Have you ever watched Finding Bigfoot on Animal Planet, a TV channel once focused on educational programming about real animals?

If you haven’t, here’s what happens in almost every episode of the show’s nine seasons [spoiler alert]: a motley team of researchers visits a location purported to be “squatchy”, interviews various local eye-witnesses, recreates a sighting by having the tallest team member stand next to a tree, “calls” for Bigfoot in the local wilderness at night, and, predictably, FAILS to find Bigfoot. “We didn’t find Bigfoot this time, but based on testimonials and other physical evidence, I’m convinced that there could be several living in these woods,” Matt Moneymaker, team leader, might say in any episode’s concluding monologue [end spoiler alert].

The Animal Planet program about an animal that does not exist airs because, as Wikipedia puts it, “it has high ratings and is a top earner for Animal Planet.”

Finding Bigfoot is not the only show that feels out of place on a channel that ought to know better, of course.  Take The History Channel, once dedicated to covering topics of, well, history.  One can tune in to its popular Ancient Aliens program to learn about  “the controversial theory that extraterrestrials have visited Earth for millions of years,” with each episode offering “historic depth to the […] grounded theories surrounding this age old debate.” We’ve been debating this topic for centuries, you see.

If aliens aren’t your cup of tea, you could opt for Amelia Earhart: the Lost Evidence The History Channel’s bombshell revelation that the Japanese captured and killed her 5 days before hostilities began in the Pacific.  If that’s not shocking enough, the show presents evidence that the U.S. government knew she had been captured…but did nothing to help!

It’s hard to fault the executives of Animal Planet and The History Channel for producing content that gets good ratings.  Their business formula is straightforward: produce programming that enough people watch > sell airtime to advertisers > profit.

But, at the same time, these shows are problematic in a small way because they contribute to a shift in American culture towards open government distrust, conspiracy acceptance, and the existence of alternative facts.

Today, according to research from the University of Chicago, 50% of Americans believe in at least one conspiracy theory, such as Obama’s birthplace or the government’s involvement in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

It’s tempting (oh, so tempting) to correlate belief in conspiracy theories with stupidity or with a particular political party, but neither is the case.  Instead, the researchers found that “the likelihood of supporting conspiracy theories is strongly predicted by a willingness to believe in other unseen, intentional forces and an attraction to Manichean [good vs. evil] narratives.”

Which brings me to politics. Donald Trump successfully tapped into our culture’s growing attraction to conspiracies during his presidential campaign.  Courting rural voters down on their luck, he successfully cast immigrants as villains to people who likely had never interacted with an illegal immigrant.  He created a boogeyman out of international agreements such as the Iran Nuclear Deal and the Paris Climate Agreement, which almost everyone knew almost nothing about.  Everything the government had done in the past was an unseen force of evil, acting in your disinterest, he argued.  Perhaps his experience on TV’s The Apprentice and in World Wrestling Entertainment convinced him that some people are gullible enough to believe anything – like a TV contest is as good a place as any to find your next hire – despite evidence to the contrary.

Trump won the election by about 78,000 votes in the three states that made the difference: Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan.  If a measly 39,000, or 0.2%, of the three state’s turnout had voted for the pragmatist  – if respected media outlets had resisted using their credibility to stoke the public’s juvenile interest in “unseen forces of good and evil” – maybe Hillary would be President.

How responsible is Animal Planet when it leverages its brand as a credible source of animal facts to air 98 episodes of Finding Bigfoot?  Is The History Channel, a channel about events that actually happened, at fault as it promotes content easily debunked by The Daily Beast, of all things?  Can we blame dupable voters for believing that the government is corrupt when credible sources tell them about the government’s Area 51 Cover Up, as did episode 5 of The History Channel’s Mystery Quest?

Propaganda works with repetition and from a variety of sources, and can find success in small shifts of voter sentiment over long periods of time.  Just ask the Russians.  So, as a society, we should find a way to entertain more responsibly, recognizing that it takes a village to raise good citizens, especially when some have a propensity to believe that Bigfoot lurks, ancient aliens visit, and The Apprentice was a brilliant interviewing technique.

 

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8 Comments on "Bigfoot, Ancient Aliens, and Political Opportunism"

  1. Of course, this is an old human problem; the ability to believe the unlikely because either the person speaking is unusually convincing or because the real truth is unpalatable or complicated and it is simply easier to go with the conspiracy that fits on the back of a fag packet.

    I think the real origin of this is the invention of a god. There are two theories here. The first (my god-fearing mother’s) is that a god is the result of man looking for an answer, sitting around a fire musing on the world. This is possible but not logical to my mind. If you start from the position of no special knowledge (like science) would you really come up with a solution that does not fit anything that you can see around you? No physical god, no obvious connections, no magical happenings and so on. On top of that, ancient man had a tough life; very hard work. Sitting around musing was possibly low on the agenda.

    The other theory is that if they muse at all, most people tend to come up with a more or less rational explanation for most things. However, it only takes a clever, persuasive person to come up with an alternative explanation that is easily swallowed, however illogical, and that person can get themselves a lot of power.

    Control the idea and you control the people that believe in the idea, whether you are a government, a monster hunter, the Rev. Moon, or David Icke.

    You point out that 50% of Americans believe in a conspiracy theory, but I think the real number might be a hell of a lot higher, especially if you change the definition from “conspiracy” to “unreasonable”.

    And if you do that, you suddenly realise how old all this really is, and how it has ALWAYS been about political opportunism, whether that is creating a religion to control people, fighting for a majority so objectors are silenced for the moment, portraying your own country/society in an unjustifiably positive fashion, or feeding those who want to believe that Martians are here.

    Nothing is new, but then humans have been around with this sized brain for a long, long time.

  2. Great points. I have a young son with an active imagination. The concept of God – and other unseen forces that we cannot readily explain – sometimes feels like a childlike notion that some people never outgrew, maybe because they didn’t have enough time to mull things over around the campfire.

  3. I would comment about Finding Bigfoot, but I haven’t seen it Yeti.

    Ok, terrible joke out of the way. Despite going to a crap school I was lucky to have an excellent history teacher called Mr Dryden, who spent a full term teaching us how to treat biased sources of information. It was the most useful piece of my entire education, university included, because it really did change the way I looked at the world. He taught, that when forming a viewpoint on history you had to look at the historical evidence, rate it’s reliability assessing if it was likely to be biased and then come to a conclusion. We looked at the doctored photos such as the one of Lenin and Stalin, portraits, such as the one of Richard III and some terribly biased historical tracts, which for centuries were taken as the authoritative version of events. I mention this as only this week a doctored photo of Trump with Putin went viral, even as history is being made, it is being spun to suit the narrative of certain groups, we never change. Therefore if you can see a pattern of human behaviour in history, it is reasonable enough to assume that type of behaviour is currently still in play and will continue into the future. It is why I am not too hard on people having some level of belief in conspiracy theories. Throughout history governments and state security organisations have engaged in activities that they would rather their public were not aware of, or have knowledge they would rather not see in the public domain. Understandable then that they sometimes attempt to cover their tracks. On occasion they fail and leaks will see these operations result in a public scandals such as Watergate or Iran-Contra. Generally though the truth of such affairs only surfaces well after the event. In the UK, take Bloody Sunday and the activities of the MRF as just two in a long line of coverups/whitewashes. If we had taken the official line as true then Bloody Sunday was the fault of the protesters until 1998 and the MRF had never existed until it was acknowledged in 1994. The Zinoviev letter of 1924 was not shown to be a MI5 plant until 1999. Taking this on board then you could say it was tempting to categorise the 50% of people who DON’T believe in a single conspiracy theory as being naive and gullible, way too ready to believe what authority figures tell them.
    Which brings me to Trump and Russia. Apparently some say, the POTUS colluded with the Russian government in order to gain election, yet the most advanced intelligence services in the world were either unaware of this until after he was inaugurated or chose not to act until that time. Doesn’t that resemble a rather wild conspiracy theory?. Apparently not, that is mainstream liberal thought. The idea that perhaps this is an attempt to neuter the president by intelligence agencies he has alienated and a Washington establishment that doesn’t want him, now that apparently is fantastical. Whether something is categorised as a conspiracy theory or not seems to depend very much on who believes in it

    Most conspiracy theories are utter bunkum of course, you look at the evidence and then consider possible motivations and come up thinking “what a load” but increasingly I find it is also a term used to shut down debate. After all, who wants to be called a conspiracy theorist. Nowadays, calling the evidence of S Yorkshire police about Hillsborough into question would probably earn you that tag, that would be harmful as it would be an attempt to impede getting to the truth. I do take the wider point though that completely eroding trust in the authorities is likely to lead us to quite a bad place. The people leading us though have to actually take the lead for once and put the good of society before their own jobs and stop continually fibbing or overpromising for fear of the public reaction. Only then could we perhaps repair the trust deficit.

    As for Hillary, she would probably have been no better than Trump overall, just bad in a different way. I think she was a “hand of history” politician who wouldn’t have lost a seconds sleep at the thought of going to war with either Russia or China and would currently be behaving accordingly.

  4. Lots of good points made, Rob, and the joke was good, too. Regarding the Trump/Russia collusion, I think it would be an interesting and somewhat believable conspiracy if their was knowledge of the collusion by US intelligence, but first things first! Gotta find out just what Trump Jr. was thinking when he attended a meeting with what seems to be explicit intent to collude!

  5. Did someone like Ford say history is bunk?

    Rob, I am impressed you had a teacher tell you about bias – all our teachers said their word was the law and that was the end of that! Seventies education for you.

    Perspective is always the key. Not only will perspective inform how you write history, but it will also dictate how you censor it.

    I remember being taught about American slavery at school when I was a kid (late sixties/seventies somewhere, but well before Roots.) In everything we were taught, British involvement was conveniently left out. It was very definitely portrayed as the USA’s fault.

    But then, my father thought Mandela was a terrorist (never changed his mind over that one) and my mother still hopes that the British Empire was some saviour of the world. She points out that being born in the far east in the 20s, she was there and so knows what she is talking about. Modern historians haven’t a clue, she argues.

    But this all perspective. She might have lived out there, but just like me living in a village now, I only see what I bother to go out and look at. If I don’t turn on the news or drive to a city, then from my perspective, England is the most peaceful, sane place in the world where nothing ever happens. Yep, my village is really that boring!

    Two things have changed.

    Modern communications have given us a constant barrage of data, much of it shoved in our face. And the result is that more people have become hungrier for information – preferably the truth.

    Except, we are still in our villages.

    We might hear a lot about the world via 24/7 news and social broadcasting, but outside some nutty journalists, who actually goes to Syria or the Yemen or wherever to see for themselves?

    We can’t; it is impossible, or at least impractical. So we rely on reports feeding into our small worlds without any real way of judging the perspective.

    To make it worse, every other nutter out there spends half their time accusing others of “bias”

    The BBC is a great case in point. If I am not mistaken, up to a couple of years ago, the BBC was a left-wing, sandal-wearing organisation full of “lefties” that closely resembled sixties geography teachers. Or at least, that is what those on the right accused it of.

    Today, I noticed, it was being accused of being the bastion of true Conservatism and stuffed to the brim with card-carrying Tories. Probably still looking like geography teachers. (Have any of the accusers actually visited BH?)

    Now, unless the BBC has made thousands of people redundant over the last couple of years and started from scratch, this is impossible.

    So the only judgement can be that the BBC hasn’t changed at all, but the perspective of the “group mentality” out there in the political trolling world has changed.

    It leaves the rest of us, those who would prefer a bit of real truth with our breakfast, drowning, to be honest. And now, as the political tennis match (quick topical ref) seems to be starring people starting farther and farther from the net, most of us are getting sore necks trying to catch up with the extremes lobbing loads of balls at each other.

    I started a website called “Me In the Middle” ( http://meinthemiddle.com ) a couple of years ago. It is still there, though I have posted nothing to it since Jan 2015. It was depressing me.

    Maybe I should fire it up again and see if it can depress others as well.

    • Well that teacher was an exception, our other history teacher used to be a professional goalkeeper, had hands like shovels and used to make a big show of picking kids out of their seats by their blazer lapels and holding them, legs dangling, at the same height as himself.

      I took a look at your website CC and it looked very well put together. If it depresses you to write on it though, leave it alone, there have been times when I have taken holidays from commenting on anything online and to be honest I don’t know why I ever come back as it doesn’t do anything to improve my mood. I suppose it starts with having a bit of time to kill or agreeing/disagreeing with something so vehemently you can’t help yourself.

      As you say I don’t think the BBC has changed politically. I have it from someone I trust that the general lean of the BBC workforce is slightly left of centre. It is only natural that people will, even if unconsciously, impart some of themselves into their work though I think that on domestic politics the BBC is generally speaking pretty fair. It is a pro EU organisation, but I thought their coverage in the run up to the referendum was also pretty fair. I would say they have been a bit on the antagonistic side with regards to Jeremy Corbyn, which if you consider his views are possibly further away from centre left than the Conservatives are, is understandable. The further away from your base view something is, the harder it is to keep a professional neutrality.

      Where I dislike the BBC’s news coverage is on international affairs, where I find them particularly guilty of bias by omission. As you say, we live in our villages so have to take the word of the correspondent who is on the scene. We have had years of emotive coverage of civilian casualties in Syria caused by Assad and the Russians, but when the body count from US led coalition strikes starts to mount we don’t hear a peep about it on the TV news, you get only a short item on the website. Without the publicity from various NGO’s and independent monitors would we even know, beyond knowing in our own minds that air strikes on built up areas=civilian deaths. So far estimates of civilians killed by US led airstrikes is at 4352, short of the estimated 5000-9000 killed by the Russians, but catching up fast. The characterisation of one set of deaths as regrettable collateral damage and the others as war crimes, a barbaric slaying of innocents, does tend to get my back up.

      • I think the BBC runs into a constant problem with any news from outside of the UK simply because there is so much of it, and they are primarily a domestic broadcaster (even if they have a huge international audience – remember, you have to treat the world service separately since it has a very different background and reason for its existence)

        I used to work with a couple of long-in-the-tooth BBC journalists (now long retired). They both complained that not enough was covered from outside the UK, but admitted that foreign affairs that have no screamingly obvious connection to domestic affairs are the fastest way of getting people to turn off.

        That applies to all countries, after all. Too far from the village, and it might as well not exist 🙂

        I might at some point play with that site again. Keep the graphics but make it less image heavy. The trouble with having big banner images is that you have to find images you can use. If that is awkward, it tends to put one off posting!

  6. The Trump Jr revelations remind me of that moment at a football (soccer) game when your team are down the other end, they shoot, you see the net ripple, you jump up!…… only to find they’ve hit the side netting. Like everything else around this, unless they can prove that Trump Snr had knowledge it’s going nowhere, Jr will swear dad knew nothing, Snr will swear he knew nothing. Unless they can turn up an email or recording to prove otherwise it changes nothing.

    My view, and I’m very aware I may be wrong on this, is that there is nothing solid on Donald Trump, if there was I don’t think he would still be there.

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