There is a claim that the phrase “conspiracy theory” was coined by the CIA in 1967, with agents encouraged to deploy it against those who were exposing government misdeeds and corporate corruption. According to this narrative, the government is desperate to portray the theorists in a negative light so their exposures won’t be taken seriously.
In truth, however, conspiracy theorists have never exposed anything. Genuine government or corporate malfeasance has always been exposed by investigative reporters or whistleblowers. Persons seriously interested in exposing evildoing will be following Seymour Hersh, not Alex Jones.
Examples of wrongdoings exposed by reporters or insiders include Abu Ghraib, Watergate, NSA abuses, and the Tuskegee syphilis experiments. Conspiracy theorists try to use these outrages to bolster claims such as these: The Pulse nightclub shooting was staged; A cancer cure is being repressed: AIDS is a government concoction to eradicate gays and blacks. But the earlier examples came from deep digging or from someone who had access to the secrets. The latter are shallow and kneejerk, and require that the conclusion be crafted first, with alleged evidence then sought, created, mangled, and shoehorned in. No actual journalism is allowed, as contrary evidence is rabidly rejected, sometimes in the form of death threats against those presenting it.
Similarly, there have been false flags before, but it is a non sequitur to conclude that other attacks or incidents are false flags as well. When the Nazis invaded Poland, they invented a story about having been attacked first, and conspiracy theorists will point to this type of example and think it lends credence to their assertion that our government is doing the same today. However, the Nazis maintained complete control over the German press and there was no social media. A western government attempting a similar charade today would be quickly rooted out.
Conspiracy theorists rely primarily on negative evidence and anomaly hunting.
One negative evidence example is a claim that those identified as the Sept. 11 terrorists are not seen on security camera footage boarding the aircraft. The only exceptions are a duo that are seen boarding a flight from Portland, Maine, to Boston, and this was the first leg so they were not getting on an airplane about to be hijacked for a kamikaze mission.
(Note: Video evidence of terrorists boarding the planes HAS been presented, but my intent here is not to delve into the minutiae of a specific claim, but rather to highlight the theorists’ use of negative evidence).
The fact that a person cannot explain why no footage of terrorists boarding the plane is not available is supposed to be a point for the conspiracy theorist. But this absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. It would be more of a point if the theorists had security camera footage of all persons checking in and boarding the ill-fated aircraft, with none of the terrorists visible. But just pointing out the lack of available footage is negative evidence and is of no value.
In truth, every piece of evidence I’ve seen from 9/11 Truthers has been of the negative variety. Granted, I have not poured over every second of the multiple five-hour YouTube videos they have put together for us sheeple. But I have seen plenty from the Truthers, most frequently on the anniversary of the attacks when they are unable to put their zeal on hold for one day in order to mourn the victims, or at least do nothing, as opposed to furthering a personal vendetta.
Another staple of conspiracy theorists is anomaly hunting, where they grab onto something that seems out of place and ignore everything else.
For example, they have noted that a man interviewed about a mass shooting was laughing before the interview, then cried when it began, and present this as irrefutable proof that he was acting. The theorist will then ignore any ballistic evidence, videos of the shooting, death certificates, or police statements. They also gloss over the fact that grief can be a strange, complex, irrational beast that can manifest itself in the form of a man chuckling before breaking into tears.
Also, out of place doesn’t even have to mean that it seems inconsistent with the “official” narrative. Two examples from the JFK assassination are the Umbrella Man and the Babushka Lady. Their relevance to the assassination is nonexistent, but theorists spent decades trying to track down what their presence might mean. Why was the man holding an umbrella? Why was the lady taking photos when most others were sprawled on the ground for their safety? These highly-open ended questions welcome all kinds of speculation and tangents, to the theorists’ delight. They concentrate on these highly trivial issues instead of looking at the ample evidence that Oswald acted alone and certainly wasn’t conspiring with these two historical footnotes.
Getting back to the CIA memo, it was released following a 1976 FOIA request. The key phrase in the memo states, “The aim of this dispatch is to provide material countering and discrediting the claims of the conspiracy theorists.”
The memo did not create the term “conspiracy theorist,” nor did it suggest using those words to discredit those espousing them. It just accurately identifies them as such, goes over their arguments, and offers counters to them.
In this next passage, the memo outlines why it is unsound to conclude that the assassination was funded by a Bilderberger/Bohemian Grove/Rothschild type:
“A conspiracy on the large scale often suggested would be impossible to conceal in the United States, esp. since informants could expect to receive large royalties. Note that Robert Kennedy, Attorney General at the time and John F. Kennedy’s brother, would be the last man to overlook or conceal any conspiracy. And as one reviewer pointed out, Congressman Gerald Ford would hardly have held his tongue for the sake of the Democratic administration, and Senator Russell would have had every political interest in exposing any misdeeds on the part of Chief Justice Warren. A conspirator moreover would hardly choose a location for a shooting where so much depended on conditions beyond his control: the route, the speed of the cars, the moving target, the risk that the assassin would be discovered. A group of wealthy conspirators could have arranged much more secure conditions.”
Elsewhere, the memo highlights the flaws of anomaly hunting:
“Critics usually overvalue particular items and ignore others. They tend to place more emphasis on the recollections of individual witnesses, which are less reliable and more divergent and hence offer more hand-holds for criticism, and less on ballistics, autopsy, and photographic evidence.”
These two snippets offer good arguments against conspiracy theory claims and are not exhortations to employ a freshly-minted term to belittle those making such assertions.
That is why conspiracy theorist Kevin Barrett was way off when he wrote, “The term was invented and put into wide circulation by the CIA to smear and defame people questioning the JFK assassination! The CIA’s campaign was to popularize the term ‘conspiracy theory’ and make conspiracy belief a target of ridicule and hostility.”
The fact that the agency didn’t bother to define the term shows that it was not a CIA original already in. Indeed, the Center for Skeptical Inquiry researched the term and found that it was already in use closer to the time of Lincoln’s assassination than Kennedy’s. Examples of use prior to the CIA memo include:
- A 1964 New Statesman article that concluded, “Conspiracy theorists will be disappointed by the absence of a dogmatic introduction.”
- A 1909 American Historical Review piece that read, “The claim that Atchison was the originator of the repeal may be termed a recrudescence of the conspiracy theory first asserted by Colonel John A. Parker of Virginia in 1880.
- A May 1890 article in a psychical research journal that dubbed the exposure of medium Helena Blavatsky as “a conspiracy theory.”
- In 1881, a reporter for the Rhodes Journal of Banking wrote, “As evidence of a conspiracy this showing is pitiful, and in any view, the charge is ridiculous, as no conspiracy theory is needed to account for the facts.”
- From the Journal of Mental Science in 1870: “The theory of Dr. Sankey as to the manner in which these injuries to the chest occurred in asylums deserved our careful attention. It was at least more plausible than the conspiracy theory of Mr. Charles Reade.”
Not that these examples would have much impact on conspiracy theorists. To them, this likely would just be proof that the attempt to stigmatize them began much earlier than they had expected.
So the phrase was not coined by the CIA and the agency attached no negative meaning to it. Conspiracy theories did not get their stigma from a CIA plot. Rather, that happened because their adherents insisted that a Kenyan birth was announced in Honolulu newspapers, that Antonin Scalia’s pillow is proof he was murdered, and because they threaten family members of mass shooting victims.