The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
By Nick Pope
This article is a personal overview of the conspiracy theory ‘genre’. While I’ll be citing a few individual conspiracy theories to illustrate some specific points, it’s not my intention to drill down into any individual conspiracy theories in great detail. Many others have done this and in a sense, the purpose of this article isn’t to debate whether any individual conspiracy theories are true or false, but to make some more general observations about the subject as a whole.
I write this article with a number of different hats on. Firstly, I worked for the UK Government for 21 years, at the Ministry of Defence (MoD). Accordingly, I have considerable knowledge of the way in which government works and – in relation to the topic in hand – have a pretty good idea of the boundaries: what governments do and what they don’t do. Secondly, one of my MoD jobs involved investigating UFO sightings reported to the Department, as well as handling policy, media enquiries and public correspondence on the issue. Given that many people believe the MoD is covering up the truth about UFOs, this exposed me directly to accusations concerning conspiracy theories. Thirdly – and related to the previous point – despite having left the MoD in 2006, I’m the subject of a conspiracy theory myself. The accusation is that my departure from MoD was a ruse and that I’m still on the payroll, with a role variously described as being either to put out disinformation about UFOs, to infiltrate/discredit the UFO community, to acclimatize people to an extraterrestrial reality ahead of ‘Disclosure’ (official confirmation of extraterrestrial visitation), or to falsely promote belief in extraterrestrials ahead of a “false flag alien invasion”. Such mutually-contradictory theories are not unusual in the conspiracy theory community – see, for example, the work done by Dr Karen Douglas, University of Kent, who discovered that those who believed Osama bin Laden was already dead before the US raid that purportedly killed him in 2011 were also more likely to believe that he is still alive. Fourthly, I now work as a journalist and broadcaster covering – among other subjects – conspiracy theories. Fifthly, and finally, through speaking at various conferences, I have had considerable exposure to the conspiracy theory community.
Definitions and Terminology
This subject is not helped by the lack of agreed terminology and definitions of words and phrases such as “conspiracy” and “conspiracy theory”, or by the relationship with words like “collusion”. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines conspiracy as “an agreement between two or more persons to do something criminal, illegal or reprehensible” – but what constitutes “reprehensible” is a subjective judgement. The OED defines collusion as “a secret or illegal cooperation or conspiracy in order to deceive others”.
Related to this is the way in which “conspiracy theorist” is sometimes used as a pejorative. This is unhelpful, given that some conspiracy theories are true and it leads to situations where 9/11 conspiracy theorists refer to the US Government’s version of what took place as the “OCT” (Official Conspiracy Theory). This dogfight over language muddies the waters before we even get to the issues.
Finally, it’s worth noting that the conspiracy theory community has a number of linguistic tropes. “Sheeple” is used to describe people who are not “awake” in a political sense and tend not to question the ‘party line’. Such terms are combined in phrases like “wake up, sheeple”. The bad guys in the conspiracy theory universe are sometimes individual governments, but often more shadowy forces such as the Illuminati, the New World Order, or some variation on this theme. Dissent from fellow conspiracy theorists with differing views is often dealt with by stating or implying that the dissenter is a “shill”. Conspiracy theorists know just enough about the world of intelligence to be familiar with terms such as “useful idiot”, “disinformation”, “psyop”, “agent provocateurs”, “false flag” and “cointel”, without really understanding the realities.
Dissent from outside the conspiracy theory community is generally ignored. The Popular Mechanics investigation into the most popular 9/11 conspiracy theories is often dismissed out of hand, as is the 9/11 Commission Report. Most 9/11 conspiracy theorists haven’t read the 9/11 Commission Report in entirety and justify this by saying that it’s obvious propaganda and is itself part of the conspiracy.
Conspiracy Theories and Government
It’s an important but often overlooked fact that a common thread that runs through most conspiracy theories is that the event under discussion generally involves government or some official agency. Only a very few conspiracy theories (e.g. “Paul McCartney is dead”) are entirely civil – and even here, one can make a case for saying that ‘Big Business’ had a corporate motive for covering up McCartney’s death. This is important in understanding the root causes of conspiracy theories and suggests that distrust of government lies at the heart of the matter. Sometimes, however, the tendency to focus on discussing specific conspiracy theories can blind us to such overarching points.
Conspiracy Theories and Popular Culture
It would be remiss not to mention the issue of the portrayal of conspiracy theories in popular culture. In a TV series like The X-Files or in films such as The Matrix trilogy, not only could the main protagonists be categorized as conspiracy theorists and portrayed as heroes, but they live in a world where the conspiracy theories are true and where – in the Matrix universe – reality itself is a lie. Movies like Conspiracy Theory and Mercury Rising are also good examples, as are numerous sci-fi movies dealing with UFOs/extraterrestrials, where part of the plot often involves the government or the military being aware of the alien presence but trying to keep the knowledge from the public. Arguably, Hollywood portrays conspiracy theories as more likely to be true than is the case in real life and portrays conspiracy theorists in a more favourable light than the media portrays their real life counterparts. It is unclear what effect such a (generally positive) portrayal of conspiracy theories and conspiracy theorists has, but it is worthy of study. It also highlights another irony of the conspiracy theory universe, where people often allege that Hollywood is part of the ‘system’ and – particularly in relation to extraterrestrials – is complicit in a campaign to acclimatize/indoctrinate people to a particular view.
Conspiracy Theories, the Internet and the Multi-Media World
The internet has played a huge role in giving voices to those who, previously, would have had little or no chance of having their say. Social media sites have played a large part in this too. The Arab Spring is an oft-cited example of this. More generally, there has been a fundamental shift in the concept of journalism, where the centre of gravity has moved away from the mainstream news media. A good example of this shift is the fashion industry, where the rising (and arguably disproportionate) influence of a handful of bloggers has caused huge tensions in the industry, but where changes reflect a new power dynamic. The use of sites such as Twitter to name celebrities who have taken out ‘super injunctions’ to try to prevent a news story being published is another example of this.
The internet has had a similar and massive effect upon conspiracy theories. It’s arguable that every issue and point of view has been changed and amplified by the internet, but it seems that alternative viewpoints have been disproportionally effected – and benefited. Fringe issues always tended to be squeezed out previously, but now have more of an outlet.
Tied to this is the increase in media outlets. I was brought up in the UK when there were three TV stations: BBC1, BBC2 and ITV. Nowadays, there are a multitude of TV stations and while a lot of material is repeated, there’s more demand for new content than has ever previously been the case. All this broadcasting time – and the same is true for radio – has to be filled and this gives conspiracy theories an outlet that they have not previously enjoyed. Indeed, some networks such as Edge Media TV (now known as Controversial TV and broadcast on Sky Channel 200) are almost exclusively devoted to alternative views and conspiracy theories.
It is unclear to what extent the rise of the internet and the transition to a multi-media society has changed people’s views or simply held up a mirror to views that were already there. This is worthy of further study.
Notwithstanding the above, there remains an odd disconnect. 9/11 conspiracy theories, for example, have a huge ‘internet footprint’, but enjoy comparatively little mainstream media coverage. The same, to a lesser extent, could be said about ‘chemtrails’. Skeptics might say this is a good thing and that it shows that the ‘evidence bar’ is set at an appropriately high level, which alternative theories about 9/11 have yet to reach. As a journalist, however, my intuitive feeling is that this is wrong and that even if pretty much every conspiracy theory relating to 9/11 is flawed (as I believe to be the case), the fact that so many people believe otherwise should lead to greater mainstream news media engagement – even if it’s the belief in the conspiracy theories that itself is the story. The danger otherwise is that large numbers of people feel disenfranchised by the media and believe the media is letting them down by not asking tough questions of the authorities. Worse still, some people may – and do – come to believe that the media (the “controlled media” as various people in the conspiracy theory community are fond of saying) is complicit in the cover-up.
The apparent announcement on the BBC of the collapse of World Trade Centre Building 7 is a good example of how people come to believe that elements of the media are “controlled”. A newsreader announced that the building had collapsed before it had. Now, the building was on fire and the firefighters had been pulled out, so the situation was dire, but why say it had collapsed when it hadn’t? Let’s look at the two explanations. Had the newscaster misunderstood, or perhaps misheard what the producer said via the earpiece? It was a fast-moving and stressful situation for everyone in the newsroom and that’s the likely explanation. But surprising numbers of people believe that the BBC knew about the collapse in advance (because these people think the whole attack was pre-planned by Western authorities or elements thereof), but weren’t following the script carefully enough and thus let the cat out of the bag by announcing a pre-planned event a little too early. As an ex-government official who now works as a broadcaster and journalist, I can’t avoid commenting just how absurd this is: the idea that a small group of conspirators would plan an insidious false flag attack that – if discovered – would shake the Establishment to its core and result in jail terms (and possibly the death penalty) for all those involved – and then tip off one of the largest news organizations on the face of the planet. But for the purposes of this article, the point is not whether or not such things are true – which will always be a subject of debate – but whether people believe they’re true, which is undeniably the case. Such a view of the media is unfortunate, because from Watergate to more recent stories such as cash for questions, cash for honours and MPs’ expenses, the media has a good, proven track record of going after the authorities.
Contradictory Conspiracy Theories
I mentioned earlier the work of Dr Karen Douglas at University of Kent, who found that those people who believed Osama bin Laden was already dead before the US raid that purportedly killed him were also more likely to believe that he’s still alive. This may seem counter-intuitive if not downright absurd, but it’s symptomatic of a wider issue with some conspiracy theories, where mutually-contradictory theories are put forward for what’s alleged to be going on. The chemtrail conspiracy is a good example, with some people believing the aim of this supposed chemical spraying campaign is to alter the weather, while others think it’s aimed at behavior modification, or that it’s part of a campaign to poison people, as part of a mass-extermination plan. Clearly, if chemtrails exist, most of the theories about them are wrong. We see the same with 9/11 conspiracy theories: some people believe it was an “inside job”, some people believe America “looked the other way”, some people believe aircraft hit the Twin Towers, while other people (the so-called “no-planers”) think the aircraft seen hitting the buildings were holograms and that the buildings were brought down by a controlled demolition (or at the extreme end of the belief spectrum, some sort of anti-gravity weapon). In situations like this, the proponents of more extreme beliefs are often accused of being shills, infiltrating and discrediting the so-called “Truth Movement” and discrediting it by making the conspiracy seem overly ridiculous.
Close, But No Cigar
Few conspiracy theories are without some sort of half-truth or ambiguity. There are apparently reasonable points that at first give one pause for thought. The CIA, for example, was aware of 9/11 hijackers Khalid al Mihdhar and Nawaf al Hazmi, but didn’t put them on the State Department’s TIPOFF watchlist, or inform the FBI. Does this mean that the authorities knew 9/11 was going to happen but “looked the other way”? In fact, such failings are not uncommon and in most cases are the result of factors such as overwork, information overload and – critically – poor intelligence-sharing between different agencies. On this latter point, inter-agency rivalry, mistrust and even antipathy is much more common than the public (who tend to view government as a single entity) supposes. To these factors can be added the tendency of people entrusted with classified or sensitive information to be overly-protective (particularly in situations where avoiding compromising a sensitive source is a factor), to the extent that it becomes useless – the intelligence isn’t actionable. So using the Khalid al Mihdhar and Nawaf al Hazmi example, what may look suspicious to the layperson is immediately recognisable as standard practice to those people with a background in government/intelligence.
Conspiracy Theories and Science
Related to the above are arguments that at first look and sound scientific, but on closer examination (which often doesn’t happen) aren’t. Again, 9/11 provides a nice example. Conspiracy theorists point out that aviation fuel doesn’t burn at a temperature sufficiently high to melt steel. Therefore, they argue, aircraft alone, slamming into the Twin towers, couldn’t have brought the buildings down. This opens the door to speculation about a controlled demolition. At first it sounds reasonable. In fact, however, steel loses its structural integrity at a much lower temperature and this, plus gravity, was more than enough to bring down the buildings.
A basic understanding of science would result in a more informed debate about many conspiracy theories. The chemtrail conspiracy is a good example of this. Undeniably, there have been government/military attempts to modify the weather. Operation Popeye (cloud seeding during the Vietnam War, aimed at making it rain on the Ho Chi Minh trail, thus bogging down the main Vietcong supply route) is fairly well-documented. So in relation to chemtrails, if they exist, it is scientifically plausible that it has something to do with weather control or even climate change. But researching crop spraying and seeing how low the aircraft have to fly for the spray to have a discernible effect on the crops should – even for believers in chemtrails – eliminate the idea that they have anything to do with poisoning people or modifying their behaviour. You couldn’t target a spray with any degree of accuracy from the heights at which it is alleged chemtrails are discharged (commercial aircraft cruising height, of around 35,000 feet) and chemicals sprayed from such heights would have a negligible effect on anyone at ground level. In any case, the economy of scale argument could be brought into play – why not simply put the chemical in the water supply? Surely even the New World Order would choose a cheaper and easier strategy if one was available! The point is, applying science can eliminate some aspects of a conspiracy theory and result in a more focused debate on that which remains.
Conspiracy Theories – The Good
Some conspiracy theories turn out to be true. And while governments don’t lie as often as many people seem to think, they constantly dissemble and spin. Accordingly, a healthy skepticism in respect of what we’re told by government (and the authorities more generally) is actually a very good thing and is a healthy indicator of a modern, democratic society. More generally, it’s good in terms of critical thinking. So it’s right to doubt and challenge what we’re told by those in power or to ask searching questions if something doesn’t look or feel right. But there’s a danger in going too far and in assuming that because one conspiracy theory is true, most or all are (the few academic studies done into this suggest that if you believe in one conspiracy theory, you’re more likely to believe in another). As ever, the trick is to get the balance right. As the old saying goes, it’s a good job to have an open mind, but not so open that your brain falls out.
With this in mind, it would be a good thing (and would help a more informed debate) if conspiracy theorists and skeptics could find some common ground in terms of a conspiracy theory that turned out to be true. Interestingly, one that’s often cited as true (that the Nazis started the Reichstag fire to discredit the communists and consolidate their power) is much more disputed than most people realize. Conversely, few people on either side of the debate seem familiar with one of the best documented conspiracy theories in recent years, i.e. the fact that senior figures in the Northern Ireland Office, the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the Catholic Church knew (or strongly suspected) who was responsible for the bombings in Claudy, County Londonderry, in 1972 (attacks in which nine people died) and actively conspired to cover it up, because the alleged perpetuator was a Catholic priest. The Northern Ireland Police Ombudsman’s report found that this conspiracy almost certainly took place and this was widely reported by the mainstream media – including the BBC.
The inquiry into the original investigation into the Claudy bombings makes interesting reading for those interested in conspiracy theories (on whichever side of the debate) for what it tells us about inquiries in modern times. When wrongdoing (including conspiracy – even if it’s only a conspiracy of silence) is found, it’s exposed and criticisms are made. The Hutton Inquiry (into the apparent suicide of Dr David Kelly) is seen by many as a whitewash and itself part of a conspiracy to cover up what really happened. But if such people seek to use this to imply that all government inquiries are going to give the government an easy ride and support the party line, they’re mistaken. The Saville Report (into the Bloody Sunday shootings) was extremely critical of the Army and concluded that a soldier fired the first shot. Charles Haddon-Cave QC’s report into the fatal crash of an RAF Nimrod aircraft in Afghanistan in 2006 contains damning criticisms of the MoD and defence contractors. Again, all this should be required reading for conspiracy theorists and conspiracy theory skeptics, as it’s a useful template for how the powers that be respond when things go catastrophically wrong in ‘the system’.
Conspiracy Theories – The Bad and the Ugly
There’s a dark side to conspiracy theories. Firstly, the irony is that while they can sometimes be healthy in terms of encouraging critical thinking, they can also be extremely unhealthy, in terms of people believing unsubstantiated rumour because it accords with their (generally anti-Establishment) worldview. Far more worrying, however, are three other factors – two of which have attracted surprisingly little comment.
Some conspiracy theories, particularly those involving a ‘New World Order’, imply that the world is run by a small group of families and corporations – a sort of ‘shadow government’. In relation to such ideas, one often hears phrases such as “conspiracy of international bankers” or “small group of families who secretly rule the world”, and on occasion, such wording is almost certainly used to mask anti-Semitism. The accusation of anti-Semitism is often met with the defence that those concerned are against “Zionism”, but have nothing against Jewish people more generally. In some cases this is true and on a related issue it’s a dangerous situation where any criticism of the Government of Israel is labeled anti-Semitic. But in others cases the defence about being anti-Zionist seems like a convenient ‘get out’, not a million miles away from the cliché about the racist who begins an argument with a phrase like “Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got black friends, but …” Even if not motivated by racism, such views make it easier for racism to take root. At a UFO conference held in Leeds in 2011, for example, a question from the floor turned into a lengthy comment which included the sentiment that Hollywood was “run by the Jews” – only one person in the audience was courageous enough to take the individual concerned to task.
Medical conspiracies (e.g. those surrounding Swine flu) can also be dangerous. Many people believe that certain diseases were bio-engineered deliberately and that they – and/or the associated vaccination programmes – are part of a conspiracy to exterminate large numbers of people, to bring the world population down to a sustainable level and – perhaps – to bring about a New World Order. If people who are ill with such diseases use conspiracy websites to inform their decisions, as opposed to seeking medical advice, the consequences could be fatal. As a practical illustration of this, I recently saw a father ask what vaccinations people recommended for his newborn baby. The question was posted on the Facebook wall of a conspiracy theorist who had recently expressed the view that a false flag alien invasion would be staged at the closing ceremony of the London Olympics.
The final – and possibly least commented upon – area where conspiracy theories can be dangerous relates to the feelings of rage and powerlessness that they can engender. With certain personality types, this runs the risk of making them feel that they have no stake in the democratic system and no way for their voice to be heard. Though the situation is not clear-cut and in the second of these two examples, legal action is ongoing, it has been strongly suggested that John Patrick Bedell (who opened fire on Pentagon police officers in 2010 and was subsequently shot dead) was motivated in part by 9/11 conspiracy theories and that Jared Lee Loughner (who killed six people in Tucson in 2011) was obsessed with conspiracy theories on 9/11, the New World Order and supposed Mayan prophesies about the world ending in 2012. This is a controversial area and one on which experts in psychopathology are best-placed to comment. One could doubtless argue that such people would always find something to tip them over the edge. But at the very least, we must be mindful of the effect that conspiracy theories can have on individuals and indeed on groups of people – the think-tank Demos, for example, has done some interesting research into the link between conspiracy theories and extremism.
Heads I Win, Tails You Lose
There’s an interesting aspect of some conspiracy theories that’s worth knowing if one is to truly understand the mindset of some conspiracy theorists. On one level it looks like a cheap trick but on another it offers a useful insight into the conspiracy theory universe. Again, the false flag alien invasion at the Olympic Games is the perfect example. If it were to happen, proponents of such a theory would be proved correct. But if it doesn’t, the likely ‘get out’ is that by talking about it in advance, the New World Order was defeated by having their plan exposed, so they had to back down. In such a way, a conspiracy theorist can actually take credit for what, in reality, is a failed prediction.
A Testable Hypothesis?
Belief in conspiracy theories clearly has a number of root causes, an obvious one being mistrust of officialdom. Other commentators on this subject have suggested that feelings of personal disempowerment may also be a factor. It is my assertion that belief in conspiracy often reflects a lack of knowledge of the way in which government, the civil service, the military and the intelligence agencies work. It seems to me that this is testable, because it would be possible to conduct double blind experiments which could score someone’s believe in various conspiracy theories and their knowledge of officialdom, to see if there’s a relationship.
As I pointed out previously, belief in conspiracy theories has been the subject of comparatively little academic study. Given the impact that they can have on belief (and on action), this is a situation that should be redressed. However, while I support academic research into this subject, I believe we need to be more inclusive. A wider conversation on the subject needs to take place, involving not just social scientists and academics, but the media and – critically – conspiracy theorists themselves. It’s this latter engagement that will prove most difficult (because of conspiracy theorists’ mistaken perception of skeptics as Establishment debunkers), but is essential for any proper understanding of the subject. It seems to me that a greater understanding of the conspiracy theory community and their mindset is a prerequisite to such engagement.
Finally, I should restate that the purpose of this article has not been to present a definitive critique of the conspiracy theory genre (or of any specific conspiracy theories) but, rather, to highlight some issues that might be useful in taking forward further research and work – academic and non-academic – on this topic.
Nick Pope worked for the UK Ministry of Defence for 21 years and is best known for one of his postings where his duties included investigating UFO sightings. He now works as a broadcaster and journalist specializing in a number of topics, including the unexplained, conspiracy theories, fringe science and sci-fi.