Conspiracy theory

Conspiracy theory

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A conspiracy theory explains an event as being the result of an alleged plot by a covert group or organization or, more broadly, the idea that important political, social or economic events are the products of secret plots that are largely unknown
Cover-up
A cover-up is an attempt, whether successful or not, to conceal evidence of wrong-doing, error, incompetence or other embarrassing information...

 to the general public.

Usage


The term "conspiracy theory" is used to indicate a narrative
Narrative
A narrative is a constructive format that describes a sequence of non-fictional or fictional events. The word derives from the Latin verb narrare, "to recount", and is related to the adjective gnarus, "knowing" or "skilled"...

 genre
Genre
Genre , Greek: genos, γένος) is the term for any category of literature or other forms of art or culture, e.g. music, and in general, any type of discourse, whether written or spoken, audial or visual, based on some set of stylistic criteria. Genres are formed by conventions that change over time...

 that includes a broad selection of (not necessarily related) arguments for the existence of grand conspiracies. The term is frequently used by scholars and in popular culture
Popular culture
Popular culture is the totality of ideas, perspectives, attitudes, memes, images and other phenomena that are deemed preferred per an informal consensus within the mainstream of a given culture, especially Western culture of the early to mid 20th century and the emerging global mainstream of the...

 to identify secret military, banking, or political actions aimed at "stealing" power
Political power
Political power is a type of power held by a group in a society which allows administration of some or all of public resources, including labour, and wealth. There are many ways to obtain possession of such power. At the nation-state level political legitimacy for political power is held by the...

, money
Money
Money is any object or record that is generally accepted as payment for goods and services and repayment of debts in a given country or socio-economic context. The main functions of money are distinguished as: a medium of exchange; a unit of account; a store of value; and, occasionally in the past,...

, or freedom
Freedom (political)
Political freedom is a central philosophy in Western history and political thought, and one of the most important features of democratic societies...

, from "the people". Conspiracy theories are based on the notion that complex plots are put into motion by powerful hidden forces. Less illustrious uses refer to folklore
Folklore
Folklore consists of legends, music, oral history, proverbs, jokes, popular beliefs, fairy tales and customs that are the traditions of a culture, subculture, or group. It is also the set of practices through which those expressive genres are shared. The study of folklore is sometimes called...

 and urban legend
Urban legend
An urban legend, urban myth, urban tale, or contemporary legend, is a form of modern folklore consisting of stories that may or may not have been believed by their tellers to be true...

 and a variety of explanatory narratives which are constructed with methodological flaws or biases. Originally a neutral term, during the political upheaval of the 1960s it also acquired a somewhat derogatory sense, implying paranoia. The term is sometimes used to automatically dismiss claims that are deemed ridiculous, misconceived, paranoid, unfounded, outlandish or irrational. A proven conspiracy theory, such as the notion that Nixon and his aides were behind the Watergate break-in and cover-up, is usually referred to as something else, such as investigative journalism or historical analysis.

The political scientist Michael Barkun
Michael Barkun
Michael Barkun is professor emeritus of political science at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University, specializing in political extremism and the relationship between religion and violence...

 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
Institutional analysis
Institutional analysis is that part of the social sciences which studies how institutions—i.e., structures and mechanisms of social order and cooperation governing the behavior of two or more individuals—behave and function according to both empirical rules and also theoretical rules...

 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
Manichaeism
Manichaeism in Modern Persian Āyin e Māni; ) was one of the major Iranian Gnostic religions, originating in Sassanid Persia.Although most of the original writings of the founding prophet Mani have been lost, numerous translations and fragmentary texts have survived...

. They trace all evil back to a single source, the conspirators and their agents. Third, conspiracy theories are often presented as special, secret knowledge
Esotericism
Esotericism or Esoterism signifies the holding of esoteric opinions or beliefs, that is, ideas preserved or understood by a small group or those specially initiated, or of rare or unusual interest. The term derives from the Greek , a compound of : "within", thus "pertaining to the more inward",...

 unknown or unappreciated by others. For conspiracy theorists, the masses are a brainwashed herd
Sheeple
Sheeple is a term of disparagement, in which people are likened to the herd animals sheep. The term is often used to denote persons who voluntarily acquiesce to a perceived authority figure's suggestion without critical analysis or sufficient research to understand the ramifications of that decision...

, while the conspiracy theorists in the know can congratulate themselves on penetrating the plotters' deceptions.

Some scholars argue that conspiracy theories once limited to fringe audiences have become commonplace in mass media
Mass media
Mass media refers collectively to all media technologies which are intended to reach a large audience via mass communication. Broadcast media transmit their information electronically and comprise of television, film and radio, movies, CDs, DVDs and some other gadgets like cameras or video consoles...

, 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
Politics
Politics is a process by which groups of people make collective decisions. The term is generally applied to the art or science of running governmental or state affairs, including behavior within civil governments, but also applies to institutions, fields, and special interest groups such as the...

 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
Folklore
Folklore consists of legends, music, oral history, proverbs, jokes, popular beliefs, fairy tales and customs that are the traditions of a culture, subculture, or group. It is also the set of practices through which those expressive genres are shared. The study of folklore is sometimes called...

.

In an essay on conspiracy theories originating in the Middle East, Daniel Pipes
Daniel Pipes
Daniel Pipes is an American historian, writer, and political commentator. He is the founder and director of the Middle East Forum and its Campus Watch project, and editor of its Middle East Quarterly journal...

 notes that "[f]ive 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 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."

Noam Chomsky
Noam Chomsky
Avram Noam Chomsky is an American linguist, philosopher, cognitive scientist, and activist. He is an Institute Professor and Professor in the Department of Linguistics & Philosophy at MIT, where he has worked for over 50 years. Chomsky has been described as the "father of modern linguistics" and...

, linguist and scholar, contrasts conspiracy theory as more or less the opposite of institutional analysis
Institutional analysis
Institutional analysis is that part of the social sciences which studies how institutions—i.e., structures and mechanisms of social order and cooperation governing the behavior of two or more individuals—behave and function according to both empirical rules and also theoretical rules...

, which focuses mostly on the public, long-term behaviour of publicly known institutions, as recorded in, for example, scholarly documents or mainstream media
Mainstream media
Mainstream media are those media disseminated via the largest distribution channels, which therefore represent what the majority of media consumers are likely to encounter...

 reports, rather than secretive coalitions of individuals.

Types


Barkun has categorized, in ascending order of breadth, the types of conspiracy theories as follows:
  • Event conspiracy theories. The conspiracy is held to be responsible for a limited, discrete event or set of events. The conspiratorial forces are alleged to have focused their energies on a limited, well-defined objective. The best-known example in the recent past is the Kennedy assassination conspiracy literature, though similar material exists concerning the crash of TWA Flight 800
    TWA Flight 800 alternative theories
    TWA Flight 800 alternative theories allege that the crash of Trans World Airlines Flight 800 was due to causes other than those determined by the National Transportation Safety Board , the official investigative agency...

    , and the spread of AIDS in the black community.
  • Systemic conspiracy theories. The conspiracy is believed to have broad goals, usually conceived as securing control of a country, a region, or even the entire world. While the goals are sweeping, the conspiratorial machinery is generally simple: a single, evil organization implements a plan to infiltrate and subvert existing institutions. This is a common scenario in conspiracy theories that focus on the alleged machinations of Jews, Freemasons, or the Catholic Church
    Vatican conspiracy theories
    Vatican conspiracy theories are conspiracy theories that concern the Pope and/or the Roman Catholic Church. A majority of the theories allege that the Church and its representatives are secretly controlling secular society....

    , as well as theories centered on Communism
    Red Scare
    Durrell Blackwell Durrell Blackwell The term Red Scare denotes two distinct periods of strong Anti-Communism in the United States: the First Red Scare, from 1919 to 1920, and the Second Red Scare, from 1947 to 1957. The First Red Scare was about worker revolution and...

     or international capitalists.
  • Superconspiracy theories. Conspiratorial constructs in which multiple conspiracies are believed to be linked together hierarchically. Event and systemic are joined in complex ways, so that conspiracies come to be nested together. At the summit of the conspiratorial hierarchy is a distant but all-powerful evil force manipulating lesser conspiratorial actors. Superconspiracy theories have enjoyed particular growth since the 1980s, in the work of authors such as David Icke
    David Icke
    David Vaughan Icke is an English writer and public speaker, best known for his views on what he calls "who and what is really controlling the world." Describing himself as the most controversial speaker in the world, he has written 18 books explaining his position, and has attracted a substantial...

     and Milton William Cooper
    Milton William Cooper
    Milton William Cooper was an American writer, shortwave broadcaster, conspiracy theorist, and political activist.-Biography:...

    .

Proven conspiracies and conspiracy theories


Katherine K. Young
Katherine K. Young
Katherine K. Young is a Canadian religious studies academic. She was awarded her M.A. from the University of Chicago and her Ph.D. from McGill University, for research on the history of religions, specializing in Hinduism. After completing her doctorate Young remained at McGill as a faculty member...

 states "(t)he 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."

"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 coupled with the denial of any conspiracies what so ever even though the government itself promoted conspiracy theories (such as Communism plans to take over the world) helps feed the belief in conspiracy theories.

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."

Controversy


Aside from controversies over the merits of particular conspiratorial claims, 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 at least some conspiracy theories.

Given this popular understanding of the term, it can also be used illegitimately and inappropriately, as a means 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
Michael Parenti
Michael Parenti is an award-winning, internationally known American political scientist, historian, and culture critic who has been writing on a wide range of both scholarly and popular subjects for over forty years. He has taught at several universities and colleges and has been a frequent guest...

, 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,
Structuralist or institutional analysis shows 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 occurs 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
Social stigma
Social stigma is the severe disapproval of or discontent with a person on the grounds of characteristics that distinguish them from other members of a society.Almost all stigma is based on a person differing from social or cultural norms...

. Michael Parenti
Michael Parenti
Michael Parenti is an award-winning, internationally known American political scientist, historian, and culture critic who has been writing on a wide range of both scholarly and popular subjects for over forty years. He has taught at several universities and colleges and has been a frequent guest...

 gives an example of the use of the term which underscores the conflict in its use. He states,
The term "conspiracy theory" is itself the object of a type of conspiracy theory, which argues that those using the term are manipulating their audience to disregard the topic under discussion, either in a deliberate attempt to conceal the truth, or as dupes of more deliberate conspirators.

When conspiracy theories are offered as official claims (for example, originating from a governmental authority, such as an intelligence agency) they are not usually considered as conspiracy theories. For example, certain activities of the House Un-American Activities Committee
House Un-American Activities Committee
The House Committee on Un-American Activities or House Un-American Activities Committee was an investigative committee of the United States House of Representatives. In 1969, the House changed the committee's name to "House Committee on Internal Security"...

 may be considered to have been an official attempt to promote a conspiracy theory, yet its claims are seldom referred to as such.

Further difficulties arise from ambiguity regarding the term "theory
Theory
The English word theory was derived from a technical term in Ancient Greek philosophy. The word theoria, , meant "a looking at, viewing, beholding", and referring to contemplation or speculation, as opposed to action...

'. In popular usage, this term is often used to refer to unfounded or weakly based speculation, leading to the idea that "It's not a conspiracy theory if it's actually true".

Conspiracism


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
Richard Hofstadter
Richard Hofstadter was an American public intellectual of the 1950s, a historian and DeWitt Clinton Professor of American History at Columbia University...

 addressed the role of paranoia
Paranoia
Paranoia [] is a thought process believed to be heavily influenced by anxiety or fear, often to the point of irrationality and delusion. Paranoid thinking typically includes persecutory beliefs, or beliefs of conspiracy concerning a perceived threat towards oneself...

 and conspiracism throughout American history in his essay The Paranoid Style in American Politics
The Paranoid Style in American Politics
The Paranoid Style in American Politics, by Richard J. Hofstadter, is an historical essay tracing the influence of conspiracy theory and “movements of suspicious discontent” through the course of American history...

, published in 1964. Bernard Bailyn's
Bernard Bailyn
Bernard Bailyn is an American historian, author, and professor specializing in U.S. Colonial and Revolutionary-era History. He has been a professor at Harvard University since 1953. Bailyn has won the Pulitzer Prize for History twice . In 1998 the National Endowment for the Humanities selected...

 classic The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution
The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution
The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution is a Pulitzer Prize-winning book of history by Bernard Bailyn. It is considered one of the most influential studies of the American Revolution published during the 20th century....

(1967) notes that a similar phenomenon could be found in America during the time preceding the American Revolution
American Revolution
The American Revolution was the political upheaval during the last half of the 18th century in which thirteen colonies in North America joined together to break free from the British Empire, combining to become the United States of America...

. 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
Adolf Hitler
Adolf Hitler was an Austrian-born German politician and the leader of the National Socialist German Workers Party , commonly referred to as the Nazi Party). He was Chancellor of Germany from 1933 to 1945, and head of state from 1934 to 1945...

 and Stalin
Joseph Stalin
Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin was the Premier of the Soviet Union from 6 May 1941 to 5 March 1953. He was among the Bolshevik revolutionaries who brought about the October Revolution and had held the position of first General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union's Central Committee...

 would be merely the 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."


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
John F. Kennedy assassination
John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the thirty-fifth President of the United States, was assassinated at 12:30 p.m. Central Standard Time on Friday, November 22, 1963, in Dealey Plaza, Dallas, Texas...

 of US President John F. Kennedy
John F. Kennedy
John Fitzgerald "Jack" Kennedy , often referred to by his initials JFK, was the 35th President of the United States, serving from 1961 until his assassination in 1963....

 eventually provoked an unprecedented public response directed against the official version of the case as expounded in the Report of the Warren Commission
Warren Commission
The President's Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy, known unofficially as the Warren Commission, was established on November 27, 1963, by Lyndon B. Johnson to investigate the assassination of United States President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963...

.

Psychological origins


According to some psychologist
Psychologist
Psychologist is a professional or academic title used by individuals who are either:* Clinical professionals who work with patients in a variety of therapeutic contexts .* Scientists conducting psychological research or teaching psychology in a college...

s, a person who believes in one conspiracy theory tends to believe in others; a person who does not believe in one conspiracy theory tends not to believe another.

Psychologists believe that the search for meaning
Meaning of life
The meaning of life constitutes a philosophical question concerning the purpose and significance of life or existence in general. This concept can be expressed through a variety of related questions, such as "Why are we here?", "What is life all about?", and "What is the meaning of it all?" It has...

 is common in conspiracism and the development of conspiracy theories, and may be powerful enough alone to lead to the first formulating of the idea. Once cognized, confirmation bias
Confirmation bias
Confirmation bias is a tendency for people to favor information that confirms their preconceptions or hypotheses regardless of whether the information is true.David Perkins, a geneticist, coined the term "myside bias" referring to a preference for "my" side of an issue...

 and avoidance of cognitive dissonance
Cognitive dissonance
Cognitive dissonance is a discomfort caused by holding conflicting ideas simultaneously. The theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that people have a motivational drive to reduce dissonance. They do this by changing their attitudes, beliefs, and actions. Dissonance is also reduced by justifying,...

 may reinforce the belief. In a context where a conspiracy theory has become popular within a social group, communal reinforcement
Communal reinforcement
Communal reinforcement is a social phenomenon in which a concept or idea is repeatedly asserted in a community, regardless of whether sufficient empirical evidence has been presented to support it. Over time, the concept or idea is reinforced to become a strong belief in many people's minds, and...

 may equally play a part. Some research carried out at the University of Kent
University of Kent
The University of Kent, previously the University of Kent at Canterbury, is a public research university based in Kent, United Kingdom...

, 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
Death of Diana, Princess of Wales
On 31 August 1997, Diana, Princess of Wales, died as a result of injuries sustained in a car accident in the Pont de l'Alma road tunnel in Paris, France. Her companion, Dodi Fayed, and the driver of the Mercedes-Benz W140, Henri Paul, were pronounced dead at the scene of the accident. Fayed's...

, 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.

Humanistic psychologists
Humanistic psychology
Humanistic psychology is a psychological perspective which rose to prominence in the mid-20th century, drawing on the work of early pioneers like Carl Rogers and the philosophies of existentialism and phenomenology...

 argue that even if the cabal
Cabal
A cabal is a group of people united in some close design together, usually to promote their private views and/or interests in a church, state, or other community, often by intrigue...

 behind the conspiracy is almost always perceived as hostile there is, often, still an element of reassurance in it, for conspiracy theorists, in part because it is more consoling to think that complications and upheavals in human affairs, at least, 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.

Projection


Some historians have argued that there is an element of psychological projection
Psychological projection
Psychological projection or projection bias is a psychological defense mechanism where a person subconsciously denies his or her own attributes, thoughts, and emotions, which are then ascribed to the outside world, usually to other people...

 in conspiracism. This projection, according to the argument, is manifested in the form of attribution of undesirable characteristics of the self to the conspirators. Richard Hofstadter
Richard Hofstadter
Richard Hofstadter was an American public intellectual of the 1950s, a historian and DeWitt Clinton Professor of American History at Columbia University...

, in his essay The Paranoid Style in American Politics
The Paranoid Style in American Politics
The Paranoid Style in American Politics, by Richard J. Hofstadter, is an historical essay tracing the influence of conspiracy theory and “movements of suspicious discontent” through the course of American history...

, 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."

Epistemic bias


It is possible that certain basic human epistemic biases are projected onto the material under scrutiny. According to one study, humans apply a rule of thumb
Rule of thumb
A rule of thumb is a principle with broad application that is not intended to be strictly accurate or reliable for every situation. It is an easily learned and easily applied procedure for approximately calculating or recalling some value, or for making some determination...

 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 pareidolia
Pareidolia
Pareidolia is a psychological phenomenon involving a vague and random stimulus being perceived as significant. Common examples include seeing images of animals or faces in clouds, the man in the moon or the Moon rabbit, and hearing hidden messages on records played in reverse...

, 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 misapplied to a mystery involving other humans is cui bono
Cui bono
Cui bono , also rendered as Cui prodest, is a Latin adage that is used either to suggest a hidden motive or to indicate that the party responsible for something may not be who it appears at first to be.Commonly the phrase is used to suggest that the person or people guilty of committing a...

? (who stands to gain?). This sensitivity to the hidden motives of other people may be an evolved and universal feature of human consciousness.

Clinical psychology


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
Paranoia
Paranoia [] is a thought process believed to be heavily influenced by anxiety or fear, often to the point of irrationality and delusion. Paranoid thinking typically includes persecutory beliefs, or beliefs of conspiracy concerning a perceived threat towards oneself...

, denial
Denial
Denial is a defense mechanism postulated by Sigmund Freud, in which a person is faced with a fact that is too uncomfortable to accept and rejects it instead, insisting that it is not true despite what may be overwhelming evidence.The subject may use:* simple denial: deny the reality of the...

, schizophrenia
Schizophrenia
Schizophrenia is a mental disorder characterized by a disintegration of thought processes and of emotional responsiveness. It most commonly manifests itself as auditory hallucinations, paranoid or bizarre delusions, or disorganized speech and thinking, and it is accompanied by significant social...

, mean world syndrome
Mean World Syndrome
"Mean world syndrome" is a term coined by George Gerbner to describe a phenomenon whereby violence-related content of mass media makes viewers believe that the world is more dangerous than it actually is. Mean world syndrome is one of the main conclusions of cultivation theory...

.

Socio-political origins


Christopher Hitchens
Christopher Hitchens
Christopher Eric Hitchens is an Anglo-American author and journalist whose books, essays, and journalistic career span more than four decades. He has been a columnist and literary critic at The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, Slate, World Affairs, The Nation, Free Inquiry, and became a media fellow at the...

 represents conspiracy theories as the 'exhaust fumes of democracy', the unavoidable result of a large amount of information circulating among a large number of people. Other social commentators and sociologists argue that conspiracy theories are produced according to variables that may change within a democratic (or other type of) society.

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
Roger Cohen
Roger Cohen is a British-born journalist and author. He is a columnist for The New York Times and International Herald Tribune. He has worked as a foreign correspondent in fifteen different countries.- Biography :...

, in an op-Ed
Op-ed
An op-ed, abbreviated from opposite the editorial page , is a newspaper article that expresses the opinions of a named writer who is usually unaffiliated with the newspaper's editorial board...

 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
Closure (psychology)
Closure or need for closure is a popular psychology term used to describe an individual's desire for a definite cognitive closure as opposed to enduring ambiguity...

 that such emotional challenges (after Erving Goffman
Erving Goffman
Erving Goffman was a Canadian-born sociologist and writer.The 73rd president of American Sociological Association, Goffman's greatest contribution to social theory is his study of symbolic interaction in the form of dramaturgical perspective that began with his 1959 book The Presentation of Self...

) require. Like moral panic
Moral panic
A moral panic is the intensity of feeling expressed in a population about an issue that appears to threaten the social order. According to Stanley Cohen, author of Folk Devils and Moral Panics and credited creator of the term, a moral panic occurs when "[a] condition, episode, person or group of...

s, conspiracy theories thus occur more frequently within communities that are experiencing social isolation
Social alienation
The term social alienation has many discipline-specific uses; Roberts notes how even within the social sciences, it “is used to refer both to a personal psychological state and to a type of social relationship”...

 or political dis-empowerment.

Sociological historian Holger Herwig found in studying German explanations for the origins of World War I
World War I
World War I , which was predominantly called the World War or the Great War from its occurrence until 1939, and the First World War or World War I thereafter, was a major war centred in Europe that began on 28 July 1914 and lasted until 11 November 1918...

, "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.

Influence of critical theory


Bruno Latour
Bruno Latour
Bruno Latour is a French sociologist of science and anthropologist and an influential theorist in the field of Science and Technology Studies...

 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
Critical theory
Critical theory is an examination and critique of society and culture, drawing from knowledge across the social sciences and humanities. The term has two different meanings with different origins and histories: one originating in sociology and the other in literary criticism...

 and similar ideas in academia since the 1970s.

Latour suggests 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; the “fairy position” argues that individuals are dominated, often covertly and without their awareness, by external forces (e.g., economics, gender). (p. 238) “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 skeptics and the 9/11 Truth movement
9/11 Truth Movement
9/11 Truth movement is a collective name for loosely affiliated organizations and individuals who question the accepted account of the September 11, 2001, attacks....

: “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)

Media tropes


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, drama
Drama
Drama is the specific mode of fiction represented in performance. The term comes from a Greek word meaning "action" , which is derived from "to do","to act" . The enactment of drama in theatre, performed by actors on a stage before an audience, presupposes collaborative modes of production and a...

tic 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. Again, if this is a true observation, it may reflect a real change in how the media consumer perceives negative events.

Hollywood motion pictures and television shows perpetuate and enlarge belief in conspiracy as a standard functioning of corporations and governments. Feature films such as Enemy of the State and Shooter, among scores of others, propound conspiracies as a normal state of affairs, having dropped the idea of questioning conspiracies typical of movies of eras prior to about 1970. Shooter even contains the line, "that is how conspiracies work" in reference to the JFK murder. Interestingly, movies and television shows do the same as the news media in regard to personalizing and dramatizing issues which are easy to involve in conspiracy theories. Coming Home converts the huge problem of the returning injured Vietnam War soldier into the chance that the injured soldier will fall in love, and when he does, the strong implication is that the larger problem is also solved. This factor is a natural outcome of Hollywood script development which wishes to highlight one or two major characters which can be played by major stars, and thus a good way of marketing the movie is established but that rings false upon examination. Further, the necessity to serve up a dubiously justified happy ending, although expected by audiences, actually has another effect of heightening the sense of falseness and contrived stories, underpinning the public's loss of belief in virtually anything any mass media says. Into the vacuum of that loss of belief falls explanation by conspiracy theory.

Too, the act of dramatizing real or fictional events injects a degree of falseness or contrived efforts which media savvy people today can identify easily. "News" today is virtually always dramatized, at least by pitting "one side" against another in the fictional journalistic concept that all stories must contain "both sides" (as though reality could be reduced to two sides) or by using more intensive dramatic developments similar to feature movies. That is, by obvious dramatizing, the media reinforces the idea that all things are contrived for someone's gain which could be another definition of, at least, political conspiracies theories.
--Dr. Charles Harpole in "History of American Cinema" Scribner/U. Calif Press.

Fusion paranoia


Michael Kelly
Michael Kelly (editor)
Michael Thomas Kelly was an American journalist, a columnist for The Washington Post, and an editor at The New Republic, National Journal, and The Atlantic. He came to prominence via his reporting on the first Gulf War, but suffered professional embarrassment for his role in the Stephen Glass...

, a Washington Post journalist and critic of anti-war
Anti-war
An anti-war movement is a social movement, usually in opposition to a particular nation's decision to start or carry on an armed conflict, unconditional of a maybe-existing just cause. The term can also refer to pacifism, which is the opposition to all use of military force during conflicts. Many...

 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
Civil liberties
Civil liberties are rights and freedoms that provide an individual specific rights such as the freedom from slavery and forced labour, freedom from torture and death, the right to liberty and security, right to a fair trial, the right to defend one's self, the right to own and bear arms, the right...

, which he claimed were motivated by a shared belief in conspiracism or anti-government views.

Social critics have 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
Mass media
Mass media refers collectively to all media technologies which are intended to reach a large audience via mass communication. Broadcast media transmit their information electronically and comprise of television, film and radio, movies, CDs, DVDs and some other gadgets like cameras or video consoles...

, thereby inaugurating an unrivaled period of people actively preparing for apocalyptic
Apocalypticism
Apocalypticism is the religious belief that there will be an apocalypse, a term which originally referred to a revelation of God's will, but now usually refers to belief that the world will come to an end time very soon, even within one's own lifetime...

 millenarian
Millenarianism
Millenarianism is the belief by a religious, social, or political group or movement in a coming major transformation of society, after which all things will be changed, based on a one-thousand-year cycle. The term is more generically used to refer to any belief centered around 1000 year intervals...

 scenarios in the United States
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

 of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. They warn that this development may not only fuel lone wolf terrorism but have devastating effects on American political life, such as the rise of a revolutionary right-wing populist
Right-wing populism
Right-wing populism is a political ideology that rejects existing political consensus and combines laissez-faire liberalism and anti-elitism. It is considered "right-wing" because of its rejection of social equality and government programs to achieve it, its opposition to social integration, and...

 movement capable of subverting
Subversion (politics)
Subversion refers to an attempt to transform the established social order, its structures of power, authority, and hierarchy; examples of such structures include the State. In this context, a "subversive" is sometimes called a "traitor" with respect to the government in-power. A subversive is...

 the established political powers.

Daniel Pipes
Daniel Pipes
Daniel Pipes is an American historian, writer, and political commentator. He is the founder and director of the Middle East Forum and its Campus Watch project, and editor of its Middle East Quarterly journal...

 wrote in a 2004 Jerusalem Post article titled Fusion Paranoia:

Political use



In his two volume work The Open Society and Its Enemies
The Open Society and Its Enemies
The Open Society and Its Enemies is an influential two-volume work by Karl Popper written during World War II. Failing to find a publisher in the United States, it was first printed in London by Routledge in 1945...

, Popper used the term "conspiracy theory" to criticize the ideologies driving fascism
Fascism
Fascism is a radical authoritarian nationalist political ideology. Fascists seek to rejuvenate their nation based on commitment to the national community as an organic entity, in which individuals are bound together in national identity by suprapersonal connections of ancestry, culture, and blood...

, nazism
Nazism
Nazism, the common short form name of National Socialism was the ideology and practice of the Nazi Party and of Nazi Germany...

, and communism
Communism
Communism is a social, political and economic ideology that aims at the establishment of a classless, moneyless, revolutionary and stateless socialist society structured upon common ownership of the means of production...

. 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
History of Athens
Athens is one of the oldest named cities in the world, having been continuously inhabited for at least 7000 years. Situated in southern Europe, Athens became the leading city of Ancient Greece in the first millennium BCE and its cultural achievements during the 5th century BCE laid the foundations...

 of Plato
Plato
Plato , was a Classical Greek philosopher, mathematician, student of Socrates, writer of philosophical dialogues, and founder of the Academy in Athens, the first institution of higher learning in the Western world. Along with his mentor, Socrates, and his student, Aristotle, Plato helped to lay the...

 (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."

In a paper written in 2008, Cass Sunstein
Cass Sunstein
Cass R. Sunstein is an American legal scholar, particularly in the fields of constitutional law, administrative law, environmental law, and law and behavioral economics, who currently is the Administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in the Obama administration...

, legal scholar, and Administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs
Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs
The Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs is an office of the United States Government that Congress established in the 1980 Paperwork Reduction Act. OIRA is located within the Office of Management and Budget, which is an agency within the Executive Office of the President...

, wrote of appropriate government responses to conspiracy theories. In the paper he stated:

See also

  • Conspiracy (disambiguation)
  • Conspiracy in criminal law
    Conspiracy (crime)
    In the criminal law, a conspiracy is an agreement between two or more persons to break the law at some time in the future, and, in some cases, with at least one overt act in furtherance of that agreement...

  • Conspiracy in civil law
    Conspiracy (civil)
    A civil conspiracy or collusion is an agreement between two or more parties to deprive a third party of legal rights or deceive a third party to obtain an illegal objective....

  • Conspiracy fiction
    Conspiracy fiction
    The conspiracy thriller is a subgenre of thriller fiction. The protagonists of conspiracy thrillers are often journalists or amateur investigators who find themselves pulling on a small thread which unravels a vast conspiracy that ultimately goes "all the way to the top"...

  • Fringe theory
    Fringe theory
    A fringe theory is an idea or a collection of ideas that departs significantly from the prevailing or mainstream view in its particular field of study. Examples include ideas that purport to be scientific theories but have little or no scientific support, conspiracy theories, unproven esoteric...

  • Furtive fallacy
    Furtive fallacy
    The furtive fallacy is an informal fallacy of emphasis. Historian David Hackett Fischer identified it as the belief that significant facts of history are necessarily sinister, and that "history itself is a story of causes mostly insidious and results mostly invidious." It is more than a...

  • Pseudohistory
    Pseudohistory
    Pseudohistory is a pejorative term applied to a type of historical revisionism, often involving sensational claims whose acceptance would require rewriting a significant amount of commonly accepted history, and based on methods that depart from standard historiographical conventions.Cryptohistory...

  • Pseudoscience
    Pseudoscience
    Pseudoscience is a claim, belief, or practice which is presented as scientific, but which does not adhere to a valid scientific method, lacks supporting evidence or plausibility, cannot be reliably tested, or otherwise lacks scientific status...

  • UFO conspiracy theory
    UFO conspiracy theory
    A UFO conspiracy theory is any one of many often overlapping conspiracy theories which argue that evidence of the reality of unidentified flying objects is being suppressed by various governments around the world...


Further reading


Conspiracist literature

  • The Protocols of the Elders of Zion
    The Protocols of the Elders of Zion
    The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is a fraudulent, antisemitic text purporting to describe a Jewish plan for achieving global domination. It was first published in Russia in 1903, translated into multiple languages, and disseminated internationally in the early part of the twentieth century...

    . Sees conspiracy as a fundamental principle between cooperation and competition. Proposes a new science of "conspirology." A shadow government and a code of war move a secret war against an old common enemy. Polemical literature of the Brazilian writer Sorrento.

External links