Conspiracy: theory and practice

Image: Kelly Lacy


Contribution to a taxonomy of conspiracies.


The greatest conspiracies are overt and notorious – not theories, but practices expressed through law and politics, technology and finance. Counterintuitively, these conspiracies are often announced publicly, and with a hint of pride. They are duly reported in our newspapers; they are stamped on the covers of our magazines; updates on his progress appear on our screens – all with such regularity that we are unable to reconcile the banality of his methods with the rapacity of his ambitions.

The ruling party wants to redraw the district borders. The preferred interest rate has changed. A free service was created to host our personal files. These conspiracies order, and disorder, our lives; and yet they can't compete for attention with digital graffiti of pedophile Satanists in the basement of a Washington, DC pizzeria.

In short, this is our problem: the truest conspiracies meet with the least opposition.

Or, to put it another way, the practices conspiracies – the methods by which true conspiracies are carried out, such as the gerrymandering, or the debt industry, or mass surveillance – are often overshadowed by conspiracy theories: those malevolent falsehoods that, taken together, can erode civic confidence in the existence of something correct or verifiable.

In my life, I am already tired of both practice and theory. In my work for the US National Security Agency [NSA], I was involved in the deployment of a top secret system designed to access and track the communications of every human being on the planet. And yet, after I became aware of the damage this system was doing – and after I helped to expose this true conspiracy to the press – I couldn't help noticing that the conspiracies that attracted almost as much attention were the ones that were demonstrably false: supposedly I he was a handpicked CIA agent sent to infiltrate and embarrass the NSA; my actions were part of an elaborate inter-agency dispute. No, said others: my real masters were the Russians, the Chinese, or worse – Facebook.

When I've felt vulnerable to all sorts of internet fantasies, and I've been questioned by journalists about my past, my family history, and a host of other questions that are entirely personal and irrelevant to the issue at hand, there have been times when I wanted to scream: “What’s up wrong with you? All you want is intrigue, but isn't a genuine ubiquitous, global-spanning surveillance apparatus in your pockets enough? Can you make it better?”

It took years – eight years and I'm still in exile – for me to realize that I was missing the main thing: we talk about conspiracy theories to avoid talking about conspiracy practices, which are often too frightening, too threatening, too absolute.


I hope, in this and subsequent texts, to establish a broader scope of conspiracy thinking, examining the relationship between true and false conspiracies, and asking difficult questions about the relationships between truth and falsehood in our public and private lives.

I will begin by offering a fundamental proposition: namely, that to believe in any conspiracy, true or false, is to believe in a system or sector driven by an elite that acts in self-interest rather than by popular consent. We can call this elite the Deep State, or Swamp; Illuminati, Opus Dei, or Jews, or simply call it by the names of major banking and Federal Reserve – the point is that a conspiracy is an inherently undemocratic force.

Recognizing a conspiracy – again, true or false – implies accepting that things are not simply different from what they seem, but that they are systematized, regulated, intentional and even logical. Only by treating conspiracies not as “plans” or “schemes”, but as mechanisms for ordering disorder, can we understand how they have so radically displaced the concepts of “rights” and “freedoms” as fundamental signifiers of democratic citizenship.

In today's democracies, what is important to increasing numbers of people is not which rights and freedoms are recognised, but which beliefs are respected: which history, or story, strengthens their identities as citizens, and as members of religious, racial and ethnic communities. It is this substitutionary function of false conspiracies – the way they replace unified or majority stories with parochial and partisan stories – that sets the stage for political upheaval.

Especially pernicious is the way false conspiracies keep their followers from engaging with the truth. Citizenship in a conspiracy society does not require evaluating a given statement of fact for its truth-value, and therefore accepting or rejecting it accordingly, inasmuch as it requires the complete and total rejection of all truth-value it contains. comes from an enemy source, and the replacement by an alternative plot, narrated from elsewhere.


The concept of the enemy is central to conspiracy thinking – and to the various taxonomies of conspiracy itself. --Jesse Walker, editor of Reason and author of The United States of paranoia: a conspiracy theory (2013), offers the following categories of conspiracy thinking based on the enemy: “Enemy from the outside”, which concerns conspiracy theories perpetrated by or based on actors who conspire against a given identity community from outside it. “Enemy within”, which refers to conspiracy theories perpetrated by or based on actors who conspire against a given identity community from within it. “Enemy from above” refers to conspiracy theories perpetrated by or based on actors manipulating events from within circles of power (government, military, intelligence community, etc.).

“Enemy from below,” which refers to conspiracy theories perpetrated by or based on actors from historically marginalized communities who seek to overthrow the social order. "Benevolent Conspiracies", which refer to extraterrestrial, supernatural or religious forces dedicated to controlling the world for the benefit of humanity (similar forces from the Beyond that act to the detriment of Walker's humanity could be classified as "Enemy from above").

Other forms of conspiracy taxonomy are just a Wikipedia link away: M's ternary categorizationMichael Barkun of conspiracy events (e.g., false flags), systemic conspiracies (e.g., Freemasonry), and superconspiracy theories (e.g., the New World Order), as well as their distinction between the secret acts of secret groups and the acts secrets of known groups; or the binary classification of “superficial” and “deep” conspiracies by Murray Rothbard ('superficial' conspiracies begin by identifying evidence of wrongdoing and end by blaming the benefiting party; "deep" conspiracies begin by suspecting a party of wrongdoing and proceed by looking for documentary documents”).

I find admirable things in all these taxonomies, but it strikes me as remarkable that none of them contemplate truth value. Furthermore, I am not sure that these or any other way of classifying can adequately address the sometimes alternating and dependent nature of conspiracies, where a true conspiracy (for example, the 11/11 hijackers) triggers a false conspiracy (for example, example, XNUMX/XNUMX was an inside job), and a false conspiracy (eg, Iraq has weapons of mass destruction) triggers a true conspiracy (eg, the invasion of Iraq).

Another criticism I would make of existing taxonomies involves a reassessment of causality, which is more properly the subject of psychology and philosophy. Most taxonomies of conspiracy thinking are based on the logic most intelligence agencies use when spreading disinformation, treating falsehood and fiction as levers of influence and confusion that can plunge a population into powerlessness, making it vulnerable to new beliefs – and even to new governments.

But this top-down approach fails to take into account that the conspiracy theories prevalent in the United States today are bottom-up developments, plots that are not invented behind the closed doors of intelligence agencies, but on the open internet, by ordinary citizens, for people.

In short, conspiracy theories do not inculcate impotence, but are signs and symptoms of impotence itself.

This leads us to other taxonomies, which classify conspiracies not by their content or intent, but by the desires that lead us 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 arrive “at the truth” by itself; belief in a conspiracy is considered "existential" if the desire underlying the belief is to feel safe and secure, under someone else's control; whereas 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.

Outside, inside, above, below, beyond… events, systems, superconspiracies… superficial and deep heuristics… these are all attempts to outline a new kind of politics that is also a new kind of identity, a confluence of politics and identity that permeates all aspects of contemporary life. Ultimately, the only truly honest taxonomic approach to conspiracy thinking I can formulate is something of an inversion: the idea that conspiracies themselves are a taxonomy, a method by which democracies especially divide into parties and tribes, a typology through which people who lack definite or satisfying narratives as citizens explain to themselves their misery, their disenfranchisement, their lack of power, and even their lack of will.

*Edward Snowden is a systems analyst, former CIA systems administrator, and former NSA contractor who has made public details of various programs that make up the US NSA's global surveillance system.

Translation: Fernando Lima das Neves.

Originally published on the author's web page []


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