“There is a principle which is a bar against all information,
which is proof against all arguments and which cannot fail
to keep a man in everlasting ignorance—that principle is
contempt prior to investigation.”
The phenomena of “post-truth” has become increasingly prominent in the modern world, and is exemplified by the controversial “pizzagate” conspiracy theory in the USA in 2016, as well as the unresolved murder of Kenya’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Doctor Robert Ouko, who was shot dead in 1990.
While seemingly unrelated at first glance, these two cases highlight the dangerous effects of post-truth thinking and its impact on public discourse and policy making.
The “pizzagate” conspiracy theory claimed that high-ranking Democratic Party officials were involved in a child sex trafficking ring based out of a Washington, D.C. pizzeria. Despite the lack of any credible evidence, the theory gained significant traction among certain groups of people, resulting in a man firing a rifle inside the pizzeria in question, believing he was rescuing children from captivity. The theory was later debunked and the man was arrested and charged with multiple crimes.
The Murder of Dr Robert Ouko
Similarly, the murder of Doctor Robert Ouko in 1990 led to the spread of several conspiracy theories. Ouko was found dead in his rural home in western Kenya, with evidence suggesting he had been tortured and murdered. The Kenyan police initially claimed that Ouko had committed suicide, but this was soon revealed to be patently untrue.
The investigation into Ouko’s murder was plagued with controversy and misinformation, with many speculating that the President of Kenya, Daniel Arap Moi, or one of his ministers, was involved in the murder.
Despite evidence to the contrary, including forensic evidence that Ouko was shot where his body was found near his Koru farmhouse, the post-truth belief that Ouko was shot at Statehouse Nakuru nearly 120 kilometres away continued to circulate. This belief was perpetuated by politicians, the media, and even foreign governments, including the United States.
The impact of this misinformation was profound, leading to widespread unrest in Kenya, including riots and looting, and of course injustices that in the Ouko case have lasted to this day 33 years later.
The parallels between “pizzagate” and the Ouko murder stories are striking. Both were baseless conspiracy theories that were spread and amplified by the media at large, leading to widespread confusion and mistrust. In both cases, there were those who refused to accept the evidence and instead clung to their beliefs, even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. This is a classic example of post-truth, where people choose to believe in things that are not true because it aligns with their worldview or ideology.
Both “pizzagate” and the Ouko murder highlight the dangers of post-truth thinking and its effects on society.
In the case of “pizzagate,” the conspiracy theory resulted in real-world harm, with a man putting innocent lives at risk due to his belief in the theory.
Similarly, the Ouko murder has resulted in significant political instability in Kenya, with allegations of state involvement continuing to be circulated despite a lack of credible evidence.
Moreover, both cases highlight the role that high-profile individuals can play in perpetuating post-truth theories.
In the case of “pizzagate,” conspiracy theorists pointed to emails leaked from the Democratic National Committee as evidence of wrongdoing.
Similarly, in the Ouko murder case, allegations of state involvement were fuelled by the accusations of high-profile individuals, including The President, Cabinet Ministers, Permanent Secretaries as well as Provincial and District Commissioners.
The cases of “pizzagate” and the Ouko murder both illustrate the dangers of post-truth thinking and the impact it can have on society. As we continue to grapple with the proliferation of false information in the digital age, it is crucial that we remain vigilant in our efforts to seek out credible sources of information and combat the spread of misinformation. It is important to fact-check information before sharing it and to hold those who spread misinformation accountable. Only by doing so can we hope to create a society based on facts and evidence, rather than rumour and innuendo.
This article was first published in The Star, 24th March, 2023