You do not believe in conspiracy theories. The idea that powerful people would ever secretly conspire to maintain or strengthen their power is simply preposterous to you. America is experiencing a whirlwind of misinformation right now, and a clear line must be drawn between educated citizens and paranoid crazies.
You do not believe in lizard people or the Illuminati. The moon landing was clearly not faked. Qanon supporters are obviously insane. You definitely know Covid-19 is real. You do not think that there is anything suspicious about how Jeffrey Epstein died. In your opinion, everyone who thinks the American government engages in mass surveillance is too paranoid. You find claims that the CIA tried to invent mind control by dosing people with LSD to be outlandish. You sleep soundly knowing the American government has never considered committing false-flag terrorist attacks to build support for a war against Cuba. You also definitely believe that Donald Trump fairly won the 2016 presidential election, because believing he secretly made deals with Russian agents would mean that you were theorizing about a conspiracy. And you’re definitely not a conspiracy theorist, right?
Well, maybe not all of these personal statements are true, maybe you do believe in *some* of these theories. To be fair, the CIA’s mind control experiments and the story that the military tried to get President Kennedy to sign off on false-flag terrorist attacks have been proven to have happened through now declassified documents. Maybe you are a conspiracy theorist after all, or
at least you should be. Contrary to popular discourse, conspiracy theories have an important role to play in democracy––as paranoia about the rich and powerful conspiring is not unfounded. Painting all conspiracy theories as inherently ludicrous only serves to delegitimize heavily proven theories though an association with unhinged theories, and legitimizes unhinged theories through an association with heavily proven theories. It would be very silly to believe all conspiracy theories, but it would also be incredibly naïve not to believe in at least some of them.
Black History month can provides us with some learning opportunities to grapple with how conspiracies were often violently used by the American government against Black people. Between 1932 and 1972, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention secretly carried out their Tuskegee Syphilis Study by recruiting 399 Black sharecroppers who had syphilis and promising them free medical care, but only giving out placebos so the effects of syphilis could be observed. The Tuskegee Syphilis Study directly led to the deaths of 128 participants. Starting in the 1950’s, the FBI covertly began a program known as “COININTELPRO” which aimed to completely dismantle the Civil Rights movement and other left-wing organizations by sending in undercover agents to monitor the plans of activist organizations and sow discord whenever possible. The FBI even secretly bugged the residences of Martin Luther King Jr. and attempted to blackmail him into committing suicide by threatening to release audio tapes of an affair he had. In 1969, the FBI quietly conspired with the Chicago Police Department to assassinate 21-year old Fred Hampton, the incredibly successful Black Party chairman of the Chicago chapter who had pioneered the free breakfast program, fought against police brutality, and created a multi-racial working class movement known as The Rainbow Coalition.
While these historical events are known facts now, it is important to remember that they were once only perceived as completely outlandish conspiracy theories. In many cases, we only know them as historical facts because people were committed enough to these conspiracy theories to actually stop the conspiracy. In 1970, eight burglars calling themselves the Citizen’s Commission to Investigate the FBI spent months casing an FBI office and memorizing the routines of the residents who lived nearby. On March 8th, they broke in using a lockpick and crowbar, stole FBI documents and mailed them to journalists. “When you talked to people outside of the movement about what the FBI was doing, nobody wanted to believe it,” Keith Forsyth, one of the burglars, told the New York Times over 40 years later. The publication of these documents were what proved the existence of COININTELPRO.
None of this is in the past. We still live in an age of conspiracies because we live under capitalism, an economic and political system where money and power is concentrated among a select few. It is not unexpected that this select few will privately conspire with each other to maintain their positions at the top. They may cover up their own conspiracies or even help popularize unhinged conspiracy theories that lead people on a wild goose chases. Sweeping all conspiracy theories under the rug will not end this misinformation frenzy, but a simple analysis of determining whether a conspiracy theory elaborates on an effects of capitalism or simply makes excuses for the failings of the system by blaming hidden actors can help us stay critical of both misinformation as well as the powerful authorities in charge. At least in theory.