Some people, despite all proof to the contrary, believe the moon landings were faked. Some people, despite all proof to the contrary, believe the last election was stolen. And those are just two of the many conspiracy theories that are believed by untold numbers of people.
How can we understand the phenomena of conspiracy theories? Conspiracy theories conjure up stories about grassy knolls, UFO cover ups, the Illuminati, and other wild ideas that most people consider to be nonsense. The people who believe them aren’t all asylum inmates wearing tin foil hats in fear of government mind control. Conspiracy theories are part of human culture. We cannot just dismiss them, if for no other reason than we can’t ignore the damage caused by conspiracy theories. We are seeing the deaths of thousands of people who believed conspiracy theories about the COVID-19 pandemic.
To ignore or ridicule beliefs in conspiracy theories is to be as dismissively arrogant as the conspiracy theory believers are about beliefs other than their own. We don’t have to agree with the conspiracy theories, but we need to understand what they are, why some people believe them, and what lurks beneath them.
A Definition of Conspiracy Theories
What are conspiracy theories and why are they so common? First, we need to define what we are analyzing.
Conspiracy Theory – A claim that you have figured out a secret that “normal” people have not.
There are three components of this definition. One: Conspiracy theories are stories about secret cabals secretly meeting in secret places to secretly concoct secret plans. And yes, I stress the secret aspect of these stories. For a story to appeal to those who believe in conspiracy theories, it has to be about a deep, dark secret. By definition, a conspiracy is a secretive plot, but a conspiracy theory is about some seriously hidden, seriously dark skullduggery being brought to light.
Two: A conspiracy theory is a truth claim. This fact is often ignored but is very important. People believe a conspiracy theory because they believe it is true. No matter how weird beliefs might be, every idea we hold to be true is a belief we feel we are justified in having. It is no different for those who believe in conspiracy theories that others dismiss as wacky nonsense. What makes conspiracy theories different from other beliefs is that the rules of truth are different. It is more than a sense of lowering the standards of evidence. Believing a conspiracy theory comes from thinking differently about reality leading to different beliefs about what is true. More on that later.
Three: Conspiracy theorists, because they believe different truth claims, think of themselves as different from “normal” people. Conspiracy theorists have figured out secret truths that the rest of us have not. Believers in a conspiracy theory claim to have “knowledge” about seriously hidden, seriously dark skullduggery. Their “knowledge” sets them apart from the masses (that’s you and me) who are “still duped” by the conspiracy.
The Three Dimensions of a Conspiracy Theory
Every conspiracy theory has those three components in varying degrees. There are also three dimensions to every conspiracy theory: paranoia, arrogance, and cliquishness.
The “they are out to get me” dimension
The long history of conspiracy theories is rooted in human paranoia about what lurks beyond what can be
readily seen and heard. Concern about potential threats to our well-being is prudent. Obsessions with potential threats can be harmful. “The boogieman” does not exist except in the minds of those who fear him, and it is the fear itself that causes harm. Nevertheless, fear frequently outweighs sense and proportion, and the human imagination takes over. The “they are out to get me” dimension of conspiracy theories results from paranoia taking over.
The boogieman manifests in a wide range of conspiracy theories. Hatred and fear of people who are different is the leading cause of beliefs in conspiracy theory boogiemen. Jews, Catholics, and Muslims have long been targets of suspicion. The fraudulent document, Protocols of the Elders of Zion, is a classic example of the “they are out to get me” conspiracy theory. The story of a secret cabal of Jews with a secret plot to overthrow the crown heads of Europe was concocted about 1903. It was an early version of what we now call “fake news.” The Protocols conspiracy theory was, and still is, used by bigots to inflame hatred against Jewish people. Other fictitious world domination conspiracies are attributed to The Illuminati, the Freemasons, the Deep State, and similar groups, fictitious and real. There is little evidence that any of these conspiracies exist, but the conspiracy theorist simply claims that the secret cabals are good at covering up evidence.
The “I know something you don’t” dimension
Imagine I have a box. I tell you that I know that there is something incredible in the box, but I can’t show it to you. You would laugh and walk away. The conspiracy theorist is not acting much differently. He knows something you don’t but he cannot show it to you because it is a secret. (I use “he” because conspiracy theorists are overwhelmingly males.) Conspiracy theories are stories about what lurks beyond what can be readily seen and heard. On that blank canvas of the unknown, human imagination can flourish. Highly imaginative conspiracy theories spring up that tell us that something sinister is happening someplace we cannot see. The imaginative story can persist because it’s about something that cannot be perceived and the theory cannot be easily refuted.
Such conspiracy theories include stories pedophile rings in pizza parlors, that there are alien bases on the dark side of the moon or under the ice of Antarctica, that the Earth is hollow, that the government has a secret space fleet and they have a crashed UFO at Area 51, and so on. You haven’t been there, so you don’t know otherwise. It’s surprising there aren’t any conspiracy theories that the ocean is bottomless because most people have never been to the seafloor. Anyway, beyond geography, any unknown or lesser known occurrence sprouts conspiracy theories. Celebrity deaths spawn competing claims that the death was faked or caused by nefarious forces. Government activities done out of the sight of the public get attributed to them nefarious intent. If there is a mystery, conspiracy theories about it will spring up to fill the gap in knowledge. A grim example of how imagination and opportunists fill in the unknown are the conspiracy theories that arose to explain the disappearance of flight MH370, as explained very well by in this article by William Langewiesche.
The conspiracy theorist claims to have figured out a secret that “normal” people have not. How it is that the conspiracy theorist knows these secrets is never adequately explained. Shadowy “insider sources” are cited, and when a former “insider” quoted, his or her claims cannot be verified. Always, it circles back to “it’s a secret that I know and you don’t.” The conspiracy theorists know what is in the box but they cannot show you. You just have to believe them. They are smarter than you, you know.
The “join the believers club” dimension
Cliques don’t just exist in high school. If you believe in a conspiracy theory, you get to join a special club of fellow believers. This is largely human nature. People enjoy communing with others who share their interests. If you collect a thing, you can find others who collect the same thing. If you collect rumors about a particular conspiracy theory, you can find others who do the same.
In a conspiracy theory community, you join more than a fan club. You join a distinct subculture. Depending on the nature of the conspiracy theory, the subculture of believers feel varying degrees of separation from mainstream society. Conspiracy theories centered on a “they are out to get me” story, can create subcultures that are insular and hostile to others. And if you don’t believe their theory, well, you may be part of the conspiracy.
What unites conspiracy theorists is a shared sense of accomplishment. The conspiracy theorists believe they “know” about what is really going on while others remain in the dark. The conspiracy theory believers have joined a special group of enlightened people who now have superior understanding that separates them from the “sheeple” who are still in the dark, fooled by the conspiracy. Joining a conspiracy theory can be more than agreeing with a belief–it can be a sense of identity for people. More on that later.
Why do people believe in conspiracy theories?
There are two kinds of conspiracy theorists who have different objectives: earnest meaning seekers and con artists.
Earnest meaning seekers
Granted, normal is boring, but some people turn to fantasy to spice things up. Many conspiracy theories are little more than fantasies. The world is an amazing and fascinating place but some people feel the need for more. Those Mayan pyramids are amazing. Some people want to believe they are even more amazing–they were built be aliens. Similarly, some want to believe Elvis didn’t die, he faked his death and lived on in secret. Diana’s death wasn’t an accident, it was murder. And so on. Believing these stories makes the world more interesting.
Believing that “they are out to get me” can give the believer a sense that one is special. “The government is spying on me,” says the conspiracy theorist, “they are afraid of me,” implying that he is important enough for shadowy cabals to spend time and effort on him. It gives some meaning to an otherwise bland and ordinary life. Another way to manufacture a feeling that one is special is to believe one has cracked a conspiracy. “I figured that out, I am smarter than them.”
Some conspiracy theory fantasies are harmless. Belief that the government is covering up bigfoot sightings probably isn’t going to hurt anyone. Other conspiracy theories that have political dimensions are less benign. People seek, in conspiracy fantasies, to replace their feelings of impotence and isolation with a more preferable and simplistic story that gives them a sense of certainty. For some, it is preferable to believe that Barack Obama was born in Kenya than that he is an American like them. For some, it is preferable to believe that 9-11 was an inside job than that the U.S. simply failed at defending itself. For some, it is preferable to believe that Russia interfered in an election than that their candidate simply lost. Being willing to hold such fantasies of sinister cabals inclines one to fall prey to con artists.
The granddaddy of today’s conspiracy theory con men is Erich Von Daniken. His 1968 book Chariot of the Gods? was a textbook on bad science and fallacious reasoning. His fantasy that an alien civilization or civilizations intervened as gods in ancient human civilizations has spawned a whole industry of con(spiracy) artists claiming to tell us what the experts are keeping secret. In the 1970s, Zachariah Sitchen invented a fantasy of an extraterrestrial origin for humanity (aliens created us), wisely choosing to base the fantasy on a group of minor Sumerian deities barely mentioned in ancient sources. Sitchen told people he knew what was in the box, even though no one else could see it. Perfect con. Today, the ancient aliens con job is spearheaded by Giorgio Tsoukalos (right) who has great suits and great hair and a now 10-year long television show Ancient Aliens peddling every wacky alien theory he can get his hands on. The show is slick and entertaining, mainly from the humor of its outlandish leaps of logic.
I mention UFOs and aliens conspiracy theories because they are a gateway into more hardcore political conspiracy theories. Aliens and UFOs are a prolific con(spiracy) artist genre. Fantasies about aliens readily connect with conspiracy theories about sinister government forces covering up all kinds of secrets. X-Files’s stories of a deeply hidden government/alien conspiracy was fiction, but some people don’t realize that.
It is no coincidence that radio shows like Coast to Coast AM give platforms to con(spiracy) artists selling stories about aliens and the paranormal alongside con(spiracy) artists selling stories that “the government is out to get you.” On right-wing radio and podcasts you can hear stories about the U.S. secret space program that has military bases all over the solar system, central banks are going to take all of your money, Atlantis is under Antarctica, gays are coming for your children, and The Illuminati have been poisoning the food supply with fluoride. (Fluoridation as a conspiracy is an old story. No Dr. Strangelove didn’t make it up.) There is no shortage of con artists selling these and similar theories.
Political Con(spiracy) Artists
Ancient alien con artists push the conspiracy theory that science suppresses archaeology. That is mostly harmless–just bilking people out of money. Far more malicious are the “government is out to get you” con(spiracy) artists. In this dark realm, the stories are nastier and powered by bigotry against particular groups of people. These conspiracy theories can inspire violence, such as storming capital buildings. Political conspiracy theories come in varying levels of virulence based on the subject of the theory.
Many people use conspiracy theories to express bigotry. The Nazis peddled the communist conspiracy and Jewish conspiracy theories to stoke violence and justify their dictatorship. Southern U.S. white supremacists spread conspiracy theories about civil rights to keep minorities suppressed. The Soviets and the U.S. both spread conspiracy theory propaganda during the Cold War to stoke xenophobia and justify militarism.
The “red menace” or “international communist conspiracy” is a typical political conspiracy theory. Pushed by con(spiracy) artists such as Charles Coughlin, Joseph McCarthy, James Eastland, Lyndon LaRouche, and a plethora of right-wing radio talking heads, these con men made political or commercial careers peddling theories of communist conspiracies. “Communists are coming to steal your freedoms” was the constant refrain of the con(spiracy) artists. After the Soviet Union fell, new boogeymen were targeted. Now gays, environmentalists, feminists, and basically everyone else more liberal than the con(spiracy) artist are branded as conspirators against “freedom” who are “out to get me, you, and your little dog too.” A recent incarnation of this political con job is QAnon: a fake person spewing fake news to stir up real hatred.
Conspiracy Theories and the Internet Age
Alex Jones was the king of the YouTube conspiracy brigade and one of the leading political con(spiracy) artists. Through unintentionally hilarious videos and podcasts, Jones channels Charles Coughlin’s fascism and xenophobia and updates it for the Internet age. Jones never met a right-wing conspiracy theory he would not repeat. Most notoriously, he mindlessly repeated the “pizzagate,” David Icke reptilian, and “Sandy Hook massacre was a hoax” fantasies. YouTube has since removed con(spiracy) artist Alex Jones from its site, but Jones remains the vanguard for right-wing “they are out to get us” con(spiracy) artists online, making millions selling conspiracy porn to earnest meaning seekers.
Social media, despite its ability to connect with anyone anywhere, is predominantly used by people to commune only with those with whom they agree. Conspiracy theories are a rallying point for political activism. Because political activity today is more antagonistic toward others than supportive of one’s own side, conspiracy theories are lubricant for political speech. Creating conspiracy memes online is now almost an occupation for political groups. They are also political weapons. before the 2016 election, both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump supporters circulated stories that the other side would steal the election. That, after months of Hillary supporters spreading conspiracy theories that Bernie Sanders was a plant placed to sabotage Hillary’s election. They called Bernie supporters Russian trolls long before they called Trump supporters Russian trolls. And Trump supporters are even worse with bigotry-driven conspiracy theories as the 2020 election cycle showed.
Both US political parties are now completely obsessed with conspiracy theory thinking. The main difference is whether they place “Democrats” or “Republicans” in the sentence “the ____ are out to get us.” Con(spiracy) artists on both sides now dominate U.S. politics. And my pointing that out means I am declared by both Democrats and Republicans an “enemy” working for the other side. That is how conspiracy theories work.
The world of the conspiracy theorizing
Conspiracy theorists think differently about reality. This makes their world a different world for them. Most of us take the world as it comes, and often to a fault take things at face value. The conspiracy theorist perceives the world through a filter of suspicion. They take the world as being full of deceit and malice. They may not believe the whole world is out to get them, but they believe a good chunk of it is. If you are not with the conspiracy theorists, then they will assume you are against them. Because you are against them, the conspiracy theorist is not interested in what you have to say. You are only trying to deceive them. The conspiracy theorist is always correct and you are always wrong. We are all “enemy” to them.
It’s not “populism,” it’s conspiracy theorists