Debunking Conspiracy Theories
Berlet is an analyst with Political Research Associates, a Massachusetts-based
organization. PRA monitors and reports on the political right wing.
Berlet’s articles appear in the
, and the
magazine. He is the editor of
Eyes Right: Challenging the Right
and co-author of
Right-Wing Populism in America
Let’s start with a working definition of conspiracy theory.
I’m going to make a distinction between conspiracy and conspiracism,
which is a way of seeing the world that overvalues the role of individual
actors and undercuts any kind of systemic or institutional analysis.
Conspiracism sees the world as governed by plots hatched by relatively
small groups of people.
millennia there’s been a fascination with intrigue, cabals,
Machiavellian plots, and shadowy figures and dark forces. What are
Western culture especially, the idea is that there will be a millennial
reign of Jesus Christ and also prophecies from the Book of Revelation
about the End Times during which trusted political and religious
figures form an alliance with the Antichrist on behalf of the devil.
So the particular strain of Christian evangelicalism in the U.S.
is rooted in this centuries-old, millennia-old idea that in the
End Times there will be vast conspiracies against the average person.
does this appeal to? Who are the consumers of conspiracy theories
and who are the purveyors?
people today who believe in conspiracy theory as the way the world
works are people who are trying to figure out something about how
power is exercised. People who believe in conspiracy theory are
correct in analyzing that the world does not work the way power
elites say it works; that there is a disjuncture between how power
is realized and how we’re told the U.S. works—as a democracy
with everyone having a vote and everyone having a role in developing
policies for the United States.
problem is when this is all attempted to be knit together into one
seamless tapestry that goes back hundreds of years and involves
everybody who is in the media, education, and politics. It’s
this extension into complete control over all aspects of a person’s
life that debunks conspiracy just on the basis of rational investigation.
You simply can’t have a conspiracy that goes back centuries
and extends across so many different sectors of a society and not
have it unravel as people turn against each other.
of the groups that keep turning up over and over again are, for
example, the Trilateral Commission, the Council on Foreign Relations,
the Illuminati, the Bilderburgers, the Rockefellers, and others.
of these are institutions that have real power in the world and
we should be investigating them as power brokers. The dilemma is
assuming because a group has power that it has control. There are
many powerful groups that meet and plot strategy. The Bilderburgers
are a real banking group, the Trilateral Commission really does
affect foreign policy.
there isn’t one group that is the puppeteer over everything;
there are a number of groups that are jockeying for power. Sometimes
they work together, sometimes they have falling-outs. That’s
the distinction here. An institutional analysis would look at the
role of these powerful groups and say, “This is where they’ve
been successful, this is where they’ve failed. These groups
worked together for a number of years. Now they don’t work
together.” It’s the insistence on a kind of Manichean
thinking: there are evil forces in the world and good people have
to expose them, and everything will be fine once they are exposed.
This is a magical explanation of how the world works. Power concedes
nothing without a struggle, as Frederick Douglass pointed out. You
cannot change the way power is exercised in the world simply by
exposing a handful of people. There needs to be a struggle to explain
how systems and institutions and structures of society affect us.
if we could expose a handful of people who are powerful, there would
still be powerful forces of capitalism and class exploitation. There
would be powerful forces of white supremacy. There would be patriarchy.
There would be heterosexism.
your research, what groups and individuals have you identified as
principal disseminators of these kinds of ideas?
over the 2,000 years of Christian millennial, apocalyptic allegations
of conspiracy, we can cut to the chase around the late 1700s. The
basic idea really starts as a defense of the monarchy and oligarchy
in Europe against the Enlightenment, against free thinkers and liberal
thinkers in Europe who were demanding that citizens have a right
to have a say in their society. People who defended church-state
alliance, the monarchy, and oligarchy put out a series of books
alleging that calling for voting and democracy and the scientific
method and the Enlightenment was all a plot by people trying to
destroy society by undermining church and state. The basic allegations
of modern conspiracy thinking start out as a right-wing attack in
defense of the status quo. Ironically, as more and more democracy
was introduced into society, this flips and people now are criticizing
the government, claiming that the government is run by the conspiracy.
many decades these are right-wing theories that surface against
the Jesuits, against Jews, against anarchists, and during the McCarthy
period, against Communists. The basic theme is that the reason you’re
unhappy with the government is that there are these secret elites
who run everything. The original allegations started out with the
Illuminati, which is said to be controlling the Freemasons. In the
1900s, this gets changed to the “Protocols of the Learned Elders
of Zion,” a hoax document that alleges that Jews run everything.
In the 1950s, it’s all about the Communists and the State Department
and the CIA versus the really righteous people in the military and
conservative groups. Today it filters down so that a number of progressives
have adopted this way of thinking and claim that ever since the
JFK assassination the government has been run by a handful of secret
reason I get so frustrated with this is that we’re sitting
here in a library. Just a few feet from us there are 300 or 400
books written by right wingers over the last 50 years making all
of these allegations. Then I have a shelf of books by progressives
who have adopted this way of thinking and made it a progressive
issue by abandoning any kind of systemic institutional or structural
it’s fair to say that conspiracy theories are not the province
of the left or the right?
become widespread in U.S. society. Looking at conspiracy thinking
has become so popular throughout U.S. society that it has become
a way of thinking that’s quite popular not just in politics
but in entertainment. So we have some people who see politics as
essentially “The X Files.” I loved “The X Files.”
I saw it as entertainment—they read it as the structure of
how the world really works.
about some of the characteristics and the patterns that you find
in conspiracy theories.
is a habit of people who promote conspiracism to delete from the
discussion any counterevidence. I think that’s very clearly
the case with the people who are talking about 9/11 being a plot
by the Bush administration or the Mossad from Israel. They come
up with all these tantalizing little facts and then string them
together into a conclusion that isn’t borne by the facts. What’s
more, the facts they choose don’t include all the facts that
would negate their assumption. They delete any evidence that contradicts
what they’re saying.
and I think in some cases most dishonestly, they will lay out a
series of allegations based on a series of facts and when these
facts are later shown not to be facts, they either pretend that
their facts haven’t been refuted or that somehow this refutation
is itself part of the broader conspiracy. There is no way to challenge
this kind of conspiracy thinking.
Internet seems to have emerged as some kind of fount of truth and
wisdom for people who claim they’re doing research.
don’t want to knock the Internet. The Internet has democratized
the flow of information a whole lot, but there is this process that
people are ignoring, which is anyone can post an Internet site and
make any claim. You need to be a little skeptical when you first
look at any information from the Internet. But I don’t think
censorship is the answer and I think to have the free and horizontally
democratic kind of media that the Internet brings us in the long
run is a good idea, and we have to put up with the junk that appears
on the Internet. It’s up to us to be skeptical.
prominent conspiracy theories are the assassination of John F. Kennedy
and September 11. Both have evolved into cottage industries, with
oracles and films and websites and books and conferences. What is
there in the grassy knoll that keeps resonating with people?
think that people had two choices: (1) they had to look at some
of the forces in society and engage its complexity or (2) blame
the bogeyman. I’m one of the few people who actually read the
Warren Commission report. I can tell you that it was lousy research.
One of the things the Warren Commission did, for instance, was look
at a number of political assassinations in the South during the
late 1800s, during Reconstruction and Redemption, and missed the
fact that this was a political struggle and attributed all those
assassinations to, basically, lone gunmen. That’s idiotic.
Most of the political assassinations during that period were part
of the struggle between the people who wanted to restore the antebellum
South and the people who wanted to have a more democratic society
that included the freed slaves as participants. Those were political
assassinations; they were not motivated by single crazy people.
the basic research of the Warren Commission was terrible. However,
what a lot of people did—and this really starts on the left
with Mark Lane and his book—was to valorize Kennedy in some
way—this idea that Kennedy represented some ideal, utopian
presidency and that his assassination, therefore, ushered in everything
that was bad, especially the continuation of the Vietnam War. There
are legitimate arguments back and forth about what Kennedy was planning
on doing, but the bottom line is that you cannot ascribe everything
bad that has happened since November 22, 1963 as flowing from this
single assassination. The attacks on the civil rights movements,
the escalation of the war in Vietnam, the Iran-Contra scandal, these
are not all traceable back to the Kennedy assassination. If you
look at some web pages, you will see that when they recommend the
books that you need to read to understand U.S. politics—not
just the Kennedy assassination, but the Robert F. Kennedy assassination,
the Martin Luther King assassination, Flight TWA 800, and the AIDS
virus—they’re all somehow connected to this power elite
that runs everything and is destroying the world.
Oliver Stone’s movie,
, he inserted grainy
footage into the movie, which many people may have thought was actual
documentary footage. The narration underneath was whispering, “Coup
d’etat, coup d’etat.”
of course, is a common theme of a number of authors, that the Kennedy
assassination represented a coup d’etat by secret, powerful
forces. The allegation that comes through in
one that starts in the political right wing, which is that the military-industrial
complex killed Kennedy. But you have to understand that this theory
came from groups like the John Birch Society, which were so far
to the right that they thought the Kennedy government was left-wing.
But also, they thought that the military-industrial complex was
a liberal, left-wing plot involving internationalism, so that they
thought that this was an internecine struggle within liberalism
and within the left and within the Rockefeller internationalists.
left comes along. They don’t like the military-industrial complex.
They take this allegation. They delete the right-wing analysis about
the military-industrial complex being left wing and internationalist
and part of the corporate global elites and they invert it and say,
“Well, we know the military-industrial complex is right-wing.
Therefore, the right wing killed Kennedy; therefore, Kennedy had
to be good.” This is very appealing, but it’s completely
nonrational and nonlogical and there is no evidence to defend it.
you start with the idea that these are people you don’t like
who are killing someone you do like. Therefore, the person they’re
killing has to be good; therefore, their plot has to be attributed
to these people that you start out by not liking. You know who you
don’t like. And just because the original analysis says they’re
left wing doesn’t bother you. That’s what happens over
and over again: this right-wing theory of conspiracy, which you
track through Father Coughlin and the money manipulators and Phyllis
A Choice Not an Echo
, and the Christian right
talking about liberal secular humanism, and during the 1950s, the
idea that there is a communist menace that’s promoting not
just sexuality, but also integration. Or the idea that comes out
during Danny Sheehan’s reign at the Christic Institute, that
everything the CIA and everything Oliver North was doing was part
of some secret team. In fact, there is no secret team. There is
U.S. foreign policy and there are covert operations.
don’t think for a moment that the people who really run the
country inside the White House and inside the Congress don’t
know what’s going on. There were people who knew what was going
on. They tried to hide it from the rest of us and that got exposed.
But all of this goes back to the idea that there are not huge economic
forces that help run the U.S., there are just these bad people.
If you replace these bad people with honest people, somehow all
of these structural forces of capitalism, of class, race, gender,
sexual identity, none of this really matters. What matters is this
handful of people who run everything.
theory, any ideological theory that looks at the structures and
institutions of society and government and global politics and domestic
politics and looks at the complex forces that are jockeying for
power will give you a lens that will accurately allow you to describe
reality and call for change. If, however, your lens is conspiracy
thinking, then there are no social-change options available other
than chasing these loose threads of conspiracy forever.
are numerous theories about what happened on September 11. They
have two variants: one is that the Bush administration organized
the events of September 11; and the variant of that is, they didn’t
organize it, but they let it happen. Is there any evidence to support
either of those two allegations?
that I’ve seen. Have the people that have alleged these things
to be true met the requirements of either basic logic or conventional
journalistic practices? I don’t think so.
people say,“Well, how was the government able to identify bin
Laden right away? What about the Patriot Act? What about Afghanistan?
What about Iraq?”
don’t think the government had enough evidence to identify
bin Laden right away. I think that they just leapt at that. When
they were making these claims, I don’t think they could prove
it. But that happens all the time. Remember, after the Oklahoma
City bombing in 1995, all of these experts, like Steven Emerson
and Vincent Cannistraro, came forward and said, “You know,
this has the hallmark of Middle Eastern terrorists.” The government
and the media both came out and alleged that Timothy McVeigh—when
they finally dismissed the overtly racist claims about Muslims and
Arabs—was a member of the militia movement. It turns out that
he wasn’t a member of the militia movement, he was a neo-Nazi
trying to get the militia movement to move towards him.
the thinking here is that these outcomes clearly benefited the Bush
administration agenda so that it must have been involved.
the basic fallacy of logic, sequence implies causation. If sequence
implies causation, then anything that happens before and after can
be linked. And that’s not true. What’s more, it erases
a whole history. We know, for instance, that almost all of the aspects
of the Patriot Act had been proposed for ten years by conservatives
who were horrified by the regulations and the restrictions that
were put on government intelligence agencies after the FBI COINTEL
program was exposed. When Reagan took office, he began to unravel
regulations and restrictions. Clinton continued this policy. So
it’s both Democrats and Republicans. We know from reading reports
from the Heritage Foundation and from conservative pro-intelligence
agency journals that these folks wanted a whole lot more power in
the hands of law enforcement and the intelligence agencies.
is a much more logical explanation is that, given the horrendous
events on 9/11, this gigantic wish list from conservative pro-intelligence
agency people was put back on the table, and neither the Republicans
nor the Democrats had the backbone to stand up against it so it
passed into law. That is a much more rational and reasonable explanation
for what happened and it assumes that whenever there is some amazingly
tragic and focusing event, there are people ready to exploit it
to pursue their own ends. That’s really how the world works.
often you will find in police brutality cases that it’s not
that the police targeted a particular person, it’s that because
somebody got beat up, they go back to the cop shop and that’s
when the conspiracy to cover up begins. So it’s not that a
particular person gets targeted, it’s that police beat up people
all the time and then try and cover it up. Very often when political
people are involved in some kind of altercation where physical violence
occurs on the part of police, they’re going to claim that,
“I was beaten up because they know I’m a radical leader,”
when in fact they were beaten up because cops beat up people who
get in their face. The conspiracy to cover it up starts later. That’s
a basic misunderstanding of how bureaucracies defend themselves
and exploit opportunities after the fact.
of the hijacked planes on September 11 came from Logan Airport in
Boston. There is a U.S. Air Force base, Otis, on Cape Cod. Were
they scrambled and involved in intercepting the planes?
argument is that they scrambled, but they were delayed and that
they could not have really been trying to intercept the planes because
the top speed of those jets would have meant that they would have
gotten to the World Trade Center so fast that they would have really
been able to stop the second plane. This is based on a whole series
of false assumptions about how jets are scrambled, how fast they
are alerted, how fast they can get up to top speed once they’re
in the air.
think that there were serious errors in not notifying them in time,
serious errors in terms of deciding which air bases were tasked
with scrambling. There clearly are people who didn’t do their
jobs. Having said that, there is no evidence to suggest that there
was a plan to not notify these air bases. You can look at some of
the articles in the
or small newspapers on Cape
Cod that interviewed the pilots when they came back. The pilots
were crushed that they couldn’t get there in time. There are
some very good interviews with people up and down the line, who
said, “I wish we had reacted faster.”
people question why Bush continued sitting in a Florida classroom
after Andrew Card, his chief of staff, informed him that the first
tower had been struck.
you’re going to try to argue that Bush set up this whole chain
of events, or at least knew about it and did nothing, then you would
think that his reactions during the day could have been better and
more skillfully plotted out by his handlers, who obviously tell
him what to say, where to go, and what to think. We have a situation
where Bush seems to act in an inappropriate way. He then went into
hiding, which certainly didn’t help him because it was the
wrong thing to do in terms of his image. So if you’re arguing
that this was all skillfully plotted, then why was his reaction
that day and his handlers’ reactions so inept? I can’t
tell you why Bush didn’t immediately burst into tears and rip
off his shirt and throw sackcloth and ashes on, but I can tell you
that because he didn’t is not proof of anything.
the attack on the Pentagon on that same Tuesday morning in September.
There are photos purporting to show that a Boeing did not hit the
Pentagon, that it was a missile. Have you looked into that?
have because that’s easy to refute. There were so many people
who saw the plane hit the Pentagon that you would have to argue
that there were hundreds of witnesses who were the Manchurian candidates
of this operation. There were people sitting in an office building,
there were people walking around in the parking lot, there were
people who were eating breakfast who saw the plane hit the Pentagon.
all the hard evidence we have as to overt criminal action by the
government—the use of chemical warfare, from Agent Orange in
Vietnam to depleted uranium and cluster bombs in Iraq; to the planning
and waging of aggressive war in Iraq—with all of those things,
why bother with this stuff?
sometimes these allegations are so hyperbolic that they are used
to increase the status and authority of the people making the claims.
I think there is a kind of competition for outrage. By being able
to claim that you know that George Bush ordered the attack on the
Twin Towers, you gain higher visibility because of the outrageousness
of that claim. But here’s the thing. It’s a game that
has no end. I could claim, like David Icke does, that all of this
is controlled by alien lizard monsters from outer space. The problem
is that it distracts attention from those things that we could be
talking to our neighbors about how society is structured to ensure
that a certain number of people are unemployed. Do we like that
as a policy for the economy of the United States? Do we like the
policy being put forward by the Bush administration of being the
global cop of the world? If we go into a political setting and say,
“Bush engineered the attack on 9/11,” we are closing the
door to reaching into new communities that we can bring into the
movement for social change. It is suicidal for progressives to make
these outlandish claims on scant, if any, information and documentation
when there is so much really good reporting going on.
theorists are right—something is wrong. But we’re not
going to change things by running down six white guys drinking bourbon
in a basement on Wall Street. We’re going to change things
by showing how people are affected by a political and economic system
that values wealth and power and privilege and we need to change
that to value democracy, diversity, and equality.
is the average citizen to do, facing this blizzard of charges and
countercharges and theories and countertheories? How do you make
sense of it?
don’t think you should try to make sense of it because I think
it’s like Umberto Eco’s novel
where the protagonist decides to try and chase all of these loose
ends, and in the chase he discovers more loose ends. He leaves his
job and he begins this quest of showing the gigantic conspiracy.
By the end of the book it’s clear that what Eco is saying is
there is an infinite number of loose ends, there is an infinite
number of questions for which there will never be an answer. You
have a choice: you can take part in real life and deal with real
issues that affect you in a real way or you can go on that endless
quest for finding those loose ends and tying them together. And
the choice is yours.
of Alternative Radio in Boulder, Colorado (www.alternativeradio.org)
has two new books:
The Checkbook & the Cruise Missile
with Arundhati Roy, and
Louder than Bombs