A few years back a fellow academic friend of mine and myself jokingly referred to every unexplained noise on the phone or computer hiccup as “must be the CIA.” We were not involved in anything remotely of interest to anyone but in the wake of Snowden many people were overly paranoid. Why did we choose the CIA? The myths of the organization often serve as the archetype of the shadowy intelligence organization snooping on all or to borrow from a popular term new to the West, “the deep state.” While we could separate fact from fiction, it recently occurred to me that many people cannot, at least in regards to the intelligence world. After teaching about espionage history and having more exposure to individuals involved in it, my understanding of that world has continued to evolve. Something that continually fascinates me though is how many people know very little about it and are very quick to leap to the most outrageous of conspiracy theories. They have become so common, that I often preface my teaching of the subject that I don’t want any conspiracy theories submitted in the form of research papers. This statement sometimes leads to the question, “but what if it’s true?”
It would be one thing if it was just students sayingor and believing in fiction, but a number of people harbor suspicions of intelligence agencies. There’s reasons for this, and they mainly stem from past instances of controversial and sometimes illegal activities but the fascinating thing to me is that of the people who believe in conspiracy theories that I met, they don’t even know of those past abuses and controversies or they have only a passing knowledge of them. Indeed I’ve been asked the following a few times in a variety of ways, “you’re a smart guy, you can’t tell me the US government had no role in 9/11.” When I break that statement down, it tells me that if you’re intelligent you should be able to “see through the mystery” or the “lies,” “connect the dots” or “fill in the blank.” The event was just so big, how could no one know? This is anecdotal, but of the people who I have had these debates with, few of them have a good knowledge of international affairs, history and what they do possess is skewed to fit the conspiracy narrative, “Osama bin Laden was trained by the CIA right?” or some such nonsense. If these thoughts were confined to a few people, no harm, but they are not. They are growing, and worse, they are finding their way into powerful places, like the White House.
Why is this happening? Like most things I don’t think there’s one simple reason for this or one factor but several and I may not hit them all obviously.
1. Believing in conspiracy theories is easy.
This is the main one for me. It’s much easier to accept a simple straight forward, even Hollywood like narrative, because it’s easy to digest and doesn’t require critical thinking because you’re just being told what the “truth” is. Critical thinking is increasingly in short supply.Keeping up with politics and understandings of the past can be time consuming. It’s easier to explain things away with a simple narrative. Many people don’t feel they have time to learn about what their governments have been doing over the years and want to believe that they didn’t have a hand in some traumatic event because they weren’t involved in voting or holding their government to account over the years before something happens. The irony here is that people search for complicated answers that are easier to accept than the truth which is often the result of complicated factors and relatively obvious to see. Neglect is far more likely than malice at the root of any conspiracy theory.
2. The internet as a source of knowledge.
The internet has increasingly become portrayed as the place you go for answers, ex. “Google it.” People go to it for advice on anything and everything, including their health and diagnosing illnesses. The problem is when people often claim they’ve done “research” using the internet, they have no bloody clue what “research” is and/or how to do it. It doesn’t consist of staying up late and reading countless websites. The conspiracy sites outnumber any legitimate ones that contain factual info giving a false impression of “consensus” around the conspiracy story.
3. Secrecy is equated with criminality.
In this vein secrecy and privacy have much in common. Both bring on perceptions of criminality, that someone, or an agency, with secrets or a desire for privacy must be harboring criminal intentions or hiding criminal activity. Law enforcement has often been guilty of helping to propagate this idea, the old “if you don’t have anything to hide, come forward, give us a password etc.” This misleading logic is used not only against individuals seeking privacy but also intelligence agencies needing to protect state secrets, “they’re hiding the illegal stuff they do or their conspiracy plans, UFOs, etc.”
4. Too many people have limited understanding of history and international relations
This one is the fault of all the cuts to history and other related arts programs because they “are not useful for getting a job” to quote the views of some governments and university administrators. All people need to succeed are “business degrees” or “science ones” and people now wonder why a businessman with no knowledge of foreign affairs and history has the capability to use technology created by science to possibly blow up the world and surrounds himself with conspiracy minded advisors. It isn’t clear how much Trump believes but the point is he helps spread theories and tries to rally support for them from followers. I wonder what a difference a history or political science degree might have had on someone like Trump. But Trump aside, conspiracy theories rely on people not knowing things, and those theories filling in those knowledge gaps with their interpretation of past events that have led to the present. Poor and insufficient knowledge of history and what led to an event is often necessary for someone to buy into a conspiracy theory.
5. There just isn’t enough history.
There’s multiple factors here. Intelligence agencies have been guarded with their history and so has government. But what’s the result of that? It’s that what we do have is often the sensational, and the scandalous and I will tell you as an instructor that it is tough to then tell someone “no no, there’s no smoke here.” What has been released has often been forced out and as a result we’re left with a limited understanding. Here’s an example, how about a social history of CSIS or CSE? Is that possible? Right now no chance. And yet, there’s many many people that have worked for these organizations for decades, but we won’t know their stories for many years if at all. These were workers like other workers, trying to do a job they thought was important and necessary but we can’t get much of a glimpse of those lives or work because of the nature of the organizations. Some kind of reveal would remove the nefarious feelings people have, and hummanize the organizations and the people who were there. Part of the reason these conspiracy theories are allowed to propagate is because of a lack of knowledge and a lack of hummanizing of organizations that were made up not of machines but of people who did thankless work, and work that wasn’t as glamorous as people want to believe but work that was important. If people don’t think that’s important to know consider that many in the US, including the President, think the “deep state” is after the President. If people had more knowledge of these organizations, of the daily lives of people in them (at least in the lives of past workers, clearly present day isn’t possible) maybe that would help damper some of this and remove the “us vs. them” that is so common with these theories where “us” is society and “them” being the intelligence services.
The end result here is that even conspiracy theories and why people believe them is complicated and multi-faceted. The “truth is out there” but people just have to be willing to see it when it’s in front of them. Truth is often times much stranger than fiction.