A Theory About Conspiracy Theories

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Perhaps the first conspiracy in human history took place around the 22nd February 44BC. The hidden plan was to assassinate Julius Caesar. It all but began with a meeting between Cassius Longinus and his brother-in-law, Marcus Brutus. And, on the 15th March 44 BC, Julius Caesar was assassinated. For more than 2,000 years, conspiracy theories have been with us.

Move forward to the year 1920, and none other than Winston Churchill gave us a more modern conspiracy theory when saying, “the movement among the Jews … this worldwide conspiracy [is] for the overthrow of civilization [it] has been steadily growing.” During the 1930s, Churchill’s antisemitism was, of course, out-gunned by German Nazism inventing the scientific hallucination of a Jewish Race.It sought to legitimize the Holocaust. In the 1950s, US Senator Joe McCarthy believed, “this government [will] deliver us to disaster … this must be a product of a great conspiracy.”

Conspiracy theories are more like fantasies. They are not theories in our scientific understanding. In short, a theory is an explanation of an aspect of the natural or social world that has been repeatedly tested, and verified in accordance with scientific methods relying on accepted protocols of observations, measurement, and a critical evaluation of the findings produced. None of this is the case when it comes to conspiracy theories.

Yet, behind almost every conspiracy fantasy lurks an occult force operating secretly behind the seemingly real. This remains a fact for all conspiracy theories – past, present, and future. Perhaps it is not unfounded to claim that we live in The Age of Conspiracism.

Thanks to the Internet, recent conspiracy theories have migrated with ease from the margins of society into the center of political life. They have become an omnipresent feature of contemporary political culture. The recent rise of conspiracy theories occurred because of three – a political, a technical, and a health – developments:

1) the political issue that turbo-charged conspiracy fantasies was the election of Donald Trump;

2) the technical issue is the emergence of online platforms, in particular Facebook, Twitter, and Telegram; and,

3) the health reason for recent conspiracy theories lies in the Coronavirus pandemic leading to a sharp increase in conspiracy fantasies.

On its surface, most conspiracy theories sound remarkably alike sharing a few basic features. An almost classical conspiracy theory is the following: without much change, between a half and two-thirds of all Americans believe that, the government knows more about UFOs than it is telling us. Such conspiracy theories have three basic ingredients: a) there must be some sort of secrecy (they don’t tell us), b) there is an omnipotent (the government), and c) there is something unexplained (UFOs, the killing of JFK, the Coronavirus pandemic, etc.).

Yet, conspiracy theories also need to provide what might be called counter-ideas offering so-called alternative explanations while rejecting the mainstream. Conspiracy theories often allege that these alternatives pretend to know something most people do not know. They also contend that this – often secret – knowledge runs counter to the official version. These are the basic ingredients for people like Alex Jones who remains one of America’s best known conspiracy theorists – well, apart from Donald Trump’s longstanding belief in birtherism, perhaps.

Beyond that, people like Donald Trump and Alex Jones feast on another ingredient of conspiracy theories. All too often, conspiracy fantasies included stories of a secret global power and the influence these powers have. The hallucination is that these powers gave the world Covid-19. This is likely to include the infamous antisemitic hallucination of a Jewish World Plot. Spiced up in that way, conspiracy theories often fall on fertile ground. The global conspiracy is one that appears frequently in the age of globalization and global warming.

Quite often, such global conspiracy theories provide an even more robust belief system with the capacity to mobilize people worldwide. Mobilization remains one of the ultimate goals of conspiracy theory inventors. Along the word “theory” and their seemingly plausible chains of argumentation enable a conspiracy theory to camouflage its inbred tendency towards faulty reasoning, outright irrationality, and all too often – its right-wing bias.

Undeterred, conspiracy theories claim to be truthful explanations of large scale, dramatic, social, and political events like, for example, the Coronavirus pandemic. To deal with such issues, conspiracy theories uncover the real truth behind such events. Yet, the most widely disseminated conspiracy theories often emerged in response to official explanations. Next: virtually all conspiracy theories deem official explanations to be wrong. Conspiracy fantasies claim that official versions are put forward for some sinister reason.

As such, conspiracy theories often operate as a source to de-legitimize an official version. Its target is to undermine the credibility of an individual (e.g. Fauci), academics (e.g. scientists engaged in climate change), politicians (e.g. Pizzagate), and activists (e.g. Greta Thunberg).

In other cases, conspiracy theories are directed against institutions (e.g. the state, NASA, the WHO, etc.). In some cases, conspiracy fantasies feast on paranoia while in other cases, they include simple anachronistic thinking, backwardness, reactionary ideologies, irrationality, superstition, and prejudice. Some conspiracy theories are very similar to religious mythologies.

Most likely, one of the really important features of conspiracy theories is that they are by their very nature irrefutable. Very unfortunately, scientific verification that challenges them highlights their inherent and logical contradictions, is disconfirming to their evidence, and with even the near total absence of proof, yet, have next to no bearing on conspiracy theories.

Unlike real theories, conspiracy theories are not theories because evidence does not mater. Worse, evidence that refutes conspiracy theories is actually re-interpreted as evidence in favor of a conspiracy theory. As a consequence, science has next to no impact on conspiracy fantasies. Yet, conspiracy fantasies have a distinct self-sealing quality attached to them.

Even before the onset of the Internet’s Facebook, YouTube, Telegram, etc., conspiracy fantasies sold well and had the ability of influencing public opinion. This has substantially enhanced the capability of conspiracy theories to influence public debate. The Internet gave conspiracy theorists a master tool to broadcast their hallucinations about the implementation of evil, secret, and subversive plans. The Internet became a mass medium in which the time-honored nonsense of an eternal fight with a faceless enemy and the cunning foe gets a new mass audience.

Perhaps one of the first conspiratorial Internet events occurred during the 1990s – the time of the arrival of the Internet. The TWA 800flight that exploded over the Atlantic (1996) may well have been the first major conspiracy fantasy at the dawn of the Internet Age. With that, everything has changed.

From now onwards, conspiracy fantasies in the age of the Internet were carried on through the conviction that anyone with the time, patience, a half a brain, and Internet access could go through thousands of open documents, post selected information, and re-interpret them online to create a half-way plausible conspiratorial story that uncovers “the real truth”.

Mistrust in government institutions, science, medicine, and experts fired up classical conspiracy fantasies about JFK, 9/11, AIDS, the death of Princess Diana, and the Coronavirus pandemic, in the coming decades. But now, these could be disseminated via the new tool: the Internet.

The very essence of nearly every conspiracy theory ever concocted lies in the implicit, and at times explicit assumption about the decisive role of some sort of human agency. These actors work intentionally and are framed as the determining factors of an invented historical causality. Conspiracy theories tend to fall into the trap to take a correlation as casualization implying cause and effect where none exists.

To make all this sound plausible, intricate, and often enthralling, stories are invented. Principally, conspiracy theories are narratives – they tell a story. According to the Rand Corporation, recent conspiratorial narratives about the Coronavirus pandemic use six rhetorical tools:

1) manipulating scientific evidence;

2) appealing to emotions;

3) referencing conspiracy theories unrelated to, for example, vaccination issues;

4) claiming that, for example, vaccines are unnatural practices;

5) invents negative benefit-risk ratio; and ultimately,

6) frames vaccination as an argument about freedom of choice.

Using those, the conspiratorial stories that are produced can be rather complex (fairy)-tales about secret identities, a mastermind, a covert plan, and about secret knowledge. Virtually, all conspiracy fantasies contain the classic story of an epic battle between Good and Evil. In Hollywood-style, they tell a simplistic hero vs. villain story. In the construction of such conspiracy fantasies, three elements can be found in nearly all conspiracy fantasies. Without those three elements, next to no conspiracy theory can be cooked up:

1) there needs to be an evil conspirator – the actor like Bill Gates during the Coronavirus pandemic, for example; next,

2) there also needs to be an evil plan – like the take-over of the world by big-pharma or the establishment of a Corona Dictatorship; and finally,

3) there needs to be an endeavor to maintain secrecy which means that most, if not all, actors of the Coronavirus pandemic (all universities, all medical doctors, all nurses, all health officials, the WHO, the CDC, numerous governments, the media, etc.) are all working together in the utmost secrecy to put their evil plan into reality.

Of course, all conspiracy fantasies prescribe a conspirator or a conspiratorial clique which, by definition, needs to work in secret. This conspiratorial secrecy links neatly to two more elements of conspiracy fantasies, namely, nothing is as it seems and everything is connected.

Conspiracy fantasies are essentially the manipulation of the many (the population) and by the few (the secret conspirator). Virtually, all conspiracy theories work in very much the same cunning way. Yet, conspiracy fantasies claim that once the people understand the secret complot and see the real truth, they will no longer be susceptible to the manipulation of officials, governments, scientists, and the media.

To shield conspiracy fantasies against evidence, conspiracy fantasies are inherently – by their very nature – unconvinced by commonly agreed standards and conventional mechanisms of scientific enlightenment. As a consequence, conspiracy fantasies reject peer-reviewed journals, judicial investigations, university departments, and scientific institutions.

Rather interestingly, conspiracy fantasies habitually seek to emulate mainstream scholarship and scientific enquiry. This rather obvious contradiction has never bothered the believers in conspiracy fantasies very much.

Perhaps truly worrying is the fact that conspiracy fantasies have a rather frightening characteristic based on paranoid beliefs. This can easily isolate an individual from society, leading to a kind of intellectual segregation from mainstream culture. Slowly, they drift into a parallel world of Internet echo-chambers that thrive on re-enforcing message akin to groupthink.

It furnishes the belief and even an obsession of being surrounded by some sort of illusive threat. These can be evil people like the anti-communist – but in reality rather non-existent – super-scared of Joe McCarthy’s Reds under the Beds!, for example during the Cold War.

Of course, conspiracy fantasies have been shown to flourish in times of war, social crises, economic disasters, the Coronavirus pandemic, etc. Conspiracy fantasies also tend to thrive when a previously established social arrangement suddenly breaks down (e.g. abrupt appearance of lockdowns, home isolation, field hospitals, morgues that overflow, talk of a global pandemic, etc. ).

These are times when available explanation are seen to prove inadequate explanations about the causes and the implication of, for example, a pandemic. This is often the moment when conspiracy fantasies move in.

In conclusion, conspiracy fantasies are predictable threats to a civilised discourse and to a democratic order. This has been shown when Donald Trump’s henchmen stormed Capital Hill on the 6th of January 2021. They acted in the conspiratorial belief that the election was stolen. The fact that 63 courts said, the election was not stolen did not matter to them. Worse, Hitler’s conspiracy fantasies about a Jewish World Plot aided the murder of millions including Anne Frank.  Conspiracy theories may not be theories, but they can kill.

Thomas Klikauer has over 750 publications. His latest book is on Media Capitalism. Meg Young is a Sydney Financial Accountant who likes good literature and proofreading, and in her spare time works on her MBA at WSU.