A Conspiracy So Immense
NEW YORK - Is this the Age of the Conspiracy Theory? Plenty of evidence suggests that we are in something of a golden age for citizen speculation, documentation, and inference that takes shape - usually on the Internet - and spreads virally around the globe. In the process, conspiracy theories are pulled from the margins of public discourse, where they were generally consigned in the past, and sometimes into the very heart of politics.
I learned this by accident. Having written a book about the hijacking of executive power in the United States in the Bush years, I found myself, in researching new developments, stumbling upon conversations online that embrace narratives of behind-the-scenes manipulation.
There are some major themes. A frequent one in the US is that global elites are plotting - via the Bilderberg Group and the Council on Foreign Relations, among others - to establish a "One World Government" dominated by themselves rather than national governments. Sometimes, more folkloric details come into play, broadening the members of this cabal to include the Illuminati, the Freemasons, Rhodes Scholars, or, as always, the Jews.
The hallmarks of this narrative are familiar to anyone who has studied the transmission of certain story categories in times of crisis. In literary terms, this conspiracy theory closely resembles The Protocols of the Elders of Zion , featuring secretive global elite with great power and wicked aims. Historically, there tends to be the same set of themes: fearsome, uncontrolled transformative change led by educated, urbanized cosmopolitans.
Students of Weimar Germany know that sudden dislocations and shocks - rapid urbanization, disruption of traditional family and social ties, loosening of sexual restrictions, and economic collapse - primed many Germans to become receptive to simplistic theories that seemed to address their confusion and offer a larger meaning to their suffering.
Similarly, the "9/11 Truth Movement" asserts that al-Qaeda's attack on the Twin Towers was an "inside job." In the Muslim world, there is a widespread conspiracy theory that the Israelis were behind those attacks, and that all Jews who worked in the buildings stayed home that day.
Usually, conspiracy theories surface where people are poorly educated and a rigorous independent press is lacking. So why are such theories gaining adherents in the US and other affluent democracies nowadays?
Today's explosion of conspiracy theories has been stoked by the same conditions that drove their acceptance in the past: rapid social change and profound economic uncertainty. A clearly designated "enemy" with an unmistakable "plan" is psychologically more comforting than the chaotic evolution of social norms and the workings - or failures - of unfettered capitalism. And, while conspiracy theories are often patently irrational, the questions they address are often healthy, even if the answers are frequently unsourced or just plain wrong.
In seeking answers, these citizens are reacting rationally to irrational realities. Many citizens believe, rightly, that their mass media are failing to investigate and document abuses. Newspapers in most advanced countries are struggling or folding, and investigative reporting is often the first thing they cut. Concentration of media ownership and control further fuels popular mistrust, setting the stage for citizen investigation to enter the vacuum.
Likewise, in an age when corporate lobbyists have a free hand in shaping - if not drafting - public policies, many people believe, again rightly, that their elected officials no longer represent them. Hence their impulse to believe in unseen forces.
Finally, even rational people have become more receptive to certain conspiracy theories because, in the last eight years, we actually have seen some sophisticated conspiracies. The Bush administration conspired to lead Americans and others into an illegal war, using fabricated evidence to do so. Is it any wonder, then, that so many rational people are trying to make sense of a political reality that really has become unusually opaque? When even the 9/11 commissioners renounce their own conclusions (because they were based on evidence derived from torture), is it surprising that many want a second investigation?
Frequently enough, it is citizens digging at the margins of the discourse - pursuing such theories - who report on news that the mainstream media ignores. For example, it took a "conspiracy theorist," Alex Jones, to turn up documentation of microwave technologies to be used by police forces on US citizens. The New Yorker confirmed the story much later - without crediting the original source.
The mainstream media's tendency to avoid checking out or reporting what is actually newsworthy in Internet conspiracy theories partly reflects class bias. Conspiracy theories are seen as vulgar and lowbrow. So even good, critical questions or well-sourced data unearthed by citizen investigators tend to be regarded as radioactive to highly educated formal journalists.
The real problem with this frantic conspiracy theorizing is that it leaves citizens emotionally agitated but without a solid ground of evidence upon which to base their worldview, and without constructive directions in which to turn their emotions. This is why so many threads of discussion turn from potentially interesting citizen speculation to hate speech and paranoia. In a fevered environment, without good editorial validation or tools for sourcing, citizens can be preyed upon and whipped up by demagogues, as we saw in recent weeks at Sarah Palin's rallies after Internet theories painted Barack Obama as a terrorist or in league with terrorists.
We need to change the flow of information in the Internet age. Citizens should be able more easily to leak information, pitch stories, and send leads to mainstream investigative reporters. They should organize new online entities in which they pay a fee for direct investigative reporting, unmediated by corporate pressures. And citizen investigators should be trained in basic journalism: finding good data, confirming stories with two independent sources, using quotes responsibly, and eschewing anonymity - that is, standing by their own bylines, as conventional reporters do.
This is how citizens can be taken - and take themselves - seriously as documenters and investigators of our common situation. In a time of official lies, healthy investigative energy should shed light, not just generate heat.
Naomi Wolf, the author of The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot and Give Me Liberty: A Handbook for American Revolutionaries, is co-founder of the American Freedom Campaign, a US democracy movement.