A Brief History of Conspiracy Theories
Everyone has probably heard the term "conspiracy theory" before. You've no doubt heard of a few as well. Whether it be the JFK assassination, the Moon landing, or the New World Order, we've all been exposed to a conspiracy theory or two at one time or another.
But where did conspiracy theories originate? Unfortunately, we know far more about why we have conspiracy theories than we do about where exactly they came from.
Some Brief Background
But before I get into anything and everything about the origins of conspiracy theories, I should probably give a bit of background knowledge and define what I'm actually talking about.
A page on the Butte College website gives a pretty definitive explanation of conspiracy theories and conspiracists. The page states, "You might buy into one or more conspiracy theories without being an all-out conspiracist. Conspiracism is a worldview that sees history as driven primarily by interwoven webs of secret conspiracies. Conspiracy theories are leaner, more restrained, more limited in scope than conspiracism. A conspiracy theory alleges that a secret conspiracy involving hidden actors is behind particular historical events. Its explanation for events usually runs counter to the official or mainstream account, which is itself seen as an elaborate fabrication."
The page also points out that all conspiracy theories share the same three problems: unfalsifiability, fallacy, and naivete.
- Unfalsifiability refers to the fact that conspiracy theories generally can't be proven or disproven.
- Fallacy refers to the use of multiple fallacies used in conspiracies, including ones such as hasty conclusion, ad hominem, and circular reasoning.
- Naivete refers to the blind faith of believers, including how they tend to believe in conspiracy theories on flimsy evidence, such as suspect eyewitness accounts reported by a source twice removed or more.
Though not directly about conspiracy theories, in 1972, sociologist Stanley Cohen described the "moral panic." He said, "A condition, episode, person, or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests; its nature is presented in a stylized and stereotypical fashion by the mass media; the moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians, and other right-thinking people; socially accredited experts pronounce their diagnoses and solutions; ways of coping are evolved or (more often) resorted to; the condition then disappears, submerges, or deteriorates and becomes more visible."
An essential piece of this moral panic is the "folk devil." The folk devil is a scapegoat that is generally in no way responsible, such as a Satanic cult, a gang, or a backwoods militia.
Jesse Walker, in an article posted on The Week, gives an example of conspiracy theory and moral panic intersecting. In the early 20th century, there was an anti-prostitution panic. The idea behind this was that there was a white slavery syndicate forcing thousands of girls into sexual slavery. And while coerced prostitution is most definitely something that happens, it was not happening as prevalently or in such an organized way as this conspiracy theory suggested. Nevertheless, it resulted in the Mann Act of 1910 (also known as the White-Slave Traffic Act), which is still in effect to this day, albeit in a modified form.
San Diego University professor Rebecca Moore also has her own definition of conspiracy theories. She has been known to alternate between calling them "stigmatized knowledge" and "suppressed knowledge that are based on a conviction that power individuals are limiting or controlling the free flow of information for nefarious purposes."
And as a final side note, several people have come up with systems to define the the different types of conspiracy theories. These include Walker's five kinds, Barkun's three types, and Rothbard's shallow versus deep.
Origins of the Term
Conspiracy theories supposedly date back hundreds of years, with the earliest often concerning Jews or bankers (and many times, both as one entity.) However, the earliest uses of the term "conspiracy theory" didn't always have the negative connotation that we typically associate with it today.
Mick West, in a thread on Metabunk.org, claims that the earliest known usage of the term was in 1870, in The Journal of Mental Science, Volume 16.
In this same post, West also quotes an 1895 article concerning a review of theories on the causes of the Southern secession. He theorizes that the Southern secession conspiracy theories are the point at which the term starts to have negative connotation, stating, "Given the multiple usages on the subject of secession, it seems plausible that this is a key point in the evolution of the phrase. It shifts from simple incidental use in language to referring to a specific thing. From 'that theory which has a conspiracy' to 'the theory that we call conspiracy theory'."
The Oxford English Dictionary offers an alternative to West, citing a 1909 article in The American Historical Review as the earliest example of the usage of the term.
In 20th Century Words, John Ayto claims that the term was originally neutral, and that it didn't become a pejorative until the mid 1960s. Lance deHaven-Smith, in his book Conspiracy Theory in America, expands upon this, claiming that during this period of time, the CIA began using this term to discredit JFK conspiracy theorists.
However, Robert Blaskiewicz, a skeptic activist, counters that these kind of claims go back "since at least 1997," but deHaven-Smith is now being cited as an authority on this claim due to his book. Blaskiewicz says that the term has always been used disparagingly, going back all the way to the 1870 usage cited by Mick West.
The Modern Phenomenon
So the history of conspiracy theories, or at least the history of the usage of the term, is unsurprisingly unclear. But we can be relatively certain that the modern day phenomenon of conspiracy theories likely began with the assassination of JFK.
The assassination of President John F. Kennedy was the point at which conspiracy theories shifted from fringe groups to the mainstream. At this point, during the late 20th century, conspiracy theories became common in the mass media, and formed into a cultural phenomenon in the United States. After all, most people are aware that there are other people out there who believe that JFK couldn't have been killed by Lee Harvey Oswald acting alone, or that some people believe we didn't go to the Moon in 1969. It's simply common knowledge at this point.
Systemic Conspiracy and Superconspiracy
And now we come to the idea of systemic conspiracy. This is the idea that for conspiracies to remain secret, more and more people need to become involved.
Daniël Verhoeven, in a blog post, defines this: "Systemic conspiracy theory claims that these dramatic political events are not what it seems. Behind what appears to be the establishment there is a ruling elite, an organization of individuals who act as puppet masters; the real elite behind the masquerading elite."
These systemic conspiracy theories give way to theories about super secret societies like the Illuminati or the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. (And as a side note, the Protocols were used by Hitler and his followers as a justification to persecute the Jews, showing that conspiracy is not always just harmless speculation.)
The systemic conspiracy then gave way to the superconspiracy, such as the New World Order conspiracy that first gained popularity in the 1990s among militia movements, and has continued to be perpetuated by people like Alex Jones and Glenn Beck into the modern day.
Verhoeven defines superconspiracies as well: "Superconspiracy theories are conspiratorial constructs in which multiple conspiracies are believed to be linked together hierarchically. Event and systemic are joined in complex ways, so that conspiracies come to be nested together. At the summit of the conspiratorial hierarchy is a distant but powerful force manipulating lesser conspiratorial factors."
On a related note, a physicist named David Robert Grimes published in PLOS ONE some estimations of how many people popular conspiracy theories would need in order for them to viable, as well as how quickly they would fail. In this article, he included such popular conspiracy theories as the Moon landing, climate change, vaccinations, and the suppressed cancer cure.
What Is the Point?
So why is it that we have conspiracy theories in the first place? Well, there's a few reasons. In an article on Our Great American Heritage, Allen Cornwell explains, "Conspiracies are alternative stories about real events. These stories develop because a part of our society refuses to accept the official explanation."
Political scientist Michael Barkun has defined conspiracy theories in such a way that gives another explanation. Barkun says that conspiracy theories rely on the idea that the universe is governed by design, and they have three principles: nothing happens by accident, nothing is as it seems, and everything is connected.
And finally, anthropologist David Graeber has stated, "It's the most peaceful societies which are also the most haunted, in their imaginative constructions of the cosmos, by constant specters of perennial war." This idea can be extrapolated and applied to conspiracy theorists to suggest that perhaps they are simply bored. They want to alleviate this boredom by imagining there is a shadowy organization out there planning some catastrophic destruction for the world.
But whatever the origins and reasons for conspiracy theories are, that's all they usually are, conspiracy theories.
However, as the saying goes, just because you're paranoid, it doesn't mean they aren't out to get you.