Managing the Park Slope Food Coop newsletter taught me not to believe in conspiracy theories

Right-wing conspiracy theories dominate the news these days, but conspiracy takes on other flavors as well. It was leftists who once accused me of conspiracy – and made me skeptical of all varieties.

According to Adam Enders, a professor who studies conspiracy theories and politics, “helplessness, anxiety and uncertainty” help fuel what a Politico article about life in “the golden age conspiracy theories” calls our “current misinformation pandemic”. But years ago, my own experience showed me, on a micro level, how easy it is to fall into conspiracy thinking.

At the time I was co-editorial coordinator of the Linewaiter’s Gazette, the bi-weekly newsletter of the Park Slope Food Coop in Brooklyn, New York, whose prices are kept low by a member labor system where everyone works a few hours a month. The Coop is managed according to cooperative and democratic principles, and many of its members are passionate about these principles.

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Main information organ of the Coop, the Gazette was at the center of many fierce conflicts that arose, and my job as coordinator was to advise editors on thorny issues. While our reporters had to write objective reports and news articles, members’ contributions were often passionate and controversial. We have published everything we receive, with the exception of certain exclusions specified by Coop policy, including hearsay, vague or unsubstantiated accusations, and odious comparisons, such as calling someone a Nazi.

The inevitable errors and misunderstandings have become sources of suspicion.

But we weren’t a very efficient publishing operation. Editors, reporters, layout team and proofreaders worked in four rotating shifts, almost entirely unsupervised. Like all Coop construction sites, Gazette the jobs were mostly voluntary, done well or badly depending on who was doing them and the problems people were having in life the week they were doing their jobs. The inevitable errors and misunderstandings have become sources of suspicion.

My co-coordinator and I thought the bulletin should include all voices, but we also had to follow politics and were frequently called upon to help editors decide, for example, whether a member’s attack on someone was printable. We had no trouble rejecting a letter that called someone a modern-day Hitler, a thug, or a racist. But most of the problematic submissions were less clear, and although many Gazette editors were publishing professionals, these were often tough judgements. Yes, we made mistakes, but we tried to be fair.

I was surprised how often we were accused of deliberately conspiring to stifle democracy.

Usually, contributing members got angry because they didn’t like our decisions. But I was surprised how often we were accused of deliberately conspiring to stifle democracy. People have often seen the Gazette like a cabal plotting against their side, regardless of the current dispute, rejecting submissions, making insidious edits, or altering titles or subtitles. Even errors by the layout team, often non-professionals eager to spend their Saturday doing other things, were interpreted as deliberate editorial interference aimed at undermining a writer’s argument.

One letter missed its broadcast because the Co-op office misplaced it and never sent it to the editor. We printed it in the next issue, and I explained to its aggrieved author that the publisher couldn’t have deliberately censored it because they never knew it existed. But for years she harassed me on the street complaining and brought up the incident at meetings to prove that editors colluded with paid Coop staff to keep pro-democracy voices out. hear.

Another common issue was that the software used to present the issues stripped all the formatting from the copy and the team often didn’t bother to put it back. Members whose italics disappeared in this way saw not a lazy person skimping on their work but a calculated attempt to undermine any argument they were making – an argument they saw as crucial to the well-being not only of the Coop but of society as a whole. I tried to explain the inner workings of production to a few people but no one wanted to hear.

Over time, I got used to being “Princess Stephanie” running the newsletter “like Pravda.

This level of passion and righteous indignation made the prospect of rejecting another letter for violating the spirit of “cooperation” extremely tiring, although over time I grew accustomed to being “Princess Stephanie” leading the newsletter “like Pravda”.,” as a frequent correspondent whose letters we have often dismissed. More importantly, I learned how easy it is to be mistaken in perceiving a pattern where none exists – a phenomenon called apophenia, “the condition of seeing or imagining patterns in random occurrences. “

Pattern recognition is evolutionarily useful and hardwired into our brains to help us make sense of the world. But it is also subject to misperception. This is how intelligent people with good principles and right intentions can piece together a completely unrelated series of events to create a completely plausible hypothesis of malicious intent that turns out to be totally false. According to Enders, the conspiracy expert, the conspiratorial mind is not partisan: “The political, psychological and social motivations that fuel beliefs in conspiracy theories are shared by all.” And in fact, even to me, the suspicions of the Co-op members would have seemed plausible – except that I knew that the real causes were rather a lack of judgment, incompetence, miscommunications and negligence.

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Other research on the psychology of conspiracy theories suggests that one of the reasons people turn to conspiracy to explain events is because they feel powerless – those “on the losing (vs. winning) side of the process.” politicians also seem more likely to believe in conspiracy theories.” I suspect the belief that the Gazette deliberately suppressed their speech appealed to Coop members who had high principles but lacked the power to implement them, and felt frustrated that other people weren’t d either agreed with them or didn’t care.

This type of misunderstanding is common in much larger arenas. “Any war historian knows that it is largely a comedy of errors and a museum of incompetence,” writes historian Richard Hofstadter in Harper’s, “but if with every mistake and every act of incompetence one can substitute an act of betrayal, many fascinating points of interpretation are open to the paranoid imagination.” As Enders’ study explains, often “beliefs … are self-reinforcing”; “each … serves as evidence for each of the other beliefs.”

Mistakes and incompetence make it difficult to pull off a plot.

In my experience, however, mistakes and incompetence make it difficult to pull off a plot. Even if I had tried, I could not have organized acts of censorship because I had no real authority over the eight editors, who decided themselves what to put in their issues and could not be united in a united front. I didn’t supervise the layout team, and I couldn’t fire anyone for doing a bad job.

Of course, not all conspiracies are imaginary. It is well documented that the FBI waged an extensive campaign to undermine and destroy civil rights, black power, anti-war and other activists between 1956 and 1971. President Nixon was part of the plot to cover up the Watergate break-in. Oliver North and three other men have been charged with conspiracy to defraud the United States in the Iran-Contra affair. And right now, the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol is uncovering what they call “a criminal conspiracy” to overturn the 2020 election results.

But before jumping into any conspiratorial movement, it’s best to investigate. “One of the most important things we can do” when we come across something that bothers us, says disinformation and media manipulation expert Whitney Phillips in an interview with The Sun, is to “take a moment and be aware of what have been do not see, what we don’t understand, what we have no context for. You see a picture, not all the news that frames the picture.”

One such image was of a mysterious man holding a black umbrella above his head who appears in Kennedy assassination photos and films, standing on the sidewalk in Dallas as JFK’s motorcade passes . The strangeness of the open umbrella in the bright sunshine, and in particular the position of the man right where the shots hit the limo, generated his own conspiracy theories – that the umbrella was equipped as a weapon that fired a poison dart at the President, that the opening of the umbrella was a signal to someone else – which were refuted and then counter-refuted.

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In 2011, filmmaker Errol Morris made a short video intended to “nail” the “little factoid” of Umbrella Man. He recounts how a man called Louie Steven Witt came forward to say he was the umbrella man. In 1978, Witt testified before the House Select Committee on Assassinations that he was standing there to protest the policies of the president’s father, Joseph P. Kennedy, who as ambassador to Britain had supported Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler in Munich in 1938. Photos of Chamberlain returning from Munich show him carrying a black umbrella, which has become an image of appeasement in many political cartoons. Witt, a Republican, had heard that the umbrella was a “sensitive point” with the Kennedy family, so he wanted to do “a little rowdiness”.

Morris leaves Josiah “Tink” Thompson, author of “6 Seconds in Dallas”, who have spent years studying the evidence, conclude: Witt’s explanation “is just pretty far-fetched – it has to be true. And I consider it to be true. What that means is if you have a fact that you think is really sinister… forget it, man Because you can never, over think of all the non-sinister and perfectly valid explanations of this fact. A cautionary tale.”

Just as my Coop experience has taught me, as Phillips says, to be aware of who I am do not seeing. Wherever you are on the political spectrum, it would be wise to make sure you are in touch with reality before jumping to conclusions. You may not like what you find, but at least it’s real.

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