Have you heard about how contrails are spreading mind-control chemicals over the cities? Or did you know that the Trilateral Commission commissioned the 9/11 attacks? Or that the fluoride in tap water helps keep the general population slightly stupider, and helps drug companies sell ‘cures’ for ailments that the fluoride causes in the first place?
No? Seriously? You don’t follow conspiracy theories? I’ll bet that you didn’t even know that a number of CEOs, including those of GM, Goodyear, and Dupont, allied with a senator, tried to recruit a US general to lead a coup against the President and install a fascist government?
Oh wait. The last one totally happened, in 1933. Ironically, the Senator that was trying to overthrow the president – FDR – was Prescott Bush, scion to the more recent Bush, and the progenitor of not one, but two future US presidents. The plot failed, incidentally, when the US general decided to switch camp and ran to Congress to snitch about the whole thing. Still, it is a useful example that shows two things about conspiracy theories: Firstly, no matter how insane they sound, they’re not all fake. And secondly, many conspiracy theories are not random memes, but the result of years of careful planning by someone who is trying to achieve something with the conspiracy theory.
Let’s take an example. In 1986, AIDS was a Big Deal. It was the beginning of the global AIDS crisis, and populations and media and politicians were collectively freaking out. 4000 people had died in the US, there was no cure or treatment, and many people thought that you could get AIDS from toilet seats. Things were not looking good.
In this volatile mix came an even more explosive revelation. Two French scientists who were working on the AIDS virus came out with an explosive report called the Segal report. In it, they suggested that the AIDS virus was the result of two distinct virus that had been combined together. But by whom? The scientists wrote that it was… “the military, of course… In 1977 a special top security lab… was set up…at the Pentagon’s central biological laboratory. One year after that… the first cases of AIDS occurred in the US, in New York City.”
The report was widely circulated. Newspapers picked up the report and ran with it. TV and radio reported the news, and, given the amount of fear and unknown in the population, people listened. Other scientists came out and explained that this theory was insane, wrong, and downright dangerous, but the Distribution Rule is a harsh mistress and for every retraction that was printed, two new stories made the rounds about the horrible mistake the US military had done in unleashing AIDS on a helpless world.
The result? Even ten years later, with literally millions of published pages on AIDS, 15% of the US population – over 35M people!! – believed that the AIDS virus was created in a military lab. In Africa, where AIDS is a major killer today, 50% of the population ‘knew’ that HIV was created by man. A Russian journalist, Alexandr Zhukov, discovered how the US had managed to transform the benign Green Monkey virus into HIV, and how the scientists had infected Zaire residents with the virus and miscalculated the gestation period, leading the virus to be released into the population as a whole. Public pressure caused several US military labs to be shut down, and populations around the globe began demonstrating against US bases in places like Pakistan and Japan.
And, somewhere within the KGB headquarters, a man smiled at a job well done.
The man was the architect of Operation Infektion. When the KGB, the Soviet version of the CIA, saw the spread of AIDS, they saw an opportunity to diminish US prestige, isolate America abroad, and create pressure for the US to abandon bioweapons and even some bases abroad. They found two East German scientists, rebranded them as French, and then began to subtly report the stories through Soviet-owned media and other press placement agents around the globe. Soviet media translated the story in over 30 languages, and then proceeded to submit it through various channels in as many countries as possible. The Soviet press never released a story in a new geography – the KGB always planted a story first, and only when the story was already running did the Soviet-controlled press pick it up, attributing it to the local press and throwing fuel on the fire to make the story as credible and long lasting as possible.Periodically, Soviet-controlled journalists or retired scientists (most Soviet scientists were actively fighting the propaganda, not realizing that the KGB was behind it) would emerge and accuse the US of creating the virus.
As global scientists fought back, the Soviets found a new angle of attack: as US pressure on international media grew to recant the propaganda, the Soviet press began to call on the US to stop trying to muzzle the truth and pursue its “anti-African” strategy. The effort would eventually die under Perestroika, but the damage was done and Operation Infektion was a success.
The great thing about a conspiracy manipulation is that it can last for a LONG time. For example, even today, a lot of people (well, Mel Gibson and some others) often complain that the Jews control the media and are the hidden puppet-masters of various governments. How did a group of 13M people (around the population of NY) who’ve been on the receiving end of a number of prosecutions from Romans to Germans get a reputation for hidden, sinister world-masters?
Well, it was thanks to the wacky Russians… of 1903.
In 1903, the first real conspiracy book was published. It was the days of the Russian monarchy, and the Russians were angry. They had just been beaten by the Japanese in a war, and someone had to be blamed. Jews were handy, not massively liked, and spread throughout Russia (so no strong geographical power base). But since they generally lived quiet lives, it was not obvious how to turn them into evil scapegoats. Serge Nilus, a Russian mystic and writer, decided that these quiet lives were really a facade, to hide their true activities – taking over the world. He took some pamphlets that had circulated in Paris a few years before, and eventually turned them into “the Protocols of the Elders of Zion“.
The Protocols of Zion are a series of, well, protocols, which were allegedly stolen from a Jewish society. Each protocol describes some concept and some instructions for how to leverage it for world domination. One protocol talks about the importance of owning land. Another discusses how to distract a population using ‘non-essentials’ media.
The Protocols are rarely specific – they talk in general terms about why it’s important to suppress education, for example, or what to do about lawyers. It’s a good read, especially for folks that are interested in manipulation, but it’s basically a poorly-written rewrite of Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’. You have as much chance of taking over the world using the Protocols as you do of being a successful Bond villain.
The Protocols did their job well – they shifted some blame to Russian Jews for the loss in the war (and eventually for the Russian Revolution). No one likes to be manipulated, and when people see how-to manuals on manipulating them, they get angry. Its author was proud of the work he had done, but he never realized just how far his manipulation would go. As Russians began to flee Russia through the Revolution, they took the relatively obscure Protocols with them. And where they landed, new people stumbled onto the Protocols. Many were stunned by what they read, since this was a new type of literature – the first conspiracy theory manuals.
The Protocols spread. In Germany, Hitler referenced them in Mein Kampf, and used them to justify the Jewish genocide. In the US, Henry Ford liked them so much that he published 500,000 copies of them. In the Arab world, various translations emerged, and as the Israel-Palestine conflict began, the Protocols began to be widely read and published in the Arab world. European editions were snapped up, and even though the Protocols were found to be forgeries at various trials, this did nothing to stop their popularity.
Even today, the Protocols are published. South American editions are easy to find, and the education ministry of Saudi Arabia is still publishing them today. But, to some extent, the manipulative power of the Protocols grew beyond the wildest dreams of its original author. A half-crazed Russian wrote the Protocols to blame some of his neighbors for a military loss , and, a hundred years later, it became a cultural theme. Millions of people today harbor a sneaky suspicion that there is a Jewish conspiracy to control the world, even though most of them could never trace that belief back to an obscure Russian manuscript. In that sense, it is probably one of the longest-lasting manipulation on record.
Some folks learned from this success. Meet the Heartland Institute.
The Heartland Institute is a conservative think-thank. It is staffed by a lot of ex-Exxon and ex-Philip Morris executives, and (this will come as a shock, I know), the Heartland Institute is mostly focused on convincing people that Global Warming is a conspiracy theory of evil scientists and that smoking is good for you.
In 1990, when global warming was becoming recognized as a real problem, the Heartland Institute figured that this would, eventually, be bad for oil companies, and had to decide on the best strategy to fight this new ‘global warming’ thing. The winning concept was simple: claim that the whole concept of Global Warming was a conspiracy theory, and publish a list of 500 scientists that would ‘expose’ the conspiracy.
So the institute published its list of 500 scientists, and the list was then picked up by the Drudge report and others as a clear evidence that the Global Warming conspiracy was completely exposed.
Now, of course, since they couldn’t actually find 500 scientists who did not believe in global warming, the Heartland folks had to cut some corners. Some of the scientists on the list were dead. Others hadn’t published research in decades. Many, many scientists were horrified to find their name on the list, since their research argued the exact opposite of what the Institute was claiming. One was an astrologist.
But the Heartland Institute had found a good narrative, and it was not going to let a few facts stand in its way. The Institute kept the list up, arguing that scientists “had no moral or ethical right” to be asked to be removed from it. And, in a way, it worked – despite having the credibility of Pinocchio, enough media repeated the idea of a “global warming conspiracy” that it passed into the collective consciousness and helped influence governments.
* * *
Not all conspiracy theories are fakes. Some are all too real, and we only discover them by mistake or via tell-all books years after the fact. But many of these theories are carefully crafted narratives, designed to appeal to our imagination and to shift attitudes in a very specific way. Amusingly, while many conspiracy stories talk about the mysterious “them”, the people who are at the heart of the conspiracy theory, there is often another ‘them’ – those that crafted the story and that distributed it in the first place.