Nov 15, 2022

Why Do Conspiracy Theories Flourish? Because Proven Conspiracies are Too Daunting

By Edward Snowden /
Why Do Conspiracy Theories Flourish? Because Proven Conspiracies are Too Daunting

The greatest conspiracies are open and notorious — not theories, but practices expressed through law and policy, technology, and finance. Counterintuitively, these conspiracies are more often than not announced in public and with a modicum of pride. They’re dutifully reported in our newspapers; they’re bannered onto the covers of our magazines; updates on their progress are scrolled across our screens —  all with such regularity as to render us unable to relate the banality of their methods to the rapacity of their ambitions.

The party in power wants to redraw district lines. The prime interest rate has changed. A free service has been created to host our personal files. These conspiracies order, and disorder, our lives; and yet they can’t compete for attention with digital graffiti about pedophile Satanists in the basement of a DC pizzeria.

This, in sum, is our problem: the truest conspiracies meet with the least opposition.

Or to put it another way, conspiracy practices — the methods by which true conspiracies such as gerrymandering, or the debt industry, or mass surveillance are realized — are almost always overshadowed by conspiracy theories: those malevolent falsehoods that in aggregate can erode civic confidence in the existence of anything certain or verifiable.

In my life, I’ve had enough of both the practice and the theory. In my work for the United States National Security Agency, I was involved with establishing a Top-Secret system intended to access and track the communications of every human being on the planet. And yet after I grew aware of the damage this system was causing — and after I helped to expose that true conspiracy to the press — I couldn’t help but notice that the conspiracies that garnered almost as much attention were those that were demonstrably false: I was, it was claimed, a hand-picked CIA operative sent to infiltrate and embarrass the NSA; my actions were part of an elaborate inter-agency feud. No, said others: my true masters were the Russians, the Chinese, or worse — Facebook.

As I found myself made vulnerable to all manner of Internet fantasy, and interrogated by journalists about my past, about my family background, and about an array of other issues both entirely personal and entirely irrelevant to the matter at hand, there were moments when I wanted to scream: “What is wrong with you people? All you want is intrigue, but an honest-to-God, globe-spanning apparatus of omnipresent surveillance riding in your pocket is not enough? You have to sauce that up?”

It took years — eight years and counting in exile — for me to realize that I was missing the point: we talk about conspiracy theories in order to avoid talking about conspiracy practices, which are often too daunting, too threatening, too total.



It's my hope in this post and in posts to come to engage a broader scope of conspiracy-thinking, by examining the relationship between true and false conspiracies, and by asking difficult questions about the relationships between truth and falsehood in our public and private lives.

I'll begin by offering a fundamental proposition: namely, that to believe in any conspiracy, whether true or false, is to believe in a system or sector run not by popular consent but by an elite, acting in its own self-interest. Call this elite the Deep State, or the Swamp; call it the Illuminati, or Opus Dei, or the Jews, or merely call it the major banking institutions and the Federal Reserve — the point is, a conspiracy is an inherently anti-democratic force.

The recognition of a conspiracy — again, whether true or false — entails accepting that not only are things other than what they seem, but they are systematized, regulated, intentional, and even logical. It’s only by treating conspiracies not as “plans” or “schemes” but as mechanisms for ordering the disordered that we can hope to understand how they have so radically displaced the concepts of “rights” and “freedoms” as the fundamental signifiers of democratic citizenship.

In democracies today, what is important to an increasing many is not what rights and freedoms are recognized, but what beliefs are respected: what history, or story, undergirds their identities as citizens, and as members of religious, racial, and ethnic communities. It’s this replacement-function of false conspiracies — the way they replace unified or majoritarian histories with parochial and partisan stories — that prepares the stage for political upheaval.

Especially pernicious is the way that false conspiracies absolve their followers of engaging with the truth. Citizenship in a conspiracy-society doesn’t require evaluating a statement of proposed fact for its truth-value, and then accepting it or rejecting it accordingly, so much as it requires the complete and total rejection of all truth-value that comes from an enemy source, and the substitution of an alternative plot, narrated from elsewhere.


The concept of the enemy is fundamental to conspiracy thinking — and to the various taxonomies of conspiracy itself. Jesse Walker, an editor at Reason and author of The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory (2013), offers the following categories of enemy-based conspiracy thinking:

  • “Enemy Outside,” which pertains to conspiracy theories perpetrated by or based on actors scheming against a given identity-community from outside of it

  • “Enemy Within,” which pertains to conspiracy theories perpetrated by or based on actors scheming against a given identity-community from inside of it

  • “Enemy Above,” which pertains to conspiracy theories perpetrated by or based on actors manipulating events from within the circles of power (government, military, the intelligence community, etc.)

  • "Enemy Below," which pertains to conspiracy theories perpetrated by or based on actors from historically disenfranchised communities seeking to overturn the social order

  • “Benevolent Conspiracies,” which pertains to extra-terrestrial, supernatural, or religious forces dedicated to controlling the world for humanity's benefit (similar forces from Beyond who work to the detriment of humanity Walker might categorize under “Enemy Above”)

Other forms of conspiracy-taxonomy are just a Wikipedia link away: Michael Barkun's trinary categorization of Event conspiracies (e.g. false-flags), Systemic conspiracies (e.g. Freemasons), and Superconspiracy theories (e.g. New World Order), as well as his distinction between the secret acts of secret groups and the secret acts of known groups; or Murray Rothbard's binary of “shallow” and “deep” conspiracies (“shallow” conspiracies begin by identifying evidence of wrongdoing and end by blaming the party that benefits; “deep” conspiracies begin by suspecting a party of wrongdoing and continue by seeking out documentary proof — or at least “documentary proof”).

I find things to admire in all of these taxonomies, but it strikes me as notable that none makes provision for truth-value. Further, I'm not sure that these or any mode of classification can adequately address the often-alternating, dependent nature of conspiracies, whereby a true conspiracy (e.g. the 9/11 hijackers) triggers a false conspiracy (e.g. 9/11 was an inside job), and a false conspiracy (e.g. Iraq has weapons of mass destruction) triggers a true conspiracy (e.g. the invasion of Iraq).

Another critique I would offer of the extant taxonomies involves a reassessment of causality, which is more properly the province of psychology and philosophy. Most of the taxonomies of conspiracy-thinking are based on the logic that most intelligence agencies use when they spread disinformation, treating falsity and fiction as levers of influence and confusion that can plunge a populace into powerlessness, making them vulnerable to new beliefs — and even new governments.

But this top-down approach fails to take into account that the predominant conspiracy theories in America today are developed from the bottom-up, plots concocted not behind the closed doors of intelligence agencies but on the open Internet by private citizens, by people.​​​​​​​


In sum, conspiracy theories do not inculcate powerlessness, so much as they are the signs and symptoms of powerlessness itself. 


This leads us to those other taxonomies, which classify conspiracies not by their content, or intent, but by the desires that cause one to subscribe to them. Note, in particular, the epistemic/existential/social triad of system-justification: Belief in a conspiracy is considered “epistemic” if the desire underlying the belief is to get at “the truth,” for its own sake; belief in a conspiracy is considered “existential” if the desire underlying the belief is to feel safe and secure, under another's control; while belief in a conspiracy is considered “social” if the desire underlying the belief is to develop a positive self-image, or a sense of belonging to a community.

From Outside, from Within, from Above, from Below, from, systems, superconspiracies...shallow and deep heuristics...these are all attempts to chart a new type of politics that is also a new type of identity, a confluence of politics and identity that imbues all aspects of contemporary life. Ultimately, the only truly honest taxonomical approach to conspiracy-thinking that I can come up with is something of an inversion: the idea that conspiracies themselves are a taxonomy, a method by which democracies especially sort themselves into parties and tribes, a typology through which people who lack definite or satisfactory narratives as citizens explain to themselves their immiseration, their disenfranchisement, their lack of power, and even their lack of will. 


Apophenia (pt 2)

How the Internet Transforms the Individual into a Conspiracy of One




The easier it becomes to produce information, the harder that information becomes to consume — and the harder we have to work to separate the spurious from the significant.

Humans are meaning-making machines, seeking order in the chaos. Our pattern recognition capabilities are a key determinant in defining intelligence. But we now live in a dystopian digital landscape purpose-built to undermine these capabilities, training us to mistake planned patterns for convenient and even meaningful coincidences. 

You know the drill: email a colleague about the shit weather and start getting banner ads for cheap flights to Corsica (I hear it’s nice?); google "ordination license" or "city hall hours" and watch your inbox fill with rebates for rings and cribs. For those of us who grew up during the rise of surveillance capitalism, our online experience has been defined by the effort of separating coincidence from cause-and-effect. Today we understand, if not accept, that hyper-consumption of information online comes at the cost of being hyper-consumed, bled by tech companies for the that data our readings secrete: You click, and the Big Five scrape a sample of your “preferences”—to exploit.

The real cost to this recursive construction of reality from the ephemera of our preferences is that it tailors a separate world for each individual.

And when you do live at the center of a private world, reverse-engineered from your own search history, you begin to notice patterns that others can’t. Believe me when I say I know what it feels like to be told that you’re the only one who sees the connection—a pattern of injustice, say—and that you’re downright crazy for noticing anything at all. To manufacture meaning from mere coincidence is the essence of paranoia, the gateway to world-building your own private conspiracies—or else to an epiphany that allows you to see the world as it actually is.

I want to talk about that epiphany, about taking back control of our atomized, pre-conspiracy world. 



The German psychologist Klaus Conrad called this premonitory state apophenia, defined as perceiving patterns that don't actually exist and referring them back to an unseen authority who must be pulling the strings. It’s a theory he developed as an army medical officer specializing in head traumas under the Third Reich. Today, it’s analogized to political conspiracy thinking.

Consider Case No. 10: a German soldier at a filling station refuses to service a patrol that doesn’t have the proper paperwork. Chalk his behavior up to that infamous Nazi officiousness, but when the patrol returns, papers in hand, the soldier still refuses to obey orders. His pattern recognition has gone into overdrive, and he’s begun to see every detail—a locked door, these patrolmen, papers signed or unsigned—as a test. His paranoid disobedience lands him in the psych ward, where Conrad writes him up as one of 107 cases that revolutionizes the Germano-sphere’s understanding of human psychology.

Conrad became famous for recognizing this oppressive emergence of patterns as a pre-psychotic state that he compared to stage-fright. It culminates in a false epiphany: an apophany is not a flash of insight into the true nature of reality but an aha experience (literally: Aha-Erlebnis) that constitutes the birth of delusion. The entire universe has “turned back” and “reorganized itself” to revolve around the individual, performing and corroborating his suspicions.  

Shakespeare said that all the world’s a stage. But in this case it’s staged specifically for youthe audience who's also the star.

For someone obsessed with the pathology of conspiracy, Conrad was pretty susceptible to conspiratorial thinking himself. Born in Germany and raised in Vienna, his loyalties to the Nazi Party preceded his military duty. He joined in 1940 when his earlier research in hereditary epilepsy looked like promising fodder for the Nazi's monstrous sterilization laws. Maybe it was careerist opportunism, maybe it was ideological. Or maybe it takes one delusion-obsessed man to recognize another: Hitler was one of greatest conspiracy theorists of all time.

Only Conrad’s scientific findings aren’t themselves delusional. In fact he ended up being one of the only Nazi scientists to be producing science without rockets, torture, or pentagrams. The traumatized soldiers he treated on the battlefield turned out to be good data, and the hundreds of cases he worked on allowed him to work out the laws of ”Gestalt” (i.e. ‘pattern’) psychology, a school of thought that argues the human mind grasps in an instant not just individual elements of an information set, but entire configurations or patterns. For example, when we see alternating bars of light, they appear to be moving, even though they're not — our brains are just recalling patterns related to the perception of motion and applying them to stationary objects.

In an apophenic state, everything’s a pattern. And while Conrad’s stage-model uses the analogy of starring in your own one-man show, the narcissism of living online today provides plenty more. On Instagram you can filter your face, filter out unwanted followers, construct an image that you and your peers want to believe in—you’re living a private illusion, in public, that the world reifies with likes. For-profit data collection has literally “reorganized” the world to revolve around you. As you wish it—or they will it.

The true epiphany, I want to argue, is that you’re the one pulling the strings. Enlightenment is to realize you have more agency than your push-notifications would have you believe. 



Here’s a better way to think: in an apophenic, information-glutted world where you can basically find evidence for any theory you want, where people inhabit separate online realities, we should focus on falsifiability (which can be tested for) over supportability (which cannot). ​​​​​​​

This is what the Austrian Jewish sociologist Karl Popper, refugee of the Holocaust in New Zealand and later England, laid out in his theory of science. Popper believed conspiracy theories are exactly what feeds a totalitarian state like Hitler’s Germany, playing on and playing up the public’s paranoia of The Other. And authoritarians get away with it precisely because their pseudoscientific claims, masquerading as sound research, are designed to be difficult to prove “false” in the heat of the moment, when data sets — not to mention a sense of the historical consequences — are necessarily incomplete.

By Popper’s lights—and, I’d argue, by the intuition of basic human decency—we shouldn’t consider these provisional theories “science” at all. 


Popper’s a favorite in conspiracy theory studies, but I want to bring in an adjacent idea of his that I think is underemphasized in this context, which is that most human actions have unintended consequences. Instant advertising was supposed to yield informed consumers; the National Security Agency was supposed to protect "us" by exploiting "them." These plans went horribly wrong. But once you wake up to the idea that the world has been patterned, intentionally or unintentionally, in ways you don’t agree with, you can begin to change it.
It is in good faith that whistleblowers around the world bring these contradictions to public attention; they facilitate public epiphany, reminding us that we’re not quarantined in our private, paranoid “stages.” Thinking in public, together, allows us to stage a different performance entirely. We become more like Popper’s social theorists:

The conspiracy theorist will believe that institutions can be understood completely as the result of conscious design; and as collectives, he usually ascribes to them a kind of group-personality, treating them as conspiring agents, just as if they were individual men. As opposed to this view, the social theorist should recognize that the persistence of institutions and collectives creates a problem to be solved in terms of an analysis of individual social actions and their unintended (and often unwanted) social consequences, as well as their intended ones.

Maybe I’m the deluded one for finding reason for optimism in this idea—and not only because it saves me from letting the former Nazi Conrad have the last word. Popper’s thinking offers an escape hatch from our private worlds and back into the public sphere. The social theorist is a public thinker, oriented toward improving society; the conspiracy theorist is a victim of institutions that lie beyond their control. 


© 2022 Edward Snowden

Edward Snowden is the whistleblower who revealed the NSA’s mass surveillance program. He is also the president of the Freedom of the Press Foundation

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