investigating the nature of fact in the digital age

The Diplomat’s Cocktail Party

In Journalism practice, Previously published on August 19, 2013 at 9:29 am

In Marius Foley’s Globalized Communication and Culture course (Comm 1107) last semester at RMIT we were given an exercise called The Diplomat’s Cocktail Party in which we had to tell two fellow students about an incident – preferably true – that would reveal something about ourselves. The story we chose was to be relevant to our interest in media and communications.

I recalled a stoush I had with the 911 conspiracy movement after writing a damning TV review for The Age of a program called In Plane Site (see here).

For days after the review was published I was bombarded by conspiracy theorists from around the world, including Dave vonKleist, the producer of the program I had bagged.

The emails were abusive and generally unreasoned. I was described, among many things, as corrupt, ignorant, spawn of The Devil, a resident of the Dark Side and on the pay of the CIA and all the others involved in the global media conspiracy to deceive the world about the “truth” behind September 11.

When Dave vonKleist emailed me himself I decided to engage him and his arguments. In a series of long emails we debated the issue. I tried to get him to stand back and understand that conspiracies are not based on rational, evidence-based thinking. He countered with an avalanche of unconnected “facts” that he believed proved the involvement of the US government and existence of a subsequent cover-up.

(Some of this debate – regrettably not all of it – was post on the website of Dave vonKleist’s radio program, “The Power Hour”: http://www.thepowerhour.com/articles/daves_response_2.htm)

The article and my contact details had been posted on conspiracy sites around the world and readers were encouraged to contact me. My debate with vonKleist was also posted on skeptic websites whose aim was to debunk conspiracy theories and the irrational thinking that fuels them.

I was struck by how quickly news spread to the producer of the program (Dave vonKleist responded with his long email within 36 hours) and how quickly conspiracy sites from around the world picked up the issue and launched into their assault. I was also impressed that those on the other side of the debate had rallied, using the same technology, to join battle.

My “debate” with Dave vonKleist and the virulence of the response to my review sparked a continuing interest in how people form beliefs and why they find it so difficult to change those beliefs, even in the face of directly contradictory evidence. I also found the ability of the internet to rapidly spread misinformation and to connect likeminded people, whom I regarded as delusional, as a bit of a worry (if impressive).

I’m still intrigued by these issues.

Additional stuff:

> Part of the jousting with Dave vonKleist:

http://www.thepowerhour.com/articles/daves_response_2.htm

> A follow-up column about conspiracy theories:

http://www.theage.com.au/technology/technology-news/blogs/untangling-the-web/dont-get-caught-in-the-web-of-conspiracy-theory-truthiness-20101105-17gq1.html

> The original article:

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