Conspiracy theories are the new evil of our time—or so we thought. Over the past six months, there has been a unified drive from politicians and Big Tech to ban all conspiracy theories and theorists from the internet. QAnon, Alex Jones, David Icke, many anti-vaxxers and Donald Trump have all been banned or suspended from Twitter and YouTube, along with dozens of public figures, while Facebook and Instagram have removed more than 12 million pieces of content they believed to be spreading disinformation and promoting false, discredited and dangerous conspiracy theories.
A decade ago, people believed that an unregulated world wide web would be the saviour of free expression and would lead (in the case of the Arab Spring) to a hoped for revolutionary emancipation. More recently—especially since the January 2021 storming of the US Capitol—the suspicion that conspiracy theories lead to extremist violence has led to the idea that, if we could only erase all conspiracy theories and fake news, we could create a better society in which transparency and truth reign.
Banning all conspiracy theories would be an immense undertaking, as 50% of Americans currently believe in one conspiracy or another. Nonetheless, the great and the good have been roped into this noble scheme to erase falsehoods and erroneous theories forever, for the good of all.
But this vast project was turned upside down this month, as one of the widely condemned conspiracy theories of last year—the hypothesis that the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic is the result of an accidental lab leak originating at the Wuhan Institute of Virology—turned out not to be a conspiracy theory at all.
Back in 2020, the mainstream media had a field day mocking the lab leak theory. CNN’s Jake Tapper said it should be “put in the conspiracy theory bucket.” The New York Times called it a “fringe theory,” the Huffington Post called it a “debunked fringe theory,” the Washington Post described it as a “conspiracy theory that was already debunked,” and news sites and social media platforms cut and pasted the same hasty dismissals, claiming that the lab leak hypothesis was unscientific, a right-wing fantasy, racist, anti-Chinese and based on politically motivated lies. The roll call of mainstream media who repeated this line would fill the rest of this article.
But as of May 2021, world-renowned scientists, science writers and the WHO are demanding a fresh investigation into the coronavirus lab leak theory, saying it “needs further study.” The lab leak theory has “[gone] mainstream” and “remains plausible.” Even Reuters says that it “cannot be ruled out” and the president of the US is now calling for a fuller, more transparent investigation into the origins of SARS-CoV-2, reversing his administration’s shutdown of the Trump-era State Department’s 2020 probe into the origins of Covid-19. Today, 28 May 2021, Facebook also lifted its ban on posts claiming that Covid-19 was manmade.
This is very embarrassing for all the journalists and social media sites that blocked, banned, ridiculed and failed to report on the theory, and all the Big Tech companies who downgraded it on their search engines and apps. But in addition, if an entire subject can morph from “crazy conspiracy theory” to “plausible” over less than a year, doesn’t that destroy the argument that conspiracy theories are dangerous and should be banned? How can we investigate a subject that has been censored out of existence?
This is not the first time that such a situation has arisen. Over the course of history, a number of conspiracy theories have proved to be true—and the political U-turns have often had disturbing implications.
For example, there was the theory, prevalent in the popular sci-fi writing of Phillip K. Dick in the 1950s and 60s, that the US government was involved in “mind control” and was driving people insane, even to the point of suicide. This idea was dismissed at the time as paranoid, “un-American” rantings—especially since Dick was a troubled genius with mental health problems.
But declassified documents, leaks and memoirs have now proved that the US military did indeed conduct mind control experiments, through its Project MK Ultra, under the control of chemist Sidney Gottlieb. These experiments were covertly funded and conducted on students at 44 US and 80 Canadian universities and colleges, along with prisoners in American prisons and in detention centres in Japan, Germany and the Philippines. The mostly unwitting human subjects were subjected to the “most sustained search in history for techniques of mind control.” Gottlieb’s test subjects endured psychological torture, were given high doses of LSD and subjected to sleep deprivation, electroshocks and repeated interrogations. Many never recovered. The Unabomber was one such test subject and the psychological damage from the MK Ultra experiments may have destroyed his mental health.
The idea that the US government is spying on you and tracking your every move began during the Cold War. The phrase tinfoil hat actually emerged in the 50s as a slander to dismiss critics as conspiracy theorists and misrepresent their claims. It was widely known that communist East Germany subjected its civilian population to extensive surveillance by the Stasi, but the US government was thought to be above such practices. Despite this, the belief in widespread government surveillance emerged fully in some anti-tech anarchist and libertarian circles in the 1980s. It took on a paradoxical quality, since what was initially a paranoid fantasy became a reality early in the 2000s, with the advent of smartphones. Perhaps if the conspiracy theory had never existed, governments would never have thought of working with tech companies to develop smart tech civilian surveillance in the first place. This might be the first historical case of a conspiracy theory inspiring a real conspiracy.
The NSA (founded in 1952) has made many public denials of its engagement in mass surveillance of the civilian population. The façade, however, was shattered in 2013 when classified documents about the PRISM programme were leaked to journalists from the Guardian and the Washington Post by then NSA contractor Edward Snowden. According to Snowden, the NSA could secretly access data from voice chat, email, photos, videos, location signals, voice-over-IP chats (like Skype), file transfers and social networking details to perform “extensive, in-depth surveillance on live communications and stored information.” Snowden claimed that the NSA, FBI, CIA and DIA can all access any individual’s data under the PRISM programme.
A more recent report by the Washington Post claims that the NSA has the ability to track mobile phones even when they are turned off. This technology is not new: the NSA has been using this technique, called the find, since September 2004. According to a special operations officer, it was used to assist in identifying “thousands of new targets, including members of a burgeoning al-Qaeda-sponsored insurgency in Iraq.”
Government, police and hackers can access your phone and turn on the microphone, camera and locator. Any smart device constantly looks for cell towers nearby and, each time your phone pings, one of these towers records your phone’s metadata, which is collected by the cellular service provider (CSP) and retained for five years. We now know that, since as far back as the 1970s, the National Security Agency’s secret surveillance network has been working with as many as 100 “trusted US companies” to spy on hundreds of millions of American citizens’ phone calls.
The US government has been caught spying on the public, as conspiracy theorists have claimed, on numerous occasions over the years: see Room 614A, SCS, Turbulence, X-Keystore, Fairview, NDNAD, Matrix and Thinthread.
Another conspiracy theory, popular from the 1920s to 40s, was that the Soviets and fascists were conducting inhumane experiments together, on children. The theory was mocked as mere propaganda by those who claimed that the Soviets would never collaborate with the fascists. But there was a horribly real basis to this theory: Ivan Pavlov (1849–1936) subjected children to essentially the same tests he performed on his eponymous dogs: experiments that involved cutting a hole into the cheek of the test subject and installing a saliva-measuring device to monitor “conditioned reflexes,” such as salivation at the ringing of a bell. The children were taken from orphanages in Mussolini’s Italy, while the funding came from the USSR. There was a conspiracy to keep these inhumane and illegal experiments hidden, especially since the Allies wanted to conceal Soviet-fascist collaborations after the USSR joined the Allied struggle in 1941. The truth was accidentally exposed when the 1926 film Mechanics of the Brain emerged from the archives after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Among the other conspiracy theories that turned out to be true was the 1953–56 Project Sunshine, in which humans were deliberately exposed to atomic tests, so that their skin could be used to gather data on the effects of radiation.
There was the conspiracy theory that pharmaceutical companies were spreading AIDS, through contaminated blood: which seems to have been true in some cases.
There was the conspiracy that the US government employed Nazi scientists after World War II, which is now well known to have been true, in the form of Operation Paperclip.
There was also the Katyn incident of May 1940 in which the NKVD (the Soviet secret police) were responsible for the mass murder of 22,000 Polish military officers and representatives of Poland’s elite. Stalin dismissed this as a Nazi conspiracy theory, and while the US and the Soviets remained allies in the battle against the Nazis, the US went along with the Soviet whitewash. It was not until the late 1980s and perestroika that the truth came out.
From this perspective, conspiracy theory is the derogatory name that those in power use to discredit people who suspect or know the truth about something which the powerful have attempted to cover up. Facts that are almost too horrific to believe can easily be hidden from public scrutiny by claiming that this is just a conspiracy theory.
The other way to dismiss conspiracy theories is to imply that it’s impossible for human beings to embark on certain projects because they would be too complex and therefore require the involvement of too many co-conspirators to be feasible. This is often true, of course: there neither is nor ever has been a secret cabal that has achieved world domination.
Most cabal conspiracy theories are neurotic fabrications, often variants on the same theme: the world is governed by a secret society of bogeymen, such as the World Bank Conspiracy, the Illuminati, the Rothschild global banking cartel, the ZOG (Zionist Occupation Government) or even a secret race of lizards. Since most of these theories contain a racial element—many are antisemitic—critics sometimes intimate that all such beliefs are grounded in xenophobia. One clearly fake example that supposedly proves such a conspiracy is the 1903 The Protocols of the Elders of Zion—a text first created by the tsarist secret police and later used by the Nazis to suggest the existence of a Jewish conspiracy to achieve global domination.
Yet history is littered with very real cabals plotting to overthrow nations and take over the world. The Gunpowder Plot was perhaps the most famous, but it was only one of at least six such conspiracies from that period alone (others included the Ridolfi Plot, the Throgmorton Plot, the North Earl’s Rebellion, the Babington Plot and the Bye Plot).
Another New World Order conspiracy theory that is actually true is the Communist World Domination Conspiracy: a theory both much believed and much derided during the McCarthy era in the US. The Communist International (Comintern) was indeed a cabal of conspirators planning world domination, who held seven international meetings between 1919 and 1943. The plans involved internationally funded front organisations, which aimed to spread revolt, cause general strikes in developing and colonial countries, and infiltrate reformist parties in the west.
(Ironically, though, by the time of Joe McCarthy’s red scare, the Comintern no longer posed a real threat.)
The CIA and MI6 also meddled in the Middle East on a number of occasions: from the 1953 coup that overthrew Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossaddegh, to the Iran-Contra affair of 1987. Such meddlings constitute cabal-like conspiracies to control other nations and influence the future of global trade, economics and political hegemony. Whether the plotters meet in smoke-filled map rooms or over international video conferencing, western nations continue to conspire for control over the Middle East and its resources.
So, given that many historical conspiracy theories have turned out to be true and that actual conspiracies to control populations and to shape the future of nations and the world have really existed and continue to do so, what would it mean to rid our media and social media of conspiracy theories today?
Would we want to erase the now certified truth about Project MK Ultra or Project Sunshine or about the way in which the Bayer corporation accidentally spread AIDS in 1983—because those in power once claimed that these were conspiracy theories?
If the SARS-CoV-2 lab leak theory turns out to be scientifically verified truth, many in the mainstream media who dismissed it as a conspiracy theory would have been complicit in a cover up of the real reason behind the deaths of 3.4 million people.
There will always be conspiracies and there will always be theories about them. And some of those theories will turn out to be true. In the meantime, we should be deeply suspicious of those who try to silence their political enemies by labelling them conspiracy theorists.
Ewan Morrison’s new conspiracy thriller, the novel How to Survive Everything, will be published in paperback in the US in June 2021. It is available now as an ebook on Amazon Kindle.