What’s going on with the alarm about conspiracy theories?
It seems that conspiracy theories have become a new, even urgent danger. There are numerous articles and commentaries decrying beliefs in seemingly implausible conspiracies, often holding these beliefs up to ridicule. Examples include that the moon landings were faked, that KFC has a secret lab producing genetically-mutated chickens, and that the world is ruled by alien shape-shifting lizards.
What exactly is a conspiracy theory? Simply, it is a belief or claim that people are plotting to accomplish something. A conspiracy must involve at least two people secretly arranging to do something, most commonly for ethically dubious purposes. The “theory” part of the term just refers to an explanation. So a conspiracy theory is a proposed explanation for events based on the assumption that some people are covertly cooperating for a shared purpose, often one contrary to others’ interests.
Conspiracy theories are often dismissed as absurd ravings emanating from impressionable or paranoid minds. The most common way to discredit conspiracy theories in general is to refer to ones that seem absurd, at least on the surface. Is the US government really covering up information about visits by aliens?
By pointing to allegedly absurd beliefs, the very idea of a conspiracy theory is made to sound irrational. The assumption that conspiracy theories are inherently ridiculous has become so common that to call something a conspiracy theory has become a way to discredit it. The label “conspiracy theorist” has become a term of abuse.
Philosophers have a look
Looking more closely provides a different picture. Unbeknownst to most people, for many years philosophers have been debating claims about conspiracy theories. One set of philosophers argues that there are features of conspiracy theories that make them suspect, so they should be dismissed out of hand. For example, new evidence can never refute a conspiracy theory because the evidence is just part of the conspiracy — or so these philosophers say. They are called generalists because their assessments apply to conspiracy theories in general.
Another set of philosophers argues that conspiracy theories are not systematically different from any other explanation for events and that each conspiracy theory should be examined on its merits. They are called particularists: they argue it is wrong to dismiss explanations according to generic features.
Particularists like to point out that there are plenty of actual conspiracies, ones that have been exposed and widely acknowledged. For example, in the Iran-Contra affair, the US Reagan administration secretly sold arms to Iran despite an embargo and used the money to fund rebels in Nicaragua that were falsely claimed to be independent.
Some people define conspiracy theories in more limited ways than I’ve indicated here. Whatever the definition, particularists would argue that the onus is on those who dismiss an explanation just because it is categorised as a conspiracy theory.
Having read arguments by generalists and particularists, I started thinking about what I know about conspiracies, and eventually reflected on the experience of whistleblowers. For decades I’ve been talking with whistleblowers, who are individuals who speak out in the public interest. A typical whistleblower is a conscientious worker in an organisation who notices something that seems wrong and reports it to the boss or someone else in authority. They might report a discrepancy in accounts, abusive behaviour, danger to workers or customers, or deceptive claims. After making the report, which in many cases means just doing their job, suddenly the worker starts experiencing adverse actions, which can be called reprisals. These include ostracism, petty harassment, rumour-mongering, denunciation, demotion, punitive transfer and/or dismissal. In nearly every case, superiors claim the actions taken against the worker are justified.
The worker’s concerns might or might not be validated, but in quite a few cases they are, and most of those cases involve conspiracies. Occasionally just one manager is fiddling the books, but in many cases the fraud involves more than one: a conspiracy. In many cases, higher management knows what is going on and tolerates it. Then there are the reprisals, which often are coordinated. Another conspiracy.
In many police forces, it is common for officers to make false arrests. Someone talks back to them and they arrest them and then coordinate their lies to justify the arrest. When officers lie in court, this is called verballing. It is perfectly routine.
The worst thing a police officer can do is report on wrongdoing by another officer — the worst, that is, from the point of view of senior police. In what is called the police code of silence, officers are expected to remain silent when their co-workers steal from premises or take illegal drugs. Those actions might be wrong, but not as wrong as reporting on them.
In Los Angeles on 19 March 1991, around midnight, a motorist named Rodney King was arrested after a car chase. During the arrest, he was badly beaten. Four officers were involved in the beating and more than a dozen others were at the scene, which was illuminated by a helicopter’s spotlight. This beating might never have been known to the public except that George Holliday, who was living nearby, was woken by the commotion, and recorded the beating on his newly purchased videocamera. Later, he took the videotape to the media. When it was broadcast on television, it caused a storm of outrage against the police. But were the police at the scene concerned? No, not a single one reported the beating. Nor did a single one of them testify in the subsequent court cases.
This sounds like a conspiracy. It happens all the time. The only difference in the beating of Rodney King was the videotape. Few police conspiracies are ever revealed. Only occasionally, as in the killing of George Floyd in 2020, does the non-local public become aware of police abuse. (My analysis of the beating of Rodney King.)
Next consider property development. In Australia, there is rampant corruption at the local and state government level. Property developers influence politicians and government employees to rezone land, give building permissions, enable clearing of land and a host of other actions that benefit the few at the expense of the public. A play was written about corruption in Wollongong. It started off with a list of other local government areas that had been exposed for corruption. There’s no reason to think this sort of corruption occurs only in Australia. Every time, it involves a conspiracy.
Advertising is all around us. Some of it is honest and straightforward, such as the price of bananas at the local fruit shop. However, much advertising, especially the more expensive varieties, is deceptive: using the most sophisticated persuasion techniques, it is designed to manipulate the desires of consumers. This is business as usual but, arguably, it involves conspiracies. Few workers in advertising agencies — who perhaps should be called conspirators — break ranks and explain in detail how they omitted information, massaged statistics and appealed to unconscious prejudices.
In pharmaceutical companies, scientists make choices that favour their employer’s drugs, for example by ignoring side effects, excluding certain subjects and using placebos with active ingredients. Then they recruit academics who were not involved in the research to be authors of publications about it. This is a massive deception that has led to harm to hundreds of thousands of patients. Surely it should count as conspiracy. Indeed, many of the biggest companies have been fined billions of dollars for their activities, though this is a small penalty considering their much larger profits. The few regulators who tackle big-pharma fraud certainly treat it as a conspiracy.
Critics of conspiracy theories sometimes claim that big conspiracies cannot be maintained because too many people are involved. There are lots of contrary examples. Think of Volkswagen’s fraud about its emissions being low. None of the Volkswagen workers who knew about the fraud spoke up. It was only revealed by outside testing.
Do you have a loyalty card at a supermarket, or regularly use a credit card when making purchases? Do you know that doing this enables the company to keep track of every purchase you make, and that your data might be sold to other companies, so that the advertising you see online is tailored to your interests? Data collection and sharing occurs all the time, usually without your knowledge. It’s a type of conspiracy. In some ways it’s in your interests, to better supply you with products and provide you with information about things you can buy. It can also be used to manipulate your preferences. Be assured that highly talented experts in psychology, marketing and data heuristics are working hard to collect and use your data without you taking much notice.
Governments also engage in surveillance, both of corporations and other governments, and of their own citizens. The US National Security Agency, which intercepts electronic communications around the world, was once so secret that even the massive agency was hardly known to the public. Edward Snowden’s revelations exposed some of the NSA’s activities. Still, it’s reasonable to say that the NSA and its Five Eyes partners (Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) operate as conspiracies against both external adversaries and their own citizens.
Harmless? Hardly. If you live in Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan or Pakistan, you would have reason to worry about being targeted by a drone strike. Military operations are typically carried out in secrecy, while plans and consequences are hidden or disguised through disinformation. For many purposes, militaries are giant conspiracies. If they’re on your side, you might say they are for a good cause. Enemy operations are always thought to be sinister.
Torture occurs in many countries around the world. Just read reports by Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch. Torture is nearly always hidden from the public. It is a conspiracy. So is genocide.
A widespread conspiracy was maintained for decades by hundreds or thousands of people: the cover-up of paedophilia in the churches.
A lot of what goes on in corporations, churches, trade unions, environmental organisations, police, militaries and governments is plotting to achieve goals. Some of this is for the good of others; much of it is not. Some of this plotting is known to informed outsiders; a bit of it is known to the wider public. It all can be categorised as conspiratorial — but seldom is.
Conspiracy and social theory
Jaron Harambam is a Dutch sociologist. For his PhD, he spent two years in Dutch conspiracy-theory circles, talking with key figures, attending meetings and in other ways learning how participants — called, by others, conspiracy theorists — thought and acted. Among his many insights is one about the connection between conspiracy theorising and scholarly social theorising.
Few academics like to be called conspiracy theorists. Quite separately from the derogatory associations of the label, social scientists think what they do is different from uncovering conspiracies. What Harambam discovered is that there is much in common between conspiracy theorising and conventional scholarly theorising in the social sciences.
In both cases, the social world is explained, in part, through processes that happen behind the scenes, in ways about which most people know nothing. In conspiracy theorising, the processes involve plotting by individuals, usually powerful ones. In social theorising, the processes involve systems of power that shape people’s thoughts and behaviour.
A standard concept in social science is neoliberalism, which is a particular manifestation of capitalism. Neoliberalism is both a set of ideas and a set of practices. One facet is turning activities into markets, for example through privatising health care or prisons. This doesn’t happen by magic but by people making decisions, for example to set up a private hospital and to change laws to make this possible and lucrative. This involves people getting together to achieve their aims, often ones that give them wealth and power. This isn’t greatly different from a conspiracy, if a conspiracy is defined as people plotting to achieve certain aims.
Another example is patriarchy, the collective domination of men over women. Patriarchy is a standard concept in social science, though often contested. For patriarchy to operate, men (and women) need to make decisions that maintain certain patterns of thought and behaviour, for example that combat is a male domain. So it seems that patriarchy involves conspiring, for example to block women from being front-line soldiers. Think of the old boy’s club, an expression referring to the insider groups of men and some women that ensure that men are given preference for appointments and opportunities.
In social science, there is a longstanding tension between structure and agency. Structure refers to widespread patterns of regular activity. Neoliberalism and patriarchy are concepts of social structure. Agency refers to what people do. Structure is maintained and sometimes changed by people’s agency, while agency is channelled by structure. Trying to reconcile these two perspectives on the social world has exercised generations of social theorists.
Many academics prefer a structural perspective. Those who are called conspiracy theorists typically use an agency perspective: they explain occurrences through the activities of individuals. In many ways, this is not all that different from what social scientists do. After all, the social world is composed of individuals whose activities maintain what are called social structures.
Why discredit conspiracy theories?
Given that numerous conspiracies are around us all the time, most of which we are not aware, why do conspiracy theories have such a bad reputation? How is it that the label “conspiracy theorist” has become a term of abuse?
One explanation is that in the late 1960s the CIA initiated a programme to stigmatise conspiracy theories. Why? The CIA wanted to discredit challenges to the view that President John F. Kennedy was murdered by a lone gunman. Previously the term had few negative connotations, but the CIA’s efforts associated “conspiracy theory” with lunatics.
This explanation is itself a sort of conspiracy theory, but should not be rejected on that basis alone. There is evidence to back it up. However, even if the CIA played a role in discrediting the idea of conspiracy theories, that doesn’t easily explain why so many people have jumped on the bandwagon of condemnation, especially because so many conspiracy theories these days have little to do with the CIA or national security.
Another explanation involves the concept of boundary work. Scientists make efforts to distinguish their activities and knowledge claims from neighbouring endeavours or claims. This protects the status and domain of science. For example, astronomers distinguish their field from astrology and from the study of UFOs (unidentified flying objects). This ensures there is a clear boundary distinguishing science from what is labelled non-science or pseudoscience.
As noted, many conspiracy-theory explanations are not all that different from scholarly explanations of the social world. However, there is an important difference. Most so-called conspiracy theorists are not academics. Some of them are highly knowledgeable but do not have the degrees, scholarly publications or jobs that are characteristic of professional scholars, ones with positions in the academic system. These conspiracy theorists are, from the academic point of view, amateurs. To defend academic turf from interlopers, it is useful to discredit conspiracy theories. If the theories can be discredited, then so too are those who endorse them.
Yet another explanation for the attack on conspiracy theorising is support for the status quo, in particular support for dominant political and economic institutions, along with the experts who gain their livelihood from these institutions. Many conspiracy theories are about plotting by powerful groups. If taken seriously, these ideas could threaten these groups.
In this context, it’s highly convenient to apply the label “conspiracy theorist” to anyone who questions orthodoxy. You think pharmaceutical companies are selling drugs they know are dangerous? You’re a conspiracy theorist, and not to be taken seriously. You think Google, Facebook and Apple are manipulating people’s desires? You’re a conspiracy theorist.
There’s a straightforward way to test this explanation: have a look at those who are most vociferous in condemning conspiracy theorising and see whether they are supporters or critics of dominant institutions. Do they defend or attack the US government or big companies?
Is there a lesson here? Personally, I support the particularists who say explanations should be judged on their merits. This has an uncomfortable implication: it’s no longer easy to dismiss ideas that might seem crazy on the surface but you haven’t investigated in depth. It’s reasonable to think that establishment experts are often right, but also reasonable to leave open the possibility that they might be wrong or that there are other truths available.
This means being sceptical when hearing the term “conspiracy theory.” An appropriate response might be, “So what?” or “What exactly is wrong with this particular explanation?”
I’ve talked with whistleblowers from all walks of life, including those working for government departments, private companies, the police, the military, schools, universities, churches, environmental organisations and Indigenous organisations. Their stories are remarkably similar, and nearly all involve conspiracies to cover up wrongdoing and to take reprisals against the whistleblowers. Conspiracies are everywhere, and some of them are affecting you. Who doesn’t want you to take them seriously?
Thanks to Kurtis Hagen and Jaron Harambam for valuable comments.