The Corbett Report (Episode 33: Meet Edward Bernays, Master of Propaganda): still retaining the power to shock with minimalist presentation

James Corbett, “The Corbett Report (Episode 33: Meet Edward Bernays, Master of Propaganda)” (February 2008)

It might be a bit dated, what with social media platforms like Facebook now dominating people’s time (and perhaps moulding their thoughts, opinions and behaviours), and selling their personal details to corporate advertising sponsors and election campaign staff, but this episode of “The Corbett Report” on Edward Bernays and the poisonous legacy he left still has the power to shock viewers. Bernays is famous as the founder of public relations and modern methods of propaganda, based on discovering what motivates people and what they fear and desire, and using those fears and desires to manipulate people’s thoughts, views and behaviours, all to achieve certain ends. These methods are based on the assumption, derived from psychoanalytic theory (founded by Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, the uncle of Edward Bernays), that human beings are essential irrational creatures ruled by fears, feelings and instincts they are unaware of or which they cannot articulate in words.

Using various sources, of which the most prominent are two documentaries, Alix Spiegel’s “Freud’s Nephew and the Origins of Public Relations”, made for National Public Radio in 2005, and Adam Curtis’s “The Century of the Self”, made for the British Broadcasting Corporation in 2002, James Corbett demonstrates how Bernays was able to change public perceptions and behaviour, usually to the detriment of people’s long-term health and security, for the benefit of his private corporate clients – and ultimately himself, since he would have reaped quite an income along with a reputation for dramatic results which would have brought him more clients. The examples used are superb if gob-smacking: Bernays was able to change the US public’s perception of what a hearty, home-cooked breakfast should involve (bacon and eggs) for his client who wanted to increase its bacon sales; he created a strategy to promote cigarette smoking among women, which involved hiring a group of young women posing as feminists and suffragettes to light up cigarettes during an Easter Day parade in New York City, for his client The American Tobacco Company; and he orchestrated a media campaign using the American Dental Association promoting the fluoridation of public water supplies so that the Aluminum Company of America and other special interest lobbyists could legally dump aluminium fluoride waste into water repositories. Through such campaigns, Bernays and his clients may have contributed considerably to harming the long-term health of generations of Americans and others abroad. Furthermore, this harm may have also had an impact on Western societies and cultures as there are studies suggesting that fluoridation of water can damage children’s neurological development. Corbett mentions that Nazi German concentration camps and Soviet gulags put sodium fluoride into their water supplies to induce passive behaviour in prisoners; whether this is true, I do not know as considerable controversy still surrounds this matter.

The most worrying aspect of Bernays’s career as a spin doctor is the work he did for the US government and the CIA in convincing the US public in the 1950s that the somewhat social-democratic Arbenz government of the small Central American nation Guatemala was Communist and therefore a major threat to American security. The success of Bernays’s campaigns led to US public support for the eventual overthrow of the government and its replacement by an authoritarian military government. The ultimate beneficiary of this destabilisation of an entire country (which entrenched it further in a culture of political instability, poverty and violence) was the American corporation The United Fruit Company which resented the nationalisation of several of its properties by the Arbenz government.

Bernays’s influence spread far outside American public relations and political propaganda: his book “Propaganda”, published in 1927, his ideas and campaigns were studied by the Nazi German and Soviet governments who put their new-found knowledge to use in their own public propaganda campaigns. That Bernays was surprised that enemies of the US were using his book and propaganda methods to promote their ideologies and change their populations suggests a lack of insight and reflection on his part. Certainly such news did not stop him from eagerly offering his services (for money of course) to the US government and its agencies to get rid of governments that encroached on the interests of US private corporations. Eventually Bernays seems to have become cynical about human nature as suggested by his daughter Ann in the episode’s last scene; but the quality of thinking, believing and acting by the American public as it developed during the 20th century generally must be seen as a reflection of the predatory and anti-intellectual capitalist society that helped to shape it, and in this Bernays must bear a great deal of the blame for his role in demonstrating the potential of propaganda campaigns in manipulating human emotions, fears and instincts for short-term profit.

The episode is easy to follow but listeners may have to hear it a few times to absorb the information – the presentation is very dense and far-ranging. It ends with recent examples of US propaganda aimed at deceiving the public into believing outright lies about US government policies and actions. A situation has now developed in which the American public has become increasingly estranged from the US government and the elites who dominate it and determine its policies: this strained relationship extends also to the mainstream news media industry which peddles lies and stereotypes, and manufactures or misrepresents propaganda stunts designed and timed to sway public opinion to favour US government actions that promote the interests of global finance, the arms industry and giant energy and other corporations. Were Sigmund Freud alive today, he would be horrified at how his psychoanalytic theories have been used and abused to bring about a dysfunctional world.

Real-life horror movie treatment of patients in “Brainwashed: The Secret CIA Experiments in Canada” which the Canadian government refuses to acknowledge and apologise for

Harvey Cashore, “Brainwashed: The Secret CIA Experiments in Canada” (The Fifth Estate, December 2017)

As The Fifth Estate’s website post on this documentary says, the scenario might be straight out of a Hollywood B-grade horror movie plot: patients in a psychiatric hospital subjected to electro-shock treatment, rounds of drug treatment including hallucinatory drugs like LSD to induce comas lasting weeks, even months on end, hypnotic suggestion and sensory deprivation, all supposedly to cure them of mental conditions like anxiety, depression and paranoia. Yet these patients end up behaving like infants and their memories are almost destroyed. Incredibly this scene was the reality for hundreds of Canadians being treated by medical personnel under the supervision of Dr Donald Ewen Cameron at the Allen Memorial Institute in the 1950s and 60s as part of the notorious MK ULTRA project directed by the CIA and supported by the Canadian government. These experiments, aimed at breaking down people’s negative mental structures and patterns causing their problems, were ultimately recognised as failures and the program at the institute was shut down in 1965, yet the demands by patients and their families for compensation from Ottawa went ignored or were obfuscated for years. The Canadian government has never apologised for supporting and funding Dr Cameron’s experiments which caused such suffering and injury to patients and which affected their families as well, and continues to deny responsibility for its part in the experiments despite grudgingly paying compensation to some (but not all) patients who brought law suits against it.

Using a mix of archived materials, dramatisations and interviews with former patients of Dr Cameron, narrator and writer Bob McKeown builds a compelling story of how the experiments began as a response to the return of US and Canadian soldiers from the Korean War who had been held as POWs by the North Korean government and who supported its Communist ideology. Determining without apparent evidence that the North Koreans, Russians and Chinese were using mind-altering methods on prisoners, the CIA decided to research the use of drugs that could counter such brain-washing and influence captives from Communist nations to support capitalist ideology. At the same time, at the Allens Memorial Institute in McGill University in Montreal, Dr Cameron was investigating ways of treating and curing schizophrenia by erasing memories and deprogramming then reprogramming the brain and psyche. The CIA recruited Cameron into its MK ULTRA and related projects and paid him through a front organisation called the Society for the Investigation of Human Ecology. From there the documentary follows the paths of two former patients and what they suffered, and it details the profound effects of Cameron’s experiments on these patients and their families, and on other families.

Rather than admit its role in financing and encouraging the brain-washing experiments, Ottawa persecutes the victims of the experiments by denying compensation, subjecting former patients to eligibility requirements for compensation, placing gag orders on people and forcing people to pursue justice through the legal system.

Although the two female patients interviewed by McKeown were fortunate indeed to survive their treatments, the documentary makes no mention of those not so lucky and who continue to suffer long-term ill health (or have even died) as a result of the experiments. The documentary’s narrow focus on selected Canadian victims means that the wider ramifications of the experiments, especially for the CIA renditioning programs in the Middle East and western Asia which often involved torture and the use of mind-altering drugs on prisoners, must go ignored.

Glenn Murcutt – Spirit of Place: a documentary as graceful as the man and the career that it describes

Catherine Hunter, “Glenn Murcutt – Spirit of Place” (2017)

A beautiful and graceful documentary as elegant as the architecture of the man whose work it documents, “Glenn Murcutt – Spirit of Place” is a good introduction not just to Murcutt’s career and the buildings he has produced but also to the way in which a particular architect goes about designing a building and collaborates with others (particularly builders) to complete a project. We see how and why Murcutt insists on overseeing every aspect and stage of a building’s design and construction, why his practice has remained a one-man practice and consequently why his body of work includes very few large-scale buildings, at least until he accepted a commission to design and build a mosque for the Newport Muslim community in Melbourne.

Through interviews with Murcutt, his past clients, other architects and members of the Newport Muslim community, film-maker Catherine Hunter demonstrates how Murcutt’s work responds to its environment and interacts with it in ways that produce a sense of serenity and being at one with that environment. The film traces Murcutt’s career from its early days and influences – including the influence of his parents’ house in Clontarf where he and his brother grew up – and showcases three houses (the Marie Short house in Kempsey, the Magney house on the NSW South Coast and the Simpson-Lee house in the Blue Mountains) that not only are the highlights of his long career but also show a distinctive style that adapts to the qualities of the building materials used and uses them to produce a feeling of lightness and quiet strength. This history is intertwined with Murcutt’s collaboration with the Newport Muslim community to design and build a mosque that embodies the community’s desire to proclaim its Australian and Muslim identity and to share its values of tolerance, compassion and grace with others, Muslim and non-Muslim.

The narrative traced by the film isn’t all punctuated by one success after another: the mosque construction is stalled by a shortage of funds and planning issues, and Murcutt suffers a personal tragedy through the untimely death of his son Nick from cancer, cutting short a promising career in following his father’s foot-steps. Some members of the Muslim community are unhappy with Murcutt’s radical design for the mosque. (Strangely, the film says nothing about local council reactions to the mosque or the reactions of other residents in Newport to the building.) These setbacks are overcome when the Newport Muslim community rally to support Murcutt in his time of grieving after his son dies.

Murcutt’s buildings are photographed in such ways as to emphasise their unassuming grace and beauty. The mosque, when completed, turns out to be something else altogether different: it’s still a marvel of design but it uses glass panes of different colours to lighten and allow light into a concrete building, and the geometrical forms of the extensions holding the glass panes in their own way follow past Islamic architectural design tradition in inviting onlookers to contemplate them and reflect on the structures of the universe and its cosmic maker.

The documentary is easy to follow and viewers quickly come to appreciate the unconventional path Murcutt has followed in his career, that enables him to maintain his style and uphold the values and beliefs about what architecture should do for people that style expresses. Not for him the major commercial commissions that might compromise his vision and values while enriching him and making him better known than he already is; his attitude is to hold fast in what he believes and desires for his clients and for Australian architecture generally.

Risk: a supposed character study about Wikileaks founder is a confused mess

Laura Poitras, “Risk” (2016)

Filmed over six years, its focus on the life of Julian Assange since he founded Wikileaks and obtained and released thousands of US government documents of evidence of American war crimes in Iraq since 2003, Laura Poitras’ “Risk” could have been an intriguing character study on what motivates Assange to continue doing what he does in spite of the enormous threats to his life and freedom from the US and its allies. Assange’s freedom of movement has been severely compromised since allegations of rape and subsequent rape charges were made against him by two Swedish women and the Swedish justice system respectively, and the UK prepared to extradite him to Sweden to face those charges; Assange feared such extradition would open the way for Sweden to then extradite him to the US to face espionage charges in a closed court with a grand jury, so he sought asylum (and was granted it) in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. Yet Assange and Wikileaks continue to release documents that expose US government duplicity, corruption and more war crimes.

We certainly get a sense of the paranoia that surrounds Assange holed up in the embassy and in the Norfolk country house where he lived previously, subject to a night curfew, and of the doubts, struggles and in-fighting within the Wikileaks community and its following. Unfortunately the film comes across as something of a mess that seems to gloss over many things or treats them in a desultory way despite the fact that the time-period it covers features some stupendous events: the so-called Arab Spring in 2011; Bradley Manning’s arrest, imprisonment, trial and imprisonment for giving Wikileaks documents on American war crimes in Iraq; Edward Snowden’s leaking of thousands of National Security Agency documents, demonstrating widespread and deep government surveillance of US citizens and others abroad with the co-operation of telecommunication companies and governments, to Poitras and journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen Macaskill of The Guardian newspaper; and Wikileaks’ own release of US Democratic National Committee emails and emails by Hillary Clinton’s campaign staff showing how Clinton bullied the Democrats into making her their Presidential candidate over Bernie Sanders and various other actions of hers that demonstrate her unfitness for the US Presidency. Viewers not familiar with the topics touched on in the film will be mightily confused and will wonder how they all relate to one another. At times the documentary descends to the level of soap opera melodrama as Poitras admits in her voice-over narrative that she had an affair with Jacob Appelbaum who had been leading the Tor Project, a cyber-partner of Wikileaks. After the affair broke up, Poitras hears that Appelbaum apparently engaged in sexual abuse of another woman yet no charges were made against him.

Assange himself comes across as a complex, conflicted and contradictory figure, at times very remote yet passionate about what he fights for; at times arrogant and egotistical but concerned for Bradley (later Chelsea) Manning as the US private is treated horrifically while in prison and then at trial. Assange appears not to take the rape allegations and charges against him very seriously. Poitras seems to bounce from one viewpoint of Assange to another without ever being able to decide which viewpoint describes him best. The people who surround him are either gushy about him or fall out with him and don’t want anything more to do with him; it seems that Assange excites very extreme reactions in people.

For someone who had so much access to Assange and Wikileaks, Poitras has ended up making a film that says very little about Assange that people don’t know already. How Assange copes with the threats against him, the world closing in on him; how and why he continues on his personal crusade to bring truth about the use and misuse of power by political elites to the public despite the personal cost; what he believes is his future: all these issues that Poitras could have brought up in her film that could have made it great are missing.

BBC Panorama: What Facebook Knows About You – a lesson in how news documentaries shouldn’t be done

Maurice May, “BBC Panorama: What Facebook Knows About You” (2017)

Half an hour for a documentary simply doesn’t do justice to the topic of what social media giant Facebook mines from its nearly two billion users who have accounts with this US company. The overall result feels rushed and superficial, and in some parts heavily edited. Reporter and narrator Darragh MacIntyre runs between the UK and the US – and other points outside the two – to interview a number of people including among others UK Facebook policy director Simon Milner, ex-Facebook employee Antonio Garcia Martinez and former Ofcom director of technology Chi Onwurah. The stony-faced Milner puts up a barrier of repetition and indifference when MacIntyre quizzes him on how what percentage of the massive amounts of income Facebook makes comes from fake news or plain outright lies and propaganda. Onwurah worries about the consequences and implications of Facebook having too much data from its users and Garcia Martinez speaks of his experiences with Facebook as though it were a cult and he a defector and whistleblower (well, almost) as he pursues a life chopping wood away from the closed circles of Facebook high-priest management and acolyte employees. The topics covered include the role that fake news might play in Facebook’s pursuit of its audiences, current and potential alike, and how the company would be unlikely to give up fake news completely; the role that Facebook played in the 2016 US Presidential elections as a bridge bringing together the Democrats and Republicans and their respective voter bases plus new voters, and might play in the 2017 UK general election (the program having been made just before the election took place); and the company’s hypocrisy in the way it determines what its users can post to their accounts and what they can’t.

Unfortunately as the issues brought up are dealt with in a shallow way, the program comes off as rushed and sensationalist, even a bit hysterical. The idea of regulating Facebook is broached but nothing is said about how regulating such a giant corporation might work at a time when most Western governments are disinclined to allocate money, staff and other resources to monitoring and regulating most areas of the economy or of society that people think they should regulate. Nationalising Facebook would be a big taboo when Western societies are committed to privatisation and neoliberal economics. The real pity is that the program never comes near what should have been obvious: that Facebook is a private corporation beholden to its shareholders to deliver profits and may have an agenda that reflects the expectations and values of its shareholders. MacIntyre should have been asking how a privately owned for-profit organisation translates its profit-maximisation objective into its core function as a social media forum. Might one suggest that Facebook uses the social media forum as a marketing forum to bring advertisers (its main source of revenue) and the public together? In this scenario, the product that Facebook sells is the Facebook user and everything about that user that can be mined and turned into commodities. Needless to say, Facebook’s policies as regards how it regulates the content posted by Facebook users to their accounts and the principles those policies are based – and perhaps how it hires the people to police the content, where they are hired, how much they are paid and how well they are treated – remain untouched.

As a documentary, this BBC Panorama program is an object lesson in how TV news documentaries shouldn’t be done.

Extraordinary revelations about foreign involvement in Maidan 2013-2014 events in “Ukraine: the Hidden Truth”

Gian Micalessin, “Ukraine: the Hidden Truth” (2017)

A short but very pithy Italian documentary, “Ukraine …” focuses on the notorious episode in Kiev in mid-February 2014 when mysterious snipers in a building overlooking the Maidan shot at both civilians and police. This incident led to then President Viktor Yanukovych fleeing Ukraine for Russia and the takeover of the country by politicians associated with the political opposition and far right extremist groups. The incident has been blamed on the Berkut police (and by extension on Yanukovych’s government and its supposed backers in the Russian government). Therefore any information that can reveal the identities of the killers or lead police to them would be valuable in helping to establish a lawsuit against them that would bring some justice to victims’ families. However Western governments and the Western mainstream media seem uninterested in pursuing such a case.

Through interviews the programme reveals that the killers (or some of them anyway) were Georgian mercenaries brought over from Georgia by a former military advisor associate of ex-Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and trained by an American military instructor. (This instructor would later turn up as a fighter with the Ukrainian military in the Donbass region against rebel fighters there.) The interviewees reveal among other things that they did not know until the very last minute that they were going to shoot at civilians as well as police and that when they did discover what they were going to do, as opposed to what they had initially been told (to shoot to create confusion and incite the police to shoot at Maidan protesters), they realised they had been duped over their mission in Kiev. What’s more, the Georgians were not the only foreigners among the snipers; there were Lithuanian shooters as well.

The bombshell revelation is that the sniper attacks had been organised by the very political opposition that was dead set against the Yanukovych government and which claimed that the government was behind the killings.

The film is fairly brisk but not so fast that viewers would lose the conversation thread. Not much background is given about the snipers apart from their nationality and viewers would be entitled to ask what role Saakashvili and other Georgians are playing in turning Ukraine away from Russia and destabilising the whole eastern European region around that country and the Black Sea. After revealing the foreigners’ role in the shootings, the film ends very quickly leaving viewers to absorb all the information that has been offered and the full implications of what they have just learned: that the current government of Ukraine is a criminal government that used deception and violence to get rid of a legitimate if incompetent leader, and did so with the tacit support of Western governments and news media.

Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 16: Adam Ruins the Future): this episode should have gone out on a high note

Tim Wilkime, “Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 16: Adam Ruins the Future)” (2017)

As the last episode of its season, “Adam Ruins the Future” should go out on a high note but after having seen most of the season, I must admit that before seeing it my expectations were on the low side.  The episode turned out quite predictably: based around the theme of the future but with very little relationship to one another, three topics are treated at a quick zip in rather superficial fashion. Pressed by girlfriend Melinda to consider their future together, Adam changes the subject to explain why use-by dates on food labels are misleading and how 401K funds (the US equivalent of superannuation funds in Australia) won’t support most people in retirement. Melinda answers back by showing Adam how all the research in the world can’t predict the future generally, let alone the future of their relationship, and that people’s assumptions about the future are really an extension of present trends (which can always be disrupted and overthrown). Adam and Melinda finally agree that they don’t really have a future together and Adam acknowledges that breaking up says nothing about his worth as a human being.

The legislation governing use-by dates and the information about 401K funds are quite specific to an American audience so the discussion will be of limited value to overseas viewers. Probably the most audiences outside the US can gain from these segments is to investigate the legislation in their own countries that govern food labelling and expiry dates, and to know what their countries’ pension and super funds can and can’t do for them,  and what the alternatives if any are. The one thing 401K funds may have in common with super funds in Australia and possibly elsewhere is that they operate in a context where mostly ill-informed individuals are expected to accept the risks and responsibility in investing in such funds without much help from the government or independent agencies that do not have a vested interest in marketing these financial products. Everyone who works is expected to invest in his/her future retirement by contributing towards superannuation but the superannuation industry is dominated by a bewildering range of products whose features and characteristics may be difficult to understand (unless buyers have a background knowledge of how finance works) and which are sold by companies and institutions that purport to be trustworthy and reliable but whose past histories might suggest otherwise.

The episode almost ends on a somewhat despairing note – viewers may not be satisfied being urged to pressure the US government to reform legislation governing 401K funds when everyone knows that business lobby groups and their money shout louder than the public interest – and Adam and Melinda separate rather abruptly without so much as saying “We can still be friends even if we can’t be lovers”. Emily makes a brief appearance to counsel Adam on being comfortable with one’s own company and at least he is happy with her advice, even if only temporarily, as the episode concludes.

While the series has been good on the whole, and has presented a lot of valuable information, the formula it follows has become tiresome and the slapstick is tedious and somewhat forced. A future series will need to include a bit more wit and some actual situation comedy along with information that doesn’t throw around statistics so much but flows a bit more naturally and shows evidence of digging deeper past the surface.

Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 15: Adam Ruins Science): making a stand for public funding for science

Laura Murphy, “Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 15: Adam Ruins Science)” (2017)

Television programs about science and scientific studies may abound in many forms (as in documentaries or reports on news and current affairs programs) but a television program about the culture and practice of science, and how political and economic ideologies affect, even hinder science is very rare, and in this respect this episode of “Adam Ruins Everything” is very welcome. It seems much less silly than some earlier episodes but then perhaps the topics covered and what they imply together as well as separately are much more substantial than subjects like Halloween or visiting a health spa, and need lightening up to be palatable to the general public. Adam Conover visits Winnie, a science student about to start her project, and disabuses her of the value of laboratory mice in medical studies that are supposed to be relevant for human health. He also shows her how the practice of science is highly dependent on financial grants from various groups of donors – private companies, the pharmaceutical industry, individual and corporate philanthropists, and the government / public sector – all of whom have reasons and agendas for wanting to support particular areas or strands of scientific endeavour and who expect certain results from the recipients of the money, resources and staff they provide. Finally Adam warns Winnie that science journals are not necessarily repositories of truth with regard to the reporting of experiments and studies, as most such research are often flawed, with the most common flaws being small sample size, variables overlooked by researchers in forming hypotheses and designing experiments, and manipulating, even faking results. Adam advises Winnie of the value of studies being reproducible (that is, if another group of researchers undertake a similar study with the same experiment design and a similar-sized sample as the original, the researchers should be able to achieve similar results) and this encourages Winnie to adopt a more humble, less egocentric attitude in deciding what science project she will do for college class.

While the approach of (metaphorically) using a sledgehammer where a nutcracker might have been called for might be crude fun for kiddie viewers, the show does pound home the fact that much research in some areas (such as psychology) not only cannot be reproduced but could even be worthless; yet such research has often been trumpeted over and over in mainstream news media with the result that the phenomena the research has investigated (but not been able to prove) have passed into pop culture and urban folklore. The show’s middle segment on the funding of science makes for quite dismal viewing and is sure to force people to question how much value Western society really places on scientific pursuit and progress when science is at the mercy of the profit motive and corporate greed.

Although the program doesn’t go that far, the connection between who funds science and the faking of results in experiments and studies that could well end up in prestigious science journals can be made by astute viewers. This surely makes a case for public funding of science more important yet this is likely to be seen as anti-capitalist, even socialistic, by Western governments and therefore more public funding with less private funding would be considered as beyond the pale.

As is usual in most episodes, Adam’s companion descends into the pits of despair after one devastating revelation after another made by Adam or his expert helpers, only within a split second to zoom back into boundless optimism when Adam gives a pep talk about how s/he can still contribute something of benefit now that s/he understands the reality of the topic in question. Must Adam always pick on the most emotionally extreme characters to demonstrate how so much of what we believe and take for granted isn’t necessarily the truth?

Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 14: Adam Ruins Halloween): beneath the silly slapstick and cheap thrills, a sobering message about manipulating people’s emotions and weaknesses for profit

Tim Wilkime, “Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 14: Adam Ruins Halloween)” (2017)

Beneath the silliness is a sobering message that the scariest thing about life is the extent to which people and the news media will deliberately lie and manipulate information and people’s emotions, weaknesses and vulnerabilities for profit. Adam Conover visits schoolboy Stuart (Elisha Henig) on Halloween night to tell him the truth behind the persistent urban myth of strangers offering children poisoned lollies when they go trick-or-treating; what really happened during that night in 1938 when Orson Welles read “The War of the Worlds” on radio; and why mediums and séances are scams. All three phenomena are or have been very heavily dependent on the power of the news media to repeat and remind readers or viewers constantly to the extent that by sheer repetition the deception appears more real than the actual truth.

That the myth of strangers giving children poisoned candy persists, even though US police statistics and studies have only ever turned up one case of a child poisoned and killed by a cyanide-laced sweet (and the scumbag who did this turned out to be the boy’s father), speaks more about the news media’s repetitions of this tall tale stereotype which takes advantage of people’s fears about the welfare of children as they wander off on their own on Halloween evening around the streets knocking on people’s doors for treats year after year. Why news media outlets continue to exploit people’s concerns by perpetrating a falsehood that has long been debunked by research  to increase sales revenue, without regard for possible long-term effects of this exploitation (such as decreasing trust and weakening community ties, and encouraging people to rely more on government or corporate institutions for security and protection – institutions that may well be advertising through those same media outlets), is worthy of a documentary in its own right: we might find that the media’s exploitation of people’s fears may be tied to an agenda on the part of government and corporations (and those who control those bodies) to keep people fearful and distrustful of a world supposedly hostile to them. In this way, individuals are less likely to come and band together and fight for their common rights.

Similarly the perception that Orson Welles’ radio broadcast of “The War of the Worlds” back in 1938 generated mass panic turns out to be an urban myth that began almost as soon as Welles’ broadcast became known and is attributed to print news media’s jealousy of radio broadcasting and the desire to suggest that the immediacy of radio broadcasts could lead to irresponsible reporting: a rather ironic thing to say since the episode tends rather to suggest that print news media is irresponsible in stooping so low to rubbish a potential competitor. Nothing is said about the social and political context of the period: the Western world was on the verge of war at the time. Again, the fact that this belief has lasted so long and how and why repetition keeps sustaining it is worthy of its own independent investigation: perhaps the myth says something about our fear of being controlled by those who have the power to withhold truth from us.

Finally the episode pooh-poohs self-proclaimed psychics and the methods they use to ensnare people into trusting them and parting with their hard-earned money without asking why desperate and vulnerable people are most likely to believe mediums.

This Halloween episode is one of the more entertaining episodes in the series of “Adam Ruins Everything” even if it does go in for slapstick, cheap scares and thrills. The segment on “The War of the Worlds” scare is lavish and well done, and pays tribute to the creativity of sound effects technicians working in radio broadcasting at the time.

Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 12: Adam Ruins Conspiracy Theories): no, conspiracy theories are not entirely ruined – they’re just not entirely explained well

Jeff Chan, “Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 12: Adam Ruins Conspiracy Theories)” (2017)

An enjoyable if not very substantial episode in this educational comedy series, “Adam Ruins Conspiracy Theories” manages to ruin just one major conspiracy theory – that the lunar landings made by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin in 1969 were actually filmed in a Hollywood studio – and to explain how and why conspiracy theories arise and how they are not as harmless as many might believe. Adam (Adam Conover) is spending time with new gal pal Melinda and all seems to be well until he spots literature on the Apollo 11 moon landings being a hoax strewn over her desk. He desperately explains to Melinda that Armstrong and company did indeed land on the moon and that the studio technologies needed to fake a moon landing and take photographs of the landing were actually far beyond the budgets of Hollywood studios in 1969. Next up, he demonstrates how belief in conspiracy theories can harm people with the example of the 1980s mass panic over daycare centres being hot-beds of child sexual abuse and Satanic indoctrination of children. Finally Adam explains why people are so ready to believe in conspiracy theories: our brains are wired to see patterns and causality in randomness, and this leads among other things to cognitive biases and selective thinking that, with repetition and reinforcement, can solidify into false beliefs that are hard to dislodge.

To be honest, the first part of the episode, focusing on the moon landings, was very rushed and concentrated almost entirely on photographs of the astronauts which many people have claimed are proof that the landings were faked by Hollywood. This part of the episode perhaps deserves an hour-long episode to itself, to show that many hundreds, even thousands of people were involved in designing, constructing and launching the Apollo 11 craft that reached the moon. Neil Armstrong’s historic feat was the culmination of a space exploration program conceived and planned by politicians, bureaucrats and scientists in the US to send spacecraft and then astronauts into space and ultimately to land on and explore the moon and possibly Mars. This was done as much for ideological purposes (to compete with the Soviet Union to demonstrate the superiority of the capitalist system over Communism and socialism to the US public) as it was to advance human knowledge. The episode could have said something about (and paid tribute to) the people who made the moon landing possible.

The second part of the episode (about the Satanic indoctrination of preschool-age children by their teachers) verged on crassness as Adam and company teetered on a fine line of balance between slapstick and exploring a real issue that tragically ruined the careers of several teachers and which could have also traumatised the children in their care. Particularly disturbing was the revelation that police grilled young children with leading questions until they gave the interrogators the answers that the police wanted.

Finally the explanation as to how and why conspiracy theories arise and persist was just too pat for this viewer and fails to consider the cultural context in which they arise. The belief that the Apollo 11 moon landing never took place developed at a time when the US became embroiled in the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement calling for an end to racial discrimination against black and other non-white Americans was in full bloom. Americans were shocked at the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F Kennedy in 1968, a few years after Kennedy’s older brother, President John F Kennedy, was shot dead in 1963. Already conspiracy theories about the Kennedy brothers’ deaths abounded and details in those theories were sufficient and plausible enough – and details in the official account of JFK’s assassination were odd enough – that many people refused to believe that one man acting alone off his own bat could have killed JFK. The fact that by the late 1960s, people no longer trusted the US government to tell the truth about many things primed a population to accept conspiracy theories that were based on real events and facts, and which made plausible assumptions about the nature of the US government and its agencies, even if the theories themselves were wrong. And it must be said that some popular “conspiracy theories” about the activities of the CIA, such as Operation Mockingbird (to influence and shape news media), eventually turned out to be correct.

As Conover acknowledges, the panic over Satanic brainwashing of small children occurred at a time when women were entering the workforce in large numbers (whether out of choice of necessity), leading to an increasing demand for daycare centres to care for children. The mass hysteria that developed was in its own way a protest against the potential break-up of what was seen to be the “traditional” nuclear family (in which the husband is sole breadwinner and the wife stays at home to care for their children) as exemplified by wives and mothers going to work and having careers. This example shows how conspiracy theories function to reassure an anxious public, attempt to preserve stability and protest change imposed from above.

While the series “Adam Ruins Everything” is very entertaining and informative, its half-hour format is very restricting and doesn’t encourage a more detailed and nuanced investigation of the topics it covers.