My interest in conspiracy theories originated from my childhood fear of the woodland monsters commonly called Bigfoot. Whether or not you believe the creatures are real, there is no explanation for the phenomena that doesn’t involve some kind of conspiracy. Any hoax elaborate enough to be plausible requires multiple parties agreeing to keep schtum.
The famous Patterson-Gimlin footage filmed in Bluff Creek, CA, in 1968 has withstood over four decades of close scrutiny and alleged conspiracies. Bob Hieronymus who gained fame claiming to have been the man hired to wear the “ape suit” was proven to be a liar. Other efforts to find evidence supporting a hoax have never been substantiated, and thus the film has become the gold standard of enigmatic phenomena. Theorizing about how and why folk would attempt to hoax Bigfoot activity is an entertaining set of thought experiments. However, with practice most hoaxes become very easy to spot. In some cases the evidence presented raises more questions than answers. Who would fabricate an elaborate hoax deep in the remote wilderness?
When I was first developing my interest in unexplained phenomena, back in the late 1980’s, the concept of theorizing about potential conspiracies was a fringe hobby. Social scientists studied how propaganda campaigns spawned belief in non-existent conspiracies, and their psychological impact on individuals and society at large. However, the popular perception was that they were mere delusions, symptoms of untreated mental illness. In 1991, Oliver Stone’s film JFK presented the general public with a palatable argument in favor of the controversial theory that we had been lied to about the Kennedy assassination.
The final quarter of the 20th Century was a time of intense paranoia, fueled by a growing distrust of government and other powerful institutions and anxiety over the approach of the Millennium. The sudden collapse of the Soviet Union and horrific civil wars in Yugoslavia and Rwanda manifested a collective dread of an impending apocalypse, and out of that evolved a twisted post-modern folklore. A unifying theory of why the Utopian aspirations of the Liberal-Humanist revolutions had faltered and failed in the middle of the 20th Century emerged: A great web of corruption that controls every aspect of existence through the machinations of a malevolence that transcends human comprehension.
The internet gave us access to an ever increasing range of libraries and archives, as well as message boards where folk could ask for and exchange information. Declassified documents from the Cold War exposed an array of “dirty tricks” used by intelligence agencies to manipulate public opinion and terrorize political enemies. The postmodern conspiracy theory is predicated upon the revelation of actual plots. In 1975, U.S. congressional investigations exposed that the CIA had engaged in mind-control experiments, extrajudicial assassinations, and systematic propaganda campaigns. The subsequent lack of any consequences for these violations of human rights and international criminal law left the lingering impression that the U.S. government would inevitably continue these clandestine atrocities. In deed, the essential elements the CIA’s operations “MKULTRA”, “Family Jewels”, and “Mockingbird” all manifested in the Latin American Dirty Wars of the 1980’s and other conflicts around the globe. These conspiracies were in no way theoretical to the people living in the countries where they occurred. The applications of psychological warfare were every bit as real to them as the bullets and bombs.
Looking back through history I can see how exceptionally powerful individuals have invented conspiracy theories to divide and oppress the rest of the population. The Napoleonic Wars are best remembered for enormous set piece battles and extravagant uniforms, but behind all the fanfare and spectacle there was a brutal ideological conflict. At heart, the French Revolution had been a triumph of atheism over the hegemony of Churches and Kings. Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox clerics denounced Bonaparte as the living Antichrist and he reveled in the rebuke. Even before his death, Bonaparte’s enemies falsely claimed his conquest of Europe was financed by unscrupulous Jewish bankers inventing a conspiracy theory that inspired an epidemic of Anti-Semitic violence around the world.
In the traditional framework, the narrative of conspiracy theories was set from the top down. The authorities would shift the blame for their shortcomings over to a scapegoat. It might be an ethnic minority, a political rival, or a completely invented heretical cult; the details change to suit the situation, but the ultimate source of the theory is an authoritarian disinformation campaign. With the advent of the internet era this power structure shifted as investigators gained unprecedented access to information. Ordinary people began to formulate their own theories to explain an increasingly chaotic and inexplicable world.
In the final decade of the 20th Century information about these so-called “rogue agencies” became less obscure. While it was far from universally accepted as fact, the concept of a shadow government had become common knowledge in most English speaking countries. We know today that the Massachusetts Bay Colony had no witches in 1692, and the so-called witch trials were nothing more than a supernatural pretext to legalized property theft. We know today that the Red Scares of the 20th Century harmed innocent workers and legalized their exploitation, and the so-called War on Drugs was just more legalized property theft. We know today that the Satanic Panic of the 1980’s was nothing but a manufactured hysteria and legalized property theft. These revelations provided just enough validation to prove that some fringe theories could be plausible. Gradually, over the following decades this fringe would expand and flourish until it grew to threaten the very construct of a knowable shared reality…
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We are now in an era where we have almost unlimited resource to investigate these theories, yet we are at risk of conspiracy theorists having the means and access to spread misinformation far more efficiently.
Thank you for commenting. It does follow a certain natural logic. As more actual conspiracies become common knowledge, folks become more predisposed to theorizing about potential conspiracies. I vaguely recall someone telling me it is very hard to actually keep anything secret, but it is much easier to inundate the public with so many lies that they can’t discern what is true.
Conspiracy theories have existed for a very long time and it is challenging to discern if there are more or less actual conspiracies in the present compared to the past. One thing is for certain, they can now spread like wildfire with so many online platforms and social media, making them very dangerous indeed.
The old saying that a lie can get halfway around the world before the truth gets its shoes on has never been more accurate. What is most interesting to me at this point is figuring out which theories are based on observable conspiracies and which are misdirections to keep people confused about what is really going on.