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A conspiracy theory is an explanatory proposition that accuses two or more persons, a group, or an organization of having caused or covered up, through secret planning and deliberate action, an illegal or harmful event or situation. In recent decades the term has acquired a derogatory meaning to some, and distinction should be made between the derisive use of the term and reference to actual, proven conspiracies. Different types of conspiracy theories have been distinguished, ranging from those merely based on a hunch to ones backed by evidence, and from localized, single-event conspiracies to pervading universal phenomena.
While theories on small and large-scale conspiracies are often correct, some psychologists believe that immoderate application of conspiracy theory is attractive to those with certain mental illnesses and disorders. Some recent political regimes have misused conspiracy theories to manipulate their subjects (e.g., Hitler's “Jewish conspiracy”).
The Oxford English Dictionary records the first use of the phrase "conspiracy theory" to a 1909 article in The American Historical Review. Other sources predate this use by nearly four decades to at least 1871, where it is used in The Journal of Mental Science reporting on a conference of the Fifth Quarterly Meeting of the Medico-Psychological Association (now the Royal College of Psychiatrists), held on January 27, 1870:
Originally a neutral term, since the mid-1960s it has acquired a somewhat derogatory meaning, implying a paranoid tendency to see the influence of some malign covert agency in events. The term is often used to automatically dismiss claims that the critic deems ridiculous, misconceived, paranoid, unfounded, outlandish, or irrational. The term often implies that the proposed explanation of events is perceived as violating Occam's razor or the principle of Falsifiability. A conspiracy theory that is proven to be correct, such as the notion that United States President Richard Nixon and his aides conspired to cover up Watergate, is usually referred to as something else, such as investigative journalism or historical analysis.
Assessing the prevalent use of the term to ridicule or dismiss, Professor Rebecca Moore observes, "The word 'conspiracy' works much the same way the word 'cult' does to discredit advocates of a certain view or persuasion. Historians do not use the word 'conspiracy' to describe accurate historical reports. On the contrary, they use it to indicate a lack of veracity and objectivity."
Clare Birchall at King's College London describes conspiracy theory as a form of popular knowledge. 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.
The general discussion of conspiracy theory is itself a matter of some public contention. "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."
The term can also be used to dismiss what are in fact substantial and well-evidenced accusations. The legitimacy of each such usage will therefore be a matter of some controversy. Michael Parenti, in his 1996 essay which examines the role of progressive media in the use of the term, "The JFK Assassination II: Conspiracy Phobia On The Left", states,
"It is an either-or world for those on the Left who harbor an aversion for any kind of conspiracy investigation: either you are a structuralist in your approach to politics or a 'conspiracist' who reduces historical developments to the machinations of secret cabals, thereby causing us to lose sight of the larger systemic forces."
Structuralist or institutional analysis asserts that the term is misused when it is applied to institutions acting in pursuit of their acknowledged goals, for example, when a group of corporations engage in price-fixing to increase profits.
Complications occur for terms such as UFO, which literally means "unidentified flying object" but connotes alien spacecraft, a concept also associated with some conspiracy theories, and thus possessing a certain social stigma. Michael Parenti gives an example of the use of the term which underscores the conflict in its use. He states,
"In most of its operations, the CIA is by definition a conspiracy, using covert actions and secret plans, many of which are of the most unsavory kind. What are covert operations if not conspiracies? At the same time, the CIA is an institution, a structural part of the national security state. In sum, the agency is an institutionalized conspiracy."
George and Wilcox assert that in the criminal justice system, actual conspiracies, and conspiracy theories can also be distinguished by scale, as actual conspiracies are usually small in scale and involve "a single event or issue".
However, conspiracy has an integral role in many or most large-scale criminal enterprises, including those prosecuted under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) statute. A civil action for damages by victims of criminal enterprise, based on conspiracy, is prescribed in RICO. A basic American police academy text by a former Homeland Security agent notes, "When a crime requires a large number of people, a conspiracy is formed."
Despite the derogatory use of the term based on its acquired connotation, conspiracy theories are sometimes proven correct, such as the theory that United States President Richard Nixon and his aides conspired to cover up Watergate, or the theory that government surveillance projects were used to track a large percentage of the world's telephony and Internet traffic.
Katherine K. Young states, "the fact remains, however, that not all conspiracies are imagined by paranoids. Historians show 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". Above all else a real conspiracy is evidenced by provable facts.
"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.
Belief in conspiracy theories has become a topic of interest for sociologists, psychologists, and experts in folklore since at least the 1960s, when the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy eventually provoked an unprecedented public response directed against the official version of the case as expounded in the Report of the Warren Commission.
Sociologist Turkay Salim Nefes  underlines the political nature of conspiracy theories and 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.
The political scientist Michael Barkun, discussing the usage of this term in contemporary American culture, holds that a conspiracy theory is a belief which 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: First, conspiracy theories claim to explain what institutional analysis cannot. They appear to make sense out of a world that is otherwise confusing. Second, they do so in an appealingly simple way, by dividing the world sharply between the forces of light, and the forces of darkness. They trace all evil back to a single source, the conspirators and their agents. Third, conspiracy theories are often presented as special, secret knowledge unknown or unappreciated by others. For conspiracy theorists, the masses are a brainwashed herd, while the conspiracy theorists in the know can congratulate themselves on penetrating the plotters' deceptions.
In his essay "Dealing with Middle Eastern Conspiracy Theories", Daniel Pipes notes that "five assumptions distinguish the conspiracy theorist from more conventional patterns of thought: appearances deceive; conspiracies drive history; nothing is haphazard; the enemy always gains; power, fame, money, and sex account for all".
According to West and Sanders, when talking about conspiracies in the Vietnam War era, Pipes includes within the fringe element anyone who entertains the thought that conspiracies played a role in the major political scandals and assassinations that rocked American politics in the Vietnam era. "He sees the paranoid style in almost any critical historical or social-scientific analysis of oppression".
Economist Murray Rothbard distinguished between what he described as "shallow" and "deep" conspiracy theories. A theorist of the former variety 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 deep conspiracy theorist as "essentially confirming your early paranoia through a deeper factual analysis".
Rothbard defends the analysis of conspiracies: "Far from being a paranoid or a determinist, the conspiracy analyst believes that people act purposively, that they make conscious choices to employ means in order to arrive at goals. Hence, if a steel tariff is passed, he assumes that the steel industry lobbied for it; if a public works project is created, he hypothesizes that it was promoted by an alliance of construction firms and unions who enjoyed public works contracts, and bureaucrats who expanded their jobs and incomes. It is the opponents of "conspiracy" analysis who profess to believe that all events – at least in government – are random and unplanned, and that therefore people do not engage in purposive choice and planning."
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, rather than secretive coalitions of individuals.
Jesse Walker (2013) has developed a historical typology of five basic kinds of conspiracy theories. The first identifies an “Enemy Outside”, with devilish figures mobilizing outside the community scheming against it. The “Enemy Within” finds the conspirators lurking inside the nation, indistinguishable from ordinary citizens. The “Enemy Above” involves powerful people manipulating the system for their own gain. The “Enemy Below” features the lower classes ready to break through their constraints and overturn the social order. Finally, there are the “Benevolent Conspiracies,” where angelic forces work behind the scenes to improve the world and help people.
Barkun (discussed above) has categorized, in ascending order of breadth, the types of conspiracy theories as follows:
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 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 would be merely the 20th century's most prominent examples; 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 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, and the possible replacement of democracy by conspiracy as the dominant paradigm of political action in the public mind. 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 of the London School of Economics 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.
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 due, 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 was (a) successfully assassinated, (b) 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 stands to gain?). 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.
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.
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.” (p. 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). (p. 238) 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!” (p. 238-239)
Latour notes that such social criticism has been appropriated by those he describes as conspiracy theorists, including global warming 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.” (p. 230)
|This section possibly contains original research. (July 2012)|
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 threatening the established political powers.
Fears of a petty conspiracy – a political rival or business competitor plotting to do you harm – are as old as the human psyche. But fears of a grand conspiracy – that the Illuminati or Jews plan to take over the world – go back only 900 years and have been operational for just two centuries, since the French Revolution. Conspiracy theories grew in importance from then until World War II, when two arch-conspiracy theorists, Hitler and Stalin, faced off against each other, causing the greatest blood-letting in human history. This hideous spectacle sobered Americans, who in subsequent decades relegated conspiracy theories to the fringe, where mainly two groups promoted such ideas.
The politically disaffected: Blacks (Louis Farrakhan, Cynthia McKinney), the hard Right (John Birch Society, Pat Buchanan), and other alienated elements (Ross Perot, Lyndon LaRouche). Their theories imply a political agenda, but lack much of a following.
The culturally suspicious: These include "Kennedy assassinologists," "ufologists," and those who believe a reptilian race runs the earth and alien installations exist under the earth's surface. Such themes enjoy enormous popularity (a year 2000 poll found 43 percent of Americans believing in UFOs), but carry no political agenda.
The major new development, reports Barkun, professor of political science in the Maxwell School at Syracuse University, is not just an erosion in the divisions between these two groups, but their joining forces with occultists, persons bored by rationalism. Occultists are drawn to what Barkun calls the "cultural dumping ground of the heretical, the scandalous, the unfashionable, and the dangerous" – such as spiritualism, Theosophy, alternative medicine, alchemy, and astrology. Thus, the author who worries about the Secret Service taking orders from the Bavarian Illuminati is old school; the one who worries about a "joint Reptilian-Bavarian Illuminati" takeover is at the cutting edge of the new synthesis. These bizarre notions constitute what Michael Kelly termed "fusion paranoia," a promiscuous absorption of fears from any source whatsoever.
|“||Conspiracy theories exist in the realm of myth, where imaginations run wild, fears trump facts, and evidence is ignored. As a superpower, the United States is often cast as a villain in these dramas.||”|
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."
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).
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