We humans gravitate to conspiracy theories like moths to a flame. As the latest Above the Noise video points out, conspiracy theories -- the belief that some secretive organization is responsible for a sinister circumstance or event -- is an inherent human tendency to try to make sense of complicated, threatening or inexplicable occurrences.
In that sense, Americans are not unique. People from every nation around the world are prone to conspiracy thinking. But … Americans do seem to have a special knack for it, as the continued obsession with JFK’s assassination or the new fascination with flat Earth theory shows.
Driven in part from our inherent individualism and distrust of authority, conspiracy thinking is very much a part of our national DNA, and has consistently been an influential factor throughout American history. In some instances, conspiracy theories have spread far beyond the fringes of society; many have greatly influenced our laws and culture and helped shape the very course of American history.
Conspiracy theories typically pop up during moments of national trauma or in response to deeply held prejudices. They are often prompted by waves of fear and insecurity, during periods of economic stress and when national security is under threat. Additionally, they are commonly spurred by a fear of foreigners, often in response to large immigration shifts.
In the age of social media that we now live in, it’s never been easier to spread conspiracy theories far and wide. Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter are bursting at the seams with all kinds of questionable propositions masquerading as truth. And all it takes is for a just a few people to share those posts with their networks, and suddenly rumors spreads like wildfire.
The spread of misinformation can sometimes have very real, very serious consequences. Take, for instance, the completely false Pizzagate conspiracy theory from 2016, which alleged that children were being held captive in the basement of a popular Washington, D.C. pizza parlor by Hillary Clinton campaign officials. For a while, it was all over right-wing social media feeds and fake news sites . And then the conspiracy theory jumped from the internet to real life in a scary way: In December 2016, a 28-year-old man from North Carolina took it upon himself to free the non-existent child prisoners by bursting into the restaurant and firing his semi-automatic rifle. Amazingly, no one was injured.
And in the South Asian nation of Sri Lanka, a series of completely unfounded anti-Muslim rumors posted on Facebook has recently stirred up longstanding ethnic and religious tensions, provoking a wave of violent incidents, mainly directed against the country’s Muslim-minority community. The story, documented by the New York Times, is just one of many instances worldwide in which false rumors, spread on social media, have resulted in real acts of violence.
Social media might spread conspiracy theories faster than ever, but conspiracy thinking inspired action, even violence, centuries before the internet. Consider this: Conspiracy thinking even fueled America’s rush to revolution and fight for independence against the British Empire. Thomas Jefferson and other proponents of independence helped spread the idea that the British government had an elaborate, sinister plan to suppress the American people and deprive them of their basic freedoms.
In A Summary View of the Rights of British America, a pamphlet Jefferson distributed in 1774, two years before the Declaration of Independence, he wrote:
“Single acts of tyranny may be ascribed to the accidental opinion of a day; but a series of oppressions, begun at a distinguished period, and pursued unalterably through every change of ministers, too plainly prove a deliberate and systematical plan of reducing us to slavery.”
So yeah, conspiracies theories are about as American as apple pie … which I hear causes hair loss (just kidding).
The following timeline tracks 15 of the many conspiracy theories that played a major role in shaping American history. These theories don’t necessarily reveal the truth, but they can tell us a lot about societal beliefs and attitudes both then and now.