C onspiracy theories often change history as much as real events. Because to those who believe in them, they are real events. People react, vote and make important life decisions based on their beliefs about what happened, regardless of whether or not the belief is true. For a deep dive into this psychological phenomenon, first discussed by Machiavelli, please refer to the conspiracy theory entry in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
The definition of the term conspiracy is when two or more people get together to form a secret plan to accomplish a specific goal. If you tell your friend you’re going to kill someone, then go ahead with it, your friend can be charged with “conspiracy” to commit murder, even if they had nothing to do with the actual crime.
Conspiracies are very real, and have been deeply present throughout history. But “conspiracy theories” are not. The difference between an actual conspiracy and a conspiracy theory, is that the theory lacks supporting data. In that sense it shouldn’t be called a “conspiracy theory” at all, but a conspiracy hypothesis — or uninformed opinion.
A hypothesis is an assumption made before any research has been completed for the sake of testing. A theory on the other hand is a principle set to explain phenomena already supported by data.
The Deep State
The catastrophic ineptitude of the US Federal government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic is laid squarely at the feet of the Trump administration. So the botched response ultimately traces its root back to one of the biggest, grandest conspiracy theories of our era. It doesn’t take a majority believing in such nonsense, to destroy a democratic nation. Under the right circumstances, 20–30% is more than enough.
What did the trick, was the belief that an anti-democratic “deep state” of intellectuals, elites, scientists, and bureaucrats in Washington DC were conspiring to prevent “American greatness” from being realized. In particular, the “deep state” was feared to be blocking the will of “real American” voters, and turning our country over to an evil globalist cabal, bent on robbing our wealth and exporting jobs, turning the nation into a multicultural ghetto, and surrendering US national sovereignty. That whipped-up fear was itself a by-product of yet another conspiracy theory, white genocide. There had also been decades of Republican attacks on government and the fact-professions, along with thinly-veiled racism against America’s first black president. So in 2016, a minority of about 25% of registered voters delivered a narrow electoral college win to Donald J. Trump, who became America’s 45th President.
Prior to this administration, the so-called “deep state” never existed. “Deep state” was a term that originated in Turkey in the 1990s, and it referred to an actual conspiracy between the military and drug traffickers. What Trump supporters referred to with that unfortunate moniker, was the American federal bureaucracy of non-elected civil servants. These 2 million employees of the Federal Government are responsible for most of the detailed rule-making and administration of laws passed by Congress and signed by past presidents. (The civil service also includes vital public health agencies such as the CDC, NSF, USAID, some of which suffered budget cuts and closures in the runup to the pandemic).
Sent to “drain the swamp,” Trump instead proceeded to appoint an even deeper swamp to his cabinet, in the form of a kakistocracy of industry insiders and ideologues. He set about purging the civil service of meritocratic appointees, and filling it with loyalists. He destroyed procedural and whistleblower protections for government employees, and replaced those with a culture of intimidation. Under Attorney General William Barr, Trump has practically turned the Justice Department into his personal legal firm. He appointed hand-picked Federalist Society conservatives to the Supreme Court, and over 200 lower court seats. These judges will rule according to the corporate, wealth and religious agenda, rather than the public interest, the law and the Constitution. The sheer magnitude of corruption of this administration, makes even the glaring issue of nepotism and emoluments by the Trump family into an afterthought.
The “deep-state” conspiracy theory therefore led to a deep-state reality. Instead of a meritocracy, the goal of the Trump deep state remains destruction of the rule of law and accountability, the roll-back of civil rights, reckless deregulation, upward redistribution of wealth, entrenchment of Christian privilege over secular law, reduction of voting rights, immigration, and labor union membership, and the prevention of the Federal government acting in any way to broadly benefit the American people.
“Fake News” goes hand in glove with the “deep state.” Approximately 59% of Americans now distrust “the media.” But 85% of Republicans do. The discrediting of traditional news organizations allows people to disbelieve reporting of real corruption, and ignore scandals that would have brought down any other presidency. The rise of right-wing media has fueled this mistrust, since it purveys the “deep state” narrative as its organizing principle. Hatred of the deep state is behind hostility to “the media,” because the media is bitterly blamed among republicans for having enabled the “deep state.” Circular reasoning, I know. But overlooking the scandals and lies gushing out of the Trump administration is considered by many republicans to be a small price to pay, to exact revenge for this dastardly conspiracy they believe has ruled America during generations of past presidents.
A further extension of the “deep-state” conspiracy is the worldwide Qanon phenomenon, which transforms the “deep-state” nonsense into an even more preposterous belief system. Combining quasi-Christian eschatology with sex-trafficking and pedophilia, Qanon casts Donald Trump as a kind of Messiah. Qanon terrorism has already claimed several lives.
How did we reach the point of government by conspiracy theory? How have so many believed such falsehoods, on such non-existent evidence? How have so many Americans looked the other way at such corruption? Let’s explore the variety of popular American conspiracy theories.
The first, easiest conspiracy theory, is the “hoax.” It requires no work at all, just a petulant statement of disbelief. “I don’t believe _________(insert widely reported, carefully studied, or heavily photographed event) actually happened.” Bonus points if you can identify the perpetrators of the “hoax.” Usually, it’s vague. “The media” or “the government,” (“deep state” works, too), or some nameless, faceless entity that for some reason is trying to sell you a false narrative of world events, to control your behavior. The Apollo lunar program, the life of Paul McCartney after 1966, climate change, the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting, Russian interference in the 2016 US election, the HIV pandemic, and the Covid-19 pandemic are all events which have been labeled “hoaxes.”
Usually the goal of labeling something a “hoax” is transparent. It’s a way to justify ignoring the event, or failing to respond to the event in a rational way. When Donald Trump labeled criticism of his Covid-19 response the “new democratic hoax,” on February 28, 2020, he politicized public health, justified not taking the pandemic seriously, and that decision has cost countless American lives, and destroyed the economy.
If climate change is a “hoax,” then why regulate carbon pollution? In this sense, hoaxes can have powerful constituencies. In the case of climate change, the “hoax” constituency is anyone making money from carbon pollution, or anyone enjoying the by-products of carbon pollution, such as cheap gas or air travel. That would include most consumers, fossil energy companies, and the governments of major fossil-fuel producing nations such as the US, Saudi Arabia, and Russia. That’s one big, highly-motivated, and well-funded group!
Widespread belief that climate change is a “hoax” may yet end civilization, if rational action to reduce atmospheric carbon is not taken.
The False Flag
Those who can’t hand-wave away a well-documented event will often turn to the “false flag.” It’s a fall-back position. Since they have no choice but to admit that an event happened, they question the “mainstream” consensus as to how or why it happened, or which national flag was behind it.
9/11 is perhaps the best-known “false-flag” conspiracy theory. The claim is that elements of the US government or military pulled off the attack, or even more preposterously that explosive charges were planted in the Twin Towers or 7 World Trade Center. In spite of wreckage of planes at all sites, people have also tried to claim that the Pentagon was rigged with explosives. It’s apparently more comforting for some Americans to believe they were attacked by their own government, than that the towers fell because of 19 wily terrorists trained at American flight schools, armed only with box-cutters they bought at Home Depot.
The Pearl Harbor “false-flag” theory also has adherents. In the case of Pearl Harbor, it’s not so much that anyone is arguing that someone other than Japan carried out the attack, they are arguing that the US or the UK knew about it, and allowed it to happen. True or not, it’s easier to swallow for Americans that they were victims of their own government’s skulduggery, than that we lost a major battle due to an audacious surprise attack by a foreign adversary. Americans hate to lose, and will convince themselves of almost anything to avoid admitting they lost.
There are even more unhinged accusations of false flag attacks, such as the Sandy Hook elementary school mass shooting conspiracy pushed by Alex Jones and others. In this version, the attack included “crisis actors” playing the part of grieving parents and dead children. Proponents of this theory didn’t exactly explain how the false-flaggers came up with 28 dead bodies. Jones is still facing trial in a civil lawsuit brought by distraught parents who had suffered harassment and death threats due to his irresponsible claims. He was held in contempt of court and ordered to pay $100,000 in legal fees for failing to cooperate with discovery in the case late last year.
Though not openly backed by arms manufacturers, the Sandy Hook conspiracy theory is surely convenient for those who believe in the most radical view of the 2nd Amendment. In fact, it’s hard to imagine a better argument against the right to buy high-powered semi-automatic weapons, or large magazines, than frequent slaughters of school children. Shootings of school children with military-style weapons are terribly damaging to the cause of those who believe that purchases of those type of weapons should be easy, and ownership widespread.
There isn’t a new disease in the past 50 years that hasn’t faced accusations of being some sort of bio-warfare project, or false flag attack. SARS, MERS, HIV, SARS-CoV-2, Zika, Ebola, have all sent conspiracy believers scrambling to uncover the nefarious government labs and corporations supposedly responsible for the outbreaks. Hollywood has not helped in this department. This is a very useful line of attack for far-right and far-left extremist groups intent on destroying the reputations of national public health organizations such as the CDC, or global public health organizations such as WHO.
None of these conspiracy theories have ever proven true. SARS-CoV-2 has specifically been ruled as having a natural origin. But these conspiracy theories have become deadly to pandemic response. Because of his baseless belief that WHO was somehow helping China, or that China might have been involved in producing the virus itself, Donald Trump announced on April 15, 2020 that the US would pull its funding for the WHO. Every credible scientific authority in the world would agree that doing such a thing in the middle of a pandemic, is a disaster.
These tactics also tie into anti-vaccination efforts. The scandal of the rushed US swine flu vaccine leading to a number of deaths and injuries in 1976 might have led to some increased vaccine hesitancy. But the real driver of the anti-vax conspiracy movement was the now-retracted 1988 study in the Lancet, by disgraced Dr. Andrew Wakefield.
Anti-vax itself is a grand conspiracy that has spread through the internet almost like a pandemic. The basic claim is that standard childhood vaccinations such as MMR or Pertussis are implicated in an increase in autism/aspergers among children, and other vaccine injuries. This has led to the growth of the vaccine-refusal movement, and subsequent clampdowns by public health agencies.
What’s striking is that when you look at the patterns of the growth of vaccine-refusal on a map, over time, they resemble the community spread of actual disease. As expected, there have been sporadic outbreaks around the world, particularly of measles, in vaccine-hesitant communities. The term infodemic applies to the spread of this type of conspiracy. Because it literally kills people like a disease. There’s a parallel infodemic of Covid-19 misinformation that is still raging. As of this writing, we’re still a long way off from having a Covid-19 vaccine ready for manufacture and use. But you can be sure when it’s released, large numbers of people will refuse it, and potentially lose their lives, because of their fears stemming from decades of anti-vax conspiracy theories.
Water fluoridation is another medical conspiracy that pits public health against so-called “individual rights.” Although it’s not clear what rights are being violated by adding a vital nutrient that prevents tooth decay to public water systems. A whole slew of naturally occurring minerals including fluoride exist at varying levels in groundwater, due to local geology. Conspiracy theorists have cited everything from “communism” to “mind control” in their opposition to water fluoridation. (Personal note: I grew up in Colorado Springs, Colorado, which has high levels of naturally occurring fluoride. I’ve had virtually no dental cavities.)
Another medical conspiracy involves 5G and Covid-19. Propaganda attacks on 5G safety in the US and UK were first instigated in 2019 by Russia. But they’ve taken on new significance in the Covid-19 era. Somehow, the Covid-19 bio-warfare conspiracy and the 5G conspiracy got together and had a love child, the claim that 5G causes Covid-19. This is spectacularly dumb, but that hasn’t stopped several arson attacks on 5G towers in the UK. Really folks? Reeeaaaaalllllyyyyy? Words fail.
The same type of lovely people who freak out about Chemtrails destroying their health, have also been upset about a US military installation in Alaska known as the HAARP experiment. The facility was shut in 2014, but not before it was blamed for everything from earthquakes, to climate change. Typically those who make such claims have no understanding of the technology behind the experiment, nor the vast difference in power levels between the 3.6 megawatt experiment, and the terawatts (or even greater amounts) of energy required to move tectonic plates or change the climate— if such a thing were even possible.
It’s difficult to imagine the deep well of ignorance necessary to believe such things: that low power radio waves from 5G towers, or Wi-Fi, or even high powered radio waves from the HAARP experiment could have an impact on the human body or the planet. But I suppose this is what a combination of decades of weak science education and internet propaganda have wrought.
“Planned obsolescence” is the granddaddy of corporate conspiracy theories. This involves the claim that products are intentionally made to fail sooner than necessary, forcing people to buy replacement products faster. This has some partial truth concerning right-to-repair, premature expiration (and inability to refill) ink and toner cartridges, the disabling of features on used Tesla automobiles, and the intentional slowing of older smartphones. But the idea that light bulbs, vaccuum cleaner belts, tires, or other mechanical appliances are designed to fail prematurely is bunkum. Common sense dictates that consumer organizations which test products would identify and downgrade any manufacturers who tried to defraud consumers in this manner. Companies value their reputation more than the temporary sales boost they would get by making deliberately flawed products. Everyone wants things to last forever, but planned obsolescence is mostly wishful thinking.
Oil company price-fixing — keeping gas prices artificially high. Publicly available data demonstrates that over many years, pump prices generally track the global oil price, with variation for the location of refineries and changes in seasonal gasoline blends. Gas taxes also play a role in the wide variation in pump prices across the nation. If anything, those taxes are low, making US gas prices well below those in many developed nations.
The “100-mile-per-gallon carburetor.” During the oil crisis of the ’70s, it was widely rumored that oil companies had “bought up the patents” to the carburetor, so that it wouldn’t be released. Later, when I studied thermodynamics in engineering school, I learned about the energy content of a gallon of gasoline (about 33kWh), and the thermal efficiency of average internal combustion engines (20–30%). Simple math tells you that unless your vehicle is the size of a go-kart, you’re not going to get 100 miles per gallon in a standard automobile. There is good news on this front, though. Electric motors are more than 3 times as efficient as the average internal combustion engine. So 33 kWh of charge in a battery, which is the same energy equivalent as a gallon of gasoline, will take you more than 100 miles in an electric vehicle. And oil companies have been trying to block electric vehicle development for decades. So this conspiracy is partially true!
The worst corporate conspiracies involve money in politics, lobbying to avoid government regulations that protect the public, union-busting, price-gouging on vital prescription drugs, pollution, stock buybacks, and outrageous executive compensation. Those things are actually happening every day, and they are harming Americans. It’s funny you don’t hear the professional conspiracy theorists saying much about those things. And this is no accident. They’re only interested in outrage that generates clicks and ad revenue, and selling expensive quack cures — not in making the world a better or fairer place.
The Blood Libel
Deliberate negationism of history can be extremely dangerous, and that makes it a prime target for conspiracy theorists. Let’s take the most famous example, Holocaust denial. The Holocaust, also known as the Shoah, occurred between 1941 and 1945 in Europe under Nazi occupation. About two thirds of the Jewish population of Europe, or six million Jews, were murdered in a network of concentration camps. You might ask, why would anyone want to deny the Holocaust?
The prime motivation would be antisemitism: To rob the Jewish diaspora of sympathy and moral authority by implying they exaggerated deaths and accounts of their suffering. To engage in victim-blaming, to downplay the viciousness of the Nazi regime, or to set the stage for a new genocide. Secondary motivations could be to absolve nations such as Germany or Poland or ideologies such as white supremacy for the atrocity.
Holocaust denial is an attack on the Jewish people that is so abhorrent, it’s illegal in 16 European countries, and Israel. Other nations such as Iran and Syria sponsor Holocaust denial as official government policy. The list of individuals who deny the Holocaust is unsurprisingly a who’s who of antisemitism.
The persecution and murder of Jews through vicious propaganda isn’t new. As long ago as the 12th century, the blood libel accused Jews of murdering Christian children to drink their blood in religious rituals, or using it to bake bread. The many variants of this tall tale have spread far and wide, and are directly responsible for centuries of Christian reprisals against Jews and hundreds of deaths. Some Muslims have also continued to promote this antisemitic nonsense, even into the 21st century.
Another antisemitic conspiracy theory is the forgery of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an alleged plan for Jewish world domination. Published in Russia in 1903, the text was distributed widely by the Third Reich in Germany in the run-up to the Holocaust. It was also reprinted by American automaker Henry Ford, who personally paid for 500,000 copies to be produced and distributed in the United States in the 1920s. By June 1939, there were over 300,000 Jews fleeing the nations of Western Europe who had applied to the United States for refugee visas. Most were denied. How much did Ford’s distribution of this frightful screed have to do with the 83% of Americans who were opposed to admitting the refugees that year?
Lies about Jewish history are still leading to mass murder. On October 27, 2018, Robert Gregory Bowers gunned down eleven Jews and injured seven at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His writings on social media included belief in all three of the conspiracy theories cited here.
Conspiracy theories KILL.
UFOs are Unidentified Flying Objects. This does NOT mean aliens! It means unidentified. In terms of a conspiracy theory, the main claim seems to be that the government and/or certain large corporations knows these craft are alien in origin, but are covering up the truth.
From Area 51 to X-files to Ancient Aliens, UFOlogy has remained a constant source of entertainment. It’s overwhelmingly likely that’s all it ever will be. Scientific calculations about the existence of other civilizations in our galaxy, and the likelihood of them coinciding in a similar period of technological development can be found by understanding the Fermi Paradox and the Drake Equation.
Short answer: not very likely.
Sci-fi author David Brin and the late Stephen Hawking have an alternative view, that we should not be alerting potentially advanced civilizations to our presence for fear they might be hostile. The idea of hostile aliens means we’d know if they came to Earth — through mass destruction. Only benevolent aliens would hide. And how likely is it that any civilization with technology advanced enough to visit Earth would be entirely benevolent?
Recently, the US government declassified some UFO footage it acquired over the past few years. The footage is spiced up by the running commentary of pilots tracking the objects. But other than their incredulity about the behavior of the craft, these videos provide no information about their true nature or origins. When something seems to violate the laws of physics, it does present an interesting mystery. But those kinds of mysteries are exactly what has propelled science forward. At no time has anyone become more enlightened through untethered speculation. For the time being, we must therefore be content to let these flying objects remain unidentified.
According to all available science, life on Earth evolved organically. So it’s plausible life has evolved on many other planets, and that we’re not alone in the universe. However the distances involved in interstellar travel make visits to Earth by small craft highly unlikely. If we’re seeing small craft making unusual maneuvers in our atmosphere, where are the large interstellar ships which brought them here? If they travel inter-dimensionally or use cloaking devices, why did the small craft suddenly become visible to our pilots?
What’s key when it comes to thinking critically about conspiracy theories, is to ask yourself tough questions, like “in order for this to be true, what else would have to be true?” The answer is always, an awful lot of preposterous things.
In the case of every conspiracy theory from “alien visitation” to “hoaxes” to “false flags” to the “deep state,” and the rest, those questions need to be asked again, and again, and again.
Corporations and governments can’t even keep our passwords and other personal data safe. With all the constant hacking and leaks at every level, how would it even be possible to keep such grand secrets?