A Culture of Conspiracy

University of California Press, 2013 (2nd ed.)

We live in a conspiratorial world. Popular discourse is permeated by conspiracy theories which have become an inescapable part of the American political and media landscape. No longer is conspiracy the stuff of tinfoil hats and the “lunatic fringe” – conspiracy is mainstream. While more outlandish ideas like Holocaust denial and the “reptoid” hypothesis of David Icke remain largely marginalized, a host of other conspiracy theories such as those pedalled by Anti-Vaxxers, COVID-19 skeptics, Illuminati “researchers,” and theorists warning of the “New World Order” and the “Deep State” have gained significant mainstream attention. While many of these ideas have long existed in the American conspiratorial milieu, they received significant legitimation in the lead up to the 2016 election and the concerted effort by Donald Trump and his supporters to attack the media and elevate illegitimate claims and illegitimate platforms into the mainstream discourse. “Crooked Hilary,” Podesta emails, Obama’s birth certificate, John McCain’s military record, and even the outrageous claims of a pedophilic Democratic cabal (known as “Pizzagate”) played a role in the presidential campaign. In the “post truth era” conspiracy claims have flourished and are often openly supported by the President. While Trumpian populism is partly to blame, I would assert that his conspiratorial political style would not be possible without the internet. While it is easy to point to cable media networks like Fox News and One America News, it is the decentralized, gate-keeper free realm of the internet that has proved most fertile for conspiracy. Message Boards like 4chan, 8chan (now 8kun), and Reddit and social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have fostered not only the spread of conspiratorial ideas, but helped create conspiratorial communities like QAnon, the Boogaloo Boys, the Men’s Rights Movement, and the Flat Earth Society. Furthermore, alt-right online platforms like Breitbart and Alex Jones’ InfoWars fan the flames of conspiracy, feeding off of fears and ideas of the aforementioned online communities. The question remains, however, how did we get here? 

In his 2003 study on conspiracy theory in America, A Culture of Conspiracy, Political Scientist Michael Barkun attempts to trace the lineage and evolution of conspiratorial claims in the United States. Barkun, a professor at Syracuse University, has devoted most of his academic career to studying the far right in the U.S. and is well-equipped to tackle the topic at hand. Barkun explains that at the core of conspiracy is an effort to delineate and explain “evil.” Those embracing conspiracy belief want to neatly organize reality into a Manichean world of “good” and “evil.” At the core of conspiratorial thinking, Barkun emphasizes, is “the belief that an organization made up of individuals and groups was or is acting covertly to achieve some malevolent end.” (3) Conspiracy theory is appealing because it simplifies complex geo- and socio-political issues into simple terms. Acknowledging a gray, amoral world is far more disconcerting for many – absolute evil is simply easier to comprehend. Furthermore, Barkun argues that conspiracy theories develop and expand based on the idea of “stigmatized knowledge,” or claims that have been rejected by traditional institutions, such as academia, the state, or religious institutions. (26-27) Stigmatized knowledge may include ancient ideas like astrology and dousing, alternative religious ideas like theosophy and gnostic Christianity, alternative academic thought like pseudo-archaeology (Atlantis, ancient aliens, hyperdiffusionism, etc.) and pseudo-science (flat earth theory, parapsychology, ley lines, etc.), political event conspiracy (Kennedy assassination, moon landing, etc.), paranormal claims of UFOs or cryptozoology, and even rejected racial, religious, and social ideas of Social Darwinism, anti-Semitism, etc. These stigmatized ideas appeal to conspiracy theorists because of their rejected nature. The fact that these ideas have been ignored, refuted, or forgotten means that they are of deep value in the war against “evil.” If traditional authorities are corrupt and evil and they reject these ideas, these claims, by their very nature, must be true. This helps explain another important appeal of conspiracy theories, their unfalsifiable nature. Since conspiracy theories assume that we live in a world of mass, covert evil, any disconfirming evidence of conspiratorial claims is simply evidence of deeper cover-ups and machinations of evil-doers. 

Barkun essentially divides the origins of American conspiracy into three basic realms: historical political and racial animosities, right-wing evangelicalism, and New Age ideas. The author takes readers through a dizzying array of movements and figures – from the eighteenth-century Bavarian Illuminati and the nineteenth-century Anti-Masonic Party, to Dispensational Pentecostalism, Hal Lindsey, Reverend Jerry Falwell, and itinerant evangelist John Todd (who claimed to be John F. Kennedy’s personal warlock), and to even more far-flung realms such as FEMA “concentration camps,” mind control, underground alien bases in the New Mexico desert, right-wing doomsday militias, and the pedophile lizard aliens claimed by former U.K. footballer David Icke. Part of the beauty of A Culture of Conspiracy is its range of coverage. It is unlikely any reader will be familiar with all of these movements, figures, and concepts. Though these ideas may seem disparate and incompatible, a key feature of modern conspiracy is its syncretism. Barkun makes a compelling argument that concepts like the Antichrist, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and shape-shifting lizard aliens can freely mingle in the realm of stigmatized knowledge. Most humans are not theologians, political theorists, or “ascended masters” who strongly adhere to orthodoxy. More often they create their own “orthodoxies” that are remarkably heterogeneous and adaptable. As such, conspiracies become increasingly complex and expansive, evolving into what Barkun calls “superconspiracies.” (6) Most of what we see posited today fall into one or more of these superconspiracies, whether it’s the “Deep State” espoused by Alex Jones, QAnon’s “Black Hats,” the “Luciferians” promoted by right-wing Evangelicals, or Trump/MAGA’s “swamp.” In fact, if you scan Twitter, most of these terms are interchangeable. 

While it is easy to dismiss conspiratorial thinking as “fringe,” it is worth considering how prevalent it is in the American landscape. Chapman University’s Paranormal America Study (2018) showed more than half the American public believes in existences of antediluvian civilians (ex. Atlantis) and 41% in the interference of E.T.s in the ancient past. About ⅕ of the population believes in Bigfoot, and 26% acknowledge the existence of mental powers such as ESP and telekinesis. In fact, ~75% of the population holds at least one paranormal belief. Though the survey does not explicitly examine the extent to which Americans link these ideas to conspiracies, most have inherently conspiratorial dimensions. Cable shows like Ancient Aliens, Finding Bigfoot, Ghost Adventures, and America Unearthed, which are key touchstones of these beliefs, are deeply conspiratorial and reference government cover-ups and suppression of the “truth” by forces of darkness. 

Barkun’s study is incredibly valuable and provides an excellent framework for understanding why conspiratorial thinking persists and the stigmatized pools from which it pulls. While valuable, this book is undoubtedly an academic text. It’s language and design make it inaccessible for many and even those with solidly academic backgrounds might be bewildered by some of the topics Barkun covers. This said, it is not an incredibly long text and I highly recommend it to those interested in better understanding the perplexing cultural and political landscape we currently find ourselves in. As a high school history teacher, I encounter conspiracies constantly from my students. I’ve had to address flat earth, ancient aliens, the Illuminati, Bigfoot, Hilary’s “pedo cult,” Pizzagate, “black helicopters,” Nostradamus prophecies, 5G conspiracies, and Anti-Vaxxers just to name a few. I was even accused of being one of David Icke’s reptilians, which I wear as a badge of pride. In an era where most news consumption occurs through rapid-fire social media posts on TikTok, Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, I fear this is not only getting worse, it’s the new normal. In 2003, Barkun suggested that conspiracy theories were becoming “mainstreamed.” (181) He argued that this process essentially had two possible outcomes. Either, this mainstreaming would lead to the dissolution of the conspiratorial subcultures he identified at the time, or that it would contribute to a mass rejection of authority (“Trust no one!”) and blur the lines between legitimate and stigmatized knowledge. (188-89) Barkun furthered that if the latter were true, there existed a strong potential for violence. Given the mass shootings committed by white nationalist conspiracy theorists, the violence enacted at the Unite the Right Rally in 2017, the proliferation of militias like the Three Percenters and the Boogaloo Boys, and even an attempt to take over the Hoover Dam by a QAnon follower, it’s clear which of Barkun’s visions we live in. The fringe is fringe no longer.

8 thoughts on “A Culture of Conspiracy

  1. Thank you for sharing this, Calen. There is a lot to ponder here. The two politically key assertions would seem to be the role of what Barkun calls Manichaeism and the ability of disparate groups to embrace each others’ ideas syncretically. Manichaeism relates to the human quest to secret knowledge and access to the spiritual realm that distinguishes them from mere science and banal facts. The syncretism is more malleable, allowing for fluid alliances with other groups challenging mainstream understandings. This flight from Enlightenment skepticism with its standards for evidence have unfortunately resulted in our current political nightmare.

    This book addresses themes that I want at the center of this blog’s concerns. The question that remains unanswered would seem to be the role of monied interests in promoting this willful ignorance. The John Birch society had magnificent sources of wealth. Breitbart News has promoted inane conspiracies due to the massive flow of wealth from the Mercer billions. Murdoch, of course, has cursed us with Fox News, which is never far removed from the Alex Jones wing of the Republican Party.

    How the paranormal fits here is not fully clear. One, for example, cannot but be impressed by phenomena that do not have scientific explanation. How does one explain, for example, the musical genius of child prodigies able to play complex music pieces by ear from virtual infancy?

    It is all too clear that the role of social media has intensified and accelerated conspiratorial activity since the publication of Barkun’s book. Its value would appear to be the foundation it sets for delineating the various sources of conspiratorial thinking and as something of a reference point for how this thinking operated prior to the explosion of social media over the last decade.

    Last, but not least, is the way that social media may be manipulated by state actors.

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    1. In response to the paranormal dimension, it might be worth distinguishing the paranormal from something that is simply anomalous or unexplained. A majority of paranormal proponents operate in the realm of pseudo-science or occultism. While there might be debates over how a child develops amazing talents, most scholars would find fringe explanations of alien genetic interference or the reincarnation of Mozart difficult to substantiate. Many paranormal claims like those made by ancient aliens proponents, parapsychologists, and cryptologists either utterly lack credible evidence or have been outright disproven by scientists, historians, archaeologists, etc. A key element of most paranormal writing, at least in the last hundred or so years is open anti-intellectualism and conspiracy mongering. Rather than accept that these ideas lack a concrete basis in reality, many paranormal proponents double down and accuse the academy, government, or other shadowy forces of cover ups. Why the government would need to cover up the existence of bigfoot is beyond me, but if you read bigfoot literature, it is full of these claims. I agree with Barkun that paranormal thinking is one of several lines of belief in the U.S. that helps proliferate conspiracies. To put it perhaps in a different way, not everyone who holds a paranormal belief is a committed conspiracy theorist, but high levels of paranormal belief tend to correspond with conspiratorial thinking.

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      1. Thank you for that further clarification. My concern is rather to make sure we affirm the importance of science and evidence-based thinking while preserving the possibility of faith, wonder, mystery, and even miracles. It is important that we keep our focus on those arenas of poor thinking and scholarship that are most at fault in bringing otherwise well-intentioned people to bizarre political conclusions. I’m glad, for example, that Barkun spends a great deal of time examining the inane work of Hal Lindsey. I can think of no one who has poisoned the minds of evangelicals more than him. I speak from personal experience!

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  2. Great review thanks. I feel like I’m seeing an outpouring of conspiracy theories In my work as a therapist and in my personal life. I’m wondering what your thoughts are about prevention of conspiracy theories and challenging them? I’ve really started to change my own stance to applying critical thinking and being more outspoken.

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    1. Thank you! That’s the million dollar question isn’t it? I think there’s two parts to this question – the broader, social level and the individual level. In terms of broader social acceptance of conspiracies, the goal needs to be returning trust in expertise. We currently live in an environment where university education and training are seen as an agenda rather than an asset by much of the population. This is widely exacerbated by elements in our political infrastructure. From speaking with friends over seas, this is particularly heightened in the U.S. – less so elsewhere. In general I think experts need to do a better job engaging with the public – people are interested in science, history, politics, psychology, etc. Even the most ignorant people has intellectual curiosity, they want to learn. This is where I think much of the left (of which I identify) gets it wrong. Too many people “punch down” and target those who have legitimate critiques and few resources, should we be surprised when they go elsewhere to find answers, as awful and poorly substantiated as they may be? When good, accessible material isn’t available pseudo-experts (or just economic grifters) will fill the void. See what has happened to the History Channel, Discovery Networks, etc. They are a dumpster fire of misinformation and conspiracy pedaling. As individuals we can support this, but it requires institutional change. The internet is also a tremendous issue – social media has opened a can of worms that we as a society were not prepared to deal with. This is the element of combating conspiracy that seems the most bleak to me, again I think we need our experts fighting in the same “trenches” as those pedaling conspiracy, but that will take a rethinking of the role of academics and experts. This is not to say there are those who do not attempt to do so, I’d be happy to point you to some resources if you are interested.

      As an individual, challenging conspiracy theories is tricky. In conversation, I strongly discourage people from taking them head on. While it’s easy to poke holes in their arguments or provide counter evidence, this is completely ineffective because they are operating with a world view that believes is coded messages, manipulative cabals, and infinite secrets. Almost always, you will find yourself in an infuriating Gish Gallop. You will just bang you head on the wall and, if anything, embolden them more. Instead, if you have the ability, I try to hear people out (even if it makes me profusely angry) and figure out how exactly they came to this belief system. Often there is usually some sort of experience, trauma, “revelation,” or role model that moved their thinking that way, or they were simply raised in an environment where these ideas are pervasive. Once you establish a safer space where they don’t feel challenged, then I tend to ask questions and provide counter examples. When people trust you, they tend to listen more, at least allowing me to plant a seed. I almost always try to refer them to resources (books, websites, podcasts) that might provide an alternate perspective. For instance, when reading a book by an archaeologist on the pyramids after reading an Ancient Aliens book, the difference in approach and scholarship is obvious. Most simply haven’t bothered looking at the other side and only get the mainstream perspective filtered through fringe mediators. When people are highly combative, especially in the classroom, my strategy tends to shift to a “damage control” model. I might not be able to change this student’s (or in some cases parent’s) mind, but I can engage in a discussion that hopefully prevents these ideas from proliferating among others. One on one I will not challenge in a confrontational way, but I will intervene to prevent the spread of these ideas.

      Hopefully this helps!
      -Calen

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  3. Hi Calen,

    Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. There’s enough in what you’ve discussed for a series of blogs.

    I was being slightly disingenuous when I asked you for your thoughts on this. I’m being a bit lazy and seeing what you think are some of the solutions. I agree with you in thinking that there are both structural and individual factors contributing towards the spread of conspiracy theories and maintaining these beliefs.

    It’s really interesting to think about the role of expertise in this area. I hadn’t really thought about the way certain influential figures play. I’m not sure about the US but here in the UK it really feels that there’s been a lot of change in how we interact with and view expertise. It feels like there’s been a decades long cultural and technological change that’s fundamentally changed who we even think experts are. I think we were a much more paternalistic and integrated society in the past. It was normal to trust a travel agent to organise your holiday or follow your doctors advice to the letter. It seems common for older generations to talk about trusting the teachers opinion but now the child’s views having more importance. Now we seem to do all the travel agents work for them (some airlines I almost swear want us to fly the aircraft), we’re all able to self diagnose (badly) with the use of the internet and our doctors encourage us to “take ownership” of our health and wellbeing.

    While some of this comes from automation there has been an erosion of trust in expertise. It likely hasn’t been helped by institutional abuse scandals and Harold Shipman (GP who murdered hundreds of patients). Lets not start about politicians lying about weapons of mass destruction. You’re right to point out the likes of the history channel and social media. I also think that parents must have a role in perpetuating these ideas.

    I wonder if a new breed of experts may emerge out of this. I can’t help but look at the likes of YouTube personalities like Destiny who apply critiques of such ideas in an entertaining way. Gish Gallop’s a great way of describing where you end up when debating these ideas. I’m starting to think it’s more about planting a small seed that could grow in time. Slowly introducing some critical thinking ideas in a helpful and compassionate way is the key. We always talk about building a good therapeutic relationship as the starting point of therapy. This can be hugely challenging to achieve in itself. Never mind helping shift someone’s thinking.

    I wonder what you think about the use of narratives and stories to help explore our beliefs? I been thinking a lot about my own beliefs and experiences. I grew up in a family with quite spiritual beliefs and I remember thinking holding beliefs about the government lying to us about UFOs. There was something quite simple and confirming about a good vs evil narrative. Understanding that the world is a lot more complex and chaotic is harder to hold.

    Thanks for your response and I’d be interested if you have any useful site, podcasts, books that you can recommend.

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    1. I think it’s worth clarifying, as you infer, that there is a lot of value in the democratization of knowledge and expertise. In fact, this has created space for people between the top academic experts and the population. There are many excellent and rigorous science and history writers in this category. The travel agent example is an apt one – when I’ve traveled I’ve almost exclusively done my own online research and had better trips for it. Authority should not be trusted for no reason and should be interrogated constantly. I would also emphasize that when I say “expert” I almost never mean politicians. I am referring more to academic and technical experts. Very rarely are politicians experts in anything outside of political maneuvering. This said, what you see among conspiracy promoters and diffused among those embracing these ideas is mistaking discrediting experts simply because they are experts as some kind of critical thinking exercise. The missing aspect is that they lack solid evidence or training to meaningfully challenge experts. As an example, Sasquatch proponents attack mainstream scientists for being “close minded,” but they completely lack training in relevant areas of field biology, anatomy, and physical anthropology to effectively understand the criticisms. To throw that back at experts, however, there needs to be a more effective way of communicating to the population what they actually do. Scholarly works are great, but are locked behind expensive academic journals or are written in ways that are completely inaccessible to the lay reader. In fact, conspiracy/paranormal belief can be used as a “hook” to get people interested in topics and move them toward actual scholarship and grounded critical thinking. It’s all about approach and ensuring that people actually listen to you. Many people, like yourself (and me as a matter of fact), were raised in environments with alternative beliefs – those can be channeled in positive directions if handled properly. As I said in the previous post, if legitimate experts don’t fill the curiosity void, someone less scrupulous will.

      Depending on your interests there are some good materials out there, here are a few of my favorites (and of course the book I reviewed is highly recommended):

      1) Monstertalk Podcast: Though this started as a skeptical cryptozoology podcast, it has morphed into a general interrogation of conspiracy theories and the paranormal. The hosts bring on academic guests to discuss these topics. I’ve found it helpful in responding to various claims and I’ve purchased many of the books by the guest on the show.

      2) Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries: Science and Pseudoscience in Archaeology by Ken Feder: Pretty much the best, most accessible response to fringe claims about the human past, written by a highly regarded American archaeologist. Feder tackles a wide variety of topics including ancient aliens, lost civilizations, claims about giants, and hyperdiffusionism. I’ve used chapters of this in my teaching, it’s a good place to point people to if they are advocating these ideas.

      3) Related to the Feder book, the majority of the episodes of the Archaeological Fantasies Podcast cover similar topics, as Feder was one of the co-hosts. Their back catalogue is worth checking out.

      4) The work of Phil Plait (“The Bad Astronomer”) is good for dealing with topics relating to astronomy, earth anomalies, and general science. His work is all over the web and easily accessible. For more science stuff, I would also check out the work of geologist Sharon Hill.

      5) For a modern deep dive on contemporary conspiracies, the popular QAnon Anonymous Podcast is excellent – if fairly raunchy and off color. I enjoy it, but it might not be for everyone. Being in the U.K., QAnon (I think) is less prevalent, but it has become a force in the American landscape. This podcast has been useful, because I’ve often heard the content of what they report on in public conversations and in the classroom. I’m not sure I would have identified it otherwise. The hosts report on current trends in conspiracies, focusing heavily on QAnon, but also diving into other conspiracy trends around the world. They have a U.K. based recurring guest who talks heavily about the landscape there.

      6) Finally, if you have not read it, Carl Sagan’s famous work on critical thinking Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark is a fantastic primer on logic, critical thinking, fallacies, etc. It’s useful for honing your own thinking and developing strategies to combat conspiratorial thinking.

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