Not every conspiracy theory is de facto bad. Vast forces really are colluding against us, with varying degrees of intent. It is when these forces are misidentified—when blame is pinned on people equally helpless, or people who are totally made up—that things can spin out of control. The events of January 6th are just one example: five people died that day, and many more might have. But this was, of course, not the first time conspiracy thinking has erupted in violent ways. From this country’s inception, paranoid fever dreams have regularly led to startling acts of terror, subjugation, etc. But which specific conspiracy has caused the most destruction? What is history’s most damaging conspiracy theory? For this week’s Giz Asks, we reached out to a number of experts to find out.
Associate Professor, Writing, Rhetoric, and Digital Media, University of Kentucky, and the author of Awful Archives: Conspiracy Theory, Rhetoric and Acts of Evidence
Early on, we inherited a lot of our conspiracies from Europe—we had Freemason conspiracies, which morphed into anti-Catholic conspiracies and then Illuminati conspiracies, and then of course we had many anti-semitic conspiracies.
To me, all these conspiracies constitute the same narrative with different characters repeated over and over again: some kind of shady group is secretly running every aspect of our lives, and we have no control over it. We see this again with QAnon.
What’s so damaging about this particular narrative is the message it sends of powerlessness. In some ways, it leads to an almost apolitical orientation: if there really is a shadowy group of people controlling every aspect of our lives, why bother getting involved in local government, or voting, since it’s all just a ruse anyway?
For someone like me, who really does believe you have a responsibility to go out and vote and be involved in government, to see all these people kind of give up on that, and seek out this alternative reality is dismaying. They’re giving up the power they have to make change.
There’s a famous essay by Richard Hofstadter on this subject, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” and even though it was written in 1963, it provides a really good perspective on why Americans are prone to conspiracy theories. America emphasizes a don’t-tread-on-me mentality, an individualism that’s distinctly American, and the ugly side of that is: nobody’s going to take what’s mine. And a lot of the paranoia we see is: someone is taking something from us. When you’re constantly in the position of a little kid trying to protect your stuff from other people, it breeds a particular kind of paranoia.
I’m going with what I take to be the most recent damaging conspiracy theory that the US (and the UK) pursued: the whole claim that “We’ve got evidence Iraq has Weapons of Mass Destruction!” (AKA the WMD theory) which was used back in 2003 as justification for the invasion of Iraq.
Let’s be clear: those WMDs were never found, and the evidence on the ground from UN weapon’s inspectors at the time indicated that the WMD programs the Iraqi government had pursued around the time of the first Gulf War had been shuttered. But President George W. Bush’s (and the UK’s Prime Minister Tony Blair’s) cabinet wanted a reason to link Iraq with the September 11th Attacks in 2001, as well as the various anthrax scares that happened subsequently, and so they allowed their administration to create a pretext for invasion based on flimsy, out-of-date evidence they were told at the time they should not rely on.
Now, people might argue that this isn’t a conspiracy theory per se because the people who argued for the invasion didn’t conspire; they were just tragically misinformed, or bowing to political pressure to agree with the George W. Bush administration’s intelligence assessment. But the problem is that pertinent criticisms were laid against the so-called “intelligence assessment” about the existence of those WMDs, and they were dismissed as mere “conspiracy theories,” a tactic that continued to be used even when it was clear the so-called “conspiracy theorists” were right. This all led to a series of disastrous conflicts in the Middle East which we are still seeing the ramifications of today.
Professor, Political Science, University of Notre Dame, and co-author, with Joseph Uscinski of American Conspiracy Theories
White supremacist conspiracy theories. No idea has killed more people and wrecked more lives in this country than white supremacy, and that extends to conspiracy theories. There are variants on the theme, but basically it is the belief that darker skinned people are inferior and would remain that way unless small groups of immoral actors were not secretly working to overthrow the natural order. Of course, anti-Semitic, anti-masonic, and anti-communist conspiracy theories are dangerous as well, but it is hard to claim that, even combined, they would surpass the damage of white supremacy. From fears of slave insurrection to abolitionists to economic competition from those deemed darker (which included groups now considered white, such as Irish, Italians, and Eastern Europeans) to immigrant “invasions,” nothing has caused Americans to hurt other Americans and violate human rights quite like white supremacy. One should be careful blaming too much on conspiracy theories, however. Some of them, though wrong, turn out to be beneficial (read the Declaration of Independence), some of them turn out to be right (think Watergate), and many of them are more justifications than causes.
Professor, History, UC Davis, and author of Real Enemies: Conspiracy Theories and American Democracy
Not all conspiracy theories are dangerous. If I believe that giant lizards killed JFK, people might find me kind of nutty, but chances are low that I’m a menace to society. However, some conspiracy theories can lead to violence and even death. We’ve seen how anti-Semitic conspiracy theories have led to mass shootings at synagogues, for example. And unfortunately, the popularity of dangerous conspiracy theories is growing.
The most dangerous conspiracy theory today—and the most dangerous one in US history—is QAnon. According to the latest polls, about 15 percent of Americans (almost 50 million people) are adherents. For those who truly believe this theory, the normal rules of politics do not apply. Why would you negotiate bipartisan agreements with a secret cabal of baby-eating Satan-worshipping pedophiles? Why would you concede that their party won an election? There’s no negotiating with absolute evil. I’m deeply concerned that the QAnon theory will lead to more violence, more murders, and potentially to more attempted coups against democracy.
Lecturer, Religious Studies, The Open University, whose research focuses on conspiracy theories, among other things
There’s a strong case that the most damaging conspiracy theory in American history was the Satanic Ritual Abuse scare of the 1980s and ‘90s. We don’t tend to think of it as a conspiracy theory because it was accepted and promoted by so many authoritative institutions—academia, the police, the government and churches. But in every other respect, it prefigures the big conspiracy narratives of the 21st century—a secret network of child-abusing Satanists out to undermine the (white, Protestant) American Way of Life. Innumerable accusations and trials—none of which ever produced lasting convictions—costing hundreds of millions of dollars. Countless children traumatized in the name of their own protection. The normalization of a culture of fear, and emboldening of the Evangelical Right. And it never really went away. Without the Satanic Ritual Abuse scare, you don’t have PizzaGate, and you don’t have QAnon and the storming of the Capitol on January 6th, 2021. Extreme as they might be, they didn’t come from nowhere.
Professor, History, University of South Carolina
This conspiracy theory has appeared twice in American history, three hundred years apart: the Salem Witch Trials in 1692 and the Satanic Ritual Abuse cases of the 1980s.
The panicked narrative was identical. A conspiracy of innocent-looking people—trusted neighbors, part of the community—are in wicked league with the Devil. They secretly worship him, and in his service physically harm others. The testimony of afflicted children can disclose these diabolical practices, and their testimony is uniquely reliable. The state must root out and punish this Satanic conspiracy. Even some details were the same: flying, meeting in conventicles, physical changes that defied nature.
In Salem, 19 people were hanged to death, and over a hundred more arrested. The Satanic Ritual Abuse cases targeted individuals, daycares, and preschools, most famously the McMartin Preschool in California. People were imprisoned, sometimes for decades.
What makes this conspiracy theory so damaging is its adaptability. Fear of devil-worshipping covens came here from Britain and Europe, where “witch-crazes” had developed from medieval fears of covert Jewish plots and of baby-killing witches gathering at nighttime “sabbaths.” Yet it flourished in radically different American contexts. Salem belonged to the English Province of Massachusetts Bay, founded only 60-odd years before the trials by Puritans eager to create the ideal Christian theocracy. While Christianity was demographically dominant in 1980s America, the Satanic Ritual Abuse cases happened in a secular, diverse, industrialized, independent republic that had legally enshrined religious freedom.
What’s also damaging is that both conspiracy panics operated through frameworks of law, rationality, expertise, and investigation. Salem’s witches were condemned by magistrates and judges—several of whom went to Harvard—in a formal court. In the SRA cases, Puritan elites were replaced by district attorneys, therapists, medical professionals, child advocates, and social workers. Conspiracy violence isn’t necessarily rocks through a window.
Both show how America’s DNA, still infused with its utopian vision, greets its failures—by searching out the evil obviously conspiring against its perfection.
Professor and Deputy Chair of History at Stony Brook University
I would say the most damaging conspiracy theory in US history is the recurring, ever-shifting allegation that immigrants collude with their countries or cultures of origin against the United States. This paranoia has led in different periods in US history to bigotry and discrimination against Chinese-Americans in the 19th century (the Chinese massacre of 1871 in Los Angeles), against German-Americans (during World War I), against Catholic Americans (at various points), against Japanese-Americans (the horrific internments during WWII), against Jewish-Americans (again, at various points, especially since the creation of the State of Israel), against Muslim Americans (in the wake of 9/11), against Asian-Americans today (related to COVID-19).
It’s not one of the more spectacular or “sexy” conspiracy theories, and perhaps seems too inchoate to qualify, but the mindset, generally based on prejudice-prompted assumptions and lacking all evidence (indeed, ignoring the strong evidence of loyalty to the US among these populations), has been terribly destructive.
Professor of American Studies at the University of Manchester (UK), and author of Conspiracy Culture: From the Kennedy Assassination to “The X-Files”, and co-editor with Michael Butter of The Routledge Handbook of Conspiracy Theories.
Conspiracy theories have long played an influential role in US history. Once you get beyond the famous opening paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence, for example, there’s a long list of accusations that the British king is plotting against the American colonists. Both sides in the lead up to the Civil War viewed their opponents through the lens of conspiracy, and the nineteenth century also saw a string of nativist political movements that scapegoated vulnerable minorities and outsiders. In terms of damage done, these episodes of conspiracism probably had the most long-lasting and damaging effect on the history of the US.
But the idea of “conspiracy theory” as a recognizable—and questionable—way of interpreting current affairs really only dates back to the 1950s. Various academic sociologists and historians began to be concerned about the rise of right-wing populism, coupled with a conviction that history emerges from the complex interaction of individual intentions and large social forces. Before the twentieth century, it was quite usual—sophisticated, even—to understand the workings of politics in terms of hidden agendas, scheming factions, and nefarious plotting. We might therefore think it’s only fair to consider cases of conspiracy theories causing harm when people (so the argument goes) should have known better. For the most part, conspiracy theories in recent decades have tended to be less consequential.
In terms of popularity of belief, conspiracy theories about the Kennedy assassination, for instance, reached their high-water mark in the 1990s, with roughly three quarters of Americans believing in one theory or another. But aside from a campaign (in the wake of the Oliver Stone movie) to get the authorities to release any remaining files, JFK assassination conspiracy theories never had much effect, and the same could be said for other popular theories like the 9/11 Truth Movement, or the idea that the moon landings were a hoax.
If we’re focusing on the harm caused by a deluded, conspiracist worldview we should look instead to the rise of antisemitism in the 1930s, and the Red Scares of the 1910s and 1950s. While the kind of conspiracy-obsessed antisemitism in the US never had the catastrophic effects that it did in Nazi Germany, McCarthyism led to the ruin of many people’s lives, captured the Republican Party, and for a time threatened to undermine democracy, trust, and truth. Along with QAnon, the current “Big Lie” about the election is not yet on the scale of McCarthyism, but there are worrying similarities.
Do you have a burning question for Giz Asks? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.