© copyright by Rob Ager Dec 2010




The term “conspiracy theory” is used abundantly in British and American news reporting, often in the bold titles of articles. In Britain major media sources that have popularized the term in recent years include:


The Telegraph

And … The Guardian

But what does the term “conspiracy theory” mean? The following six dictionary definitions vary considerably.
1. A theory seeking to explain a disputed case or matter as a plot by a secret group or alliance rather than an individual or isolated act.
2. The belief that the government or a covert organization is responsible for an event that is unusual or unexplained, esp when any such involvement is denied
1. a theory that explains an event as being the result of a plot by a covert group or organization; a belief that a particular unexplained event was caused by such a group.
2. the idea that many important political events or economic and social trends are the products of secret plots that are largely unknown to the general public.
a theory that explains an event or set of circumstances as the result of a secret plot by usually powerful conspirators
the idea that a group of people secretly worked together to cause a particular event
A conspiracy theory usually attributes the ultimate cause of an event or chain of events (usually political, social, pop cultural or historical events), or the concealment of such causes from public knowledge, to a secret, and often deceptive plot by a covert alliance of powerful or influential people or organizations. Many conspiracy theories imply that major events in history have been dominated by conspirators who manipulate political happenings from behind the scenes.
a belief that an unpleasant event or situation is the result of a secret plan made by powerful people

From these six descriptions we can deduce the following:

  1. All of the six descriptions include either the word “secret” or “covert” in relation to either “an organisation”, “powerful people”, “influential people”, “powerful conspirators” or simply “a group”. “Secret” and “covert” can be found as substitutes for each other in a quick thesaurus search because their meanings are almost identical, so that’s one area in which the six dictionary definitions match each other.
  2. The exact definition of who can be the subject of a “conspiracy theory” is open to interpretation. The Cambridge dictionary offers the most strict definition in this respect; “powerful people”, but even that term is vague. “Powerful people” could refer to politicians, religious leaders, bankers, business leaders, gangsters or anyone else in a position perceived to be of significant influence. Alternatively, the Macmillan dictionary description is broad enough that it could include anyone in any context, so long as they aren’t acting alone “the idea that a group of people secretly worked together to cause a particular event”. Meriam-webster uses the term “usually powerful conspirators”, which assumes that in some instances the conspirators won’t be powerful.
  3. Two of the six dictionary descriptions include use of “conspiracy theory” as an umbrella term regarding beliefs of secret influence in “major events in history” or “many important political events or economic and social trends”. That’s a significant departure from the other four dictionaries as it is veering toward the idea of “conspiracy theory” as an attitude to the world in general. The fact that four of the other dictionaries don’t present an umbrella use of the term demonstrates that there is a lack of consensus in this area.
  4. None of the dictionaries define how many people need to believe in a specific conspiracy for it to be described as a “conspiracy theory”.
  5. None of the dictionaries state whether there needs to be evidence or proof involved for the term “conspiracy theory” to apply.

Taking the six dictionary definitions into account, a “conspiracy theory” refers to an instance of perceived “secret/covert” activity by “a group/organisation”, which may or may not be “powerful/influential”. Or to simplify it even further, a “conspiracy theory” is the perception that a group have engaged in a covert activity.