn't always help - In the networked world, too many images and information can be made to prove anything. Jayhan's 9/11 theory and Loose Change 9/11: An American Coup are examples of this problem. Selective exposure suggests that we'll most likely look for the information that can be most readily viewed in a certain convenient light (Manjoo, 2008). And selective exposure says that when we do come upon these, we'll think of them as proving what we already suspected (Manjoo, 2008). Openness and more evidence doesn't necessarily translate into shared national truths.
Peripheral Processing - When making a decision such as buying a car, instead of looking at data, the decision is based on a "cue" such as what kind of car your parents drove. Peripheral processing is the process of using "cues" to make a decision rather than using researched information. Generally, people use this method when trying to save time or when confronted with questions beyond their capacity to answer. This is sometimes how people are seduced by use of experts on fringe websites. Many people do not have the time to figure out if an expert is credible. So instead of researching the expert they rely on peripheral cues. Have they heard of the institution, does the title make sense with the information at hand?
Fringe groups or individuals can easily find, create or manipulate information found on the Internet to support their views, beliefs and ideas. Through the combination of networked media and human tendencies these views have the potential to find a global audience, gain credibility within a community and at times, form a movement.
The Internet is a great tool for spreading information - but this paper shows that not all information is accurate, balanced, or helpful. Seeking and using information accessed via the Internet requires some critical thinking skills, the willingness to access to other information sources and the ability to determine the accuracy or fairness of the information found.
Robert F. Kennedy wrote:
"What is objectionable, what is dangerous about extremists is not that they are extreme, but that they are intolerant. The evil is not what they say about their cause, but what they say about their opponents."
Visit the website outlining 33 conspiracy theories that turned out to be true (Ellnoff, 2010). Or did they?
Ellnoff, Jonathan. "33 Conspiracy Theories That Turned Out To Be True, What Every Person Should Know…." Weblog post. Infowars.com. 6 Jan. 2010. Web. 21 Apr. 2012.
Holocaust Encyclopedia. Web. 21 Apr. 2012.
"Interview: J.B. Handley." PBS. PBS. Web. 20 Apr. 2012.
Scherker, Emily. "Manufacturing Hate Online: The Rhetorical Strategies of Modern Anti-Semitism." Web. 20 Apr. 2012.
Stelter, Brian. "In Trying to Debunk a Theory, the News Media Extended Its Life." The New York Times. 27 Apr. 2011. Web. 19 Apr. 2011.
Working, Russell. "Illegal Abroad, Hate Web Sites Thrive Here: 1st Amendment Lets Fringe Groups Use U.S. Sites to Spread Their Message Around the World." Chicago Tribune. 13 Nov. 2007. Web. 19 Apr. 2012.
Zernike, Kate. "The Persistence of Conspiracy Theories." The New York Times. 30 Apr. 2011. Web. 18 Apr. 2012.
How they behave http://www.lairdwilcox.com/news/hoaxerproject.html Lair