Alex Rothbard

The Architecture of Conspiracy Theories

ISSUE 7 | LIES | AUG 2011

NASA DC-8 with contrails, 1999

“9/11 was an inside job! Why can't you understand that?” barrels Alex Jones, an Austin-based radio host. He does not speak with the rising and falling intonations one would expect from an accomplished public speaker (his internet audience is larger than Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck combined.) He operates like a machine gun, his beer belly delivering exasperated volleys. “The globalists are organized, corrupt, a bunch of thieving parasites!” His body is arched over, the microphone centimeters away from his teeth. A deep breath and he lowers his volume. “People are waking up, though, a lot of good things are happening, and so I should be more positive. It's just that I have trouble looking at Obama, and trouble looking at Bush, and looking at these local criminals. And looking at all the stuff they do. I'm sick of them. I have more than a hatred for them,” he crescendos, “I have a disgust, a disdain.” He hangs onto the final syllable, leaving it in the air for a moment.

Today, the topics covered are quite diverse: water fluoridation, the NATO operation in Libya, and Chairman Bernanke's decision to marginally increase the inflation target. His trademark is not to cover these topics as isolated stories. A mainstream news anchor transitions from one story to the next, perhaps with a cheeky pun. Jones does not. Each of these stories is a manifestation of a vast conspiracy to undermine American society. Hence, each show culminates in a final soliloquy; Jones makes the final connections that demonstrate the validity of the grand narrative conspiracy theory he has woven for his decade-long career.

This piece concerns the sociological nature of conspiracy theories and their consequences for the governance of modern democratic societies. My fundamental operating assumption is that they are a particular problem for our public spheres and I thus advance the claim that their role in our political life has not been fully appreciated or understood. Too often they are dismissed as products of mere ignorance or as the beliefs of an isolated fringe. These woefully inadequate accounts misunderstand how conspiracy theories actually operate.

We should thus first divest ourselves of two perspectives that mischaracterize the nature of conspiracy theories. First, if one defines a conspiracy theory as simply a false belief that is widely held, our analysis is then refashioned as a question of epistemology and will perhaps quickly devolve into a question of semantics. One would commit to a particular standard or procedure for validating claims and then position conspiracy theories as an object within the larger set of beliefs that cannot meet this standard. An analysis of the social origins or consequences of these beliefs is completely absent. It is undoubtedly true that any given population of people will come to some conclusions that we may readily find to be empirically suspect. Indeed, over the long arc of history, there is a rich and varied history of religious, metaphysical and “scientific” false beliefs. If one shelves the conspiracy theories alongside these beliefs, the analysis does little to explicate their structure or the particular claim to knowledge that they represent.

The conspiracy theory is formed within a particular community of like-minded enthusiasts. It is more than just a hunch or an explanation of an isolated incident; often it is an elaborate narrative, one that specifies pivotal characters and motivations. The real question of interest is how individuals come to understand themselves as possessing that type of knowledge. In short, an analysis simply premised on empirical validity unduly restricts our vision.

Moreover, it should not be forgotten that some conspiracy theories have later turned out to be actually true. There was a conspiracy to bug a Watergate hotel room used by the Democratic National Committee, the CIA did administer drugs like LSD under Project MKULTRA to develop mind control techniques, there was an extensive conspiracy to provide weapons to Contra rebels through weapon sales to Iran, a plan called Operation Northwoods was discussed by high-level Department of Defense officials to simulate acts of domestic terrorism as a pretext for a conflict with Cuba, and it is a matter of historical dispute whether the North Vietnamese were unambiguously aggressive during the Gulf of Tonkin incident that set off the Vietnam War.

Another misconception is that conspiracy theories are found only on the fringe, and should perhaps be distinguished by their absence from the political mainstream. This account fails to comprehend how popular a number of conspiracy theories are—a 2004 poll found that 49% of New York City residents believed that the government “knew in advance that attacks were planned on or around September 11, 2001, and that they consciously failed to act.” The widespread nature of conspiracy theories surrounding Barack Obama's birth certificate and religious faith has also been well documented. At birtherism’s peak, just under a quarter of Iowa Republicans—voters who play a pivotal role during the presidential primaries—believed that Barack Obama was definitely born in Hawaii. Or consider how quickly the “death panels” theory spread in reaction to the Democrats’ proposed healthcare bill in 2009. This is not to suggest that a majority, or even a plurality, of Americans cling to demonstrably false and fantastic beliefs, but it does suggest that conspiracy theories are by no means the province of a completely isolated fringe.

Conspiracy theories can thus not be defined either by their substance, nor by their adherents. Instead, there are several critical features of their structure which form the basis of my analysis. One, conspiracy theories are self-perpetuating; two, they are developed by amateur researchers within a particular community; three, they are entirely grounded in empirical events; and four, they are agentive accounts of social forces. Each of these facets works in tandem to define the particular way in which conspiracy theories organize the world. This is an account of the architecture or the style of the conspiratorial imagination—substance is secondary to structure.

Conspiracy theories are self-perpetuating in the sense that contrary evidence or condemnation by authorities works more like gasoline than water. Suppose one believes that water fluoridation is part of a plot to brainwash the American public. If the Center for Disease Control publishes a peer-reviewed article arguing that fluoridation improves dental hygiene and lowers long-term health costs, it is unlikely this would lead to a moment of critical reflection. Rather, it confirms the insights of the original claim. Not only is the government controlling the drinking water; it is now creating propaganda to the contrary. New evidence is folded into the original claims and in turn, the conspiracy theory becomes more robust. The domain of the theory expands as additional features of the world become apparent: the government lies or works to control the population. The breadth of topics that Jones covers is stunning, but each new data point is always oriented toward the same set of unfalsifiable presuppositions.

This dismissal of authority through self-reinforcement leads to a second feature of conspiracy theories: the need for amateur researchers to reveal the “true” story. Although Jones largely marshals evidence from traditional authoritative institutions, like government agencies, media outlets, and research universities, it is in the interpretation that he adds his special touch. He is the lone voice that has discovered the connections between these disconnected stories. The result is a whirlwind of facts and figures, thrown forth with the gusto of a fire-and-brimstone preacher. Rhetorically impressive, but even a slight cut of critical thinking dismantles the argument. Jones begins each show with a mundane roundup of the day’s events, but every few sentences he is quick to extrapolate to absurdity. A story buried in the back of a small town newspaper concerning a local bureaucrat issuing a warning about a particular pesticide is used to signify a range of new chemical controls emanating from a mysterious Washington elite, but it does not stop there, as Jones will leap from the Washington bureaucrats to the omnipotent financial elites who are really controlling things. All that is mundane is realized on a grander scale, but always along a single path of analysis: one that seeks to define an agent that stands to benefit.

There is another closely connected feature of conspiracy theories to highlight: the object of analysis is always concrete empirical facts. Luke Rudkowski, a New York City-based 9/11 Truther documentarian, when asked whether he was a conspiracy theorist on Russian state television, responded, “There's nothing theoretical in what we talk about. We have sources, we have documents... People call us conspiracy theorists because it's a bad name, a dirty word. I don't theorize on anything. I'm not a theorist. But they say I do because they want to make believe what I'm doing is fake, and all the real issues I'm covering are not truth, but they are truth.” Conspiracy theories are fundamentally narratives of actual events. They are a way of making sense of the empirical world. John F. Kennedy was shot, the World Trade Center did collapse, and the government does fluoridate our drinking water, but it is the interpretation of these events through the conspiratorial lens that gives them that distinctive flavor that only be found by adding a tinge of a tin hat. Conspiracy theorists are best characterized not as factually incorrect, but merely social-theoretically impoverished.

The final defining feature of conspiracy theories is that they are a purely agentive account of social life. Where a social scientist sees structure, the conspiracy theorist sees an agent. Who that agent may be is determined by an analysis of “cui bono?” This analysis begins with the drastic event (the 9/11 terrorist attacks, say, or the assassination of a political figure) and then proceeds to look backwards. The conspiracy theorist extrapolates that an entity that benefited from a given event must be the cause of it happening. This amounts to an anthropomorphization of social forces. Hence, personalities must be assigned, motives become central, and Manichean moral conflicts arise. What a conspiracy theory does is reduce complexity and abstract forces to a comprehensible soap opera.

Jones' analysis typifies the purely agentive account of the world that conspiracy theorists operate with. In Endgame: Blueprint for Global Enslavement, Jones' two-hour magnum opus documentary on the New World Order, the viewer is treated to a history of international war spanning almost a half a millennium. War, for Jones, has always been engineered by the victors. In his exceptionally vulgar materialism, Jones makes no claim to know the process, only the actor responsible. To advance these claims, his rhetorical strategy is twofold. He first makes an appeal to the common-sense presupposition that agents typically act in their own interest. Then he traces an empirical set of connections to a given agent that caused a given event to happen, one that will soon engineer drastic and deplorable changes in our contemporary society. For example, the first substantial argument of Endgame is that international financiers provided loans to various governments in order to wage wars. Jones then advances the marginally true empirically true claim that members of the extended Rothschild family were members of this early financial elite. He draws a line from this historical fact to the contemporary one that the Rothschild family continues to have large financial holdings. The Rothschilds thus engineer foreign wars. Q.E.D.

These final two features of conspiracy theories—their focus on empirical events and their post-hoc agentive accounts of these events—explains why conspiracy theorists have little interest in the process through which these supposed elites exercise their power. These events have happened, “those Towers fell down,” Jones will consistently declare; the real question is who. How this power has manifested itself is less important than identifying the culprit.

Not only does the conspiracy theorist's focus on the isolated events lead to outlandishly powerful agents, but the concealed nature of the imagined beneficiaries simultaneously pushes the question of the means of their power further to the side. The intention becomes all-consuming for the conspiracy theorist; it is the key to unraveling the accompanying plots. We thus find in Alex Jones' 2009 documentary, The Obama Deception, a catalog of government wrongdoing: false flag pretexts for wars, camps set up by FEMA to house dissidents, financial panics engineered by international bankers, and chemicals in our water supply and food, which will of course be used as part of the upcoming massive brainwashing scheme. These various disconnected strands are laying the foundation for the New World Order. He characterized the post-NWO world as follows in an interview with journalist Jonathan Kay: “Bottom line, the future as I see it is this: 70% Brave New World, 30% Nineteen-Eighty-Four. There'll be lots of video games, drugs, Soma, Prozac, parties—but if you get out of line, the SWAT team's coming.”

Jones' work, which has spanned almost two decades, resembles a snowball descending a steep hill. Each new piece of information fits into the preexisting narrative. The conspiratorial imagination does not see a world of disconnected accidents, quirks of bureaucratic mismanagement, and the perverse consequences of varied institutional incentives. He sees agency and intentionality.

The origins of beliefs in conspiracy theories is our final unanswered question. As I argued earlier, attributing conspiracy theories to a given social class or popular ignorance does not sufficiently explain their sociological nature. These theories have a degree of plausibility because powerful actors do affect the world and occasionally these agents take credit for certain changes. Politicians frequently celebrate the prosperity they have created or deride their opponents for failing to do so. There are indeed powerful economic entities, although not necessarily specific individuals or families, and the behavior of these decision makers has real consequences for the social landscape of the United States. Ultimately what conspiracy theories do is engage in a radical reductivism which reconceptualizes social forces as individuals and renders those forces invisible.

A conspiracy theory can thus have salient features that resemble legitimate political slogans. Locating blame and taking credit for political events is the bread and butter of political campaigns. However, there is a clear difference: where the conspiracy theory thrives is in the simplicity with which it links powerful interests to objectively unfortunate events. In the political arena, one finds multiple competing narratives, each with its specific protagonists. The sound bite does not have the scale of a conspiracy theory—it does not endeavor to moralize the mundane consequences of complex and interconnected institutions and give life to a world that is often chaotic, random, and unintended. Conspiracy theories’ potency is found in their mechanisms which self-perpetuate, insulate their believers from authoritative accounts, and privilege agentive accounts. Taken together, these features work to insulate this paranoid style from critical reflection.

There are two main consequences of conspiracy theories for the open society. The first is horrific displays of violence. The conspiracy theorist is obsessed with the high stakes that the whole of society faces, convinced in his increasing isolation he is one of a select few who have connected the dots to understand this total truth. The justifications claimed by Timothy McVeigh, Ted Kaczynski, and Anders Breivik trade in the exact same forms of conspiracy theory that are Jones' bread and butter.

The second consequence is far more subtle and far more poignant. The particular architecture of conspiracy theories has significant consequences for the governance of democratic societies. We are confronted here by a social form that is safe-guarded by our most prized liberal values—the rights to free speech and free association—but their very structure also works to undermine those same values. Conspiracy theories cut short the exchange of critical values that become is the hallmark of the public sphere. They are thus parasitic on the very institutions that protect them, and through their self-perpetuation, they operate as a continuously expanding tumor, a cancer that cannot be easily cut from the body politic.

The insulation of conspiracy theories from critical reflection is all the more apparent when one considers the extremes that some thinkers go to combat these theories. Cass Sunstein endorses the view that “government should engage in cognitive infiltration of the groups that produce conspiracy theories.” He argues that allowing conspiracy theories to fester is unacceptable and that state intervention is necessary. He quotes Philip Zelikow, the executive director of the 9/11 Comission: “The hardcore conspiracy theorists are totally committed. They'd have to repudiate much of their life identity in order not to accept some of that stuff. That's not our worry. Our worry is when things become infectious...this stuff can be deeply corrosive to public understanding.” This is an insufficient response for Sunstein, as it both takes the hardcore contingent as a given and fails to recognize that the same contingent might be the most dangerous. He thus raises the possibility of government agents, acting anonymously, entering online social networks or attending organization meetings in an attempt to present diverse points of view. In short, their role would be to undermine the self-perpetuating nature of conspiracy theories. He argues that if these agents identified themselves as government agents, they would not likely gain traction in conspiracy theory circles.

Such an approach is a sharp blow to our liberal sensibilities. Government intervention that aims to alter political speech is a risky road to take. Yet the epistemological structure of conspiracy theories leaves little space for remedies typically found within liberal democratic spheres. These theories are weeds which thrive in the fertile soil of our most basic liberties.

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