The Sociology of Conspiracy
A recent story in the Los Angeles Times charged that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) did not have an adequate plan to deal with the threat of terrorism before the 2001 events. For those who read the 9-11 Commission Report, published in 2004, this new information should not be a big surprise. In all this, what remains hard to understand is how a band of thugs could penetrate the security of the world’s sole superpower.
Some people have such a hard time accepting this idea that they reject the notion that a terrorist cell was behind the attacks. Instead, they believe that both the devastation of that day and the explanation that followed was part of a grand conspiracy-- an American conspiracy.
The History Channel recently devoted two hours of programming to examine some of the claims of conspiracy buffs, many of whom passionately believe that the government was complicit in both the attacks and in a cover-up afterwards. Rather than discussing such claims (which have gotten more than enough attention on the Internet already), I find it more interesting to consider how common conspiracy theories are in popular culture. Why is this so?
Sociologists refer to conspiracy theories as a form of collective behavior, something that we engage in together that gains traction as it appeals to many people. Similar to urban legends, rumors, and panics, sociologists seek to understand how and why groups create meaning through claiming that conspiracies have taken place.
The creation of the Internet has definitely helped grease the wheels of collective behavior. One of the most fascinating things about collective behavior is that it often starts from the grassroots level, from everyday people rather from those in positions of power. In fact, the very distance from the centers of power fuels conspiracy theories.
Let’s think about some other conspiracy theories: some people claim that the Holocaust never happened; perhaps the most famous conspiracy theory is based on the premise that President John F. Kennedy’s assassination was the work of insiders.
The public’s willingness to entertain such theories differs tremendously. For most people, even questioning the reality that millions of civilians were murdered during World War II is incredibly offensive. But there’s something about Kennedy’s assassination that makes millions question the findings of the Warren Commission Report. Why does one conspiracy theory seem outlandish while another one seems plausible?
The imbalance of power is a key ingredient. It is not hard to believe that a powerful regime or dictator could slaughter a group of people with little or no social power, as sadly has happened over and over again in human history.
But the opposite is much harder to believe: an individual or group with little power harming someone with significantly more power and status doesn’t make sense. It challenges what we think we know about the social order.
So the Kennedy assassination--apparently the work of a lone gunman who by all reports was, to put it kindly, unsuccessful in his other ventures--seems hard to believe. That a charismatic, larger-than-life leader of the free world could be brought down by a “nobody” has fueled conspiracy theorists for over forty years. Although solid evidence refutes the idea of a conspiracy, I admit to entertaining this notion myself. I now see that I fell into the power imbalance trap too.
In my defense, I also grew up during the 1970s, when network television routinely featured programs about the Bermuda Triangle, Bigfoot, the Loch Ness monster, and other supernatural “secrets”. The Kennedy assassination was also a big topic during the decade that featured the Watergate cover-up and made many Americans question how much the government could be trusted. In the early 1970s, Skylab, a precursor to today’s international space station, actually fell to earth (which is terrifying if you’re a kid!) and faith in the government fell as well.
Flash forward more than 25 years, and you can see why people still might have trouble believing the government. The president's approval ratings have declined in recent years as the war in Iraq has become increasingly unpopular. Conspiracy claims make sense during a time when mistrust and anger toward the government run high.
And most of all, it is hard to accept that our powerful military could not protect us that September day. For some, it is easier to believe that our government is all-powerful (even if that power is abused) than it is to believe that the government is flawed. Our Cold War military build-up made us feel almost invincible, and September 11th challenged that assumption. In a strange way, conspiracy theories help prop up the belief in an all-powerful America. Perhaps clinging to this idea is less upsetting than facing what transpired that day.