When Is a Conspiracy Theory a Conspiracy? Jesse Walker

It has been nearly a decade since I wrote this passage, which Brian Keeley quotes in his discussion of the folk use of “conspiracy theory”:[1]

People started using the phrase “conspiracy theory” to mean “implausible conspiracy theory,” then “implausible theory, whether or not it involves a conspiracy.” Meanwhile, they leave out those implausible theories that have a lot of cultural cachet. … Conspiratorial thinking is perceived not as a widespread human trait but as the province of a peculiar personality type, not as a mass phenomenon but as a fringe phenomenon. “Conspiracy” starts to mean “fringe” (414).

… [please read below the rest of the article].

Image credit: michael_swan via Flickr / Creative Commons

Article Citation:

Walker, Jesse. 2023. “When Is a Conspiracy Theory a Conspiracy?” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 12 (7): 20–22. https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-7Xa.

🔹 The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers.

This article replies to:

❧ Keeley, Brian L. 2023. “Conspiracy Theory and (or as) Folk Psychology.” Social Epistemology 37 (4): 413–422.

There have been at least two major developments on this front since then. One is an increased willingness to use the term to deride ideas that do, in fact, have a lot of cultural cachet, provided that this cachet is limited to an outgroup. Even when I first presented that paper in 2015, it was not particularly unusual for liberals and conservatives to try to tar each other with the “conspiracy theorist” label, precisely because “conspiracy” had that connotation of “fringe.” But this went into overdrive during Donald Trump’s presidency, in no small part because Fox and MSNBC really did air a lot of conspiracy theories in that period, many of them extremely dubious. While I do not hold the widespread belief that conspiracy theories are now more common than ever before, it may well be harder than ever before to maintain the illusion that mainstream elites are immune to conspiratorial thinking.

“Conspiracy” as “Conspiracy Theory”

The other change is subtler, stranger, and not as easy to explain. It has become increasingly common to use the word “conspiracy” as shorthand for “conspiracy theory.” This sometimes has bizarre and comic effects. On October 8, 2020, for example, Time published an essay by the comedian Sacha Baron Cohen under the headline “We Must Save Democracy From Conspiracies.”[2] That sounds pretty paranoid: Conspirators are plotting against democracy! The article beneath the headline is filled with similar statements: Baron Cohen declares that “conspiracies threaten to kill democracy as we know it,” that Americans are now “especially vulnerable to…conspiracies,” that “Conspiracies are lethal.” He even calls the blood libel “the world’s oldest conspiracy, dating back to the Middle Ages.” I could imagine those words appearing in an antisemitic tract.

Baron Cohen, of course, was attempting to make these claims about conspiracy theories, not actual literal conspiracies. And that’s clear from the context: That same sentence about the blood libel, for example, also calls it a “myth,” which is not what you’d expect in an antisemitic tract. Nonetheless, his article contains several statements that, taken literally, mean almost the exact opposite of what their author meant by them.[3]

And this isn’t unusual.[4] Here is sampling of other examples from the last few years:

• The Southern Policy Law Center’s online profile of the infamous conspiracy theorist Alex Jones contains several statements that are jarring if you take them literally, including “For Jones, far-right conspiracies serve as simple answers to complex real-world problems” and “The deep state is one of several conspiracies [Jones’] outlet pushes.”[5]

• After an academic study explored the role bots played in amplifying conspiracy theories about a 2022 earthquake in West Java, Forbes ran a piece on the paper that it headlined “Study Shows How ‘Bots’ Help Spread Earthquake Conspiracies Online.” The story’s text features such lines as “Earthquake conspiracies come in many flavors.”[6]

• Early in the pandemic, Jordan Frith wrote in Slate that “the 5G COVID-19 conspiracies are only the newest in a long line of concerns about wireless infrastructure, and this will not be the last time we see people trying to link a new wireless infrastructure to some kind of deadly disease.”[7]

The 5G COVID-19 Conspiracy

That last example is especially interesting. While there are indeed bona fide conspiracy theories about 5G infrastructure, this particular article was focused on broader concerns that 5G could be a health threat—an idea that is not innately conspiratorial, though it is often linked to claims of conspiratorial cover-ups. So now we’ve gone beyond using “conspiracy theory” to mean “implausible theory, whether or not it involves a conspiracy”; the word “conspiracy” itself is being used to mean “implausible theory, whether or not it involves a conspiracy.”

Frith’s article does include an actual allegation of conspiracy—when the author himself suggests that conspirators may have been spreading these theories. “Journalists have already shown how Russian intelligence agencies have spread rumors about 5G on social media to get people to distrust the technology,” he writes. “It wouldn’t be shocking if Russia played a role in boosting the 5G COVID-19 conspiracy as well.” Such a disinformation campaign would be properly described a “5G COVID-19 conspiracy,” so this sentence is literally accurate. Just not in the way the author intended.[8]

Conceptual Confusion

I wish I could wrap this up with a tidy theory about what this evolution of language suggests about the evolution of American folk psychology, but I’m frankly flummoxed about it. It may be an extension of the change I noted in 2015—if “conspiracy” is starting mean “fringe,” maybe it’s natural for people to drop the “theory” and just use “conspiracy” as shorthand. Alternately, or additionally, it might stem from the sheer number of stories that posit a conspiracy behind the spread of conspiracy theories. Frith’s speculation that the Russians had been spreading crank theories about 5G was not a one-off, after all; it became common in the Trump years for public figures to blame foreign disinformation plots for the popularity of various paranoid ideas. When you’re used to imagining a conspiracy behind a conspiracy theory, perhaps there comes a point when the two concepts become confused.

Or perhaps the change has happened for some entirely different reason. All I know is that if I see a headline on an unfamiliar website tonight that says “We Need to Eliminate Conspiracies,” I would not be sure if the author is calling for eradicating beliefs or eradicating actual plots against the public. No matter how far the scholarly literature may be from a consensus on how to discuss conspiracy theories, at least it isn’t mired in this muddle.

Author Information:

Jesse Walker, jwalker@reason.com, Books Editor, Reason.

[1] Brian L. Keeley. 2023. “Conspiracy Theory and (or as) Folk Psychology.” Social Epistemology 37 (4): 413–422.

[2] Sacha Baron Cohen, “We Must Save Democracy From Conspiracies,” Time, October 8, 2020. Online at time.com/5897501/conspiracy-theory-misinformation.

[3] Baron Cohen did not do himself any favors by being sloppy with his facts as well as his word choices. There are, in fact, many conspiracy theories that are older than the blood libel.

[4] I am by no means the only person to have noticed this. When I pointed out Sacha Baron Cohen’s accidentally paranoid headline on Twitter a few years ago, for example, the filmmaker Kirby Ferguson, director of This Is Not a Conspiracy Theory, replied that this use of the word “drives me nuts.” And Andrew McKenzie-McHarg, author of the forthcoming The Hidden History of Conspiracy Theory, noted the “conspiracy theory”/“conspiracy” confusion in his presentation at the 2023 International Conspiracy Theory Symposium at the University of Miami.

[5] Online at splcenter.org/fighting-hate/extremist-files/individual/alex-jones.

[6] David Bressan, “Study Shows How ‘Bots’ Help Spread Earthquake Conspiracies Online,” Forbes, June 27, 2023. Online at forbes.com/sites/davidbressan/2023/06/27/study-shows-how-bots-help-spread-earthquake-conspiracies-online.

[7] Jordan Frith, “Fearing the Invisible,” Slate, April 7, 2020. Online at slate.com/technology/2020/04/coronavirus-covid19-5g-conspiracy-theory.html.

[8] I should probably note that this is not a bad article: Frith does a decent job of describing how these 5G stories spread and how they fit into the longer pattern of fears around wireless technologies. My point is to note the way the language has been evolving and the sometimes confusing results, not to mock everyone who has followed the linguistic evolution. On at least one occasion, I’ve slipped into this very usage myself. See Jesse Walker, “From Antifa to UFOs, One Joke Can Spawn a Thousand Conspiracies,” Reason, August/September 2020.

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3 replies

  1. I’m curious… you should of course see that all new knowledge naturally starts out as “fringe”. Conservatism in “knowledge” by social pressure is the antithesis of science. Example: the fringe idea that SARS-CoV-2 may have originated the laboratory is no longer fringe. Neither is Pathogenic Priming. Nor Long-Haul COVID. Nor that ventilators killed people. In all fairness to objectivity, an article on examples of conspiracy theories that turned out to be correct would be worthy of your endeavor here, especially with acknowledgement of the sometimes inhumane treatment endured by those (of us) who merely dared to be the first to know, and then dare to commit the cardinal sin of acknowledging new information. Reality will out.

    • I agree and would add that it is not a stretch, nor in any way conspiratorial, as things stand, especially in light of what we have learned (a few mentioned in the reply), that we are witnessing a vast establishment wing, quiet yet flagrant, conspiracy against voices of dissent, from COVID to the War in Ukraine to Palestine to the candidacy of RFK Jr. These voices are “fringe” only to the extent that they are deliberately blocked because they are not sending the requisite signals to be allowed entry – most crucial of which is the demonization tout azimut of their nemesis with which they continue to obsess at all cost, and across the full spectrum of issues. This systematic suppression – this burning of our democracy in order to save it – has not gone unnoticed by a large swath on both sides of the political divide and does not bode well for this establishment under self-imposed siege come November 2024.

  2. Insightful essay. A couple of thoughts: In addition to actual charges brought (The Proud Boys) and convictions landed (The Oath Keepers) in US Federal court of actual conspiracies (both of the seditious kind), we can also look forward to charges by the US Justice Department as well as The State of Georgia to be brought against alleged conspirators allegedly conspiring to promote alleged conspiracy theories against which both authorities will provide evidence to disprove as part of the indictments and beyond (not that such disproving is central in either case). In other words, mingled with the alliterated language and the litany of confused thinking that the author correctly points out, we also have in our landscape of conspiracies and their theories, legally proven conspiracies and soon potentially proven conspiracies promoting conspiracy theories. We do live in interesting times.

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