The Internet and conspiracy theories are a match made in heaven. With its ability to link seemingly unrelated information, the Internet has become the new home for amateur and professional conspiracy theorists, who spread their messages by the millions through all channels and networks. Having itself emerged from underneath a shroud of secrecy, the Internet has not only revolutionized the ways in which we communicate, it has also transformed the nature of conspiracy culture.
Historical Origins of the Internet
The Internet itself began amidst a quasi-conspiracy. Its origin lay in the paranoia and fear that was widespread in the late 1950s in the United States because the Soviet Union had gained a lead in the space race, having launched several of its Sputnik satellites. To overcome this technological lag, the U.S. government began investing large sums of money in military technology—the beginnings of the military industrial complex.
One immediate result was the founding of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), a branch of the U.S. Defense Department, in 1958. This agency had the task of creating and sustaining U.S. technological supremacy in the field of military applications throughout the world. Part of this task was developing a communication network that could withstand severe attacks and resulting outages by means of the dynamic rerouting of messages. Somewhat by chance, a research team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) simultaneously began working with the idea of connecting two computers over a vast geographical space, thus creating a network.
By the mid-1960s these initial tests had come to fruition and when DARPA hired MIT researcher Lawrence Roberts in 1966, the Internet—or “ARPAnet” as it was then called—was born. Initially, this project remained a secret feasibility study under the auspices of the U.S. Department of State. But its rapid growth among universities and research institutions with defense contracts made keeping it undercover unfeasible. In 1972 it was made public at an international computer conference.
Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s ARPAnet remained largely in the public domain, but access to these super computer networks was restricted to institutions of higher education and research. In the mid-1980s, however, this changed. The National Science Foundation (NSF) created the NSFnet to link five supercomputer centers, and this, coupled with the implementation of a new set of communication protocols called TCP/IP (Transmission Control Program/Internet Protocol), soon supplanted the ARPAnet as the backbone of the Internet. In 1995, however, the NSF decommissioned the NSFnet and responsibility for the Internet was assumed by the private sector.
Fueled by the increasing popularity of personal computers and the World Wide Web, which was introduced in 1991, the Internet saw explosive growth beginning in 1993, thereafter becoming a significant factor in the stock market and commerce during the second half of the decade. But why has the Internet become a haven for conspiracy theorists and their kin and how has this medium changed conspiracy culture in the process?
Connections between Conspiracy Theory and the Internet
With the advent of the Internet as a commercially successful medium in the mid-1990s, conspiracy theories immediately found a new home. For those who could afford it, the Internet offered the possibility of exchanging information of any kind at speeds and in quantities hitherto unimaginable.
New modes of correspondence that greatly facilitate communication across temporal and spatial barriers have emerged in cyberspace: e-mail, mailing lists, newsgroups, Internet relay chat, electronic conferencing, and multi-user dimensions (MUDs).
Often relegated to the political and social fringes and often ridiculed or debunked by the mainstream conservative press, conspiracy theorists now discovered that the Net was a perfect vehicle to transport and spread their thoughts.
Besides the speed and the quantity of information being exchanged, the novelty is that the information is to a great extent uncensored. The Internet does not discriminate between truth and fiction, and completely ludicrous information is placed alongside scientific contributions.
The possibility for an Internet user to remain anonymous is similarly important in this respect, since it allows for completely depersonalized information exchange, where no moral justification or fear of being reproached for what is written is needed.
The Internet thus has become a new virtual reality where the lines between factual truths and utter lies have become completely blurred. It is precisely this space where conspiracy theorists found fertile ground for their beliefs and interpretations.
One of the outstanding features of conspiracy theories is their ability to connect seemingly disparate events, groups, or individuals into a grand scheme or plot. In a similar fashion the Internet enables associations through so-called links, which are hypertext connections between two pieces of information or data. One website may have as many as several hundred links to other websites. The name itself—web—is no coincidence.
A second significant correlation between the Internet and conspiracy theories is the ability of online search engines to combine any number of words and to display the results accordingly. Thus the conspiracy theorists’ inclination to combine disparate events, people, and places can infinitely and instantly be satisfied.
Jonathan Vankin and John Whalen, authors of 70 Greatest Conspiracy Theories of All Time and creators of the conspire.com website, note: “If ever there was a mass medium that mirrored the psychotropic device of the conspiracy theory, the World Wide Web is it.
With its vertiginous array of endless connections—hyperlinks for the hyperattuned—the Web fits the paranoid mindset as snugly as a virus locks into a human receptor cell” (qtd. in Pence). Likewise it has been suggested that the Internet was not just made for conspiracy theory: “it is a conspiracy theory” (Stewart qtd. in Marcus, 18).
A final reason why the Internet is a haven for conspiracy-minded people is that it gives individuals the option to remain anonymous, hidden, or unknown. This, of course, is paramount for the conspiracy theorist prototype since his activities in disclosing secret evils must themselves always remain clandestine in order to succeed.
The possibility to produce conspiratorial interpretations while one’s identity—including name, age, gender, religion, political affiliation, occupation, marital status, etc.—remains concealed thus is an essential reason why the Internet has become a catalyst for the creation of conspiracy theories.
This anonymity promotes in the user a readiness to experiment and a willingness to go beyond the barriers of common sense and logical cognition. It is these reasons that lead us to understand why the conspiracy culture has undergone and continues to undergo a significant paradigmatic shift.
The Internet has made conspiracy theories and the people who hatch them ubiquitous, socially acceptable, and in some cases even legendary. The World Wide Web has become a venue where people can express and share their fears about politics, the government, space invaders, secret organizations and the like, while coming to terms with their daily lives.
In a world where the Federal Bureau of Investigation monitors e-mails and phone calls with a software called “DSC1000” (formerly “Carnivore”), the National Security Agency spies on foreign countries’ economic activity using a secret program called “Echelon,” and NASA—in a post–September 11 paranoia of its own—just offered a well-known airline company the use of a machine that can read the minds of passengers before they board a plane, these individual fears are certainly more than warranted.
The Internet has become an arena for a new form of political discourse, one that is unmediated, liberalizing, almost anarchic. An abundance of cybercommunities has sprung up that discusses, shares, and interprets information on a constant basis. Conspiracy newsgroups are some of the most highly visited forums on the Net.
This new form of communication also connects many people that previously had no possibility of corresponding even though they shared a broad interest in a certain topic. It is this almost ritual sharing of information in the online forums by a regular group of participants that constitutes an online community. These individuals are not necessarily detached from the real world, as some skeptics fear.
Rather, they might be seen as trying to come to terms with real-world events in a venue that connects like-minded persons who are well aware that their community is based in a textual world. Because participants come and go as they please and major topics of interest change frequently, the community can be described as amorphous and possibly ephemeral since these newsgroup communities undergo a process of continuous membership evolution.
For some social theorists, then, these forms of communication and community promise to open new opportunities of social and political interaction and in turn possibly create a new form of participatory democracy hitherto unknown.
Conspiracy theories, in most cases, are interpretations of real events. They can thus be understood as versions—multiple and multiplying accounts—of reality. Cyberspace, too, has been described as a version of reality: virtual reality.
It is precisely this notion of another reality behind or beyond reality that constitutes the fundamental temptation of cyberspace and conspiracy theories. This is why there is no doubting that the Internet has propelled the spread of conspiracy theories to an extent we can scarcely grasp, and many have lamented this tendency.
It is the weblike structure of the Internet itself that makes it beneficial for interpretations of every shape, size, and ideological orientation. The theories are free to roam, grow, mutate, spread, and also disappear in this virtual realm.
Some commentators, however, have expressed the hope that where conspiracy theory meets the Internet there will arise a new and more benign understanding of these interpretative methods. If such theories are understood as the outcries of those who feel left out politically, socially, or otherwise on the one hand and, on the other, as the upholding of a liberal individualism some people fear they are losing, then the Internet could be seen to serve as an instrument of democracy and as a voice of representation for those who previously had none.