The Difference Between Real Conspiracies And Conspiracy Theories

Covert plots based in material reality, covert plots based in metaphysical reality, and the grey area in between

Art by Jeff Cassel

Conspiracies are traditionally defined as “secret plots by groups to do something unlawful or harmful.” This is a vague definition that could range from innocuous institutional activities to rogue shadow governments controlling the world. Conspiracy theories are often defined the same way, which isn’t helpful. Various experts have posited definitions to separate conspiracy theories from conspiracies, such as political scientist Michael Barkun who coined three types:

Each of these conspiracy theory types can be summed up as “ideological conspiracy theories,” which attribute prejudices and ideological motivations to secret forces that are unknowable and immeasurable. These differ from milquetoast conspiracy theories around bigfoot or aliens, which the average person may entertain without much ideological motivation. The western world has curated ideological conspiracy theories about secret societies, shadow governments, and “the other” since the 1700’s, most notably around the Illuminati, freemasons, KKK, black people, and Jews. Some have been used to foster hatred with claims that groups of people are inferior, such as the history of racism toward black people in the US. Others have been based on claims that groups of people are superior, such as the anti-semitic publication Protocols of the Elders of Zion that manufactured a secret Jewish plan to control the world and was spread through Nazi Germany. These prejudices simultaneously place “the other” as both powerful and subhuman, with comparisons to animals or infestations that need to be removed or controlled. This thinking continues in various forms today by groups like QAnon or conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones. So what separates these unfalsifiable claims of covert plots based in metaphysical reality, sensationalism, and prejudices, from real covert plots that can be uncovered with reasoning and material evidence?

It’s complicated. There’s a range of theorizing between what we know to be factually true and what we have no evidence for. One example between the two is how Jeffrey Epstein’s suicide was surrounded by suspicious activity. Some of the theories around it were based in reasonable possibilities, seeing as he was a wealthy, powerful person with blackmail on other powerful people and a global network. Another example is how special interest groups and figures lobby politicians behind the scenes to sway legislative decision-making. One more example is how a handful of megacorporations own most of the mass media in the US, which control the information narratives people consume. In each of these cases there are baselines of factual information that can be layered with healthy skepticism, yet many people then venture into more unknowable territory. On its own, this isn’t wrong, per se. If someone is interested in Jeffrey Epstein’s death, there’s nothing wrong with exploring the mysteries and “what ifs.” However, interest in these matters act as gateways into ideological conspiracy theories. If someone else approached this person with a grand narrative about how Epstein was actually part of a global cabal of satanic pedophiles that rule the world with a hodge-podge of photos, links, and forums discussions, that can be incredibly appealing to a curious mind, especially if it’s connected to their political enemies.

This is where the problems begin. People who obsess over ideological conspiracy theories never stop with healthy skepticism or “just asking questions.” They‘re drawn to extremist narratives and groups. The most notorious example of this today is QAnon, which explains every inexplicable event through the lens of the world being secretly run by a global cabal of satanic cannibal pedophiles — a theory built on no evidence. There are countless mysterious events that leave room for interpretation and aren’t necessarily “conspiracy theories.” Questions over government coverups, UFOs, high-profile assassinations, and the like are natural to entertain to some degree. Conspiracy theorists often defend their theories by saying that real conspiracies were considered conspiracy theories before they were proven. Like most conspiracy theories, this has a grain of truth. Several specific plots in modern US history have been unveiled over time. However, these don’t reveal some massive, organized, national or global network. These conspiracies involve specific government agencies or small groups of people committing covert plots, something that has happened all throughout history. Conspiracy theorists tend to take the real possibility of these plots, then add outlandish narratives in order to satisfy some need — such as them being part of a centuries-long New World Order agenda to control the population.

Statistician Nassim Talib popularized the term “black swan” to describe high-profile, hard-to-predict, and rare events that are beyond the realm of normal expectations, such as 9/11 or the assassination of JFK. These events lead to trauma, confusion, and the public conjuring conspiracy theories in hopes of demystifying them. It’s easier to believe that the deep state planned 9/11, rather than deal with the messy, uncomfortable reality that it was a result of geopolitical tensions, foreign policy blunders, ideological motivations, and so on. Talib refers to COVID-19 as a “white swan” event since it was more predictable, but the impact of people’s confusion and despair has resulted in similar effects. There has been an endless stream of conspiracy theories in its aftermath around Bill Gates developing a vaccine for tracking and population control, 5G spreading the virus, it being weaponized by a Chinese lab, the government enabling it to cripple the economy and lead to an authoritarian takeover, and so on. These are theories based outside the realm of material evidence and reasoning, but they continue spreading due to fractured institutions, polarization, and decades of decreased trust in experts. People are seeking alternative realities to justify their prejudices and fears. They’re being told what to do by experts through establishment media and view this as indoctrination or means of control.

When the current fracturing of society is met with polarized mass media, bad faith actors who sow disinformation, and access to knowledge of America’s history of corruption, mistakes, and mysteries, it creates ripe conditions for outlandish narratives to spread uncontrollably. It’s natural. Powerful figures and institutions don’t always have people’s best interests in mind. The bigger the system, the more likelihood of bureaucracy, corruption, and errors. Here is a brief list of real conspiracies that fuel ideological conspiracy theories:

Some of these cases may have been considered “conspiracy theories” at one point until they were proven. However, in the case of nearly every real conspiracy, it’s journalists, whistleblowers, and researchers who uncover the truth (or the conspiracy is openly revealed/declassified after the fact). Ideological conspiracy theories like QAnon take these truths and weave unfalsifiable narratives around them, spreading misinformation and inspiring everyday people to participate by live action role playing as online detectives who become part of a community of like-minded members. Because humans look for patterns, it’s natural to follow from A to B if it confirms biases. An example would be someone saying “the government lied about (a), therefore they must be lying about (b).” Being skeptical of power is a healthy human trait. There have always been and will always be unknowable events behind the scenes in all places of power, but ideological conspiracy theories provide a false sense of secret knowledge that deplete critical thinking skills and stifle people’s abilities to effectively counter power.

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. It’s natural to create narratives in the absence of factual reporting. People crave order amidst disorder. Certainty sells. Believing the world is secretly run by satanic cannibal pedophiles or a powerful cabal of Jews controlling everything can be paradoxically comforting for some people because it reinforces their prejudices and creates a clear human enemy that can be defined and defeated, as well as an explanation for random acts of terror, tragedy, or perceived injustice. If there’s a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being knowable information in material reality and 10 being unknowable information in metaphysical reality, it can be healthy to venture around 3 to 5 if enough credible evidence allows for theorizing. This is where many people comfortably discuss and investigate subjects like Epstein, Trump’s Russia connections, UFO’s, and so on. However, once someone begins moving across the scale between 6 and 10, their grip on reality loosens. Claims become based on shoddy (or no) evidence and enter the realm of fantasy. There is room in the world for discussions on real conspiracies and entertaining possible theories around them when built on substantial evidence, but no room for ideologically-motivated conspiracy theories based in unfalsifiable claims that spread fear, hatred, and misinformation that harm people, institutions, and the value of truth.

writer covering internet culture, advertising, and conspiracy theories

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