The Magic Stone: A parable of conspiracy

· social-political,covid-19

The conspiracy...

A bedraggled man stumbles into a Pyrenees village early one sunny morning.

He is tired from traveling, cold from the sharp night air, and hungry.

The village is high in the mountains, a simple place of several hundred hearty, hardscrabble, and illiterate peasants who work the land and tend their flocks.

The exhausted man, a swindler, makes his way into the village square, plucks a polished stone from his pocket and, raising it to the sun calls out, “Who will taste a soup spawned alone from this single magic rock?”

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A magic stone, a magic sandal, it's all the same...

The villagers quickly gather. Some are wide-eyed, some dubious at the claims of a stranger with a strange accent, and some simply governed by the healthy peasant suspicion of anything new.

Children tug at their parent’s shirts, begging to see the magic soup. Slowly, overcome by curiosity, the villagers raise their hands until by common assent, the stranger is asked to produce the dish.

“First,” says the stranger, “I need a sturdy cauldron, the largest you have.” Javier is sent to fetch his vessel, and with a flourish the stranger places the stone inside. The crowd gasps.

“Second, I need a thriving fire, and the pot half-filled with spring water, for what is a soup without water?” Pedro and Javier and several others tend a fire, and fill the cauldron, while suspense builds in the gathered throng.

“Third, I hear that you produce the region’s best garlic and potatoes, so bring some of those if you wish to boast that your produce has been part of this culinary magic!” Several women hustle away, then compete with each other to have their produce join the boiling cauldron.

“Now, I need the haunches of one goat, a pumpkin, 20 carrots, a slab of butter, 6 pints of cream, 4 rabbits, a pot of sweet-fried onions, a gallon of white wine, two bunches of parsley, and six bay leaves.”

The peasants scramble to be part of this grand experiment, and soon the pot is bubbling away, with the delicious scent of a rich soup wafting across the crowd, which collectively grows ever more amazed as the alchemy of the stone works its promised magic.

The stranger bends forward and, tasting the soup with his ladle, winces slightly. “Not yet. Fetch me salt and pepper, for what is any soup without salt and pepper?” he asks the villagers with a laugh of bonhomie and a wink. They sagely nod and whisper that the magician really knows his stuff.

That night, the villagers dine on the most delicious and original soup they have ever tasted, and congratulate themselves on their wily acceptance of the stranger's free gift.

Parables, and counterfactuals...

Parables are among the most useful instruments when illuminating human characteristics and behaviours, or moral and ethical principles. I used one here that explains how the principle of exponentiality dangerously overwhelms human comprehension.

As countries emerge from the pandemic’s scythe, the fact that the world did not encounter a cataclysmic event like that of the 1918 ‘Flu pandemic will be politically weaponised. At the keen end of those blades will be the counterfactual. Counterfactuals are great fodder for the swindlers who promote parsed versions of the truth, or ‘fake news.’

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Tin Foil Hats for all the family

The magic stone parable is about duping people, about illusion, about gullibility – and about counterfactuals. That is, a style of thinking that runs contrary to the facts, or what we see before out eyes. Or, to use a modish stylization, what is ‘gaslighting’ us.

The counterfactual is like the soup. You can’t disprove what the soup might have tasted like without the magic stone. The only facts you have regarding the soup is that it tasted good, and it was made with a ‘magic’ stone.

But would it have tasted good without the magic stone? Almost certainly, on the evidence, since all the right ingredients were there.

However the counterfactual might also be the stone itself. Would the soup have tasted good without the garlic, potatoes, haunches of goat, a pumpkin, 20 carrots, a slab of butter, 6 pints of cream, 4 rabbits, a pot of sweet-fried onions, a gallon of white wine, two bunches of parsley, six bay leaves, and salt and pepper?

Maybe. But on the evidence, almost certainly not. It would be missing the ingredients for what we know makes a good soup.

Yet if the villagers had challenged the swindler, they would have been at a loss to disprove the magic qualities of the stone. The swindler might have bawled at them like the huckster he was, and sneered the words, “fake news.” The stone was a bait ‘n’ switch, a constituent part of the meal, a fact that the gullible villagers had willingly swallowed by participating in the dupe themselves.

It’s this swap-out of the truth, the disordering of evidence, the melding and subversion of logic with misleading evidence that you’ve seen with you own eyes that confuses people, distorts their notions of reason, gaslights them and makes fake news, conspiracy theories from the right and left, and magic soups possible. And this is why the conservative right will soon be telling you that the pandemic was a left-wing beat up. In fact, they'll be telling you that it never happened.

Conservative mystics like Sean Hannity (the Trump Whisperer), Rush Limbaugh or Alex Jones – that shrill and peculiar shock-jock coven crouched in their man caves, mumbling incantations over cauldrons of conspiracy, divining threats from the straggly entrails of identity politics, scratching their primitive cosmic diagrams on walls about how the heavens really work, and summoning up forces of darkness to forestall the Apocalypse – will point to half-used hospitals and half-filled cemeteries and beg the question “So where are all the dead? This wasn’t 1918 at all. We were duped. And you lost your jobs.” It never happened. And the right-wing will work very, very hard to convert the grotesque death rate that does rip through the US 'heartland,' and the mass unemployment, into a Chinese-led, immigrant-driven, WHO-supported conspiracy.


Counterfactuals and conspiracy...

Counterfactuals can be crudely divided into those that bring us solace, and those that freak us out and steam us up. They serve a basic psychological and epistemological purpose, variously enabling us – as individuals or as social blocks – to imagine good or bad outcomes to order and reframe the world, and to reach for perspectives that support our psychological characteristics and validate personal or cultural biases. They are a tool to explain chaos, and to create order.

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U.S. champion Jesse Owens at the 1936 Berlin Olympics: Who's on second, and what is he thinking?

Counterfactuals are also reactive, and situational because they are important emotional guideposts in heightened circumstances. A 1995 study of Olympic medallists provides a tangible example to play with. In the study, silver medallists tended to frame their counterfactual outcome in more pessimistic terms – they came close to gold, and missed out on the big one (“If I had only…”). Bronze medallists, on the other hand, tended to frame their counterfactuals as optimistic outcomes, having made it to the podium at all (“If I hadn’t...”).

Both medallists share a common characteristic as they attempt to create order in a personal moment of high and volatile emotion, which is that they imagine outcomes that run counter to the facts, whether optimistic or pessimistic.

Another example is insistently depressed or fearful people who seize on small elements of truth and, through counterfactual construction, create catastrophic scenarios that are difficult for therapists to dislodge because they contain elements of truth: “I crashed my car, so I am a thoroughly incompetent person.”

Moreover, the depressive will seize on additional pieces of evidence to support and expand the counterfactual: a lost wallet, spilt milk, a cantankerous exchange with a shop assistant, each of which supports the original misreading of the evidence that the depressive is incompetent, and expands it to incorporate further qualities such as meanness or aggression. Pretty soon, signs of the counterfactual are read everywhere in a downward vortex of endless supporting ‘facts’ plucked from cosmology of everyday life, personal history, the news, and social media.

Beyond the merely personal, counterfactuals are social, and they generate social agreement. To this end, they are a key element of conspiracy theories, a phenomenon that suits our generally discombobulating, confabulating age. They use the same ‘magic stone’ pieces of evidence that are intentionally suffused with the truth in order to build alternative narratives. Conspiracies, after all, seem perfectly plausible in a world of information overload, leviathan corporate interests that often run contrary to mass social welfare, technological transformation, political leaders peddling the notion of deep-state alternatives to facts, and pandemics.

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If there were ever an argument for free media and a community of rigorous, well-trained, and fact-checking investigative journalists, it is the human suspicion of power and greed. There are very real conspiracies in our lives, in which groups of people or entities conspire to further metaphysical zealotry (in the case of the Twin Towers attacks on the US, or the Sarin gas attack in Tokyo), to enrich themselves (the VW emissions scandal or Enron), to achieve power (the Molotov/Ribbentrop Pact to divide Poland before WWII), or to reap glory (such as the massive organised Russian effort to dupe athletics doping tests, or the U.S. college admissions bribery scandal)

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Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai – Now, is it her father, or Robert de Niro?


However nobody who has been anywhere can be surprised by the depth of absurdity of conspiracy theories. A personal favourite apparently widespread in Pakistan is that the attempted murder of the child activist Malala Yousafzai by the Taliban on a school bus in 2012, a crime that eventually led to her Nobel prize, was a conspiracy conjured between her father in cahoots with the CIA in order to discredit the Taliban, with Robert de Niro playing the assassin in the guise of an Uzbek homeopath (the Bosnian war criminal Radovan Karadzic hid in plain sight for years in Belgrade, protected by the Serbian security services, and disguised as a homeopath: beware all homeopaths).

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Detail from a Polish poster, circa. 1920 – always a crowd pleaser...

The Russians appear to have a special talent for conspiracy, and some of their most primitive and noxious efforts at disinformation have proven remarkably sticky. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an anti-Semitic screed published in around 1903 in Czarist Russia, continues to be published to this day, and forms one of the staples of extremist literature, despite extensive investigations that have discredited it. Yet to external observers, the impact of disinformation actions (unlike direct propaganda or advertising) can appear abstract, and the nebulous difference between the soup and the stone difficult to measure.

Another personal favourite conspiracy is that the Russian security services have for years poured money into an organised campaign to discredit mass vaccination. This version of events imagines that, using a playbook lifted directly from the KGB, Russia’s StB, the re-branded version of the Soviet Union’s secret service, has deployed armies of bots, trolls, and western social media stooges to sow doubt about the efficacy of vaccines, effectively undermining trust in government, the media, science, and institutions like the CDC, and stirring up social discord in the general population.

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But wait! This conspiracy is bitterly true, and founded in fact, actual fact, real fact. The former Soviet Union’s use of disinformation as an element of ambiguous or hybrid warfare (so that an antagonist is never quite sure whether they are at war or not, the international relations version of the e-mail snipe, or being gaslit) is now well known and, since its successful interference in the 2016 U.S. Presidential Elections, the fact that Russia has adopted and amplified the same tactics across a range of socially divisive projects (such as the Black Lives Matter protests) is no longer a matter of serious conjecture.

Special measures, vaccination, and national health security...

The Soviet Union valued disinformation as a vital and cost-effective component of warfare, and as a way of weakening one’s enemy without having to do very much. Although Lenin’s quote on a lie – “A lie told often enough becomes the truth” – might be apt, it seems to me his quote on a gun is more so: “One man with a gun can control 100 without one.” A lie, a distortion, a magic stone serves very much the same purpose, for you only need one lie, one lie that is enough to sow doubt, in order to undermine and control the value of truth.


The Soviets called this ‘active measures.’ In 1923, Stalin created the Special Disinformation Office as an engine room of black propaganda. The various iterations of the Soviet secret police invested heavily in training agents in the dissemination of false or misleading and ambiguous ‘facts’. From the 1960s, these operations were increasingly aimed at international disruption, and agents trained in the dissemination of false information as much the collection of intelligence. False plants were prudently planned, sparingly deployed (a handful each year in the 1980’s), and often took years to gestate before they bore results, such as Operation Infektion's attribution of the HIV/AIDS virus to the CIA. Even then, to an outside observer, the value to the Soviet Union of the mischief they created was difficult to measure.

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Uncle Joe Stalin with a couple of handy gas lamps

At a time when social media has become a force-multiplier for false information, and when a child can (and many do) set up shop as ‘influencers,’ the internet provides boundless ground to sow false and misleading information. In mid-2013 the Internet Research Agency was established as a private company in St Petersburg to serve Russian political and business interests. As the US’s Office of the Director of National Intelligence noted in its 2017 report, by 2015 the IRS was employing more than 1000 people in just one location, and controlled fake social network identities, discussion boards, online newspaper sites, and video hosting services, stirring thousands of mischievous cauldrons of information each year. That was in 2015 folks, and the world has only grown more complex, with the possibilities for false plants exacerbated by vast refinements in video-manipulation techniques.

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The Internet Research Agency, at 55 Savushkina Street, St. Petersburg. Not fake news.

The case of vaccination...

Effective vaccination is a principle reason for the dramatic decline in infant and adult mortality throughout the last half of the 20th century. Vaccination campaigns have effectively eradicated measles, smallpox, and polio as major public health risks. Vaccination relies on herd immunity, in which a sufficiently large proportion of a given population is immunised to prevent the spread of a virus. If the vaccination proportion of a population drops, large numbers of unimmunised people become vulnerable to disease.

Although measles had been declared eradicated in the US in 2000, in 2019 anti-vaccination stirrings led to the large-scale outbreak of measles among Orthodox Jews in New York, compounded by tight-knit communities, large families, and frequent international travel. Similarly, anti-vax stirrings are notable amongst educated, white, health-conscious post-Polio American liberals, who doubt the efficacy of vaccines, and the necessity to contribute their children to herd immunity vaccination.

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This is because because the notion of disease threats that might cripple, kill, deform, retard, scar, or render infertile their children, exists in a modern counterfactual world ("imagine if we lived in a world without childhood diseases...") made factual by the genius of people like Louis Pasteur and other brilliant scientists who imagined a world where no polio, measles, rubella, mumps, chicken pox, diphtheria, and now human papillomavirus (hpv) and seasonal influenza existed to slaughter and maim children annually. If any of these anti-vaxers visited graveyards to read the headstone of entire families of 19th century infant dead, perhaps they wouldn't be so vaccination hesitant (regardless of anti-vax efforts, vaccination rates in the U.S. have barely budged in recent years from more than 90%).

Yet anti-vaccination scares, when successful, have proven deadly in places like Nigeria and Pakistan. In northern Muslim Nigeria in 2005, large-scale measles outbreaks stoked by religious leaders led to sharp rises in measles morbidity and mortality, in contrast to the Christian south where limited backlashes took place because religious leaders supported vaccination drives. Nigeria and Pakistan are case studies for how quickly Polio can re-emerge after the breakdown of vaccination campaigns.

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Nigerian children who would probably have a different take on the value of Polio vaccine.

The greater point is that if a person is unimmunised, disease respects no borders. The anti-vax movement is typical of the kind of fringe social-demographic issue targeted by the Russian state through the Internet Research Agency, in order to promote schism, doubt, social confrontation, and to sow potentially expensive disorder in institutional efforts to control disease outbreaks. Unlike many more abstract “culture war” issues, disease is a tangible threat to national security. Counterfactuals – what would it be like to live in an unvaccinated world? – also play perfectly into old-fashioned, new-fangled psyops, and may be a challenge when and if a vaccine to counter Covid-19 is discovered and deployed. On this point, Russia is apparently already at work, and China may have joined the game, spreading disinformation to weaken efforts to contain the disease in western countries.

… and then there’s the Wretched of the Earth…

Who knows how many will die in this COVID-19 viral inferno? In the rich and liberated world (let’s call it what it is), tens or hundreds of thousands of beloved and ignored will perish in a loneliness that can only strike terror into the heart of sentient beings. However at least their deaths will be recorded, their lives mostly well told. They’ll be tallied, chalked up as it were, to a COVID-19 death. They will make the statistical table. But it won’t be enough for the conspiratorial right (the conspiratorial left make their own stuff up, aside from vaccination myths, as my satirical piece on Eric Trump suggests).

To the contrary, in the authoritarian and poor world, I imagine that millions are bound, slated, fixed to perish if ones assumptions can be guided by health systems, crowded slums, opaque political accountability, the failure of food systems and crops, and a dearth of ventilator systems and ICUs. In Russia, so certain of its immunity to the pandemic, the state seems to be responding in a way established by the Chernobyl disaster, which is to deny, deny, deny until it's impossible to disguise.

The difference is that the lives of these wretched of the earth slated to die in places like India (where radical Hindu nationalists are blaming Muslims for the scourge), Turkmenistan, Russia, and impoverished African and Asian countries with extremely poor health networks and fragile food supply systems, will be subsumed into statistical mist by patriotic authoritarians too devious and controlling to tell, or health systems simply too exhausted to tally. Their effervescent lives will evaporate as quietly as they came. Barely recorded in birth, their absence of death will shroud the facts, and stoke vicious counterfactuals

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#covid-19 #conspiracytheory #vaccination #antivax #turkmenistan #russia #antisemitism #stalin #counterfactual #parable #pasteur #IRA #fakenews