© copyright by Rob Ager Dec 2010




The academic literature on conspiracy theories is much more varied than that of corporate media. Most of the academic studies I’ve read on the subject centre around one specific conspiracy theory rather than the broader impact of conspiracy theories as a whole. The researchers frequently have a bias for or against the conspiracy theory they’re studying and seek to categorically claim the theory to be “true” or “false” rather than simply assessing the effect of the theory upon the public.

For example, Dr Karen Douglas and Dr Robbie Sutton of the university of Kent have released a paper called “The hidden impact of conspiracy theories: Perceived and actual influence of theories surrounding the death of Princess Diana”.

The title sounds impartial, but the authors have claimed, “Our research provides a first psychological examination of the impact of conspiracy theories. … Why do conspiracy theories endure when there is no factual support for them, and even when they fly in the face of established facts? Our findings suggest that conspiracy theories may actually have a 'hidden impact', meaning that they powerfully influence people's attitudes whilst people do not know it; outwardly they may deny the extent to which they have been influenced but in truth they tend to endorse the new information and pass it on to others.”

The research has been conducted around the authors’ personal opinion of the conspiracy theory in question, even though they have not officially taken part in any investigation of Princess Diana’s death. Their statement ironically shows the “hidden impact” of personal opinion in their own research.

In another example the Southern Poverty Law Center has published this article, “'Patriot' Paranoia: A Look at the Top Ten Conspiracy Theories”

The ten conspiracy theories featured in the SPLC article are:

  1. Chemtrails
  2. Martial Law
  3. Fema Concentration Camps
  4. Foreign troops on US soil
  5. Door to door gun confiscations
  6. 9/11 as government plot
  7. Population control
  8. HAARP
  9. The Federal Reserve conspiracy
  10. The North American Union

The article carries a specific bias towards two of the topical areas of interest and activity for the organisation producing the report, “hate and extremism” (especially that perceived by the organisation to be racially motivated) and “immigrant injustice”. Hence the very popular JFK assassination and moon landing conspiracies have been left out of their top ten list.

Ironically, the Southern Poverty Law Center cites its own origins in the Civil Rights movements of the 1960’s which, while being ethically sound, was driven by its own brand of conspiracy theories about governmental institutions (simple distrust of white men in power for a start) – conspiracy theories that helped ethnic minorities in their pursuit of equality. But today the SPLC labels "patriotic" civil rights movements as “hate groups”, even though some of these groups want Guantanamo Bay to be closed and the Bill of Rights and Constitution to be restored. The article ignores the fact that peace loving citizens and civic nationalists (as opposed to ethnic nationalists) also believe in conspiracy theories, as do governments, religious institutions and corporations. Basically, it attempts to label those who do believe in “conspiracy theories” as extremists.

Sociology graduate and US Air force officer Elizabeth M Young offers a broader and more balanced opinion in her article “How conspiracy theories affect society”.

She acknowledges the basic premise that conspiracies do happen from the small scale to the large and that conspiracy theories can be based in fact or fiction. She also asserts that “conspiracy theories arise in the absence of the truth. When the facts, truth, and intent are withheld from the public, then the conditions are ripe for speculation that can range from very sophisticated, well supported by evidence and observation and well presented; to speculation that is to the imaginary extreme. … Society has more than enough proof that members of corrupted governments will seek to enrich themselves at the expense of the population. … As a result, societies have a ‘revelation limit’ where the elite, business or government failure to reveal the truth about a matter of great importance and impact leads to alternative explanations of the truth. Then, there is the likelihood of accepting the most dire alternative explanation as the likely truth of the matter.”

Considering Elizabeth Young’s assessment, surely the best thing for governments to do in the face of modern, widely held conspiracy theories is to be more transparent and open with their information, rather than using their own “national security” conspiracy theories as smoke screen excuses for secrecy. Quite simply, the more secretive an organisation is the more it will be distrusted.

Dr David J. Harper of the University of East London, in his article “Some effects of conspiracy thinking and paranoid labelling” offers many excellent examples of what I’ll refer to as “top-down conspiracy theories” (conspiracy theories used by governments or other powerful institutions in relation to less powerful institutions or members of the public). Here is one of Harper’s examples.

“… at the height of her government Margaret Thatcher, drawing implicitly on McCarthyite notions of Communist subversion, talked of British Trades Unions as the ‘enemy within’. This strategy of marginalisation worked well in helping her to take extreme measures against the unions culminating in her systematic breaking of the National Union of Mineworkers during the year-long coal strike of the early 1980s.”

Dr Harper also talks of how those attempting to label others as paranoid are not only attempting to discredit the opinions of the “other”, but also attempting to establish themselves as “rational, reasonable and plausible” – the polarization of a debate into an identity issue. He asks:

“What are some of the effects of labelling others as paranoid? In doing so, we simultaneously mark ‘them’ as different and other from ‘us’ and as abnormally and pathologically suspicious. We simultaneously see them not as ‘knowing what is really going on’, but as fringe weirdos; and so marginalize them and remove legitimacy from their views. Thus, when Harold Wilson referred to a plot by the British Security Service (MI5) to destabilize his Labour administration in the mid 1970s a Conservative Member of Parliament called him ‘positively paranoic’ and urged him to see a psychiatrist. Similarly, following her interview on British TV where she described plots against her by the British Royal family, Diana, the Princess of Wales, was said by a Conservative Minister to be ‘in the advanced stages of paranoia’. Positioning the other as paranoid not only undermines the legitimacy of that person or group's views but it also serves powerful functions for those doing the positioning. In calling others paranoid we construct ourselves as rational, reasonable and plausible -- an identity clearly valued in Western culture.”

Another excellent point by Dr Harper is the conspiracy theory norm within intelligence agencies … “intelligence agencies need credible threats to survive and threats of infiltration build group identity in the targets of those agencies. Thus, in the United States, the conspiratorial accounts on both sides of the Waco siege and the Oklahoma bombing served to warrant action taken both by right-wing and minority religious groupings and by the Federal government. Thus, following the reported ending of the Cold War we see Intelligence Agencies refocus their targeting from the USSR to terrorism, drugs and ‘rogue nations’.”

Moving on to a very different kind of academic source, Cass Sunstein is a  legal scholar and Administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. His 2008 article, written with Harvard Law Professor Adrian Vermeule, is simply called “Conspiracy Theories” and can be downloaded from the Social Sciences Research Network website. It offers a variety of theories about conspiracy theories / theorists, and several suggestions as to how the US government and intelligence services should respond to them.

Sunstein and Vermeule cite 9/11 conspiracy theories as the central topic of their article, though make occasional references to other conspiracy theories, real and imagined. The article is a long one, and there are many pages worth of quotes relevant to our topic here. So to keep this article condensed I’ll offer a summary of the key points and keep direct quotes to a minimum.

Sunstein’s and Vermeule’s assertions about the nature of conspiracy theories are:

  1. That “a conspiracy theory can generally be counted as such if it is an effort to explain some event or practice by reference to the machinations of powerful people, who have also managed to conceal their role.”
  2. That “some conspiracy theories, under our definition, have turned out to be true.” The examples of Watergate, Project MKULTRA and Operation Northwoods are offered. However, the authors explain that the article will focus on “false conspiracies” and “how government officials might undermine such theories”.
  3. That conspiracy theorists don’t suffer from mental illness, but rather a “crippled epistemology”; the result of limited information about a subject. The authors also explain that people generally suffer from crippled epistemology in relation to most of their beliefs because most of their “knowledge” is based upon their trust of claims made by “knowledge-producing institutions”.
  4. That terrorism is partially driven by conspiracy theories, which in turn are driven by limits of civil rights and civil liberties.
  5. That not all conspiracy theories are harmful, (the example of Santa Claus and his helpers is offered), but some of them can “fuel anger and hatred”.
  6. That conspiracy theories have a “self-sealing quality” because attempts to debunk them, especially by governments, become “folded into the conspiracy theory”. In other words debunks are perceived as covert attempts to undermine the conspiracy by those responsible or their agents.
  7. That conspiracy theorists have a tendency to attribute intention to any given social or political phenomena rather than accepting that many events are merely circumstantial. The authors acknowledge that in the case of political assassinations and terrorist attacks this doesn’t apply. They state that in these circumstances conspiracy theorists correctly attribute intention, but to the wrong sources.
  8. That conspiracy theorists “overestimate the competence and discretion of officials and bureaucracies” and that “in open societies government action does not usually remain secret for very long” because “when the press is free, and when checks and balances are in force, government cannot easily keep its conspiracies hidden for long.”
  9. That belief in a large government conspiracy such as 9/11 would cause the believer to question everything else their government and its associate institutions tell us.
  10. That some conspiracy theories “are initiated and spread, quite intentionally, by conspiracy entrepreneurs who profit directly or indirectly from propagating their theories.” The authors cite a best-selling French 9/11 conspiracy book as an example, but add that while “Some conspiracy entrepreneurs are entirely sincere; others are interested in money or power, or in achieving some general social goal.”
  11. That “whenever a bad event has occurred, rumors and speculation are inevitable,” and can be “a suitable outlet for outrage and blame”.
  12. That large scale social belief or disbelief of a given conspiracy theory is driven by “social cascades”; which can mean that the more people are demonstrated to believe it the more people will consequentially adopt the belief. It can also be driven by being initially communicated by “trusted” sources.
  13. That the spreading of a conspiracy theory begins with people who have low acceptance thresholds (by this the authors are referring to people requiring less evidence in order to believe something) and gradually spreads to people with higher acceptance thresholds, at which point the “social cascade” effect kicks in.
  14. That the acceptance, by an individual or large social group, of a given conspiracy theory is heavily determined by their overall belief systems, especially when those belief systems involve a generalized distrust or hatred of the source that the conspiracy is to be blamed on – the hatred of America for example.
  15. That some people outwardly express belief in a given conspiracy theory because they believe it is expected of them among their peers. They don’t “want to face their hostility or lose their good opinion,” lest they be seen as “some kind of dupe”. The authors call this a “reputational cascade”.
  16. That conspiracy theories can be driven by group polarization, in which people are increasingly driven into camps of extreme agreement and disagreement based upon identity rather than rational discourse.
  17. That members of conspiracy theorist groups can become “informationally and socially isolated” because of the self-selection of group members based upon required acceptance of particular conspiracy theories. And that the leaders of the groups can create barriers on what kind of information is shared in the group. Sunstein adds that “Benign actions that happen to disadvantage the group are taken as purposeful plots, intended to harm.”

The breakdown of conspiracy theories offered by Sunstein and Vermeule is the most detailed and specific that I’ve yet found, and it contains some very accurate insights. However, there are also many logical flaws contained within.

The first major flaw is that the authors assume that they personally know which conspiracy theories are and aren’t true. They assert that Operation Northwoods, MKULTRA and Watergate were true conspiracies, yet categorically deny that the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the moon landings or the 9/11 attacks were conspiracies in any way. Specifically they cite the widely believed 9/11 conspiracy theories as being a danger to the US government and thus the key motivation in writing their article, rather than providing an impartial study of the phenomena of conspiracy theories in general. So there is a strong public relations bias in their research and presentation; primarily their desire to find ways of widely discrediting 9/11 conspiracy theories. However, they do express some awareness of this, “Throughout, we assume a well-motivated government that aims to eliminate conspiracy theories, or draw their poison.”

The second major flaw is that, despite their best efforts in coining new terms such as “crippled epistemology” and “reputational cascades”, the authors believe conspiracy theories can only be the result of irrational thinking … with the exception of conspiracy theories that those two authors’ personally believe in. Basically they’re asserting that if Sunstein and Vermuele believe there has been a conspiracy theory then there really was, but if they don’t then anybody who does is wrong.

Another major flaw is that they write from the wishful assumption that America is an open society with a free press, yet there have been many studies explaining that the press in America has been increasingly monopolized into fewer and fewer hands – a “crippled press”, so to speak.

Another major flaw in the article is that the psychological and behavioural processes leading to acceptance of conspiracy theories can also cause rejection of conspiracy theories. For example:

  1. The act of outwardly pretending to believe a conspiracy based upon peer pressure is even more likely to work the other way. A person in a high profile position with a professional reputation, salary, career and a family to feed is unlikely to publicly express agreement with a controversial conspiracy theory. To do so would be a major career risk. This applies to most newspaper editors, career journalists, career academics and career politicians.
  2. The “self-sealing quality” of conspiracy theories, in which contrary evidence is disregarded as disinformation, also works in reverse. Those who wish to avoid feelings of insecurity and anxiety regarding the activities of powerful people and institutions may disregard all evidence of corruption as paranoid delusion, irrespective of verifiable facts. Terrorism theories also have a “self-sealing quality” – consider that most of the Guantanamo bay prisoners haven’t been charged, despite prolonged interrogation and torture. The US government is determined to see Al Queda sleeper cells in all corners of the world and repeated denials by Gauntanamo prisoners are disregarded as part of the “terrorist plot”.
  3. The “conspiracy entrepreneur” motive of profit through paranoia also works in reverse, as there are many books being sold attempting to debunk conspiracy theories and many journalists, editors and film crews are receiving a salary for doing the same. Military and intelligence institutions also earn their bread and butter from conflict arising from mass dissemination of their own conspiracy theories.

The 9/11 conspiracy theories themselves conflict with several of the key points in Sunstein and Vermeule’s article. The authors claim that bad events inevitably cause rumours and speculation as an outlet for outrage and blame, but in the case of 9/11 virtually all of the hostility of the American public was focused upon “Islamic terrorists” and the middle east in general. It took several years and two imperialistic wars in the middle east before large portions of the public widely began to question the government’s account of the World Trade Centre attacks. This also conflicts with Sunstein and Vermuele’s assumption that conspiracy theorists have limited access to information about a particular event; in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 information was limited and emotions were raw. As years went by more information became available through the 9/11 commission report and other sources, while emotional intensity of public opinion had dropped on the subject. The rise of 9/11 conspiracy theories was the result of diversified information, but the authors claim that diversifying information is the antidote to conspiracy theories.

Here’s another flaw of the article. Although the authors claim that the erosion of civil rights and liberties fuel conspiracy theories and in turn terrorism, their article goes on later to explain that conspiracy theories are a threat to the efforts of counter terrorism and thus need to be debunked. This is a circular argument. Terrorism causes counter-terrorism causes erosion of civil rights and liberties causes conspiracy theories causes terrorism … repeat, repeat, repeat. Counter-terrorism is, after all, the government’s response to its own conspiracy theories. As we’ve seen recently through Guantanamo Bay and the wars of Afghanistan and Iraq, government conspiracy theories are even more dangerous than those held by any other social or political group. Taking a broader historical perspective, paranoid conspiracy theories disseminated by governments have led to war-inflicted death tolls amounting globally to hundreds of millions and can justifiably be considered to be the most destructive feature of human civilization.

In another of the article’s flaws, the authors speak of group polarization into camps of extreme agreement and disagreement, yet the very terms “conspiracy theory” and “conspiracy theorist” create group polarization on a mass scale, preventing genuine media debate of the issues. Sunstein and Vermeule’s article, and its title, is actually contributing to that very polarization process.

Yet another flaw is the author's claim that conspiracy theories “overestimate the competence and discretion of officials and bureaucracies”. The creation of the atom bomb, the landing of men on the moon, the Al Queda theory of 9/11 and the Holocaust of WW2 attribute a level of “competence and discretion of officials and bureaucracies” that surpasses that assumed by most major conspiracy theories. Many conspiracy theories are actually a rejection of the idea that groups would have the "competence and discretion" to carry out particular plans. For example, the idea that the US government and NASA could pull off a moon landing assumes as much "competence" as the idea that they could stage it. The official story of 9/11 attributes as much "competence and discretion" to a group of 19 Al Queda hijackers as the "inside job" theory attributes to the the CIA. In addition, conspiracy theories often assume that powerful institutions carry out crimes because they have become over-confident or desperate, rather than competent and discreet, just as an egotistical criminal increasingly takes larger risks until caught.

And finally, the social and informational limitations and “self-selecting membership” of conspiracy groups are also features of political parties, intelligence agencies, corporate boardrooms, institutional religions, sports teams, national identities, cultures and ethnicities, military institutions and many other social groups, yet we don’t disregard people as being irrational and uninformed based upon their membership of those groups.