Conspiracy truths are out there

PATRICK MALONEY

, Last Updated: 11:44 AM ET

The truth is out there. Sometimes, it's way out there.

9/11 was an inside job. The 1969 moon landing was faked. Someone cut the brakes on Diana's limousine. The Mafia got JFK. The U.S. government covered up a UFO crash in Roswell.

As conspiracy theories go, these are among the gold standard, gleaming examples of what inspires a long-standing subculture whose members risk ridicule to push what they consider the truth, the reality behind the charade.

Yes, the truth is definitely out there, if you know where to find it.

And today, in the Internet age, it's easier than ever to track it down.

Mainstream? Not a chance. But that world of shadows and suspicion has used the Web to gain an air of legitimacy, revealing itself not just as a home to wingnuts and whackjobs but also intelligent people who truly distrust authority, and fear there's something they don't know.

"A book deal -- in the old days, that would have been the thing you wanted," said Grant Cameron of Winnipeg, perhaps the world's foremost authority on what each U.S. president knew about UFOs while in office.

"It's not really that important anymore. The website is the key thing."

Not only has the Internet exposed the research of people such as Cameron to the public -- Larry King now spends entire shows discussing supposed alien coverups -- but it may also inspire their widespread acceptance.

Punch "JFK conspiracy" into Google, and 230,000 websites referencing some sneakiness behind U.S. president John F. Kennedy's assassination in 1963, decades before the Internet's creation, pop up.

But "9/11 conspiracy" gets a whopping 152 million hits, proving, if nothing else, that the believers -- or disbelievers, depending on your point of view -- have the world's attention.

"Definitely 9/11 was an inside job," Victor Viggiani, a retired Toronto school principal who focuses his research on reported UFO sightings, said without hesitation recently. "No doubt about it."

Except, there is doubt about it. Plenty of doubt. The kind of passion displayed by conspiracy theorists is often matched by the level of disbelief among those who couldn't disagree more.

What, they ask, could lead someone to draw this kind of conclusion?

To one academic who has studied the complicated conspiracies weaved by believers, the answer is rather simple.

"Conspiracy theories are comforting because they offer explanations," said Michael Barkun, a politics professor at Syracuse University. "(It's) the lure of making the world comprehensible."

There is no understating the effect the Internet has had on the growth of these kinds of theories, he added.

"They didn't appear in mainstream newspapers or magazines, bookstores and so on. (But) the Internet doesn't have gatekeepers. Anybody can put up a website that looks polished and credible."

It's the repetitive nature of the web -- the same text can pop up on hundreds of different sites -- and the immediacy of it that have strengthened conspiracies, vesting them with an air of legitimacy that many say is undeserved, Barkun said.

"There were rumours spreading right after 9/11 that were out there internationally before any attempt could be made to deal with them. The ideas can be transmitted very rapidly," he said.

"So if you've got a conspiracy theory that's demonstrably false, it can spread so rapidly that the truth can have a difficult time overtaking it."

And there's a more sobering criticism: That there's really nothing to these things beyond overactive imaginations.

It's clear Barkun, while not dismissing the intelligence of the believers, has little time for the theories he's been examining since first noticing their migration into the political mainstream a decade ago.

The theories "turn out to be no less persuasive than the explanations that they claim to displace," he said.

But that kind of criticism points to another of the strengths of the conspiracy subculture, where opponents are labelled with a most-loathsome tag -- a toadie for the government, an apologist for the powerful.

Just another arm of the conspiracy.

"(They) have been around for a long time, but in many cases were relegated to small and insular subcultures," Barkun said. "The availability of them to a mass audience is a more recent phenomenon.

"It's both interesting and potentially disquieting. Are we talking about these ideas becoming legitimized and taken seriously . . . or just pop entertainment?"

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Famous conspiracy theories

Here are some of the world's best-known conspiracy theories, and the "evidence" believers rely on when their explanation is challenged. True? Ridiculous? It's up to you to decide.

PRINCESS DIANA

THEORY: It wasn't an impaired driver and excessive speeds that killed her in 1997. Rather, the brakes of her limousine were cut, under orders from unseen Royal powers who wanted to be rid of her.

PROOF: The princess herself wrote a note to a friend, detailing her concerns the royal family was out to kill her.

TWA FLIGHT 800

THEORY: It wasn't a fuel-tank explosion that destroyed the New York-to-Paris flight, killing all 230 aboard in 1996, but the impact of an errant U.S. Navy missile.

PROOF: Several witnesses, many quoted in mainstream media outlets, reported seeing a streak of light heading toward the plane just before the explosion.

ELVIS PRESLEY

THEORY: Elvis hasn't left the building, some say. Rather than dying in 1977, the thinking goes that Presley went into hiding for any of number of potential reasons.

PROOF: Over the years there have been scores of supposed sightings, though this theory appears to be running out of steam.

ROSWELL

THEORY: U.S. officials say a weather balloon crashed in a field near this New Mexico city, but for years people have maintained it was an alien spacecraft and the government is covering it up.

PROOF: This may be the mother of all conspiracy theories, and believers have a library's worth of documents to back it up.

APOLLO MOON LANDING

THEORY: The Apollo moon landings of the late 1960s and early '70s were faked by NASA, possibly recorded on a soundstage, in an effort to stay ahead of Cold War rival Russia.

PROOF: Why, critics ask, is the flag placed on the moon flapping if there's no wind in space? And why are there no stars in any of the photographs?

JFK ASSASSINATION

THEORY: They're almost endless. Everything from the Mafia to Castro to the U.S. military-industrial complex, rather than the official explanation that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.

PROOF: Some witnesses say shots were fired from more than one location; some marksmen have said Oswald was not an accomplished enough marksman to pull it off; Cuban exiles living in the U.S. are said to have wanted Kennedy killed for not sufficiently backing the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961.

9/11

THEORY: The U.S. government orchestrated the World Trade Center attacks, potentially to justify international wars or increases in defence spending.

PROOF: For some, it's simple -- if Osama bin Laden is behind this, why is he listed on the FBI's 10 most wanted list for the U.S.S. Cole bombing, but not for Sept. 11?


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