The difference between critical comment and conspiracy theory

In my earlier post, I mentioned this quote in Christianity Magazine

We’re entering a dangerous time in the history of Western democracies – and that danger is not primarily from a mob of redneck conspiracy theorists. Rather it is a handful of Californian billionaires with an unparalleled power in human history, who pose the biggest threat. Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. It’s time for that monopoly to be broken up and citizens and governments to regain their freedom.[1]

My attention was first drawn to it by someone on twitter highlighting the article and accusing David Robertson of sour grapes because the suspension of Parler, a social media platform had removed his opportunity to spread hate speech. In my response I defended David and challenged the assumption that just because he used Parler he was guilty of hate speech. I suspect the tweeter’s views were shaped by their own position on some of the issues that make mainstream evangelicalism controversial. 

However, I also expressed concern that the magazine had included content that I considered “alt-right conspiracy theory.”  In my view, it was a poor article and owed more to speculation than evidence supported fact. I said that the publisher/editor should have applied filters and the article should not have gone out as is.  Understandably, author and publisher were upset. No-one likes to have their work trashed.  It led to me being accused of personally attacking David and accusing him of writing a pack of lies. To set the record straight, I make a careful distinction between assessing views and assuming the persistent motives and position of someone.  I have libertarian friends who sometimes make socialist arguments, one swallow does not make a summer!  Furthermore, as I explained in a previous article, we commentators deal in opinions, sometimes they are wrong. To have a dig and say I’m struggling to find any facts in your comment piece is not to accuse you of lying. To suggest a piece should not be published is not to seek to cancel you.  I hope that David will have many more thought provoking pieces published in the future.

However, David challenged me to back up my assessment and that isn’t easy to do in short tweets. So I wanted to take a little bit of time here to explain my problems with the article.

David’s argument is that there is a big tech monopoly (companies such as Apple, Amazon and Twitter form part of it). He argues that they used laws to avoid being held responsible for the content published on their platforms when it suited them. However now they are rich and powerful, they have changed their tune and want to police and censor their users. Evidence for this is the way that Donald Trump and Parler were censored in the wake of the Capitol Hill violence last week. At the same time David believes that they are being inconsistent by failing to remove material from Ayatollah Khameni calling for Israel to be wiped out.

I would like to say at this stage that I share the frustration at Twitter often seeming inconsistent in their policing of their platform.  There have been particular issues with their slowness to remove antisemitic comment recently and I took part in a protest over this last year.  I can see the logic to their argument, there is of course a material difference between the sabre rattling of Iran and Donald Trump and others inciting intimidation of the election result. The difference is about the likelihood of actions being directly influenced by words and also how they are meant to be taken. If I say that I think it was a jolly good thing that British troops burnt down the White House all those years ago and it would be no bad thing if it happened again and the US returned to the Crown then there might be someone who reads that and feels motivated to buy some paraffin and lighters and head off up  Pennsylvania Avenue. However, it is fairly obvious that I am not in fact inciting violence but am saying something for effect.[2]  I am simply making a point in colourful language about the state of US democracy. The comments from Iran were more sinister and up  a notch. Those guys would genuinely like to see Israel wiped out. However the difference I think is this, anyone who reads that tweet and thinks “I agree, let’s attack Israel” was probably going to do so anyway.  I think there is a real danger that if such things are left unchallenged and accepted then whilst it isn’t going to cause a military attack on Israel, it may make antisemitic words and actions more acceptable. So, I think the account should have been suspended.

However, inconsistency is not the same as bias. I’m aware of times when left wing tweeters have overstepped the mark and been reported. I’ve seen the same with right wingers. Sometimes they get suspended or the tweet deleted, sometimes not.  The issue is that there are millions, maybe billions of tweets each day and for moderators to catch the significance of each and every tweet, its context and nuance and make those judgement calls is hard.

And that, is where we come to the first flaw in David’s argument. His complaint is that the tech platforms should be considered publishers and lose a defence in US Law. The defence is found in Section 230 of  The Communication Decency Act. This says:

“No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider” 

What the law is doing is making an obvious point there.  Interactive services are not publications and those responsible for them not publishers. This is easy to understand by reference to my point in my previous post about the expectations on a publisher. A publisher should take time to ensure that what they publish does not infringe laws, that it doesn’t include libel, that it does not plagiarise and that it doesn’t incite criminal behaviour.  Whilst the publisher may be able to distance themselves from the opinions expressed by disclaimer, they cannot detach themselves from the moral and legal responsibilities with choosing to communicate the information. They have engaged in the process in a way that makes that impossible.

Now, interactive comment is different, especially when live.  Imagine the number of tweets going live every day.  The point is that there is no editorial involvement in the context published and any attempt to remove it is retroactive. That’s important because even if deleted, once put out there it has still been published and communicated. Think of it this way. Supposing you have a blog. It gets moderately popular and attracts a lot of comments. You’ve selected the option to allow comments to post unmoderated as you don’t have time to. Someone sneaks in  a comment just as you head off on holiday, buried in a 2 week post at comment 160 the make a serious of inflammatory, racist and libellous comment. Even if you spot it and delete it when you get back from your hols, the damage has been done. Yet it would be unfair and unreasonable for you to be held morally culpable for it.

So, the law makes sense here not just for the big guys but for all the little guys who run chat forums on reddit and allow comment on their blogs.  In fact the suggestion that in response to last week’s events lots of people should be penalised like that all in order to defend the outgoing president is a little concerning.

Remember though that just because you, I or some billionaire are not publishers and not liable to certain laws in the US, that doesn’t mean we are not responsibility free both morally and legally. So, for example twitter does have responsibility for moderating its platform and I would suggest that this does include taking responsibility to make sure that it doesn’t become a place where bullying, intimidation, fraud, extortion or incitement can happen.

Here’s the next problem.  David writes as though these tech giants have a guaranteed fixed monopoly on technology and communications unparalleled in history. That’s not true for a couple of reasons. First of all, these things are affected by supply and demand. Primarily twitter’s decisions will be driven by what its users want and if it displeases them it will lose users and with it advertising revenue. Secondly, at various points in history people ahead of the technology curve hold an advantage.  Those with printing presses had an advantage over those hand copying, the owners of satellite broadcasting were able to offer 24 hour news and opinion gaining and advantage over traditional print and terrestrial media.  So, I would say that we need to remember that the technology is a commodity that can be replicated, improved on and replaced.

Secondly, the truth is the opposite of what is being claimed. We have seen the democratisation of opinion forming on an unprecedented scale.  A few years back we were limited to perhaps 2 or 3 Evangelical journals/papers. In fact, I suspect Christianity Magazine dominated in some circles. If I wanted to get an opinion out I had to persuade the editor to publish it. If I disagreed with David, I could write a letter to the editor, a small footnote in response to the main article, even supposing they chose to publish it one month later when everyone had forgotten the original piece. Now any old unemployed guy can sit at his computer and knock out a blog article. In fact there is no need to go to that effort, we can simply respond on twitter. 

And now we come to the substance. My assessment was that Premier Christianity were straying into the world of Alt-Right Conspiracy Theory. How so.  Well look again at the quote.  On the one hand the author talks about those involved in the Capitiol Hill Riots as Red-Necked Conspiracy Theorists but then he goes on to effectively repeat a significant part of the Conspiracy Theory.  What is the Conspiracy Theory. Well it’s the oldest in the book.

In the conspiracy theorist’s mind, there is an elite group of powerful, wealthy men who are controlling the world.  Often the focus has been on financiers and this at times strayed into anti-Semitism because the notably wealthy men had names like Rothchild.  Now we are shifting the focus from banking, insurance and stockbroking to “Big Tech” but again it is the same kind of theme. There is this small group who control things and are to be feared.

When I raised this with David, he then suggested that I was claiming that any criticism of Big Finance and Big Tech was alt-right.  However the Financial System example helps us to understand why this is not the case and the difference between fair challenge and conspiracy theory. If I write an article saying that the banking sector is a mess and needs reform, then I am saying something many would agree with and I’m lining myself up with the likes of George W Bush, Barack Obama, Gordon Brown and George Osborne.  Even Theresa May wanted to reform the board rooms. 

On the other hand if I were to say that the world is in the grip of 4 or 5 financiers you would immediately recognise that as a conspiracy theory. If I then became wild eyed and started talking about Soros, Rothchild and cultural Marxism you would warn me about straying into antisemitism. We can distinguish the fair critique from conspiracy  theory and conspiracy theory in general from antisemitism. Bush, Brown and Osborne were critical of the banks but they were not conspiracy theorists and not antisemitic.

This becomes important because we do not need to buy into a conspiracy theory or unleash the whole thing in its pure unedited form to get into difficulties. I think this is one of the reasons why we struggle to see it. It’s why each of us need to be on our guards that we don’t accidentally stumble into the language, phraseologly and concepts that are seen in some quarters as shorthand for something else. To give another example, I’ve seen numerous people fall foul of this when debating on cultural issues, they being talking about “cultural marxism” not realising that this phrase is a form of dog whistle/shorthand antisemitism to many hearers.

This also means that simply listing organisations from the French Government to the Guardian who are not alt-right but have picked up the same language is of no help. Remember, I’m not saying that the people themselves are alt-right, I’m saying one argument is rooted in that approach. Furthermore, governments and media, even liberal media need to be careful that when engaging in fair critique that they don’t start talking the language of conspiracy. But again there is a huge difference between expressing concern about the undue influence monopolies can have on markets and states versus seeing specific people in the background holding shadowy power.

So, what has happened here? I think it is that the author is so concerned to speak up for free speech which is a good motive but has not stopped to think carefully about what he is writing. The magazine editors have also failed to spot this. I hope that having talked it through, this will be helpful for writers, publishers and readers alike to think carefully about how they handle fact and opinion for God’s glory.


[1] Why Donald Trump’s Twitter ban is bad news for Christians (premierchristianity.com)

[2] To be clear I am definitely not advocating such actions.

For further reading, the full conspiracy theory is referred to as QAnon it is the belief that Donald Trump is the hero in a fight against a deadly Satan Worshipping Cabal made up of Democrats, Hollywood Celebs and of course Billionaires. It is this that makes the inclusion of themes about a small group of Billionaires controlling Government etc that made the paragraph quoted at best careless. I would urge Premier Christianity to edit the pertinent section. For more see:

QAnon explained: the antisemitic conspiracy theory gaining traction around the world | US news | The Guardian

QAnon – Wikipedia