Part One: Media and Conspiracy Psychology
Conspiracy theories are as old as the human psyche. But fears of an all-embracing political plan to take over the world appear to go back only as far as the French Revolution. In that same country, in the nineteenth century, the Dreyfus affair divided public opinion. Conspiracy theories continued to grow in importance up until the mid-twentieth century, when two arch-conspiracy theorists, Hitler and Stalin, warred against one another (despite a non-aggression pact), causing the worst blood-letting in human history. The world war sobered the Americans, who in subsequent decades dismissed conspiracy theories, and the mainly fringe groups or individuals who promoted such ideas, in their valid quest for some meaning or motive behind the seemingly meaningless, wanton destruction of war and commercial exploitation.
Sometimes those holding such ideas were denigrated for political, commercial, cultural or racial reasons, or for reasons of academic jealousy. Some raise issues current in our culture: these include those who question the assassination of Kennedy, or the death of Princess Diana, “Ufologists,” and perhaps those, such as David Icke, who claims a reptilian race runs the earth and/or alien installations exist under the earth’s surface. Such themes enjoy a certain popularity, but owe little to common sense or carry little real influence. The politically disaffected,the political far right, and other alienated minorities have all been labelled ‘conspiracists’. Their theories imply a political agenda, but lack any significant credibility, or even influential publicity. To run for office with similar ideas in the manifesto would be to experience electoral disaster.
One explanation for the popularity is the media’s effort to allocate individual responsibility for negative events. The media have a tendency to start to seek culprits if an event occurs that is of such significance that it does not drop off the news agenda within a few days. Of course, these stories sell papers and magazines. Of this trend, it has been said that the concept of a pure accident is no longer permitted in a news item. Again, if this is a true observation, it may reflect a real change in how the media consumer perceives negative events.
Because of their dramatic potential, conspiracies are a popular theme in thrillers and science fiction. Complex history is recast as a morality play in which bad people cause bad events, and good people identify and defeat them. Fictional conspiracy theories offer neat, intuitive narratives, in which the conspirators’ plot fits closely the dramatic needs of the story’s plot. They may be written as ‘just possibly’ true, or adopting just enough fact to sound plausible. In reality, they are trading on our gullibility, a fond imagining our thinking ability is unaffected by ‘fiction’, or what is sometimes called ‘faction’. You could argue that culturally we are regressing, Shakespeare certainly used history in a more mature, if equally inaccurate way.
A classic example would be Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. His novels, such as his controversial “Angels and Demons”, has also popularized the idea of a high level conspiracy. The book surrounds the quest of Robert Langdon, a fictional Harvard University symbologist who is bent on uncovering the mysteries of a secret society known as the Illuminati. Brown’s novel, and others alike, harp on the ideas of the unknown, the life blood of conspiracy theorists.
Hollywood motion pictures and television shows perpetuate and enlarge belief in conspiracy as a standard functioning of corporations and governments.
Doctor Strangelove was a 1963 comedy about nuclear warfare. The end of the world is precipitated by the delusions of General Jack D. Ripper who happens to be in control of a SAC nuclear air wing. General Ripper believes there is a Communist conspiracy which threatens to “sap and impurify” the “precious bodily fluids” of the American people with fluoridated water.
Capricorn One was a 1978 thriller about a Mars landing hoax. The story was very clearly inspired by allegations that the manned1969 Apollo moon landing was staged, in order that the U.S. win the ‘space race’. Some claim that the technology to send men to the Moon was insufficient, or that the likelihood of death from radiation sickness beyond the Van-Allen belts made such a trip impossible.
The X Files -The Complete Edition X-Files was a popular television show during the 1990s and early 2000s, which followed the investigations of three FBI agents, Fox Mulder, Dana Scully and John Doggett, who were sometimes helped by a group of conspiracy theorists known as ‘The Lone Gunmen’. Many of the episodes dealt with a plot for alien invasion overseen by elements of the U.S. government. The famous tag line of the series, “The Truth Is Out There“, can be interpreted as reference to the meaning-seeking nature of the genre discussed above.
Conspiracy Theory a 1997 thriller about a taxi driver (played by Mel Gibson) who publishes a newsletter in which he discusses what he suspects are government conspiracies, and as the film progresses, it turns out they could be true. In effect, the audience has been introduced to the notion that the US government is controlled by a secret team in black helicopters, a view that was once confined to extremists. Has the tongue in cheek Men In Black overturned such a view?
Umberto Eco’s novel Foucault’s Pendulum is a broad satire on conspiracism in which the characters attempt to construct an all-embracing conspiracy theory starting with the Templars and including the Bavarian Illuminati, the Rosicrucians, ‘hollow Earth’ enthusiasts, the Cathars, and the Jesuits. An episode of the satirical show South Park parodied 9/11 conspiracy theories. The show claimed that government conspiracy theories are fabricated by the government themselves, in order to make the general populace believe that it is more powerful than it actually is. How many really believe this?
Oliver Stone’s Academy Award-winning 1991 film JFK based on books by New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, and conspiracy author Jim Marrs, suggest that President John F. Kennedy was not killed by Lee Harvey Oswald acting alone, but rather by a group opposed to Kennedy’s policies, especially his supposed reluctance to invade Cuba to overthrow Fidel Castro, and Kennedy’s purported eagerness to withdraw American armed forces from the Vietnam War. Members of the CIA, and President Lyndon Baines Johnson are implicated as responsible for the assassination. Others have considered the role of the Mafia. The assassination of Kennedy provoked an unprecedented public response directed against the official version of the case as expounded in the Report of the Warren Commission. This was the sixties, and this response could be seen as a public backlash against authoritarianism in the style of Senator Joe McCarthy.
One of the most celebrated contributions to the conspiracy genre in the United Kingdom was the BAFTA award-winning television drama Edge Of Darkness, written by Troy Kennedy Martin. David Drury’s Defence of the Realm and Alan Plater’s A Very British Coup offered other UK perspectives on fictional conspiracies.
Belief in conspiracy theories has become a topic of interest for sociologists, psychologists and experts in folklore. Psychologists believe that the search for meaning, common in conspiracism and the development of conspiracy theories, may be powerful enough alone to lead to the first formulating of the idea. In a context where a conspiracy theory has become popular within a social group, or indeed, on-line chat rooms, communal reinforcement may equally play a part. Some research suggests people may be influenced by conspiracy theories without being aware that their attitudes have changed. For example, after reading popular conspiracy theories about the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, participants in one study correctly estimated how much their peers’ attitudes had changed, but significantly underestimated how much their own attitudes had changed, significantly becoming more in favour of the conspiracy theories. The authors, without irony, conclude that conspiracy theories may therefore have a ‘hidden power’ to influence people’s beliefs.
Some argue that even if the force behind the conspiracy is perceived as hostile there is, often, still an element of reassurance in it for conspiracy theorists, because it is more consoling to think that complications and upheavals in human affairs are created by human beings rather than factors beyond human control, although surely, such a view hardly accounts for all the theories. Belief in such hidden powers could be a device for reassuring oneself that certain occurrences are not random, but ordered by an intelligence. This renders such occurrences comprehensible and potentially controllable. Finally, such beliefs are an implicit assertion of human dignity, an often unconscious but necessary affirmation that man is not totally helpless, but is ultimately responsible for his own destiny.
According to another study, humans apply a ‘rule of thumb’ by which we expect a significant event to have a significant cause. The study offered subjects four versions of events, in which a foreign president was (a) successfully assassinated, (b) wounded but survived, (c) survived with wounds but died of a heart attack at a later date, and (d) was unharmed. Subjects were significantly more likely to suspect conspiracy in the case of the ‘major events’, in which the president died, than in the other cases, despite all other evidence available to them being equal.
Another ‘rule of thumb’ that can be misapplied to a mystery involving other humans is; who stands to gain? This sensitivity to the hidden motives of other people may be a universal feature of human consciousness. However, this is also a valid rule of thumb for detectives to use when generating a list of suspects to investigate. Used in this way “Who had the motive, means and opportunity?” is a perfectly valid use of this rule of thumb.
For some individuals, an obsessive compulsion to believe, prove or re-tell a conspiracy theory may indicate one or more of several well-known psychological conditions, such as grandiosity, paranoia or denial. This appears to strain the case however, such individuals might ordinarily be expected to have some personal involvement before experiencing such emotions.
Conspiratorial accounts can be intellectually satisfying when they place events in a readily-understandable context. The subscriber to the theory is able to assign moral responsibility for an emotionally troubling event or situation to a clearly-conceived group of individuals, not including the believer. The believer may then feel excused of any moral or social responsibility for remedying whatever institutional or societal flaw might be the target of the theory.
Where personal responsibility is stunted by social conditions, or is simply beyond the ability of an individual, the conspiracy theory facilitates the ‘closure’ that such emotional challenges require. Like moral panics, conspiracy theories thus seem to occur more frequently within communities that are experiencing social isolation, financial or political dis-empowerment.
Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture by Mark Fenster argues that “just because overarching conspiracy theories are wrong does not mean they are not on to something. Specifically, they ideologically address real structural inequities, and constitute a response to a withering civil society and the concentration of the ownership of the means of production, which together leave the political subject without the ability to be recognized or to signify in the public realm”.
Alternatively, conspiracy theories may arise when evidence available in the public record does not correspond with the common or official version of events. In this regard, usefully, conspiracy theories may sometimes serve to highlight ‘blind spots’ in the common or official interpretations of events. One may be certain official investigators are scrupulously aware of the public gaze.
In a following Post, although it may be a tall order, I shall attempt to explain why the proliferation of alternative explanations, ‘conspiracy theories’, of varying levels of plausibility, can obscure real understanding, and how it may be possible to avoid the confusion.