What Are Conspiracy Theories?
Explaining a strange phenomenon.
Conspiracy theorists get a seriously bad press. Gullible, irresponsible, paranoid, stupid. These are some of the politer labels applied to them, usually by establishment figures who aren’t averse to promoting their own conspiracy theories when it suits them. President George W. Bush denounced outrageous conspiracy theories about 9/11 while his own administration was busy promoting the outrageous conspiracy theory that Iraq was behind 9/11.
If the abuse isn’t bad enough, conspiracy theorists now have the dubious honour of being studied by psychologists. The psychology of conspiracy theories is a thing, and the news for conspiracy theorists isn’t good. A recent study describes their theories as ‘corrosive to societal and individual well-being’. Conspiracy theorists, the study reveals, are more likely to be male, unmarried, less educated, have lower household incomes and see themselves as having low social standing. They have lower levels of physical and psychological well-being and are more likely to meet the criteria for having a psychiatric disorder.
In case you’re starting to feel sorry for conspiracy theorists (or for yourself if you are one), perhaps it’s worth remembering that they aren’t exactly shrinking violets. They are vociferous defenders of their theories and scornful of their opponents. Anyone who has been on the receiving end of the wrath of conspiracy theorists will know that it can be a bruising experience.
And yet, on reflection, you might wonder what all the fuss is about. After all, if a conspiracy theorist is someone who believes in the existence of some conspiracies then surely in that sense we are all conspiracy theorists. History is full of well-documented conspiracies and one would have to be remarkably ignorant not to realise that. Surely, what we should be debating is not whether there is anything wrong with conspiracy theories per se but whether there is anything wrong with specific conspiracy theories.
A conspiracy requires a small group of conspirators who work together in secret to do something illegal or harmful. This is the sense of conspiracy in which history has always been full of conspiracies. Suppose that a conspiracy theory is defined as a theory about a conspiracy. History books tell us, for example, that Guy Fawkes and his colleagues plotted to blow up the English Parliament in 1605. The plot was a conspiracy, and historical accounts of the plot are therefore conspiracy theories.
You don’t have to go back to 1605 for examples of conspiracy theories. There are of course conspiracy theories about the 9/11 attacks, and I don’t just mean theories suggesting that the Bush administration was behind them. By the definition I’ve just given, the official account of 9/11 is also a conspiracy theory. This account says that the 9/11 attacks were carried out by 19 Al Qaeda operatives who collaborated in secret to do something immensely harmful. That’s a conspiracy in anyone’s book.
So it seems that if you believe the official account of 9/11 you’re a conspiracy theorist. And if you don’t believe the official account, you’re still a conspiracy theorist. Either way you’re a conspiracy theorist and pretty much everyone is one too. In that case, how can there be a debate about whether one should be a conspiracy theorist, that is, believe that conspiracies happen?
But here’s the thing: when people argue about conspiracy theories, they aren’t arguing about whether people ever collaborate in secret to perpetrate illegal acts. That is not what the debate about conspiracy theories is about. The controversial conspiracy theories that people actually argue about are different from ordinary tales of conspiracy. In the ordinary sense of ‘conspiracy theory’, the official account of 9/11 isn’t a conspiracy theory. The theory that 9/11 was an inside job is. The theory that in 1605 Guy Fawkes and others conspired to blow up the English Parliament in the Gunpowder Plot isn’t a conspiracy theory. The theory that the Holocaust is a myth concocted to serve Jewish interests is.
So what’s the difference? As it happens, there is a sound rationale for being selective in applying the label 'conspiracy theory'. As psychologist and conspiracy theory expert Rob Brotherton points out, ‘when people call something a conspiracy theory, they’re usually not talking about just any old conspiracy’. Conspiracy theories in the ordinary sense are extraordinary. They have a bunch of special features that make them different from accounts of conspiracies like the Gunpowder Plot.
To avoid confusion, I’ll call these extraordinary theories ‘Conspiracy Theories’ with a capital C and a capital T. A Conspiracy Theory isn’t just a theory about a conspiracy. There is more to it than that. A Conspiracy Theorist, again with a capital C and a capital T, is a person who is into Conspiracy Theories, that is, unusually fascinated by them and more willing than most to believe them. We are all conspiracy theorists – we all believe that people sometimes get together in secret to do bad things – but we aren’t all Conspiracy Theorists.
Unlike well-documented historical theories about the Gunpowder Plot, Conspiracy Theories are highly speculative. They are based on conjecture rather than solid evidence, educated (or not so educated) guesswork. After all, if a conspiracy has been successful then it won’t have left behind clear-cut evidence of a conspiracy. This leads to the idea that the only way to uncover a conspiracy is by focusing on clues or anomalies that give the game away.
Conspiracy Theories are also contrarian: they claim that the truth about events like 9/11 is contrary to how things seem. It looks like Al Qaeda did 9/11 but the reality is different, the Conspiracy Theories insists. This is what gives many Conspiracy Theories an esoteric feel. Conspiracy Theories prefer unobvious explanations to obvious ones. Once the obvious is ruled out and the far from obvious is ruled in the Conspiracy Theorist’s imagination can and usually does run wild. There is no explanation that isn’t too bizarre for the Conspiracy Theorist’s taste. If how things are isn’t how they look who is to say how strange the actual truth is?
It’s also striking how amateurish Conspiracy Theories are. They are typically promoted by people with little or no relevant technical expertise. David Ray Griffin, a prominent 9/11 Conspiracy Theorist, was a Professor of the Philosophy of Religion at a school of Theology. The contributors to a 2007 book on 9/11 include a retired professor of Economics, a professor of English, and a CEO.
In Cass Sunstein’s terminology, Conspiracy Theories are also self-sealing. Evidence against them is dismissed as fake news or as part of the conspiracy. If there is no concrete evidence in support of them this is seen as a sign of how effectively the conspirators covered their tracks. In this way, Conspiracy Theories become immune to refutation. That’s a serious problem from a scientific viewpoint since bona fide theories can always be falsified, at least in principle.
My problem is not with conspiracy theories but with Conspiracy Theories. Here’s one problem: theories that are speculative, contrarian, esoteric, amateurish and self-sealing are unlikely to be true. In that case, why do people continue to peddle Conspiracy Theories? Because Conspiracy Theories are first and foremost forms of political propaganda. They are political gambits whose real function is to promote a political agenda. Crucially, this means that they aren’t ‘just theories’ like any other.
Which political agenda? There are many Conspiracy Theories whose political agenda you don’t have to be a genius to work out. For example, the point of Holocaust denial Conspiracy Theories is to advance the cause of right-wing anti-Semitism. What these theories are about is exonerating the Nazis and portraying ‘the Jews’ in as negative a light as possible.
Here’s another example from recent history. Back in 2012 Adam Lanza murdered 20 students and 6 staff at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown Connecticut. It wasn’t long before Conspiracy Theorists started to claim that the whole episode was an elaborate hoax by the government, a classic false flag operation in which no one died. Why would the government want to do such a thing? To push the case for gun control.
If that sounds like a reasonable thing to think then the following is no less reasonable: Lanza really did shoot 26 people at Sandy Hook, and that was a potential problem for the gun lobby. What better way to pre-empt calls for tighter gun control in the wake of a mass shooting than to claim that it never happened? Take the original conspiracy theory, reverse engineer it, and now it all makes sense: the Sandy Hook conspiracy theory is a blatant piece of political propaganda designed to divert attention from the real problem: the absence of effective gun control in the U.S.
This sounds like a conspiracy theory about Conspiracy Theories: Conspiracy Theories are part of a conspiracy to advance right-wing political causes. But if my theory is a conspiracy theory then Conspiracy Theorists shouldn’t have a problem with it. There are conspiracy theories about just about everything so why not conspiracy theories about conspiracy theories and the people who advertise them?
A theory can be a piece of propaganda even if the people promoting it believe that it’s true. Imagine a hypothetical Sandy Hook Conspiracy Theorist who really believes that the whole thing was a false flag operation by the government. He really believes his own propaganda but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t propaganda. As the philosopher Jason Stanley points out, propaganda can be sincere. Hitler’s claims about the Jews were sincere but still propaganda.
In what sense are sincerely believed Conspiracy Theories propaganda? Think again about the idea that Conspiracy Theories are political gambits whose real function is to promote a political agenda. This is a technical use of ‘function’ which an analogy might help to make a bit clearer. Take an organ like the heart. If someone wants to know what the heart is then a good way to explain it is to say that the heart is the organ responsible for pumping blood. That is its function or purpose. You explain what the thing is by explaining what it does, what it’s for.
The same goes for Conspiracy Theories. The way to understand what they are is to understand what they are for, to grasp their basic function. Their basic function is to advance a political or ideological objective, whether it is opposition to gun control, anti-Semitism, hostility to the federal government or whatever. Conspiracy Theories advance a political objective in a special way: by advancing seductive explanations of major events that, objectively speaking, are unlikely to be true but are likely to influence public opinion in the preferred direction.
When people think about propaganda they usually have in mind the conscious and deliberate manipulation of public opinion by the spreading of falsehoods (‘fake news’), half-truths or misleading images and stories. There are Conspiracy Theories that are propaganda in that sense but not all propaganda is like that. What counts as propaganda isn’t just determined by the intentions of people spreading it. It is the fact that what they are spreading is fake news, together with the actual political motivations and implications of their stories and theories, that makes it propaganda.
Clearly, there are Conspiracy Theories that have little political content but the most widely discussed Conspiracy Theories are political. Although the politics of many Conspiracy Theories are right-wing, there are also left-wing Conspiracy Theories. Hitler was a Conspiracy Theorist but so was Stalin. Jovan Byford points out that ‘for a substantial portion of its history, the conspiracy tradition was dominated by the idea of a Jewish plot to take over the world’. Conspiracy Theories don’t have to be anti-Semitic but it’s striking how often they are. Conspiracy Theories were an integral part of Nazi ideology and, as historian Norman Cohn argues, they prepared the way for the Holocaust.
Associating oneself with Conspiracy Theories means associating oneself with the obnoxious ideologies they promote. If these ideologies are harmful, as they undoubtedly are, then so are Conspiracy Theories that promote them. These theories have a life of their own, with their own history, meaning and implications. Conspiracy Theorists who think that they can avoid these implications are deluding themselves. The Conspiracy Theorist who argues that Conspiracy Theories per se have nothing to do with extremist causes is in the same position as someone in the U.S who argues that the confederate flag per se has nothing to do with slavery. In both cases the answer is the same: you don’t get to decide what things mean.
Extract from Conspiracy Theories by Quassim Cassam, published by Polity Press, September 2019. Available in hardback and eBook formats.