All these claims are bunk: falsehoods, mistakes, and in some cases, outright lies. But many people passionately believe one or more of these conspiracy theories. They consume countless books and videos, join like-minded online communities, try to convert those around them, and even, on occasion, alienate their own friends and family. Why is this, and how can you help people, especially those closest to you, break free from the downward spiral of conspiracy thinking?
In Escaping the Rabbit Hole, author Mick West shares over a decade’s worth of knowledge and experience investigating and debunking false conspiracy theories through his forum, MetaBunk.org, and sets forth a practical guide to helping friends and loved ones recognize these theories for what they really are.
Perhaps counter-intuitively, the most successful approaches to helping individuals escape a rabbit hole aren’t comprised of simply explaining why they are wrong; rather, West’s tried-and-tested approach emphasizes clear communication based on mutual respect, honesty, openness, and patience.
West puts his debunking techniques and best practices to the test with four of the most popular false conspiracy theories today (Chemtrails, 9/11 Controlled Demolition, False Flags, and Flat Earth) — providing road maps to help you to understand your friend and help them escape the rabbit hole. These are accompanied by real-life case studies of individuals who, with help, were able to break free from conspiracism.
With sections on:
- the wide spectrum of conspiracy theories
- avoiding the “shill” label
- psychological factors and other complications
- (and concluding with) a look at the future of debunking
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The "Conspiracy Theory" Conspiracy Theory
"Conspiracy theory" is a term that I use extensively and have done for a long time, and yet I initially struggled with it, and constantly tried to find alternatives.
The problem is that "conspiracy theory" (and "conspiracy theorist") is considered by many to be deliberately derogatory. The fact that "conspiracy theory" is on the cover of this book might lead some people to dismiss the book as an attempt to mock or belittle the people who believe such things. But if you look at a typical dictionary definition it will be something like:
A theory that explains a situation or event as resulting from a secret plot by some powerful group.
With "conspiracy theorist" being simply defined as a person who believes a conspiracy theory. This is a perfectly reasonable definition that fits what 9/11 Truthers believe, or what JFK conspiracists believer, and what chemtrailers, Moon landing hoaxers, Sandy Hook false flaggers, and alien base coveruppers all believe. They think that there was a secret plot behind something, and/or that's a secret cover-up of something.
But being literally correct does not make a word immune to being offensive. It's the applicability to the more esoteric theories that is offensive to the more mainstream conspiracists. The average person who simply thinks that the CIA assassinated JFK sees himself as a reasonable person and does not want to be associated with the odd people who think the Queen is a shape-shifting lizard. Similarly, the 9/11 Truther does not want to be thought of as a "tinfoil hatter" who worries that the NSA is beaming messages into his brain with radio waves.
But beyond this simple association, there's a deeper reason why conspiracists shy away from the label. That reason is itself a conspiracy theory — the theory that the term "conspiracy theory" was invented in 1967 by the CIA to discredit conspiracy theorists.
This "conspiracy theory" conspiracy theory points to a 1967 CIA document that surfaced in 1976 after a FOIA request from the New York Times. The document, titled "Concerning Criticism of the Warren Report" is a fascinating snapshot of the time. The CIA is concerned, for a variety of reasons, that there's a rising tide of unfounded conspiracy theories that are damaging the reputation of the CIA and the government. They suggest ways of countering them, but they don't suggest using the term "conspiracy theory."
But people who might have that label applied to them (like people who think the World Trade Center was destroyed with explosives) feel that the document is very much about labeling them as "conspiracy theorist" in an attempt to ridicule and sideline them. One of the main promoters of this theory is Dr. Lance DeHaven-Smith, who used it as the central thesis of his book, Conspiracy Theory in America, writing:
Thus the conspiracy-theory label has become a powerful smear that, in the name of reason, civility, and democracy, preempts public discourse, reinforces rather than resolves disagreements, and undermines popular vigilance against abuses of power. Put in place in 1967 by the CIA, the term continues to be a destructive force in American politics.
DeHaven-Smith admits that the document itself does not actually explicitly encourage usage of the term, and to get around this he embarks on a series of interpretive mental gymnastics, attempting to determine the hidden meaning in the CIA document. He goes through it sentence by sentence, and sometimes word by word, forcing his interpretation upon it.
CIA Dispatch 1035-960 appears to be a straightforward memo with clear language and reasonable motives, but it is actually a subtle document, conveying many of its messages by indirection and implication. To grasp the nuances in the text requires a very careful reading. Some sections of the dispatch clearly have a surface meaning for ordinary readers, and a deeper, less obvious meaning for readers who are listening for, as it were, a second frequency, a hidden meaning. Multiple levels of meaning occur in various forms of speech....
CIA Dispatch 1035-960 is not a Platonic dialogue ... but it is a document written by spies for other spies, and spies know that, as a written document, it could fall into the wrong hands, as, in fact, it did because of the Freedom of Information Act request. So we should assume that the dispatch may contain some veiled meanings.
While DeHaven-Smith claims that the "conspiracy theory" label was "put in place in 1967 by the CIA," in fact the term had been in use for decades before that. The first usage dates back to 1870 with a theory about a conspiracy to physically abuse the criminally insane in mental asylums. The term took hold in the United States as a description for a particular theory about the succession of the South from the Union and appears in several books around 1895, nearly seventy years before the CIA document. It continued to be used in the early twentieth century, such as in the paper "The 'Conspiracy Theory' of the Fourteenth Amendment" in 1930.
A decade before the CIA memo, and years before JFK's assassination, the term was in actual use in the United States in much the same way as it is now — as a descriptor for largely unfounded theories that seek to explain events with a nefarious conspiracy. At that time one of the main sources of such theories was the "Radical Right"— extreme-right religious and nationalist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan and the John Birch Society. In 1960, William Baum wrote in "The Conspiracy Theory of Politics of the Radical Right in the United States":
... acceptance of the reality of an omnipotent and demonic conspiracy is the most significant and distinctive ideological characteristic of the contemporary American extreme or radical right.
Baum's work was quite influential and was repeated in several papers and books. In 1962, the year before the assassination of President Kennedy, Walter Wilcox wrote "The Press of the Radical Right" including an attempt to quantify the various types of conspiracy theories. In it they gave several examples:
NAACP is operated by a New York Jew through Negro Fronts
Fluoridation [of drinking water] brings people under control as a narcotic, not good for teeth
Unemployment is increasing in US because trade is in the hands of an international cult
Organized Jewry tried to sabotage the gospel message in the film Ben Hur
California intelligence tests give a choice of two evils, making one seem right.
These theories do not seem too dissimilar to those seen today. The water fluoridation theory is still in existence, and is generally a foundational belief of people who hold to the more esoteric theories, like chemtrails. Wilcox went on to propose what was probably the first conspiracy theorist spectrum, a zero through seven scale of "commitment to conspiracy" which was a measure of how much a particular article in the radical-right press devoted to conspiracy theory.
Commitment to Conspiracy Scale
Wilcox also included a non-rationality scale, which contains descriptions you might still apply to many writings on the internet today:
Wilcox draws a connection between the degree of non-rationality in a conspiracy theory, and how committed the person is to that theory.
For instance, it is logical to assume that non-rationality correlates to a marked degree with the theory of conspiracy ...
Clearly the CIA did not invent the term. Nor did they even suggest that the term be used as a way of belittling people. They used "conspiracy theory" and "conspiracy theorist" only once each in the entire document:
Innuendo of such seriousness affects not only the individual concerned, but also the whole reputation of the American government. Our organization itself is directly involved: among other facts, we contributed information to the investigation. Conspiracy theories have frequently thrown suspicion on our organization, for example by falsely alleging that Lee Harvey Oswald worked for us. The aim of this dispatch is to provide material countering and discrediting the claims of the conspiracy theorists, so as to inhibit the circulation of such claims in other countries.
The term is used simply as a descriptor. The CIA would obviously have been familiar with the anti-government radical right, as they would be familiar with any anti-government organization. They would also have been familiar with academic writings about the radical right and the use of the term "conspiracy theory."
To convey this to your friend, the first step is to show them that the term existed prior to both the CIA document and the JFK assassination. Then if they need more detail show them the actual writings by Wilcox and others that used it the year before JFK's death in much the same way it is used today. They may still be unconvinced, and a more thorough debunking might need an examination of the full text of the CIA document.
An additional step is to look at what happened to the term "conspiracy theory" after the JFK assassination, and after the CIA used it in the document. To investigate this, I used the online Newspaper Archive database to extract the total numbers of uses of the term "conspiracy theory" in newspapers for each year from 1960 to 2011 (the last year that Newspaper Archives has a significant number of scanned papers). I adjusted the number relative to the number of actual words printed that year and plotted a graph.
Clearly, if the CIA had intended to popularize the term after 1967 they failed. There were the few instances of the term before 1963 as already noted, but the first spike is actually in 1964 directly after the JFK assassination (November 22, 1963). The next year (1965) shows a dip, and then there's a steady increase in the subsequent years. In the year the CIA report was supposedly promoting the usage (1967) the term was already well established and was growing in popularity. You might have expected a surge in usage after the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr in 1968, however after 1969 it settled down.
There are spikes after that, a slow rise over the Watergate years of 1972 (when the Watergate break-ins happened) to 1974 (when President Nixon resigned). A big spike occurred in 1978 when the House Select Committee on Assassinations released its conclusions, including that: "President John F. Kennedy was probably assassinated as a result of a conspiracy." Usage dropped back to previous levels in the 1980s with the exception of a minor jump in 1988, the twentieth anniversary of the RFK assassination and the year of the Iran–Contra scandal.
The 1990s are actually when the use of the term "conspiracy theory" really took off, increasing nearly 500 percent from 1990 to 1995 with the end of the Cold War, the start of the Gulf War, the LA Riots, the Waco siege, the start of The X-Files and the Oklahoma City bombing.
There's a huge spike in 1997 with the releases of the films Conspiracy Theory and Men in Black. In both these films, as in most films about conspiracy theories, the theories turn out to be correct. There's obviously no Hollywood movement to belittle people with the term, in fact it's a very positive use. This is especially the case in the film Conspiracy Theory where the protagonist Jerry Fletcher (Mel Gibson) is at first seen as a crazy eccentric who is to be humored but ignored. As the film progresses it becomes clear that Jerry was actually correct, he was being watched by CIA agents, his theories were right, and eventually he becomes the hero.
After the film aired, the term "conspiracy theory" was firmly entrenched in American culture, and more generally in the English-speaking world. Subsequent development simply built upon this. The "chemtrails" theory was invented in 1998, and in 2001 we had the attacks on the World Trade center and the Pentagon, immediately spawning a huge slew of theories.
Perhaps more significantly than the usages in popular culture, and perhaps even more significant than the events of 9/11, the late 1990s and early 2000s are where we saw the meteoric rise of the internet. Where Newspaper Archive leaves off in 2009, we can continue with other measures of the popularity of the phrase, such as Google Trends.
This gives us a finer grained view of interest in "conspiracy theories" and instead of being a measure of the mentions in newspapers, which is only an indirect measure of public interest, this gives us an actual measure of what the public was searching information on. The term was declining in popularity until December of 2009 when the TV series Conspiracy Theory with Jesse Ventura was released (labeled "1"), this was followed by similar (but declining) peaks in October 2010 (Season 2) and November 2012 (Season 3). The show was hosted by Jesse Ventura (actor and former governor of Minnesota), and was again very positive in its portrayals of conspiracy theories, arguing strongly that most of the theories presented in the show were either true, or at least reasonable things to be suspicious of. After the show ended, interest returned to pre-2009 levels, only picking up slightly around the 2016 election. The final spike shown in October 2017 was in response to the Las Vegas Massacre.
We see the history of the usage of the term is overwhelmingly dominated by positive associations in the popular media. The portrayals such as in The X-Files or Mel Gibson's Conspiracy Theory are honest in their recognition of the public perception of conspiracy theorists as eccentrics, and then almost always portray them as being the people who are correct. The conspiracy theorist comes across as the hero, someone who has accurately deduced some aspect of the inner workings of the world and is seeking to expose that secret. Instead of there being some deliberate program in the media to denigrate conspiracy theorists, the biggest usages of the term in the last twenty years are all in ways that might even be thought of as to be trying to rehabilitate and promote it.
While "conspiracy theory" does have some negative connotations, it has also given the conspiracy culture a degree of legitimacy that might otherwise be lacking. Consider that before the wider adoption of the term, one of the most influential essays on the topic was Hofstadter's 1964 piece "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," which used the far more directly insulting term "paranoid" to refer to those who tended to explain all events as the result of some conspiracy.
I believe there is a style of mind that is far from new and that is not necessarily right-wing. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind.
If we didn't have the "conspiracy theorist" term, it's quite possible that the people we now call conspiracy theorists might equally have been called "paranoids" or some other directly pejorative term. By contrast the current label is relatively neutral.
What we have here is an asymmetry in perception. The conspiracists reject the accurate labels given to them because they think it's an attempt to belittle them. They do not consider their constant suspicions to be in any way unusual (except in contrast to the sheep-like acquiescence of the general public). But because their suspicions are generally unfounded and out of the mainstream then any label their group acquires is going to eventually become perceived as derogatory.
DeHaven-Smith is an example of this asymmetry, he rejects the notion that the negative connotation of "conspiracy theory" might have anything to do with the generally baseless and often unfounded claims of most conspiracy theories, and instead argues that instead of "conspiracy theorist" one should use "conspiracy realist," and instead of "conspiracy theory" one should say: "state crime against democracy" (SCAD).
He misses the point. If a group manages to get a label to stick then it's not going to change the public perception. Conspiracy theorists are not judged to be on the fringe because they are part of a group called "conspiracy theorists." They are on the fringe because they make unfounded, unrealistic, or overly speculative claims. Labels do not define the perception of a group; the labels take on that perception. After the UK Spastics Society was renamed "Scope" in 1994, the playground insult of "spastic" for a clumsy kid was simply supplanted by the insult "scoper." If DeHaven-Smith could miraculously get large numbers of people to adopt "SCAD" then all that would happen would be that conspiracy theorists would also be called "Scadders."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Escaping the Rabbit Hole"
Copyright © 2018 Mick West.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Prologue: Willie–Rabbit Hole Escapee,
Chapter 1: The "Conspiracy Theory" Conspiracy Theory,
Chapter 2: Conspiracy Spectrums,
Chapter 3: The Shill Card,
Chapter 4: The Rabbit Hole: How and Why,
Chapter 5: Core Debunking Techniques,
Chapter 6: Steve – A Journey through the Rabbit Hole,
Chapter 7: Chemtrails,
Chapter 8: Stephanie – A Former Chemtrailer,
Chapter 9: 9/11 Controlled Demolitions,
Chapter 10: Karl – Temporary Truther,
Chapter 11: False Flags,
Chapter 12: Richard – Drawing the Line at Sandy Hook,
Chapter 13: Flat Earth,
Chapter 14: Bob – Escape from Flat Earth,
Chapter 15: Complications in Debunking,
Chapter 16: The Future of Bunk and Debunking,