BBC NEWS Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific Arabic Spanish Russian Chinese Welsh

 You are in: World: Americas
Front Page 
Middle East 
South Asia 
From Our Own Correspondent 
Letter From America 
UK Politics 
Talking Point 
In Depth 

Commonwealth Games 2002

BBC Sport

BBC Weather

Monday, 24 September, 2001, 18:09 GMT 19:09 UK
Why we need conspiracy theories
Montage of JFK,  the moon landing and the New York explosion
Conspiracy theories make the world seem safer
By BBC News Online's Charlotte Parsons

The moon landing was faked, Princess Diana was murdered and JFK was the victim of an elaborate CIA assassination plot.

When major historic events shake our world, conspiracy theories are seldom far behind.

The US terror attacks are no exception. The dust had barely settled on New York before the cloaks and daggers came out.

Less than two weeks after the disaster, BBC News Online found itself inundated with e-mails seeking confirmation of the various theories now circling the globe.

Hundreds of them cite a web page that lambasted the CNN for stirring up anti-Arab sentiment by running "fake footage" of Palestinians cheering over the attacks on the US.

If you think it's a rogue person or an unsophisticated group you start worrying about your daily life

Psychology Professor Cary Cooper
The news network is accused of digging out 10-year-old images of celebrations that followed the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and passing them off as Palestinian displays of anti-Americanism.

The allegations can be traced back to a message posted on Chicago Indymedia's website.

"Think for a moment about the impact of such images," the text urges visitors. "This kind of broadcast has a very high possibility of causing waves of anger and rage against the Palestinians."

Another popular theory holds that the Israelis working in the World Trade Center left the building shortly before the attacks. In a similar vein, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is said to have cancelled a visit that would have placed him in New York on 11 September.

The implication: The terror attacks were a trick designed to turn world opinion against Israel's Muslim enemies.

The theories are unsourced, unfounded and untrue. But they are spreading fast.

Human nature

This begs the question: Where do conspiracy theories come from? What is it in human nature that drives us to create alternative worlds peopled by shadowy figures?

Are we paranoid, delusional or just plain bored?

According to Psychology Professor Cary Cooper we are trying to stave off fear of random violence and unpredictable death.

Princess Diana
There are 36,000 Diana conspiracy web sites
"They do that because they can't come to terms with the fact that it could be just a few people," said Professor Cooper, who lectures at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology.

"If you think it's a rogue person or an unsophisticated group you start worrying about your daily life. If this can happen, what sense of security can you have?"

We create alternate realities because we reject the world where a single madman can bring down a president, a reckless driver can snuff out a princess... and a few men with knives can terrorise a country.

The internet helps the theories grow and spread. An estimated 36,000 Princess Diana conspiracy web sites were created after her death.

Ripple effect

Professor Cooper predicts that, in the weeks ahead, US terror attack theories will expand and become attributed to an ever larger group of culprits.

"We simply can't believe a small number of people could be behind it," he says, adding that a similar ripple effect followed the John F Kennedy shooting.

Conspiracy theories are not unique to Western culture. Experts say they have operated in many societies throughout history.

On a certain psychological level, we appear to need them.

Giving misery and injustice an identity makes life more bearable, according to Jeffrey Bale, who writes for an online magazine that examines the phenomenon.

"Conspiracy theories account for current crises and upheavals and explain why bad things are happening to good people or vice versa," he said.

See also:

02 Oct 98 | Conspiracy - Radio 5 Live
Aliens: a conspiracy out of this world
05 Jun 00 | World
Lockerbie: Conspiracy theories
05 Oct 98 | Conspiracy - Radio 5 Live
Death to the New World Order? Your Reaction
Internet links:

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Links to more Americas stories are at the foot of the page.

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more Americas stories