There are a variety of definitions surrounding the concept of conspiracy theories. Conspiracy theories are complex and have different purposes or ideas that one could even argue that “To give a denotative definition of the term “conspiracy theory” is profoundly misleading” (Perry). Although this is somewhat true, most conspiracy theories share the same set of conventions, allowing us to broadly define the concept and place it into a genre. The most prominent definition one should focus on is based on the idea that “Two things seem to be essential to a conspiracy. First, a conspiracy necessarily involves a group of agents acting together. It is impossible to conspire alone. Second,a conspiracy is secretive” (Coady). In simpler words, a conspiracy theory usually contains a group of conspirators who secretly orchestrate an event for their own benefit. In addition, a conspiracy theories can be seen as an alternative truth to the “official story”. Why is understanding conspiracy theories important? It is important to understand how conspiracy theories are formed, and the conventions used to persuade the audience, in order to help oneself develop a better understanding of rhetoric.
Multiple claims about the definition and purpose about conspiracy theories clash with each other. For example, “Others make little distinction between conspiracy theories and conspiracies and so do not wish to study conspiracy theories at all” (Uscinski 31). This quote demonstrates that some people believe conspiracy theories are not important at all. Another claim that somewhat relates to this quote is that “Some approach conspiratorial beliefs as “mistruths,” “misinformation,” “misperceptions,” “myths,” and “false beliefs” and wish to study them as a species of informational or mental error” (Uscinski 31). In other words some people argue that conspiracy theories are just misinterpretations of the truth and lead to false claims, therefore defining conspiracy theories as “mental error”. Believing that conspiracy theories are based on “mental error” is a prominent claim about conspiracy theories. For example, in Lance deHaven-Smith’s book Conspiracy Theory in America, deHaven-Smith states, “Conspiratorial beliefs are associated with mental illness, including paranoia, obsession, and psychosis and tend to be believed by those exhibiting antisocial, bigoted, and sociopathic behavior.” Based on this claim, one can see that conspiracy theories arise based on paranoia. Another prominent claim regarding the definition of conspiracy theories comes from the book American Conspiracy Theories by Joseph E. Uscinski and Joseph M. Parent. The authors claim , “We define conspiracy as a secret arrangement between two or more actors to usurp political or economic power, violate established rights, hoard vital secrets, or unlawfully alter government institutions” (Uscinski 31). This quote explains how most people would define conspiracy theories as the explanation that a group or people conspire for political gain. Overall, conspiracy theories are either portrayed as figments of imagination or as secret truths.
The complexity of a conspiracy theory comes down to these three questions: Who did it? Why did they do it/ What do they gain out of it? How did they do it? Being able to answer these questions will help the audience be able to identify a conspiracy theory as well as its conventions and categorize it into a genre. As for the definition of conspiracy theories, we see them as an alternative truth that depicts a group of people orchestrating an event for their own benefit. To identify the conventions shared between different conspiracy theories, we will be focusing on three different conspiracy theories. The theory of what actually happened/caused 9/11, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and the moon landing hoax.
The conspiracy theory regarding the events of 9/11 are based on the idea that the government was involved in or knew of 9/11. Loose Change, a film written by Dylan Avery, explains this theory and provides evidence. First of all, any conspiracy theory regarding such a tragic event is more likely to be more believable. For example, in Patterns of Prejudice, by Jeffrey M. Bale, “Second, they purport to identify the underlying source of misery and injustice in the world, thereby accounting for current crises and upheavals and explaining why bad things are happening to good people or vice versa.” This quote explains how people see conspiracy theories as an answer to their suffering. Going back to the theory of 9/11, Loose Change explains that on the morning of 9/11 various war games were happening. Not only did these war games simulate hijacked planes but it also drew fighter jets away from the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, leaving us helpless. This made people very suspicious as it seemed as if the government knew the planes were going to be hijacked. Now why would they let this happen? Conspiracists say it was to give the U.S. government a reason to interfere with the Middle East.
There are many conspiracy theories regarding the assassination of John F. Kennedy (JFK), but the most prominent one was that it was an inside job. At the time, the ongoing cold war was happening and many people did not agree with JFK’s ideals. According to ABC News, “The gist of the theory is that Johnson was motivated by ambition and received help from members of the CIA and wealthy tycoons who believed they would profit more under a Johnson administration.” This quote basically explains why the government’s motive for killing JFK, they wanted Lyndon B. Johnson to become president. There is no way to disprove this theory, therefore making it somewhat believable.
The moon landing conspiracy theory revolves around the idea that the moon landing was faked. There were many observations made (regarding to the picture of the moon landing) that just didn’t add up. According to Time Magazine, “Film of Aldrin planting a waving American flag on the moon, which critics say proves that he was not in space. The flag’s movement, they say, clearly shows the presence of wind, which is impossible in a vacuum”. This quote explains why conspiracy theorists think the moon landing was faked. Another reason why people believed the moon landing was faked is because it wouldn’t have been possible because of the Van Allen Radiation belt. According to American Patriot Friends Network, the Van Allen radiation belt would have killed anyone. The big question is what does the U.S get out of faking it? People believe it was faked because the U.S wanted to beat Russia regarding being the first person on the moon.
What do all of these conspiracy theories have in common? These three conspiracy theories all believe that epistemic authorities were the cause of the events. In some way the government was always involved. Another thing they have in common is the fact that they all had political benefit. 9/11 caused involvement with the Middle East, the assassination of JFK caused Lyndon B. Johnson to become president, and the moon landing hoax made the U.S win the race to space. Using this information, it’s safe to say that most conspiracy theories point to the government as the conspirators. To put conspiracy theories under a genre is not possible because there are various different kinds of conspiracy theories. Conspiracy theories should be a genre of its own.
Recognizing the definition of conspiracy theories as an alternative truth is important because not only does it help the reader be able to identify whether or not something is a conspiracy theory but it also gives a new perspective to how conspiracy theories are portrayed. Most to all conspiracy theories propose a different version of the “official story”. According to The Art of the Conspiracy Theory, by Sarah Perry, “Rather than viewing conspiracy theories as mind viruses that infect passive participants, I will defend the view that the conspiracy theory is an active, creative art form, whose truth claims serve as formal obstructions rather than being the primary point of the endeavor. False conspiracy theories might even help us understand reality.” This quote describes conspiracy theories as an art form that challenge people’s beliefs as they make us question whether or not what we are being told is true or not. By doing so, we are becoming more socially aware of our surroundings. Also, we become more aware of the different kinds of strategies people use to make their arguments more believable. Effectively, the audience becomes more acquainted with rhetoric.
Conspiracy theories are important in the world because they have historical and political significance. Most conspiracy theories are based on past events, take the collapse of the World Trade center as an example. Most conspiracy theories also blame epistemic authorities for orchestrating these historical events with the interest of political gain. Going back to the 9/11 example, conspiracy theorists state that the government was involved in or knew of 9/11 before it even happened. Overall, conspiracy theories show a different explanation to a event that has occurred or is occurring. Deciding whether or not conspiracy theories are a genre of its own or whether it is a genre at all is up to you.?
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