Conspiracy theories have been around a lot longer than this viral outbreak. Find out their history and features and how to handle people who spread them.
Growing up, there was an old, dog-eared paperback book lying around our house called Was Oswald Alone? It was an early, and not very well known, example of a conspiracy tract about the Kennedy assassination.
I found the idea intriguing. A few years later, I bought the book Executive Action by Donald Freed and Mark Lane and also went to see the movie it spawned.
In 1978, the House Select Committee on Assassinations concluded that Kennedy was assassinated as a result of a conspiracy. They reported that the most likely perpetrator was organized crime.
I Became an Avid ConspIRACY BUFF
All this fired my natural curiosity and I became an avid conspiracy buff. The fly in the ointment was that my interest in conspiracies also led me to become a dedicated fan of Vincent Bugliosi, who prosecuted the Manson Family.
That became a problem in 2007 when Bugliosi released a mammoth tome entitled Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Someone I strongly respected and admired meticulously and methodically debunked everything I thought I knew about the Kennedy assassination.
I gradually overcame my cognitive dissonance and today I’m unshakably convinced that Oswald acted entirely on his own. That whole experience has left me wary of conspiracy theories and deeply committed to sharing, honouring and encouraging the truth.
SAME CURIOSITY DREW ME TO CONSPIRACY THEORIES
The same natural curiosity that drove me down that rabbit hole of intrigue led me to find out more about conspiracy theories themselves. It’s been a remarkable journey.
The term “conspiracy theory” comes from Karl Popper. In 1966, he wrote about a “conspiracy theory of society.” He defined this as ideas in which the ”explanation of a social phenomenon consists of a discovery of the men or groups who are interested in the occurrence of this phenomenon and who have planned and conspired to bring it about.”
At best, conspiracy theories are tolerably harmless. More often, they’re bad for the community and even worse for those who believe in them. In my own case, I became cynical about political institutions and processes, which prevented me from believing that I had any say in mainstream politics.
WE’RE NOT LIVING IN AN AGE OF CONSPIRACISM
In his book Conspiracy Theories: A Critical Introduction, Professor Jovan Byford of the Open University analyzes them in detail. He makes a very relevant point for what we’re going through these days when he explains that, in spite of what people say, we’re not living in an age of conspiracism.
I hear a number of people complaining that the recent pandemic is causing conspiracy theories. We’re definitely seeing countless conspiracy theories springing up on social media lately, but the phenomenon wasn’t caused by the internet and neither YouTube videos nor so-called fake news are the culprits.
SIX MAIN QUESTIONS ABOUT CONSPIRACY THEORIES
Professor Byford structured his book around six questions:
1. What is the definition of a conspiracy theory?
2. What is the difference between real political analysis and conspiracy theories?
3. How long have conspiracy theories been around and where do they come from?
4. What are the features of a conspiracy theory?
5. What is the connection between conspiracy theories and anti-semitism?
6. What is the psychology behind conspiracy theories?
This story will provide a quick overview of each question and we promise to return to each of them in more detail in future posts.
In a sense, the phrase “conspiracy theory” ought to be a neutral term. The word “conspiracy” just means more than one person acting together. The word “theory” is simply a system of ideas intended to explain something.
At one point, the Watergate scandal was a conspiracy theory. It turned out to be perfectly true.
CALLING A BELIEF A CONSPIRACY THEORY DISMISSES IT
Even so, when we call a belief a conspiracy theory these days, we’re dismissing it as unfounded. We’re saying that the ideas proposed are poorly thought out, irrational, biased and probably all three.
So how do we distinguish between believing in something like the Watergate scandal and believing that NASA faked the moon landing? That leads us to Professor Byford’s second question.
POLITICAL ANALYSIS VERSUS CONSPIRACY THEORIES
This is an important, but not an easy, distinction we need to be able to make. As we saw, the term “conspiracy theory” only goes back to the 1960s, while wild rumours about causes of major events go back as far as anyone can remember.
This has led to the comparatively new phrase becoming a rhetorical device. Politicians and other debaters know that calling their opponent’s explanation for something a conspiracy theory is a sly way to ridicule it.
Byford cites examples from the War on Terror. In a speech, George W. Bush condemned “outrageous conspiracy theories” as “malicious lies.” In the same speech, he attributed the 9/11 attacks to a well-coordinated conspiracy by members of al-Qaida.
WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION WAS A CONSPIRACY THEORY
Later, Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair would justify the invasion of Iraq based on an accusation that it was hiding weapons of mass destruction and misleading weapons inspectors. That turned out to be a conspiracy theory.
Byford also mentions Noam Chomsky’s views on the term “conspiracy theory.” Chomsky views the term as a way for intellectual elitists to dismiss dissenting ideas, including some of Chomsky’s own claims about social issues.
This means that it’s not just a question of whether there really is a conspiracy or not. A bigger problem in distinguishing between an actual political plot and a conspiracy theory is the way debaters toss the term around in arguments just to cast aspersions on other people’s opinions.
DEBATERS TOSS THE TERM AROUND TO CAST ASPERSIONS
Two things set conspiracy theories apart from legitimate explanations for events according to Byford. One is that conspiracy theories are always set up in ways that make it impossible to decisively prove them wrong.
For example, if you say, “there’s no such thing as the deep state” conspiracy theorists will insist that you prove it. If you share some evidence, the conspiracy theorists will dismiss it as being part of the cover-up.
They may even go so far as to accuse you of being in on the plot yourself. This “logic” means you can never win an argument with a conspiracy theorist.
YOU CAN NEVER WIN AN ARGUMENT WITH A CONSPIRACY THEORIST
The other distinction between a conspiracy theory and genuine political analysis is what Byford calls the “leap of imagination.” For example, the darkest episode in the history of medical ethics was the Tuskegee Syphilis Study.
The US Public Health Service denied treatment for syphilis to 600 poor black men for forty years without their knowledge or consent. This was supposed to be some sort of twisted “experiment” to find out the long-term effects of the disease.
We can all agree that was an atrocity to say the least. The leap of imagination is that conspiracy theorists then assume without evidence that every contagious illness from AIDS to Ebola to SARS to COVID-19 is part of one huge, nefarious plot by the dark powers that be.
AGE AND SOURCE OF CONSPIRACY THEORIES
There’s one conspiracy theory that’s like a zombie who refuses to die. It started around the time of the French Revolution in the 1790s. Secret fraternities were a big fad in those days, and we all know that when you keep something secret, people imagine something far worse.
So the Freemasons, the Jacobins, the Philosophes and especially the Illuminati became scapegoats for the overthrow of the French monarchy. This was all nonsense and it came mostly from two authors named Augustin Barruel and John Robison.
Here’s an example of the leap of logic we covered above. The Illuminati dissolved in 1786. They couldn’t seem to keep their small group going so they disbanded.
THE ILLUMINATI DISSOLVED IN 1786
The French Revolution started in 1789. You’d think that would rule out the Illuminati as the ringleaders of the movement. Conspiracist logic doesn’t work that way. Barruel and Robison claimed that the club’s dissolution was all part of the cover-up.
Conspiracy theorists are fond of the phrase “Cui bono?” which is Latin for “who benefits?” They think that following this principle makes them like detectives solving a baffling case.
The problem is, you can’t charge anybody with a crime just because they benefitted from it. We hear the phrase “motive, means and opportunity” in movie mysteries but real-life detectives have to base their cases on facts and evidence, not speculation on whose interest the crime might have served.
SPECULATION ON WHOSE INTEREST MIGHT HAVE BEEN SERVED
That’s another example of how conspiracy logic is different from regular logic. The cui bono principle leads to the conclusion that everything that goes wrong in the world is the work of powerful hidden interests who profit from it.
This idea is oddly comforting. It’s less troubling to believe that somebody, however cunning and diabolical they are, is in charge than it is to believe that bad things happen to good people for no reason.
This notion of a network of secret societies controlled by the wealthy, who rule the world hidden from view is the underlying theme of almost all modern conspiracy theories. It changes with the times and elements are added or changed, but the basic pattern has now been with us for more than two centuries.
CONSPIRACY THEORY FEATURES
According to Byford, conspiracy theories have three common features. The first feature is about who the conspirators are and what they’re like.
That exposes a further flaw in conspiracist logic and their suspicion of a secret plot. If you’re claiming that every important event is part of a nefarious scheme, you have to tell people who the schemers are.
On the other hand, if only you and a handful of like-minded people know about this concealed intrigue, the people behind it must also be concealed. The way out of this contradiction is to find a scapegoat, and secret fraternities are perfect targets.
THE WAY OUT OF THIS CONTRADICTION IS TO FIND A SCAPEGOAT
The masons are still accused of secretly ruling the world. Anyone who knows a mason knows how utterly absurd this accusation is.
In more modern times, scapegoats may also include vague terms like “Wall Street”, “Big Pharma”, “the Mob”, “the Vatican” or “the elites.” The one I was fond of when I was into this nonsense was “the Military-Industrial Complex.”
The thing all these scapegoats have in common is that they exist in some sense, but they’re also vague. Conspiracy theories never name specific people or tell us exactly where they live or precisely what their role is in society. They deliberately keep all that ambiguous.
NEVER NAME SPECIFIC PEOPLE OR THEIR ROLE IN SOCIETY
One thing that isn’t kept vague is the nature of the mysterious connivers. They are psychopaths and their evil intent is beyond your wildest imagination. That doesn’t stop conspiracy theorists from letting their imaginations run as wild as they possibly can, though.
The second feature modern conspiracy theories have in common is the nature of the plan. No doubt the Rolling Stones had conspiracy theories on their minds when they wrote the line, “But what’s puzzling you is the nature of my game.”
These days, one of the most popular names for the plan is the New World Order. The phrase has been around for more than fifty years but two things that happened in the 1990s gave it more traction.
ONE OF THE MOST POPULAR NAMES IS THE NEW WORLD ORDER
One was George H. W. Bush’s speech to Congress at the end of the First Gulf War in March 1991. He used the phrase “a new world coming into view” to describe a new global dynamic with one superpower leading a broad coalition of allies to bring peace to the world.
That same year, televangelist Pat Robertson released a book under the title New World Order. It was full of conspiratorial nonsense about the hidden machinations of the powers that be.
He described the plan in terms of three concentric circles. He claimed the conspiracy had a secret core around which revolved a less secret middle ring surrounded by the public group.
DESCRIBED THE PLAN IN TERMS OF THREE CONCENTRIC CIRCLES
Their wicked plan is to wipe out religion and replace it with secular humanism. According to Robertson, the Bible foretells that they will be defeated by the faithful in the end times, which are about to begin.
The third feature of the modern conspiracy theory is mass manipulation. Conspiracy theories always claim that a tiny handful of people are manipulating the rest of us.
Of course, it takes a ton of effort to keep us all in the dark about their sinister plan. If we weren’t in the dark about the conspirators or the plan, there’d be no point in coming up with theories to explain them.
TINY HANDFUL OF PEOPLE MANIPULATE THE REST OF US
This notion of manipulation is important for a couple of reasons. First, it gives the conspiracist an out when people ask them for facts and evidence.
They can reply that there’s no evidence because of the cover-up. So, according to them, the absence of any evidence proves the conspiracy is real and how far-reaching it is.
More importantly, belief in manipulation allows conspiracists to justify in their own minds why nobody believes them. They refer to skeptics as “sheeple”, and they rationalize all of the disbelief and ridicule they endure by telling themselves that it’s all part of the manipulation.
This is the ugliest part of conspiracy culture, but we have to call it out on its own. For centuries, at the core of most conspiracy theories is hatred of Jewish people.
There’s no other ethnic group in the world that people accuse of being wealthy, powerful and determined to rule the world. Some conspiracists are blunt about it, but the smarter ones rely on dog-whistles to get their odium across to their audience.
Most conspiracists rely on a forged book called The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. It’s supposed to be a plan to take over the world written by a group of Jewish elders.
fORGED BOOK CALLED THE PROTOCOLS OF THE ELDERS OF ZION
It’s no such thing. It’s a poorly written, fake pamphlet that turned up in Russia toward the end of the 19th century. Someone made it into a Russian booklet in1905.
Before long, this phoney document became available in German and then in English. Henry Ford brought it to the United States, had it published in the Dearborn newspaper and handed it out to his employees.
hENRY FORD HANDED IT OUT TO HIS EMPLOYEES
We covered the imagined identity of the schemers above, but we’ve left out one important characteristic until now—they’re also Jewish. When we hear phrases like Wall Street, the Illuminati, the Freemasons or the New World Order, what we’re really hearing is “the Jews”. Fellow conspiracists know this.
According to conspiracists, the entire Jewish civilization has only one goal—a world-wide conspiracy for the overthrow of civilization. Of course, they never explain why any culture would want that—that’s all part of the mass manipulation, of course.
There’s a clear and well-worn trail of tears between this element of most modern conspiracy theories and the gas chambers of Auschwitz.
When most of us read conspiracy nonsense we ask ourselves, “Who believes this stuff?” Psychologists have had a hard time answering that question.
For a long time, the prevailing theory was that conspiracists were paranoid. They have some sort of irrational belief that the powers that be are out to get them.
That’s not really the case. Mental patients suffering from paranoid delusions experience a very real palpable fear for their own personal safety.
cONSPIRACISTS ARE NOT CLINICALLY PARANOID
Conspiracists don’t. They absolutely believe that the conspiracy is all too real, but they don’t have any sense that it affects them personally.
The other important point about conspiracy theories is that they are a collective experience. Conspiracists always want to tell the world about what they’ve unearthed.
When psychologists look at the differences between people who believe in conspiracy theories and those who don’t, there’s one key difference. Conspiracists have issues with authority and feel alienated and disaffected from society. As I mentioned, I found myself developing some of those issues myself.
cONVENIENT EXCUSE FOR ISSUES ABOUT YOUR OWN STATUS
Conspiracy theories confirm this sense that the world is beyond your control. They also provide a convenient excuse for issues about your own status or lack of success in the world.
Beyond that, the main attraction of conspiracy theories seems to be that conspiracists can feel that they’re in on the secret. In most workplaces, people like to know all the latest rumours so they can feel “in the loop.”
This is why most strains of conspiracists form groups. Some of these groups meet in person at conventions, but most conspiracy groups interact primarily on social media.
OPPORTUNITY TO FEEL LIKE THE SMARTEST PERSON IN THE ROOM
Being part of a conspiracy group provides the opportunity to feel like the smartest person in the room. It also offers mutual support for the idea that “we can’t all be crazy.”
We can see that most conspiracy theories aren’t tolerably harmless after all. What should we do to get rid of them?
Byford argues against the conventional solutions of open institutions and confronting them with rational arguments. He doesn’t feel that conspiracists’ reasoning is influenced by these things.
dON’T FLATTER “TRUE BELIEVERS” WITH GENUINE DEBATE
Instead, he believes that “true believers” should be ignored. Flattering fanatical conspiracists with genuine debate only reinforces their false beliefs and gives them a platform where they may influence others.
Byford would rather see efforts aimed at the broader public. He argues that we need to distinguish between entrenched conspiracy theories like the New World Order, genuine conspiracies and more nebulous cynical suspicions about politics and society in general.
He also argues that, instead of just presenting facts and evidence, we need to take conspiracy theories apart for people, show them where they came from and describe all the harm they’ve done in the past.
tAKE CONSPIRACY THEORIES APART FOR PEOPLE
More importantly, Byford calls for explaining to the public that conspiracy theories will never solve practical problems in the real world. That’s probably the main reason that I walked away from mine.
Each of us needs to learn more about two things. First, we need to inform ourselves about who spreads conspiracy theories and the remarkably similar forms they take on.
We also need to uncover the psychosocial reasons behind who believes in conspiracy theories and why. Doing these two things will let us dissect conspiracy theories for others and enable us to debate with conspiracists and their followers effectively.
We always have more to learn if we dare to know.
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