Conspiracy theories… a long history and a new trend

Conspiracy theories in retrospective

Claims that rich capitalists are no longer out to make a profit, but to create a one-world government go back many decades now and it is always said that it is really going to happen this time, but it never does.

Since these claims have proved wrong dozens of times by now, it makes more sense to assume that leaders act for their usual reasons, such as profit-seeking motives and institutionalized roles as elected officials. Of course they want to make as much money as they can and that can lead them to do many unsavoury things. Revolving door policy, demagogy, manipulation and corruption must be denounced, but not be buried in intangible myths and conspiracy legends.

Dorling refers to sociologist Zygmund Bauman for a refutation of conspiricism. Look here for a video of Zygmund Bauman explaining his view on conspiracy theories. Both claim that there is not and never has been conspiracy of the rich:

“There has not been any great, well-orchestrated conspiracy of the rich to support the endurance of inequality, just a few schools of free-market thought, a few think tanks preaching stories about how efficient free market mechanisms are, how we must allow the few ‘tall poppies’ to grow and suggesting that a minority of ‘wealth creators’ exist and it is they who somehow ‘create’ wealth.”

“That there is no great conspiracy was first realised in the aftermath of the First World War, when it became clear that no one ‘… planned for this sort of an abattoir, for a mutual massacre four years long’ (Bauman 2008: 6). The men they called the ‘donkeys’, the generals, planned for a short, sharp, war.”

“Today, those who think they run the economy, from Thatcher to Brown, all believed that growth accompanied by trickle-down economics, variously aided, would reduce inequality. There is no orchestrated conspiracy to prolong injustice…” (Danny Dorling, 2010, p. 2)

The French Jesuit priest Augustin Barruel, began speculating that the Illuminati, an Enlightenment-age secret society, survived their suppression and became the masterminds behind the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror. He can be considered as one of the founders of the new world order conspiracy.

Progressive critics of conspiracism do not deny the obvious reality of real criminal and political conspiracies but argue that conspiracism as a worldview is neither an accurate nor useful analytical model for power structure research.

The meta-narrative of conspiracy theories

The genesis of the modern day conspiratorial phenomena is taken to be that of JFK. NASA faked moon landing, climate change is a conspiracy, 9/11 done by government, 7/7 London bombings were not the work of the four arrested perpetrators are the most prominent follow-ups.

In order to maintain the bubble of the conspiracy, it needs to get more demonic and it needs to include more people. There is where systemic conspiracy theories come in.

Systemic conspiracy theory claims that these dramatic political events are not what it seems. Behind what appears to be the establishment there is a ruling elite, an organisation of individuals who act as puppet masters; the real elite behind the masquerading elite.

Systemic conspiracy theories are constructs to explain event conspiracy theories. Some of them are rooted in historical conspiracy theories, like the Illuminati , Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The Protocols became a core source of allegations by Hitler and his allies in the German Nazi movement of a Judeo-Masonic-Bolshevik conspiracy. They still can be found on the Internet. Islamophobia as in Breivik’s ‘Eurabia’ has become the pendant of the older anti-Semetic theories.

New World Order conspiracy theories that flourished in the 1990s militia movements in the US are still propagated by Alex Jones and Glen Beck. These theories hypothesise that internationalist political and economic groups such as the United Nations, which are secretly controlled by the Zionist Illuminati, are going to forcibly invade America and institute a totalitarian one world government. (Ballinger, 2011, p. 99)

David Ray Griffin and Richard Gage argue that corrupt elites within the US military-intelligence complex deliberately staged the 9/11 terror attacks. They claim that president Barack Obama is an Islamic militant or Communist agent. (Ballinger, 2011, p. 100) It seems that twenty years after the implosion of the Sovjets, anticommunism is still popular in the US.

Superconspiracy theories are conspiratorial constructs in which multiple conspiracies are believed to be linked together hierarchically. Event and systemic are joined in complex ways, so that conspiracies come to be nested together. At the summit of the conspiratorial hierarchy is a distant but powerful force manipulating lesser conspiratorial factors. Superconspiracy theories have enjoyed particular growth since the 1980s, in the work of authors such as David Icke and Milton William Cooper.

In actual systemic conspiracy theories both anti-Semitic and Islamophobic fundaments are present. See for anti-Semetic theories ‘Unraveling Anti-Semitic 9/11 Conspiracy Theories’, for Islamophobic theories see ‘The anti-Muslim Evironment’and ‘The Muslim conspiracy theory and the Oslo massacre’.

As to  Chip Berlet the specific allegations embedded in destructive conspiracy theories change based on time and place, but the basic elements remain the same. He calls them ‘tools of fear’. The same meta-narrative pops up all the time.

(1) Conspiracy theories picture a dualistic world of good and bad, black and white. The world is divided into a good “Us” and a bad “Them.” They picture a (Manichean) struggle between good and bad. The bad are mostly subhuman.

(2) We are supposed to be on the eve of apocalyptic aggression. The expectation that a confrontation is about to take place. The confrontation will involve a battle between the forces of good and the forces of evil.  During the course of the confrontation hidden truths will be unveiled. At the end of the confrontation the society will be dramatically altered – for better or for worse.

Key to this concept of apocalypticism is the idea that time is running out, so an immediate response is required. Although apocalypticism was forged in religious belief systems, today it heats up many secular movements.

(3) Scapegoating is used in a process by which a person or group of people are wrongfully stereotyped as sharing negative traits and are singled out for blame for causing societal problems, while the primary source of the problem (if it is real rather than imaginary) is overlooked or absolved of blame.

(4) Demonization is used in a process through which people target individuals or groups as the embodiment of evil. Demonization turns individuals in scapegoated groups into an undifferentiated, faceless force threatening the idealized community

(Chip Berlet, 2009, p 9-13)

Note that conspiracy theories have (3) and (4) in common with racism.

I would like to add (5) command centre thinking (Philip Neisser,  2007; Bale, 2007).  The conspiracy is directed from a single centre.

 Real conspiracies versus conspiracy theories

What about real conspiracies? There have been plenty of government lies and cover-ups especially in the US. The Gulf of Tonkin Incident, the Watergate scandal, the Iran Contra gate, weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, are the most prominent ones. A lot of secret actions of secret services, again mainly CIA actions came to light and were admitted afterwards. These are real conspiracies. It’s important to distinguish real-world covert and clandestine activities form conspiracy theories.

Oliver and Wood see all conspiracy theories as one singular phenomenon. (Oliver and Wood, 2012) Bale and others argue that there is a difference between unveiling the machinations of for instance the American imperialist power by for instance Noam Chomsky  or John Pilger and classical conspiracy theories.  See also for a similar typology of conspiracy theories, Dean Ballinger in his thesis ‘Conspiratoria – the Internet and the Logic of Conspiracy Theory’, p. 34-37.

In his comprehensive history of conspiracy theories in the US Peter Knight notes:

“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.” (Peter Knight, 2008, p. 18)

As to Jeffrey Bale conspiracy theories can be discerned from real world conspiracies by five characteristics:

“In the first place, conspiracy theorists consider the alleged conspirators to be Evil Incarnate. They are not simply people with differing values or run-of-the-mill political opponents, but inhuman, superhuman and/or anti-human beings who regularly commit abominable acts and are implacably attempting to subvert and destroy everything that is decent and worth preserving in the existing world.”

“Second, conspiracy theorists perceive the conspiratorial group as both monolithic and unerring in the pursuit of its goals.”

“Third, conspiracy theorists believe that the conspiratorial group is omnipresent, at least within its own sphere of operations.”

“Fourth, the conspiratorial group is viewed by conspiracy theorists as virtually omnipotent.”

“Finally, for conspiracy theorists, conspiracies are not simply a regular feature of politics whose importance varies in different historical contexts, but rather the motive force of all historical change and development.”

(Bale, p. 51-52)

Real conspiracies Conspiracy theories
Conspirators are recognizably human. Conspirators are inhuman, superhuman and/or anti-human beings.
At any given point in time, there are dozens if not hundreds of competitive political and economic groups engaging in secret planning and activities, and most are doing so in an effort to gain some advantage over their rivals. Conspiratorial group as both monolithic and unerring. This group is directed from a single conspiratorial centre, acting as a sort of general staff, which plans and coordinates all of its activities down to the last detail.
Operational sphere of particular conspiratorial groups is invariably restricted in time and space. Conspiratorial group is omnipresent.
Actual conspiracies operate at varying levels of effectiveness. Conspiratorial group virtually omnipotent.
Most conspiracies are narrow in scope, restricted in their effects and of limited historical significance. Motive force of all historical change and development.

See also an interview with Noam Chomsky about this matter.

Clustering of conspiracy theories

People who believe in one conspiracy theory are more likely to believe in others. (Ted Goerzel, 1994; Dougles and Sutton, 2008; Swami et allii, 2009; Swami et allii, 2011)  In recent research J. Eric Oliver and Thomas J. Wood,  surveying some 10 conspiracy theories in the US in 2006, 2010 and 2011 conclude:

“Not only are respondents who score highly on the Manichean, End Times, Secret Cabal, and Paranormal scales uniformly more likely to agree with all of the conspiracy theories, the magnitude of these effects are far greater than any other variable. In the US the strongest predictor of conspiracism is agreement with the End Times.” (Oliver and Wood, p. 23-24).

In an online survey Lewandowsky, Oberauer  and Gignac also report on clustering of conspiracy theories, this time around a “laissez-faire” conception.

“Endorsement of the free market also predicted the rejection of other established scientific findings, such as the facts that HIV causes AIDS and that smoking causes lung cancer. We additionally show that endorsement of a cluster of conspiracy theories (e.g., that the CIA killed Martin-Luther King or that NASA faked the moon landing) predicts rejection of climate science as well as the rejection of other scientific findings, above and beyond endorsement of laissez-faire free markets.” (Lewandosky et alii, 2012, p. 1)

Researchers often are inquiring different sets of conspiracy theories, thus finding different results depending on the context of the conspiracies. Since conspiracy theories have taken so many different guises in different historical periods in different countries, there is good reason to think that there is no one-size-fits-all theory that can encompass and explain all the dizzying variety. (Peter Knight, 2003, p. 23-24)

The cognitive deadlock and the rejection of science

Conspiracy theorists still have an outdated “personalized” view of history. Thinkers as Marx, Darwin and Freud have put an end to the idea that humans are in control of their individual and collective histories. With the advent of social sciences at the end of the 19th century a multifaceted view of the human condition has become prevalent. No wonder that Karl Popper sought to refute conspiratorial thinking as conceptual misguided in the 1940s and 1950s. (Peter Knight, 2003, p. 18-19) His logic is still used today to refute conspiratorial discourse.

Most discourses of conspiracy theorists have three common essential traits:

  1. Allegation of conspiracy theory is only applying when there is secrecy involved.
  2. The claim is unsubstantiated, it is not necessarily false, but is it is not falsifiable. Positive evidence is weak or nonexistent, contrary evidence may be substantial.
  3. While the conspiracy theorist agrees in principle that claims should be substantiated by evidence, in the special case of this conspiracy, evidence has been lost/altered/fabricated/destroyed/covered by the conspirators.

Non-believers are forced into a false dilemma: to declare themselves with the conspiracy theorist or be suspect themselves.

it is a secret conspiracy -> it cannot be proofed -> because it is a secret conspiracy

This discourse is based on the logical fallacy, ‘begging the question’, in which a proposition relies on an implicit premise within itself to establish the truth of that same proposition. In other words, it is a statement that refers to its own assertion to prove the assertion.

Today scientific research is highly specialized. Though lot of things can be checked in encyclopaedias, such entries are mere a starting place for further inquiry. To check a theory is a lot of work, even when having the capacity to do so. So when some conspiracy theory adds to one’s ideological beliefs it is easily accepted being a confirmation of his ideology.

In science the problem of verification is solved by peer reviewed paper writing, meaning that a community of colleagues is checking method and facts.   But there is something bizarre about conspiracy theories; you will never be able to retrace them to peer reviewed scientific papers.  Instead pseudo-theory (Tony Sobrado) and pseudo science are enacted as proof. (Ballinger, 2011, p. 60, 85, 91) Also Lewandoski and others concluded  after analyzing  an online survey on several conspiracy theories that conspiracist ideation contributes to rejection of science:

“This provides empirical confirmation of previous suggestions that conspiracist ideation contributes to the rejection of science.” (Lewandosky et alii, 2012, p. 1)

Conspiracy theorists develop revolutionary new paradigms in fields such as physics and biology in order to validate the existence of the fantastical or occult elements, such as UFOs or interdimensional intelligences, that constitute the basis of their worldviews. Good examples include the writings of American New Age conspiracists Val Valerian  and Laura Knight-Jadcyzk, both of whom present superconspiracy histories of the world based upon New Age pseudoscientific precepts such as quantum multidimensionality. (Ballinger, 2011, p. 253)

Tony Sobrado claims that the  postmodernism and its relativist truth concept is to blame for it.

The impact of conspiracy theories might be underestimated

The pervasiveness of conspiratorial thinking in the general public and its larger implications for mass opinion lack research and therefore is underestimated.

Opinion polls conducted in 2004 found that half of New York City residents believe that U.S. leaders “knew in advance that attacks were planned on or around September 11, 2001, (Peter Knight, 2007, p. 2) and that they consciously failed to act,” and a Scripps-Howard poll in 2006 revealed that more than a third of Americans believe that it is likely or very likely that the U.S. government either actively assisted in the September 11th attacks, or deliberately allowed them to happen because it wanted to go to war in the Middle East.

On the other hand, opinion polls recording belief in conspiracy theories are particularly unreliable, because they often function as a way for people to express a generalized suspicion rather than an actual hard-core belief. In the case of the Scripps-Howard poll, figure that more accurately represents the full-blown scale of 9/11 conspiracy belief is the 16% who suspected that it was “very likely” or “somewhat likely” that the TwinTowers were brought down by controlled explosives.

In a 2008 global poll of 17 countries about 9/11, 46% of those surveyed believed al-Qaeda was responsible for the attacks, 15% believed the U.S. government was responsible, 7% believed Israel was and another 7% believed some other perpetrator, other than al Qaeda, was responsible.

The poll found that respondents in the Middle East were especially likely to name a perpetrator other than al-Qaeda.

Vapor trails left by aircraft are actually chemical agents deliberately sprayed in a clandestine program directed by government officials (Chem Trails) is believed by 7% to 9% in the US. (Oliver and Wood, p. 37)

The current financial crisis was secretly orchestrated by a small group of Wall Street bankers to extend the power of the Federal Reserve and further their control of the world’s economy is believed by 21% to 25% in the US. (Oliver and Wood, p. 37)

Conspiracy theories can be found all over the world. In a poll conducted in seven Muslim countries, 78 percent of the respondents said that they do not believe the 9/11 attacks were carried out by Arabs. Almost a quarter of British Muslims believe that the four men blamed for the London bombings did not carry out the attacks.

At least in the US, conspiracism is widespread. Half the American population express agreement with at least one of only seven conspiracy theories offered (Oliver and Wood,  p. 31).  In contrast to Richard Hofstadter’s historical evaluation (1964)  it is said to be distinct from paranoia and political mistrust.   Although people with unusual levels of anxiety, paranoia, or personal mistrust, are also likely to embrace conspiratorial narratives. But whereas the paranoid may see enemies everywhere, most conspiracists are unlikely to see conspiracies behind all political events. (Oliver and Wood, p. 4)

Oliver and Wood found consistent with prior research that conspiratorial cognition is more common with the politically marginalized. (Oliver and Wood p. 23) But both uneducated and educated get attracted by conspiracies. (Oliver and Wood, p. 32)

They didn’t find a correlation in the US between race or sex and conspiracy theory belief.  In his survey in 1992 in the UK also Ted Goertzel found that there was no correlation between race, age, and economic status and conspiracism. (Oliver and Wood, 2012; Goertzel, 1992)

Adherents of the 9/11 Truth movement come from diverse social backgrounds. The movement draws adherents from people of diverse political beliefs including liberals, conservatives, and libertarians. A 2010 study of Facebook users affiliated with a 9/11 Truth group known as “We Are Change”  by Scott Sommers found that most members of this group are males in their late 20s. Most members of this group are involved in right-wing politics. “We Are Change” is internationally organised.

Oliver and Wood examined the widespread incidence of conspiracism in the United States in four nationally representative survey samples collected in 2006, 2010, and 2011. They claim that:

“Self-described liberals or moderates are not significantly more likely to agree or disagree with conspiratorial statements about vapor trails or compact fluorescent light bulbs than self-described conservatives. This is in sharp contrast with the average scores on the conservative-scored, ideological conspiracy scale, where a strong linear shift occurs. Self-described liberals score over one point lower, on average, on the ideological conspiracy scale than self-described conservatives.” (Oliver and Wood, p. 19)

In a study Swami and others surveyed 1, 817 Britons about their agreement with conspiracist ideation concerning the July 7, 2005 (7/7), London bombings, linked to a battery of individual difference scales, they concluded:

“Results showed that stronger belief in 7/7 conspiracy theories was predicted by stronger belief in other real-world conspiracy theories, greater exposure to conspiracist ideation, higher political cynicism, greater support for democratic principles, more negative attitudes to authority, lower self-esteem, and lower Agreeableness.” (Swami et alii, 2011)

That is, for participants who reject the political system, believing it to be undemocratic or cynical, mainstream explanations of an event do not suffice, because they are provided by the very sources (political authorities) that these participants doubt.

Researchers, except Scott Sommers, didn’t find a clear cut political profile of conspiracy theory believers because surveys do not distinguish between passive followers and active promulgators of conspiracy theories. On the other hand, Dean Ballinger inquired their promulgation on the Internet. Analyzing their content he qualified them entwined with “far-right and extremist ideologies”.  (Ballinger, 2011, p. 45, 116). See also ‘‘Patriot’ Paranoia: A Look at the Top Ten Conspiracy Theories’.

Few people generate their own conspiracy theories because fabricating such narratives is both cognitively demanding and must occur in the face of widely disseminated counter-explanations. Instead, most people will only articulate conspiracism after they encounter a conspiratorial narrative, assuming the particular incident was unusual or salient enough to raise suspicion.

Media outlets for conspiracists has increased dramatically

Since the avenue of Internet the presentation of conspiracy theories has moved from little newsletters and journals to large audience radio talk shows and magazines and, at the same time, from identifying “secret teams” of CIA operatives to all-powerful networks of Arab financiers and worldwide Jewish bankers’ fraternities.

Conspiracy narratives are propagated by people like Fox News commentator Glen Beck, radio host Alex Jones, Lou Dobbs (formerly of CNN), fantasist David Icke.

Over the past twenty years ago, the number of widely accessible media outlets for conspiricists has increased dramatically and now includes scores of cable and radio stations and innumerable websites and blogs.

The online 9/11 conspiracy documentaries in the Loose Change series (Avery 2005-2009) , and the New Age conspiracy documentary Zeitgeist (Joseph 2007) which prominently features 9/11 conspiracy material  have helped popularise the 9/11 as US government conspiracy theory on a worldwide scale. These documentaries have proved hugely popular on prominent websites such as Youtube.

Dean Billinger argues that conspiracists have appropriated the online practices of citizen journalism. They claim explicitly the ‘alternative’ label, that way hiding their right-wing ideologies (Dean Ballinger, 2011, p. 158-161). He concludes:

“The radical configuration of the Internet as an alternative public sphere that facilitates alternative news practices is one well-suited to appropriation by classical conspiracy theorists as a means of legitimating their ideas within the alternative public sphere as manifestations of radical democratic politics rather than right-wing extremist ideologies.” (Dean Ballinger, 2011, p.178)

Antidote,  Screw Loose Change and Deconspirator

Next article Susceptibility for conspiracy theories


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Swami V, Coles R, Stieger S, Pietschnig J, Furnham A, Rehim S, Voracek M., (2011), ‘Conspiracist ideation in Britain and Austria: evidence of a monological belief system and associations between individual psychological differences and real-world and fictitious conspiracy theories’, British Journal of Psychology, Volume 102, Issue 3, pages 443–463, August 2011


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