On October 26, 2017, the Trump administration began the latest wave of declassifying documents relating to the Kennedy assassination. Close to 3,000 documents containing detailed findings of the Warren Commission were released online, including thousands of reports from the FBI and CIA as they sought to trace Lee Harvey Oswald’s connections to the Communist Bloc. Though the information from these new documents is unlikely to result in any new conclusions regarding the assassination, their unexpected release is sure to be a boon to scholars of the Cold War, as well as conspiracy theorists looking for more support for their assertions.
The JFK assassination has been the target of many conspiracy theories, which include a second assassin present at the shooting, a mafia plot to kill the president, and a wider conspiracy by LBJ and other government officials to overthrow the Kennedy administration. The number of supposed “explanations” of how this event truly took place has continuously weighed on the American national consciousness. With the popularity of the 1991 conspiracy-filled movie JFK and Donald Trump’s unfounded accusation that presidential candidate Ted Cruz’s father assisted Lee Harvey Oswald, it is clear that conspiracy has gained traction in both entertainment and mainstream discourse to an extent not seen in any other country.
Today, it is impossible to dismiss the influence of conspiracy theories on contemporary American discourse. From pizzagate to allegations of a government cover-up in the most recent Las Vegas shootings, conspiracy theories are not only widespread, but also widely believed. Unfortunately, too often do those grounded in reality scoff at these theories, dismiss them as the ramblings of an idiotic majority, and fail to recognize the threat of conspiracy theories to American democracy and civic engagement.
How did Americans become so fixated on conspiracy theories? Kurt Andersen’s article in The Atlantic, “How America Lost its Mind,” provides a historical answer to this question. During the 1960s, the rise of the “New Left” and the hippie movement correlated with an academia increasingly obsessed with the notion of social constructs and the subjectivity of reality. Many academics in the late 1960s and early 1970s published works focusing on these concepts of “relativism”, sometimes going as far as to assert that “there was no knowledge… only the sociology of knowledge.”
In the 1970s, social turmoil continued as the tide of the Vietnam War turned against the United States, oil supply shocks brought uncertainty to the American economy, and political movements such as the Weathermen fomented domestic turmoil. The far left resorted to violent and occult tactics in an effort to rid the United States of militarist and racist influences, while the far right began to gain momentum in the form of the John Birch Society, whose founders believed that the highest levels of the U.S. government were filled with members of a communist conspiracy to bring the United States under Kremlin control. Meanwhile, revelations of government surveillance on leftist groups and Richard Nixon’s impeachment due to the Watergate scandal strengthened the belief that “villainous elites” ran the system.
The 1980s saw an apparent return to societal sanity; Vietnam was now a mere bad dream of yesteryear, the American economy got back on track from the stagflation of the Carter years, and the dynamic cultural and political movements of the 60s and 70s have all but ended. Nevertheless, extreme practices and beliefs by religious or quasi-religious groups still maintained or increased in popularity, and “relativism” in academia became even more entrenched than in the 1960s. The Fairness Doctrine, which required broadcasters to discuss opposing views on controversial issues, was also repealed during this time period, leading to the rise of conservative talk radio under figures such as Rush Lindbergh and Rupert Murdoch during the 80s and 90s. The fact that the media no longer had to present a unified set of facts to the public allowed for increased sensationalism and worse fact-checking than before the Fairness Doctrine was repealed, paving the way for the modern-day popularity of Breitbart and Infowars among the far right, and Addicting Info and The Other 98% among the far left.
And then came the internet. With the unchecked flow of information, the media is no longer the only way that people get their news. Suddenly, there is only as many filters as the user chooses to put up around themselves, so now anyone can access any tidbit of material, no matter how true or how false. Algorithms tailor content to voters and present results based on how people feel, not what is true. Furthermore, the internet allows the most dynamic voices to amplify themselves, as previously isolated members of the political fringes now find groups of peers with shared beliefs. Social media algorithms perpetuate these social bubbles, tailoring consumption to a person’s beliefs in exchange for advertising revenue; this is shown by the vast differences in news articles that show up on Facebook feeds of people identified to have “liberal” web behavior compared to those who apparently have “conservative” browsing patterns.
The rise of conspiracy culture may seem to the unconcerned citizen as simply a necessary evil that Americans have to endure in order to have a free and fair society. However, normalization of conspiracy culture presents a danger to democratic society. For example, allowing public figures to make outrageous assertions about those in power, such as Donald Trump’s incitement of the birther movement, erodes the legitimacy of the government. A society that distrusts those in power will likely question the precedents by which they are acting in accordance, and since precedent is the underpinning of rule of law, delegitimizing precedent will weaken the legal system which offers equal protection to all citizens under the U.S. Constitution.
One can say what they must about the flaws of the electoral college or the racial biases within the American legal system; however, in order to reform the system, one needs to trust the methods by which the system can be peacefully reformed. Conspiracy theories are not the way to do this, even though they are, unless interpreted to be a defamation, an incitement to violence, or a true threat, Constitutionally protected methods of exercising First Amendment rights. However, even mere exposure to conspiracy theories can undermine the system’s legitimacy and lead to decreased civil engagement. In 1995, Stanford University psychologists conducted a study in which test subjects were interviewed about their willingness to participate in civic activities, such as volunteering or voting, before and after being shown Oliver Stone’s JFK, which contained a number of conspiracy theories. Again and again, participants displayed a decreased propensity for civic engagement after being shown the film. As the results of this study show, if people don’t trust the government, they will not use government-sanctioned avenues to evoke social change, and instead grow increasingly disenchanted with the status quo.
Furthermore, conspiracy culture leads people to focus less on the issues that truly matter. Accusations that the families of the victims of the Sandy Hook and Las Vegas shootings are just cogs in a giant government conspiracy not only demonstrates an extreme moral ignorance about the effects of tragedy on its victims, but prevents much-needed gun control reforms that would have prevented the tragedies from happening in the first place. What’s more, the anti-vaccination movement caused the worst whooping cough epidemic in decades, causing completely preventable deaths even as valuable resources are diverted away from pursuing a deeper understanding of disease and towards trying to repeatedly disprove to a tiny conspiracist minority the notion that vaccines cause autism. Going back to the JFK assassination, Philip Shenon of The Guardian wrote about a very real cover-up that took place during the Warren Commission, in which government intelligence agencies tried to conceal how much they actually knew about Lee Harvey Oswald in order to make sure they wouldn’t receive any of the blame for the president’s assassination. Focusing on the strawmen of grassy knolls, black helicopters, and lizard overlords distracts citizens from participating in constructive civic activism to address the real issues of gun violence, public health, and government transparency.
Usually, times of crisis or change prompt those who see their socioeconomic standing threatened to come up with conspiracy theories, even if those theories exist at the expense of other individuals or groups. The rumor that the Roman Emperor Nero burned Rome came at a time of turmoil in the empire, just as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion were published just over a decade before the Russian Empire would become embroiled in violent revolution. Today, the United States faces crises of a similar magnitude, as increased involvement of money in politics and a growing wealth gap mean that many more Americans now feel unable to have their voices heard in the government and unable to move up socioeconomically. Indeed, those who believe in conspiracy theories the most feel more powerless, cynical, and despondent than the rest of the population. However, with increased civic engagement, these issues can be resolved through peaceful and constructive means. A society less reliant on conspiracy theories and more cognizant of the means by which social issues can be fixed can ultimately work to fix those issues through reform rather than trying to explain everything as a vast plot for authoritarian control.