Nick Pope is one of the world’s leading experts on conspiracy theories. He has discussed the subject on numerous TV shows, and written news stories and features about conspiracy theories (including tie-in publicity material for the second X-Files movie, and extensive material for truTV’s Conspiratorium), covering topics that include JFK, the moon landings, 9/11, UFOs, and many other conspiracy theories – some well-known, others less well-known. If you’ve ever read one of those media features listing the world’s top 10 conspiracy theories, it may well have been written by Nick Pope!
Having investigated UFOs for the British Government, Nick Pope has been the subject of some conspiracy theories himself, with many people believing that he was part of a government cover-up aimed at hiding the truth about UFOs. Despite having left the UK’s Ministry of Defense in 2006, the belief that he’s still secretly working for the government is widely held in the conspiracy theory community.
Nick Pope is a conspiracy theory skeptic. While he thinks that challenging the government’s position on issues is an important part of any free, open and democratic society, he believes that many conspiracy theories arise from a lack of critical thinking, and a poor knowledge of the way in which government works. He’s particularly concerned when conspiracy theories are used as justification for anti-Semitic views, or have fueled the anger of people with mental health issues.
In his work as an author, journalist and broadcaster, Nick Pope has covered conspiracy theories extensively. The following article is a distillation of his current position, and is meant as a quotable resource for academics, students, journalists and other media professionals looking at the subject.
This article is a personal overview of the conspiracy theory ‘genre’. While I’ll be citing a few individual conspiracy theories to illustrate some particular points, it’s not my intention to drill down into any individual conspiracy theories in great detail here. Many others have done this and in a sense, the purpose of this article isn’t to debate whether any individual conspiracy theories are true or false, but to make some more general observations about the subject as a whole.
I write this article with a number of different hats on. Firstly, I worked for the British Government for 21 years, at the Ministry of Defense (MoD). Accordingly, I have considerable knowledge of the way in which government works and – in relation to the topic in hand – have a pretty good idea of the boundaries: what governments do and what they don’t do. Secondly, one of my MoD jobs involved investigating UFO sightings reported to the Department, as well as handling policy, media enquiries and public correspondence on the issue. Given that many people believe the MoD is covering up the truth about UFOs, this exposed me directly to accusations concerning conspiracy theories. Thirdly – and related to the previous point – despite having left the MoD in 2006, I’m the subject of a conspiracy theory myself. The accusation is that my departure from MoD was a ruse and that I’m still secretly on the payroll, with a role variously described as being either to put out disinformation about UFOs, to infiltrate/discredit the UFO community, to acclimatize people to an extraterrestrial reality ahead of ‘Disclosure’ (official confirmation of extraterrestrial visitation), or to promote belief in (non-existent) extraterrestrials ahead of a “false flag alien invasion”. Such mutually-contradictory theories are not unusual in the conspiracy theory community – see, for example, the work done by Dr. Karen Douglas at University of Kent, who discovered that those who believed Osama bin Laden was already dead before the US raid that purportedly killed him in 2011 were also more likely to believe that he is still alive. Fourthly, I now work as a journalist and broadcaster covering – among other subjects – conspiracy theories. Fifthly, through speaking at various conferences, I have had considerable exposure to the conspiracy theory community.O
Definitions and Terminology
This subject is not helped by the lack of agreed terminology and definitions of words and phrases such as “conspiracy” and “conspiracy theory”, or by the relationship with words like “collusion”. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines conspiracy as “an agreement between two or more persons to do something criminal, illegal or reprehensible” – but what constitutes “reprehensible” is a subjective judgement. The OED defines collusion as “a secret or illegal cooperation or conspiracy in order to deceive others”.
Related to this is the way in which “conspiracy theorist” is sometimes used as a pejorative. This is unhelpful, given that some conspiracy theories are true, and it leads to situations where 9/11 conspiracy theorists refer to the US Government’s version of what took place as the “OCT” (Official Conspiracy Theory). This dogfight over language muddies the waters before we even get to the issues.
It’s worth noting that the conspiracy theory community has a number of linguistic tropes. “Sheeple” is used to describe people who are not “awake” in a political sense and tend not to question the ‘party line’. Such terms are combined in phrases like “wake up, sheeple”. “Crisis actors” are people alleged to play the parts of grieving relatives or bystanders at fake mass-shootings or terror attacks. The bad guys in the conspiracy theory universe are sometimes individual governments, but often more shadowy forces such as the Illuminati, the New World Order, or some variation on this theme. Dissent from fellow conspiracy theorists with differing views is often dealt with by stating or implying that the dissenter is a “shill”, secretly working with the bad guys. Conspiracy theorists know just enough about the world of intelligence to be familiar with terms such as “useful idiot”, “disinformation”, “psyop”, “agent provocateur”, “false flag” and “cointel”, without really understanding the realities.
Dissent from outside the conspiracy theory community is generally ignored. The Popular Mechanics investigation into the most widely held 9/11 conspiracy theories is often dismissed out of hand, as is the 9/11 Commission Report. Most 9/11 conspiracy theorists haven’t read the latter, and justify this by saying that it’s obvious propaganda and is itself part of the conspiracy.
Conspiracy Theories and Government
It’s an important but often overlooked fact that a common thread that runs through most conspiracy theories is that the event under discussion generally involves government or some official agency. Only a very few conspiracy theories (e.g. “Paul McCartney is dead”) don’t involve the government and even here, one can make a case for saying that ‘Big Business’ is an extension of government in the minds of conspiracy theorists, and that there were obvious financial reasons for covering up McCartney’s death. But the fact that most conspiracy theories revolve around the supposed actions of government, the military and the intelligence agencies is extremely important in understanding the root causes of conspiracy theories, and suggests that distrust of government lies at the heart of the matter. Sometimes, however, the tendency to focus on specific conspiracy theories can blind us to such overarching points.
Conspiracy Theories and Popular Culture
It would be remiss not to mention the issue of how conspiracy theories are portrayed in popular culture. In a TV series like The X-Files or in films such as The Matrix trilogy, not only could the main protagonists be categorized as conspiracy theorists and portrayed as heroes, but they live in a world where the conspiracy theories are true and where – in the Matrix universe – reality itself is a lie. Movies like Conspiracy Theory and Mercury Rising are also good examples, as are numerous sci-fi movies dealing with UFOs/extraterrestrials, where part of the plot often involves the government or the military being aware of the alien presence, but trying to keep the knowledge from the public. Arguably, Hollywood portrays conspiracy theories as more likely to be true than is the case in real life, and portrays conspiracy theorists in a more favorable light than the media portrays their real-life counterparts. It’s unclear what effect such a portrayal (generally positive) of conspiracy theories and conspiracy theorists has (it may act as a partial validation of people’s fringe beliefs, especially if they empathize with ‘heroic struggles’ in conspiracy theory fiction), but it’s worthy of study. It also highlights another irony of the conspiracy theory universe, where people often allege that Hollywood is part of the ‘system’ and – particularly in relation to extraterrestrials – is complicit in a campaign to acclimatize/indoctrinate people to a particular view.
Conspiracy Theories, the Internet, and the Multi-Media World
The internet has played a huge role in giving voices to those who, previously, would have had little or no chance of having their say. Social media sites have played a large part in this too. The Arab Spring is an oft-cited example of this. More generally, there has been a fundamental shift in the concept of journalism, where the center of gravity has moved away from the mainstream news media. A good example of this shift is the fashion industry, where the rising (and arguably disproportionate) influence of a handful of influential bloggers has caused huge tensions, but where changes reflect a new power dynamic. The use of sites such as Twitter to name and shame celebrities who have taken out ‘super injunctions’ to try to prevent negative news stories being published is another example of this.
The internet has had a similar and massive effect upon conspiracy theories. It’s arguable that every issue and point of view has been changed and amplified by the internet, but it seems that alternative viewpoints have been disproportionally affected. Previously, fringe issues often tended to be squeezed out, but they now have more of an outlet.
Tied to this is the increase in media outlets. I was brought up in the UK when there were three TV stations: BBC1, BBC2 and ITV. Nowadays, there are a multitude of TV stations, and while a lot of material is repeated, there’s more demand for new content than has ever previously been the case. All this broadcasting time – and the same is true for radio – has to be filled, and this gives conspiracy theories an outlet that they have not previously enjoyed. Indeed, some networks such as Edge Media TV (later known as Controversial TV and broadcast on Sky Channel 200) were almost exclusively devoted to alternative views and conspiracy theories.
It’s not clear whether the rise of the internet and the transition to a multi-media society has significantly changed people’s views, as opposed to having held up a mirror to views that were already there. Again, this is a point worthy of further study.
Notwithstanding the above, there remains an odd disconnect. 9/11 conspiracy theories, for example, have a huge ‘internet footprint’, but enjoy comparatively little mainstream media coverage. The same could be said about other topics, such as ‘chemtrails’. Skeptics might say this is a good thing, as it shows that that the ‘evidence bar’ is set at an appropriately high level, which alternative theories about 9/11 have yet to reach. As a journalist, however, my intuitive feeling is that this is wrong, and that even if pretty much every conspiracy theory relating to 9/11 is flawed (as I believe to be the case), the fact that so many people believe otherwise should lead to greater mainstream news media engagement – even if it’s the belief in these conspiracy theories that is, itself, the news story. The danger otherwise is that large numbers of people feel disenfranchised by the media, and believe the media is letting them down by not asking tough questions of the authorities. Worse still, some people may – and do – come to believe that the media (the “controlled media” as various people in the conspiracy theory community are fond of saying) is complicit in the cover-up.
The announcement on the BBC of the collapse of World Trade Center Building 7 is a good example of how people come to believe that elements of the media are “controlled”. A newsreader announced that the building had collapsed while it was still standing. Only later did it collapse. The building was on fire and the firefighters had been pulled out, so collapse was arguably imminent, but how did the collapse get announced before it had actually occurred? Let’s look at the possible explanations. Had the newscaster misunderstood, or perhaps misheard what the producer said via the earpiece? It was a fast-moving and stressful situation for everyone in the newsroom, and that’s the likely explanation. But a surprising number of people believe that the BBC knew about the collapse in advance (because these people think the whole attack was pre-planned by Western authorities, or elements thereof), but weren’t following the script carefully enough, and thus let the cat out of the bag by announcing a pre-planned event a little too early. As an ex-government official who now works as a broadcaster and journalist, I can’t help but observe how absurd this is: the idea that a small group of conspirators would plan an insidious false flag attack that – if discovered – would shake the Establishment to its core and result in jail terms (and possibly the death penalty) for all those involved – and then tip off one of the largest news organizations on the face of the planet. But for the purposes of this article, the point isn’t whether or not such things are true – which will always be a subject of debate – but whether people believe they’re true, which is undeniably the case. Such a view of the media is unfortunate, because from Watergate in the US to more recent UK stories such as cash for questions, cash for honors and MPs’ expenses, the media actually has a good, proven track record of going after powerful Establishment figures when suspicions or allegations of wrongdoing emerge.
Contradictory Conspiracy Theories
I mentioned earlier the work of Dr. Karen Douglas at University of Kent, who found that those people who believed Osama bin Laden was already dead before the US raid that purportedly killed him were also more likely to believe that he’s still alive. This may seem counter-intuitive, if not downright absurd, but it’s symptomatic of a wider issue with some conspiracy theories, where mutually-contradictory theories are put forward for what’s alleged to be going on. The chemtrail conspiracy is a good example, with some people believing the aim of this supposed chemical spraying campaign is to alter the weather, while others think it’s aimed at behavior modification, or that it’s part of a campaign to poison people, as part of a mass-extermination plan. Clearly, even if chemtrails were real, most conspiracy theory belief about them would be false. We see the same with 9/11 conspiracy theories: some people believe it was an “inside job”, some people believe America “looked the other way”, some people believe aircraft hit the Twin Towers, while other people (the so-called “no-planers”) think the aircraft seen hitting the buildings were holograms and that the buildings were brought down by a controlled demolition (or, at the extreme end of the belief spectrum, some sort of anti-gravity weapon). In situations like this, the proponents of more extreme beliefs are often accused of being shills, infiltrating the so-called “Truth Movement” and discrediting it by making overly ridiculous claims.
Close, But No Cigar
Few conspiracy theories are without some element of half-truth or ambiguity. There are apparently reasonable points that, at first, give one pause for thought. The CIA, for example, was aware of 9/11 hijackers Khalid al Mihdhar and Nawaf al Hazmi, but didn’t put them on the State Department’s TIPOFF watchlist, or inform the FBI. Does this mean that the authorities knew 9/11 was going to happen but “looked the other way”? In fact, such failings are not uncommon, and in most cases are the result of factors such as overwork, information overload and – critically – poor intelligence-sharing between different agencies. On this latter point, inter-agency rivalry, mistrust and even antipathy is much more common than the public (who often view government as a single entity) are generally aware. To these factors can be added the tendency of people entrusted with classified or sensitive information to be overly-protective (particularly in situations where a key concern is to avoid compromising a sensitive source), to the extent that it becomes useless – the intelligence isn’t actionable. So using the Khalid al Mihdhar and Nawaf al Hazmi example, what may look suspicious to the layperson is immediately recognizable as standard practice to those of us with a background in government/intelligence.
Conspiracy Theories and Science
Related to the above are arguments that may initially seem scientific, but on closer examination (which often doesn’t happen) aren’t. Again, 9/11 provides a nice example. Conspiracy theorists point out that aviation fuel doesn’t burn at a high enough temperature to melt steel. Therefore, they argue, aircraft alone, slamming into the Twin Towers, couldn’t have brought the buildings down. This opens the door to speculation about a controlled demolition. While the argument might initially sound reasonable, more careful consideration leads us to the answer: steel loses its structural integrity at a much lower temperature. This, plus gravity, was more than enough to bring down the buildings.
A basic understanding of science would result in a more informed debate about many conspiracy theories. The chemtrail conspiracy is a good example of this. Undeniably, there have been government/military attempts to modify the weather. Operation Popeye (cloud seeding during the Vietnam War, aimed at making it rain on the Ho Chi Minh trail, thus bogging down the main Vietcong supply route) is a well-documented example of this. So, if chemtrails are real, it’s scientifically plausible that they have something to do with weather control or even climate change. However, researching crop spraying and seeing how low the aircraft have to fly for the spray to have a discernible effect on the crops should – even for believers in chemtrails – eliminate the idea that they have anything to do with poisoning people or modifying their behaviour. You couldn’t target a spray with any degree of accuracy from the heights at which it’s alleged chemtrails are discharged (commercial aircraft cruising height of around 35,000 feet), and any chemicals sprayed from such heights would have a negligible effect on anyone at ground level. In any case, the economy of scale argument could be brought into play – why not simply put chemical into the water supply? Surely even the New World Order would choose a cheaper and easier strategy if one was available! The point is, applying science can eliminate some aspects of a conspiracy theory and result in a more focused debate on that part which remains.
Conspiracy Theories – The Good
Some conspiracy theories turn out to be true, and while governments don’t lie as often as many people seem to think, they constantly dissemble and spin. Accordingly, a healthy skepticism in respect of what we’re told by government (and the authorities more generally) is actually a very good thing, and is a healthy indicator of a modern, open, democratic society. More generally, it’s good in terms of critical thinking. So it’s right to doubt and challenge what we’re told by those in power, and to ask searching questions if something doesn’t look or feel right. But there’s a danger in going too far and in assuming that because one conspiracy theory is true, most or all of them are (The few academic studies done into this suggest that if you believe in one conspiracy theory, you’re more likely to believe in others). As ever, the trick is to get the balance right. As the old saying goes, it’s good to have an open mind, but not so open that your brain falls out.
With this in mind, it would be a good thing (and would help a more informed debate) if conspiracy theorists and skeptics could find some common ground in terms of a conspiracy theory that turned out to be true. Interestingly, one that’s often cited as true (that the Nazis started the Reichstag fire to discredit the communists and consolidate their power) is the subject of more debate between historians than most people realize. Conversely, few people on either side of the debate are familiar with one of the best documented conspiracy theories in recent years, i.e. the fact that senior figures in the Northern Ireland Office, the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the Catholic Church knew (or strongly suspected) who was responsible for the bombings in Claudy, County Londonderry, in 1972 (attacks in which nine people died), and that actively conspired to cover it up, because the alleged perpetuator was a Catholic priest. The Northern Ireland Police Ombudsman’s 2010 report into the bombing and the subsequent events found that this conspiracy almost certainly took place, and their conclusion was widely reported by the mainstream media – including the BBC.
The review of the original investigation into the Claudy bombings makes interesting reading for those interested in conspiracy theories (on whichever side of the debate) because of what it tells us about inquiries in modern times. When wrongdoing (including conspiracy – even if it’s only a conspiracy of silence) is found, it’s generally exposed, with criticisms being made. The Hutton Inquiry (into the apparent suicide of government weapons inspector Dr. David Kelly) is seen by some as a whitewash, and itself part of a conspiracy to cover up what really happened. But if people use this to imply that all official inquiries are going to give the government an easy ride and support the party line, they’re mistaken. The Saville Report (into the Bloody Sunday shootings) was extremely critical of the Army and concluded that a soldier fired the first shot. Charles Haddon-Cave QC’s report into the fatal crash of an RAF Nimrod aircraft in Afghanistan in 2006 contains damning criticisms of the MoD and defense contractors. The ongoing Iraq Inquiry chaired by Sir John Chilcot is likely to contain robust criticisms of various government figures in relation to the Iraq War, though it’s unlikely to support the conspiracy theory that “we went to war on a lie” – i.e. that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Again, all this should be required reading for conspiracy theorists and conspiracy theory skeptics alike, as it’s a useful template for how the authorities respond when things go catastrophically wrong.
Conspiracy Theories – The Bad and the Ugly
There’s a dark side to some conspiracy theories. Firstly, the irony is that while they can sometimes be healthy in terms of encouraging critical thinking, they can also be extremely unhealthy, in terms of people believing unsubstantiated rumors simply because they accord with their (generally anti-Establishment) worldview. Far more worrying, however, are three other factors.
Firstly, some conspiracy theories, particularly those involving a ‘New World Order’, imply that the world is secretly run by a small group of families and corporations – a sort of ‘shadow government’. In relation to such ideas, one often hears the phrase “conspiracy of international bankers” or “small group of families who secretly rule the world”. Often, such wording is used to mask anti-Semitism. The accusation of anti-Semitism is often met with the defense that those involved are only against “Zionism”, but have nothing against Jewish people more generally. In some cases this is true, and on a related issue it’s a dangerous situation where any criticism of the Government of Israel is automatically labeled as being anti-Semitic. But in other cases the defense about being anti-Zionist sounds like a convenient ‘get out’, not a million miles away from the cliché about the racist who begins an argument with a phrase “Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got black friends”. Even if not motivated by racism, such views make it easier for racism to take root. At a UFO conference held in Leeds in 2011, for example, a question from the floor turned into a lengthy comment which included the sentiment that Hollywood was “run by the Jews”. Significant numbers of audience members (and even some of the other speakers on the panel) seemed to be nodding in agreement, and only one person in the audience was courageous enough to take the individual concerned to task.
Secondly, medical conspiracies (e.g. those surrounding Swine flu) can be dangerous. Many people believe that certain diseases were bio-engineered deliberately, and that they – and/or the associated vaccination programmes – are part of a conspiracy to exterminate large numbers of people, to bring the world population down to a more manageable/sustainable level and – perhaps – to bring about a New World Order. If people who are ill with such diseases use conspiracy websites to inform their decisions, as opposed to seeking medical advice, the consequences could be fatal. As a practical illustration of this, I once saw a father post a question about vaccinations for his baby on the Facebook wall of a conspiracy theorist who had recently expressed the view that a false flag alien invasion would be staged at the closing ceremony of the London Olympics.
The third – and possibly least commented upon – area where conspiracy theories can be dangerous relates to the feelings of rage and powerlessness that they can engender. With certain personality types, this runs the risk of making them feel they have no stake in the democratic system, and no conventional way for their voice to be heard. Though the situation is not clear-cut, there are very strong indications that John Patrick Bedell (who opened fire on Pentagon police officers in 2010 and was subsequently shot dead) was motivated in part by 9/11 conspiracy theories, and that Jared Lee Loughner (who killed six people in Tucson in 2011) was obsessed with conspiracy theories on 9/11, the New World Order and Mayan prophesies apparently suggesting that the world would end in 2012. This is a controversial area and one on which experts in psychopathology are best-placed to comment. One could doubtless argue that such people would always find something to latch onto, that tips them over the edge. But at the very least, we must be mindful of the negative effects that conspiracy theories can have on individuals, and indeed on groups of people. The think-tank Demos, for example, has done some interesting research into the link between conspiracy theories and extremism.
Heads I Win, Tails You Lose
There’s an interesting aspect of some conspiracy theories that’s worth knowing if one is to truly understand the mindset of some conspiracy theorists. On one level it looks like a cheap trick, but on another level it offers a useful insight into the conspiracy theory universe. Again, the supposed false flag alien invasion at the 2012 Olympic Games is the perfect example. If it happened, self-evidently proponents of such a theory would have been proved correct and would have claimed credit. But when it didn’t happen, the ‘get out’ was that those involved prematurely exposed the New World Order’s plan and thus forced them to back down. In this case and in others, conspiracy theorists can actually take credit for what, in reality, is nothing more than a failed prediction.
As a British citizen who now lives in the United States, the issue of national differences in conspiracy theories is of particular interest to me. It’s noticeable that a number of US conspiracy theories (e.g. those about the Sandy Hook school shootings and the Boston Marathon bombings) revolve around the central premise that the intention is to create an environment where the government will be able to declare martial law and “take away our guns”, thus overturning the right to bear arms that’s enshrined in the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution. Interestingly, proponents of such theories seldom cite what might initially sound like a compelling argument, i.e. the fact that a school shooting in Scotland (the 1996 Dunblane school massacre) did lead to extensive gun control in the UK. However, even if this was to be cited as a precedent for how governments can clamp down on private gun ownership, it would be based on a misunderstanding of the fundamental differences in US and UK public attitudes to firearms, and on a failure to appreciate the unique protections afforded by the Second Amendment. Such factors must be borne in mind when looking at conspiracy theories regarding mass shootings – arguably one of the most prevalent types of conspiracy theory in modern day America.
A Testable Hypothesis
Belief in conspiracy theories clearly has a number of root causes, including mistrust of government, feelings of personal disempowerment, and lack of knowledge of the way in which government, the military and the intelligence agencies work. It seems to me that much of this is testable. On the knowledge of government point in particular, where answers are either right or wrong, it would be possible to conduct double blind experiments which could score someone’s believe in various conspiracy theories and their knowledge of officialdom, to see if there’s a relationship. I’ve discussed this with at least one academic (and have drawn up some questions for a study) but I believe further work in this area would be fruitful.
As I pointed out previously, belief in conspiracy theories has been the subject of comparatively little academic study. Exceptions include the aforementioned Demos work on conspiracy theories and extremism, Cambridge University’s Conspiracy and Democracy project, led by Sir Richard Evans, and a March 2015 conference on conspiracy theories organized by Professor Joseph Uscinski at University of Miami. However, given the profound impact conspiracy theories can have on people’s beliefs and actions, more work is needed, and while I support academic research into this subject, I believe we need to be more inclusive. A wider conversation on the subject needs to take place, involving not just social scientists and academics, but the media and – critically – conspiracy theorists themselves. It’s this latter engagement that will prove most difficult (because of conspiracy theorists’ mistaken perception that conspiracy theory skeptics are Establishment debunkers), but is essential for any proper understanding of the subject. It seems to me that a greater understanding of the conspiracy theory community and their mindset is a prerequisite to such engagement. In this respect, blanket dismissal of such people as crazies is singularly unhelpful.
Conspiracy theories are an important part of contemporary belief. In our globalized society, with its 24/7 media coverage, conspiracy theories start almost immediately after newsworthy disasters, high-profile deaths, and mass-shootings. They then spread rapidly, in our increasingly interconnected world. Even if most popularly-held conspiracy theories are demonstrably false, dismissing conspiracy theory culture in its wider sense would be to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Rather, we should be asking why people believe such things, and what this tells us, not just about the individuals concerned, but about 21st Century society and culture as a whole.