May 3, 2023
"I Was A Teenage Conspiracy Theorist," The Atlantic magazine playfully titled a 2020 essay. "Choose your reality: Trust wanes, conspiracy theories rise," reported The Associated Press in 2022. "Do You Know Someone Who Believes in Conspiracy Theories? We Want to Hear About It," wrote The New York Times last year.
Fears of "conspiracy theories" are a common trope in the U.S. media, a worry that's grown more acute with the rise of QAnon, anti-vaxx sentiment, anti-semitism and a host of other dangerous theories that unduly rot brains throughout the country. To a great extent, this understandable: Many ideas that meet the definition of "conspiracy theories" are, indeed, baseless and dangerous and can direct people's political energy and resources into wasteful, racist, and downright stupid rabbit holes.
But that fact shouldn't delegitimize or foreclose all skepticism of those in power, but too often the term "conspiracy theory" is used to do just that. Repeatedly, media lump together so-called conspiracy theories, regardless of their accuracy, rationale, and ideology: at once, UFO chasers, QAnon, and the Black Panther Party being subject to FBI disruption are somehow placed in the same category of paranoid kooks. At the same time, unproven, and often debunked ideas advanced by media that also meet the definition of "conspiracy theories" — such as Saddam Hussein being behind 9/11 or so-called Havana syndrome — are treated as unassailable, meriting ongoing investigation, limitless resources, and of course, utmost solemnity.
On this episode, we detail the double standards applied to conspiracy theories inside and outside of the realm of U.S. corporate media. We’ll examine the development of the concept of conspiracy theories and the media's selective invocations of the term to discredit real grievances directed at American power and the U.S. government, and moreover, how power-friendly conspiracies — namely those focused on Enemy States like the Havana Syndrome narrative — are permitted to fester and grow without pushback because their red yarn dot connecting implicates the right lists of Acceptable Bad Guys.
Our guest is Jacobin writer Branko Marcetic.