At the April 15, 2013, press briefing about the Boston Marathon bombing, Governor Deval Patrick was asked the first question by a reporter for the alternative news website Alex Jones’ Infowars: “Why were the loudspeakers telling people in the audience to be calm moments before the bombs went off? Is this another false flag staged attack to take our civil liberties and promote homeland security while sticking their hands down our pants on the streets? “
“No. Next question,” Patrick responded. Later, the same reporter tried to ask another similar question, and Governor Patrick ended the press conference.
The first question happened so quickly that most viewers of the nationally-televised press conference seemed to have missed both question and response. And most who heard the question very likely did not know what it meant to have a “false flag attack“ (here, it meant that the Boston bombing was the work of the government, intended to result in taking weapons from Americans.)
But untold thousands of conspiracy-theory believers quickly jumped to attention when Alex Jones—the fellow who most recently introduced himself to the mainstream by becoming unhinged on Piers Morgan’s show over his petition to have Morgan deported for supporting gun control—interviewed his reporter, Dan Bidondi, who had disrupted the Patrick press conference.
Conspiracy-theory believers are now focusing on the Boston Marathon bombing, just as they did with the Sandy Hook killings of children and their teachers, by rejecting official information about the events. The increasing Internet prominence of people who reject “official” accounts of such events again raises questions: Who are these people? What are they doing? And why are they doing it?
The Emerging Alternative Explanations of the Boston Marathon Bombing
The Guardian (of London) assembled a jaw-dropping list of the leading explanations being offered by conspiracy theorists for the Boston Marathon bombing. The list is dominated by anti-government theories, including the alleged false flag attack, and claims that the organizers of the Boston Marathon knew in advance of the bombings, and that the police in fact arrested both Tsarnaev brothers alive, then killed the older brother. Let’s briefly examine the leading theories:
False Flag Attack: Alex Jones’s Infowars’ “false flag attack” took the lead on this claim, which was quickly endorsed and embraced by New Hampshire Republican state legislator Stella Tremblay, who offered her considered opinion that the bombing was a U.S. Government “black ops” undertaking. Ms. Tremblay has refused to back off when pressed. Please note: Ms. Tremblay also claims that President Woodrow Wilson supported Adolph Hitler, notwithstanding the fact Wilson died in 1921, long before Hitler publicly surfaced in Germany.
Organizers Knew: Based on reports that bomb-sniffing dogs patrolled both the start and finish lines of the Boston Marathon, as well as reports of police spotters on rooftops along the marathon route, conspiracy theorists have concluded that the Marathon organizers knew that bombs had been planted, yet let the race proceed. This is a modified “The government did it” theory. Of course, it ignores the question of why the government would bother with the dogs and spotters if they knew in advance that the bombings would occur? Apparently the theorists are claiming the dogs and spotters were a ruse.
Sighting of Naked Man Shows Tamerlan Tsarnaev Alive: Grainy video is good enough for Tamerlan’s mother to recognize that her older son was not killed as reported by police, but rather was stripped naked and taken into custody before being killed. Those who believe the observation of this woman—Zubeidat Tsarnaeva—ignore the fact that she too is on the U.S. list of potential terrorists and insists, notwithstanding the evidence that is already publicly available, that her sons are innocent.
As is usual with conspiracy theories, these defy logic. Other theories noted by the Guardian include claims that the two young Saudis incorrectly identified by the New York Post as being involved in the Marathon bombing were exonerated by the intervention of no less than Michelle Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, and President Barack Obama, but in fact the two Saudis were involved.
Other conspiracy theories claim that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was actually an FBI informant (whatever that means); that the uncle of the Tsarnaev brothers was a CIA operative (similarly of unclear meaning); that the Boston Globe tweeted the event before it happened; and that military contractors were at the scene, and therefore responsible for the bombing. All this, of course, is patent nonsense.
Are People Who Believe These Theories Fools, or Stupid, or Both?
Conspiracy-theory thinking has had varying degrees of prominence throughout history. Broadly defined a conspiracy theory is “a belief that some covert but influential organization is responsible for a circumstance or event.”
A recent poll shows, for example, that “37% of voters believe global warming is a hoax, 51% do not. Republicans say global warming is a hoax by a 58-25 margin, Democrats disagree 11-77.” And “51% of voters say a larger conspiracy was at work in the JFK assassination, just 25% say Oswald acted alone.” The poll noted that “28% of voters believe Saddam Hussein was involved in the 9/11 attacks.”
It was inevitable that the Boston Marathon bombing would generate its own conspiracy theories. This phenomenon prompted Salon to ask an expert who has studied the conspiracy thinking relating to those who believe that climate change is a hoax: Why do people believe in conspiracy theories? The answer seems to boil down to the fact that adopting such a theory gives the adopter a feeling of control over his or her life, notwithstanding the fact that it means abandoning evidence-based thinking. Salon’s expert notes that such thinking is found on both the political right and left, and that these people are neither fools nor stupid.
I would argue that with regard to government-related matters, and particularly those relating to trust in government—as noted by many who have looked—conspiracy theories are today far more ascendant on the right. In fact, they dominate much of right- wing thinking. Also, I would argue that while otherwise intelligent people might subscribe to a conspiracy theory, to do so, by definition is an abandonment of critical thinking. Contrary evidence is rejected, or explained away, by the conspiracy theorists. While they may not be fools, in allowing their beliefs to trump critical thinking they are being foolhardy, and anything but smart or even rational.
However, it is not the believers—those who often unthinkingly embrace any given conspiracy theory—but rather those who knowingly construct and concoct these theories whom I find disturbing. The line between the “motivated thinking“ necessary to promote a conspiracy theory and the intentional perversion of the truth better known as “fraud” can be very, very thin. Academics who study conspiracy theories describe those who promote them as conspiracy-theory entrepreneurs. Actually, “con artists” strikes me as more descriptive, but I will go with the neutral term.
Conspiracy Theory Entrepreneurs: At What Costs?
There is surprisingly little serious study of conspiracy-theory subscribers and promoters. For anyone who is interested, I would recommend “Conspiracy Theories,” the relatively recent work of Cass Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule, two Harvard Law professors who reviewed and plumbed the existing literature to understand and address the conspiracy theories, particularly those claiming 9/11 was not the work of terrorists, but rather that of the United States and/or Israeli governments. Sunstein and Vermeule’s findings are applicable to the emerging conspiracy theories relating to the Boston Marathon.
Early in their report, Sunstein and Vermeule note, “Of course it is necessary to specify how, exactly, conspiracy theories begin. Some such theories seem to bubble up spontaneously, appearing roughly simultaneously in many different social networks; others are initiated and spread, quite intentionally, by conspiracy entrepreneurs who profit directly or indirectly from propagating their theories.” (Emphasis in original.)
Clearly, the Boston Marathon conspiracies are the work of conspiracy entrepreneurs like Alex Jones and Glenn Beck, who often lead the pack in pursuing national traumas like vultures or jackals. Both men have made an industry of producing conspiracy theories. Both are still spinning theories on the Sandy Hook killings of children and teachers. Both are adept at melding fact and fiction while pretending to be critical thinkers who are merely offering infotainment. The question is whether they—and like conspiracy theorists—are merely entertainers or potentially dangerous demagogues? Their success shows they have found a sizeable audience, implying that they do have power of a sort.
Sunstein and Vermeule conclude, without getting into specifics, that “[s]ome conspiracy theories create serious risks. They do not merely undermine democratic debate; in extreme cases, they create or fuel violence.” Indeed, the “false flag attack” claims being promoted by conspiracy entrepreneurs who are twisting the facts of the Boston Marathon bombing strike me as potentially of the ilk that could provoke violence. But I doubt that any single conspiracy entrepreneur, or even a collection of them, is a great danger. Rather, it is their collective impact that poses the greater problem. It is difficult not to believe that we are paying a price for all these anti-government conspiracy theories.
For example, although I have been unable to find a statistical or academic study confirming my observation, I am struck by the fact that as conspiracy theories have become more prevalent, public trust in government has fallen. Or is it vice-versa, so that as trust in government has fallen, conspiracy theories have become more prevalent? Given that virtually all the prevalent conspiracy theories in the United States relate to government, this is must be having an impact on government.
A Pew poll tracking trust in government shows that it has fallen from 73-76 percent in the early 1960s, to approximately 26 percent today. Is the growing lack of trust related to the growth in the belief in conspiracy theories? I do not know the answer, but it is not an unreasonable question to ask.
Despite some searching, I have found no poll tracking the belief in conspiracy theories over time by Americans. However, a search of The New York Times from 1875 to 1960 produces 30 instances in which the phrase “conspiracy theory” arises, but the phrase typically refers to a theory in a criminal-conspiracy situation. If The New York Times is any indicator, conspiracy theories became a public matter in the United States following the assassination of President Kennedy in 1964, yet as the Pew poll shows, just about the same time in history, trust in government began to tank.
Trust in government is essential to democracy. Sunstein and Vermeule also concluded that conspiracy theories are, in fact, something that government itself should be concerned about. Conspiracy theories should also be of greater concern to social science, especially in light of the paucity of social scientific interest in this important area thus far.
Meanwhile, please see these “conspiracy entrepreneurs” for what they are: Those seeking profit by distorting the reality of the tragedy of others. In fact, they really are con artists, and should be so viewed.
if the double amputee really had his legs blown off, there would have been some blood after the explosion.
after the explosion, with his blow off limbs laying on a women, there is no blood.
its nice that you avoid information that shows the FBI was responsible for the terror plots created and reported.
and that you can refute the footage released that shows staged actors.
please moderate and control the comments.
I get it, this is a sardonic humor piece right?
If only the government would answer questions when asked and if the government’s spending and policy documents were publicly available there would be no need for consiracy theories.
I think your analysis of conspiracy theorists is a little light. Conspiracy theorists are looking for reassurance–as bad as the world seems, or as bad as it seems that some dastardly group is running things behind the scenes, at least the conspiracy theorists understands it all. It makes sense; one can plan one’s life. The thought that no conspiracy theorist can live with is that things are falling apart, but NO ONE is benefiting and NO ONE is doing it. I am thinking of Augustine’s analysis of why Rome was declining. Augustine said that the same values that made Rome great were also the ones that were destroying Rome in the end. Conspiracy theorists do not want to hear things like that; they need a false reassurance, a false understanding and a false clarity (they are all clarity junkies!). I think of it this way: conspiracy theorists are trying to ward off nihilism, but, staying with Augustine, wind up being purveyors of nihilism. Anyway, conspiracies are a drug and refuting them with rational argument or decrying their false prophets does not help much with the trying to figure out why our neighbors NEED to self-medicate and why their dosage has to be so strong.
I hope this long comment doesn’t disappear, as sometimes seems to be the case here…
First, it’s an interesting article, but I think it’s important to note that one of the motivations is the natural human tendency to see a pattern, even when there isn’t one, combined with projection of our own thinking. Simple example: If a bird flies past my head, I would dismiss it as the kind of thing birds do. If a rock flies past my head, that is not the sort of thing rocks do. If I look where the rock came from and note that someone is standing there, then it is natural to think of a pattern: Maybe that person threw the rock. Presto, I have a conspiracy theory–but one that might be justified in this situation.
Now bring in the projection aspect. As I build my theory of the conspiracy to explain why that person might have thrown the rock, I would start by imagining what his motivations might have been from my OWN perspective. I would begin by thinking about things I might own that he might want, or wonder if something I once did to him might have motivated me to seek revenge if the shoe had been on the other foot…
Applying this kind of projection to the “conspiracy entrepreneurs”, I prefer to think of them as “artists of conspiracies”, which is a new sense of “con artist”. I think you have to admit that some of them have amazingly fertile imaginations, but to have any credibility at all, they must somehow be imagining that they could do the actions involved in the conspiracies, if only they had the power they imagine other people have… Then again, I admit that I can’t get very far into their heads because I’m not that crazy–but I’m glad of that. Of course they need to gain the confidence of their victims, too, but I think that just makes them double-con artists.
Reading this article conjured a lot of memories. Conspiracies do exist. Otherwise, the various anti-conspiracy statutes would be a waste. The author, John W. Dean was at the center of a pivotal scandal, Watergate, and I suspect he is not fully aware of every nuance of that event. Therein, lies the lack of trust in government. Citizens are rarely told the whole story. Todays fast paced media puts pressure on news organizations to be first, causing accuracy to suffer. Few people are willing to wait for the story to develop, then sift through the reports for a common thread. The majority of people are easily distracted by a juicy scandal of a famous person that will have no effect, good or bad, on their lives,than pay attention to matters that will affect them. Thus, the void that allows the con artist to dupe those predisposed to believe everything is a gigantic conspiracies. In law, I believe two or more people coordinating efforts is considered a conspiracy. Since my father was a close friend of Sen. Bill Jenner who was a bitter-ender(support Sen. Joe McCarthy to the bitter end) and Sen. Jenner also was an avid supporter of Vice President Richard Nixon, I’ve heard numerous right wing conspiracy theories. I’ve heard a lot of leftist theories. Both sides try to make newsworthy events fit their agenda adding to mistrust in government. The 9/11 Commission did not get complete information. Those on the Commission were in office when the Strategic Air Command that had numerous aircraft in the air during the Cold War was dismantled during Bush 41’s tenure. Would an operational SAC have made a difference on 9/11? I think it would have. But, instead Americans lost their rights via the Privacy Act cancellation, Patriot Act which nobody understands but led to some sort of first responders Homeland Security Committees reminiscent of Neighborhood Political Commissars in the old Soviet Union and a redefinition of terrorist threats. Yet, despite this massive increase in government power, terrorist events from the Ft. Hood massacre to the Boston Bombing are carried out by people that have written or spoken about terrorist events. When the event happens the government immediately seeks to pass laws and blame persons that have no ill intent to this country. I find it particularly offensive when veterans are considered potential terrorists. There is a kernel of truth to that prognostication in this way. Much has been made of the Navy Seals lately and a lot of that is conjecture, because few military people and essentially no Special Ops personnel, past or present, will comment. But, the average mud Marine, Army groundpounder, Air Force ordnance, Navy fireman or Airedale or Coast Guard personnel has formidable skills and knowledge. Who do you think is protecting the critical assets and borders of this nation right now? Should they choose to use their skills to attack rather than defend this country they would be an awesome foe. When they question how the government went from a deranged killer killing innocent kids to immediately thinking gun control would stop this type of activity it is not a conspiracy nut theory. It is a citizen asking the government to explain itself. A few years back a group of school kids were massacred in Pennsylvania Amish country. Tragedies like this occur, anarchists like the SDS Weatherman will pop up in any political movement, criminality will occur with illegal guns and explosive devices. The role of the government is to enforce the laws at hand, amend if necessary to reflect new technology, and be ever vigilant to protect law abiding citizens that exercise their freedom of lawful assembly, speech and religion. It is not to pass spurious laws to achieve a political goal in a warped response to an isolated event. This further isolates and alienates the citizens providing fodder for the tabloid journalists and much as Sen. McCarthy did real harm to legitimate anti-Communist efforts by spurious accusations that reduced it to a farcical level, so too does today’s government action like blaming the Boston Bombings on right wing gun owners by letting a story run when they had no evidence, then contrary evidence lends credence to government conspiracy theorist. So if the government wishes to mute conspiracy theorists they might try what seems to be an impossible mission, abide by the Constitution of the United States of America, especially that part about “equal protection under the law” which means Congress could not exempt itself from laws it passes or grant special privileges, quit dictating to and interfering with State and local governments and be honest. Otherwise, the conspiracy theorists will continue to make a good living by frightening the preppers and survivalists into buying things of questionable value. Gun sales during the Obama bear witness to that. But, a gun has its limits. When there is no ammo, it’s back to “fix bayonet” and up close and personal combat that few people have the stomach for. Yet people keep buying guns because it gives them a sense of security and it is their right. And they don’t trust a government that seems powerless in keeping the guns away from criminals.
Now you just have to wait for people to start saying A: you’re a dupe or B: you’re in on the conspiracy!
The truly tragic thing is that the cynical bald faced lying, manipulation and oppressive secrecy increasingly present in the U.S. government just increases the number of people believing (really believing) these conspiracy theories and further erodes any sense of the trust and hope so necessary for a democracy and a decent society.
Thank you for the link to the paper too. It’s one of the most interesting things I’ve read since the research on authoritarian thinking I first read about in “Conservatives Without Conscience.”
Reading this article it would seem all the conspiracy statutes are unnecessary. Conspiracies do exist. The author was at the center of the Watergate scandal which involved several conspiracies and he probably doesn’t know all of them. In todays world of everyone pushing a political agenda, it lends credence to conspiracy theories. Global warming? We’ve warmed from the Ice Age, cooled from the Reptilian Era. A Carbon Credit trading scheme does nothing to stop pollution or climate change. It will enrich a few people and give government more taxing ability. The massacre of innocents via bombs or guns somehow always results in an attempt to restrict gun ownership. Those who exercise their rights of freedom of assembly and speech, including veterans, are cast as the villains. After 9/11 the power of government was greatly increased by the cancellation of the Privacy Act and enactment of The Patriot Act. Yet, terrorism and criminality continue while the government focuses attention on law abiding citizens to the point of protecting evil doers. This engenders a mistrust in government, providing fertile ground for conspiracies. Since most news is incomplete to promote an agenda, voids are left to be filled by conjecture. Often opposite hoped for results. In the bygone days of the McCarthy era, everything people disliked or didn’t understand was a Communist plot. There was areal Communist threat, but Sen. McCarthy,s irresponsible actions reduced the whole effort to a farcical level. Today when official government in all three branches choose to ignore the Constitution, and denigrate it in certain instances it leads to wild speculative thoughts and words. So, if the government wishes to damp down perhaps they should try telling the truth and quit exempting themselves from laws they pass.
When I started reading this article, I wondered which conservative
commentator would be mentioned, and how far into the essay. It’s curious
that Glenn Beck would be mentioned, since Mr. Beck spends a lot of air
time debunking conspiracy theories. It’s very convenient that Mr. Dean
easily rattles off the unsubstantiated comment that Mr. Beck inter alia,
“often lead the pack in pursuing national traumas like vultures or jackals,” and “still
spinning theories on the Sandy Hook killings of children and teachers.”
No evidence, whatsoever, is provided by Mr. Dean. However, no evidence
is needed, since many readers will just nod in agreement, even though
they have not watched or read more than a few sentences from either man
(Jones or Beck). (I can comment only on Mr. Beck, since I follow him
extensively; I can’t comment on Mr. Jones because I have no knowledge of
his opinions.) It’s just curious that a man to continually debunks
conspiracy theories has “made an industry of producing conspiracy
theories.” Unless, by debunking conspiracy theories, Mr. Beck really is
promulgating them. Ingenious! (But, isn’t that, in itself, a conspiracy
Some people are confusing actual conspiracies, e.g., Watergate with Conspiracy Theories. Conspiracies are proved by evidence and/or confessions. Conspiracy theories continue despite the lack of conclusive evidence. They may rely on some questions that the official story doesn’t explain or on evidence that is misinterpreted and continues to be believed in despite reasonable explanations. Sometimes, Conspiracy Theories are proven to have been correct – e.g., the CIA using hallucinogens on innocent people, the “Princes in the Tower” under Richard III.
Speaking of Watergate, I believe it’s a significant factor in the steep decline. Distrust in government might be a result of the 60’s view to “trust no one over 30” which in turn was a reaction to an earlier more repressive era. When the local authorities were using hoses or dogs on protesters (e.g. in civil rights issues), closing schools and pools in the face of integration efforts, and shooting and pummeling demonstrators (Kent State, Chicago Democratic Convention), it’s understandable that people would lose trust in their government, especially if they were at the receiving end of this treatment. In other words, when government is seen to be doing wrong or acting coercively. Then in the early 70’s when it was demonstrated that the Nixon administration had been involved in substantial wrongdoing for political purposes. This affected not just blacks and hippies, but mainstream Americans.
A cheap and not very convincing attack on people who are rightly afraid of what their government gets up to with their hard-earned tax dollars.