While I regularly use the term “conspiracy theory,” I concede my use of the phrase is too restrictive. Unless one man pulled off 9/11 by himself, the attacks were a conspiracy, and any points made to bolster ideas about what group did it, would be a theory.
But until somebody comes up with something better, we’re stuck with using that phrase to describe the Tinfoil Hat Brigade. Skepticism and questioning of the media and government is healthy, and has led to reforms in both. But automatically ascribing nefarious behavior to every government and media action is as bad as blind faith in them.
Depending on one’s level of immersion in them, conspiracy theories can become the automatic explanation for any event. On the most extreme conspiracy theory site, nodisinfo.com, 100 percent of media reports are labeled false. Not only are shootings, natural disasters, and diseases declared to be hoaxes, but so too are articles about cannibalism in the heartland or a bus colliding with a semi. According to this site, anything in the press is a lie. Other than demanding complete fealty to nodisinfo.com, the site’s maintainers and proponents completely reject all media and government accounts.
Even those who stop short of this extreme are subject to swallowing unfounded ideas. Once a person sees authorities as necessarily deceptive, conspiracy theories become more plausible. This can lead to oxymoronic conclusions, such as a person who insists Princess Diana faked her death will argue an hour later that she was murdered.
People find comfort in patterns, and conspiracy theorists distort this idea by connecting the dots of unrelated random events to create something meaningful. The theories appeal to those who feel powerless, and they seek some control over the sinister plotters, even if this is limited to exposing them.
In some ways, a conspiratorial mindset is an exaggeration of the tendency to want an explanation for extraordinary events, especially tragic ones. Refracted sunlight in photos of a space shuttle disaster can be seen as proof that there was an explosive on board. In one image of the John Kennedy assassination, a man is holding an open umbrella on a clear, sunny day. It was a bizarre thing, but nothing monumental, except to those determined to find meaning in it. Ideas were floated that it was a signal for the shooting to commence, or that it was one of the CIA’s poison umbrellas. Eventually, it was learned the umbrella was an antiquated, largely nonsensical protestation of what the man considered Joseph Kennedy’s history of appeasement (Neville Chamberlain usually carried an umbrella).
It is telling that there are seldom conspiracy theories centered on almost-events. Theorists delved deeply into the Umbrella Man’s meaning, and hundreds of books have been written that have pinned the Kennedy assassination on someone other than Lee Harvey Oswald. By contrast, almost no one proffers a Gerald Ford assassination attempt conspiracy theory.
Going back to the opening paragraph, a conspiracy theory can be about something real. Watergate is the most prominent example, and there is strong evidence that the Derringer fired by John Wilkes Booth was the culmination of a multi-person plot. So here are some signs to look for that a conspiracy theory is mistaken. Keep Occam’s Razor in mind and remember that the more grandiose a scheme is, the more unlikely. With regard to the Lincoln assassination, documented plans to kill other administration officials that night were uncovered. The evidence was provided in a courtroom, not amongst shadowy fringe group members, and the guilty were executed. By contrast, a bogus conspiracy theory ties many ideas together, borrowing piecemeal from disparate events to make it fit.
For instance, one of the stranger Sept. 11 claims is that Hollywood referenced the attacks beforehand. There is a passport in the Matrix that expired on Sept. 11, 2001. A Simpsons episode features a bus poster which advertises $9 tickets to New York, with it suggested that the World Trade Centers provide the “11.” In Johnny Bravo, a movie theater announces “Coming Soon” above a poster depicting a burning skyscraper. These are instances of apophenia, which is finding meaning in random patterns, and is a regular feature of conspiracy theories.
Also, bogus conspiracy theories involve impossibly large numbers of people, who would all need to keep silent. Many of the alleged conspiracies would require a cast of hundreds and the plotters would have to be 100 percent of the media and government. Also being maintained would be a pool of thousands of crisis actors. And while the evil overlords have the ability to seamlessly pull off AIDS, assassinations, hurricanes, crack epidemics, shooting hoaxes, and nuclear disasters, they are too incompetent to shut down websites exposing them. Additionally, genuine conspiracies such as Iran-Contra are exposed by the allegedly compliant media and government insiders, not by conspiracy theory groups.
Another feature is the mixing of fact and fiction. Conspiracy theorists might let a truth slip in now and then, but speculation and falsehoods are thrown into the same soup without the difference being acknowledged.
Furthermore, theorists dismiss all government and media accounts, excepting what the theorists consider “gotcha” moments. During a press conference about a California mass shooting, a detective was talking about the importance of training for such events. Instead of saying “which played out here today,” he misspoke and said, “which we played out here today.” A couple of seconds later, another detective put his head in his hand. Theorists touted this as irrefutable proof that the detective had inadvertently exposed the ruse, causing his cohort to facepalm. Theorists did this while simultaneously discounting all other government and media accounts surrounding the shooting.
But the most glaring characteristic of conspiracy theories is considering contrary proof to be part of the conspiracy. When rumors about Barack Obama’s birthplace surfaced in 2008, anyone genuinely seeking proof was satisfied with his release of the Certificate of Live Birth. But for those with a paranoid mindset, this was part of the cover-up, as were the Long Form, newspaper birth announcements, confirmation by factcheck.org, statements by Hawaiian officials, and a 1990 New York Times article listing his birthplace as Hawaii.
When Loretta Fuddy, the official who released the long form, died in a plane crash, theorists joyously note she was the only one of nine onboard who perished. They cited this as proof that Obama had her killed to keep her silent. Had she been the only one to survive, these same people would have asserted Obama spared her as a reward for loyalty. There is an alternative theory that the death was a hoax, but his has scant support among the birthers since it doesn’t fit their predetermined narrative.
It is proper to seek further confirmation, but when uncovered evidence is considered not proof of the truth, but proof of another conspiracy layer, it is unhealthy. In 1954, Marion Keach convinced her minions that aliens would destroy the world at midnight on Dec. 20. Only Keach and her followers would be spared, and they gathered in her home to await rescue by spaceship. When both the apocalypse and the flying emergency vehicle failed to arrive, the cultists concluded that their devotion to the aliens had caused them to spare the planet. Despite clear proof that Keach was wrong about what would happen that night, cognitive dissonance caused the cultists to double down on their beliefs. Doing so is much easier for today’s conspiracy theorist, since the Internet allows them to find sanctuary from any discomforting realities.