"Conspiracy theorist? I guess I am. I definitely have theories about conspiracies,"
says 19-year-old Joe Harris of Columbus, Ohio.
"It started when I was 16 and started reading more. It made me think in
a different way. I started questioning things more, and stopped accepting
everything I saw on TV or read in the papers as truth. I realized society
had been brainwashing me since birth."
Harris is one of countless members of an underground culture based on suspicion.
Their mission: to present alternate viewpoints, which often counter the official
story. Conspiracy theorists speculate about who or what may lie behind major
historical or current events.
"It's not about trying to convince people that we're right and
they're wrong," says Harris. "We just want to make people question what
government and the media have taught them all their lives."
Just about anything is fair game. Some say the AIDS virus was formulated
in a government laboratory. Others believe that officials have long known
about UFOs and extraterrestrial life but have covered it up. Some say Princess
Diana's death in a car accident was no accident. And still others believe
that the Apollo landing on the moon was a hoax filmed on a Hollywood sound
Harris's pet theory concerns the power of the Masons. He claims this
centuries-old secret society of world leaders was responsible for, among other
things, the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand -- an event which set
off the First World War.
It's perhaps less of a "hot" theory than those that have filtered
into pop culture these days, questioning the official version of events like
Waco, TWA Flight 800 and CIA involvement in drug smuggling. But there are
as many theories out there as there are theorists, whose numbers are increasing
all the time.
"More and more people are looking beyond the 6 o'clock news for answers,"
says Russ Kick. He is a writer in Tennessee who reviews books on conspiracy-based
"I constantly run into people -- normal, everyday people -- who are firmly
convinced they're being lied to. Polls show record numbers don't
trust the government. The media may mock us, but they don't reflect the
attitudes of a large chunk of the population."
Richard Metzger is cashing in on this growing popular interest. He's
the co-founder and creative director of Disinformation, a popular Web site
based on the slogan that "everything you know is wrong." It publishes articles
on conspiracy theories and other unconventional, countercultural ideas while
providing links to like-minded pages.
The site won national media attention when it was launched in 1996. Metzger
has since been featured regularly on CNN as an expert on conspiracy theories.
Disinformation gets between 300,000 and 400,000 hits a month.
"We're hoping conspiracy theory can come to mean big business," says
Metzger. "Our content appeals to a largely untapped market. There's no
harm in capitalizing on it."
Disinformation's gold mine includes a deal with Razorfish, a multibillion-dollar
Internet ad agency. The site is on the Razorfish Sub-Network (RSUB), a "hip
shop" partly owned by R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe.
Metzger also hosts Disinfo Nation, a spinoff TV show which profiles famous
conspiracy types like Robert Anton Wilson and Howard Bloom. Though the site
and company are based in New York, the show runs on England's Channel
4 and has a huge following there.
"People are hungry for new ideas," says Metzger. "We take ideas that don't
have an outlet in the mass media and give them a forum where people can find
and discuss them."
As for who can participate in this hobby, there are no limits. If you have
a theory, no matter how strange, you can use the Internet to share it with
Even without backers and business plans, anyone can give their views a
voice. The Internet has become a clearinghouse of sorts for these hobbyists,
allowing low-cost publishing of uncensored ideas. There's also talk radio,
public access TV and do-it-yourself amateur magazines ("zines"). No matter
where you look, the "truth" is out there.
"Some of it is just silly and some of it is incredibly valid," says Metzger.
"But it's all fascinating in its own weird way."
Conspiracy theories aren't without their naysayers. Even fellow counterculture
intellectuals have a hard time with what they call "exaggerated urban legends."
Pat Linse is co-founder of the Skeptics Society. That's a California
think-tank that brings together many disciplines in the search for truth.
She's also artistic director of the society's Skeptic magazine.
"People love to tell tales and repeat them," she says. "They offer simple,
easy solutions and explanations of huge, complex problems. It's easy
to blame your own problems and dissatisfaction on conspiracies. But it's
like painting your windshield black and trying to drive -- it prevents you
from dealing with reality."
Hal Niedzviecki also has a beef with conspiracy theorists who think they
have the market cornered on truth. He's the author of We Want Some Too:
Underground Desire and the Reinvention of Mass Culture. It's a book about
underground trends that are creeping into the mainstream.
"[Conspiracy theorists] give people a voice and a community where their
ideas are valued," says Niedzviecki. "But they also give people the illusion
of power, a false self-assurance that lets them think something is true that
Truth is relative, and most theorists will admit that. As a proponent of
a way of thinking that is open-minded, Harris is the first to tag a disclaimer
on his claims.
"As Robert Anton Wilson once said, 'What the thinker thinks, the prover
proves' -- which basically means that if you have an idea, you can find
anything to back that idea up. You think and prove what you want to think
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