On Halloween 2020, our show returns from hiatus to preview Season 2 of the podcast, & to discuss the frightening topic of conspiracy theories in world history. We recount the dark history of pandemic-stricken societies seeking to blame alleged conspirators & scapegoats. Far-fetched conspiracy theories have had a wide appeal during troubled times throughout history, despite the fact that they often paint a bleak picture of a world controlled by shadowy elites. Factors such as declining trust in mainstream journalism & rising influence of social media algorithms have made modern Americans more susceptible to conspiratorial beliefs. We consider some of the conspiratorial ideas that have been spreading across the United States since the rise of the COVID-19 epidemic, & outline some of the negative real-world consequences that such beliefs can have on public health & safety. Finally, we note the difficulty of dealing with friends & relatives who have fallen prey to conspiracy-promoting propaganda, & offer advice on how to protect oneself from disinformation.
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This is “From Boomers To Millennials,” a Modern US History podcast. Welcome to Episode 10A, “The Conspiratorial Podcast Update,” a special episode of our show. Thanks for your patience with our hiatus period. We are currently writing scripts for our 2nd Season, which will debut with an episode all about 1956. Additionally, we are setting up some interview episodes, bringing an exciting new show format to our podcast. We will be conversing with historians, educators, & other history podcasters in order to get different perspectives on Modern US History. The new season will begin during November 2020, & once we resume, we will be releasing episodes on a more regular schedule.
Our featured podcast for October 2020 is the “Flatpack History of Sweden” podcast in case the craziness of this year is making you wish to escape to a different time & place. This chronological show covers the entirety of Swedish history, from prehistoric times all the way up to the present. At least, that’s the destination where they’re headed. Right now, witty & engaging hosts Chris & Asa are covering the Age of the Vikings. Check their show out at flatpackhistorysweden.podbean.com, & in the directories of major podcast platforms. Now, for a brief show progress update: the following are the Top 10 countries that have downloaded our show the most: #10 The Netherlands; #9 Mexico; #8 New Zealand; #7 Germany; #6 Indonesia; #5 Australia; #4 Ireland; #3 Canada; #2 the United Kingdom; & at Number One, the good ‘ole USA. Many thanks to our listeners, all around the globe!
This episode will not involve even a supplemental-length analysis of any single historical event. However, during this specific moment in the history of the USA, given the unusual & sometimes surreal circumstances, we feel compelled to provide some historical context to current events, just as we did in Episode 9C (but a little more briefly this time). Today’s program addresses the growing popularity of conspiracy theories during the coronavirus pandemic, which poses a threat to a well-informed democratic citizenry in the United States. Journalist Diane Cole of National Public Radio reports that (quote) “Villainizing an unknown other [group] as guilty of spreading [or] causing . . . disease has a long, hate-filled history” (close quote).
Across the centuries & around the world, there has been a pattern of people engaging in scapegoating & paranoia during pandemics. In one classic example, the Black Death (also known as the bubonic plague) was a horrific disease that killed approximately one-third of the population of Europe during the 14th Century AD. European kingdoms were largely unable to stop the spread of the Black Death, in large part because they lacked a scientific understanding of germs as the cause of various forms of disease. Medieval people did not understand that the plague was spread via microscopic germs from rats & fleas rather than by bad water or some other cause. When existing medical & religious authorities’ advice often failed, members of the population often turned to desperately searching for cures. They also engaged in frenzied attempts to punish scapegoats. In some parts of Central Europe, Jews were blamed for the plague of the Black Death. Jewish people were already suspiciously viewed as heretics within a medieval Christian culture that generally lacked religious tolerance or pluralism. Now, during the Black Death epidemic, Jews were being falsely accused of poisoning the wells, thus intentionally spreading the disease. According to NPR’s Diane Cole, the Jewish population of Central Europe therefore became targets of deadly attacks & pogroms during the 1300s.
As centuries passed by, the tendency for people experiencing natural crises to blame outsiders remained, manifesting itself in different forms. In 17th Century Europe, a poor harvest or an outbreak of disease might be blamed on witchcraft. According to a European history textbook called The Western Heritageby Professors Kagan, Ozment, & Turner, (quote) “Nowhere is the dark side of early modern thought & culture better seen than in the witch hunts . . . that erupted in almost every Western land. Between 1400 & 1700, courts sentenced an estimated 70,000 to 100,000 people to death for harmful magic [or] diabolical witchcraft” (close quote). NPR’s Diane Cole reports that in the 19th Century US, Irish & Italian immigrants were wrongly blamed for the spread of diseases such as cholera & polio. Even in modern times, despite our understanding of epidemiology & more advanced medical practices, those perceived as disease carriers are still sometimes stigmatized. When the HIV virus causing AIDS was devastating the gay community during the 1970s & 80s, some religious Americans regarded the epidemic as a divine punishment for (what they viewed as) sinful lifestyles.
We are now seeing the same phenomenon again during the coronavirus pandemic of 2020. Vera Bergengruen of Time Magazine notes (quote) “As public spaces shut down in March, millions of Americans logged online . . . As people became more socially isolated, many increasingly turned to pundits peddling misinformation, conspiracy threats, & hate speech” (close quote). There has been a contagion of conspiracy theories & scapegoating alongside the outbreak of the COVID-19 disease. Journalist Angela Haupt of the Washington Post reports that these included (quote) “the idea that 5G networks were to blame – or Bill Gates, or a ring of satanic pedophiles trying to divert attention from itself” (close quote). Journalist Diane Cole reports that the coronavirus’s reported origins in China’s Wuhan Province led some Americans to wrongly conclude people of Asian heritage were potential carriers of the COVID-19 virus. Such fears led to an increase in verbal attacks, physical assaults, & hate crimes against Asian-Americans when the virus first started to spread across the United States during Spring 2020.
We will explore more about the specific theories that have emerged during the pandemic later on during this podcast. But first, we need to explain why these ideas prove attractive to so many people. Conspiracy theories have a long history of popularity in many times & places throughout world history. They tend to emerge especially strongly in times of rising economic insecurity & inequality, & also when many disturbing events lead to a sense that things are spinning out of control in a particular society. Why are dark & disturbing conspiracy theories popular during such difficult times? Well, one common explanation is that by identifying sinister forces (often people or groups seen as outsiders), conspiracy theories at least provide their believers with a sense of comfort that they understand what is going on & who is behind it. According to Angela Haupt of the Washington Post, social psychologists argue that these ideas emerge out of humans’ (quote) “innate need for knowledge & certainty, to feel . . . in control, & to feel good about ourselves & the groups we belong to” (close quote). All too often, that comfort emerges out of demonizing other groups as the villains behind a conspiracy.
There have been some genuine conspiracies in world history, usually perpetrated by governments & other powerful institutions that have the power to enforce collective secrecy & commit vast resources to under-the-radar activities. However, the vast majority of global conspiracies that are alleged by amateur theorists are highly implausible, precisely because of how many players would need to be involved. The greater the number of people & institutions that are included in a plot, the less likely it is that all factions would remain mutually cooperative & would safeguard the secrets necessary to keep the scheme under wraps. Throughout history, many illegal plans by powerful institutions have come undone because whistleblowers publicized them, ranging from Watergate to Enron to NSA wiretapping. The investigative news media is often an important check upon the power of attempted conspiracies, because it can investigate & confirm allegations made by such whistleblowers.
One common thread in modern conspiracies is a distrust of mainstream news outlets & journalists, who are accused of being accomplices to the conspiracy. There has been a decline in regard for the news media in the USA, especially on the Right & Far Left portions of the political spectrum. Once an individual has lost faith in the accuracy of mainstream reporting, that opens the door to believing in a wide range of conspiracies to explain what’s going on in the world. While there are plenty of legitimate criticisms that can be made about mainstream media outlets, a total dismissal of the work of reporters usually emerges out of a distorted understanding of how the journalistic profession works.
I know a little bit about this topic, because I’ve dabbled in journalism. I studied Mass Communications with a Print Journalism emphasis at university & I’ve written articles for college & local newspapers, although I have never worked as a full-time journalist. Journalism is far from a perfect industry, & it is in bad shape right now due to technological changes that have led to decreased revenues & budget cuts. I have many criticisms of the modern media over such issues as opportunism, sensationalism, clickbait, bias, etc. However, my journalistic background helps me understand why the claim that legitimate journalistic institutions are just “making things up” or “printing whatever powerful interests want them to print” is rather far-fetched. Most journalists do follow ethical standards, & the news division of a media company is usually independent from the ownership & editorial board. I’m speaking from my own experience with newspapers here; standards may be different for TV & radio stations, especially those with a lot of opinion-based news content. Anyway, the print journalism industry has professional rules & newsrooms have internal safeguards, such as editors & fact-checkers, who try to make certain that stories are accurate. When mistakes do get into print, a correction gets published, or in extreme cases, a story is retracted. In the very rare instances when journalists have gotten caught cooking up fake stories, it has ended the plagiarizing journalist’s career & caused a total reevaluation of the internal procedures of the publication that printed the “fake news.” The excellent 2003 film “Shattered Glass” dramatizes the true story of a gifted but dishonest journalist. It shows how his editor finally caught him, & documents the damage he caused to his magazine’s reputation.
In the case of the current pandemic, many conspiracy theories have challenged the mainstream narrative about the origin of the novel coronavirus. As journalist Angela Haupt notes, conspiracy theorists speculate that (quote) “perhaps the virus was created in a lab as a bioweapon, or by pharmaceutical companies to boost sales of drugs & vaccines” (close quote). Others argue that a coronavirus vaccine will include a microchip designed to control Americans, which echoes Cold War conspiracy theories about fluoride in tap water turning citizens into Communists. This bizarre idea seemed plausible to some paranoid American citizens during the era when the Soviet Union was an existential threat to the USA. It just goes to show that the substance of conspiracy theories often remain the same over time, but the culprits change based on the anxieties & fears unique to the specific age.
Other conspiracy theories claim that mask-wearing is ineffective or downright harmful. Initial scientific confusion about masks contributed to this mistrust, as did US leaders who sent mixed signals. Nevertheless, the fact that most doctors & scientists now agree that masks are helpful in stopping the spread of coronavirus does little to reduce promotion of these theories among people who distrust the medical establishment. In their conspiratorial worldview, the vigor with which experts, authorities, & government officials promote masks just provides more evidence that masks are part of a nefarious plot. Some Americans go even further, insisting that the very existence of the COVID-19 virus is a fraudulent hoax designed to tank the economy, to hurt the president, or to restrict citizens’ basic rights.
No political tendency has a historic monopoly on formulating conspiracy theories. During the past 50 years, some on the Far Left promoted the idea that the quote-unquote “military-industrial complex” was behind the John F. Kennedy assassination or embraced the belief that the George W. Bush administration secretly caused the 9/11 terrorist attacks. However, currently in the USA most of the conspiratorial energy seems to be on the political Right, which seeks to provide an explanation for why the president that most conservative Americans voted for isn’t more politically popular & why he hasn’t been more effective against the coronavirus.
The most prominent & infamous of these theories is the so-called “QAnon” belief system, which involves claims that Democratic politicians, Hollywood celebrities, & Deep State government officials are part of a giant cabal of Satanic pedophile cannibals that rules the world. It claims that these elites consume the blood of children, which somehow gives them superpowers & reverses the aging process. It perhaps would be more logical to conclude that the superpower allowing celebrities to look young is actually called money, which allows them to pay for plastic surgeries, personal trainers, & dieticians, but trying to defeat theories that appeal to primal fears by using rational logic is often a losing battle. Most QAnon believers claim that behind the scenes, President Donald Trump is working to destroy this evil child-victimizing cabal, and that in a moment called “the storm,” there will be mass arrests & perhaps executions of everyone involved in the alleged plot. They claim that Trump’s public persona as a boorish blowhard is just a strategic front, & that behind the scenes he is a mastermind directing the forces that are defeating the evil cabal.
The QAnon theory allows its right-wing adherents to believe that people they already distrusted (such as Democratic politicians & liberal celebrities) are more monstrous than they previously imagined, & allows them to believe that the president they voted for is more skillful & benevolent than he appears to be at face value. QAnon’s themes of "saving children from a diabolical cabal" echoes some anti-Semitic conspiracy theories of the Middle Ages, which claimed that Jews used the blood of Christian children in their rituals. The fact that QAnon followers’ wild accusations detract from solving the real problems of sexual abuse & human trafficking of children is just one major issue with such inflammatory falsehoods. In 1930s Germany, Nazis revived theories like this so-called “blood libel” to help gain political support for persecuting (& eventually murdering) Jewish people, so this can result in real violence. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that everyone who dabbles in conspiracy theories is a literal Nazi. Rather, this admittedly extreme example shows what can happen when an entire government is taken over by an ultra-nationalist movement espousing conspiratorial beliefs. While nothing going on right now related to conspiracy theories is precisely analogous to the rise of fascism, it’s worth noting that the Nazi Party in 1930s Germany gained power amid the backdrop of a financial crisis, & Hitler’s movement provided the German people with convenient scapegoats to blame.
The other major conspiracy (besides Anti-Semitism) that was popular among Nazis during the 1920s & 30s involved fears about Communists, whom the German Right alleged were on the cusp of taking over the country. There was a real Communist Party that gained support in Germany during the Great Depression, although its membership was far outnumbered by conservative, liberal, & social-democratic parties. However, when the German parliament building known as the Reichstag was set on fire by arsonists during 1933, the Nazis in the majority governing coalition blamed the Communists for the fire. Kagan, Ozment, & Turner write (quote) “The Nazis quickly claimed that the [blaze] proved the existence of an immediate communist threat against the government. To the public, it was plausible that the Communists might attempt some [revolt] now that the Nazis were in power . . . Hitler issued an Emergency Decree suspending civil liberties & proceeded to arrest communists” (close quote). This suspension of liberties became permanent, & Nazi Germany soon stopped holding elections entirely. Germany’s slide into totalitarian dictatorship started when Nazi officials used a plausible threat from left-wing anti-fascist radicals as an excuse to suspend democratic rights.
On a less awful but also troubling note, conspiracy theories about enemy attacks have also played a role in US History. During the 1890s, an accidental explosion on board the American naval ship USS Maine in Cuba was blamed upon Spanish sabotage, & used as a pretense for the USA to wage war against Spain. In the first term of George W. Bush, many Americans were wrongly convinced that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was tied to the 9/11 attacks, & that he held Weapons of Mass Destruction that were an imminent threat to US security. This alleged threat was used to justify the US war against Iraq in 2003. At times, foreign threats to national security may be genuine, but these incidents demonstrate the danger of overreacting to an attack before the true culprits can be confidently identified.
In the year 2020, Americans seem to be more likely (like those people back in 30s Germany) to identify a threat from an alleged “enemy within.” Recently, we have seen natural phenomena such as a growing number of wildfires caused by droughts on the West Coast being wrongly blamed upon left-wing Antifa arsonists, a modern-day analogue in some American conservatives’ minds to the Communists that the German Right feared back in the 1930s. There is also currently fear on the Left about enemies within in the form of militias & white supremacist groups. These organizations pose a real threat, as evidenced by federal authorities’ recent discovery of a militia plot to kidnap the Governor of Michigan. However, conspiracists of the Left sometimes exaggerate the power & influence of these Far-Right groups.
Right now, the United States is experiencing political strife, economic recession, & a public health crisis, all at the same time, which helps explain why conspiratorial rumors have proliferated in recent months. Plus, here in the 21st Century, the Internet has served as rocket fuel for conspiracy theories, spreading them like wildfire around the world in a moment’s notice. Rumors spread on social media have had deadly serious consequences in some parts of the world. The New York Times reported in 2018 that military officials in the nation of Myanmar (quote) “turned [Facebook] into a tool for ethnic cleansing,” using false rumors of Muslim atrocities to whip up outrage among the country’s Buddhist majority toward its Muslim minority. Paul Mozur of the Times reports that (quote) “anti-[Muslim] propaganda on Facebook [led to] what United Nations officials called a textbook example of ethnic cleansing,” with violent pogroms forcing more than 700,000 Muslims to flee from Myanmar.
Social media smear campaigns have not caused chaos & conflict on quite that scale in the United States, at least not yet. Still, the decline of mainstream media consumption, in favor of reliance upon social media, has contributed to the troubling problem of conspiracy theories spreading among Americans. Many people are no longer exposed to fact-based journalism that could help them to access non-conspiratorial explanations for various current events. Some conspiracy theories may be relatively benign curiosities, such as speculation about UFOs & aliens, but other current conspiracy theories have shown the potential to be so dangerous that the FBI has labelled them as potential domestic terrorism threats. According to Marianne Dodson of The Daily Beast news website, a 2019 FBI bulletin warned conspiracy theories were (quote) “occasionally driving both groups & individual extremists to carry out criminal or violent acts” (close quote). For example, QAnon followers have already committed multiple violent attacks upon people whom the culprit wrongly believed to be involved in human trafficking. Of course, most conspiracy theorists never engage in violence, but there are other negative consequences to such beliefs. Journalist Angela Haupt writes that (quote) published “research . . . indicates that those who believe in coronavirus-related conspiracy theories are less likely to follow social distancing guidance,” less likely to seek treatment if they get sick, & are less willing to ever get vaccinated. Many people have recently seen friends & relatives get hooked on conspiracy theories, sometimes causing the person’s whole personality & worldview to change. The fear & isolation involved with this current health & employment crisis has rendered numerous Americans vulnerable to conspiracy theories, which are often served up & promoted to them by social media algorithms, especially those on Facebook & YouTube.
I want to conclude with a word of warning regarding interacting with people who have embraced some of these bizarre theories. It is very difficult to argue with conspiracy believers (I’m sure some of you have already discovered this). Conspiracists are usually met with skepticism when they admit their beliefs to family & friends. They often defensively respond by saying that their listeners need to do their own “research” & not just accept reporting from the mainstream media. The conspiracy advocate then sends the skeptical acquaintance professional-looking media promoting the conspiracy theory (often a YouTube video) in hopes of drawing that person in. Sometimes family members will watch the propaganda & be converted. In other cases, unconvinced skeptics try to talk friends & family members out of their conspiratorial beliefs by sending along evidence that debunks them. However, getting someone to admit they’ve been misled is an uphill battle; as one aphorism often attributed to Mark Twain points out: (quote) “It’s easier to fool someone than to convince them that they’ve been fooled.”
Note that conspiracy advocates’ claim to be “doing research,” but they usually misunderstand what the term “research” truly means. Dictionary.com defines “research” as (quote) “diligent & systematic inquiry or investigation into a subject in order to discover or revise facts, theories, applications, etc.” (close quote). What conspiracy theorists call “research” is often just consuming propaganda that supports the theory, which hardly meets the “diligent & systematic” requirement of actual research. Legitimate researching involves considering multiple perspectives & weighing evidence from various credible sources. It also involves skepticism about overly complex & grandiose explanations for things, such as plots that would require years of advance planning & the involvement of a big, complicated group of participants. Occam’s Razor, which is the philosophical idea that simpler theories are more likely to be true than convoluted ones, often proves to be a useful thought experiment.
Some conspiracies in world history can be proven true after undergoing scrutiny from serious researchers, but far more often, an empirical investigation shows the causes of unusual phenomena to be more mundane & less exciting than conspiratorial explanations would indicate. It would be more exciting to believe that earthquakes are caused by a geological cabal involving the British royal family, the Russians, Oprah Winfrey, & Al Gore. However, plate tectonics provide a far less shocking yet much more scientific & likely explanation for why earthquakes happen. Remember: if the quote-unquote “research” you’re doing is constantly revealing outrages that manipulate your emotions, if it is never mundane, there’s probably a good chance that you’re consuming propaganda, or at least biased material, rather than actually casting the wide investigative net required to do real research. Genuine outrages involving malfeasance, corruption, & scandal do happen, but they’re usually exposed by investigative journalists with considerable resources who have combed through countless mundane documents in order to at last find the smoking gun of evidence that proves up the story. Actual conspiracies are probably less likely to be discovered by some random Joe or Jane Schmo browsing the web on lunch break. I’m afraid that bad things are more likely to be caused by incompetence or random chance than by some diabolical conspiracy.
This concludes our historical exploration of conspiracy theories. It is no coincidence that we tackled this subject in our final episode before the 2020 elections here in the United States. We hope that our American listeners, whatever their ideological beliefs may be, will make their choices in the voting booth based upon verifiable facts & evidence, rather than acting upon hearsay, rumor, & conspiracy. Thank you for listening to this late October podcast update. Stay safe & stay sane out there, everybody. We’ll keep you updated over the next few weeks as we continue to progress toward the Season 2 debut during November 2020. Take care, & we’ll talk at you again soon.