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The Conspiracies That Made Us
Debunking 10 of the conspiracy claims that got us to where we are today
Here we are in 2022. Already it’s been a mixture of good, bad and confusing.
Twitter banned Marjorie Taylor Greene’s account for spreading dangerous health misinformation too many times, polar bears are migrating from Alaska to Russia thanks to climate change, and Jeff Bezos posted a troubling series of photographs on Instagram where he looked remarkably similar to Pitbull — ending with a cryptic stock image of a New Zealand fern. You better not be coming for Aotearoa, Bezos. Go live on the moon.
There’s always this arbitrary hope in that line we draw in the sand between last year and this year. The line signals that all the bad stuff is behind us, and that only good stuff remains.
That ridiculous concept has become a little harder to lean into since 2016, Think. When a Reality TV star became president, all bets were off — and it’s been hard to backtrack into sane territory again.
I mean, as I type there’s still a QAnon-spinoff cult embedded in Dallas waiting for JFK and JFK Jnr to show up:
“Multiple members of the Leek family confirmed that their relative, who left her husband and children behind in Delaware to follow a fringe QAnon cult leader to Dallas last month, has been drinking a chemical cocktail containing chlorine dioxide, an industrial disinfectant, among other substances.”
Make that a death cult, I guess.
I thought this dividing line between 2021 and 2022 would be a good time to look back at some of the major conspiracies that got us to where we are today — and to debunk them a little while we’re at it.
My friend and Tickled co-director Dylan Reeve is great at debunking stuff in a logical way — so he set to work. He returned with 10 conspiracies that made us; the magical thinking that once seemed to innocent but lead us to places we never could have imagined. A man shooting up a pizza joint looking for kidnapped kids, gallows erected outside the White House, and the compete rejection of reason and objective reality.
10. The Earth Is Flat
As long as you’ve been aware of the concept of earth as a part of something bigger, you’ve known that the earth is a ball (an oblate spheroid, officially). You understand this, and as you learn about the solar system, axial tilt and orbits it all comes together to explain the things we see everyday. Sunrises, sunsets, the tides, seasons.
It’s really obvious and some very basic science. Like pretty much the most basic.
Not long ago, the idea of “the flat earth society” was used as an example of a unbelievable outdated or ridiculous belief. But now we have the internet and YouTube, so of course, there are people who are just totally certain that the “ball earth” is a lie. A global conspiracy that involves every country and millions of people, all hiding the truth of a flat earth for some reason. What reason? No idea. It doesn’t matter why, it’s just the way it is: a mega conspiracy to lie about the most fundamental truth of the place in which we live.
I’m not even going to try to debunk this. The earth isn’t flat.
But if you’re willing to deny something as simple and self-evident as the basic shape of earth, then you can presumably reject literally any fact or reality. And if you can believe that the entire world is complicit in a massive coverup — one that implicates professionals and scientists in hundreds of fields and thousands of organisations — then presumably no conspiracy could ever be too complicated or large to believe in.
9. The JFK Assassination
Look, there’s no way we’re debunking the conspiracy theories about JFK here. You know all the claims, and probably most of the answers to those claims. We’ve done an Armchaired and Dangerous episode about it, and there’s a bloody Webworm, too!
But we’re putting it up top because it’s a common ancestor! So much of modern conspiracy theory thought can be traced back to the claims around JFK and just what happened that November day in Dallas. And even now, polls consistently find that a majority of Americans believe the official story isn’t the whole truth.
“The government lied!” say the claims, and maybe even perpetrated the crime! And then — like the basis of so many good conspiracy theories since — they put on a show of transparency that was just furthering the coverup. The echoes of these ideas continue to be heard today as anti-vaxxers cry out about the FDA and CDC hiding vaccine deaths.
And JFK plays into another of the conspiracies on the list, but you’ll have to wait and see!
A little lower key, and a lot more “fun” in general — for decades there have been hundreds of people worldwide who are insistent that the little white streaks that trail behind aircraft in our skies are not the water condensation we’re told, but are in fact secret chemicals. Trails of chemicals. Chemtrails.
The conspiracy is unimaginably far reaching, seeming to have roped in airlines and their pilots from all around the world. And yet somehow it continues to remain very secretive, with no reliable whistle-blowers having come forward.
This, in itself, should be almost reason enough to immediately write it off, but apparently not.
Another challenge is the lack of specificity. There’s no clear agreement on exactly which chemicals are being sprayed on us, nor what they’re supposed to be doing. The explanations range from “population control” (whatever that might mean) to “geo-engineering” (controlling the weather).
If chemicals were being rained down upon us all from 30,000 feet every day of the year it would presumably be trivial to detect evidence of those chemicals, but for decades now no such evidence has been forthcoming.
They also raise the question: why are these dangerous chemical agents being spread in the middle of the day? Surely any secret conspiracy would be carried out under the cover of darkness, right?
And yet, if you poke around with those promoting many other conspiracy adjacent ideas, this will often come up. It’s just a sort of background truth.
7. Vaccines Cause Autism
It would be dishonest to pretend the anti-vaccine movement hadn’t existed as long as vaccines, but what we recognise today as the (pre-Covid) anti-vax movement owes an awful lot to a dangerous quack, Andrew Wakefield.
In 1998 Wakefield published a paper in medical journal The Lancet that alleged a connection between the MMR (Measles Mumps Rubella) vaccine and autism in children. The paper was later retracted by the journal, but the damage was done.
His fraud in that paper — which resulted in his being struck off as a doctor 12 years later — formed the nexus of the modern anti-vax movement. The mythology that formed around the process of the publication and retraction has since become the ground truth for vaccine resistance ever since.
The extent of the fraud in his paper is more than can I can reasonably outline here, but it was multifaceted and affected every aspect of his study. His study didn’t get ethics approval, he paid children for blood samples at a birthday party, he lied about the observed behavioural symptoms of his subject, and he changed test results. And more.
For Wakefield, self interest seems to have been the basis of his actions then, and what’s followed. At the time of the paper’s publication he was a paid consultant for the lawyers of a group of parents who believed the MMR vaccine had harmed their children, additionally he was in the process of patenting an alternative to the standard MMR vaccines. Since then, Wakefield has become a celebrity within anti-vax circles since, and has been involved with numerous money-making ventures that seek to capitalise on his status.
6. Trump Is Still President
Honestly, how do you even tackle something like this? It’s a persistent belief and manifests itself in a bunch of different ways, but all of them are entirely nonsensical.
Some claim that Trump literally never left office, he’s still the actual president and he’s just letting Biden pretend to be President, on some sort of Hollywood set (they’ve even identified the specific existing White House set in question) . Somehow the people who believe this are also simultaneously willing to blame Biden for the “bad things” that have happened since his inauguration.
But others mean it in a more eventual way: like, Trump is the rightful President — we just haven’t learned the truth yet. For these people the idea is that at some point the “fraud” of Biden’s election will eventually be proven and overnight Trump will be restored to power (possibly with JFK Jr. as his Vice President — more on that shortly)
So far not a single one of the many investigations, recounts or audits into the 2020 election has turned up any evidence of systematic electoral fraud. While there are very bad legal arguments that claim a single instance of fraud is enough to overturn the outcome of the election — that is simply ridiculous and has no support in law.
This is another one where you just sort of want to shout “but it clearly isn’t true!” at the sky. The nebulous nature of the claims complicates matters a little, but ultimately it boils down to the fundamental nature of… America.
The USA is a nation of laws, from the Constitution on up. And nowhere among those laws are there any provisions that allow for any of what’s claimed. There are clear and well established processes for elections, and the transition of power; rules for Presidential succession; procedures for removal from office; and ascension to that office.
To believe any of these ideas you have to essentially accept that there are no laws, and that there’s some other undocumented force ruling the US (or the world!) which is fine, I guess, but the same people making these claims also spend a lot of time making claims about various US laws around voting, and speech, and religion, and so much more. Arguably very flawed claims, but claims about the law nonetheless.
You can’t have your cake and eat it too.
The Pizzagate conspiracy is the proto-Q. It’s almost impossible to overstate how much of the insane bullshit we’ve all be subjected to over the past few years can be traced back to this stupid 4chan shitposting, but here we are.
I’m honestly going to feel stupider for even having typed what comes next, and you’ll feel stupider for having read it. Consider this your warning.
It all starts in 2016 when Hillary Clinton’s campaign chair, John Podesta, got his email hacked. About a month before the 2016 election Wikileaks began posting the contents of this hack. In all about 20,000 pages of emails were published, most of them mind-numbingly boring, but some did include juicy political tidbits. They were not the ones this conspiracy cared about.
Instead, the denizens of the internet cesspit known as 4chan went in a different direction. They had been obsessed by the idea that influential Democrats were part of a global pedophile ring, and so began searching Podesta’s email for “proof” of this. Within the 4chan community (and pretty much only there) the letters CP were understood to mean “Child Porn” and they made jokes about that frequently, often substituting other CP initialisms.
In this 4chan-specific context, the term ‘Cheese Pizza’ had this sinister connotation. And so, within Podesta’s emails the mention of pizza was taken to be clear evidence of his involvement of child sexual abuse.
I told you this would make you feel stupider.
With this stupid “confirmation” of their theory about the evil Democrats, they just went further, finding all sorts of obscure words and references that, with there existing “knowledge” of the evil intent, could be “determined” to be code for some horrible thing.
The idea, and many ridiculous meme images that purported to show proof of it, circulated widely out of 4chan and into more “mainstream” conspiracy theory channels like InfoWars and various Reddit communities. And from there it further filtered into right wing Facebook and Twitter.
Does this need debunking even? Basically, idiots decided Democrats were pedophiles, and then found random things in stolen emails that they claimed were proof. To the extent that they made firm testable claims — like the idea that there was a dungeon in the basement of Washington DC pizza parlour Comet Ping Pong — those claims were shown to be false. There is no basement at Comet Ping Pong.
It’s all ridiculous bullshit. And while it’s not common to see the pizza-based “proof” of these claims repeated any more, the underlying belief that high profile Democrats and liberals are abusing and murdering children is a fundamental concept in the QAnon world.
4. JFK Jr. Is Coming Back
This idea is functionally so stupid that I’d almost opt to ignore it entirely but just last month literally hundreds of people gathered in Dealey Plaza — the site of President JFK’s assassination in Dallas — because of this theory.
Yes — they were there to witness the return of JFK Jr, the former president’s son who himself died tragically in an aircraft accident in 1999.
The idea came up among QAnon adherents when, in 2018, another supposed high-level insider showed up on the 8chan message board while the original Q account was quiet. This new account — creatively named “R” — posted a pile a nonsense a reminiscent of Q’s posting style that included a picture of JFK Jr standing with Donald Trump and, in part, the claim that “I strategically faked my own death, allied with the one person in this world whom I knew was honorable enough to trust, and we began to build ‘The Plan’.”
It was exactly the sort of conspiracy puzzle bullshit that appealed to the QAnon fans, and despite a later Q post that was clear that JFK Jr wasn’t still alive, the belief persisted among a huge portion of the Q fanbase.
Somehow they even identified a specific person that many believed was JFK Jr himself, lingering among the crowds at various Trump events. This man, Vincent Fusca, leaned right into it. He has never “confirmed” he is JFK Jr, but he also has pointedly avoided denying it.
And yet, despite having identified this specific JFK Jr, still hundreds turned up in Dallas to see JFK Jr return. A different one, I guess? Dozens of rabid Q fans documented the event online, and many claimed to have seen other dead celebrities around Dallas. Kobe Bryant, Michael Jackson and Robin Williams were definitely present according to some believers. Also Elvis Presley was apparently playing the drums for The Rolling Stones in Dallas that weekend, which sounds like a big ask for Presley who would be 86 now… although Mick Jagger is 78, and Keith Richards has been dead for years, surely?
JFK Jr did not return. But there was this guy with a bird on his shoulder giving cryptic messages to the faithful:
3. The Covid Vaccines Kill
There are countless unmoored conspiracy claims about the Covid vaccines, but I’m just going to look at the most ridiculous of all: that the vaccines are a deliberate tool of genocide. It argues that those of us who have been vaccinated will definitely die as a result within the next few months or years.
More than 40% of the world’s population has been fully vaccinated. Over three billion people. It is absolutely insane to believe someone, anyone, has come up with a plan to kill them all, and yet…
The idea of mass depopulation has been present in conspiracy theory circles for years. It was often claimed that millions of coffins were being distributed around the US ready for FEMA to use them in order to store the bodies of all those they killed with the “smart guillotines” they also ordered.
When asked for evidence or reasoning to support this mass death expectation they will often point to a Bill Gates Ted Talk where the billionaire philanthropist talks about his efforts to reduce infant mortality in developing countries as part of an effort to help the world slow population growth. They will claim he says that he’s using vaccines to depopulate the earth due to global warming. That’s not what he’s talking about:
His point about vaccines has been commonly misconstrued as a plot to depopulate the planet.
Melinda Gates wrote this in the former couple’s annual letter: “When more children live past age five, and when mothers can decide if and when to have children, population sizes don’t go up. They go down. Parents have fewer children when they’re confident those children will survive into adulthood. Big families are in some ways an insurance policy against the tragic likelihood of losing a son or a daughter.”
Bill Gates further outlined the idea, showing a chart that illustrated the inclining growth rate of the world’s population and the effect of improving health care.
“What we found is that as health improves, families choose to have less children, and this effect is very, very dramatic. We find that in every country of the world, this is repeated.”
So, it’s entirely unsurprising that people who’ve been fully expecting mass murder for years would see a worldwide vaccination drive, with Bill Gates among the promoters, as the event they’ve been waiting for. And like every other time they’ve predicted the executions were imminent, this too will not be the depopulation event they expect.
Another absolutely ridiculous idea around Covid vaccines is that they contain microscopic computer chips. This is the idea that the vaccine we’re getting — the tiny syringe of clear liquid — is actually implanting either some sort of tiny microchip in us, or even little microscopic robots!
This honestly seems like almost the easiest debunk possible… Just look at technology. Any of it! Your cellphone is huge and it goes flat in 45 minutes, or so it seems.
Anyone who’s received any of the Covid vaccines can tell you the needle is tiny. They are typically administered with a 22-25 gauge needle, meaning the opening at the end of the needle is between 0.41mm and 0.26mm.
So the idea here is that some magical technology exists that can interface with the human body in some way to exert various types of control (the specifics vary) and that it’s microscopic and can apparently run forever in our bodies with no power source? It’s just a silly idea.
Like so many conspiracy theories, the strength of this claim is usually in its lack of specificity. No one ever claims to know exactly what the technology involved is or what it’s going to do. They’re always just asking questions, or connecting dots. There are out-of-context links to patents, and screenshots of news stories about entirely different things. Just the assertions that some technology exists, and it’s being used, and that’s bad.
This theory is also usually tied into another popular conspiracy theory boogeyman — 5G! The next generation high-speed mobile data technology is, conspiracy theorists claim, definitely bad. The reasons vary: maybe it’s just going to give you cancer (like they have claimed of every cellphone technology since they began), or maybe the ultra high frequency signals can somehow control your mind, or track you?
For people who believe that these latter ideas are the reason for 5G — but aren’t so sure the cell signal can do it without help — the vaccines are the perfect answer! A method to injecting the secret interfacing hardware directly into us.
Like everything else — ultimately there’s just no evidence. Despite living in a time where powerful scientific equipment is more accessible than ever, there simply hasn’t been any evidence of these chips. No images, no radio frequencies. Nothing. The few things that seem to show something usually turn out to be jokes created by those mocking the conspiracy theory.
Some claim that vaccine sites become magnetic. While it’s unclear how that would be proof, it hardly matters because the childhood trick of sticking a spoon to your nose explains that phenomenon pretty swiftly.
1. Germ Theory Isn’t Real
Germ Theory, the idea that various pathogenic microorganisms we generally call “germs” are responsible for many diseases, has existed in various forms for close to a thousand years. Our modern scientific idea of germs goes back to the 1700s and started to gain widespread acceptance in the latter half of the 1800s with the work of pioneers like Louis Pasteur, John Snow, Robert Koch and Joseph Lister.
It’s safe to say that our understanding of these matters now is pretty strongly developed. Modern science has manipulated the RNA code of the SARS-Cov-2 virus in order to create a version of it that’s able to create proteins within our own body to create an immune response. Like — this is good science that a lot of really smart people study and which we have a very good handle on.
But there are literally people who don’t believe in germ theory!
They. Do. Not. Believe. In. Germs.
It’s one of those things that just seems almost too stupid. Like something so absurd that you assume that no one could really believe it. Like flat earth. And there we are, back at zero again.
And I look forward to exploring what this year has to offer with you, wonderful wormy reader. Thanks for coming along for the ride.
What was your favourite batshit moment from the last year? Maybe we can chat it out in the comments. I think for me Bezos’ penis rocket made it for me. And maybe Joseph Gordon-Levitt losing his mind.