Why Are Internet Conspiracy Theories So Difficult to Debunk?

This is a rush transcript from "Glenn Beck," April 7, 2009. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

GLENN BECK, HOST: Well, yesterday, we talked about debunking conspiracy theories — or that's what I would have you believe — including Internet myths about FEMA camps.

With me again is James Meigs. He is the editor-in-chief at Popular Mechanics who did an incredible job writing the definitive debunking of the 9/11 conspiracy theories. And he is here now.

Last we left our episode — bring up the picture of — where is this, Wyoming? Bring up the picture of Wyoming that I left with yesterday. There it is. Look at that! It is a FEMA camp.

And I asked Jim, "Jim, yes or no, is that a concentration camp?"

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BECK: Is it — yes or no — sir, run by the government?

MEIGS: Apparently so.

BECK: OK. Are there atrocities that we know of going on right now in that concentration camp?

MEIGS: There is every reason to think so.

BECK: OK. So here is where it all falls apart: Wyoming, huh?

MEIGS: Well, there is one detail that the conspiracy theorists leave out. Those are satellite images of a concentration camp in North Korea.

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BECK: Could we put it side by side, please? There is Wyoming put side by side. There is the actual picture, right? And here they are, side by side.

One of them talks about what this concentration camp is. What it is — is called Yohaso(ph)?

MEIGS: Right. And it is a part of a report done by a human rights group that is focused on human rights violations in North Korea. Somebody went in and pulled these photos off their Web site, slapped the Department of Homeland Security logo on it and claimed that these are on American soil.

BECK: OK. Show me the pictures of Camp Grayling. Do we have the picture of the watchtowers? This is pretty spooky. This is where Americans are currently being held, I believe, they're saying.

MEIGS: People say all kinds of things. And these pictures have been floating around the Internet for more than 10 years.

In fact, Camp Grayling is the largest National Guard training facility in the U.S. They train Army, Navy, Marines.

And one of the groups they train is military police. And in fact, one of the functions they train them for is handling prisoners of war in a battle zone like Iraq. So that's what that facility is intended for.

BECK: So James, here is what I — here's I guess where I want to go. You and I both — I mean, and there's others — if you really tried to debunk these things and I think this is why the mainstream media doesn't do it. First of all, do you believe — because I don't think we should set out in anything to debunk it or to prove it right. We should prove the truth.

MEIGS: Well, it is called reporting.

BECK: Oh, I didn't know that!

MEIGS: When somebody makes a claim about facts, you don't make up your mind in advance. You go and you look at the facts, you look at the evidence.

What's frightening about the conspiracy theorists is that they really have already made up their minds in a lot of cases.

And so when you come along and say, "You know, we checked out that claim you're making. It turns out it is not exactly true." They don't say, "OK. Let me go back and maybe I should check my facts again." They say, "Clearly, you are a part of it."

BECK: Right. You and I both have been "part of it" now. We're a part of it. I was actually — somebody called me the grand architect for 9/11, because I came from nowhere. And my rise has been, in their eyes, so meteoric, which I worked for 30 years in radio.

But it happened "so fast," that the only thing that could explain it is that I was the media architect on the cover-up of 9/11.

MEIGS: And you could see how people are searching to make these conspiracies get bigger and bigger. Because the core facts they have been blaming on the 9/11 conspiracies, which Popular Mechanics — the way a lot of this started is we've investigated these for several years. But every time you knock down a certain fact that someone is claiming, they have to expand the conspiracy.

So now, you're in it. We are in it. Anybody who believes the mainstream view is somehow tied up. There must be hundreds of thousands of people now keeping this secret. And yet, somehow it has never leaked.

BECK: We have always had conspiracies. I mean, you know, growing up,
I remember, "Oh, no. It wasn't Lee Harvey Oswald. Oh, no, no, no. You don't know."

Where did these come from? Why are these — because there are so many of them now.

As I see it, it is a combination of you have access to photos, information, easy to make videos, easy to make things look real. And there is no filter on the Internet, so people can just say and do whatever they want, which is fine with me.

But then the other side is journalism doesn't mean anything anymore. I mean, the things that have been said and written, where it's a blatant lie or it's just part of the truth. So the media and Washington and everything else has so disenfranchised people they don't believe that anymore. Is that what caused it to get so bad now?

MEIGS: There are a lot of elements to this. And this goes back to the 19th century, suspicion about different groups and plots and conspiracies of all sorts. It is a deep part of our culture.

But today, what you're seeing is the Internet makes it a lot easier. And people are skeptical. And that's not a bad thing.

It's actually healthy to ask questions. It's healthy to be skeptical. But then, you've got to pay attention to the facts.

BECK: Right. The problem somebody is you're not being skeptical, because I think that is exactly — Thomas Jefferson said, "Question with boldness even the very existence of God, for if there be a God, he must surely rather honest questioning over blindfolded fear."

That has guided my life for the last 15 years.

And the thing is not just question with boldness, honest questioning. You're not trying to prove an agenda. You don't care. Your agenda is the truth. And conspiracy theorists don't seem to care either.

MEIGS: Well, what you see is there is a huge difference between skepticism and cynicism. And a lot of people say they are being skeptical are really just deeply, deeply cynical.

Skepticism means asking questions, listening to the answers, approaching the facts with good faith. And when you find a fact that doesn't support your world view, maybe you'd better change your world view.

Conspiracy theorists tend to come in with a world view that is fixed. And then when they find facts that don't work, they just ignore those facts.

BECK: OK. Jim, thank you very much.

MEIGS: All right. My pleasure.

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