In this new series, we will be exploring conspiracy theory and how it affects our world. We live in a unique media environment and understanding how we got here is important for our sanity and our democracy.

On my wall, near my office is a giant poster connected probably a thousand different conspiracies, plots, and events together. It’s fascinating to watch people try to trace them around, the mind starts to reel after two or three minutes of tracing all the various conspiracies listed there. The poster is a meme and I decided to pick one up. It’s a great party starter to get people talking. 

Although it has become normalized, the idea of fake news, various conspiracy theories like Pizza Gate, much of the talk around collusion with Russia, and the concept that the world is run by a secretive group of wealthy people all owe their popular awareness to the film Loose Change. Without this titular moment, many of the ways in which we question our government and the things that happen in our world today simply would not happen.

Part of the reason that we are so divided today is that people look at politics and the world around us from 2 very different perspectives. While the internet has some part in causing that, the fact that for the first time since Watergate, Americans really questioned their government. The rise of modern media over the last 120 years is a big part of the story of conspiracy theory. 

There are a few times in the history of media that stand out. In TV, it was I Love Lucy and the Kennedy/Nixon presidential debate. For radio, it was popular dramatic radio plays and FDR’s fireside chats. For the internet, as a platform for media, there are some early moments that stand out. The popular 9-11 truth film Loose Change, for example, was an early internet sensation. However, there are more recent examples than that 2005 film. Present concepts of a “deep state” or “shadow governments” would not be discussed on comedy programs and in regular news shows without the massive cultural shift caused by Loose Change. 

Birtherism, that is President Obama was born in Kenya and not the United States and was therefore ineligible for the presidency, started primarily on the internet. That trend began to be considered as early as 2010 and rose to popularity by 2014. Donald Trump started his political career making national headlines and promoting birtherism on any talk show that would have him including Fox News and ABC’s The View. The modern anti-vaccination movement began online as well, mostly on Facebook. 

I would like to note that much of what follows in this part is based on my experiences in the community and various theories that I have seen or know to be fairly mainstream in the community. If you want to read more about conspiracy theories from respectable sources I would recommend the following: 

I will provide information about the provenance of information when I am able. If something isn’t notated, it merely means that I have read about it or heard about it within the conspiracy community and am reporting it here to the reader for their consideration in this topic. 

What is a conspiracy theory?

The term conspiracy theory was coined by the Central Intelligence Agency in a 1965 report about the people who did not believe the official story, as elucidated in the Warren report, about the assassination of John F. Kennedy at Daly Plaza on November 22, 1963. Since then, the term has grown and expanded to include anything that goes against any “official narrative.” From a second shooter on the grassy knoll to whether Lee Harvey Oswald could make the shot from the top floor of the University of Texas state book depository, the Warren report left doubt in the minds of many as to how and why a beloved president could be shot in broad daylight in front of everyone. Questions about why the President was riding in an open-air car (which was not the usual case), and other questions about the failure of the Secret Service abounded. Little did anyone know at the time, but the JFK assassination would become the granddaddy of all conspiracy theories. 

Conspiracy theory does a great job of taking events, people, and relationships and using tremendous leaps of logic and faith to connect them together in a sort of web of deceit and crime. Lurking on any conspiracy internet communities (and there are many) will reveal a world of crime and deceit with tenuous, and as of yet unproven, connections between people, events, and sinister intent. Mark Fenster, in “Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture,” defines conspiracy theory as “the conviction that a secret, omnipotent, individual or group covertly controls the political and social order or some part thereof, circulates solely on the margins of society.” 

It is hard to have a democracy when the people don’t trust the government. George Carlin had this famous routine where he would ask about the local drinking water. In one of his specials, he pointed out that no one trusts the drinking water no matter where he asks that same question. It has become accepted, as a part of American life, that the government simply can’t be trusted to do its job.

This environment is a psychological hotbed for conspiracy theories. The premise of pop-culture conspiracy theories is that the government is always hiding things, the media helps, and just a few intrepid explorers have managed to get to “the truth.”

Why do people believe it? There is a great tradition, especially in Europe but in a variety of cultures, about story telling. Old Wives' Tales and other kitschy sayings were used to describe these stories that were loosely based on real events but had some uncertain or untrustworthy element to them. As if things weren’t quite as they seemed and that sometimes the “official story” didn’t quite give people all the facts or all the true facts.

Conspiracy has leaked out into the greater culture to now where even the most average people usually have at least one sort of “theory” that they believe in because someone told them something or through a personal anecdote. 

Why does conspiracy appeal?

Conspiracy appeals to people for a few reasons. The first is the simple idea that something is being hidden from public view. This has been the purview of public officials, even in democracies, since antiquity. The second, and likely the most important one, is the simple distrust of government. 

For many decades American trust in government was quite high. This was mainly due to the rigorous press that had been active since the nation's founding but also the daily news cycle that sprang up during the Civil War.  Radio and television also moved into the same vain. The editorial standards were kept high, and there was a feeling of responsibility, as a public service, to get the information right. In the world of limited media, a newspaper story could shift public opinion in a matter of days. by 1960 it was hours. If a story hit a major newspaper, it would hit the radio and television next and in a short while, ideas and opinions could change. 

The impact of the limited world of media was pronounced. When Richard Nixon failed to make TV work for him in 1960, JFK won. When Walter Kronkite told the American people that they had been lied to about Vietnam, attitudes about the war shifted rapidly. It was newspaper reporting that discovered and closed the case on the break-in at the Watergate Hotel by Nixon’s campaign in 1972. It was newspaper reporting that broke the story of pedophilia in the Catholic church. The immutability of the media made these stories and gave the media, in its function as “the 4th estate,” tremendous power. 

The idea that you, me, and everyone else aren’t actually in control and that things may or may not be quite as they seem is genuinely frightening to people, and this comes into sharp focus when watching online conspiracy videos on YouTube. 

In Part Two of this series we will delve into the rise of fake news and how the internet supercharged conspiracy theories.

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