A few years ago I assigned the book A Culture of Conspiracy by Michael Barkun in my Sociology of the United States course. It’s a super interesting book laying out numerous conspiracy theories and why Americans are so obsessed with them. He talks about those who believe in UFOs, the Illuminati, the Obama birther stuff, that Jews control the world, and, my personal favorite: that the world is being controlled by a reptilian-alien hybrid race that lives in catacombs under the earth. People actually believe this stuff, my friends. It’s pure fabricated bullshit used to but people still spread it around on the internet.
And, our dear internet is key to why conspiracy theories are actually on the rise, rather than facing any decline, despite our greater access to education and actual scientific knowledge. According to Barkun, the internet is ripe for people to look up all kinds of theories and the more that the theories are shared, the more people believe them–quantity of pages, not quality, is what determines truth. In fact, actual scientific knowledge or any kind of sources that are seen as derived from authorities are generally regarded with less trust than are sources that fall outside of the mainstream. When citizens feel that they can trust no one, because of, I dunno, the “fake news” or “liberal professors” or “science”, one also finds greater polarization between people. As he concludes:
“If no one can be trusted (except, presumably, others in the truth-seeking cadre), a society become divided between believers in received ideas about what counts as knowledge and a no-longer-hidden minority of challengers. The likely outcome of such polarization is not pleasant to contemplate, for the challengers do not believe their opponents are merely misguided. Rather, the supporters of the status quo are thought to be at best the conspirators’ dupes and at worst their accomplices. Hence the alternative reality sees itself as a fighting faith that must obliterate its allies.”
I have recently experienced this battle in a Facebook group I’m in that has other academic mothers in it. Someone posted the NYT article (that I talked about the other day here) which led to a lot of debate. The first few people expressed disgust at the US and how terrible it was. A few of us who are not so enamored of the WHO’s breastfeeding position started to trickle in to make our own claims. It wasn’t long, however, before a few group members began piling on about how terrible formula companies are. Some made cogent arguments that gave me things to think about, but a few of them fell smack into Barkun’s definition of conspiracy theories as “the belief that an organization made up of individuals or groups was or is acting covertly to achieve some malevolent end.” He further suggests that virtually every conspiracy theory out there consists of three traits:
1.) Nothing happens by accident
2.) Nothing is as it seems
3.) Everything is connected
The women sort of tag teamed going back and forth to point out all the ways in which a post I had made was wrong. But they didn’t really take on my arguments at all, they just started sharing what they know about the formula industry, by saying things like:
“the rampant use of alternative facts is a huge problem these days. The propaganda from ACSH, putting profit before health, is exactly what has led to opposition to the breastfeeding at the WHA.”
And then linked to this website “Hall of Shame” with “Why you can’t trust the american council on science and health” in its URL. The site has real academics and I’m not suggesting that there aren’t problems with the US food system but I found it rather interesting that she used the word “alternative facts” and then went to a non-academic site which suggested that you shouldn’t trust the media or the government.
When I (incorrectly) noted that formula is approved by the FDA, one of them corrected me to say it’s not approved by the FDA with a link to the site. So, I went and found the site and then posted it in which said that it’s not approved but its subjected to its regulatory oversight. Okay. So then one of them said that FDA is “toothless” so it doesn’t matter what they say in on their website. They went on and on back and forth with me and multiple other posters regularly changing their focus, pivoting from one thing to another, and generally stirring a lot of us up after they began to tell the mothers with horrible breastfeeding experiences that either their feelings didn’t matter, that they could have breastfed if they had had more “supports” in the hospital, and that everyone else was being mean to them. I finally got REALLY mean after one of them suggested a graduate student in the group is too emotional to carry out the dissertation she has been writing for a while now. I believe I used the words “this is where I draw a fucking line.”
Part of what makes conspiracy theories so compelling is that they explain so much…. but with so little evidence. In fact, as Barkun goes on to discuss, the LACK of evidence is actually proof of their claims. Conspiracy theorists suggest that only THEY have access to the REAL information and that those who don’t are simply dupes of the conspiracy. Thus, we can never disprove these theories because the evidence we use is tainted, the researchers are controlled by the Media/the Rich/the Jews/the aliens/Big Pharma (okay I just added that last one in, he didn’t talk about formula or pharma). As he writes:
“The result is a closed system of ideas about a plot that is believed not only to be responsible for a wide range of evils but also to be so clever at covering its tracks that it can manufacture the evidence adduced by skeptics. In the end, the theory becomes nonfalsifiable, because every attempt at falsification is dismissed as a ruse.”
Part of how I lost my shit at these lactivists was by basically listing my CV of 10 years of research on breastfeeding, having been published in leading journals, interviewed on news sites like NPR and the BBC… all kinds of stuff like that. It seems to have quieted down. But before that, every single piece of research or evidence was rejected in favor of random websites with conspiracy theories or names dropped of people they agreed with (most of whom were affiliated with the WHO, by the way). They knew something none of us knew and they were not going to stop until we agreed with them. It was extremely annoying.
After I caught my breath and was processing with someone in the group, I laughed saying maybe they’re not real, maybe they’re just Russian bots. I had looked up who they were and they didn’t really fit the description of the group entirely as far as I could tell. Their internet footprints were thin and mostly a lot of pro-breastfeeding trolling. And, there’s increasing evidence of the Russian troll mills on twitter before the 2016 election that would try to stir up controversy and divide the left. I admitted to my friend that I was chatting with that I actually started this blog post (with stuff below), the other night about a conspiracy theory about why Trump suddenly cares about the rights of formula feeding mothers. I had stopped writing it after my partner suggested I go to sleep instead of destroying my credibility.
Then, my friend said she’d believe it after reading that Prump/Tutin article in New York Magazine by Jonathan Chait with the titular question “Will Trump Be Meeting With His Counterpart — Or His Handler? A plausible theory of mind-boggling collusion.” I googled one of the women’s names again and saw the she claims to work for a school in Qatar and when I googled Qatar, the current Russian ambassador was named by none other than Vladimir Putin! Okay, that part may be too far of a stretch… but it got me to return to my late night theorizing and I still find it interesting.
So, the New York Times followed up their dumbass “article” on why Trump screwed the pooch on global breastfeeding goals by publishing an editorial by the board titled “Why Breast-Feeding Scares Donald Trump: It comes down to public health abroad could hurt American companies’ profits” which was best summarized by a FB friend of mine who said ” I mean all they really might have said in that editorial would be, ‘And by the way, we agree with our article from the Sunday issue about the breast feeding issue.'” LOLOLOL, as I so aptly replied to her. The editorial really just reiterated the “article” and never really explored why breastfeeding scares trump.
But as I re-read both articles, it really struck me how many people on social media were saying things like: “… and can you BELIEVE it was Russia that had to step in and save the day?!?” while probably clutching their pearls.
So, I decided to do a little googling and I first thing I noticed was this:
Notice anything, dear readers? How about my favorite headline from Minnesota Public Radio two up from the bottom. Russia plays hero?
I looked again at the ones above in the list:
I then started poking around more to see what are Russian breastfeeding practices like. Apparently, they have a pro-breastfeeding culture historically that once had almost no formula marketing etc. but then with the introduction of free markets, formula marketing flooded in. I found this out at this little blog called “Breast. No Bottles“. How very Russian sounding! exciting! I poked around there, seemed like a pretty interesting perspective as I worked my way around her arguments and then I stumbled upon a nugget of disdain for La Leche League. hmmmmm…. interesting… disdain for LLL on a cite called “Breast. No Bottles”? Do go on…
Well, so apparently, La Leche League has really upped its game in terms of inclusivity by supporting and promoting chest feeding and acknowledging the needs of transmen. To me this is amazing and awesome and likely due to the awesome and amazing (*ahem, Canadian*) Trevor MacDonald who fought to push LLL to be more inclusive.
Interestingly, this has really pissed off the Ukranian branch of La Leche League in addition to their anger at being forced to speak Russian instead of Ukranian at their meetings!! What??
Here is all the proof you need (JK, this doesn’t prove anything, but still… interesting!):
So, apparently, according to Facebook and the ever reliable Wikipedia, LLL Ukraine doesn’t exist anymore because there’s just LLL Russia or some shit.
If you click on that citation in Wikipedia, it takes you to a story called “This is what neocolonial disrespect looks like. Natalie Gerbeda-Wilson about La Leche League” at Mamochek.net. Apparently, at least according to this website, Gerbeda-Wilson translated the Womanly Art of Breastfeeding into Russian and got LLL off the ground in Russia and the Ukraine. She claims that she had years of service with La Leche League and then was “fired” in 2015 as a leader for speaking publicly in negative ways about the organization after Russian LLL leaders were bullying the only Ukranian La Leche League Leader in the world, Tatyana Yaremko, to carry out her work with LLL in Russian only. She went on to note that:
“As much as we tried to avoid bringing politics into the equation, today, in retrospect, we cannot deny that Russian war against Ukraine and massive anti-Ukrainian propaganda played a part in it. As continued proof it was not an incidental faux pas, but a deep-rooted hatred of Ukrainians, any attempts to assert the rights of Ukrainians to speak their language backfired on us. Attacks on Tetyana and Ukrainian language got diverted into attacks of Marina, then myself. It is of interest that German or English did not cause any distress for Russians. It was Ukrainian that was offensive, disrespectful, and unacceptable.”
Apparently, she tried to get help from the La Leche League international office but all she got in response was that the woman running meetings in Ukrainian supposedly could speak Russian, end of story. And then eventually this founder of LLL Russia was fired.
I tried to see if there was any mention of this on the La Leche League International website and all I found was that they definitely do have offices in Russia and parts of their website in Russian, but nothing in Ukrainian. I don’t know if what was objected to by the LLL International was the Ukrainian part or if it was the transphobia part, but there definitely is no Ukrainian LLL.
Now, I know very little about the conflict between Ukraine and Russia, so I’m not claiming any expertise, but Ukraine and Russia went to war in 2014 and Putin’s been itching to reclaim Ukraine as Russian territory forever. It was around the time of the purported LLL situation in 2015 that the ceasefire agreement between Ukraine and Russia fell apart.
So, the other night as I was googling around about La Leche League and scratching my head about why does Drumpf suddenly care about breastfeeding, claiming that it’s for women and poor children, when he clearly doesn’t give a shit about either of them after weeks of literally separating mothers and their children with the stroke of his policy pen… And then, I saw THIS article mentioning TODAY’S NATO meeting:
“This year’s NATO meeting, which begins on Wednesday, comes just days before Mr. Trump’s planned meeting with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia in Helsinki, Finland. As he has prepared for Brussels, Mr. Trump has accused Europe of exploiting the United States and hinted that he might play the role of agitator at NATO, sowing disagreement among allies, which would play into Mr. Putin’s hands.”
Man, that just got so much more interesting!!
So, today, after much sober thought and the added possibility that my mom group has been infiltrated by lactivist russian bots located in Qatar, I see THIS headline:
So what do you think? Have I just knit myself my own tinfoil hat? Am I creating a classic conspiracy theory? Or did Donald Trump bully Ecuador at the WHO meeting so that Putin could step in and look like a hero on the world stage, in order to seem like a Russia’s not so bad in order to garner favor at today’s NATO meeting? Are breastfeeding controversies being stoked online to divide feminists and other Hillary Supporters? Is the LLL Ukraine just a red herring that led me down this path? I’ve always said that breastfeeding is a much bigger deal than just how we feed our babies.