Some conspiracy theories blur the line between truth and falsehood, and quite a few ridiculous stories once labelled conspiracy theories have, with time, turned out to actually have been true. Here are a few of the most famous and the most shocking we could dig up that will have you questioning the facts you’ve taken for granted.
US Central Intelligence is controlling the media? They allegedly were, with Operation Mockingbird: The CIA did in fact recruit prominent journalists from all over the world, from Pulitzer Prize winners and US reporters, to foreign correspondents and freelance journalists, all of whom gave the CIA access to leading news organizations. The operation allegedly started during the Cold War and was later uncovered after the Watergate scandal. Though no Operation Mockingbird was ever referred to in declassified documents, a Project Mockingbird in which the CIA monitored two journalists in the 1960s did come to light. Nevertheless, the Church Committee congressional investigations into the CIA’s activities found that the agency had cultivated connections with media and civic groups, though the extent of the relationships were hard to ascertain. “The CIA currently maintains a network of several hundred foreign individuals around the world who […] provide the CIA with direct access to a large number of newspapers and periodicals, scores of press services and news agencies, radio and television stations, commercial book publishers, and other foreign media outlets,” the report concluded. So if Operation Mockingbird did not exist in name, it very much did in practice.
The government is developing a mind control weapon? Well, they tried to, with MKUltra: The CIA ran biological experiments on unknowing US citizens in their search for a mind control drug that could be used as a weapon against the Russians in the Cold War. Sounds crazy right? But it very much happened. The unknowing participants in this large-scale experiment were were given hallucinogenic drugs in a bid to investigate whether they could be made more susceptible to hypnosis, more resilient to torture, and a number of other, not so nice things. The subjects of these experiments — which were conducted with the help of over 80 institutions including hospitals, prisons, and universities — were often prisoners, drug addicts, or people otherwise on the margins of society, who were “unable to fight back,” in the words of Sidney Gottlieb, the chemist who introduced LSD to the CIA. At least one participant is known to have taken his own life after being exposed to a high dose of LSD. Journalist Stephen Kinzer, who spent several years investigating, and wrote a book on the program, writes, “We don't know how many people died, but a number did, and many lives were permanently destroyed.”
Doctors are experimenting on the public without their consent? Yes they did, in the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. An unethical 30-year study of Syphilis in 600 African American men started in the 1930s by the US Public Health Service saw doctors recruit participants in exchange for free medical exams and free meals. The men were not told they had syphilis, but that they were being treated for what was at the time vaguely called “bad blood,” a term used to refer to a number of diseases. But did they actually receive any treatment? Nope. For years the participants were given placebos, despite the fact that penicillin was commonly accepted as a treatment for the disease some 15 years into the study. Instead of treating the men, the doctors tracked the slow progression of the disease, and let them suffer and die. After an Associated Press story in the 1970s revealed what had been going on, the study was discontinued, and an out-of-court settlement of USD 10 mn was reached with the participants’ families.
And some run of the mill, everyday conspiracy: Big brother is watching you: Many conspiracy theories stem from the paranoia that someone is constantly watching you. But is there? Remember when wikileaks and Edward Snowden were the biggest revelation of the century? Snowden’s leaks had revealed that politicians and leaders including Germany’s Angela Merkel were being spied on. While shocking at the time, this has become pretty standard fare since then, with our current lives inching towards an Orwellian dystopia with the proliferation of smart devices in our homes and pockets that constantly collect data on what we get up to.
And social Media is telling you what to think: There’s no denying social media’s influence on our opinions and everyday choices, but the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal exposed the inner workings of just how far that can go. The data analytics firm had harvested and misused the data of 50 mn facebook users, and used that data to create individualized psychological profiles that could be used to influence users with specialized political ads that would “target their inner demons,” in the words of Christopher Wylie, who worked on obtaining the data. The firm was closely involved in Trump’s 2016 election campaign, and allegedly had some involvement in the Brexit vote to leave the EU. The operation was possibly the most wide-scale attempt at manipulation of public opinion in history, and resulted in Facebook being slapped with a USD 5 bn fine by the Federal Trade Commission for data misuse.
Still, you shouldn’t trust everything you hear: Though there is an element of truth to some conspiracy theories, most of them are just plain false. The danger lies in when real facts and hard science are labelled conspiracy theories, or “fake news” by detractors. A shining example is former US President Donald Trump’s weaponization of the term to detract from the credibility of media outlets critical of his policies and rhetoric. Disinformation extends beyond the political sphere to all aspects of information, including climate change, entertainment, and health. It threatens to blur our sense of reality and our good judgement, creating a world in which the truth is less relevant than where you fall on the political spectrum.