What if I were to tell you that Kennedy’s assassination was in fact an execution, and that it was carried out, not by a lone madman as we have been led to believe, but instead by the CIA? What if I said that Diana too was the victim of a government plot? She was considered a threat to national security, and so of course, her car was very conveniently allowed to ‘crash’. And aliens? UFO sightings are reported almost every day, and the US government remains suspiciously silent on the subject of Area 51. (It’s because they’re running grisly experiments on aliens; there can be no other explanation.) And finally 9/11: 3,000 lives given willingly by the government as justification for the ‘War on Terror’, a war which oh-so-conveniently secured for the West vital oil supplies in the Middle-East. All nonsense, right? But believe it or not, these nonsensical claims are held as gospel truth by some. These are ‘conspiracy theorists’; people who will argue with NASA, eyewitnesses and even the cold, hard facts if necessary because it is obvious to them, and them alone, that the entire world is one enormous conspiracy. Yet it appears that these people are not alone. According to a 2006 survey, as many as one in five Americans deemed it ‘somewhat likely’ for government officials to have consciously allowed 9/11 to happen. Other conspiracy theories are also still held as truth, in some cases as late as half a century after the event. So why do conspiracy theories hold such durable appeal, and to so many people? Surely anyone can see these theories are nonsense? Ah. But that’s just what they want you to think.
One of the most durable conspiracy theories surrounds the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963. The official explanation is that Lee Harvey Oswald, the man arrested for shooting JFK, worked alone. So how come so many people believe that the hole in Kennedy’s head could not possibly have been made by a bullet fired from where Oswald was standing? The JFK conspiracy remains popular; a survey as late as 2003 revealed that 70% of Americans believed that Kennedy’s death was part of a larger plot. And this belief persists, fifty years after the event, and despite the many studies which have scientifically proven that the bullet could in fact only have been fired from Oswald’s position.
The Diana conspiracy is equally difficult to credit, and yet it remains popular to this day. Theorists argue that MI6 plotted to kill Diana; she was on the brink of humiliating the royal family by marrying her supposed lover, and it was even rumoured that she was pregnant with his child. Ample motivation, then, for the royal family to try and sweep the whole mess under the carpet by getting rid of Diana in an apparent ‘accident’. And once again, statistics point to widespread acceptance of the conspiracy theory: 43% of British people believe Diana was murdered, even though there is no evidence to suggest that the crash was anything other than an accident, caused by drink-driving and no seatbelts.
The 9/11 conspiracy theories follow the same pattern: wild speculations which fall apart under close scrutiny, yet somehow remain popular amongst die-hard conspiracists and the general public alike. Theorists argue that the World Trade Center came down because of government-planted bombs in the towers, and that the Pentagon was in fact hit by a US missile, not a hijacked plane as the politicians want us to think. But these theories are fatally flawed. Experts point to the torrent of jet fuel and subsequent raging fires in the Twin Towers as the cause of collapse, and singed fragments of an aeroplane found at the Pentagon prove that it was indeed a plane which flew into the government offices.Yet this hard evidence is not enough to deter conspiracy theorists, or indeed many ordinary Americans, from buying into the nonsense: a survey revealed that as many as one in ten people believed government bombs were responsible for bringing down the towers, while another poll found that 42% of citizens believed in some kind of cover-up regarding the true events of 9/11.
So why are conspiracy theories so popular, despite the concrete evidence which disproves them? Well, one obvious answer is the invention of the internet. Anyone can create a website, a YouTube video or a chat forum, and it is these platforms on which conspiracy theories multiply and expand. There exists a kind of ‘cyber Chinese Whispers effect’; theories reach a huge audience very quickly, and are then repeated and distorted across the web. But that only explains how theories are circulated, not why they are believed. This is where it gets more complicated.
It has been suggested that conspiracy theories can be reassuring – a comfort blanket, if you like – to protect believers from the true realities of the world. But, I hear you say, the government is secretly controlling everything and allowing innocent civilians to die for political gain, how can that possibly be comforting? Well stay with me. The human mind has trouble dealing with forces beyond its control, forces such as terrorism, fate or indeed aliens. Conspiracy theories provide a more rational and predictable world; these uncontrollable forces are suddenly at least under the direction and management of the government, which I suppose is better than nothing. And it is far easier to get our heads around a corrupt government than it is to reconcile with the scary twists of fate that led to Diana’s death, or the human capacity for evil demonstrated on 9/11. Seen in this light, conspiracy theories are indeed something of a comfort blanket. They explain the unexplainable, rationalise the irrational, and ultimately shelter us from the horrors of reality and humanity.