Five things they don't want you to know about conspiracy theories

Myth #3: Conspiracy theories are just a feature of the fringe

In the most widely read—or at least widely namechecked—study of political paranoia, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” the historian Richard Hofstadter called conspiracism “the preferred style only of minority movements.” Yet the mainstream regularly embraces conspiracy theories, some of which look deeply bizarre in retrospect.

Consider the great Satanism scare. In the 1980s, older tales about Satanic conspiracies collided with three secular fears: a wave of stories about missing children, a heightened concern with child abuse, and worries about religious cults. The result was a period when mainstream reporters and officials embraced the idea that a network of Satanists was kidnapping, molesting, and murdering American children. Innocent people were sent to prison for participating in the purported crimes. Respected shows such as “20/20” uncritically repeated extremely dubious claims. An FBI agent, writing in Police Chief magazine, complained about “a flood of law enforcement seminars and conferences” where cops would hear talks about “satanic groups involved in organized conspiracies, such as taking over day care centers, infiltrating police departments, and trafficking in human sacrifice victims.”

Moral panics have frequently come bundled with conspiracy yarns, from the alleged white-slavery syndicates of a century ago (described by one Chicago prosecutor as an “invisible government”) to the gay subversion feared in the early years of the Cold War. (In 1950, the director of the CIA warned that “perverts in key positions” formed “a government within a government.”) There is always a tendency, in the mainstream as much as the fringes, to blame real or imagined social problems on a folk devil. And the folk devil often takes the form of a conspiracy.