Conspiracy Theory
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25 Strangest American Conspiracy Theories

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Conspiracy Theory
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You Really Believe That?

In the 1950s, the U.S. government conspired with the tobacco industry to conceal the connection between smoking and cancer from the American public. The CIA and similar organizations conspired to conduct ghastly experiments on unwitting American citizens in programs like Project MK-Ultra and the Tuskegee experiments. Many conspiracies are real and they’re often quite scary — a fact that compels some people to look for them where none actually exist. Conspiracy theorists were once relegated to the sidelines as eccentrics in tin-foil hats. Thanks to the Internet, however, today’s top conspiracy theorists enjoy huge followings and sometimes even the presumption of credibility all the way up to the highest levels of government and the media. Here’s a look at the conspiracy theories that — like Elvis and Tupac — refuse to die.

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September 11 Tribute
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9/11 Trutherism

Conspiracy theories about 9/11 started shortly after or perhaps even on Sept. 11, 2001. Virtually all of them center around the idea that the worst terrorist attack in American history was not perpetrated by al-Qaida militants, but by the U.S. government itself. The theories are too numerous to list, but the main ones involve a missile hitting the Pentagon, not an airplane, and the collapse of the World Trade Center towers in New York City being the result of controlled demolitions, an idea long debunked by engineers who actually understand how controlled demolitions work.

Flag on the Moon
National Aeronautics and Space Administration

The Moon Landing Was a Hoax

More than a half-century after the Apollo 11 astronauts walked on the moon, scores of conspiracy theorists continue to insist it was all a Cold War hoax. The theory goes that NASA, perhaps with the help of director Stanley Kubrick, staged the event in a Hollywood movie studio. Some say it was done to one-up the Russians. Others believe it was part of a NASA plot to conceal the existence of a large planet that will one day destroy Earth.

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Earth from Space
National Aeronautics and Space Administration

The Flat Earth Theory

There’s a common misconception that Columbus believed the Earth was flat when he sailed from Europe on his famous New World voyage. He did not. No educated person of his era in Western Europe did. Scientists and mathematicians knew the world was spherical as early as 600 B.C., yet in 2020, scores of people still insist that our planet is actually a flat disk or perhaps an infinite plane. Many conspiracies involve international deceit by NASA. There’s even a Flat Earth Society that follows in the footsteps of a 19th-century conspiracy theory that started it all.

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Wave
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Government-Induced Tsunamis

Less than two weeks after a powerful submarine earthquake triggered a massive tsunami in the Indian Ocean in 2004 that killed more than 200,000 people, conspiracy theorists were already lining up to educate the masses about the government’s involvement. Some theories, while completely unfounded, were at least plausible — the U.S. government knew the quake was coming but failed to act for any number of strategic/military reasons. Others were far-fetched to the point of being comical, like the one that says "the government" triggered the quake with a mysterious tectonic weapon to re-align the Earth’s wobbly rotation.

The Deep State
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The Deep State

The Deep State theory isn’t new, but it gained steady traction in the United States with the ascent of President Donald Trump. Its existence is often cited as fact by both the president and his allies in the right-wing media. The theory revolves around a shadowy network of high-ranking elected officials, military leaders, media moguls, financiers, and other powerful and well-connected elites who are secretly conspiring to overthrow — or at least manipulate and commandeer — the U.S. government and social structure. Conveniently, anyone who disagrees with the people who propagate the theory of its existence can be deemed a member of the Deep State — no evidence required.

Satanism
Wikimedia Commons

QAnon

A more-recent offshoot of the Deep State theory, QAnon emerged a few years ago from 4Chan and other dark corners of the internet. Today, right-wing conspiracy theories are so entrenched in this group that several open believers in the movement are staging legitimate runs for seats in the House and Senate — virtually all of those candidates have been urged on by President Trump. Their organizing principle is that the highest levels of Democratic leadership, including the Clintons and Obamas, are part of a secret cabal of satan worshippers and pedophiles organized by Jews and funded by philanthropist investor George Soros. Soros, who is Jewish, is commonly named as a central Deep State financier or even the leader of the Deep State. The FBI has declared QAnon a potential domestic terrorism threat.

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Globalism
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Globalism

The Deep State and QAnon are both intertwined with the concept of globalism, another right-wing conspiracy theory that President Trump has also publicly and repeatedly endorsed as a fact-based threat to the country. Similarly, the globalist theory commonly cites the Clintons, the Obamas, and Soros as villains. Distinctly unique from the very real concept of "globalization," globalism is based on the idea that high-ranking left-wing elites and their co-conspirators in easy-to-blame but hard-to-quantify entities like "the media," "the banks," and "the government" are conspiring to end America’s status as a sovereign power. The goal is to subjugate the country and the world under a singular autocratic ruling entity controlled by the Deep State.

Illuminati
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Illuminati/New World Order

A frighteningly high percentage of Americans believe that a secret society called the Illuminati — similar to the Deep State — is conspiring at the highest levels of government to overthrow America’s capitalist society and create a "New World Order" similar to globalism. Many of the conspiracy theory’s villains are the same. It’s important to note that a real organization called the Illuminati actually existed during the 18th century in Europe. It was secretive, it did pursue radical changes in the social and political structures of the day, and, briefly, it did wield real power. Where reality breaks from paranoia is in the idea that it continues to exist today and continues to pull the levers of power through everything from music and video games to labor unions and religious organizations.

Sandy Hook Shooting
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Sandy Hook Shooting

Infowars host Alex Jones is to conspiracy theories what Jerry Garcia was to psychedelic rock. In 2019, the country’s preeminent theory-without-facts guru was ordered to pay $100,000 in legal fees for the father of a victim of the 2012 Sandy Hook school massacre, which killed six educators and 20 children in Newtown, Connecticut. Jones used his platform to spread a conspiracy theory that the massacre never happened — it was all a hoax, the 6- and 7-year-old victims were child actors, and their parents were paid to lie. Easily convinced, his cult-like following bombarded the still-mourning families with harassment, accusations, and even death threats. It was arguably the grossest, but certainly not the first or only, false flag conspiracy theory.

American Flag
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False Flags

So-called false flag operations — the act of a nation deliberately fabricating an attack against itself as a justification for war or internal repression — are as old as the hills and are very much real. It’s now known that the second Gulf of Tonkin incident, which the United States used as a pretext for the Vietnam War, was a false flag operation. False flag operations are by definition conspiracies, which gives fuel to conspiracy theorists who repeatedly find false flags where none exist. Many 9/11 truthers, for example, believe that Sept. 11 was a false flag operation to justify the War on Terror, but the vast majority of false flag conspiracy theories come in the wake of mass shootings like Sandy Hook. Virtually every major mass shooting in the last two decades was followed by a conspiracy theory claiming that the act was staged. The logic is virtually always the same — the government wants a reason to confiscate guns, abolish the Second Amendment, and disarm the U.S. population.

Camp Hero
Camp Hero by Hhoschton (CC BY-SA)

Camp Hero, Long Island

The hit Netflix series "Stranger Things" was inspired by a decommissioned military base at the far eastern end of Long Island, New York, known as Camp Hero. Today it’s a state park, but there are still a few derelict radar towers and spooky sealed structures with "do not enter" signs. Local legends and folklore surrounding the place were common way before 1992, but that year, Preston Nichols' and Peter Moon's book, "The Montauk Project: Experiments in Time," put Camp Hero on the conspiracy theory map. Theories about government activities there range from horrible experiments conducted on kidnapped children in subterranean bunkers — a la "Stranger Things" — to electromagnetic mind-control and time travel.

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Boston Marathon Bombing
Boston Marathon Bombing by Ingfbruno (CC BY-SA)

Boston Marathon Bombing

Almost immediately after the Patriot’s Day bombings at the Boston Marathon in 2013, wild conspiracy theories began to fly across the Internet, with many hatched or at least propagated by none other than Alex Jones’ Infowars organization. Some stated that U.S. military operators were seen in the area with large backpacks and that the photos of the actual backpack-carrying terrorists were photoshopped. Some said that the suspects’ uncle worked with the CIA or that the suspects themselves were FBI informants. Others pointed to news organizations that tweeted about the attack before it happened — that was debunked by the simple fact of time zone differences. Many of the conspiracy theories drew from the familiar well of false flag operations by the U.S. government to justify things like police militarization or domestic martial law.

TWA Flight 800
TWA Flight 800 by Eduard Marmet (CC BY-SA)

TWA Flight 800

Seven years after TWA Flight 800 exploded in midair in 1996 killing 230 people, investigators released the most detailed investigation in the history of aviation. It concluded that a fuel tank ignited, but that the cause of that ignition was a mystery — and that observation was more than enough to propel the conspiracies that emerged. Amateur sleuths nitpicked the report and, without presenting a shred of evidence, concluded that it was a cover story. The real truth, they insisted, was that a bomb or a missile took down the plane either by a terrorist act that the government didn’t want to acknowledge or a military operation gone wrong.

N739PA as Clipper Morning Light at San Francisco International Airport in 1978
N739PA as Clipper Morning Light at San Francisco International Airport in 1978 by Jon Proctor (CC BY)

Pan Am Flight 103

Before TWA Flight 800 there was Pan Am 103, which was destroyed by a terrorist bomb over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270 people in 1988. A massive multi-organizational investigation quickly led to Libyan intelligence agent Abdel Basset al-Megrahi as the primary and only suspect. He was convicted and imprisoned, and when he was released on compassionate grounds in 2009, he received a hero’s welcome in Libya. For the many conspiracy theorists who continue to insist that the bombing was a false-flag operation — the bomb was planted by the American government, they believe — al-Megrahi was a fall guy who the U.S. set up to justify its growing military presence in the Middle East.

R U Still Down? (Remember Me)
Amazon

Tupac Is Alive

Given that he was killed on the Las Vegas strip in full public view in one of the most crowded and heavily policed areas in America, it is, indeed, unbelievable that Tupac Shakur’s murder has still not been solved. For countless conspiracy theorists, that can only mean that the famous rapper was never really killed at all. Tupac himself wrote some cryptic lyrics that surfaced on posthumously released material that could imply he faked his own death, particularly for those who wanted to believe it. There has been no shortage of alleged Tupac sightings, and several photos of lookalikes have emerged. The most common theories allege Shakur is alive, well, and living in Cuba or Belize, or that he’s right here in the U.S. hiding in plain sight.

Elvis Presley's Hair
Wikimedia Commons

Elvis Is Alive

Before Tupac terrified naive parents and rankled mainstream society with socially conscious lyrics, Elvis did the same thing, only he used his hips. When he died of heart failure in 1977, fans were shocked. Legions of them simply refused — and continue to refuse — to believe it. Tired of the relentless spotlight, the King faked his death to live out his life in peace, the conspiracy theory goes. Almost immediately after his death was announced, Elvis sightings became commonplace. The Elvis Sighting Society emerged in 1989, and it’s rumored that he did a cameo appearance the following year in 1990’s blockbuster Christmas movie "Home Alone."

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5G Cell Tower
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5G Causes Coronavirus

Legitimate experts have raised legitimate concerns about potential health hazards related to 5G wireless towers in residential neighborhoods and near schools. Those concerns, however, were co-opted and twisted early on by conspiracy theorists. They insisted the next generation of wireless technology, which is currently being rolled out across the country, causes cancer or, more ominously, is part of a government data collection or monitoring plot. When COVID-19 hit, things got really weird. Conspiracy theorists insisted that 5G technology itself triggered the virus, and as the virus spread so, too, did the crackpot information. Several 5G towers were burned or otherwise attacked by true believers.

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Regenerating Body Parts
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Bill Gates’ Coronavirus Microchip

5G cell phone towers are not the only technology associated with coronavirus conspiracy theories. A scary percentage of Americans believe that Microsoft founder Bill Gates created COVID-19 as a pretext for mandatory mass vaccinations. It’s all part of a massive plan, the theory goes, for Gates to use the vaccines as cover to secretly implant microchips in every American.

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Lizard People
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Reptilian Rulers

In 1998, former BBC sports reporter David Icke published a book called "The Biggest Secret," which launched one of history’s most bizarre conspiracy theories — and it still exists today. The movement believes that shape-shifting reptilian extraterrestrials have overtaken global society at the highest levels, from prime ministers and presidents to Olympic athletes and Oscar-winning actors. Responsible for events like 9/11 and the Holocaust, the goal of these reptilian rulers is to enslave the human race.

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Seal of the C.I.A. - Central Intelligence Agency of the United States Government
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The CIA Created AIDS

It’s hard to imagine that any organization plays a central role in more conspiracy theories than the CIA. The nature of its mission — not to mention its very real history of doing some incredibly shady stuff — lends itself well to villain status for crackpots of every stripe. But crackpots are not the only ones who believed and continue to believe that the CIA created the AIDS virus to annihilate the homosexual and African-American populations. The theory emerged almost as soon as the disease was discovered in the early 1980s. A Nobel Prize winner, as well as the former president of South Africa, came out publicly in support of the theory.

Denver International Airport in Denver, CO
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Denver Airport Conspiracy Theories

Like Long Island’s Camp Hero, Denver International Airport has long been at the center of several wild conspiracy theories, and it doesn’t help that the airport’s CEO has fueled speculation with clever marketing campaigns. One theory is that it was built by the New World Order and that it sits above the underground headquarters of the global Illuminati. Others insist its underground tunnels contain passages to secret bunkers. Still others have provided "evidence" that Nazi secret societies remain intact there, or that the airport’s artwork are predictors of the end of the world.

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An Airbus A340's engines leaving a water condensation trail (contrail)
Wikimedia Commons

Chemtrails

Most airplanes leave visible plumes of white vapor in the wake of their path of travel. Although even those with basic aviation knowledge can explain their presence, a persisting conspiracy theory insists those puffy white plumes are actually chemtrails, secret chemicals that the government uses in a wide-ranging clandestine plot to control the weather.

New Coke
New Coke by Like_the_Grand_Canyon (CC BY-NC)

New Coke

In 1985, Coca-Cola introduced New Coke, an even sweeter version of its trademark carbonated sugar water. It remains one of the greatest disasters in food-and-beverage marketing history. The massive New Coke flop has been widely documented and is still taught in marketing and business courses today, but a conspiracy theory persists that says Coca-Cola crashed and burned New Coke on purpose to put all eyes on Coke at the height of the cola wars and remind the world how great the original Coke actually was.

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Deepwater Horizon Disaster
Wikimedia Commons

Deepwater Horizon

In 2010, the Deepwater Horizon disaster poisoned the waters of the Gulf of Mexico and, almost immediately, the conspiracies began flowing as fast as the oil. Symbolic dates have been central to conspiracy theories for time immemorial. The oil rig exploded on April 20, which was Hitler’s birthday and the day after Israel’s independence celebrations. The rig sank two days later on Earth Day. There are only 365 days in a year and every one of them is the anniversary of something, but this kind of flimsy evidence is all that’s required to buoy a conspiracy theory. Prominent right-wing commentators like Rush Limbaugh immediately spread the word — without doing the heavy lift of actually providing evidence — that "eco-terrorists" caused the explosion to vilify the oil industry and bolster President Obama’s energy policies.

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The official White House portrait of John F. Kennedy, painted by Aaron Shikler
Wikimedia Commons

The Assassination of JFK

In the annals of conspiracy theories, one stands head and shoulders above all the rest in terms of widespread belief, emotional commitment, and sheer endurance over the generations. When President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, Chief Justice Earl Warren’s presidential commission concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald killed him with a rifle on his own. The fact that nightclub owner Jack Ruby killed Oswald before he could talk for reasons that never complied with basic common sense — along with countless other variables that leave plenty of reasonable doubt — JFK’s murder sparked some of the greatest and most enduring conspiracy theories of all time. The vast majority of Americans continue to believe his killing was part of a wider plot, with possible conspirators including the mafia, Cuban radicals, the Russians, the CIA, and the American military.

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