Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Cue the crickets: conspiracies and headaches in Havana

Few noisy bugs and heap of hype is telling of the conspiratorial flavour in contemporary international politics.

US embassy in Havana (Photo: Adalberto Roque via Getty)
US embassy in Havana (Photo: Adalberto Roque via Getty)
Published 15 Jan 2019   Follow @elisethoma5

A recording of an alleged “sonic attack” on US diplomats in Cuba has been analysed by scientists and found to be … crickets. 

Rumours of a mysterious attack on staff at the US embassy in Havana first surfaced in 2016 after diplomats reported hearing loud, piercing noises at night and experiencing strange symptoms including headaches, hearing loss, and problems with memory and concentration. Medical studies conducted by the US government and several US universities concluded that some embassy staff were showing neurological symptoms from unknown causes. 

At no point was there any solid evidence that the symptoms experienced by US embassy staff were due to a targeted attack, let alone evidence of the existence of a ‘sonic weapon’.

The incident caused a major rupture in fragile US-Cuba relations. While stopping short of blaming the Cuban government directly, the US pulled more than half of its staff out of the embassy in Havana and expelled 17 Cuban diplomats. In January 2018, special hearings were held by the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations into “Attacks on US Diplomats in Cuba.”

The emergence of apparently similar symptoms in US diplomatic staff in China in June 2018 was treated as further confirmation that US diplomats not just in Cuba but around the world were being targeted by some unknown technology, leading to more evacuations and the creation of a specialised task force to investigate the “health attacks”. 

The Cuban government has loudly and consistently denied any knowledge or involvement, calling it “science fiction” and accusing the Trump administration of seeking an excuse to derail the diplomatic thaw initiated under president Barack Obama. Despite devoting thousands of its own personnel to investigating the phenomenon, none of the Cuban government’s efforts were enough to quash swirling rumours about the possibility of a hypothetical “sonic weapon”, or possibly weaponised microwaves. The Chinese and Russian governments were also publicly floated as possible culprits.

However, new analysis of a recording of the alleged attack (provided by US diplomatic personnel in Cuba and published this month by the Associated Press) has found that, far from being a ground-breaking new piece of military technology, it is, in fact, the calling song of the Indies short-tailed cricket.

The really awkward thing about this case is how obvious it all is in hindsight. Crickets are a recurring theme even in the earliest coverage of the “attacks”. The sounds heard by diplomats are described as “chirping,” “buzzing,” and “whistling”, and the timeline of “attacks” coincide with cricket mating season. “It sounds sort of like a mass of crickets,” wrote the Associated Press when it published the recordings in 2017. ProPublica reports that in early 2016 the diplomats themselves discussed whether the noises were cicadas. A group of Cuban scientists even submitted a report to the US government in 2018 suggesting that the attack might be crickets, albeit a different species from the crickets identified by the latest study. 

It appears that major diplomatic decisions were taken ­– and the entire US-Cuba rapprochement thrown wildly off-track – on the basis of a few noisy bugs, a handful of questionable medical studies, and a lot of hype. 

Beyond just being egg on the face of the US administration, what this entomological episode highlights is the current febrile atmosphere for politically charged conspiracy theories, in which the most bizarre and convoluted theories are amplified (all puns intended) while more mundane explanations are pushed aside. 

At no point was there any solid evidence that the symptoms experienced by US embassy staff were due to a targeted attack, let alone evidence of the existence of a “sonic weapon”. Numerous experts attempted to pour cold water on the fevered speculation, pointing out that the medical studies conducted on diplomatic staff were significantly flawed and the symptoms themselves could well be the result of individual causes or a mass psychogenic illness rather than due to shared external factors. 

Even parts of the story which should have been cause for doubt were instead treated as confirmation, for example, the apparent spread of the “attack” from Havana to Guangzhou. Is it more likely that Cuba and China teamed up to mount a shared attack using heretofore-unseen sonic military technology to make US embassy staff moderately unwell – or that embassy staff in China read about what was supposedly happening to their colleagues in Cuba and jumped to conclusions about a link with their own, unrelated, health symptoms?

The haste and credulity with which the “sonic attack” narrative came to be accepted and asserted as fact by the media and high-ranking US officials alike reflects the broader rise of a kind of conspiratorial populism, in which what matters is less whether something is proven true than that it can’t be proven to not be true.

Why let a pesky thing like the absence of evidence spoil a compelling and politically expedient narrative?

The conspiratorial flavour in contemporary international politics can, of course, at least partially be traced back to the Trump administration.

Trump’s political ascendance was fuelled by his promotion of the Obama birther conspiracy, and in office, he has repeatedly encouraged conspiracy theories when in his interests to do so. Other world leaders including Hungary’s Viktor Orban, the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro have also actively promoted conspiracy theories.

Political leaders willing to play fast and loose with the truth are only part of the picture, however.

Changes in media business models and how we consume information are also major drivers. In the online war for attention, the winner is often the most interesting story rather than the most accurate. A headline about a possible secret sonic weapon gets more clicks than one about a probable cricket infestation, and once enough headlines accumulate the narrative rapidly takes on a momentum of its own.

The role of algorithms in news discovery takes that tendency and dials it up to eleven.

When left to their own devices, the algorithms on platforms including Youtube and Facebook will automatically direct users towards conspiracy theories and extremist content. As more and more people get their information from these platforms, and as traditional media continue to experiment with algorithms, this cycle is only likely to get more vicious. 

As the saying goes, a lie can get halfway around the world in the time it takes the truth to put its shoes on – in 2019, conspiracy gets there and back and steals the truth’s shoes on the way past.

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