Conspiracies are everywhere. Prosecutors use them all the time in court. And the Internet … well, ‘nuff said. Conspiracy theories are like animals. Even within a single species, they come in all sizes, shapes, and colors. You need a taxonomy to keep them separated in your mind.
A conspiracy is a plot by two or more people to do something unsavory. A conspiracy theory is an attempt to explain something unusual. Some conspiracy theories are false, some are unproven, some are unprovable, and some have turned out to be true.Attacks on Conspiracy Theories Are a Conspiracy
Categories of Conspiracy Theories
Conspiracy theories can be categorized in many ways. This is useful for understanding that they are not all the same, just like all animals are not the same. Characterizing QAnon-based theories as typical conspiracy theories is like saying a Komodo dragon is typical of all animals. Any fifth-grader knows that’s just silly.
Here are seven ways that conspiracy theories can be classified.
People forget that many of the conspiracies that have been proven to be true began as disbelieved theories. That makes them useful for understanding the fundamental characteristics of the theories without getting caught up in all the emotional baggage of extraterrestrials operating a sex-trafficking ring from Area 51. Proven conventional conspiracy theories tend to be not too unusual and fall into five groups:
- Government conspiracies, those perpetrated by governmental organizations rather than by rogue individuals, tend to be nationwide, aimed at controlling information, involving thousands of participants organized in a hierarchy, and not uncovered for years. Examples include the Holocaust, Operation Paperclip, Prohibition poisoning, Operation Clearview, War on drugs, Gulf of Tonkin, My Lai, Fruit Machine, Indian residential school system scandal, Military Nuclear Accidents, weapons of mass destruction, White phosphate in Iraq, Enhanced interrogation (torture), Tuskegee experiment, Human experimentation in the US, Project SUNSHINE, MK ULTRA, COINTELPRO, warrantless wiretapping, and High School spying.
- Political conspiracies, those perpetrated primarily to acquire power, tend to involve only tens of individuals in a group, operating in secret but manifesting on a national scale. They continue for months before being discovered. Examples include the FDR coup, Watergate burglary, Koreagate, Reagan’s hostage fraud, Iran-Contra conspiracy, Clinton-Lewinsky affair, CIA-leak scandal, PRISM, Coingate, Debategate, Bridgegate, and Ukraine quid-pro-quo.
- Business conspiracies, perpetrated by organizations for financial gain, tend to be organized in a hierarchy, compartmentalized so that only the top tier of conspirators understand everything. They can continue for years before they are uncovered by investigations. They are often mistaken for capitalism. Examples include Enron, WorldCom, Halliburton, Tyco, Volkswagen, Lehman Brothers, and Bernie Madoff.
- Sports conspiracies, perpetrated by either organizations or individuals to gain some competitive advantage, tend to be national in scope, group activities that may fall apart in days or persist for years. Examples involving teams include Patriots spying, deflategate, Saints bounty hunting, Black Sox Scandal, Houston Astros sign-stealing, and Olympic badminton. Examples involving individuals include steroid scandals, Lance Armstrong, Marion Jones, Tanya Harding, and Skategate.
- Crime conspiracies come in varieties—small, local conspiracies that prosecutors handle in court and huge, well-organized, activities that are carried out overtly for years before being exposed, usually by whistleblowers. Examples include pedophilia in the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts, USA Gymnastics, and Jeffrey Epstein’s sex-trafficking ring.
Russian-Doll conspiracies are those in which a simple, readily-apparent conspiracy theory serves as cover for one or more much more complex conspiracy theories. The challenge with Russian dolls is that you don’t know which doll, if any, holds the truth. Often the whole purpose of a Russian doll is to cast doubt on which of many alternative theories might be true. There are quite a few examples, and as you might expect, the government is associated with many of them.
Take the conspiracy behind the 9/11/2001 attacks. Was it a small, privately-run conspiracy involving a few dozen people operating from a cave on the other side of the world (the cover doll), or was it a huge, compartmentalized set of concurrent conspiracies involving hundreds of people from government and business interests (the inner dolls), or neither?
Was the 1947 incident near Roswell, NM the crash of an alien spacecraft as originally reported (the inner doll) or a simple weather balloon (the original cover doll) or a top-secret intelligence-gathering device (a revised cover doll)?
The huge election-fraud conspiracy of 2020 (the cover doll) turned out to be no more than a few isolated cases (inner dolls) of individual voters voting, intentionally or unintentionally, more than once.
While there aren’t a lot of Russian dolls, there are probably more than you might imagine.
Sometimes it’s not the original event that captures everyone’s attention, it’s what happens after the event that spawns notable conspiracy theories. Look no further than Watergate. One simple, local, political conspiracy to commit a burglary turned into a HUGE national conspiracy that led to the first resignation of a U.S. President.
Governments are the leading raison d’être for rebound conspiracy theories. In trying to suppress scrutiny of a conspiracy, they instead draw attention to it, called the backfire effect. Actions taken that often cause the backfire effect include:
- Denialism—maintaining that a conspiracy is unlikely or even possible. This is the universally-accepted first response to any questions about a conspiracy theory.
- Cover Up—withholding incriminating evidence.
- Whitewash—releasing misleading evidence.
- Mischaracterization—making a strawman argument that focuses on one interpretation or aspect of a theory while ignoring more relevant parts.
- Misdirection—focusing on obfuscatory details instead of the gist of a conspiracy. Misdirection is sometimes called red herrings or whataboutism. South Park fans know it as the Chewbacca Defense.
- Debunking—using facts and data to erroneously disprove a theory. The issue is that sometimes the debunkers are biased and unqualified, and their analyses are faulty, but they create the perception that the theory is invalid when it is not.
- Defamation—attacking critics by making ad hominem arguments.
Almost all government conspiracies have a rebound component. The CIA at one time paid operatives, called mockingbirds, to spread false conspiracy theories and other misinformation.
Most conspiracies involve a single event or a series of occurrences; only a quarter or so target an individual or a group. Any theory that targets people instead of events is probably suspect. They are too often just gossip, products of bias, bigotry, or hate. Still, they are repeated because people forgo critical thinking and surrender to their worst failings. Emotionally charged conspiracies can be:
- Individual Conspiracies. A theory with an individual at the center of the conspiracy. It seems like Hillary Clinton is involved in many of them. Other individual conspiracies include Lance Armstrong, Marion Jones, Valerie Plame, and Alexander Litvinenko.
- Cohort Conspiracies. A theory with a small, well-defined group at the center of the conspiracy. Many conspiracies fit this category, mostly in which the cohort consists of the conspirators rather than the targets. Examples include Bernie Madoff, the Watergate burglary, the Clinton-Lewinsky Affair, Debategate, Bridgegate, the Harding-Kerrigan Attack, School spying, and the Jeffrey Epstein sex-trafficking ring.
- Class Conspiracies. A theory with a large class of individuals at the center of the conspiracy. Examples include Trump-supporters are all racists and Liberals hate guns. There are also a variety of theories involving political ideologies, genders, and religions.
It’s important to distinguish whether an emotionally-charged theory focuses on the conspirators or the targets. Theories that target specific individuals or groups should be treated with skepticism.
- Event conspiracy theories—conspiracies related to specific events, like political assassinations, murders of celebrities, and 9/11.
- Systemic conspiracy theories—conspiracies having broad goals to infiltrate and subvert existing institutions. Examples might include Jews, Freemasons, Communism, or the Catholic Church.
- Superconspiracy theories—combinations of multiple alleged conspiracies. His cited examples are the ideas of David Icke and Milton William Cooper.
Barkun’s classification is aimed at some of the more speculative conspiracy theories.
Theories with Many Interpretations
Proven conspiracy theories are straightforward. All the facts are pretty much established. But unless all the details are known, a conspiracy theory can mean different things to different people. They’re like Russian dolls except that instead of there being a limited number of separate, complete theories, there are a seemingly infinite number of minor variations. It’s difficult to debate a theory because people who agree on major elements may disagree on details.
Theories about the 9/11/2001 attacks are a good example. One person might believe that Flight 93 was shot down by a military jet and another might believe that the jet crashed because the passengers fought the hijackers. One might believe that the Twin Towers fell because of structural deficiencies and another might believe it involved explosives. One might believe that Building 7 fell because it was hit by debris and another might believe it was intentionally demolished. One might believe that the Pentagon was hit by a passenger jet and another might believe it was a missile. There are many variations.
Vaccines are another example. Most people no longer subscribe to the conspiracy concerning autism that was exposed in 2004, but there are other reasons people have for avoiding vaccines. Some people believe that some vaccines are no longer needed because of natural immunity or because the diseases they are supposed to prevent are disappearing. Some people believe that vaccines can be harmful because they contain potentially harmful ingredients (thimerosal, aluminum, formaldehyde) and are administered too early in a child’s life, too often, and in too many combinations. They believe vaccines can cause side effects and allergic reactions, and even weaken the immune system. Or, they believe they should have the freedom to choose whether their child get vaccinated. They may just mistrust the government, “Big Pharna,” or science in general. Some people have religious beliefs that say they should avoid vaccines. You can’t just lump everybody who avoids vaccines into one group.
I won’t even get into the variety of theories involving secret societies ruling the world … they might read this.
You have to understand what the details of a conspiracy theory that a person believes are before you can discuss it with them. If you don’t, you are just an arm-waving bully.
Theories with Many Instances
Some conspiracy “theories” actually represent many separate instances of the same phenomenon. The interesting aspect of theories with many instances is that if you can prove that one instance is true, it may follow that all or most of the other instances are likely to be true.
UFOs are a good example. There are thousands of photos, videos, eyewitness accounts, and other types of evidence supporting the notion that extraterrestrial craft have visited Earth. None of that evidence, however, is considered to be definitive. But, more than 700 cases, described in the U.S. Air Force’s 1947-1969 Project Blue Book UFO investigation program, could not be explained. If even one of those cases could be proven to involve extraterrestrials, the others would be worthy of further evaluation. Surely, the proof has to be incontrovertible. The Navy’s video of a UFO doing unearthly things won’t do it. We need to see a real alien.
Cryptids are another example. They can be considered to be a conspiracy theory in the sense that their existence has been claimed, without acceptance, for years. Some legends of cryptids go back hundreds of years. The coelacanth was thought to be extinct for 66 million years until one was caught in 1938 off the coast of South Africa. The 13th Century legend of the Kraken was solved in the 1850s when giant squids, unknown before then, washed up in several parts of the world. The gorilla, the manatee, the Komodo dragon, the kangaroo, the platypus, and many other animals used to be classified as cryptids. We’re just one Yeti away from having Netflix move Harry and the Hendersons from the comedy section to documentaries.
Hunting a Craze
Like the animal kingdom, you can learn a lot by observing conspiracy theories. For instance, how did a particular theory come about? The Moon-Landing-Hoax started as a NASA joke. The vaccines-cause-autism theory started with an article in the medical journal Lancet. The Russia-assassinated-Alexander Litvinenko theory started when they found plutonium in his tea. None have been proven so why do these theories persist? What are the grains of truth that keep a particular theory from collapsing into a pool of absurdity and disappearing from our consciousness?
Evaluating conspiracy theories can reveal much about both the individuals who hold them and about the segment of society that supports them. Such evaluations benefits from understanding how theories, proven and unproven, compare with each other. This is no different than comparing competing scientific theories; you examine evidence, reasoning, and predictions. Doing this benefits from having ways to classify conspiracy theories.