What We Mean When We Say 'Conspiracy Theory'

The assumptions baked into a familiar phrase


(This paper was presented at the Conspiracy Theory Conference at the University of Miami on March 13, 2015. The footnotes have been removed from the online version.)

What exactly do we mean by the phrase "conspiracy theory"? The problem is vexing enough in the academic literature, where scholars have made countless attempts to formulate a firm definition, none of which has managed to push its rival definitions off the stage. In everyday usage, the term is even more slippery: Its meaning constantly stretches and narrows, particularly when it is used as a pejorative. What follows is more impressionistic than systematic—not a complete study of the way the words "conspiracy theory" are used, but some observations about the way it bends to include or not include certain stories, and a hypothesis about why that might be so.

Let's begin with the great vaccine debate of February 2015. That month New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, and White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest all suggested, to one degree or another, that when it comes to childhood vaccines, public health should be balanced with parental choice. Christie, who we'll focus on here, called vaccinations "an important part of being sure we protect" children's health, but added that "parents need to have some measure of choice in things as well."

Christie's opponents immediately started digging for anything else he might have said on the subject. They found he had a history of courting voters who believe there might be a causal link between vaccines and autism. In 2009, for example, he put his signature on a letter that said:

I have met with families affected by autism from across the state and have been struck by their incredible grace and courage. Many of these families have expressed their concern over New Jersey's highest-in-the nation vaccine mandates. I stand with them now, and will stand with them as their governor in their fight for greater parental involvement in vaccination decisions that affect their children.

One prominent liberal site, ThinkProgress, reported this news under the headline "Chris Christie's Long Flirtation With Anti-Vaccine Conspiracy Theories." Another, The Daily Kos, used the title "In 2009, Chris Christie sent letter endorsing anti-vaxxer conspiracy theory." Watching discussions of the story on social media, I repeatedly saw the phrase "conspiracy theory" attached to Christie's claims. Yet none of Christie's comments invoked a conspiracy.

Perhaps the slippage is understandable in this case. After all, many people who believe these discredited claims about vaccines also believe that there is a conspiracy to conceal the shots' supposed ill effects. But the idea of a vaccine/autism connection is not innately conspiratorial, and the attempts I've seen to argue otherwise fall flat. An article in Salon, for instance, claimed that anti-vaxxers "are, at their core, conspiracy theorists" because they must "believe that all major health organizations in the world are colluding to cover up the supposed dangers of vaccines." But of course there's no reason to assume a vaccine skeptic is actually aware of how strong the scientific consensus on the question is. Indeed, when powerful figures like Christie—and, the year before Christie wrote that letter, Barack Obama, John McCain, and Hillary Clinton—throw around phrases like "the science right now is inconclusive," that creates the illusion not of a conspiracy but of an open question.

A year before the vaccine debate flared up, the phrase "conspiracy theory" was invoked in an even odder context. At one moment during CNN's heavy coverage of the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, host Don Lemon mentioned that some people had suggested the plane had been swallowed by a black hole, an idea he categorized with "all of these conspiracy theories."

As with the supposed vaccination/autism link, there have been conspiracy theories about the missing airplane. But this surely was not one of them, since a black hole is not a secret plot. Yet Lemon wasn't the only person to make that category error. A video at The Daily Beast, for example, claimed to list the "kookiest conspiracy theories" about the plane. It did indeed list a lot of conspiracy theories, but it also included the black hole, along with the idea that the plane had been hit by a meteor—no, not a meteor controlled by a conspiracy—and the notion that it had landed on an isolated island.

Another recent example: In 2014 Technology Review published an article headlined "Data Mining Reveals How Conspiracy Theories Emerge on Facebook." This article covered an interesting piece of research from Italy, where a quintet of scholars were observing how a large sample of Facebook users engaged with different sorts of stories. One of the tales the team looked at was a satiric piece claiming the country had passed a bill giving legislators 134 billion Euros "to find a job in case of defeat." Many readers had mistaken this spoof for an actual news report, and thousands of people signed a petition against the imaginary law. The Technology Review article led with this tale, which it used to argue that "Conspiracy theories seem to come about by a process in which ordinary satirical commentary or obviously false content somehow jumps the credulity barrier."

Yet again, we see the term being applied in a strange way. The rumor involved a bill supposedly passed in public by the Italian senate, not a secret plan hatched by a hidden cabal. Nor did the original group of scholars claim it was a conspiracy theory. Their concern was with the transmission of false stories, whether or not they involved secret plotting. (The word "conspiracy" and its variants appear only four times in their study.) But for the Technology Review writer, "false story" and "conspiracy theory" apparently were synonyms.

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So on the one hand there is this habit of using the phrase "conspiracy theory" to describe dubious claims that do not actually include conspiracies. Couple that now with another trend: the tendency not to use the phrase "conspiracy theory" to describe conspiracy stories embraced by the mainstream.

When I say "embraced by the mainstream," I'm not referring to beliefs that are widely held but still somewhat disreputable, like some of the JFK assassination theories. Nor do I mean those events, such as Watergate or Iran-contra, where a conspiracy clearly took place. I mean things like these:

Terrorism. Real terrorist conspiracies obviously do exist, but recent history is also filled with purported plots that failed to materialize. Furthermore, when terror plots do occur, people often assume they're part of a larger organized effort even when the evidence for such centralization is scarce. (In the wake of 9/11, for example, the White House reportedly pushed the FBI to prove that Al Qaeda was responsible for the anthrax mailings.) And where there really is a larger organized effort, there is a tendency to imagine it in ways that have more in common with paranoid pulp fiction than with asymmetric warfare as it's conducted in the real world.

Consider this November 2001 report in The Independent, which purported to describe Osama bin Laden's Tor Bora base:

It has its own ventilation system and its own power, created by a hydroelectric generator. Its walls and floors in the rooms are smooth and finished and it extends 350 yards beneath a solid mountain. It is so well defended and concealed that—short of poison gas or a tactical nuclear weapon—it is immune to outside attack. And it is filled with heavily armed followers of Osama bin Laden, with a suicidal commitment to their cause and with nothing left to lose.

Yesterday, for the first time, a witness spoke about one of the greatest remaining challenges for the effort to destroy al-Qa'ida—its underground cave complex in the Tora Bora area of the White Mountains of eastern Afghanistan. He described a purpose-built guerrilla lair, in and around which as many as 2,000 Arab and foreign fighters and remnants of the Taliban are reported to be preparing for a guerrilla battle.

The story was picked up by outlets across the U.S., and another British paper, the London Times, ran this imaginative illustration of bin Laden's Bond-villain lair:

London Times

This vision received an official endorsement of sorts when it was mentioned on Meet the Press. Shown the Times' diagram, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld declared that "there's not one of those. There are many of those."

When American forces arrived at Osama's actual base, they found that the Independent report was a fantasy, something better suited for a legend about Hassan i Sabbah than a realistic assessment of bin Laden's methods and capabilities. Yet the incident is rarely raised during discussions of conspiracy thinking.

Gangs. In his 1999 book Random Violence, the sociologist Joel Best explained how criminal gangs are typically imagined in contemporary America: They "are secretive; they are large (and spreading); their business is calculated, deliberate, and structured; dealing in drugs, violence, and other crime, they form great, powerful hierarchies through supergang alliances; and their members have a rich, secretive culture of colors, gang signs, and initiation rites." There are obvious similarities between this image and many traditional conspiracy theories, and indeed Best goes on to explore those parallels. But ordinary discussions of "conspiracy theories" rarely cite such tales of tightly organized supergangs, even though they are surely among the most popular and influential conspiracy stories in the U.S. today.

As with terrorism, there are multiple layers here. First there are the times people see a gang where one doesn't exist. This typically happens when reporters or officials encounter an unfamiliar subculture; a recent example would be the FBI's 2011 decision to include the Juggalos—that is, the fans of the band Insane Clown Posse—in its National Gang Threat Assessment. The second layer comes when a decentralized criminal network is perceived as a centralized criminal hierarchy. (Much of the rhetoric around human trafficking follows this pattern.) And the third layer, again, is the tendency to inflame these stories with imagery out of pulp fiction.

That pulp-fiction imagery is also common with human trafficking—unsurprisingly, given the long tradition of white slavery stories that the storytellers have to draw on. With street gangs, the pulpy notions often kick in with stories that do not come from official sources (though occasionally a policeman or politician will gullibly repeat them) but are passed around as urban legends. This email, for example, circulated online in 2005:

Gang Initiation Weekend. (Please Read Very Important!!!)

Police officers working with the DARE program has issued this warning: If you are driving after dark and see an on-coming car with no headlights on, DO NOT FLASH YOUR LIGHTS AT THEM! This is a common Bloods gang member "initiation game" that goes like this:

The new gang member under initiation drives along with no headlights, and the first car to flash their headlights at him is now his "target". He is now required to turn around and chase that car, then shoot and kill every individual in the vehicle in order to complete his initiation requirements.

Police Depts. across the nation are being warned that September 23rd and 24th is the "Blood" initiation weekend. Their intent is to have all the new bloods nationwide drive around on Friday and Saturday nights with their headlights off. In order to be accepted into the gang, they have to shoot and kill all individuals in the first auto that does a courtesy flash to warn them that their lights are off. Make sure you share this information with all your friends and family who are drivers.

Needless to say, the warning did not actually originate with the DARE program. And needless to say, the weekend came and went without a bloody mass initiation into a secret society. That did not keep the rumor from taking off again a few years later. Indeed, different incarnations of the story have been circulating since the 1980s, if not earlier.

"Cults." There is, of course, a long history of conspiracy theories about new religious movements. The Mormons, to give a prominent example, have inspired nearly two centuries of paranoid folklore. For that matter, there is a long history of conspiracy theories about old religious movements, notably Catholics, Jews, and lately Muslims. Discussions of conspiracy theories frequently include these yarns.

Yet sometimes they don't. It's easy to throw around phrases like "the paranoid style" when looking back at, say, the cult scare of the 1970s, given some of the stories that circulated then: Secretive groups controlled by powerful puppetmasters were said to be recruiting young people through a form of mind control. But while that scare was actually underway, you weren't likely to hear such phrases unless the alleged conspiracy also involved, say, the CIA.

There was a similar lack of self-awareness in the following decade, when those anxieties about real religions helped birth a fear of fictional Satanic conspiracies. In the 1980s and early '90s, countless reporters, prosecutors, and jurors convinced themselves that a network of devil-worshippers was infiltrating day care centers and other institutions, then engaging in the ritual rape and murder of children. (Geraldo Rivera summed up the supposed situation on one of his TV specials: "Satanic cults! Every hour, every day, their ranks are growing. Estimates are there are over one million Satanists in this country. The majority of them are linked in a highly organized, very secret network….The odds are this is happening in your town.")

At times this was described as a conspiracy theory, particularly after skeptical journalists started to debunk these claims. A 1989 article in Police Chief magazine, for example, complained about the dubious claims the author was hearing at law enforcement seminars devoted to occult crimes; among other things, the author cited stories about "satanic groups involved in organized conspiracies, such as taking over day care centers, infiltrating police departments, and trafficking in human sacrifice victims." Even so, when Americans in the '80s discussed conspiracy theories as a general phenomenon, it's remarkable how rarely the idea of Satanic ritual abuse was included, even though those fears were surely far more widespread than many of the other conspiracy stories under discussion.

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So this is the direction in which our language has been evolving. People started using the phrase "conspiracy theory" to mean "implausible conspiracy theory," then "implausible theory, whether or not it involves a conspiracy." Meanwhile, they leave out those implausible theories that have a lot of cultural cachet, such as the aforementioned stories about cults, gangs, and terrorists.

Why has this happened? I can only speculate. It is surely notable, though, that the combined effect is to underline the idea that conspiracy theories are something for those people, way out on the far left or far right. Conspiratorial thinking is perceived not as a widespread human trait but as the province of a peculiar personality type, not as a mass phenomenon but as a fringe phenomenon. "Conspiracy" starts to mean "fringe."

Many people may find that a comforting thought. But it does not have the advantage of being true.