A conspiracy theory is an explanation of an event or situation that invokes a conspiracy without warrant, generally one involving an illegal or harmful act carried out by government or other powerful actors. Conspiracy theories often produce hypotheses that contradict the prevailing understanding of history or simple facts. The term is a derogatory one.
- Usage of the term
- As popular culture
- Conspiracy vs conspiracy theory
- Contrast with criminal conspiracy
- Distinguishing from institutional analysis
- To explain evil forces
- Walkers five kinds
- Barkuns three types
- Rothbard shallow vs deep
- Conspiracism as a world view
- United States
- Middle East
- Psychological origins
- Epistemic bias
- Clinical psychology
- Socio political origins
- Influence of critical theory
- Media tropes
- Fusion paranoia
- Viability of conspiracy theories
- Political use
According to the political scientist Michael Barkun, conspiracy theories rely on the view that the universe is governed by design, and embody three principles: nothing happens by accident, nothing is as it seems, and everything is connected. Another common feature is that conspiracy theories evolve to incorporate whatever evidence exists against them, so that they become, as Barkun writes, a closed system that is unfalsifiable, and therefore "a matter of faith rather than proof".
Usage of the term
People formulate conspiracy theories to explain, for example, power relations in social groups and the perceived existence of evil forces. Conspiracy theories have chiefly psychological or socio-political origins. Proposed psychological origins include projection; the personal need to explain "a significant event [with] a significant cause;" and the product of various kinds and stages of thought disorder, such as paranoid disposition, ranging in severity to diagnosable mental illnesses. Some people prefer socio-political explanations over the insecurity of encountering random, unpredictable, or otherwise inexplicable events. Some philosophers have argued that belief in conspiracy theories can be rational.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines conspiracy theory as "the theory that an event or phenomenon occurs as a result of a conspiracy between interested parties; spec. a belief that some covert but influential agency (typically political in motivation and oppressive in intent) is responsible for an unexplained event", and cites a 1909 article in The American Historical Review as the earliest usage example. As a neutral term, "conspiracy" is derived from Latin con- ("with, together") and spirare ("to breathe").
According to John Ayto's 20th century words, the phrase conspiracy theory was originally a neutral term and only acquired a pejorative connotation in the mid 1960s, implying that the advocate of the theory has a paranoid tendency to imagine the influence of some powerful, malicious, covert agency in events. According to Florida State University professor Lance deHaven-Smith's 2013 book Conspiracy Theory in America, the phrase conspiracy theory was deployed in the 1960s by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to discredit John F. Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories. However, according to Robert Blaskiewicz, assistant professor of critical thinking at Stockton University and skeptical activist, such claims have existed "since at least 1997", but due to having recently been promoted by deHaven-Smith, "conspiracy theorists have begun citing this work as an authority". Blaskiewicz researched the use of the term conspiracy theory and found that it has always been a disparaging term, having been used to describe "extreme hypothesis" and implausible speculation as long ago as 1870.
In response to angry reaction to her use of the term conspiracy theories when describing extreme speculations about the Jonestown massacre, such as claims that the CIA was conducting "mind control experiments", San Diego State University professor Rebecca Moore said, "They were angry that I had called their version of the truth a conspiracy theory ... In many respects, they have a right to be angry. The phrase 'conspiracy theory' is not neutral. It is value-laden and carries with it condemnation, ridicule, and dismissal. It is a lot like the word 'cult,' which we use to describe religions we do not like." Moore alternatively describes conspiracy theories as "stigmatized knowledge" or "suppressed knowledge" that are based on a "conviction that powerful individuals are limiting or controlling the free flow of information for nefarious purposes".
As popular culture
Clare Birchall at King's College London describes conspiracy theory as a "form of popular knowledge or interpretation". By acquiring the title 'knowledge', conspiracy theory is considered alongside more 'legitimate' modes of knowing. The relationship between legitimate and illegitimate knowledge, Birchall claims, is far closer than common dismissals of conspiracy theory would have us believe. Other popular knowledge might include alien abduction narratives, gossip, some new age philosophies, religious beliefs, and astrology.
Harry G. West wrote, "Conspiracy theorists on the internet are often dismissed as a 'fringe' group, but evidence suggests that a broad cross section of Americans today—traversing ethnic, gender, education, occupation, and other divides—gives credence to certain conspiracy theories." West discusses conspiracy theories as a part of American popular culture, comparing them to hypernationalism and religious fundamentalism.
There are many unproven conspiracy theories of varying degrees of popularity, frequently related to but not limited to clandestine government plans, elaborate murder plots, suppression of secret technology and knowledge, and other supposed schemes behind certain political, cultural, and historical events. Some theories have dealt with censorship and excoriation from the law such as the Holocaust denial. Conspiracy theories usually go against a consensus or cannot be proven using the historical method and are typically not considered similar to verified conspiracies such as Germany's pretense for invading Poland in World War II.
Currently, conspiracy theories are widely present on the Web in the form of blogs and YouTube videos, as well as on social media. Whether the Web has increased the prevalence of conspiracy theories or not is an open research question. The presence and representation of conspiracy theories in search engine results has been monitored and studied, showing significant variation across different topics, and a general absence of reputable, high-quality links in the results.
Conspiracy vs. conspiracy theory
Katherine K. Young writes that "every real conspiracy has had at least four characteristic features: groups, not isolated individuals; illegal or sinister aims, not ones that would benefit society as a whole; orchestrated acts, not a series of spontaneous and haphazard ones; and secret planning, not public discussion".
Theories involving multiple conspirators that are proven to be correct, such as the conspiracy involving United States President Richard Nixon and his aides to cover up the Watergate scandal are usually referred to as "investigative journalism" or "historical analysis" rather than conspiracy theory. By contrast, the term "Watergate conspiracy theory" is used to refer to a variety of hypotheses in which those convicted in the conspiracy were in fact the victims of a deeper conspiracy.
Contrast with criminal conspiracy
In criminal law, a conspiracy is an agreement between two or more persons to commit a crime at some time in the future. As one basic American police academy text defines it, "When a crime requires a large number of people, a conspiracy is formed." Professor of political science and sociology John George notes that unlike conspiracy theories propagated by extremists, conspiracies prosecuted within the criminal justice system require a high standard of evidence, are usually small in scale, and involve "a single event or issue".
Distinguishing from institutional analysis
Noam Chomsky contrasts conspiracy theory as more or less the opposite of institutional analysis, which focuses mostly on the public, long-term behavior of publicly known institutions, as recorded in, for example, scholarly documents or mainstream media reports. Conspiracy theory examines the actions of secretive coalitions of individuals.
The widespread belief in conspiracy theories has become a topic of interest for sociologists, psychologists, and experts in folklore since at least the 1960s, when a number of conspiracy theories arose regarding the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy. Sociologist Türkay Salim Nefes underlines the political nature of conspiracy theories. He suggests that one of the most important characteristics of these accounts is their attempt to unveil the "real but hidden" power relations in social groups.
To explain evil forces
The political scientist Michael Barkun, discussing the usage of "conspiracy theory" in contemporary American culture, holds that this term is used for a belief that explains an event as the result of a secret plot by exceptionally powerful and cunning conspirators to achieve a malevolent end. According to Barkun, the appeal of conspiracism is threefold:
Walker's five kinds
Jesse Walker (2013) has developed a historical typology of five basic kinds of conspiracy theories:
Barkun's three types
Barkun (discussed above) has categorized, in ascending order of breadth, the types of conspiracy theories as follows:
Rothbard: shallow vs. deep
The libertarian economist Murray Rothbard has argued in favor of "deep" conspiracy theories versus "shallow" ones. According to Rothbard, a "shallow" theorist observes a questionable or potentially shady event and asks Cui bono? ("who benefits?"), jumping to the conclusion that a posited beneficiary is in fact responsible for covertly influencing events. In contrast, the "deep" conspiracy theorist begins with a suspicious hunch, but goes further by seeking out reputable and verifiable evidence. Rothbard described the scholarship of a deep conspiracy theorist as "essentially confirming your early paranoia through a deeper factual analysis".
Conspiracism as a world view
Academic work in conspiracy theories and conspiracism (a world view that places conspiracy theories centrally in the unfolding of history) presents a range of hypotheses as a basis of studying the genre. According to Berlet and Lyons, "Conspiracism is a particular narrative form of scapegoating that frames demonized enemies as part of a vast insidious plot against the common good, while it valorizes the scapegoater as a hero for sounding the alarm".
The historian Richard Hofstadter addressed the role of paranoia and conspiracism throughout American history in his essay The Paranoid Style in American Politics, published in 1964. Bernard Bailyn's classic The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (1967) notes that a similar phenomenon could be found in America during the time preceding the American Revolution. Conspiracism labels people's attitudes as well as the type of conspiracy theories that are more global and historical in proportion.
The term "conspiracism" was further popularized by academic Frank P. Mintz in the 1980s. According to Mintz, conspiracism denotes "belief in the primacy of conspiracies in the unfolding of history":
Conspiracism serves the needs of diverse political and social groups in America and elsewhere. It identifies elites, blames them for economic and social catastrophes, and assumes that things will be better once popular action can remove them from positions of power. As such, conspiracy theories do not typify a particular epoch or ideology.
Throughout human history, political and economic leaders genuinely have been the cause of enormous amounts of death and misery, and they sometimes have engaged in conspiracies while at the same time promoting conspiracy theories about their targets. Hitler and Stalin are the 20th century's most prominent examples of claiming their victims were conspiring against the state; there have been numerous others. In some cases there have been claims dismissed as conspiracy theories that later proved to be true. The idea that history itself is controlled by large long-standing conspiracies is rejected by historian Bruce Cumings:
But if conspiracies exist, they rarely move history; they make a difference at the margins from time to time, but with the unforeseen consequences of a logic outside the control of their authors: and this is what is wrong with 'conspiracy theory.' History is moved by the broad forces and large structures of human collectivities.
Justin Fox of Time Magazine gives a pragmatic justification of conspiracism. He says that Wall Street traders are among the most conspiracy-minded group of people, and ascribes this to the reality of some financial market conspiracies, and to the ability of conspiracy theories to provide necessary orientation in the market's day-to-day movements. Most good investigative reporters are also conspiracy theorists, according to Fox; and some of their theories turn out to be at least partly true.
"Some historians have put forward the idea that more recently the United States has become the home of conspiracy theories because so many high-level prominent conspiracies have been undertaken and uncovered since the 1960s". The existence of such real conspiracies helps feed the belief in conspiracy theories.
Conspiracy theories are a prevalent feature of Arab culture and politics. Prof. Matthew Gray writes they "are a common and popular phenomenon". "Conspiracism is an important phenomenon in understanding Arab Middle Eastern politics ..." Variants include conspiracies involving colonialism, Zionism, superpowers, oil, and the war on terrorism, which may be referred to as a War against Islam. For example, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an infamous hoax document purporting to be a Jewish plan for world domination, is commonly read and promoted in the Muslim world. Roger Cohen theorizes that the popularity of conspiracy theories in the Arab world is "the ultimate refuge of the powerless", and Al-Mumin Said noted the danger of such theories in that they "keep us not only from the truth but also from confronting our faults and problems ..."
Some scholars argue that conspiracy theories once limited to fringe audiences have become commonplace in mass media, contributing to conspiracism emerging as a cultural phenomenon in the United States of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. According to anthropologists Todd Sanders and Harry G. West, evidence suggests that a broad cross-section of Americans today gives credence to at least some conspiracy theories. Belief in conspiracy theories has therefore become a topic of interest for sociologists, psychologists and experts in folklore.
According to some psychologists, a person who believes in one conspiracy theory tends to believe in others.
Some psychologists believe that the search for meaning is common in conspiracism and the development of conspiracy theories, and may be powerful enough alone to lead to the first formulation of the idea. Once cognized, confirmation bias and avoidance of cognitive dissonance may reinforce the belief. In a context where a conspiracy theory has become popular within a social group, communal reinforcement may equally play a part. Some research carried out at the University of Kent, UK suggests people may be influenced by conspiracy theories without being aware that their attitudes have changed. After reading popular conspiracy theories about the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, participants in this study correctly estimated how much their peers' attitudes had changed, but significantly underestimated how much their own attitudes had changed to become more in favor of the conspiracy theories. The authors conclude that conspiracy theories may, therefore, have a "hidden power" to influence people's beliefs.
A study published in 2012 also found that conspiracy theorists frequently believe in multiple conspiracies, even when one conspiracy contradicts the other. For example, the study found that people who believe Osama Bin Laden was captured alive by Americans are also likely to believe that Bin Laden was actually killed prior to the 2011 raid on his home in Abottabad, Pakistan.
In a 2013 article in Scientific American Mind, psychologist Sander van der Linden argues there is converging scientific evidence that (1) people who believe in one conspiracy are likely to espouse others (even when contradictory); (2) in some cases, conspiracy ideation has been associated with paranoia and schizotypy; (3) conspiracist worldviews tend to breed mistrust of well-established scientific principles, such as the association between smoking and cancer or global warming and CO2 emissions; and (4) conspiracy ideation often leads people to see patterns where none exist. Van der Linden also coined the term The Conspiracy-Effect.
Humanistic psychologists argue that even if the cabal behind the conspiracy is almost always perceived as hostile, there is often still an element of reassurance in it for conspiracy theorists. This is in part because it is more consoling to think that complications and upheavals in human affairs are created by human beings rather than factors beyond human control. Belief in such a cabal is a device for reassuring oneself that certain occurrences are not random, but ordered by a human intelligence. This renders such occurrences comprehensible and potentially controllable. If a cabal can be implicated in a sequence of events, there is always the hope, however tenuous, of being able to break the cabal's power—or joining it and exercising some of that power oneself. Finally, belief in the power of such a cabal is an implicit assertion of human dignity—an often unconscious but necessary affirmation that man is not totally helpless, but is responsible, at least in some measure, for his own destiny.
Some historians have argued that there is an element of psychological projection in conspiracism. This projection, according to the argument, is manifested in the form of attribution of undesirable characteristics of the self to the conspirators. Historian Richard Hofstadter stated that:
... it is hard to resist the conclusion that this enemy is on many counts the projection of the self; both the ideal and the unacceptable aspects of the self are attributed to him. The enemy may be the cosmopolitan intellectual, but the paranoid will outdo him in the apparatus of scholarship ... the Ku Klux Klan imitated Catholicism to the point of donning priestly vestments, developing an elaborate ritual and an equally elaborate hierarchy. The John Birch Society emulates Communist cells and quasi-secret operation through "front" groups, and preaches a ruthless prosecution of the ideological war along lines very similar to those it finds in the Communist enemy. Spokesmen of the various fundamentalist anti-Communist "crusades" openly express their admiration for the dedication and discipline the Communist cause calls forth.
Hofstadter also noted that "sexual freedom" is a vice frequently attributed to the conspiracist's target group, noting that "very often the fantasies of true believers reveal strong sadomasochistic outlets, vividly expressed, for example, in the delight of anti-Masons with the cruelty of Masonic punishments."
A 2011 study found that highly Machiavellian people are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories, since they themselves would be more willing to engage in a conspiracy when placed in the same situation as the alleged conspirators.
According to the British Psychological Society, it is possible that certain basic human epistemic biases are projected onto the material under scrutiny. One study cited by the group found that humans apply a rule of thumb by which we expect a significant event to have a significant cause. The study offered subjects four versions of events, in which a foreign president (a) was successfully assassinated, (b) was wounded but survived, (c) survived with wounds but died of a heart attack at a later date, and (d) was unharmed. Subjects were significantly more likely to suspect conspiracy in the case of the major events—in which the president died—than in the other cases, despite all other evidence available to them being equal. Connected with apophenia, the genetic tendency of human beings to find patterns in coincidence, this allows the discovery of conspiracy in any significant event.
Another epistemic "rule of thumb" that can be applied to a mystery involving other humans is cui bono? (who benefits?). This sensitivity to the hidden motives of other people may be an evolved and universal feature of human consciousness.
For some individuals, an obsessive compulsion to believe, prove, or re-tell a conspiracy theory may indicate one or a combination of well-understood psychological conditions, and other hypothetical ones: paranoia, denial, schizophrenia, mean world syndrome.
Christopher Hitchens presents conspiracy theories as the "exhaust fumes of democracy", the unavoidable result of a large amount of information circulating among a large number of people.
Conspiratorial accounts can be emotionally satisfying when they place events in a readily understandable moral context. The subscriber to the theory is able to assign moral responsibility for an emotionally troubling event or situation to a clearly conceived group of individuals. Crucially, that group does not include the believer. The believer may then feel excused of any moral or political responsibility for remedying whatever institutional or societal flaw might be the actual source of the dissonance. Likewise, Roger Cohen, in an op-ed for the New York Times propounded that, "captive minds ... resort to conspiracy theory because it is the ultimate refuge of the powerless. If you cannot change your own life, it must be that some greater force controls the world."
Where responsible behavior is prevented by social conditions, or is simply beyond the ability of an individual, the conspiracy theory facilitates the emotional discharge or closure that such emotional challenges (after Erving Goffman) require. Like moral panics, conspiracy theories thus occur more frequently within communities that are experiencing social isolation or political dis-empowerment.
Sociological historian Holger Herwig found in studying German explanations for the origins of World War I, "Those events that are most important are hardest to understand, because they attract the greatest attention from myth makers and charlatans."
This normal process could be diverted by a number of influences. At the level of the individual, pressing psychological needs may influence the process, and certain of our universal mental tools may impose epistemic 'blind spots'. At the group or sociological level, historic factors may make the process of assigning satisfactory meanings more or less problematic.
Alternatively, conspiracy theories may arise when evidence available in the public record does not correspond with the common or official version of events. In this regard, conspiracy theories may sometimes serve to highlight 'blind spots' in the common or official interpretations of events.
Influence of critical theory
French sociologist Bruno Latour suggests that the widespread popularity of conspiracy theories in mass culture may be due, in part, to the pervasive presence of Marxist-inspired critical theory and similar ideas in academia since the 1970s.
Latour notes that about 90% of contemporary social criticism in academia displays one of two approaches, which he terms "the fact position and the fairy position".:237 The fact position is anti-fetishist, arguing that "objects of belief" (e.g., religion, arts) are merely concepts onto which power is projected; Latour contends that those who use this approach show biases towards confirming their own dogmatic suspicions as most "scientifically supported". While the complete facts of the situation and correct methodology are ostensibly important to them, Latour proposes that the scientific process is instead laid on as a patina to one's pet theories to lend a sort of reputation high ground. The "fairy position" argues that individuals are dominated, often covertly and without their awareness, by external forces (e.g., economics, gender). Latour concludes that each of these two approaches in Academia has led to a polarized, inefficient atmosphere highlighted (in both approaches) by its causticness. "Do you see now why it feels so good to be a critical mind?" asks Latour: no matter which position you take, "You're always right!"
Latour notes that such social criticism has been appropriated by those he describes as conspiracy theorists, including climate change denialists and the 9/11 Truth movement: "Maybe I am taking conspiracy theories too seriously, but I am worried to detect, in those mad mixtures of knee-jerk disbelief, punctilious demands for proofs, and free use of powerful explanation from the social neverland, many of the weapons of social critique."
Media commentators regularly note a tendency in news media and wider culture to understand events through the prism of individual agents, as opposed to more complex structural or institutional accounts. If this is a true observation, it may be expected that the audience which both demands and consumes this emphasis itself is more receptive to personalized, dramatic accounts of social phenomena.
A second, perhaps related, media trope is the effort to allocate individual responsibility for negative events. The media have a tendency to start to seek culprits if an event occurs that is of such significance that it does not drop off the news agenda within a few days. Of this trend, it has been said that the concept of a pure accident is no longer permitted in a news item.
Michael Kelly, a Washington Post journalist and critic of anti-war movements on both the left and right, coined the term "fusion paranoia" to refer to a political convergence of left-wing and right-wing activists around anti-war issues and civil liberties, which he said were motivated by a shared belief in conspiracism or shared anti-government views.
Barkun has adopted this term to refer to how the synthesis of paranoid conspiracy theories, which were once limited to American fringe audiences, has given them mass appeal and enabled them to become commonplace in mass media, thereby inaugurating an unrivaled period of people actively preparing for apocalyptic or millenarian scenarios in the United States of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Barkun notes the occurrence of lone-wolf conflicts with law enforcement acting as proxy for threatening the established political powers.
Viability of conspiracy theories
Physicist David Robert Grimes published in PLOS ONE journal an estimation of time required for a conspiracy theory to fail given the number of people that needs to be involved. He then calculated the maximum time before failure for several large-scale conspiracy theories:
The equations used in calculations were fine tuned using data from real conspiracies (The National Security Agency (NSA) PRISM affair, Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment and FBI forensic scandal).
In his book The Open Society and Its Enemies, Karl Popper used the term "conspiracy theory" to criticize the ideologies driving historicism. Popper argued that totalitarianism was founded on "conspiracy theories" which drew on imaginary plots driven by paranoid scenarios predicated on tribalism, chauvinism, or racism. Popper did not argue against the existence of everyday conspiracies (as incorrectly suggested in much of the later literature). Popper even uses the term "conspiracy" to describe ordinary political activity in the classical Athens of Plato (who was the principal target of his attack in The Open Society and Its Enemies).
In his critique of the twentieth century totalitarians, Popper wrote, "I do not wish to imply that conspiracies never happen. On the contrary, they are typical social phenomena." He reiterated his point, "Conspiracies occur, it must be admitted. But the striking fact which, in spite of their occurrence, disproved the conspiracy theory is that few of these conspiracies are ultimately successful. Conspirators rarely consummate their conspiracy."
In a 2009 article, legal scholars Cass Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule considered appropriate government responses to conspiracy theories:
What can government do about conspiracy theories? Among the things it can do, what should it do? We can readily imagine a series of possible responses. (1) Government might ban conspiracy theorizing. (2) Government might impose some kind of tax, financial or otherwise, on those who disseminate such theories. (3) Government might itself engage in counterspeech, marshaling arguments to discredit conspiracy theories. (4) Government might formally hire credible private parties to engage in counterspeech. (5) Government might engage in informal communication with such parties, encouraging them to help. Each instrument has a distinctive set of potential effects, or costs and benefits, and each will have a place under imaginable conditions. However, our main policy idea is that government should engage in cognitive infiltration of the groups that produce conspiracy theories, which involves a mix of (3), (4) and (5).