A week before Christmas 1967 the prime minister of Australia, Harold Holt, popped out for a stroll on Cheviot Beach by his holiday home in Portsea, near Melbourne. He was never seen again. Two days later a temporary prime minister was sworn in and politics carried on as before.
Yet for many Australians, Holt’s fate was a confusing mystery. Suicide, some said. Others suggested an expert assassination by agents of Ho Chi Minh (Holt supported the war in Vietnam). At the most imaginative end were those who swore the PM had in fact been a spy in the employ of Chairman Mao and that, on the verge of being rumbled, he had slipped away on a Chinese submarine.
All of these conspiracy theories avoided the obvious explanation. Holt was a dangerously enthusiastic swimmer, he had recently injured his shoulder and the water that day was particularly choppy. QED.
“Conspiracy theories flourish,” write Tom Phillips (editor at the independent fact-checking organization Full Fact) and the New Statesman journalist Jonn Elledge in Conspiracy, because “we find it hard to believe that dramatic events can have mundane or random causes”. It’s difficult, for example, to accept that the leader of a Western power vanished at the height of the Cold War because of a backstroke malfunction.
Similarly, when a trove of emails from Hillary Clinton’s election campaign were leaked, thousands of people on the Internet decided that each mention of takeaway pizza was in fact the coded language of a pedophile ring at the top of American politics. That the emails were inane and the staffers were hungry was too boring a conclusion.
Conspiracy theorists even worked their magic on the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. When the actual conspiracy to kill him, organized by a disgruntled actor and his friends, was proven, some Americans decided that was too dreary an explanation for the death of a president. Instead they dreamed up a Catholic plot against Lincoln organized from the Vatican.
“Conspiracy theories flourish” because “we find it hard to believe that dramatic events can have mundane or random causes.”
Conspiracy theories, which tell us that everything we know is wrong and that there are forces of evil at work around us, excite a primal part of the brain. In purely evolutionary terms, the tendency to spot patterns and detect malign influences where there are none is a necessary survival trait — “the small furry hominid that sees threats that aren’t there is far more likely to pass on its genes than the one who misses those that are”. When man first got onto his hind legs on the African savannah, he thought each gust of wind and black spot on the horizon was an omen of doom. Conspiracy theories have been around for as long as we have.
Phillips and Elledge, knowing how conspiracy theories tend to thrill even the most levelheaded reader, have stuffed this uproarious field guide full of them. They jump around with excitable energy from the attack on the US Capitol to the origins of the Illuminati to the belief in “chemtrails”.
Some theories are of the garden variety — speculations about JFK’s assassination or the details of the 9/11 attacks, for example — which any curious person might indulge in. While conspiracy theorists are caricatured as tin-foil-hat-wearing young men who spend too much time online, the authors note that no one is “immune” from thinking conspiratorially.
Sometimes this can be very useful. After all, some conspiracy theories are true. Britney Spears was indeed a captive of a conservatorship, an unusual legal mechanism, as her #FreeBritney posting fans claimed. The American government did, it turns out, perform mind-melting drug experiments on college students in the 1960s. Tobacco companies did try to hide the cancer-causing effects of smoking from their customers. In these cases, the so-called “conspiracy theorists” were vindicated in their relentless questioning of the official record.
But things get sticky at the point when “the whole notion of consensus reality begins to break down”. There are people out there, for example, who think that Finland doesn’t exist. On the platform Reddit, the notion first emerged that the Soviet Union and Japan invented “fin-land” to secure fishing rights in the Baltic Sea and thus satisfy the Japanese appetite for sushi. Helsinki is in Sweden and Nokia, which was popular in Japan, was the front company for fish smuggling. Similarly, adherents of the “phantom time hypothesis” insist that 300 years of medieval history never happened. The history was fabricated by luminaries such as Pope Sylvester II and Holy Roman Emperor Otto III. Charlemagne? Never existed. And everyone has heard of the Flat Earth Society. Its membership is thriving.
On the platform Reddit, the notion emerged that the Soviet Union and Japan invented “fin-land” to secure fishing rights in the Baltic Sea and thus satisfy the Japanese appetite for sushi.
Phillips and Elledge have clearly had a lot of fun tracking down these wacky theories and debunking them. Their style is loose and zippy: they describe Germanicus, heir to Tiberius (who as he died from unknown causes started a conspiracy theory that he had been poisoned by an enemy), as “a messy bitch who lived for drama”. And they pair the abundant good humor of this book with a warning about the corrosive effects of conspiracy theories.
Such theories can be simply distracting and energy-sapping. For example, when the wild theory that Paul McCartney had died in a car crash and been replaced by a double began swirling in 1969, Life magazine tracked him down to his farm in Scotland and interviewed him under the headline “Paul is still with us”. So distracted were the journalist and readers by this crackpot idea that they all missed McCartney’s candid admission in the interview that the Beatles were breaking up (it didn’t make the news for another six months).
However, at their worst, conspiracy theories ruin lives. Many of the people who trawled through the Clinton campaign’s emails for references to pepperoni toppings were playing along, enjoying the pretend thrill of uncovering a great secret. But one of them in December 2016 walked into a Washington DC pizza restaurant with an assault rifle, demanding terrified workers grant him access to the basement where the captive children were being held (there was, of course, no basement).
As people go further down these rabbit holes, they become tragically resistant to evidence or reason. The more elaborate a theory is, the more unfalsifiable it tends to be. The stories of people killed by Covid-19 because they bought into antivaxer fantasies are a depressing reminder of those dangers. Each article extolling the benefits of vaccination in newspapers was, for them, further proof of the establishment conspiracy. This very review will no doubt be written off by some as the work of a deep state shill in the pay of Big Lizard.
But while the pandemic was a fertile time for conspiracy theories — “when everything is strange, nothing seems implausible” — Phillips and Elledge urge readers not to be too pessimistic. Taking the long view, they note that the popularity of conspiracy theories ebbs and flows, broadly rising in periods of discontent.
When a strange object made of tin foil and sticks crashed to the ground in New Mexico in 1947, local soldiers said it was a stray weather balloon and the locals went on with their lives. The US economy was booming, confidence was high and people trusted their government. By the mid-1970s, after a decade of political violence, corruption and spiraling energy costs, “Roswell” had become one of the great conspiracy theories. It was an alien ship, extraterrestrial bodies had been found, the military had covered it up with deception and force, and so on.
Given these ups and downs over the centuries, Phillips and Elledge half-optimistically reckon that “the best we can probably hope for is that recent events represent a genuine peak”. Human nature won’t change, they say, but if things settle down in the next few years people might begin emerging from their burrows. In the meantime, readers of this book will be ably equipped to spot a rabbit without falling down any holes.
Ethan Croft is a Diary reporter for the Evening Standard