Pathologizing Conspiracy Theories is the Lazy Government’s Method of Suppressing Dissent
The term ‘conspiracy theory’ has long been used to discredit anyone pointing out collusion between powerful people, but efforts to pathologize dissent as ‘conspiracism’ are doomed to collapse under the weight of reality.
Conspiracy theories are divisive, dangerous, even evil, according to the mainstream media. They cause “violence, including terrorism,” former Obama administration official Cass Sunstein notoriously declared, and the FBI’s Phoenix field office recently reiterated. They’re a way for ignorant people to make sense of the world, academics cry, or a holdover from the caveman era, when primitive man had to suspect enemies around every corner. More recently, they’ve been described as a way for white people to deal with demographic changes.
But conspiracies are everywhere in American politics today in a way that is nearly impossible to ignore. Convicted pedophile Jeffrey Epstein’s sweetheart deal, given an open-door 13-month sentence despite evidence of abusing and trafficking scores of girls (“he belongs to intelligence,” the prosecutor later claimed he was told), the machinations of the so-called Deep State (“thank God for the Deep State!” ex CIA director John McLaughlin chuckled, live on CSPAN), and the CIA’s fomenting of coups around the world are just the tip of a massive iceberg we are told does not exist except in the minds of crazy or backward people – one on which the ship of state has wrecked itself again and again.
Unable to drive people away from researching secret plots by calling them racist cavemen, academia has revived the word “conspiracism,” a term first coined in the 1980s to describe the pervasiveness of conspiracy theories in politics as a sort of mass psychosis. The not-so-subtle inclusion of the word “racism” might not be intentional, but it certainly doesn’t hurt when you want to slime anyone poking around behind the façade of power – or deny there is such a façade at all.
‘Conspiracy theory’ has become the go-to shorthand in the mainstream media for inconvenient outbreaks of political dissent. CNN’s Jim Acosta applied it to the idea professed by President Donald Trump and many independent journalists that Ukraine meddled in the 2016 election on behalf of the DNC. CNN’s Chris Cillizza applied it to Trump’s claim that Google was suppressing conservative news outlets in its search results, a claim echoed by many right-leaning social media users.
But the mainstream media also reported on Ukrainian involvement in the 2016 election, and multiple Google whistleblowers have come forward to confirm the search giant does, in fact, suppress right-leaning sources in its news searches.
Meanwhile, truly unhinged conspiracy theories blaming Russia for any vote that doesn’t go the way the US government likes – whether it’s Brexit in the UK or the election of right-wing candidates in Italy – as well as political dissent both abroad and at home – are passed off as real news. Indeed, the mainstream media has spent so much time peddling fantasies like the “Russian collusion” delusion – which dominated headlines for three years in the absence of concrete evidence before dying ignominiously – that trust in ‘journalism’ is at record lows. The abundance of real conspiracies behind many of the turning points of recent history – Watergate, the Iraqi “weapons of mass destruction” hoax, and the CIA arming and training terrorist “mujahideen” in Afghanistan to fight the Soviet Union being just a few examples – is rarely mentioned amidst the endless mockery of those tinfoil-hat loonies who believe the rich and powerful are working together behind the scenes.
Even some mainstream journalists see through the tripe they’re asked to report, as Project Veritas’ recent leak of an ABC reporter calling out a conspiracy to suppress her story on suspiciously-deceased pedophile Jeffrey Epstein proved. A media apparatus that can’t even fool the people on its payroll is in a sad state indeed.
Powerful people and intelligence agencies who don’t want the hoi polloi probing their misdeeds are aware they have a crisis of credibility on their hands. Even the FBI, in a memo warning agents that conspiracy theorists (like literally everyone else) are dangerous loonies, had to admit that the “uncovering of real conspiracies or cover-ups involving illegal, harmful, or unconstitutional activities by government officials or leading political figures” might be behind the outbreak of conspiracy theorizing that had seized the nation. In other words, conspiracy theories are everywhere because conspiracies are everywhere.
The tradition of labeling ideas conspiracy theories to discredit them is itself a conspiracy – a documented one. The term was weaponized in 1967 in a CIA memo about how to quash criticism of the Warren Report, the product of the government investigation into President John F. Kennedy’s murder. The memo laments that some 46 percent of Americans did not believe the assassin acted alone, and details how the agency might “counter and discredit the claims of the conspiracy theorists” suggesting others were involved. It recommends “employ[ing] propaganda assets to refute the attacks of the critics. Book reviews and feature articles are particularly appropriate for this purpose.” The agency had infiltrated mainstream media through its Operation Mockingbird, paying or even planting journalists to push favorable viewpoints, and a flood of articles denouncing ‘conspiracy theorists’ followed, pushing the term into the popular lexicon.
Over half a century later, the CIA’s plan hasn’t worked very well – a 2017 poll found that the percentage of Americans who believe JFK’s death was the result of a conspiracy had swelled to 61 percent. But rather than come up with a new strategy, the media’s narrative managers have simply doubled down on the failed one, expanding the range of opinions smeared as “conspiracy theories” and heaping scorn upon their adherents.
Featurearticlesstilltry to shame people , diagnosing anyone suspicious of threadbare media narratives with the societal psychosis of ‘conspiracism.’ It may work to keep inconvenient truths out of the mainstream media, but in the absence of a compelling alternative narrative – one that can’t be disproven by the evidence of one’s own senses (or a few minutes’ research on the internet) – conspiracy-shaming is a weak weapon. People are much less likely to look for conspiratorial explanations if the “facts” presented by the media make sense. But if mainstream narratives continue to decline in believability, pretty soon people will be dismissing establishment journalists as “coincidence theorists.”
By Helen Buyniski