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Explanation of an event or situation that invokes a conspiracy
A conspiracy theory is an explanation for an event or situation that invokes a conspiracy by sinister and powerful groups, often political in motivation, when other explanations are more probable. The term has a pejorative connotation, implying that the appeal to a conspiracy is based on prejudice or insufficient evidence. Conspiracy theories resist falsification and are reinforced by circular reasoning: both evidence against the conspiracy and an absence of evidence for it are re-interpreted as evidence of its truth, whereby the conspiracy becomes a matter of faith rather than something that can be proved or disproved.
Psychologists attribute finding a conspiracy where there is none to a mental illness called illusory pattern perception.
Etymology and definition
The Oxford English Dictionary defines conspiracy theory as "the theory that an event or phenomenon occurs as a result of a conspiracy between interested parties; spec. a belief that some covert but influential agency (typically political in motivation and oppressive in intent) is responsible for an unexplained event". It cites a 1909 article in The American Historical Review as the earliest usage example, although it also appears in journals as early as April 1870. The word "conspiracy" derives from the Latin con- ("with, together") and spirare ("to breathe").
Robert Blaskiewicz comments that examples of the term were used as early as the nineteenth century and states that its usage has always been derogatory. According to a study by Andrew McKenzie-McHarg, in contrast, in the nineteenth century the term conspiracy theory simply "suggests a plausible postulate of a conspiracy" and "did not, at this stage, carry any connotations, either negative or positive", though sometimes a postulate so-labeled was criticized. Lance deHaven-Smith suggested that the term entered everyday language in the United States after 1964, the year in which the Warren Commission shared its findings, with The New York Times running five stories that year using the term.
A conspiracy theory is not simply a conspiracy. Barkun writes that conspiracies are "actual covert plots planned and/or carried out by two or more persons". A conspiracy theory, on the other hand, is "an intellectual construct", a "template imposed upon the world to give the appearance of order to events". Positing that "some small and hidden group" has manipulated events, a conspiracy theory can be local or international, focused on single events or covering multiple incidents and entire countries, regions and periods of history. Conspiracy theorists see themselves as having privileged access to special knowledge or a special mode of thought that separates them from the masses who believe the official account.
A conspiracy theory may take any matter as its subject, but certain subjects attract greater interest than others. Favored subjects include famous deaths and assassinations, morally dubious government activities, suppressed technologies, and "false flag" terrorism. Among the longest-standing and most widely recognized conspiracy theories are notions concerning the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the 1969 Apollo moon landings, and the 9/11 terrorist attacks, as well as numerous theories pertaining to alleged plots for world domination by various groups both real and imaginary.
Scholars argue that conspiracy theories once limited to fringe audiences have become commonplace in mass media, contributing to conspiracism emerging as a cultural phenomenon in the United States of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The general predisposition to believe conspiracy theories cuts across partisan and ideological lines. Conspiratorial thinking is correlated with antigovernmental orientations and a low sense of political efficacy, with conspiracy believers perceiving a governmental threat to individual rights and displaying a deep skepticism that who one votes for really matters.
According to anthropologists Todd Sanders and Harry G. West, a broad cross-section of Americans today gives credence to at least some conspiracy theories. For instance, a study conducted in 2016 found that 10% of Americans think the chemtrail conspiracy theory is "completely true" and 20-30% think it is "somewhat true". This puts "the equivalent of 120 million Americans in the 'chemtrails are real' camp." Belief in conspiracy theories has therefore become a topic of interest for sociologists, psychologists and experts in folklore.
Conspiracy theories are widely present on the Web in the form of blogs and YouTube videos, as well as on social media. Whether the Web has increased the prevalence of conspiracy theories or not is an open research question. The presence and representation of conspiracy theories in search engine results has been monitored and studied, showing significant variation across different topics, and a general absence of reputable, high-quality links in the results.
One conspiracy that propagated through former US President Barack Obama's time in office was a theory that he was born in Kenya instead of Hawaii- where he has said he was born. Former governor of Arkansas and political opponent of Obama, Mike Huckabee made headlines in 2011 when he, among other members of Republican leadership, continued to question Obama's citizenship status.
Walker's five kinds
Jesse Walker (2013) has identified five kinds of conspiracy theories:
The "Enemy Outside" refers to theories based on figures alleged to be scheming against a community from without.
The "Enemy Within" finds the conspirators lurking inside the nation, indistinguishable from ordinary citizens.
The "Enemy Above" involves powerful people manipulating events for their own gain.
The "Enemy Below" features the lower classes working to overturn the social order.
The "Benevolent Conspiracies" are angelic forces that work behind the scenes to improve the world and help people.
Barkun's three types
Michael Barkun has identified three classifications of conspiracy theory:
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. The goals are sweeping, whilst 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, Communism, or the Catholic Church.
Superconspiracy theories. For Barkun, such theories link multiple alleged conspiracies together hierarchically. At the summit is a distant but all-powerful evil force. His cited examples are the ideas of David Icke and Milton William Cooper.
Rothbard: shallow vs. deep
Murray Rothbard argues in favor of a model that contrasts "deep" conspiracy theories to "shallow" ones. According to Rothbard, a "shallow" theorist observes an event and asks Cui bono? ("Who benefits?"), jumping to the conclusion that a posited beneficiary is responsible for covertly influencing events. On the other hand, the "deep" conspiracy theorist begins with a hunch and then seeks out evidence. Rothbard describes this latter activity as a matter of confirming with certain facts one's initial paranoia.
Evidence vs. conspiracy theory
Belief in conspiracy theories is generally based not on evidence, but in the faith of the believer.Noam Chomsky contrasts conspiracy theory to institutional analysis which focuses mostly on the public, long-term behavior of publicly known institutions, as recorded in, for example, scholarly documents or mainstream media reports. Conspiracy theory conversely posits the existence of secretive coalitions of individuals and speculates on their alleged activities.
Clare Birchall at King's College London describes conspiracy theory as a "form of popular knowledge or interpretation".[a] The use of the word 'knowledge' here suggests ways in which conspiracy theory may be considered in relation to legitimate modes of knowing.[b] The relationship between legitimate and illegitimate knowledge, Birchall claims, is closer than common dismissals of conspiracy theory contend.
Theories involving multiple conspirators that are proven to be correct, such as the Watergate scandal, are usually referred to as "investigative journalism" or "historical analysis" rather than conspiracy theory. By contrast, the term "Watergate conspiracy theory" is used to refer to a variety of hypotheses in which those convicted in the conspiracy were in fact the victims of a deeper conspiracy.
The term "conspiracism" was further 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"::4
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.:199
Justin Fox of Time magazine argues that Wall Street traders are among the most conspiracy-minded group of people, and ascribes this to the reality of some financial market conspiracies, and to the ability of conspiracy theories to provide necessary orientation in the market's day-to-day movements.
Matthew Gray has noted that conspiracy theories are a prevalent feature of Arab culture and politics. Variants include conspiracies involving colonialism, Zionism, superpowers, oil, and the war on terrorism, which may be referred to as a war against Islam. For example, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an infamous hoax document purporting to be a Jewish plan for world domination, is commonly read and promoted in the Muslim world.Roger Cohen has suggested that the popularity of conspiracy theories in the Arab world is "the ultimate refuge of the powerless". Al-Mumin Said has noted the danger of such theories, for they "keep us not only from the truth but also from confronting our faults and problems".
Theologian Robert Jewett and philosopher John Shelton Lawrence attribute the enduring popularity of conspiracy theories in the U.S. to the Cold War, McCarthyism, and counterculture rejection of authority. They state that among both the left-wing and right-wing, there remains a willingness to use real events, such as Soviet plots, inconsistencies in the Warren Report, and the 9/11 attacks, to support the existence of unverified and ongoing large-scale conspiracies.
The widespread belief in conspiracy theories has become a topic of interest for sociologists, psychologists, and experts in folklore since at least the 1960s, when a number of conspiracy theories arose regarding the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy. Sociologist Türkay Salim Nefes underlines the political nature of conspiracy theories. He suggests that one of the most important characteristics of these accounts is their attempt to unveil the "real but hidden" power relations in social groups.
Some research has suggested that "analytical thinking" aids in reducing belief in conspiracy theories, in part because it emphasizes rational and critical cognition. Some psychological scientists assert that explanations related to conspiracy theories can be, and often are "internally consistent" with strong beliefs that had previously been held prior to the event that sparked the conspiracy.
Attractions of conspiracy theory
The political scientist Michael Barkun, discussing the usage of "conspiracy theory" in contemporary American culture, holds that this term is used for a belief that 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 cannot. They appear to make sense out of a world that is otherwise confusing.
Third, conspiracy theories are often presented as special, secret knowledge unknown or unappreciated by others. For conspiracy theorists, the masses are a brainwashed herd, while the conspiracy theorists in the know can congratulate themselves on penetrating the plotters' deceptions."
Humanistic psychologists argue that even if a posited cabal behind an alleged conspiracy is almost always perceived as hostile, there often remains an element of reassurance for theorists. This is because it is a consolation to imagine that difficulties in human affairs are created by humans, and remain within human control. If a cabal can be implicated, there may be a hope of breaking its power or of joining it. Belief in the power of a cabal is an implicit assertion of human dignity--an unconscious affirmation that man is responsible for his own destiny.
People formulate conspiracy theories to explain, for example, power relations in social groups and the perceived existence of evil forces.[c] Proposed psychological origins of conspiracy theorising include projection; the personal need to explain "a significant event [with] a significant cause;" and the product of various kinds and stages of thought disorder, such as paranoid disposition, ranging in severity to diagnosable mental illnesses. Some people prefer socio-political explanations over the insecurity of encountering random, unpredictable, or otherwise inexplicable events.
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".
Inquiry into possible motives behind the accepting of irrational conspiracy theories has linked these beliefs to distress resulting from an event that occurred, such as the events of 9/11. Additionally, research done by Manchester Metropolitan University suggests that "delusional ideation" is the most likely condition that would indicate an elevated belief in conspiracy theories. Studies also show that an increased attachment to these irrational beliefs lead to a decrease in desire for civic engagement
Some historians have argued that there is an element of psychological projection in conspiracism. This projection, according to the argument, is manifested in the form of attribution of undesirable characteristics of the self to the conspirators. Historian Richard Hofstadter stated that:
This enemy seems on many counts a projection of the self; both the ideal and the unacceptable aspects of the self are attributed to him. A fundamental paradox of the paranoid style is the imitation of the enemy. The enemy, for example, may be the cosmopolitan intellectual, but the paranoid will outdo him in the apparatus of scholarship, even of pedantry. ... 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, discipline, and strategic ingenuity 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."
In addition to psychological factors such as conspiracist ideation, sociological factors also help account for who believes in which conspiracy theories. Such theories tend to get more traction among election losers in society, for example, and the emphasis of conspiracy theories by elites and leaders tends to increase belief among followers who have higher levels of conspiracy thinking.
Christopher Hitchens described conspiracy theory as the "exhaust fumes of democracy": the unavoidable result of a large amount of information circulating among a large number of people.
Conspiracy theories may be emotionally satisfying, by assigning blame to a group to which the theorist does not belong and so absolving the theorist of moral or political responsibility in society. Likewise, Roger Cohen writing for The New York Times has said 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."
Sociological historian Holger Herwig found in studying German explanations for the origins of World War I, "Those events that are most important are hardest to understand because they attract the greatest attention from myth makers and charlatans."
Influence of critical theory
French sociologist Bruno Latour 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 and similar ideas in academia since the 1970s.
Latour notes that about 90% of contemporary social criticism in academia displays one of two approaches, which he terms "the fact position and the fairy position".
The "fairy position" is anti-fetishist, arguing that "objects of belief" (e.g., religion, arts) are merely concepts onto which power is projected[by whom?]; Latour contends that those who use this approach show biases towards confirming their own dogmatic suspicions as most "scientifically supported". While the complete facts of the situation and correct methodology are ostensibly important to them, Latour proposes that the scientific process is instead laid on as a patina to one's pet theories to lend a sort of reputation high ground.
The "fact position" argues that external forces (e.g., economics, gender) dominate individuals, often covertly and without their awareness.
Latour concludes that each of these two approaches in academia has led to a polarized, inefficient atmosphere highlighted (in both approaches) by its causticness. "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!"
Latour notes that such social criticism has been appropriated by those he describes as conspiracy theorists, including climate-change denialists and the 9/11 Truth movement: "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."
Michael Kelly, a Washington Post journalist and critic of anti-war 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, which he said were motivated by a shared belief in conspiracism or shared anti-government views.
Barkun has 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, thereby inaugurating an unrivaled period of people actively preparing for apocalyptic or millenarian scenarios in the United States of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Barkun notes the occurrence of lone-wolf conflicts with law enforcement acting as proxy for threatening the established political powers.
In his book The Open Society and Its Enemies, the philosopher Karl Popper used the term "the conspiracy theory of society" to denote a conception of social phenomena that he found to be defective--namely, that social phenomena such as "war, unemployment, poverty, shortages ... [are] the result of direct design by some powerful individuals and groups." Popper argued that totalitarianism was founded on "conspiracy theories" which drew on imaginary plots which were driven by paranoid scenarios predicated on tribalism, chauvinism, or racism. Popper acknowledged that genuine conspiracies do exist, but noted how infrequently conspirators have been able to achieve their goal.
The historian Bruce Cumings similarly rejects the notion that history is controlled by conspiracies, stating that where real conspiracies have appeared they have usually had little effect on history and have had unforeseen consequences for the conspirators. Cumings concludes that history is instead "moved by the broad forces and large structures of human collectivities".
In a 2009 article, the legal scholars Cass Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule considered a number of possible government responses to conspiracy theories, including censorship and taxation. They concluded that the authorities ought to engage in counter-speech and dialogue, which they termed "cognitive infiltration".
Propaganda – Form of communication intended to sway the audience through presenting only one side of the argument
Pseudohistory – Pseudoscholarship that attempts to distort or misrepresent the historical record
Pseudoscience – Unscientific claims that are wrongly presented as scientific
Superstition – belief or practice that is considered irrational or supernatural
^Birchall 2006: "[W]e can appreciate conspiracy theory as a unique form of popular knowledge or interpretation, and address what this might mean for any knowledge we produce about it or how we interpret it.":66
^Birchall 2006: "What we quickly discover ... is that it becomes impossible to map conspiracy theory and academic discourse onto a clear illegitimate/legitimate divide.":72
^Barkun 2003: "The essence of conspiracy beliefs lies in attempts to delineate and explain evil. At their broadest, conspiracy theories 'view history as controlled by massive, demonic forces.' ... For our purposes, a conspiracy belief is the belief that an organization made up of individuals or groups was or is acting covertly to achieve a malevolent end."
^Issitt, Micah; Main, Carlyn (2014). Hidden Religion: The Greatest Mysteries and Symbols of the World's Religious Beliefs. ABC-CLIO. pp. 47-49. ISBN978-1-61069-478-0.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
^Goertzel, T (December 1994). "Belief in conspiracy theories". Political Psychology. 15 (4): 731-742. doi:10.2307/3791630. JSTOR3791630."explanations for important events that involve secret plots by powerful and malevolent groups"
^"conspiracy theory". Oxford English Dictionary (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. September 2005. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)"the theory that an event or phenomenon occurs as a result of a conspiracy between interested parties; spec. a belief that some covert but influential agency (typically political in motivation and oppressive in intent) is responsible for an unexplained event"
^McKenzie-McHarg, Andrew (2019) "Conspiracy Theory: The Nineteenth-Century Prehistory of a Twentieth-Century Concept," pp. 78, 76. In Joseph E. Uscinski (ed) Conspiracy Theories & the People Who Believe Them. New York: Oxford University Press.
^deHaven-Smith, Lance (15 April 2013). Conspiracy Theory in America. p. 3. ISBN9780292743793. Archived from the original on 6 September 2016. Retrieved 2016. The term "conspiracy theory" did not exist as a phrase in everyday American conversation before 1964. ... In 1964, the year the Warren Commission issued its report, the New York Times published five stories in which "conspiracy theory" appeared.
^Enders, Adam M.; Smallpage, Steven M.; Lupton, Robert N. (9 July 2018). "Are All 'Birthers' Conspiracy Theorists? On the Relationship Between Conspiratorial Thinking and Political Orientations". British Journal of Political Science: 1-18. doi:10.1017/s0007123417000837. ISSN0007-1234.
^Sweek, Joel (October 2006). "Michael Barkun, . A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003. xii+243 pp. $24.95 (cloth)". The Journal of Religion. 86 (4): 691-692. doi:10.1086/509680. ISSN0022-4189.
^ abBirchall, Clare (2006). "Cultural studies on/as conspiracy theory". In Birchall, Clare (ed.). Knowledge goes pop from conspiracy theory to gossip. Oxford, New York: Berg. ISBN978-1-84520-143-2.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
^Darwin, Hannah; Neave, Nick; Holmes, Joni (1 June 2011). "Belief in conspiracy theories. The role of paranormal belief, paranoid ideation and schizotypy". Personality and Individual Differences. 50 (8): 1289-1293. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2011.02.027. ISSN0191-8869.
^ abcBerlet, Chip (September 2004). "Interview: Michael Barkun". Archived from the original on 2 April 2009. Retrieved 2009. The issue of conspiracism versus rational criticism is a tough one, and some people (Jodi Dean, for example) argue that the former is simply a variety of the latter. I don't accept this, although I certainly acknowledge that there have been conspiracies. They simply don't have the attributes of almost superhuman power and cunning that conspiracists attribute to them.Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
^Douglas, Karen; Sutton, Robbie (2008). "The hidden impact of conspiracy theories: Perceived and actual influence of theories surrounding the death of Princess Diana". Journal of Social Psychology. 148 (2): 210-22. doi:10.3200/SOCP.148.2.210-222. PMID18512419.
^Swami, Viren; Coles, Rebecca; Stieger, Stefan; Pietschnig, Jakob; Furnham, Adrian; Rehim, Sherry; Voracek, Martin (2011). "Conspiracist ideation in Britain and Austria: Evidence of a monological belief system and associations between individual psychological differences and real-world and fictitious conspiracy theories". British Journal of Psychology. 102 (3): 443-463. doi:10.1111/j.2044-8295.2010.02004.x. ISSN2044-8295. PMID21751999.
^van Prooijen, Jan-Willem; Jostmann, Nils B. (17 December 2012). "Belief in conspiracy theories: The influence of uncertainty and perceived morality". European Journal of Social Psychology. 43 (1): 109-115. doi:10.1002/ejsp.1922. ISSN0046-2772.
^Vedantam, Shankar (5 June 2006). "Born With the Desire to Know the Unknown". The Washington Post. p. A02. Archived from the original on 1 May 2011. Retrieved 2006. Sociologist Theodore Sasson has remarked, "Conspiracy theories explain disturbing events or social phenomena in terms of the actions of specific, powerful individuals". By providing simple explanations of distressing events--the conspiracy theory in the Arab world, for example, that the 11 September attacks were planned by the Israeli Mossad--they deflect responsibility or keep people from acknowledging that tragic events sometimes happen inexplicably."
Cziesche, Dominik; Jürgen Dahlkamp, Ulrich Fichtner, Ulrich Jaeger, Gunther Latsch, Gisela Leske, Max F. Ruppert (2003). "Panoply of the Absurd". Der Spiegel. Retrieved 2006.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
Fleming, Chris and Emma A. Jane. Modern Conspiracy: The Importance of Being Paranoid. New York and London: Bloomsbury, 2014. ISBN978-1-62356-091-1.
Goertzel, Ted. "Belief in conspiracy theories." Political Psychology (1994): 731-742. online