Conspiracy theorists aren't gullible. Alice in Wonderland/Walt Disney

February 16, 2023   6 mins

On June 28 2001, the notorious conspiracy writer and broadcaster Milton William Cooper gave a broadcast from his hilltop Arizona studio. “Can you believe what you’re seeing on CNN today, ladies and gentlemen?” he asked.

Wasn’t it strange, he suggested, that after the CIA had failed for years to find Osama bin Laden, somehow a regular camera crew had found his secret hideout and conducted an interview? Bin Laden was a US intelligence asset, Cooper asserted, and something was now afoot. “I’m telling you to be prepared for a major attack!” he declared.

This attack, Cooper asserted, would be blamed on bin Laden. Two and a half months later, two planes flew into the Twin Towers. On that day, Cooper made a number of further predictions: the US would respond with bombs, somewhere or other; and shortly after that, new laws would impose draconian restrictions on the rights of American citizens.

Cooper later made one further forecast: “They’re going to kill me, ladies and gentlemen,” he said. Less than two months later, it happened. Makes you think, doesn’t it? Or perhaps it really was just a case of a far-Right nutjob resisting arrest for fraud. Cooper was certainly eccentric: among many other things, his 1991 book, Behold A Pale Horse — reportedly one of the most shoplifted titles in America, as well as one of the most commonly read in prison — claimed JFK was assassinated to prevent a secret pact with space aliens.

But whether or not his death really was a political assassination, the paranoid, colourful mindset inaugurated by his book is no longer unusual. In the course of what Venkatesh Rao calls “The Great Weirding”, the triumph of digital over print media has brought a sense of reality coming somehow unstuck. In its wake, conspiracy discourse has become so common it barely registers as such. Recent headlines on train derailments in Ohio, Texas, and South Carolina, for example, swiftly coalesced online with the Chinese spy balloon and three other mysterious “lying objects” shot down recently to become a lively new thread in the ever-evolving conspiracy narrative.

And this mindset isn’t confined to America: according to UnHerd Britain polling this week, 38% of Britons agree that “the world is controlled by a secretive elite”. This rising tide of feral hermeneutics has prompted a great deal of anxious commentary in recent years, as well as a growing corpus of (often themselves highly politicised) censorship regimes and self-appointed organisations dedicated to “fighting disinformation”. But it is a mistake to imagine that myth-making can be always “debunked”, no matter how superficially absurd its claims. And pointing out that conspiracy stories aren’t literally true misses the important sense in which, very often, they are.

I get most of my updates on the conspiracy front from my hairdresser, who is always abreast of the latest twists, from Pizzagate to tortured children in tunnels under Central Park to Joe Biden being a deepfake (you have to look at his ears, apparently). I look forward to our appointments at least as much for her chat as for her skill in civilising my hair. But it would be a gross insult to this intelligent, practical woman to suggest she uncritically views these stories as factually accurate. Rather, they exist in a space that’s neither true nor false, but closer to a mode of thinking that has fallen somewhat out of fashion: allegory.

Today, tales of gods, monsters, and heroism are largely treated as nonsense for kids, or at best confined to the deprecated category of “fantasy fiction”. But prior to the modern world, stories that had both a literal meaning and a secondary one as an extended metaphor — allegories — were a high-status literary form. So much so, in fact, that the cosmos was understood as a kind of allegory, full of secondary meanings written by God.

And you can view conspiracy theories as a kind of crowdsourced allegory: pooled observations about the world, conveyed in story form. This is perhaps easier to see with a bit of historical distance, via an older form of such story: fairy tales. The Grimms’ stories, for example, emerged out of a folk culture profoundly scarred by the Thirty Years’ War: a 17th-century conflict that turned into three hellish decades of rapine, starvation and bloodshed for the peasantry of Central Europe.

In this context, Hansel and Gretel makes perfect sense as an only lightly embellished account of the dangers faced by orphaned or abandoned children, in a time of brutal scarcity. It’s probably not true that there was ever a witch with a gingerbread house; but there might well have been cannibalism. (There was in the Russian famine of 1921.)

Thus, fairy tales may be directionally true — even if not literally so. And the same goes for conspiracies as well. It’s probably not true that there are mutilated children and dead babies in tunnels under Central Park, kept so their organs can be harvested by Satanists. The following things, however, are true: firstly, that the Satanic Temple wants to secure abortion rights in America. Secondly, that foetus tissue has been used in medical experimentation, drug development and sometimes transplantation. And thirdly, that many American children have had their bodies amputated based on a view of gender theory whose modern proponents lean ever more enthusiastically into Satanic associations and iconography.

In sum, then: it’s not literally true that there’s a secret conspiracy of child-mutilating Satanists threatening the world. But it’s less that this has no relation at all to reality, than that it represents an allegorical, highly coloured folk-interpretation of data points that — while perhaps unconnected — are real. In this sense, we can view conspiracies as a shout of defiance against a defining characteristic of the “educated” elite worldview: its blanket prohibition on everyday pattern recognition. You don’t have to be well-educated to notice normative patterns in everyday life, and sometimes larger trends too; in fact education is a positive obstacle to noticing — for in the liberal world typically reinforced by university education, normative patterns are dismissed as “stereotypes”. The proper attitude to such stereotypes is firstly to insist that they’re socially imposed and harmful, and, secondly, that they should be eliminated.

And yet, “stereotype accuracy” is one of the most replicable effects in social science. In other words: by and large, at the small scale, folk pattern recognition is on point. And it’s on point, too, in many allegorical narratives that get dismissed as “conspiracy theories”. For example, it’s probably not literally true that the world is controlled by a shadowy elite. But it’s not directionally wide of the mark to notice that the same set of policies keep reappearing, no matter what people vote for. To take one recent example, Britain voted to leave the EU because of widespread objections to the downward pressure exerted by low-skilled migration on domestic wages. But after a brief blip in which migration really did go down and low-skilled wages went up, last year net migration was higher than ever. No one can point to any single factor that seems to have caused it; it’s just somehow, inexplicably gone on happening. Makes you think, doesn’t it?

I’m joking, of course. But the “Great Reset” isn’t a paranoid fantasy either: the WEF website devotes a whole section to it. Central Bank Digital Currencies really do grant governments vast new powers of surveillance and control. The vaccine passport infrastructure assembled during the pandemic really is being touted as a blueprint for future governance. The whole point of the Bilderberg Group is elite collusion, as it is with Davos. The WEF really is proud of having highly-placed members throughout world governments. Underage girls really were trafficked to Epstein Island to provide sexual services, and Epstein was linked to many famous individuals.

I sincerely doubt there are cabals of suit-wearing Dr Evil types, or lizards in human costume, setting out to enslave us all by genetically modifying us, tracking us with microchips, and imprisoning us under “climate lockdowns” to eat mealworm slurry, while distracting the restive masses with UFO stories. But there really are numerous government bodies keen to see advances in mRNA therapies, more centralised digital IDs, further emissions reductions through reduced travel monitored by surveillance and enforced by fines — not to mention top-down pressure to reduce global consumption of animal protein.

There are (probably) no space aliens involved. Groups such as the WEF are probably not omniscient or omnipotent. But from a pattern-recognising perspective, this is secondary to the directionally accurate sense that the direction of travel is unnervingly post-democratic, in ways that have to do with digital technology, surveillance, biotech, and collusion between government and big business. If, where larger-scale political trends are concerned, this becomes a bit embellished, this isn’t so different from adding a gingerbread house to a plausible 17th-century story of abandoned children narrowly escaping death at the hands of a cannibalistic adult stranger, during a period of widespread famine.

This in turn points to why conspiracies really thrive. It’s not because people are stupid, or gullible, but because allegory is an efficient shorthand for disturbing but indisputably real patterns. For if these patterns form a single narrative, we can go on believing everything could still be induced to make sense; that there actually is someone in charge, even if their plans are nefarious.

And ultimately, this is at least slightly less disturbing than the prospect that the increasingly baroque chaos of 21st-century politics is just happening, without anyone at the helm. For if no one is causing it, that means no one can stop it either. And that is truly frightening.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.