Over the last several years, conspiracy theories have drawn increasing media attention. From birtherism to QAnon, from pandemic disinformation to lies about the outcome of democratic elections, conspiracy theories have been openly embraced by politicians who seek to use them to influence the electorate.
But conspiracy theories are not a recent phenomenon, and neither is their propagation by prominent individuals and organizations that are capable of shaping public discourse.
In this series, I will discuss some consequential conspiracy theories, such as the "Stab in the back" conspiracy theory that spread among Germany's far-right circles after World War I, or the false claim by elements of the US far-right that the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests were masterminded by the Chinese government.
But, first of all, I will provide a definition of the term conspiracy theory in order to avoid ambiguity and confusion.
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1 What are conspiracy theories?
I will argue that a conspiracy theory is a belief, unsupported by evidence yet presented as fact, that a group of people is engaged in a covert scheme to achieve domination and control over others, and to commit harmful acts.
According to Barkun (2013), conspiracy theories try to delineate and explain evil by claiming that history is controlled by powerful nefarious forces that lie outside of the "true" community. The worldview of the conspiracy theorist is therefore characterized by a sharp division between the realms of good and evil (Barkun 2013, p. 2).
Conspiracy theorists assume that the world is governed by design, and that the course of history is shaped by the plans of a cabal that acts secretly and effectively. Therefore, the role of randomness and coincidence, or the complexity of diverging individual interests, are downplayed, if not entirely dismissed.
Barkun argues that most conspiracy theories are characterized by the following principles:
1 Nothing happens by accident. The world is based on intentionality, from which accident and coincidence have been removed. Anything that happens occurs because it has been willed. Conspiracy theorists thus create a fantasy world that is more coherent than the real world.
2 Nothing is as it seems. "Appearances are deceptive, because conspirators wish to deceive in order to disguise their identities or their activities."
3 Everything is connected. "Because the conspiracists' world has no room for accident, pattern is believed to be everywhere, albeit hidden from plain view. Hence the conspiracy theorist must engage in a constant process of linkage and correlation in order to map the hidden connections" (Barkun 2013, pp. 3-4).
Conspiracy theories are both frightening and reassuring. They're frightening because they assume the existence of effective, secret machinations masterminded by powerful villains. But they're also reassuring, because they replace the complexity of the real world with a simplistic, easily understandable plot. They allow one to identify scapegoats and enemies, and to frame the course of human events as the result of will and planning rather than chaos and arbitrariness.
Barkun distinguishes between three types of conspiracy theory:
1 Event conspiracies: they describe a specific event or a limited set of events with a well-defined objective. Examples of this are the conspiracy theories around the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and those around the moon landing.
2 Systemic conspiracies: the conspiracy is believed to have broad goals such as achieving control over a region, a country or even the whole world. However, the conspiracy is generally simple, involving a plan to infiltrate and subvert existing institutions. Examples of this are the 18th century conspiracy theory about the Catholic Church scheming to take over the US government; as well as the "Red Scare" of the 1950s, when US Senator Joseph McCarthy launched a sweeping anti-communist campaign that led to false accusations against individuals.
3 Superconspiracies: they are "conspiratorial constructs in which multiple conspiracies are believed to be linked together hierarchically" (Barkun, p. 6). Butter (2020) defines superconspiracy theories as a "conglomeration of event and systemic conspiracy theories."
Examples of superconspiracies are the Nazi theory of the global Jewish-Bolshevist conspiracy, which combines two systemic conspiracy theories, the Jewish one and the communist one; and Robert W. Welch's theory of a communist plot which he claimed dated back to the Illuminati (Butter 2020, chapter 1).
Butter further distinguishes between top-down, bottom-up, internal and external conspiracy theories.
A top-down conspiracy theory assumes that the conspirators are already in a position of institutional power. One example of this is the far-right "deep state" conspiracy theory which claims that there is a cabal within the US government plotting against Republicans. Or the conspiracy theory that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were an "inside job".
A bottom-up conspiracy theory alleges that there are groups of people trying to gain control over institutions, a country, or the world. One example of it are anti-Catholic conspiracy theories that circulated in the US in the 19th century. In the book A Plea for the West, published in 1835, the Presbyterian minister Lyman Beecher expressed such conspiratorial speculations thus:
"[I]f, upon examination, it should appear that three-fourths of the foreign emigrants whose accumulating tide is rolling in upon us, are, through the medium of their religion and priesthood, as entirely accessible to the control of the potentates of Europe as if they were an army of soldiers, enlisted and officered, and spreading over the land; then, indeed, should we have just occa- sion to apprehend danger to our liberties …
"It is to the political claims and character of the Catholic religion, and its church and state alliance with the political and ecclesiastical governments of Europe hostile to liberty, and the tendency upon our republican institutions of flooding the nation suddenly with emigrants of this description, on whom for many years European influence may be exerted with such ease, and certainty, and power, that we call the attention of the people of this nation" (Beecher 1835, pp. 54, 66)
This leads us to the next distinction, that between external and internal conspiracy theories.
External conspiracy theories focus on outsiders that are attempting to take over and control a society. Beecher's anti-Catholic diatribe is an example of it.
Internal conspiracy theories identify as conspirators groups that have always existed within a country (Butter 2020, chapter 1). One example is the aforementioned far right's "deep state" conspiracy theory.
2 Conspiracy or Conspiracy Theory?
One important issue that needs to be addressed is the distinction between conspiracy and conspiracy theory. To a certain extent, the two concepts may overlap, because the suspicion of a conspiracy that has yet not been proven could be characterized as a conspiracy theory.
British philosopher and author Quassim Cassam claims that: "Conspiracy Theories are implausible by design. Sometimes implausible theories turn out to be true, but it isn't usually sensible to believe that they are true" (Cassam 2019, chapter 1).
A similar point about implausibility as a distinctive feature of conspiracy theories has been made by other authors, too. As Butter explains:
"Real conspiracies are generally the work of 'a small group of people', whereas conspiracy theories construct scenarios in which at least dozens, but usually far more people would have to have been involved. A gigantic deception like the staging of the moon landing in a TV studio, or the 9/11 attacks, which unfolded live before the eyes of the world, would require hundreds, if not thousands of insiders and accessories … [T]he large number of insiders required by such scenarios militates against the existence of these plots due to the virtual impossibility of keeping them secret …
"Perhaps the strongest argument against conspiracy theories, however, is that they are rooted in a view of human agency and history that has been radically challenged by the modern social sciences. Conspiracy theories are based on the assumption that human beings can direct the course of history according to their own intentions - in other words, that history is plannable. They credit conspirators with the ability to control the destiny of a country or even the world for years or decades at a time" (Butter 2020, chapter 1).
Conspiracy theories are therefore implausible because they would require the cooperation of such a large number of people that keeping the conspiracy secret would be practically impossible, and because they assume that human beings can direct the course of history over a long period of time.
Although these arguments are valid, I would argue that the main difference between conspiracy and conspiracy theory lies 1) in the availability of evidence; 2) in the contrast between belief and hypothesis.
A conspiracy theory lacks evidence, but it is held as an unshakable belief, or it's an assertion which is presented as a belief.
By contrast, a conspiracy is an event, an actual plot in which two or more people organize to commit an illegal or harmful act, that is demonstrable through evidence. A hypothesis of a conspiracy is a suspicion that a conspiracy is occurring or has occurred, and it requires evidence to be proven or disproven.
This distinction is complicated by the fact that conspiracies first need first to be uncovered, which can create some confusion.
For example, let's consider the claim by the George W. Bush administration that Saddam Hussein's regime had weapons of mass destruction and that it was an imminent threat to the US. In March 2003, Bush declared:
"Intelligence gathered by this and other governments leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised. This regime has already used weapons of mass destruction against Iraq's neighbors and against Iraq's people … The regime has a history of reckless aggression in the Middle East. It has a deep hatred of America and our friends. And it has aided, trained and harbored terrorists, including operatives of al Qaeda.
"The United States and other nations did nothing to deserve or invite this threat. But we will do everything to defeat it … The United States of America has the sovereign authority to use force in assuring its own national security."
Bush was making the assertion that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, and that he was engaged in a conspiracy with Al Qaeda to attack the US and its allies.
Many observers were skeptical. Among the most prominent critical voices was Germany's then-Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, who in early 2002 criticized Bush for describing Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as "an axis of evil."
"Up to now, no one has presented me with evidence that the terror posed by Osama bin Laden has anything to do with the regime of Saddam Hussein," Fischer told the magazine Der Spiegel.
In 2002-2003, it was difficult for the public to form a conclusive opinion on the matter. At that point, both Bush and Fischer could have been accused by their detractors of being conspiracy theorists.
With the benefit of hindsight, however, we know that the Bush administration was actually - whether wittingly or unwittingly is not the issue for the purpose of the present article - spreading conspiracy theories to justify the invasion of Iraq.
In October 2003, Ivo H. Daalder and James M. Lindsay wrote in an op-ed for the Brookings Institution:
"George W. Bush’s decision to go to war against Iraq was based on three fundamental assumptions: Saddam Hussein’s possession of weapons of mass destruction posed an imminent threat to the United States; turning Iraq into a stable and viable self-governing state would be far easier than previous nation-building efforts; and, once weapons were found and postwar normality returned, even those countries opposed to the war would want to contribute to Iraq’s reconstruction … [E]very one of these assumptions has proven wrong. No weapons of mass destruction have been found—nor, as yet, is there evidence of an illicit weapons program …"
The Bush administration therefore peddled a conspiracy theory about Iraq's alleged threat in order to engage in an actual conspiracy to invade the country. Looking at the facts and the evidence, we can retrospectively make a determination.
Another interesting case is the 2016 interference into the US elections by Russia's Putin regime.
Suspicions about the Kremlin's influence on and coordination with the Trump campaign already surfaced in 2016. In July of that year, The Guardian wrote:
"The [Republican] party platform, written at the convention in Cleveland last week, removed references to arming Ukraine in its fight against pro-Russia rebels, who have received material support from the Kremlin. Trump’s links to Russia are under scrutiny after a hack of Democratic national committee emails, allegedly by Russian agents.
"The coordinator of the Washington diplomatic corps for the Republicans in Cleveland was Frank Mermoud [who] has longstanding ties to Trump’s campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, who in 2010 helped pro-Russia Viktor Yanukovych refashion his image and win a presidential election in Ukraine."
Yet as late as January 2023, the right-wing publication National Review dismissed the Kremlin's interference in the US elections as a "conspiracy theory":
"Leading Democrats and their side’s prominent media voices spent years advancing the conspiracy theory that Donald Trump stole the 2016 election with the assistance of the Russian government."
Is the Kremlin-Trump collusion story a conspiracy theory? The answer is no. There is ample evidence of Kremlin interference and collusion with the Trump campaign, and it can be found in various sources, such as the Mueller Report. Whether collusion was illegal under US law, or whether a foreign propaganda campaign makes an election "rigged", is a different set of issues from the actual fact that those events took place.
Barkun argues that the "commonsense distinction between fact and fiction melts away in the conspiracist world" (Barkun 2013, p. 29).
Conspiracy theorists often claim to have evidence of their beliefs. They engage in "elaborate presentations", sometimes mimicking the style of academic literature, in order to prove their theories. At the same time, they dismiss any evidence that doesn't fit their narrative. Conspiracy theories "resist traditional canons of proof because they reduce highly complex phenomena to simple causes" (ibid. pp. 6-7).
Many conspiracy theorists engage in discrediting any source of knowledge and information other than themselves and those who spread theories they agree with. They may claim that universities, the media etc. are just part of the conspiracy and therefore unreliable, and that information that contradicts their conspiracy theories must be "planted" by the conspirators.
"The result is a closed system of ideas about a plot that is believed not only to be responsible for creating a wide range of evils but also to be so clever at covering its tracks that it can manufacture the evidence adduced by skeptics. In the end, the theory becomes nonfalsifiable, because every attempt at falsification is dismissed as a ruse" (ibid. p. 8).
3 Mainstream or Fringe?
It has been argued that in recent decades conspiracy theories in the US and various other democracies have become less mainstream than they used to be prior to the Second World War. Pipes (1999) writes:
"With the important exception of the Soviet Union and other totalitarian states, conspiracism lost its central role in European and American life after 1945, and the Soviet collapse between 1989 and 1991 reduced the impact of conspiracism even more. But reduction hardly means disappearance. Rather, the urge to imagine plots found refuge in two main locales: at the political margins of Western life and at the geographic margin of Western states" (Pipes 1999, chapter 6).
The reason why the marginalization of conspiracy theories happened was because of the horrors and devastations which the conspiracy theories of dictators like Hitler and Stalin had wrought, Pipes states (ibid.).
Coady (2019) argues that a conspiracy theory is "an explanation that is contrary to an explanation that has official status at the time and place in question", and that an official version of events that invokes a conspiracy is "unlikely to be thought of as a conspiracy theory" (Coady 2019, chapter 1). This definition relegates conspiracy theories to the margins of society, a view that I do not agree with, as I have already shown.
Thalmann (2019) explains that conspiracy theories, far from being fringe phenomena, have been ubiquitous throughout the history of the United States. They were, for instance, common among the revolutionaries who fought against the British. Proponents of conspiracy theories, such as the founders, the aforementioned Lyman Beecher, Senator McCarthy or the members of the John Birch Society, belonged to the political, economic and intellectual establishment of the United States. Thalmann goes on to argue that a stigmatization of conspiracy theories has occurred in recent years:
"The reception of Alex Jones … reveals the change in the status of conspiracy theory. While Jones is influential and economically successful within his own (online) sphere and among a community of conspiracy theorists, he is nevertheless also vehemently opposed by mainstream media outlets, scientists, and intellectuals … Conspiracy theories about a New World Order or any other conspiracist interpretations of politics and history are ridiculed and stigmatized by mainstream discourse and often routinely dismissed by wielding the term 'conspiracy theory,' just as most media articles dealing with Jones pejoratively label him a conspiracy theorist to portray him as a member of a lunatic fringe at best and a dangerous threat to the American political and media landscape at worst" (Thalmann 2019, Introduction).
While it is true that conspiracy theories have been stigmatized by many media organizations and intellectuals, I would argue that they have never truly left the mainstream. We can find multiple examples of conspiracy theories supported by the establishment.
In 1994, the Oklahoma House of Representatives unanimously adopted a resolution demanding that Congress "cease any support of the establishment of a 'new world order' or to any form of global government".
That resolution was based on the conspiracy theory that the United Nations and an elite with a globalist agenda were plotting to take over the US and rule the world through an authoritarian one-world government that would replace sovereign nation-states (Pipes 1999, chapter 1; Kaplan et al. 1998, p. 65).
As mentioned before, the Bush administration spread an elaborate conspiracy theory about Iraq before launching its invasion of the country.
Since 2020, Donald Trump and other Republican politicians have been spreading conspiracy theories about the result of the 2020 election as well as of some races in the 2022 midterm elections.
In January 2023, Tucker Carlson defended Brazil's far right insurrectionists that stormed government buildings. Carlson spread the conspiracy theory that the Brazilian election in which Lula beat Bolsonaro was "very clearly a rigged election."
"Millions of people in Brazil understand exactly what happened. They know that their democracy has been hijacked," he said.
The issue of whether conspiracy theorists have been stigmatized and marginalized depends on perception. It might be true that many media publications, social media, politicians and intellectuals have rejected conspiracy theories. But obviously there are also many influential people and organizations with millions of followers that have not.
From Joseph McCarthy to the John Birch Society, from the 44th Oklahoma legislature to the George W. Bush administration, from Alex Jones to Tucker Carlson and Donald Trump, there seems to be a remarkable continuity in the way in which conspiracy theories are embraced and spread by establishment figures, going so far as to influence public policy.
Therefore, I would argue that the status of conspiracy theories today compared to previous decades and centuries reflects the polarization and tribalism in society, which is part of a broader historical trend.
In this essay I have provided a definition of conspiracy theory. In the next article, I shall examine one of the most consequential conspiracy theories of the 20th century: the so-called "stab in the back legend".
- Barkun, M. (2013). A Culture of Conspiracy.
- Beecher, L. (1835). A Plea for the West.
- Butter, M. (2020) The Nature of Conspiracy Theories.
- Coady, D. (2019). Conspiracy Theories.
- Kaplan, J., Bjørgo, T. (Eds.) (1998). Nation and Race: The Developing Euro-American Racist Subculture.
- Pipes, D. (1999). Conspiracy.
- Thalmann, K. (2019). The Stigmatization of Conspiracy Theory since the 1950s.