Were U.S. diplomats at the embassy in Cuba stricken by a mass delusion?
Ancient and quaint seem the days of witch crazes, demon scares and tulip manias. Instances of mass hysteria may strike you as rare events in modern advanced societies. But such outbreaks are products of their times. They’re still around today, just in different guises.
Aided and abetted by its status as an internet meme, the myth of an evil, supernatural Slenderman has been panicking adolescents since 2009, even culminating in an attempted murder by proxy. If it’s easy to brush this off as a case of impressionable teens with too much internet access, then what of otherwise rational late 20th-century American adults participating in suicide cults, Puerto Rico’s mythical cattle-killing Chupacabra monster, the “irrational exuberance” of the dot-com bubble in the 1990s, or the seemingly insane rush to make bad real estate investments in the latter 2000s?
A diplomatic dustup between the U.S. and Cuba may be the latest well-publicized case of collective delusion. In 2017, the U.S. State Department claimed its diplomats in Havana were subjected to “sonic attacks” that produced a range of physical symptoms including hearing loss, headaches and dizziness. Consequently, the federal government pulled out most of its embassy staff and sent packing most Cuban diplomats stationed in the U.S.
Although medical exams have identified unusual physical conditions in some diplomats, those exams lacked proper experimental controls and fall well short of providing evidence for any sort of sonic attack. There remains no demonstrably valid evidence that diplomats were subjected to sonic attacks at the American embassy in Havana – and a good deal of evidence has now been amassed suggestive of the contrary. The latest culprit to be fingered is the chirping of crickets or cicadas – in conjunction with mass hysteria.
So how do otherwise logical and informed 21st-century people fall under the spell of these mass delusions? Over the past several decades, psychologists and sociologists have used examples like these to dig into when and how this kind of false belief gains traction.
A recipe for collective delusion
Collective delusions are the culprits behind mass hysterias and related phenomena. As traditionally defined, they’re characterized by a rapid, spontaneous and temporary spread of false beliefs within a circumscribed population.
Nowadays that circumscribed population can be a virtual one, bounded only by cyberconnections to a shared source of misinformation. The recent upsurge in vocal flat-Earth proponents, for example, is not the result of geographical neighbors whipping each other into a near frenzy. Social media makes it easy to find like-minded others, serve distorted information to the curious, and stir up excitement about events such as the 2017 eclipse, celebrity endorsements, and a proposed rocket launch by a flat-Earth proponent intended to prove once and for all that we are all living on a disc.
Collective delusions emerge under a combination of several conditions. Each of these precursors is straightforward enough, but it’s harder to foresee when they might occur in concert. In turn, this makes predicting delusional outbreaks a very inexact science.
The most obvious precursor is the presence of multiple people who are sufficiently connected so as to share information or experiences.
Second, just as an isolated individual may develop some beliefs and behaviors that depart from prevailing norms, collective delusions and responses are more likely to occur in relatively insular groups or networks.
Third, a collective delusion is more likely to take hold if the group is undergoing some kind of distress. This could be rising unemployment, political destabilization or an enemy’s threats of warfare. On a smaller scale, a town may lose a crucial employer, or a fire-and-brimstone minister can instigate a satanic panic with rumors of baby-killing cults.
And fourth, the stressors are potent enough to trigger, in at least some individuals, either a psychosomatic response or scapegoating behavior. Psychosomatic reactions – physical symptoms with psychological causes – may be as mild as itching or as severe as blindness. Scapegoating involves blaming a group of innocent (or possibly nonexistent) others for causing problems – psychosomatic or otherwise.
When conditions are ripe, this catalyzing subset of group members sets off a chain reaction. They begin to seek and identify external causes for their distress, or sources for its relief. Psychosomatic responses spread; contempt for the scapegoats grows. People become hypervigilant and toss critical thinking out the window, looking for and finding imagined threats. Conspiracy theories are spawned, angels and demons invoked, fears stoked, panic induced. The supernatural may start to seem natural.
As more and more group members become ensnared in a positive feedback loop, the perceived threat is legitimized, only broadening and deepening social distress further. Because they are inherently newsworthy, mass delusions are picked up by mass media, which fan the flames even more.
In these ways, a nonexistent threat can set off a self-sustaining cascade of irrationality that lasts until the perceived threat recedes.
Delusion everywhere, to different degrees?
While descriptions of mass hysterias make great reading, they represent only the far end of a continuum of what sociologists like me call social diffusion processes. For the most part, these are quite mundane – you might recognize a few from your own daily life. While around the world stock market bubbles and bank runs make news, less frenetic responses to perceived threats and conspiracies abound: the 9/11 “truthers,” the recent uptick in flat-Earth beliefs, fears of gluten and genetically modified foods, climate change deniers, wars on science on some liberal college campuses, and more. Even the desire to be fashionable can be seen as a response to the fear of being excluded.
Simple mathematical equations can quite elegantly describe the speed, duration and extensiveness of the spread of beliefs and behaviors. A typical “diffusion model” shows how the penetration through a population of such things as beliefs, behaviors, illnesses, innovations or products is determined by just a few parameters. These typically include the group’s size, the density of its members’ interconnections and the inherent contagiousness of the thing being spread.
Irrational beliefs, and the often ill-considered responses they engender, can spread like an infection across groups as large as nations or as small as nuclear families. Sunshine, as they say, is the best disinfectant. Social impact theory would suggest that the best approach to administering social disinfectant is via large numbers of geographically nearby, authoritative nonbelievers.
In the case of the supposed sonic attacks in Cuba, one approach to stemming the scare would have been a rapidly deployed on-site investigation by acoustic experts, neurologists, psychiatrists and military strategists. A folklorist as well wouldn’t hurt. Short of such a full-frontal counterattack, disseminating easy-to-digest skeptical information as early as possible in the process should help to slow the diffusion process and quell a mass delusion.
It’s easy enough to be caught up in a mass delusion. Fads and fashions are great examples, though their most harmful consequence may be our embarrassment when we look back on some of our previous style choices. As long as people are stressed and living in groups, most of our mass delusions will remain invisible to us until they have already run their course.
by Glenn Greenwald Intercept Jan 7, 2019
NBC NEWS AND MSNBC SPECIALIZE in repeating and disseminating what U.S intelligence officials tell them to say and then calling that servitude “reporting.” Those two networks really are the all-but-official outlets for CIA messaging. And this status has led their brightest on-air stars to broadcast a series of extremely consequential stories that turned out to be humiliatingly wrong.
This stenographic and highly jingoistic practice of mindlessly reciting the whispered claims of anonymous “intelligence officials” is what notoriously led the New York Times and other leading U.S. media outlets to deceive the country into believing Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz’s fairy tales about Iraqi WMDs and Jeffrey Goldberg’s tales about Saddam’s alliance with Al Qaeda.
But while many of those outlets apologized for that behavior and vowed to avoid it in the future, NBC and MSNBC have committed themselves to it with greater vigor than ever, as evidenced by the increasing prominence of their national security reporter Ken Dilanian, whose entire career has been defined by repeating what the CIA tells him to say – and has thus been plagued by one embarrassing false story after the next.
On Friday, veteran national security reporter William Arkin announced his departure from those networks, blasting them as stenographic servants of the security state agencies and pro-war propaganda. Noting that ex-generals and CIA officials dominate the NBC/MSNBC airwaves, Arkin wrote: “in many ways NBC just began emulating the national security state itself – busy and profitable,” adding: “the national security leaders and generals we have are allowed to do their thing unmolested.”
We now have what might be the most vivid, reckless and dangerous illustration yet of how NBC and MSNBC functions. If their behavior weren’t so journalistically shameful and destructive, this would be darkly humorous.
Last September – on the symbolically meaningful date of September 11 – NBC and MSNBC breathlessly trumpeted what they regarded as a major exclusive scoop: that Russia is “the main suspect” in what the network called “mysterious attacks” that led to “brain injuries” in U.S. personnel in Cuba.” They put CIA loyalist Ken Dilanian on the air to explain – based, needless to say, on the script given to him by intelligence officials who, as always, are shielded from accountability by them with anonymity – that “sophisticated microwaves or another type of electromagnetic weapon were likely used on the U.S. government workers” and that it was Russia which likely engineered the attack. Watch their dramatic scoop in all of its glory:
Throughout the day, MSNBC hyped its exciting scoop about the mysterious attack on the U.S. “diplomats” (peace-seeking “diplomats” in Cuba presumably do things like create fake Twitter networks to lure young Cubans into receiving U.S propaganda encouraging them to destabilize their own country).
One six-minute segment led by Andrea Mitchell – who began the report by announcing that “intelligence officials now believe that Russia is the leading suspect, and it was no accident.” – featured Bush/Cheney Deputy National Security Adviser Juan Zarate (who now, needless to say, works for NBC News as an “analyst”) along with reporter Josh Lederman, who said Russia’s guilt is “now more than just a theory. They’re the main suspect.” And, he said, Russia’s guilt is “backed up by” interceptions of Russians’ communications.
As this discussion unfolded, the graphic on MSNBC’s screen was crafted for its most sensationalistic expression: Russia is the “main suspect” in the “brain injury attacks” on American diplomats:
Mitchell then invited Zarate to explain the real significance of this story, and the former Bush/Cheney official-turned-NBC-analyst obliged: “The Cold War never ended for many in the Cuban government, including parts of the Russian government, including President Putin.” Zarate warned that this attack is just part of Moscow’s increasing aggression, including in South America, “yet another vector of attack from the Russia.”
Mitchell, with her sternest voice tone, underscored how villainous this all was: “This is not an accident. This is not a microwave listening device gone bad. This is an attack — against American diplomats and intelligence officers, and this was targeting.”
That night, on NBC News’ nightly broadcast, Mitchell condensed all these scary developments for the network news audience:
Some media outlets expressed skepticism of NBC’s claims. Buried way down deep in an 11,000-word November article in from the usually hawkish-on-Russia New Yorker was this note of caution:
In September, NBC News reported that U.S. intelligence agencies considered Russia to be the main suspect, citing evidence from communications intercepts. But intelligence officials, in interviews with The New Yorker, insisted that they still had no evidence of Russian complicity.
So while NBC claimed that U.S. intelligence agencies had intercepted communications between Russian officials where they acknowledged their guilt for this attack, those same agencies insisted to the New Yorker “that they still had no evidence of Russian complicity.” Did any of that make MSNBC or NBC go re-visit their story and tell their viewers of this rather significant doubt raised by the New Yorker? Do you even need to ask?
Instead, NBC and MSNBC used hours of airtime and numerous pages to spread highly inflammatory claims across their numerous media platforms, all blaming Russia for an extremely serious attack on the U.S. – all because their CIA masters told them to do it. This is what NBC and MSNBC are, their function and mission:
And, needless to say, journalists from other mainstream outlets accepted these claims on blind faith, as exemplified by this Daily Beast reporter:
One U.S. Senator used the NBC report to urge that Russia be classified as a “terrorist” state:
THAT THE NBC/MSNBC STORYLINE suffered a major hit this week is a rather dramatic understatement. Two scientists, Alexander Stubbs of Berkeley and Fernando Montealegre-Z of the UK’s University of Lincoln have published their findings about one key part of the evidence about this incident, under this title:
In 2017, Associated Press obtained and published recordings of the sounds the embassy personnel complained of hearing. Rather than being the by-product of some sort of Bond-villain weapon cooked up in Kremlin laboratories, the scientists concluded that the sounds match those made by a specific species of Caribbean crickets during mating season:
As shown here, the calling song of the Indies short-tailed cricket (Anurogryllus celerinictus) matches, in nuanced detail, the AP recording in duration, pulse repetition rate, power spectrum, pulse rate stability, and oscillations per pulse. . . . This provides strong evidence that an echoing cricket call, rather than a sonic attack or other technological device, is responsible for the sound in the released recording. Although the causes of the health problems reported by embassy personnel are beyond the scope of this paper, our findings highlight the need for more rigorous research into the source of these ailments, including the potential psychogenic effects, as well as possible physiological explanations unrelated to sonic attacks.
One of the scientists, Dr. Stubbs, emphasized the certainty of their findings in an interview with the New York Times: “I can say fairly definitively is that the A.P.-released recording is of a cricket, and we think we know what species it is.” The villain behind the noises is the male indies short-tailed cricket, pictured below in what NBC News may soon use as his Interpol mugshot:
The first line of the 2017 AP report about the noises heard by U.S. personnel in Cuba suggested that the perpetrators may not be Putin scientists but rather tropical insects: “It sounds sort of like a mass of crickets,” AP said of the sounded recorded by embassy personnel. None of these caveats ever made their way into NBC’s Russia-did-it fear-mongering.
Indeed – contrary to the sensationalistic MSNBC screen graphics – serious doubt has been cast on whether U.S. “diplomats” in Cuba even suffered brain injuries at all. As the Guardian’s Science Editor, Ian Sample, reported in August: “Claims that US diplomats suffered mysterious brain injuries after being targeted with a secret weapon in Cuba have been challenged by neurologists and other brain specialists.”
The Guardian was referring to “four separate letters to the Journal of the American Medical Association” from “groups of doctors specialising in neurology, neuropsychiatry and neuropsychology” that “described what they believed were major flaws in the study” commissioned by the U.S. Government that originally claimed that brain injuries were detected. These experts all insisted that the original doctors “misinterpreted test results, overlooked common disorders that might have made the workers feel sick, or dismissed psychological explanations for their symptoms.”
Those doubts match the vehement denials not only from Cuban officials but also Cuba’s top neurological specialists that any type of brain injuries were even demonstrated. In May, the Guardian noted that “some scientists have questioned whether attacks even took place and say the wide range of symptoms reported by the embassy staff could be explained by a number of common medical conditions, or be driven by psychological factors in the high-stress environment the staff work in.”
Moreover, Luis Velázquez, the neurologist who serves as president of the highly regarded Cuban Academy of Sciences, “asked the US and Canadian national science academies for a joint scientific inquiry to examine the evidence behind the alleged attacks.”
But in jingoistic NBC/MSNBC world, statements and claims from officials of the Bad Countries – the ones disliked by the U.S. Government – are not merely to be assumed false but are to be ignored entirely. Only assertions from officials with noble intelligence agencies of the United States of American – with their well-earned reputation for truth-telling and integrity – are to be treated as Truth and uncritically blasted all over the world.
None of these recent revelations constitute dispositive proof exonerating Russia or negating that an attack took place. It’s possible that all of those neurological specialists independently objecting to the U.S. government-commissioned study claiming “brain injuries” are simply overlooking clear evidence of neurological damage. It’s possible that unidentifiable, highly sophisticated, non-audible weaponized microwaves or electromagnetic missiles were the culprit, not the sounds identified by the U.S. spies or, as NBC calls them, “diplomats.” It’s possible that Putin and his mad KGB scientists have harnessed the ability to control male short-tailed crickets and cause them to emit brain-harming mating sounds on command and target them at Moscow’s enemies. All of this is possible.
But what is certain is that the sustained, flamboyant, uncritical, breathless, CIA-subservient reporting from NBC and MSNBC on-air personalities – pinning the blame for an obviously serious attack on a nuclear-armed power that it has spent two years attempting to depict as a Grave Threat to the U.S. with very few caveats or doubts – was reckless, dangerous and journalistically unethical. And it’s just the latest in a series of attempts by the U.S. media to scare the population about Russia by fabricating attacks launched by the Kremlin that never actually happened: from invading Vermont’s electric grid and using mainstream news sites to infiltrate American minds with Kremlin propaganda to hacking into C-SPAN to take over the airwaves and hacking elections systems in 21 states.
Thus far, not a single NBC or MSNBC reporter who hyped the Russia-did-it story – Ken Dilanian, Andrea Mitchell, Josh Lederman – has bothered to tweet these scientific findings that, at the very least, raise major doubts about the accuracy of their huge and highly consequential story that the repeatedly hyped. That’s how the U.S. media functions: sensationalistic stories produce massive benefits, while there are zero consequences, or even an obligation to acknowledge error, when they turn out to be doubtful of even false.
MSNBC used this scary story to have one of its “analysts” – a former Bush/Cheney national security official – declare that “the Cold War never ended for many in the Cuban government, including parts of the Russian government, including President Putin.” That the U.S. is in a New Cold War – or never left the last one – is clearly a prevailing orthodoxy among prominent U.S. media figures; just this week Washington Post columnist Anne Appelbaum, invoked classic Cold War clichés to declare that “Moscow may be on the cusp of becoming, once again, a full-fledged imperial capital, absorbing and ruling over multiple countries.”
It’s bad enough to be so reckless with such dangerous rhetoric. But when this is all accomplished through the shoddiest of “reporting” – mindlessly repeating what anonymous intelligence officials tell journalists to say without a whiff of evidence – then it’s clear that the same journalistic pathologies that led to front-page reports of Saddam’s nuclear stockpile and alliance with Osama bin Laden continue to shape corporate journalism today, particularly at NBC and MSNBC.