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Thursday, 4 April, 2002, 11:24 GMT 12:24 UK
Paranoia paradise
Elvis Presley
Elvis Presley shortly before his so-called "death" in 1977
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By Chris Horrie
BBC News Online
What makes a good conspiracy theory? What is it about some stories that, however unlikely, convince people that they are true?
French author Thierry Meyssan's book L'Effroyable Imposture (The Appalling Fraud) - which claims that the US government may have "staged" the 11 September attack on the Pentagon - has been condemned for lack of taste.

Book jacket
The book has found thousands of readers in France

But it is merely the latest contribution to the mushrooming media "conspiracy industry" - based on the premise that whatever anybody in authority says, the exact opposite is almost certainly the truth.

In an age of The X-Files and a lack of trust in the scientific, political and military establishment, there are millions apparently prepared to believe that what they see on the TV news is a complete con and that "the truth" is being suppressed by mysterious and unidentifiable Powers That Be.

Who controls the British Crown... who keeps the metric system down... we do! we do!

Anthem of the Stone Cutters, from The Simpsons

In short, the world seems to be coming down with a bad case of mass paranoia.

The Grassy Knoll

There are those, for example, who believe that the Titanic was not sunk but captured by Albanian pirates (why Albanians?), its cargo of gold bullion stolen, its crew and passengers sold to white slave traders and a "fake" wreck created to cover up for this near-perfect super crime.

Less obscure are the numerous theories surrounding the death of John F Kennedy - the most outrageous (and recent) that he was somehow shot by his wife, Jackie.

Then there is the persistent campaign to convince everyone that the moon landing was faked in a TV studio and on location in an Arizona desert in order to boost the popularity of Richard Nixon.

There are entire interest groups with names like The Grassy Knoll and The Conspiracy Continues devoted to "researching" ever more convoluted versions of the Kennedy assassination, many now finessed to entire alternative secret histories of the world dating back to the Garden of Eden.

Twilight Zone

Conspiracy Planet links to all the familiar conspiracy theories - Elvis is not dead; UFO abductions; tireless efforts of drug companies to suppress cures for diseases, and car companies to prevent the development of the electric car.

Homespun UK conspiracies of recent vintage include the idea that MI6 killed Diana, Princess of Wales, to prevent her marrying a Muslim and endless stuff about British intelligence services being under the thumb of the Russians, the French and - strangely enough - the Swiss.

Roswell alien
The alien in Roswell, New Mexico, centre of strange events
If all of this seems to be like the script for a particularly duff edition of The Twilight Zone, remember that ex-BBC presenter and Coventry City goalkeeper David Icke preaches that the world is being secretly run by super-intelligent lizards from another planet.

Modern day conspiracy theorising like this may seem harmless to some.

But belief in a sinister group of super-secret political puppet masters controlling world events is an old idea, pre-dating even modern science fiction.

Nazi paranoia

Fortunately, the more nutty global conspiracy theories have generally been confined to the fringe.

But not always.

The Nazi regime in Germany based its persecution of Jews on the idea that leaders of the religion acted as a secret governing council of the world, waging a secret war against Germany by cooking up communism, capitalism, jazz, pornography and modern art.

This nonsense had its roots in 19th century France, where Jews were blamed for both the French revolution and the defeat of Napoleon.


A best-selling French "non fiction" book, The French Jews, maintained a Jewish world council based in Gibraltar controlled the world banking system and was plotting the destruction of European civilisation.

David Icke
David Icke: "World is run by lizards"
The book went through 114 editions in a single year, sold millions across Europe and made its author, Edouard Drumont, a leading player in French politics.

Drumont's most extreme followers even believed that Jews had infiltrated the Catholic Church and placed a "Jewish Pope" on the throne of St Peter.

Later, Drumont's ravings were perfected by the Russian secret police who faked a complete set of documents "proving" the existence of a "world Jewish conspiracy" and published in millions of copies around the world under the title of the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion".

Spy mania

Almost as horrific - on the political left - was the Communist conspiracy theory in 1930s Russia that famines caused by economic mismanagement were being deliberately manufactured by richer, conservative "Kulak" farmers - working conspiratorially with undercover German and British spies.

"Spy mania", together with the wild idea that the Kulaks were deliberately starving themselves to death, led to countless executions and further intensification of famine, claiming the lives of millions.

In the 1930s the controversial German psychologist Wilhelm Reich diagnosed belief in conspiracy theories as a form of mass hysteria and as a type of contagious "emotional plague".

The problem is that once the basic idea is accepted that an endlessly devious, super-secret cabal is running events, everything that happens can be seen as further and ever more convincing evidence of conspiracy.

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