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Conspiracy Theory: What You Don't Know Can Kill You
By: James Atkison
Table of Contents
Conspiracy Theory: What You Don't Know Can Kill You
III. Definitions of Conspiracy and Conspiracy Theory
A. Who Believes in Conspiracy Theories
IV. Types of Conspiracy Theories
B. People and Organizations
2. Princess Diana
4. The Beatles
5. The Bilderberg Group
6. White Supremists and the Militias
7. Lincoln & Booth
2. The Moon Landing
3. Economic and Free Markets
V. Conspiracy Theories and Media Distribution
A. Why They Believe
B. How To Stop Conspiracy Theories
Conspiracy theories have been around since civilizations got big enough to start keeping secrets from its general population. Modern conspiracy theories have multiplied exponentially with the advent of modern technology like the internet. Creation and dissemination of conspiracy theories today only need the catalyst of a big enough event to start the ball rolling. We explore how they come into being, a variety of conspiracy theories, and why people believe in them.
Keywords: conspiracy theory, plot, event, mythology
When you think about conspiracy theories, what comes to mind first? Do you see Mel Gibson, pre-rantiness, as Jerry Fletcher hiding with Julia Roberts in his apartment lined with aluminum foil to keep the government from reading his mind (Donner, 1997)? Or perhaps you remember seeing Sterling Hayden play Brigadier General Jack T. Ripper, who wanted to start a nuclear war with Russia because of a communist plot to contaminate the American male’s “precious fluids” through water fluoridation (Kubrick, 1964). Maybe it is just the guy at the end of the street with too many guns, in your opinion, and a plan for when the government comes in their black helicopters to take his weapons. Conspiracy theories permeate our society today in a way that is hard to explain.
In the 1990’s we had Fox Mulder running around attempting to expose the governments many conspiracies and telling us “the truth is out there” (Carter, 1993). Today we have Governor Jesse Ventura, Navy SEAL, wrestling superstar, movie star, and independent politician, telling us “you won’t believe what you don’t know” (Ventura, Smith, Weed, Sinton, and Braveman, 2009). Conspiracy theories can be found on the net by the millions or exactly 2.6 million hits in 0.14 seconds on a Google search (2010). Finding the theories is not the problem. The trouble starts when one tries to figure out which ones are true conspiracies and which ones are just conspiracy theories.
III. Definitions of Conspiracy and Conspiracy Theory
First thing we need to do is have an operational definition for what conspiracy theories actually are. Dictionary.com gives us five definitions of the word conspiracy from the Random House dictionary (2010). All contain the words “evil, secret, and unlawful” in some combination. The legal definition of conspiracy is usually what is meant when we look at conspiracies:
A conspiracy, in law, agreement of two or more persons to commit a criminal or otherwise unlawful act. At
, the crime of conspiracy was committed with the making of the agreement, but present-day statutes require an overt step by a conspirator to further the conspiracy. It is not necessary for guilt that the act be fully consummated. Many acts that would not be criminal if accomplished by an individual alone may nevertheless be the object of a conspiracy. . . . Other controversial aspects of conspiracy laws include the modification of the rules of
and the potential for a dragnet. A statement of a conspirator in furtherance of the conspiracy is admissible against all conspirators, even if the statement includes damaging references to another conspirator, and often even if it violates the rules against hearsay evidence. . . . Any conspirator is guilty of any substantive crime committed by any other conspirator in furtherance of the enterprise. It is a federal crime to conspire to commit any activity prohibited by federal statute, whether or not Congress imposed criminal sanctions on the activity itself.
(The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 2004).
Now this definition is a legal one and only gets us so far when looking at conspiracy theories. A conspiracy theory is a theory that is used to explain an event that is caused by a plot by a covert group or organization or an idea that important political event, economical or social trends are the product of secret plots that are largely unrecognized by the general public (Random House Dictionary, 2010; Barkun, 2003; Basham, 2001; Davis, 1971; Goldberg, 2001; Knight, 2002; Ramsey, 2006). The common theme running through most of the definitions is secrecy and the nefariousness of the plot. This gets us closer to the subject of conspiracy theories and the how and why some people believe in these theories.
Conspiracy theories have been with the human race for quite a while if not the dawn of our civilization. We find conspiracy in the deaths of important, influential people, associated with events like 9/11 and Waco, in religion, and all over the internet today. How we view these conspiracy theories depends on a couple of factors like the type of society we live in and the role we fulfill in that society (Coady, 2007). The trouble becomes in determining whether the event is really a conspiracy or just coincidence (Lidz, 1978). Corazine (1978) argues that Lidz misinterprets a paper by Lemet where he postulates that paranoids use a factual basis when developing their conspiracy theories. Shermer (2002) sets up our criteria for what science is and how it is used. He defines science as “a set of methods designed to describe and interpret observed or inferred phenomena, past or present, and aimed at building a testable body of knowledge open to rejection or confirmation. He also tells us that science is self-correcting, a way to learn how to minimize our thinking errors, and a toolbox of skills to prevent us from fooling ourselves (Lack, 2010). Using the scientific method to examine the claims of the conspiracist, the burden of proof falls on those who believe the theory, not on someone to disprove it.
Mandick (2007) claims that conspiracy theory covers (1) explanations of conspiracy theories, (2) historical events in terms of conspiracy theories, (3) intentional states of multiple agents (the conspirators) who, among other things, (4) intended the historical events in question to occur, and (5) keep their intentions and actions secret. Each of the five elements of the definition of conspiracy theories gives rise to serious believability problems to any conspiracy theory. Because of the way conspiracy theories are set up, analyzing them can only be done post hoc. This is because of all the elements prior to the fifth one in the definition become the most trouble and the prospects of resisting absurdism are slim to none.
As we explore history in reverse, we see conspiracy after conspiracy unfold. And not just in the assassinations of influential people, but also in the events of the centuries (Pipes, 1997). Prior to the twenty-first century, we see conspiracy in the Crusades involving the Knights Templar. Both Shakespeare and other writers of the time use conspiracy to move their plots along (Swan, 2001). The political climate also contributed to the belief in conspiracies. Further back, the Christians persecuted the Jews prior to turning on their own; there was hatred there even prior to World War II and Hitler. And some of the conspiracies made it from medieval time to today, like those concerning the Illuminati and the Freemasons.
We even see conspiracy in corporations as they expand their influence into every facet of our lives (Smith, 2007). Rose (1999) explores Foucault’s argument that knowledge is a product of power and social relationships and looks at how corporations disseminate the paranoia in the form of the literature that the society reads. In the book, Cities of the Red Night by William Burroughs, we see the employment of the rhetoric of paranoia, where as the narrative teleology of its three plots generates the expectation of a disclosure of the certain source of truth as well as an apocalyptic closure to the three stories’ end. Although Burroughs offers the radical space of absolute freedom as the ultimate narrative, Cities works as a recontainment of that freedom when it acknowledges that subjectivity is the result of a totalizing culture not that of an alien virus or colonizing parasite.
A. Who Believes in Conspiracy Theories
What type of person would believe in conspiracy theories? It has been suggested that anxiety could be the reason for belief in conspiracy theories, in a desperate bid to make sense of horrendous events (Barkun, 2003). Or is it a concern about evil hidden powers bent on taking over our world. Our desire for order in our lives leads conspiracists to look for some intelligent design behind the events. Those who believe in conspiracy theories do have some commonality. Nothing happens by accident, nothing is as it seems, and everything is connected are the three guiding principles found in almost every conspiracy theory (Barkun, 2003).
Pipes (1997) divides the origins of conspiracy theories as coming from two large groups of people: the politically disaffected and the culturally suspicious. The politically disaffected have always been marginalized by the media and society in general (Pipes, 1997). The culturally suspicious are a harder group to define. Some are considered nativist and are usually against any new immigrant population that comes into the country, not remembering that their ancestors had to immigrate to get to the United States (Davis, 1971).
Fran Mason believes that it is a poor person’s cognitive map of our postmodernist world that leads to “the omnipresence of the theme of paranoia” and belief in conspiracy theories (Knight, 2002). Unfortunately, this idea faces the same criticism as found in paranoia. To go between the local and the global or the individual and the system, cognitive mapping needs to be able to maintain a “critical distance” to keep from being biased, which is impossible in Postmodernity. “The conspiratorial subject represents a postmodern self incapable of critical distance, the result of which is a self-reflexive subjectivity that is itself a reproduction of post modern culture” (Knight, 2002).
All of this makes the realm of conspiracy theories seem like it is the domain of the fringe element of the dominate white male culture. But this is not the case. A report by Parsons, Simmons, Shinhoster, and Kilburn (1999) surveyed African Americans in Louisiana and found that there was a strong belief in multiple conspiracy theories in the community. Belief in one conspiracy theory made it likely that they would believe in other conspiracy theories (Goetzel, 1994). An interesting factor was that gender, age, socioeconomic status, and education were not a factor in having these beliefs but that perceived involvement in the government by African Americans was. “Those who believed that Blacks could influence the political process were less likely to believe in conspiracy theories (Parsons, et al, 1999).” Over half of the respondents believed that there is a government conspiracy to eliminate the African American race. African Americans also believe that HIV/AIDS was created to control the Black population and the cure is being withheld from poor people (The Lancet, 2005).
This should come as no surprise because of the number of conspiracies that have been found to be verified through government records after many years. Examples of this include the Tuskegee Syphilis Study from 1932 to 1972 (Thomas and Quinn, 1991), which was initially denied but later proved to be true and the possibility of the CIA providing Black communities in Los Angeles with crack cocaine (Parsons, et al, 1999). It cannot be considered a conspiracy theory if it is a fact, it then falls into actual conspiracy.
Another group that believes heavily in government conspiracy with good reason is Native Americans. This causes some concern for a society built upon their land of origin. When the first Europeans showed up on the East Coast, the Native Americans they met made clear the need for constant vigilance and it is a story that is retold today (Woidat, 2006). The Native Americans were seen as a threat to the settlers as they expanded. But as the dominate culture took their land, their children, their livelihood, and their culture the table turned and they began to see themselves as victims of the conspiracy narrative. Native Americans were rounded up and sent to unwanted land at the time and forced to assimilate into the dominate culture of the day. To challenge what was done to Native Americans is to challenge the foundation of the nation. It is better to view Native Americans as both victims of conspiracy and generators of conspiracy theories.
IV. Types of Conspiracy Theories
Conspiracy theories fall into a variety of categories. We will explore a variety of theories in this section. They will be divided into those concerning religion, people and organizations, and events.
Looking for conspiracy theories in religion is not a hard thing to do. Bennett (2007) looks to divide history into two areas: providence, where the observer credits the “hand of God” influencing events, and conspiratorial, where the “hidden hand” influences the events. He sees both belief systems as intertwined as they are both all-encompassing and attempt to be air-tight in their explanations. Bennett also explores the thought that “only providentialism, with its belief in an all-powerful personal deity acting behind the scenes of history that leads to conspiracism (2007). He also acknowledges that this can be seen as a kind of beneficent conspiracy theory with God as the chief conspirator.
Barkun (1996) finds a link between religion and militias in that they link conspiracy to Satan’s struggle against God. He finds that the black helicopters and One World Order that the militias are suspicious of entwines with the mark of the beast from the religious side of the equation and each feeds the others paranoia. We also see this enmeshment occurs in the main stream of media as well. Pat Roberson, presidential hopeful and 700 Club television show host, has written about the menace of the New World Order and preaches against it on television. His biggest concern is how many have left the fringe and went into the mainstream by bridging out.
Conspiracy theories could be dangerous to our moral order according to Donskis (1998). He sees conspiracy theories as implicating sociological and biological forces beyond human control shaping our world, instead of the traditional theological view involving the hand of God. Donskis tries to provide a new framework looking at the origins and meanings of conspiracy theories can be traced to a major issue of social philosophy. He sees the categorization of things like witches, sorcerers, unnatural creatures, heretics and Jews as evil because the failed to fall into the principle of good, order, or natural. Demonizing is the way humans deal with what we cannot explain. This is fertile ground for conspiracy theorists to discriminate and join forces with intolerant Christians. Donskis says that by accepting a “conspiratorial view of our world may jeopardize any viable moral order” (1998).
Another place we find an abundance of conspiracy theories is in the end of the world groups, be they secular or religious. Callahan (1996) lists a number of places to hear conspiracy theories like fundamentalist radio programs, where the mention of black helicopters and foreign troops on U. S. soil abounds. Mix this with dogmatic belief in a conspiracy including Satan and the fantasy world these theorist create in their mind becomes a land of horror.
Ruotsila explores how Nesta Webster went from premillennialist Christian fundamentalist to conspiracy theorist on the Illuminati by renaming some of the key theological concepts and replacing them with her own cast of Jewish, Communist, and heretic Christian conspirators but keeping the sequence, the teleology, and the general terminology of premillennialism (2004). He gives a rundown of her beliefs that boil down to a belief in the struggle between Christ and Satan. She can be seen as the start of the Christian far-right doctrine. Her eclectic mixture of Christian fundamentalism, premillennialist apocalypticism, and secular anti-Semitic conspiracism is still popular today.
Keely (2007) takes conspiracy theory to the ultimate end of the spectrum. His concern is a workable defense for agnosticism with respect to God against arguments that agnosticism is not a logically stable position and will default to atheism. Keely explores the Problem of Evil, if the world is governed by such a perfect being as God, then why is there still suffering and pain in the world? Some theologians have said that evil does not exist, but from the Divine perspective, everything is good and necessary in the bigger picture (Divine Providence again). This kind of reasoning has been used by conspiracy theorist to explain the secret plans of other various hidden organizations. Most of us do not like fence straddling in politics or religion. But the agnostic agrees with the atheist in there is not enough evidence that God exists and then with the theist that there is not enough evidence that God does not exist. Looking at God through the lens of conspiracy theory, agnosticism becomes the only way to view our existence. If God were truly omniscient then he knows what kind of evidence we are looking for and an omnipotent God would leave some sort of evidence of his existence. Looking for the type of God that does not want to be found becomes a futile task. This would make God the ultimate in conspirators.
B. People and Organizations
The JFK presidential limousine moments before the assassination. Warren Commission Exhibit #697 via Wikimedia Commons
Bill and Jean Newman and their children fall on the grass north of Elm Street seconds after the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas, believing that they are in the line of fire. Photographing them are Tom Craven and Tom Atkins. On the grass at right is Cheryl McKinnonby White House photographer Cecil Stoughton via Wikimedia Commons
The assassination of John F. Kennedy is probably the most well known conspiracy theory to any American. 73 % of Americans believe the President was the victim of a conspiracy (Southwell and Twist, 2004). We even have the Select Committee on Assassination of the House of Representatives report which states “The committee believes on the basis of the evidence available to it, that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated as the result of a conspiracy” (United States, 1979).
Interestingly though the committee did say it was a conspiracy, they did not comment on who the conspiracy was between. Remember back to our definition of a conspiracy and it takes at least two to conspire. The usual suspects would of course be our own government consisting of the CIA and the Military Industrial Complex. Enough motive to be found in this group but then some suspected the KGB and Cuban communists. But Fidel Castro told Governor Jesse Ventura that he had nothing to do with the assassination of President Kennedy in 2000. The Mafia is another favorite suspect as the Kennedy brothers were close to shutting them down.
When Oliver Stone’s movie JFK came out, he was subjected to severe criticism about the conspiracy theories that he explored, which Stone took as attacks on his area of expertise, his job, and his profession (Benoit and Nill, 1998). He breathed life into all the old conspiracies by attacking his detractors. He rejected the lone gunman theory; his rebuttal attracted millions to the movie and cause a public reexamination of the assassination of Kennedy and a call to release classified documents pertaining to the assassination.
Gerlich (1998) goes over the conspiracy theories surrounding the shooting of JFK. He covers the Zapruder film, the magic bullet, the mafia, CIA, and other rogue groups, and many facets of Oswald. The evidence for the conspiracy is reported and refuted. He lays the burden of proof at the feet of the conspiracists. He points out they bring up good points, although not enough to consider it a conspiracy, but then conspiracists leave for the readers to draw their own conclusion.
2. Princess Diana
(Own work)[Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons
(Own work)[Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons
Douglas and Sutton (2008) looked at the social influence of unconscious persuasion about how conspiracy theories about the death of Princess Diana affected the participants. Participant underestimated how much influence being exposed to these conspiracy theories had on them and overestimated how much influence these theories had on other participants. Douglas and Sutton question the functions of conspiracy theories stating: “if conspiracy theories are to provide explanations for uncertain events or are a response to powerlessness, then it is surprising that people are not prepared to accept that they have been influenced by them (conspiracy theories)” (2008).
It was only days after her death that President Moamar Qaddafi suggests a joint conspiracy between the French government and the Royal Family because they did not want Diana to marry a Muslim man. Her manner of death made conspiracy almost inevitable. Supposedly at the moment when their car went into the tunnel, a flash of light can be seen on the video taken by a tourist. This was a suggested method of causing a murder to look like an accident from MI6, British counterintelligence (Ramsey, 2006).
by Dick DeMarsico, World Telegram staff photographer (Own Work)[Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons
by Yoichi R. Okamoto, White House Press Office (WHPO)(Own Work)[Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons
Using his intelligence and compassion to combat ignorance and intolerance in the United States, Dr. Martin Luther King’s death was a blow to the civil rights movement in the Sixties. The House Committee on Assassinations concluded:
The committee believes, on the basis of the circumstantial evidence available to it, that there is likelihood that James Earl Ray assassinated Dr. Martin Luther King as a result of a conspiracy.
The committee believed on the basis of the evidence available to it, that no private organizations or individuals, other than those discussed under section B, were involved in the assassination of Dr. King (United States, 1979).
The question that is left in everyone’s mind is how did James Earl Ray end up in London when he had very little money? This of course is fodder for the conspiracists.
The striking number of similarities in each of these cases is remarkable in that most of the alleged assassins are all poor and the governments involved had incredible luck in tracking down background information on the assassins after their capture. In each case, secrecy was the main element to keep the general public from rioting were the truth to come out that their own governments had a hand in taking out such a beloved public figure.
4. The Beatles
United Press International (UPI Telephoto) Cropping and retouching: User:Indopug and User:Misterweiss [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons
(Own Work) via Wikimedia Commons
The death of John Lennon, the first Beatle killed (or was he?), hurt the world by taking a musical genius and peace activist before his time. The silence of Mark David Chapman makes it hard to understand this terrible murder. After passing through metal detectors in Hawaii and New York, Chapman shot Lennon outside of his residence on December 8, 1980 (Southwell and Twist, 2004).
Fearing he might stir up trouble for the new Reagan administration which was increasing spending on defense projects, the military industrial complex becomes a suspect along with the FBI who kept tabs on Lennon. Chapman worked for a defense company which had close ties to the CIA, making them suspect as well. The more unusual suspects include Satanic Forces because Chapman had indicated that he believed that Lennon was the Antichrist which ties to Christian fundamentalists who had it in for Lennon since his “bigger than God” quote (Southwell and Twist, 2004).
The Beatle first reported to be dead was Paul McCartney, in the late 1960s, and conspiracists theorized that he had been replaced by a doppelganger named William Campbell. Those who believe this tell us to look to the group’s music and albums for the clues. Like on Sergeant Pepper’s lonely Hearts’ Club Band, Paul is wearing an arm patch with the initials OPD, a commonly recognized acronym for Officially Pronounced Dead or on the Abbey Road album where Paul is depicted in the funeral group as the corpse, bare foot and out of step with the other Beatles (Southwell and Twist, 2004).
Of course the number one suspects would be the Beatles themselves and the record company. Who would want to see a cash cow like the Beatles die? The CIA is accused of planting the fake Beatle. Stranger suspects include Elvis Presley because of the success the Beatles were experiencing and the Devil himself, as part of the deal for that success (Southwell and Twist, 2004).
5. The Bilderberg Group
The original Bilderburg Hotel by
(Own work)[Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons
via Wikimedia Commons
Ever get the feeling that you are not in control of your life and someone else is pulling your strings? Just look to the Bilderberg Group and you will find your masters, who decide the next political leaders for many countries, according to some conspiracists (Wilford, 2003). They are supposed to have chosen the leaders for powerful countries and determine when and where wars start. The group got its start in 1954 meeting in the Bilderberg Hotel in Oosterbeek, Holland; they now move the location of their meeting to other luxury hotels but retain the name. The group originally consisted of 75 men and now it is 120 members from North America and Europe who come from the world of business, media, education, and politics. These men could be just greedy businessmen or a cabal to control the world through the New World Order. Wilford (2003) suggests that the group is possibly funded by the CIA and MI6 but maintains the New World Order is as close to the truth as theorists will come to about this group.
Taking a step back and looking for who started the Bilderberg Group, Callahan (1996) goes for the Hail Mary play by invoking the Illuminati, a secret cabal of republican (not in the American political sense) free-thinkers. The Illuminati are reported to promote the hazardous ideas of universal suffrage, equality of the sexes, and complete freedom of religion. These intellectuals were reported to want to create a utopian socialist society which included the abolition of social authority, private property, and national states. We would all live on earth as a single society in anarchic harmony enjoying peace and free love (Callahan, 1996). The Illuminati are credited with the formation of not only the Bilderberg Group but also the Knights Templar and the Freemasons prior to their most recent attempt at world domination.
6. White Supremists and the Militias
The militias have been increasing in number since the 1990s and are a concern because of their ability to recruit from many disaffected Americans (James, 2001). According to the right wing conspiracy theorists, the elites behind the New World Order want to destroy our nation and our families or what they call our way of life. Through the use of the internet, these militias have been able to link up with Christian organizations and spread their version of the truth on the World Wide Web. Globalization is causing these groups to look for traitors to blame for America’s decline.
Any discussion of conspiracy theories leads to White Supremacy Groups in the United States. Berlet and Vysotsky (2006) explore the connection these groups have to conspiracy theories. Their beliefs in New World Order and government conspiracies mirror those of the militias and some religious organization. By keeping track of them, we are able to keep track of some of the fringe elements and their beliefs.
Shermer (2005), a well-known skeptic and debunker, was accosted after a lecture by a conspiracy theorist who explained how the 9/11 attacks were to lead to a New World Order. According to the theorist, Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and the CIA had developed a plan for world conquest. Financed by gold, oil, and drugs (G. O. D.), the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were to have the same effect as Pearl Harbor did in 1941, providing the reason to declare war and allowing the U. S. to dominate the Middle East (Shermer, 2005).
7. Lincoln & Booth
by Unknown Photographer [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons
Exploring the conspiracy theories concerning the attacks on 9/11, we find that 50% of New Yorkers believe U.S. leaders knew in advance about the attacks and did nothing about it from a 2004 poll (Knight, 2998). And a 2006 poll found that one third of Americans believed that it was likely or very likely that the United States government either actively assisted or deliberately allowed the attacks to happen so it could go to war in the Middle East. The conspiracy theories on the 9/11 attacks range from a Jewish conspiracy, because the Israeli government knew about the attacks no Jewish people were killed when the towers went down, to the organization of the 9/11 Truth Movement as a distributor of conspiracy theories. President Bush attempted to head off all conspiracy theories by dismissing all alternative interpretations of the events. Because some 9/11 conspiracy theories accounts of the complicated relationships among al-Qaeda, CIA, and oil corporations loyalty to a group, nation, or political stance is temporary at best and intentions are ambiguous. Knight believes that these are theories are not like the traditional models of conspiracy theories.
There are some in the world who believe that President Bush used the attack of 9/11 and the global war on terror to advance his own agenda. The evidence given for this conspiracy is the search for the truth and the fact that the administration found no weapons of mass destruction after invading Iraq (Keenan, 2006). This has had a disastrous effect of causing members in some countries to look to terrorism as a means of resisting what the Bush administration is attempting to do. This becomes a problem for anthropologists working in the field in foreign countries because the can be used as hostages to further the terrorists goals.
Within the 9/11 conspiracy circle, 9/11 truth.org does not subscribe to the official story that the towers fell because of damage done by the two planes (Molé, 2006). They believe that it was a controlled demolition planned in advance by the government that took the towers down. Their reasons are very scientific when looked at separately. The temperature difference between what jet fuel can reach and the melting point of steel; the fact that, by comparison, it looked like a controlled demolition; and the fact that debris can be seen going out horizontally from the towers prior to their felling, which indicated that demolition explosives were used to bring the towers down. Each of these points by themselves maybe true but each has been discounted by experts in the field of demolition, metallurgy, and building construction. Building 7 which wasn’t struck, also collapsed was seen to have small fires and 9/11Truth Movement says it shouldn’t have collapsed unless it was also scheduled for demolition. But they tend to only show the north side of the building which sustained very little damage. They also claim that the Pentagon was not struck by a plane but either the government staged the damage or a missile struck the side of the pentagon. Then depending on which conspiracy theorist you believe, Flight 93 either landed safely or was shot down by U. S. fighter jets. The best explanation is that this was the worst attack yet in U. S. history by terrorist who do not like U. S. foreign policy. Unfortunately, organizations like 9/11 Truth Movement attempts to draw attention away from this fact and live in a fantasy realm where the government is against the people who elected it.
In a report looking at the 9/11 Commission Report, Perrow cites the fact that there were organizational failures located in the Federal Aviation Administration, the air carriers, and the military where communication seemed to have broken down during this crisis (2005). He includes in the organizational failures low level secure phone lines that could not be used because the FAA had not been included in the loop to the military. Then even thought Vice President Cheney issued a shoot down order on hostile aircraft, commanders did not pass the order on to the fighters that scrambled out of Langley because they were unsure of how the pilots would and should take this order. The fighters that came from Andrews Air Force Base were unarmed but did receive the order to fire on the aircraft. The conclusions drawn by the Commission was that of massive organizational errors and the correction was a revamping of the organizations. The report did not stop here but also looked at the Clinton and Bush Administrations to see where failures occurred there. The report sees the largest failure in the infighting between organizations of the Intelligence Community. 15 separate agencies overseen by 100 congressional committees all of which don’t follow the kindergarten command to play nice together across two administrations. Executive failures are harder to classify, even an alert, well-informed President could be hamstrung. Then we dump tons of money into the Intelligence Community and give them a new head and call it Homeland Security. This did not take care of the in-house fighting that occurred between intelligence organizations. Perrow recognizes that the focus is on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, not on combating the threat to our homeland. He predicts that another major attack while difficult to pull off is not impossible and is very surprised that the terrorists have taken so long to mount another attack.
This is a trailer for the final edition of Loose Change
Loose Change is a series of films written and directed by Dylan Avery and produced by Korey Rowe, Jason Bermas, and Matthew Brown. Originally release in 2005, it went through some revisions and re-releases in 2006, 2007, and 2009. The film argues that the 9/11 attacks were planned and conducted by the U. S. government. Although the film’s claim of a false flag operation, questions of plausibility of the Pentagon attacks, World Trade Center collapse, and phone calls from United 93 and its subsequent crash have all been refuted by prominent members of the scientific and engineering community, many still believe the claims made in the films.
Looking at the online film concerning the 9/11 attacks, Butter and Retterath (2010) see conspiracy theorists and their attempt at narrativized reality as postmodern poets. The people who released the Loose Change films felt they were only alerting the world to what they saw as a conspiracy. Butter and Retterath believed that the online community started by this group would soon collapse but that has not been the case because most conspiracists are loners. They believe that this may be an attempt to place conspiracy theory into a historical context.
2. The Moon Landing
This video compares pictures and video of the moon landings with comments by Nash Entertainment.
The facts of the moon landings being faked seems like such a strange thing to be in conspiracy theories, but it is the bigger fact that the government lies to its constituents that brings this here. The facts offered to support a conspiracy theory are inconsistencies in the photos taken of the moon landing (Hari, 2002). The fact that the flag seems to be flapping, the clarity of Neil Armstrong’s boot prints in the dusty lunar surface, and the back drops of all the photos appear to be the same for all the pictures taken over a 5 kilometer range.
Another favorite of the government is hiding something set is the conspiracy of the UFO crash at Roswell, New Mexico in 1947. Here supposedly we received our technological advancement for microchips, stealth planes, and medical advancements. Gerlich (1997) visited Roswell during a UFO research convention. After being judiciously separated from his hard earned money, Gerlich notes that he can “see Roswell becoming a modern-day Mecca for the disenfranchised and disbelieving, a haven for those who just can’t believe the media or the government” (1997).
3. Economic and Free Markets
Jesse Ventura explores the cause of the Wall Street fiasco
Tanner (2008) takes the world of conspiracism to economics and the free market. He shows the connection America’s founding fathers had to the Illuminati as evidenced by the symbols on the one dollar bill. He points out Henry Ford’s anti-Semitism as evidence of conspiracism invading the free market. Tanner looks at how conspiracies are integrated into the very fabric of modern, industrialized societies. He gives us four types of political mythologies: the conspiracy, the golden age, the rescuer/redeemer, and the desire for completeness and unity. Tanner believes that the most dangerous political mythology of the twenty-first century is the theory of the inevitable “clash of civilizations” (2008).
Ventura (2010) looks at the current Wall Street Crisis that was brought on by the collapse of the housing bubble which in turn damaged financial institutions and caused the world stock markets to plummet. Official, we were told that corporations like AIG and Goldman Sachs were too big to fail and we arranged for multibillion dollar bailouts in order to prevent further collapse of the system. Ventura sees this as a government conspiracy to keep the fat cats in business while the American public picks up the tab for their failures. Instead of going to jail, CEOs reaped the largest bonuses in U. S. history. Ventura says “Corporations basically run the government, and the same players that made the mess still have a stranglehold on our future” (2010).
V. Conspiracy Theories and Media Distribution
There have been many ways to get a person’s conspiracy theory out to the consuming public. In the past, pamphlets and self-published books were the only way to get the message out. Then you had to go to where people of a like mind would gather, say a gun show or other forum. Today, one can publish online, blog about your conspiracy theory, or create a movie and upload it to the internet and have it reach the world in less time than it took to think of this sentence and write it down.
Look at the success of the online documentary Loose Change (Butter and Retterath, 2010). By combining news footage with amateur footage and animate sequences with interviews, several million people were able to view it either by YouTube video or through the website created to allow it. Just as quickly as it was put up, it was quickly picked up and discussed and refuted by major media outlets. This refuting was picked up by the online community it was meant to organize. It was picked apart by blogger from the site and other groups of critics.
The development and widespread use of the internet, which has had a significant social effect, has also had a profound effect on the development of conspiracy theories (Clarke, 2007). It is a common held belief that conspiracy theories seem to flourish on the internet. Although the internet has allowed many more conspiracy theories to be proffered, it may not be as helpful as many think it to be and could even retard the development of many theories. The speed of communication is helpful to disseminate information but it can also provide a path to disprove any of the conspiracy theories. The reliability issue is increased on the internet because the consumer is able to look up as much information as they desire before making a decision.
The internet is not the only place to disseminate fear and paranoia. TV and radio also allow the message to get out to many of the faithful. Pat Roberson hosts a daily television show where he is allowed to put out any message he see fit about the New World Order and those who tune in to hear his evangelical message get a healthy dose of the conspiracy message as well (James, 2001). Using the Book of Revelations as a template, Christian media empires deliver to their audiences their interpretations of world events seen through the narrative of the horrible destruction of Armageddon and the ecstatic rapture when they are all called to heaven. By getting their message out daily, they can keep the masses updated on what to worry about today.
Even print media puts many conspiracy theories to the forefront of the media circuit. Jesse Ventura’s American Conspiracies runs the gamete of conspiracy theories. He begins with the Lincoln conspiracy and moves through many plots like the attempted overthrow of FDR, the Kennedy and Malcolm X assassinations, the murder of Dr. King, Watergate, Jonestown, stolen elections, our drug dealing government, and what happened on 9/11, the Wall Street collapse, and the eventual end of our democracy (Ventura, 2010). His take on these events is colored by his being a Navy SEAL in Vietnam, his readings during his wrestling career, and his governorship of Minnesota.
A. Why They Believe
How are conspiracy theories developed? Basham (2001) believes that all conspiracy theories, unfounded or not, follow a two-step pattern: 1) by pointing out the incongruities, they undermine the official account; 2) by incorporating the incongruities into their conspiratorial account until they become totally congruent. Because theorists believe that official explanations are half truths or wholly deceptive, they can rationally interpret evidence against their theory as evidence for their theory. Basham suggests we take an agnostic view of conspiracy theories, being skeptical of conspiracy theories when they suffer various internal faults like self-consistency, explanatory gaps, and the theories own incongruencies. The public consensus is one of public trust in our elected officials, but it is also a consensus that there are serious cracks in that trust. Basham recommends that we do not respond to the theories because we cannot give the theorists an explanation that they find to be sufficient.\
How do we tell the difference between conspiracy theories that are real and those that are imagined? Bale (2007) tells us that we don’t pay attention to conspiratorial politics because we don’t take the time to tell the difference between real- world covert and clandestine activities from the elaborate fantasies. Comparing conspiracy theories to political ads, Bale acknowledges the scale is way off, but the intent is there. If a politician is willing to do back room deals to get re-elected, what other deals has he been up to without his constituents knowing about them. Because of their impact on both past and future events, academics can no longer afford to ignore true conspiratorial activities of all types.
Clarke (2007) wants us to consider conspiracy theories by whether they have at their core a progressive or a degenerative research program. He points out that theories do not form in a vacuum and the social aspect needs to be considered. Clark sees the widespread access to the internet allows not only fast access for many but connects the beliefs to others who are geographically far away. He believes the hyper critical atmosphere found on the internet today has actually slowed the spread of conspiracy theories because theorists are discouraged from posting the explicit versions of their favorite theories. For a conspiracy theory to replace the accepted view of an event, it must provide a better answer for the event.
Freedman (1984) traces the origin of conspiracy theories to explain the assassination of high ranking officials to European and Asian history, where assassination is common place. In the four successful assassinations of U. S. Presidents, four unhappy, powerless, anonymous men killed the most powerful political figure but they are viewed as instruments of a conspiracy. We do not want to accept the fact of a lone gunman because the world must be more complicated than that.
In a 1979 study by McCauley and Jacques looking at the reason for the popularity of conspiracy theories is because people irrationally big causes to explain big effects. The first study supported the fact that information about the success or failure of the assassination attempt makes a big difference in the popularity of a conspiracy theory. Study 2 but not Study 3, showed that over half the people believed groups of assassins would be more successful than lone assassins in an attempt to kill a President. Study 4 also supported the tendency to see groups as more effective than individuals. The results of this study indicates that people do associate successful assassination with conspiracy, not because of an irrational need to find big causes for big effects, but because people believe conspiracies are more efficient and effective than a lone assassin.
Pratt (2003) sees the importance of conspiracy theorists as probing something meaningful in America and world culture. He believes that conspiracy theories are a way for people to reclaim the power in their life. This leads to Pratt’s conclusion that a besieged, manipulated public the world over will take refuge in a variety of conspiracy theories to the extent that they describe popular feeling about events in the world.
McCarthy during the 1950’s used fear to push his conspiracy theory concerning communism through to almost becoming a national way of life (Leighninger, 2004). Thought your neighbor was up to something sinister, report them. Bully, badger, and threaten confessions of communist behavior out of lawful citizens to protect the population from communism. The Red Scare of the McCarthy era was a threat that had to be eradicated through zealous search and destroy missions in government agencies and before government tribunals (Liu, 1998).
Parish (2007) looks at the creation of the meta-narrative when talking about conspiracy theories. It is the bring together of what was previously apart that leads to the creation of the conspiracy theory, but it is this movement of connection and separation that is lost when looking at the questions answered by the conspiracy theory. But the tendency to over interpret the information becomes commonplace, but when more is revealed the increase of diversity of information actually reveals less.
Secretary of State Al Haig in 1982 announced that Washington possessed proof that insurgency in the region of Latin America was being organized from outside the region (MacDonald, 1984). This attitude reflected the tradition in US diplomacy which regarded unwelcome events as a product of the conspiracy masterminded in Europe. An explanation for this paranoid view has to start with the United States definition of itself and its relationship to Latin America. As the first democratic society in the hemisphere, the United States regarded itself as an ‘innocent’ power, which benefited mankind by exporting its value along with its goods. The United States has always felt free to criticize imperialism while believing that its own expansion fulfilled its mission to mankind at the roots of American history. This is seen again today in our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Parker (2007) wants to explain the age of anxiety we live in today. Parker tells us that “a conspiracy theory creates and ties together a series of events in relations to cause and effects. Conspiracy is predicated on uncovering a specific form of order and structure. . .” (2007). Once we inhabit this elevated Universe of Conspiracy, every idea has its place and nothing can be left out. This makes conspiracy theories almost impossible to be falsifiable and in turn almost impossible to verify. Belief in conspiracy theories has increased in this age of anxiety because people no longer have much else to believe in. This is a very postmodern belief in the causes of conspiracy thinking. Parks found that the only way to explain the age of anxiety was to deploy more forms of conspiracy thinking. He makes the point in his conclusion that we cannot do without conspiracy thinking but that hyper-conspiracism might lead us to the transparency we seek.
Some consider the theorists paranoid. The paranoia of the conspiracists can be understood as a mutation of the philosopher (Liu, 1998). Conspiracy theories do not need to be based on facts. Its power is drawn from its relationship to the indelible and unpredictable dissemination of the mark of the conspiratorial and the theoretical.
Cook (2003) observes that the conspiracy mentality will not accept ordinary evidence. He finds a psychological block to ordinary evidence in favor of extraordinary. Cook looks at the evidence for the assassination attempt of McKinley and Reagan and the assassinations of JFK, King, and RFK. Despite the overwhelming amount of evidence against conspiracies in these killings, there are those who will continue to see conspiracies because it is inconceivable to them that a lone gunman could have been responsible for the most tragic and dramatic assassinations of the twentieth century.
Basham (2003) looks at a malevolent world-wide conspiracy where our lives are controlled by a secret cabal. He recognizes that we live in “a remarkably secretive, hierarchically organized civilization” (2003) and he gives us four primary rejections for such a theory: unfalsifiability, uncontrollability, trustworthiness of public institutions of information, and accusation of paranoia. The reason for the disbelief in conspiracy theories seems to be the there’s nothing you can do thought process. We tend to place the conspiracy theory far beyond our circle of knowledge or action. The biggest danger we face as a society is if we take conspiracy theories seriously, we run the risk of creating a divisive, society-wide paranoia.
Looking at the first four seasons of the X-Files, Dorsey (2002) feels that the storywriters have abandoned the typical portrayal of conspiracy characters’ motivations and behaviors with a trickster/ protagonists who have nebulous beliefs and actions are not clear given the complexity of their universe. This introduction of trickster characters changed the way the narratives of conspiracy are viewed. The trickster character seems to weaken the hero, against the establishment. The hero worked as an agent of the government protection the country from secretive foes, the trickster anti-hero is at odds with the comfortable ignorance maintained by authority.
Bell and Bennion-Nixon (2001) looks at the X-Files, at the story arc concerning Mulder’s sister, Samantha, and how the fictional conspiracy compares to the real world conspiracies. The X-Files gives us a look at a perfect conspiracy theory. Some complain that the X-Files turns people away from science by replace the rational with the irrational. Although the X-Files are pop culture exploring conspiracy theories, it brought these fringe theories into the main stream.
In Myths to Live By written by Joseph Campbell, he asks the question, “what is to be the new mythology” (1972). I believe he would answer today that conspiracy theories are the modern myths that man lives by today. Campbell contends that myths were a way to explain events that man had no understanding of at the time and this is the purpose of conspiracy theories today. It relieves our anxiety from not knowing if we attempt to answer questions like who did this and why did they do it.
The universal themes that run through conspiracy theories, the secrecy and the global themes, are essentially the same as the mythological motifs found throughout the world. Both tell us of their structure, their order, and their forces, in symbolic terms. Even when our societies consisted of our local tribes, we attempted to make sense of a bigger world.
B. How To Stop Conspiracy Theories
Sunstein and Vermeule (2009) gave us some insight into the causes of conspiracy theories earlier, now we turn to them for a way of dealing with conspiracy theories. They give us five ways governments can deal with conspiracy theories. Governments can ban the conspiracy theories, they can tax those who disseminate the theories, the government can engage in counter speech, in an attempt to discredit the theories, they can hire private parties to engage in counter speech, and they can engage in informal dialogues with those disseminating the theories. Sunstein and Vermeule think that a mixture of 3, 4, and 5 through cognitive infiltration of the conspiracy group. They also off up a couple of websites that specialize in researching rumors and conspiracy theories,
. For those who worry about the proliferation of conspiracy theories on the internet, this provides a checks and balance system of reality checks.
How are we to deal with conspiracy theories? Basham (2001) suggests that we respond by not responding to them, because rejection will not succeed in squashing the theories. He provides us with the attitude that there is nothing we can do, and it is for this reason that many people shun conspiracy theories. Unfortunately, many conspiracy theories predict a day when their awful truth will be made public knowledge, to our misfortune, which leave us with the question: What of tomorrow?
This has been a brief overview of the field of conspiracy theories. By no means is this all there is that is out there and available for a dedicated researcher. You could spend your lifetime and never be an expert in all conspiracy theories. This sample is provided to let you the consumer know what is available and where to find it.
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Hall, J. A. (2006). Aligning darkness with conspiracy theory: The discursive effects of African American interest in Gray Webb’s “Dark Alliance”. The Howard Journal of Communication, 17, 205-222.
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Irvine, S. and Beattie, N. (1998). Conspiracy theory, pre-millennium tension, and the X-Files: Power and Belief in the 1990s. Social Alternatives, 17, 4,31-34.
James, N. (2001). Militia, the patriot movement, and the internet: The ideology of conspiracy. The Editorial Board of the Sociological Review, 49, 2, 63-92
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Ruotsila, M. (2004). Mrs. Webster’s religion: Conspiracist extremism on the Christian far right. Patterns of Prejudice, 38, 2,109-126.
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Woidat, C. M. (2006). The truth is on the reservation: American Indians and conspiracy culture. The Journal of American Culture, 29, 4,454-467.
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