Conspiracy Theory

A conspiracy theory is a supposition regarding combinations of people working in secret toward unlawful or harmful goals. Also called trusts, conspiracies are used to execute complex business and political plans. Widely known American conspiracies include the General Motors streetcar conspiracy, the Standard Oil trust and the unsuccessful Business Plot coup. Canada’s foundational Canadian Pacific Railway formed in a conspiracy known as the Pacific Scandal in which Conservative Party members were bribed to favour preferred suppliers.1 The scandal caused Prime Minister John A. MacDonald and Canada’s first parliament to fall, but he was returned with a majority government just five years later.

In 2018 political scientist Joseph E. Uscinski wrote about theories still swirling around the assassination of American President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas fifty-five years earlier.2 The Warren Commission, the first congressional investigation into Kennedy’s death, concluded in 1964 that Marxist book depository employee Lee Harvey Oswald acted as a lone gunman. But half a century later almost sixty percent of Americans remained convinced there was a conspiracy. According to Professor Uscinski, the lack of transparency may have limited trust in government. Indeed, the second congressional investigation into the assassination (and Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination ) reported in its 1979 report that Kennedy was likely the victim of a conspiracy but offered few details, allowing questions to continue. That flexibility, wrote Uscinski, kept wonder and speculation alive. The Warren Commission portrayed Oswald as working alone, but complex planning most often requires multiple participants working cooperatively in secret. Confidentiality is required specifically because the conspiracy plans will harm certain interests who, given the chance, will work toward defeating the plan.

With sufficient control over popular media, establishment’s preferred arrangement of facts can be granted special status. Paid establishment pundits are made available to attack competing narratives and their proponents. Think tanks staffed with credentialed experts add the air of legitimacy. This peculiar segment of the economy, along with lobbyists, Public Relations (PR) flacks and traditional advertising, has been called the influence industry. Their motto could be “we give good mindfucks.” PR had invaded popular news media already back in the 1960s. At the time, journalism professor Scott Cutlip wrote that his pilot studies were finding that thirty-five percent of newspaper content was being provided by PR practitioners.

The news media, particularly the understaffed press associations, can’t do the full news reporting job today without PR help.3

Mainstream television, radio and print may all present elements of the official story as fact. Government press-released opinion is conveyed, “laundered” really, as fact without examination or alteration. There’s no disclaimer that the news organization failed to perform its core investigative function. Corporate CEOs are presented as if they speak for the economy. What corporate media really dishes is authoritativeness. Each on of those big name journalists could change paradigms, could pick apart what they see going on in the background. It’s want many desire. But none could reach for professional authenticity too forcefully and also keep their jobs in corporate media.

Having a trusted newsperson, from a leading newspaper or nightly news program, refer to a story as a “conspiracy theory,” with Brokaw seriousness, can signal other outlets that a story should be covered in an overly critical or even humorous fashion. The so-called “giggle factor” may be engaged, depriving claims of credibility.3 Intelligence agencies and public relations firms, which shape news reporting in the ordinary course of business, may have been involved in the activation of the label “conspiracy theory” as a charged term.

University of Miami-tenured Uscinski calls suggestions that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) invented the term conspiracy theory demonstrably false, in opposition to his intra-state colleague, Professor Emeritus Lance DeHaven- Smith. The former president of the Florida Political Science Association claimed in his 2013 Conspiracy Theory in America, in the book’s “headline revelation”,4 that the CIA very likely was in fact responsible for the term’s weaponization.

Decades earlier in 1977, Carl Bernstein revealed in a 25,000-word Rolling Stone essay that the CIA had employed more than 400 American journalists from the 1950s onward.When CIA Director William Colby had been called before Congress to publicly testify about his agency paying domestic print and television journalists to plant and spike stories, he was only asked a couple questions before he insisted on moving discussions to executive session. And the theoretical speculation continues.

[Updated September 4, 2022.]


  1. Waite, P.B. “Pacific Scandal.” The Canadian Encyclopedia. February 7, 2006.
  2. Uscinski, Joseph E. “Almost 60 Percent of Americans Believe in Conspiracy Theories About JFK. Here’s Why That Might Be a Problem.” In The LSE US Centre’s daily blog on American Politics and Policy. London, England: London
  3. Cutlip, Scott M. “Third of Newspapers’ Content PR-Inspired.” Editor & Publisher, no. 68 (May 26, 1962).
  4. My own work on textbook censorship was tarred with the “conspiracy theory” label by a former headmaster of Canada’s prestigious private school, Upper Canada College. The staid administrator suggested that I would be surprised to know “that certain inappropriate topics and radical theories might not be suitable for required ‘whole class use’ with children in our public schools”. It was unclear whether he understood that government ignored the subject matter experts hired to make that evaluation.
  5. Unz, Ron. “American Pravda: How the CIA Invented ‘Conspiracy Theories’.” The Unz Review (2016). September 5, 2016.
  6. Bernstein, Carl. “The CIA and the Media: How Americas Most Powerful News Media Worked Hand in Glove with the Central Intelligence Agency and Why the Church Committee Covered It Up.” Rolling Stone, October 20, 1977. [REPRINT:]