The intellectual head games that a person can play when weaving a conspiracy theory relies heavy on the person’s imagination. In order for the conspiracy to be as superficially consistent as possible, one has to make it bigger and more complicated, necessitating levels of complexity that increase by orders of magnitude with each new level.
The conspiracy theorist divides the world up into three categories:
- The Perpetrators. The theorist concludes that this group is responsible for the given conspiracy, and are emblematic of evil, oppression, and need to be brought down. There is no upper-limit to how big this group can get.
- The Dupes. The theorist assumes that most people are generally ignorant of the “truth”, and they blindly accept everything they are told by “Them”. There is no upper limit as to how stupid the theorist thinks the dupes are. “Sheeple” is a common pejorative used by the theorist.
- The “Truth”. The theorist lumps him/herself in this tiny category of intrepid investigative journalists who have uncovered the evil, dark secret, and it is their solemn duty to bring “Them” down as publicly as possible. There is no amount of evidence, science or fact that can detract from the theorists’ “truth”. That’s the remarkable thing about truth: in the post-modern world that we live in, truth is mutually exclusive from fact, and the theorist knows this well.
But what the conspiracy theorist has not realized is that his/her days may be numbered. I’m certainly not suggesting that the practice of weaving conspiracy theories is going away (Science-Fiction novelist William Gibson once said, “Conspiracy theories are popular because no matter what they posit, they are all actually comforting, because they all are models of radical simplicity. I think they appeal to the infantile part of us that likes to know what’s going on.“), nor are the conspiracies themselves (yes, they do happen!). But what often gets unnoticed by the theorist is that the relevance of the theory dies away after time, most often affecting the generation that was alive during or immediately after the event in question.
There are generally two types of conspiracy theories: the event-centered, and the movement-centered. The latter would encompass ideas about the supposed Jewish control of the world’s money supply, or the Freemason control of stone buildings with secret handshakes. The former would include specific events in history, such as the Apollo moon landing or the attacks of Pearl Harbor. Since the movement-centered theory is not dependent on a specific time, place, or collection of actors, pinpointing a precise beginning of the theory, and forecasting its end point, is difficult. However, in the former category, there is a clear beginning: the JFK theory starts with a dead president, the USS Maine theory starts with a sunken ship, etc.
So what indicators do we have to tell how long a conspiracy theory (true or untrue) will have traction with culture-at-large? Let’s start with one of the most recent conspiracy theories:
In 2006, one-third of Americans polled believed that the Bush administration was behind the attacks on the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and the downed airliner in Pennsylvania. This 33% figure has wavered between 25% and 35% over the years, yet it still has yet to make a major dent in the mainstream media. As a movement borne entirely on the internet (especially after the release of the amateur film “Loose Change” which made most of the original conspiracy claims, and began as a fictional story, and was later co-produced by a man who believes the world is run by a satanic cult which kidnaps boys for politicians to molest) it seems to have been stuck to the virtual world.
There are a few instances of the “Truthers” (as they call themselves) trying to force their narrative onto mainstream media, but they routinely get beaten back (sometimes literally). There are a few fringe public figures, such as former pro-wrestler and Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura, who have tried to get their voice heard, but basic (and I do mean “basic”) journalism has looked into their claims, found nothing, and abandoned the theory. This due diligence of the journalists comes on the heels of the Truthers’ attempts to be heard, and so has relegated the entire movement to the fringe, possibly for good. But make no mistake, it is a powerful fringe, and their supporters will make sure that they scream in your face how wrong and mindlessly stupid you are if you don’t acknowledge every one of their self-defeating claims. Chief among these is that the Bush administration is brilliant and evil enough to perpetrate it, but stupid enough to let these “obvious clues” out so that any 20-something with a Google education and Windows Movie Maker can see and expose on YouTube. Troll-bombed in 3…2…
The 9/11 theory has a sense of immediacy on its side: Anyone over the age of 18 probably remembers exactly what they were doing when they heard the news of the attacks. The world is scary, and those attacks were terrifying. It seems only natural that people would so desperately want to cling onto some sense of understanding, regardless of its veracity. The extra frightening thing is that sometimes we can have all of the answers and still be attacked so savagely. Truth is not always comforting.
9/11 is a useful exercise in how to analyze an event-centered conspiracy theory’s claims. When approached (or for some Truthers, perhaps ‘accosted‘ might be a better word) about a particular conspiracy theory, the common players are always there: “Them” and the “Victims”. There is always a “They” (the perpetrators), and there is always an “it” (the proposed explanation). The questions you need to ask involve degrees of likelihood, and if you ask them in order, the odds of a “no” answer increase dramatically.